I finished reading Inheriting Abraham by Jon Levenson. Despite the wealth of interesting information, the book at the end turned out to be a disappointment. Why? Despite being a convert to Judaism (I was raised a Christian and rejected parts of that upbringing), I wanted to see the Abraham of Judaism, Christianity and Islam to be considered a healing and not a divisive figure. I knew, from my rabbi (who recommended the book), that this was so, but I still found it disheartening. I also found it saddening that the book’s author found nothing inspiring in the fact that other religions would claim Judaism’s patriarch as having something to say to them. I almost wondered if Jon Levenson was one of those who as a Christian or Muslim would have claimed his faith the sole way to salvation because their most rigid adherents make such a claim, going by the literal meaning of their least tolerant texts. He barely alludes to a fact I would like to see fleshed out: that Maimonides credited Christianity and Islam to at least bringing people to the God of the Jewish religion. Knowing how hard it is to convert (I did it but not all people could or would do it), it seems disingenuous to argue that the Christian and Muslim attempts to make Abraham’s God accessible to everyone might even be noble if you were an Orthodox or other Jew who still held onto his religion.
In my own journey to Judaism, I began with the kind of Christian I and Levenson might agree are not a credit to Christianity. Grandma and Grandpa Alderson were converted by a traveling preacher to the belief that we were living on the edge of the apocalypse (the world was to end in 1980); there would be a Jewish anti-Christ; a “false prophet” in the Pope; and a “universal faith” that is in reality Satanic. It was very anti-ecumenical, to the point that Grandma used to collect newspaper articles of ecumenical conferences and attempts of Christians to get along with Muslims (for instance) because they “proved” that the “false” messiah was coming. She was a big reader of Revelations. Luckily, I never met Grandpa, he died before I was born. As for Dad… after twenty years of being an atheist (his entire marriage to my mom), he converted to my grandparents’ religion.
Now, yes, I actually find this form of Christianity very ugly. Yet I did not want to repeat its mistake. I did not want to say that Christianity or Islam were essentially lying at heart, only that their adherents do not necessarily live up to the best portions of their religious teachings. It is true, my Grandma existed. Fred Phelps (a Topeka pastor who began by picketing homosexual’s funeral and then expanded his base to picketing other things) existed. Yet so did Mother Teresa and St. Francis of Assisi.
I know this seems contradictory: on the one hand, I converted from Christianity to Judaism. On the other hand, I do not want it to be the point of my faith that I reject Christians as people or even reject those insights they may have. As a result, though my main spiritual emphasis is on the Jewish scriptures and Jewish life, I sometimes study other religions just to see what they have to say. And as a result I ordered the work of F.E. Peter (a writer on the three monotheistic faiths); Bruce Feiler (a Jewish espouser of the filial relationship between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam); Karl-Josef Kuschel, a Catholic theologian interested in the same issue; Martin S. Jaffee, a similar figure; and Louis Massignon (1883-1962), a devout Catholic priest deeply enmeshed in Islam. All of these figures were described negatively by Jon Levenson, and I for one think that he is simply putting together a well-argued case for intolerance on the Jewish side.
Most people do not think about the World Council of Churches very much. Yet the people who put it together included people who had objected to the Holocaust when it was going on. George Bell, mentioned in Norman Davies’ Europe, said that the Modern Age in which he lived (the age of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin), was defined by “hatred” and explained that Christians should reach out with love and not hate. He risked his life to get in touch with the Confessing Church (in the person of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, and protested the cruel treatment of Jews under Hitler. And, I believe, he was ultimately martyred for his faith–the only Nobel Peace Prize winner to be so.
When I was a child I was told the World Council of Churches represented “lukewarm faith” and a path for the false messiah to become a one-world dictator. I was told by my father that his father told him, “The reason for the Holocaust was because the Jews rejected Jesus.” Yet when I look at George Bell, I see love, even as a Jew who simply couldn’t live with my own Christian past.
I wish people could see that to believe in God is to see God’s image in everyone, and that apocalyptic theories about the end of time have little to do with “living the life” of faith. That is why I hope that Christians and Jews–and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists–will come to see that the Love of God in their faiths preach against intolerance of others. I have tried to… while being a committed Jew I also am committed to ecumenicism.