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Jewish Literary Review
At Level Ground
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Tuesday, July 03, 2007
Heretic of the month
Joseph Rabinovitch: The Jewish philosopher who preached the gospel of Jesus

From our July/August 2007 issue

One of the most ambitious dramatic works to have graced the New York stage in recent memory is Tom Stoppard’s trilogy The Coast of Utopia. The plays, lengthy and typically wordy, recall the heady time in fin-de-siecle Russia in which
intellectuals felt they were on the cusp of a new era. Everything seemed to be new, and changing: industrialization, the theories of Marx and Engels, a culture of intellectualism and ferment. It must have been a remarkable time to be alive and reading. And Jewish intellectuals were right in the center of it all.

If it was the best of times, it was also the worst of times: pogroms, poverty, and the continued marginal existence of the shtetl coexisted with new liberal theories. This juxtaposition, of new thinking and old prejudice, led to waves of Jewish intellectuals trying to solve the “Jewish problem.” The most successful of these “solutions” was Zionism, which emerged, pre-Herzl, in the 1870s and 1880s from thinkers like Lev Pinsker. But in this time of intellectual ferment, described by Stoppard as well as scholars like Jonathan Frankel and Steven Zipperstein, there were many others too: nationalism like that of Perez Smolenskin, utopian communities in Russia and America, and the peculiar ideologies of “Jewish-Christians” like Joseph Rabinovitch.

In the 1870s, Rabinovitch was a smart and prolific maskil — a follower of the Jewish enlightenment which advocated for reform, rationalism, and a generally progressive and “scientific” view of religion. As Zipperstein describes in an essay on Rabinovitch, his early ideas were somewhat radical, but not outrageous. He complained that the Talmud and Jewish law were created by unelected and often unqualified rabbis; that they originally served to promote Jewish nationalism but were now often counterproductive; and, in general, that Judaism needed to take account of critical and rational thinking.

But Rabinovitch became disillusioned with the largely secular maskilim, who maintained Jewish ritual only for communal reasons; he was a spiritual man, and believed strongly in God. Rabinovitch also became disillusioned with proto-Zionism, particularly after visiting the land of Israel in 1883 and finding it desolate and poor. And in the wake of the many pogroms of the time, Rabinovitch became convinced that nothing the Jews could do, least of all try to assimilate, would really stop anti-Semitism.

No, for Rabinovitch, the problem had to be with God. There was something the Jews were doing that was angering God — that was the only explanation for the continued persecution, for hundreds of years. That something, Rabinovitch finally concluded, was their rejection of Jesus 1850 years prior.

In 1884, Rabinovitch published his “Twelve Articles of Faith,” which quirkily combined traditional and nationalist Jewish ideas with uniquely Christological ones. On the one hand, Rabinovitch wrote, God made an eternal covenant with Abraham and promised his descendents the land of Israel. On the other hand, those descendents had angered God by rejecting Jesus. At an earlier time, said Rabinovitch, it would have been unthinkable to be a Jew who embraced the teachings of Christ. But now that both Judaism and Christianity had been better understood thanks to the teachings of enlightenment philosophy, it was possible to see that the essences of both teachings were the same, and finally embrace them.

Most people who had these views simply converted to Christianity. But not Rabinovitch — at least, not at first. Instead, he became a Jewish heretic: someone who continues to profess Judaism, but with ideas rejected by the Jewish religious authorities. In fact, Rabinovitch was not the only Jew preaching the gospel of Jesus. There were several Jewish sects — in England, Germany, and Russia — who believed that Judaism and Christianity had more in common than not, and that it would be best for the Jewish people to highlight what they shared and downplay what they didn’t. “Best” sometimes had a simply pragmatic meaning — more economic opportunity, less pogroms. But often, it meant something different: that Judaism would itself improve if it took on some Christian character. And unlike the “Jews for Jesus” of today, which is essentially a proselytizing group bankrolled by fundamentalist missionary organizations, these were Jewish groups, seeking to change Judaism from within. When Rabinovitch opened a synagogue in 1884, he drew large crowds, curious about his unique blend of Jewish parochialism and Christian creed.

But Rabinovitch’s ideas were more challenging than those of his Jewish-Christian brethren. Many of those ideas were quite un-Christian: Rabinovitch maintained a strong sense of the Jews as the chosen people, and he rejected many Christian beliefs and practices as having been added long after Jesus’ time for the purpose of converting pagans. He was obsessed with Jewish national identity, and lectured on it at great length. Eventually, his crowds thinned out, and Rabinovitch’s Christian counterparts looked askance at his idiosyncratic views. Something had to give, and in the end, together with his family, Rabinovitch did at last convert to Christianity in 1885, offering various reasons and rationales. But it was too late. Rabinovitch was trapped in between the two communities: not Jewish enough for the Jews, and not Christian enough for the Christians.

And then the brief flowering of Russian Jewish intellectualism withered. The early Zionist experiments in Palestine floundered (Zionism would not truly pick up momentum for another twenty years), and other experiments in Jewish utopia failed outright. Idiosyncratic intellectuals like Rabinovitch, who for a brief moment seemed to offer dreams of a different Jewish future, became regarded as eccentrics, with traditional Jewish authorities resuming their places of communal leadership. As Zipperstein relates, Rabinovitch “died a failure, with few Jewish souls to his credit.”

Today, inured as we are to the banalities of Jews for Jesus, and as wary as we are of their missionary zeal, it’s hard to take Rabinovitch and other Jewish-Christians seriously. But Rabinovitch was neither a liar nor a fool — just a heretic, daring to defy the greatest Jewish taboo of all.

-- Text by Jay Michaelson / Illustration courtesy of the Encyclopedia Judaica
posted by Benyamin | 11:53 AM | Link | |
Jesus was a great Jew and worthy of study if we have the courage to approach the issues with an open mind. True his gentile followers were often antisemitic, ignorant and destructive but Jesus himself predated all that stuff. He was a genius.
I like to read Jewish books about him. He was a true Israelite and a mensch!
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