Interview with Rabbi David Rosen – Part two: what unites us divides us

The Christian focus on faith and the Jewish focus on the law have produced theological distinctions between Christians and Jews, which have in turn led to distinctions, and at times disagreements, in their respective anthropological approaches and the way they understand the sacredness of life. Some of these distinctions appear in this second part of our dialogue with Rabbi David Rosen. Judaism tolerates theological disagreements, even over the nature of God, but requires the resolution of legal disagreements over how God wants us to behave in any given situation. For Judaism, the recognition of the Divine Image in the other must lead us to loving behavior, and this divinely revealed way of life must come from an inner certainty and not purely a socially imposed norm. Christian theology has led to the development of a Trinitarian anthropology and clarification of the content of the “image of God”. Beyond differences, the revelation of our being created in the Divine Image, sanctification as the purpose of human life, the divine commandment of love, the presence and action of God in the world and our lives and divine transcendence remain common to both traditions.

By Marguerite A. Peeters

- The postmodern cultural revolution has succeeded, to a significant extent, in culturally deconstructing or destabilizing what is given or intrinsic, not least our male and female identity: “male and female He created them”. Since we are created in the Divine Image, must we not know who God is in order to recover our lost identity? What does it mean - to be created in His image?

Well, one of the very important ironies of the Christian-Jewish relationship is that what unites us divides us. Our shared texts, our common patrimony to use the language of Nostra Aetate, is what unites us, but we understand it often in ways that divide us. Even terminologies and specific words divide us. An example would be the term “messiah”. The Hebrew word means “an anointed one” and was used to refer to a priest and especially to a king. Following the destruction of the first Temple and exile, the people were sustained by the expectation of restoration under the leadership of “an anointed one” from the house of David, i.e. a King. Accordingly the Jewish expectation of a “messiah” is, in keeping with Biblical prophetic literalism, of a human being who assumes a leadership role in a world where the people are no longer dispersed and persecuted but gathered in back to the land of Israel and free to live their lives in accordance with God’s revealed will (the commandments). Moreover at the same time, there will be an era of universal peace. However the precise identity of the messiah is of little concern to a faithful Jew, and the messiah has nothing to do with my personal salvation – i.e. the state of my soul - and has nothing to do with the identity of God Himself. However for Christianity, messiahship means something very different and is inextricably related to the identity of God and personal salvation. Also, another factor is that Judaism is a far less theologically sophisticated tradition than Christianity. The Jewish imperative is primarily to understand what God wants of us to do, more than to understand what God wants us to believe. Therefore when it comes to the theological areas, there is enormous diversity within Judaism and often some radical disagreements that are not resolved. And we live, if you like, perfectly comfortably with this ideological diversity. For some, the reflection of the Divine Image is precisely in the intellect. But for the majority, I would say, of Jewish commentators, the Divine Image is understood in terms of the moral essence and capacities of the human person. And the moral essence is the capacity to distinguish between good and evil, between right and wrong. That is something that is unique to the human person and that is the reflection of the Divine. So precisely our capacity for moral judgment is the reflection of the Divine in the human person.

- Again, let me ask you the question about love. If God created us out of love, if He entered into a covenantal relationship with the Jewish people and with humanity out of love, if He is love, doesn’t the Divine Image include the human being’s disposition to love? After all, is there a greater good than love? And how about the capacity to recognize truth? Is God not also truth?

Again there is much debate in Judaism on such questions. Of course God is Truth because God is the essence of reality. But our human condition by definition reflects our subjectivity and even our knowledge of God is limited by that condition. Therefore it is perfectly possible for two litigants to each believe sincerely that Truth is on his side; and even the judge who rules can never know all the possible factors that might lead to a different Divine judgment based on the fullness of Truth. In the end the degree of our knowledge of Truth is the degree of our knowledge of what is right – i.e. moral. While the concept of love of God and love of neighbor are central to Judaism, the term love (perhaps like truth) is a bit vague. For Judaism an injunction like “love your neighbor as yourself” has to be translated into practicalities in order to make sense. That is why often the negative formula of Hillel the elder (1st century BCE) “that which is hateful to you, do not do to another” is preferred as reflecting the social moral essence of Judaism. The bottom line however, is that loving conduct must be the conduct of goodness rooted in the recognition of the Divine Image in the other which leads us to loving behavior (as mentioned above in the discussion between Akiva and Ben Azzai).

- Do you use words such as reason, conscience, the heart?

Well I would say that all these words, again, that are more sophisticated in terms of Christian usage are within Judaism reflections of our capacity for moral judgment. As I have mentioned, even love in a sense is a moral choice, is a choice born out of the capacity to distinguish between good and evil and between right and wrong.

- But isn’t the heart a word that belongs to divine revelation? Isn’t the law of God written in our hearts? And isn’t this, precisely, the foundation of universality?

Of course you are right that there is a deeper level of understanding and commitment. It is in this sense that words like “in your heart” are used. The conviction about the Divinely revealed way of life should come from an inner certainty and not purely a socially imposed norm.

- You were mentioning the sacredness of life. What does that mean for you?

It means that on principle, life is inviolate. But there are situations of where, by definition, there is going to be a conflict of interest. The most dramatic one is situations of where life is threatened. And then, what is your response to that? While it can’t be to take one innocent life for another, nevertheless, when life is directly threatened through an assault, from a Jewish ethical point of view, that threat undermines the claims of the source of the one that threatens. That means that when A is about to murder B and there is no other way to prevent him other than taking his life, we are obliged to save B by killing A. Accordingly, Judaism is not pacifist, and in a situation where one is attacked, one has an obligation to defend. And if the only way to defend oneself, e.g. in a war situation, is to take the lives of assailants, we are under moral compulsion to do so. This is relevant to many other ethical dilemmas including where there appears to be a profound distinction, maybe the biggest moral conflict between Catholicism and Judaism. And that is over the question of the attitude towards the unborn. There are obviously confluences. Judaism teaches reverence for life and certainly a fetus is life. But life and a human being are not the same thing for Judaism. Life becomes a human being only with birth. And therefore there is a transition from the one stage to the other. And while you may not take an innocent life in order to save another, and therefore once the child is born, there certainly cannot be any justification for any kind of violent action, if the presence of the embryo threatens the mother’s life - even her mental health, then from the Jewish point of view, we are under obligation to end the life of that embryo because in fact it is an assailant, as it were, against the mother.

- No matter how taboo in our culture, it has become difficult, from a strictly scientific point of view, to deny that abortion does cause profound, but usually unexpressed, mental suffering and problems…

I have no doubt. However that damage might well pale before the consequences of bearing the product of rape for example.

- What you are saying here reflects the view of all Jews?

Yes. Because in the liberal trends of Judaism, there would be more latitudinal area, and I am expressing the view of Orthodox Jewish teaching. For example, you cannot choose for no reason to have an abortion, or for aesthetic or even economic reasons, but where there is a threat, that is different.

- The notions of secular and secularism have often come up in our conversation. At this stage it might be useful to know how you understand these concepts, as I am not sure we interpret them in the same way.

I think that is very important, again. One of the most important things of your work is urging us to be a little clearer in the kind of terminology that we use, to be able to define it and to unpackage it. And I think secular is being used in very different ways by different people, including probably between Catholics and Jews. And certainly, in different societies it is used in different ways. In Israeli society, it is very often simply used to mean people who are not fully Orthodox and define themselves as secular.

- People who do not abide by the law?

Right. Or who do not fully abide by the law, because everyone to some extent is abiding by something. And I actually think that if we take the word linguistically, semantically, secular is a very positive word, meaning affirming the world at large. And its real, more correct opposition would be monastic, rather than holy. The monastic approach is a legitimate choice, but the normative Jewish approach is to be engaged in the world, to be part of it and to sanctify the world: sanctifying the secular actually is the Jewish approach. The secular itself does not have a character. The sanctification is what gives it a character. Nevertheless the way it is used today very often means detached from spiritual content, and even opposed to spiritual content. And in that sense we, I think, need to be perfectly clear when we are using it in a positive way, or in a negative way, for example when it is used in opposition to religion. So every time in conversation I am having to define what I mean by secular.

- And sanctification means to follow the law?

I would say sanctification means to invest any aspect of the natural world with a sense of the Divine.

- A sense of God the Creator?

Of God the Creator, of God’s presence. In fact it is very important that you are getting me to clarify this, because indeed when I am say “the Divine” I obviously mean God the creator, the guide, the Divine presence that is with us in our lives and in our world. Often “the divine” is used by other elements within our society to mean something that maybe of a higher degree of importance but is not in any essential way any different from any other aspect of the world. Well, there are two points regarding the religious understanding of the Divine presence. In one sense, everything is divine, inasmuch as everything is an intrinsic product of and reflects God’s presence. But not everything can be seen in that way. From a religious perspective the vast majority of our world walks around to a greater or lesser degree in a state of blindness, and therefore sanctification is opening up one’s eyes to God’s presence in our world. Another understanding of sanctification – probably more normative in the Judeo-Christian tradition is to invest something with a special character that testifies to the Divine e.g. the Sabbath. Most Jewish thinkers would not contend that the seventh day is intrinsically different from other days of the week. However by setting it aside as a testament to the Divine Presence in the world and in history, we become more "God-conscious". For Judaism, the Mitzvot, the commandments, are a way in which we become God-conscious in our actions. So just now before I drank this cup of tea, I made a blessing. Now that blessing therefore is to mean that I am not just treating this as something to automatically respond to a physical need, but that I am aware of the Source, of God’s presence that gives this gift to me. Therefore what it means is that I take nothing for granted. So that is really very important in terms of understanding what the Divine means. It means that nothing is to be taken for granted, the awareness that everything and every aspect of life is God’s gift. This awareness is essential for the moral health of the individual and of society.

- The presence of God – do you experience God’s guidance over your life? You made a blessing before drinking your cup of tea to put yourself in the presence of God, to acknowledge his presence – but does God manifest Himself to you, do you also feel Him guiding you, taking care of you?

This is very important. In our liturgy in Judaism, and indeed in terms of the Biblical texts, there are two names given for God in the Bible – one is Adonai, the Tetragrammaton, the four letters of the Name which we do not pronounce, God the immanent who is engaged in history, in our lives. And there is Elohim or El, which is God the transcendent, and that’s the God of creation. In our prayers, in our liturgy when we pray to God three times a day, we refer to God in both terms. So God is to be seen in the cosmos around us and in the laws of nature – that’s God’s transcendence, but God is to be seen in the intimacy of our lives, of our encounters, of our lives’ experiences, of those we love, of the relationships that we build – and of course, for the Jewish people, most intimately in our own history, because from our perspective, the covenantal relationship with God is reflected in history. How can you explain the survival of the Jewish people against all odds, as not to be found anywhere else in the course of human history? It can only be through Divine love and Divine presence. And that’s why in all our prayers, indeed for the Sabbath, which is the crown of the Jewish week and the most important focus, it is both related to creation and to the exodus: the God of the universe, and the God of history. And history is not only collective history, it is also personal history. So if I may reduce it for me, the relationship with my wife, with my children, with my grand-children is itself the manifestation of the Divine presence in my life. I sense that! And also for me personally in terms of my history, everything that has happened to me hasn’t actually been by any virtue of mine: I feel a very profound sense that everything that I have done has been guided by God’s presence in my life.

- So you are not deistic.

Exactly. No Orthodox Jew can be that. Every Orthodox Jew is fundamentally theistic: God is not passive, but active in our world.