by Michael Wyschogrod; edited and Introduction by R. Kendall Soulen
GRAND RAPIDS: EERDMANS PRESS ©2004
Reviewed by Russ Resnik
Modern Orthodox scholar Michael Wyschogrod considers Messianic Jews to be all wrong about Yeshua, but he is essential reading for anyone interested in Messianic Judaism. Wyschogrod often seems to understand Messianic Jews better than we understand ourselves, so that we discover ourselves afresh in his writings. Christians seeking to express their faith free from the legacy of supersessionism will discover themselves there as well.
Wyschogrod’s recently released book, Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, is a collection of writings edited by R. Kendall Soulen, author of The God of Israel and Christian Theology,1 another essential book for Messianic Jews. Soulen describes his first encounter with Wyschogrod’s writings as a graduate student seeking a better understanding of Paul’s view of the relation between the gospel and Israel:
I remember being overcome by an almost physical sense of discovery, as though I had bumped into a hitherto invisible rock. What I had just read was undoubtedly the most unapologetic statement of Jewish faith I had ever encountered. Yet instantly I knew that Wyschogrod had helped me to see something in Paul that his Christian commentators had not.2 (p. 1)
What Wyschogrod helps Soulen see is what makes this book so vital for anyone seeking to understand Messianic Judaism properly. “It was the theological relevance of the distinction between Gentile and Jew.”3 Wyschogrod, like a growing number of Messianic Jews, recognizes that this distinction remains, even among those Jews who accept Yeshua as the Messiah of Israel. Wyschogrod considers such acceptance to be a form of apostasy, but, paradoxically insists that these “apostate” Jews should still live as Jews, and should be encouraged by the church to do so.
Thus, a modern Orthodox scholar anticipated one of the key elements in today’s Messianic Jewish apologetics as early as the 1960s. Several of the essays in this collection explore the ramifications of this idea, and how it fits within the larger sphere of Jewish-Christian relations.
Wyschogrod explores other aspects of Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations as well, and does so with remarkable readability. He writes as a theologian, but with a light touch and great accessibility. He is not above conveying some of his ideas in the form of story and personal history. In “A Jewish Death in Heidelberg,”4 Wyschogrod tells of his personal involvement in the burial arrangements for a fellow Jewish academic whom he never met, Franz Redner. Before his death, Redner expressed the desire to be buried next to his Gentile “hostess,” Frau Gebel, the woman he lived with for the last ten years of her life, who had died two years earlier. When Redner died, Wyschogrod intervened and was instrumental in having him buried as a Jew, despite his wishes. The story illustrates Wyschogrod’s cardinal principle that a Jew remains inescapably part of his people despite the individual choices he may make in life. The account ends with a winsome expression of doubt about the whole effort: “I have often asked myself, did I do the right thing? Did I have the right to separate him from the ashes of Frau Gebel? Could Franz Redner be angry at me? I think I did the right thing, but who can be sure?”5
In the equally winsome “Revenge of the Animals,” Wyschogrod develops a midrash on the serpent in the Garden of Eden. It is an agent of revenge for the animals spurned by Adam when none of them was found to be a helper suitable for him (Gen 2:20). “The animals, the rejected lovers, punish the successful one, Eve . . . She must be made to pay for alienating Adam’s affection.”6 Wyschogrod builds this whimsical interpretation into a brief theology of the dietary restrictions given to Noah and his offspring.
But it is Wyschogrod’s profound exploration of God’s choice of the Jewish people that makes Abraham’s Promise essential for Messianic Judaism. In the essay that first inspired Soulen, “Israel, the church, and Election,” Wyschogrod writes,
Because [God] said, “I will bless those who bless you, and curse him that curses you; in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed” (Gen 12:3), he has tied his saving and redemptive concern for the welfare of all humankind to his love for the people of Israel. Only those who love the people of Israel can love the God of Israel. Israel is thus God’s first-born, most precious in his eyes.
From this, two great dangers follow, both of which have come to pass. The first is Israel’s vain pride in its own election and the second is the nations’ jealousy at that same election. This twofold drama is prefigured in the tale of Joseph and his brothers, but so is the reconciliation that awaits us in the end of time.7
Wyschogrod applies the story of Joseph and his brothers to the story of Israel and the nations. Joseph is the favorite of his father, Jacob, and he seems to flaunt that privilege in his brothers’ faces. He reports their bad behavior to Jacob. He gloats over his two dreams of dominating his brothers (and his parents as well). He sports the special garment, an ornamented tunic that Jacob gives him, wearing it even when he goes on an errand to check up on his brothers out in the fields.
Joseph is indeed chosen, but as yet has no idea of what he is chosen for. His brothers can only see Joseph’s self-absorption and react with envy. Wyschogrod—a loyal Jew—sees a parallel to Joseph in the Jewish people, who are equally chosen. He also sees the Gentile nations reenacting the envy of Joseph’s brothers.
Just as Joseph’s brothers rebelled against the favor shown by their father toward this one child of his, so the nations refuse to accept the election of Israel. And just as Joseph was not guiltless in the matter in that he did not accept his election as he should have, in humility, in fear and trembling, so Israel has not often made it easy for the nations to accept its election. Just as Joseph suffered for his deeds, so has Israel; just as Joseph retained the election, proving worthy of it, so has Israel.8
If this comparison is apt, the ending of the story is especially encouraging. As Wyschogrod writes, it prefigures “the reconciliation [between Israel and the nations] that awaits us in the end of time.” As followers of Yeshua, we believe this reconciliation will be accomplished only in him. Here we must depart from Wyschogrod’s reading, for he sees reconciliation coming as the nations learn to accept “the mystery of their non-election.”9 But in Messiah a remnant from the nations is elect. The mystery, which the church has often failed to comprehend, is that this election in no way diminishes Israel’s election. Indeed, the election of the church depends upon Israel’s election, as God said to Abraham, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 22:18).
Nevertheless, we can agree with the suggestion in Wyschogrod’s reading of the story that once the brothers accept Joseph’s uniquely favored position, they are able to benefit from it. They never replace Joseph as elect of the father. For those of us involved in Jewish-Gentile reconciliation, this issue of election is pivotal. The very need for reconciliation is rooted in supersessionism, the traditional Christian teaching that the church replaces Israel as the elect people of God. Jewish-Christian reconciliation demands a repudiation of this view, and an affirmation of God’s continuing covenant with Israel, “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29).
Wyschogrod makes an additional contribution to reconciliation by declaring that Christian affirmation of Israel’s election requires an affirmation of Jewish Yeshua believers continuing to identify and live as Jews:
Had the church believed that it was God’s will that the seed of Abraham not disappear from the world, she would have insisted on Jews retaining their separateness, even in the church. The fact that Paul asserts that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor freeman, neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28) does not rule out such a special role for the children of ancient Israel in the church, just as the abolition in Christ of the difference between man and woman does not prevent Paul from insisting that women remain silent in the assembly. Even in Christ, men are men and women are women; only in an ultimate, perhaps eschatological, sense are they one. The church could have asserted the same of the difference between Jew and Gentile.10
Instead of such affirmation, Jews and Christians have imagined themselves in a zero-sum game in which favor upon one group meant the rejection of the other. If the church represents a new elect, then Israel can no longer be elect, and Jews who accept Yeshua are no longer to live as Jews. But these are the rules of humanity, not God. Reconciliation will mean affirming the election, both of Israel and of a remnant from the nations in Messiah Yeshua. The affirmation of Israel’s election does not diminish the election of a remnant from the nations.
When Messianic Jews read the Joseph story, we often see the rejected and suffering Joseph as prefiguring Yeshua. He too is rejected by his own brothers, and he too becomes the agent of salvation for the sons of Jacob and for the surrounding nations as well. If the story prefigures “the reconciliation that awaits us in the end of time,” as Wyschogrod writes, it is foremost a reconciliation between Yeshua and his brothers, the Jewish people. Both readings stand, however. Joseph prefigures Israel the chosen people, and the chosen one among the chosen people, Yeshua the Messiah. Wyschogrod rightly insists that reconciliation between Israel and the nations requires the nations to embrace Israel’s election. We would add that reconciliation between Israel and the nations also depends on reconciliation between Yeshua and the Jewish people.
If Wyschogrod speaks to Messianic Jews about the priority of our continuing identification with all the sons of Jacob, he also reminds us of an even broader identification. Abraham’s Promise concludes with “The Dialogue with Christianity and My Self-Understanding as a Jew.” Wyschogrod boldly describes how his engagement in Jewish-Christian dialogue has deepened his identity as an Orthodox Jew, including his attitude toward Gentiles:
If the result of the election in Abraham is an alienation of Israel from the rest of humanity, then the election has achieved the opposite of its intendand loses interest in the ties that bind it to the rest of humanity and that make it a surrogate of that humanity, then Israel will have tragically misunderstood its true identity.11
Surely, Wyschogrod’s admonition applies to Messianic Jews as well as to the rest of the Jewish community.
This review is adapted from a chapter in a forthcoming book of Torah commentaries by Russ Resnik to be released by Messianic Jewish Publishers.
Russ Resnik serves as executive director of the Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations. He has an international speaking and teaching ministry and is the author of Gateways to Torah, a commentary on each of the weekly Torah readings.
1 R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996).
2 Wyschogrod, Abraham’s Promise, 1.
4 pp. 131ff.
5 Ibid., 146.
6 Ibid., 109.
7 Ibid, 180; emphasis added.
8 Ibid., 184-85.
9 Ibid., 186.
10 Ibid., 183-84.
11 Ibid., 236.