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Hebraism, Our Common Heritage and Hope

John D. Rayner
Fall 2004

(Following is the text of Rabbi Rayner’s Lily H. Montagu Memorial Lecture to the London Society of Jews and Christians, November 21, 2002.)  


‘Back to basics’ sums up what I want to attempt in this lecture, which is to explore what we, as Jews and Christians, at the most basic level, have in common. But I must add two qualifications.  

First, when I speak of Jews and Christians I don’t mean to exclude Muslims. On the contrary, everything I have to say about the common ground applies to them as well. It is only the terms of reference of the Society sponsoring this lecture which impose the limitation.  

Secondly, I need to confess that my choice of topic reflects a change of mind on my part. Let me explain. Common Ground is the title of the journal of the Council of Christians and Jews, and expresses well the emphasis which has characterised that national organisation ever since its foundation, largely in response to the menace of anti-Semitism, in 1942. But for many years I felt that, though it is indeed important for Jews and Christians to recognise and stress what they have in common, it is equally if not more important that they should understand and respect their differences.  

Just that has been the distinctive emphasis since its inception of the London Society of Jews and Christians. For it was founded in 1927, fifteen years before the Council of Christians and Jews, for which it helped to pave the way, ‘to increase religious understanding, and to promote goodwill and co-operation between Jews and Christians, with mutual respect for differences of faith and practice’.  

When I say that I have changed my mind, I don’t mean that I no longer subscribe to that aim. Of course respect for differences is hugely important. It is the precondition of decent inter-faith relations. Nevertheless, just as in 1942 it was of paramount importance that Jews and Christians should stand together against anti-Semitism, so our time requires that we should again lay foremost emphasis on what unites us. For, as has been pointed out — among others by Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks in his recent book The Dignity of Difference — we live in an age of two conflicting tendencies. On the one hand it is an age of globalisation, which calls for unity. On the other hand, the different faith communities, and even the different streams within them, are asserting their distinctive identities with a new stridency, triumphalism and intolerance.  

Because this ‘new tribalism’, as it has been called, is a potentially destructive force, there is again an urgent need to highlight those teachings of the great religions which are capable of uniting rather than dividing humanity, and perhaps even to question the emphasis traditionally placed on the differences. In that context I propose to make some critical remarks about aspects both of Judaism and of Christianity which, I hope, will not cause offence.  


If what Jews and Christians have in common can be summed up in one word, that word is surely Hebraism: that is to say, the religion — or more generally the world view and value system — of the Hebrew Bible.  

That term has been used by a number of writers, usually in contrast with Hellenism, and is perhaps especially associated with Matthew Arnold, who, in 1869, wrote: ‘Hebraism and Hellenism — between these two points of influence moves our world’1.  

More recent writers have tended to warn against overstating that dichotomy. Writing in 1951, the American Jewish theologian Will Herberg contrasted Hebraism with what he chose to call the ‘Greco-Oriental religions’. But though, he wrote, they are ‘often diametrically opposed’, it should not be thought that they occur ‘in pure form’. Rather, ‘every existing religion would probably show... a varying mixture of elements stemming from both sources’2.  

Similarly, the great American Jewish preacher, scholar and Zionist leader, Abba Hillel Silver wrote in 1956: ‘There is no unbridgeable gulf between the culture of the Greeks and the culture of the Jews. They are not in polar opposition. Both have antecedents in the Eastern Mediterranean culture which emerged in the second millennium before the common era when both the Greeks and the Hebrews made their appearance on the stage of history. There is a marked difference of emphasis’3.  

Problem of Definition  

Of course the problem with speaking of Hebraism at all is one of definition. Since the Hebrew Bible was written by many different authors over a period of about a thousand years, to pretend that it always speaks with the same voice would be ridiculous — which does not prevent the fundamentalists from doing precisely that. To anybody unblinded by dogmatism it is obvious that the Hebrew Bible contains a great variety of tendencies: priestly and prophetic, pro-monarchic and anti-monarchic, particularistic and universalistic, simplistic and sophisticated, sensitive and insensitive, optimistic and pessimistic — to mention only a few. How, then, is it possible out of such diversity to distil a single coherent philosophy and label it ‘Hebraism’?  

I submit that it can be done provided that we are prepared to make a judgment as to what is more and what is less prevalent and enduring, intrinsically important and self-consistent, and provided that we are alert to trends showing movement in a discernible direction. Of course developments are not necessarily always positive. There is retrogression as well as advance; and I am sufficiently attuned to the currently fashionable thinking known as post-modernism to concede that in all this there is an inescapable subjective element. But I still maintain that the procedure is not entirely subjective.  

Even so, I readily admit that we are dealing with a topic in which complete objectivity is unattainable. Historiography is not an exact science. In some ways it is more like an art such as portrait painting. In the end one can only ask those who know the subject of the portrait whether or not the artist has succeeded in conveying the essence of his or her personality.  

With these qualifications, let me now try to draw a portrait of six aspects of Hebraism which seem to me fundamental to it, and consider in each case how it has fared in the subsequent history of Judaism and Christianity.  

1. Monotheism in the Hebrew Bible  

The essence of Hebraism is of course its monotheism: its assertion that the universe is the creation of a single God, which was surely the greatest breakthrough in the history of religion. Needless to say, it was not accomplished overnight, and the critical historian can detect successive stages of its development associated with, for instance, Abraham, Moses and Amos. But the general direction of the development is unmistakable, and round about 600 BCE it was complete.  

The details don’t matter for our purpose. It is sufficient to recall Deuteronomy: ‘Know then this day and take it to heart: the Eternal One is God in the heavens above and on the earth below; there is no other’ (4:30). And Deutero-Isaiah: ‘I am the Eternal One, and there is no other; besides Me there is no God’ (45:5).  

The importance of this breakthrough can hardly be exaggerated. Just as the number one has unique mathematical properties, so monotheism is different in kind from polytheism. The single God of Hebraism is not more powerful than the many gods of paganism: He — and I say ‘He’ because Hebraism did conceive God in masculine language — is all-powerful. He does not have more control over nature but complete control. He does not demand a larger share of the devotion of His worshippers but all of it.  

The biblical writers were aware of the gulf. Indeed, they exaggerated it. They made little effort to understand paganism, never suspected that it might harbour its own spiritual insights, and that even idolatry might be directed, not to the idols themselves but to the concepts they symbolise. Instead, they condemned polytheism and all its works without qualification, heaped ridicule on it, and called for its extermination4.  

This intolerance of Hebraism towards the non-Hebraic religions of the ancient Near-East is one of its less pleasing features and stands in need of much modification in the light of the modern, sympathetic study of comparative religion. Karen Armstrong, for instance, has written: ‘There were profound similarities between the monotheistic and other visions of reality. It seems that when human beings contemplate the absolute, they have very similar ideas and experiences’5.  

I think we should all welcome such insights, not only pragmatically, because they facilitate religious co-existence in today’s multi-cultural societies, but also intrinsically, as showing a truer understanding of the ‘varieties of religious experience’6 than the ancient Israelite writers could manage. But though it is a necessary corrective, it does not gainsay the immensity of the step forward in the history of religion which Hebrew monotheism represents.  

Monotheism in Judaism and Christianity  

Let us now consider how it has fared in the two enduring religious traditions which sprang from Hebraism in antiquity — Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism in the second century BCE, and Christianity in the first century CE. (Let us, by the way, bear in mind that, whereas Judaism grew directly out of Hebraism, Christianity grew out of Hebraism plus Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism. And let me also explain that when, in the rest of this lecture, I refer to Judaism without qualification, I shall mean the Pharisaic-Rabbinic tradition, which, in contemporary Judaism, is somewhat rigidly represented by the Orthodox tendency and in varying degrees modified by the Progressive and Conservative tendencies)  

In Judaism the monotheistic principle has been consistently maintained and even reinforced. A major factor in this was the Pharisees’ selection of the Shema — the Deuteronomy passage beginning ‘Hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God, the Eternal God is One’ (6:4-9) — as a daily declaration of faith. Another is the story of how Rabbi Akiva, when tortured to death by the Romans, recited the Shema with his last breath7. It is therefore safe to say that in the last two thousand years any Jew, asked to explain what Judaism was essentially all about, would almost certainly have answered: ‘The Unity of God’.  

Christianity, too, has been unwavering in its commitment to monotheism; but, unlike Judaism and Islam, has needed to reconcile it with its doctrine of the Trinity. The very ingenuity which Christian theologians have brought to that task testifies both to its inherent difficulty and to their determination to remain faithful to Hebraism8. Whereas Eastern Orthodox Christians have tended to regard the Trinity as a mystery unamenable to reason, ‘for many Western Christians,’ according to Karen Armstrong, it is ‘simply baffling’9.  

The purpose of these remarks is not to challenge the doctrine of the Trinity, which would be impertinent. Obviously, Christians are entitled to affirm it with whatever degree of conviction it holds for them. For though it is not a doctrine rooted in Hebraism, it is no part of my thesis to suggest that Hebraism contains all truth. But I think it is legitimate to point out that the more Christians emphasise the unity rather than the trinity of God, the more they speak a language which non-Christians can understand, and which is therefore potentially unifying rather than divisive.  

2. Transcendence and Immanence in the Hebrew Bible  

A corollary of God’s unity is His transcendence. For as Creator of the universe He is necessarily different from the universe He has .created, as an artist is different from the canvas on which he or she paints. Therefore God is not to be identified with nature or any of its constituent elements, whether mineral, vegetable, animal or human. Precisely the rejection of any such identification is what distinguishes Hebraism from Paganism.  

Although that principle is not stated in the Hebrew Bible as a philosophical proposition, it is often implied. For instance, in Deutero-Isaiah’s repeated rhetorical question, ‘To whom then will you liken God?’ (40:18,25; 46:5), and in his declaration, ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says the Eternal One. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts’ (55:8f).  

Admittedly, there are occasional references to angels and other mythical beings who occupy an intermediate position between humanity and God. But they have a somewhat nebulous identity. They belong to folklore rather than official religion, apparently answering to a popularly felt need to bridge the gulf between God and humanfty. In serious Hebraic theology that gulf is bridged, not by angels, but by the fact that, alongside God’s transcendence, it also affirms His immanence. His presence can be experienced by human beings. He watches over them, leads them like a shepherd, admonishes them, and listens to their prayers. He is active in human history. He guides the destinies of the nations, enters into a covenant with Abraham, and reveals His law to his descendants at Mount Sinai.  

Transcendence and Immanence in Judaism and Christianity  

Now let us consider how this twofold doctrine has fared in Judaism and Christianity.  

In Judaism the emphasis on God’s transcendence is strongly maintained. Admittedly; there are some surprisingly anthropomorphic references to God in Rabbinic Literature, but they are generally followed by the disclaimer kivyachol, which is perhaps best translated per impossibile. Maimonides, the pre-eminent Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages, is very insistent that all such expressions are to be understood as metaphors and nothing more10.  

An excellent summary of Judaism’s twofold emphasis is the synagogue hymn Adon Olam, which begins by describing God in the most transcendental terms imaginable, as pre-existing the universe and continuing to exist when it has ceased to be. But then, in a dramatic switch, it continues: ‘And He is my God, and my living Redeemer... Into His hand I entrust my spirit, both when I sleep and when I wake, and with my spirit, my body also: the Eternal One is with me, I will not fear’11.  

Christianity, too, has maintained the dual emphasis, but developed the concept of God’s immanence in a novel way, by teaching that God ‘became flesh’ in Jesus of Nazareth. Like the Trinity, this doctrine of the Incarnation has no basis in Hebraism12 — and is not to be dismissed on that account. But it does create difficulties, as the complexity of the attempts to justify it, on the part of the Church Fathers and ever since, would seem to indicate. Some Christians may therefore be drawn to the suggestion made by Geza Vermes that the term ‘Son of God’ was originally meant in the sense of adoption, which does not imply divinity, and should be so understood13. But though most Christians will no doubt continue to affirm the traditional belief in Jesus as both human and divine, it is, I think, fair to point out that the more they emphasise his humanity, the more non-Christians will feel comfortable with their language.  

3. Ethical Emphasis in the Hebrew Bible  

Next to God’s unity and transcendence-and-immanence, what Hebraism chiefly emphasises is His morality. It is an ethical monotheism. And that means two things. On the one hand, God’s nature is intrinsically moral. Ethical qualities such as righteousness, justice, truth, faithfulness, lovingkindness and compassion are regularly attributed to God so regularly in the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand these same qualities are what God first and foremost demands of those who would worship Him.  

But here a qualification is necessary. When I said ‘first and foremost’ I was referring to the teaching of the Prophets. In reference to the greatest of them — Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah and Deutero-Isaiah — I could even have said ‘exclusively’, for they seem to be saying that only right conduct is pleasing to God. Hosea’s declaration that God desires ‘love and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings’ (6:6) is only one of many such prophecies14.  

But that is not the view of all the biblical writers, or even all the Prophets. In the Pentateuch, although there is indeed great stress on moral injunctions such as those included in the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20 and Deut. 5) and ‘you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18), there is equal emphasis on matters such as observance of the Sabbath and Festivals, ritual purity, the dietary laws, and the sacrificial cult. Indeed, the two types of commandments jostle with each other without any seeming awareness of the fundamental distinction between them.  

If I nevertheless choose to regard the Prophetic view that only right conduct is pleasing to God as characteristic of Hebraism, I do so because it distinguishes Hebraism from Paganism in a way in which emphasis on ritual does not. On the contrary, most of the rituals of the ancient Hebrews were little more than monotheistic adaptations of practices current before their time among the Canaanites and other Near-Eastern peoples. It is the ethical emphasis which makes Hebraism distinctive.  

Ethical Emphasis in Judaism and Christianity  

To what extent have Judaism and Christianity remained faithful to this ethical emphasis?  

So far as Judaism is concerned, the answer has to distinguish between its legal side, known as Halachah, and its homiletical side, known as Aggadah. On the halachic side, the Pharisees and Rabbis saw it as their task to construct a system of precepts governing every aspect of life, and for this purpose interpreted the biblical legislation — which is to be found almost exclusively in the Pentateuch — in the way lawyers interpret a constitution. Therefore whatever the Pentateuch expressed in the imperative was equally grist for their jurisprudential mill; and since the Pentateuch doesn’t differentiate between ethical and ritual matters, the Rabbinic Halachah doesn’t either. That is to my mind a major weakness of Judaism which can easily lead to an excessive emphasis on ritual, and has often done so.  

On the aggadic side, however, the Pharisees and Rabbis continued the ethical emphasis of the Prophets. When they were asked to explain in a nutshell what the Torah was all about, they nearly always did so in ethical terms, by quoting or alluding to such verses as ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself (Lev. 19:18)’15. And when they drew up the ‘Great Confession’ to be recited on the Day of Atonement, they included in it only transgressions against the Moral Law, not against the Ritual Law16.  

Jesus clearly stood in the Prophetic tradition, but was influenced, additionally, by the Pharisaic Aggadah. For both reasons he emphasised almost exclusively the ethical side of God’s demands. Most of his parables make an ethical point, and so do many of the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness... the merciful... the peacemakers’ and so forth (Matt. 5:5-9). And to the extent to which his influence has prevailed, the same ethical emphasis has characterised Christianity. If there is one qualification to be made, it is that in some of its phases Christianity has tended to emphasise right belief as much as, if not more than, right conduct. Hence the prolonged debate about ‘Justification by Faith’ versus ‘Justification by Works’.  

Perhaps it would be a fair summary to say that, historically, both traditions, Jewish and Christian, have remained largely, but not always completely, faithful to the ethical emphasis of Hebraism at its best.  

Furthermore, in their ethical teachings Judaism and Christianity are closer to each other than in anything else — more so, for instance, than in their respective theologies, sacred calendars and liturgies. This therefore is the area par excellence in which they can and should co-operate.  

4. Human Nature in the Hebrew Bible  

Another striking feature of Hebraism is its high estimation of human nature. That note is struck already in the Creation Story with its claim that God created man ‘in His own image’ and gave him dominion over all the earth (Gen. 1:27f), echoed in the 8th Psalm with its assertion that God made him ‘little less than divine’ and ‘put all things under his feet’ (vv. 6f).  

The same high regard for humanity in general and for individual human beings in particular is maintained throughout the Hebrew Bible. It is reflected in the humaneness of biblical legislation for the protection of human life, liberty and property; in the ability of human beings to communicate with God in prayer, and to respond to God’s demands; and in their possession of free will, enabling them to choose between good and evil.  

That human beings are nevertheless prone to sin is readily acknowledged. ‘There is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins,’ says Ecciesiastes (7:20). And sometimes the human condition is depicted as hopeless. In the prologue to the Flood Story the biblical writer devastatingly remarks: ‘God saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually’ and even that He ‘regretted having created humankind’ (Gen. 6:5f).  

But such expressions of despair are exceptional. As a general rule, the conviction is maintained that human beings are capable of fulfilling their high potential; that they can choose good over evil and life over death (Deut. 30:19); that it is not impossible for them to live as God desires. ‘For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you,’ says the Deuteronomist (30:11). And when human beings break the divine law, the possibility of repenting and so gaining God’s forgiveness is always available. In the words of the prophet Malachi, God says: ‘Return to Me, and I will return to You’ (3:7).  

Human Nature in Judaism and Christianity  

That, in brief, is the Hebraic view of human nature, and in Judaism it is both maintained and reinforced. Rabbi Akiva, for instance, taught: ‘How privileged we are to have been created in God’s image; how much more privileged still to have been made aware that we were created in God’s image’17. A daily morning prayer, which goes back to the Talmud, begins: ‘My God, the soul You have given me is pure. For You have created it and formed it and breathed it into me’18. Any tendency towards determinism is counterbalanced by a robust affirmation of freedom of choice. As Rabbi Akiva stated the paradox, ‘Everything is foreseen, yet free will is given’19.  

The destruction of the Temple, and the cessation of sin offerings and other sacrifices, led to greater emphasis than ever on prayer, and on inner repentance as the sole prerequisite of atonement. According to the Rabbis, God says to Israel: ‘Open for me one gate of repentance by as little as the point of a needle, and I will open for you gates wide enough for carriages and coaches to pass through’20.  

In Christianity, too, the Hebraic view of the preciousness of every human being has been upheld and, through it, has largely influenced Western civiisation, although the contribution of secular humanism should not be underestimated. Jesus himself set a wonderful example of caring for individuals, especially despised and vulnerable members of society, and his example has inspired Christians all through the ages, down to Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa in recent times.  

At the same time, Christianity, more than Judaism, has stressed the dark, malevolent and rebellious side of human nature. While Judaism has tended to see sin as a weakness to be overcome, Christianity has seen it as a sickness to be cured. Furthermore, in view of the horrendous nature of the manifestations of evil we have witnessed in the twentieth century and are still witnessing today, there is much to be said for the Christian view, and it may well be that Judaism has something to learn from Christianity in that respect.  

Devil as Real Force  

There has even been a tendency in Christianity to regard the Devil, not as a figure of folklore, but as a real evil force existing independently of God and humanity. As to that, I am inclined to agree with Joseph Conrad’s invocation of Occam’s razor when he wrote: ‘The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness’21.  

There has also been in Christianity a tendency to regard the human propensity to sin as a kind of hereditary disease going back to the ‘original sin’ of Adam and Eve, and this doctrine has been much used to lend urgency to Christianity’s appeal to unbelievers to avail themselves of the means of salvation which it alone offers.  

The right to hold such a belief is of course entirely to be respected, but it can hardly be expected to commend itself to non-Christians, and therefore to make for unity. The Apostle Paul was right when he referred to it as ‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (I Cor. 1:23). Therefore the recent tendency in both the Catholic and Protestant Churches to back away from such exclusive claims is greatly to be welcomed.  

Surely it is sufficient to acknowledge that evil is indeed the number one problem of humanity, which for that very reason requires the combined strength of all religious and moral forces to combat it. If we do that, and if we also acknowledge that the greatest antidote against evil is the goodness which, being created in God’s image, also resides in human nature, then we are on solid Hebraic ground and can unite with all who share our values to work towards that end.  

5. Universalism in the Hebrew Bible  

A fifth major feature of the Hebrew Bible is its universalism. Of course, there is plenty of particularism in it, too. Much of it is positively preoccupied with God’s relationship with one people, almost to the exclusion of the rest of humanity. Nevertheless, it is a striking fact that it begins, not with the national epic of the Israelites, but with the creation of the world and the pre-history of humanity. It is noteworthy that the God of the Israelites is actively involved with other nations. As He brought them from Egypt, so He brought the Philistines from Caphtor and the Aramaeans from Kir (Amos 9:6). He condemns other nations, not only for their sins against Israel, but for their sins against one another (Amos 1:2 - 2:1). He has pity on ‘Nineveh, that great city’ (Jonah 4:11). He says to Israel: ‘Are you not like the Ethiopians to Me?’ (Amos 9:7). He even proclaims, in this order: ‘Blessed be Egypt My people, and Assyria My handiwork, and Israel My inheritance’ (Isa. 19:25). In the particularism of the Hebrew Bible there is nothing remarkable. It is its prophetic universalism which makes it unique among ancient literatures and gives it enduring worth.  

Universalism in Judaism and Christianity  

In Judaism this universalism is maintained. It finds expression, for instance, in the legend of how God rebukes the angels for singing His praise while His creatures, the Egyptians, are drowning in the Red Sea22. Likewise in the Rabbinic teaching that the righteous of other nations have a share in the world to come23, and in the related doctrine that by observing the so-called ‘Seven Laws, of the Children of Noah’, Gentiles can gain God’s acceptance24. But also in the fact that Gentiles who wished to embrace Judaism, with all the obligations which that entailed, were free to do so. As the Rabbis said, ‘The gates are open at all times, and whoever wishes to enter may enter’25. Nevertheless it has to be admitted that in the course of the centuries, largely as a result of persecution, Judaism became increasingly particularistic, until the Progressive movement revived the universalistic spirit of earlier times.  

Christianity was from its inception outspokenly universalistic. Although Jesus himself seems to have been ambivalent on the subject (cf Mark 13:19. Matt. 10:5, 15:24), there can be no doubting Paul’s universalism. One verse from his Epistle to the Galatians sums up his attitude: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (3:28). With that motto, the Church abolished all ethnic boundaries. As Karen Armstrong has pointed out, ‘Christianity had all the advantages that had once made Judaism such an attractive faith without the disadvantages of circumcision and an alien Law’. As a result the Church became ‘almost a microcosm of the [Roman] empire itself: ... multi-racial, catholic, international, ecumenical’26. Only two things have at times marred this splendid universalism of the Christian Church. One is its anti-Semitism27, a subject on which I do not wish to dwell but which I can hardly leave unmentioned. The other is its teaching that ‘there is no salvation outside the Church’.  

Thus, if Judaism has sometimes tended to be ethnically exclusive, Christianity has sometimes tended to be theologically intolerant. Which of these tendencies is the more to be regretted, can perhaps be debated, but both alike run counter to what is required of religion in the global age.  

6. Messianism in the Hebrew Bible  

The sixth and final major aspect of Hebraism which requires our attention is, in a word, Messianism. Here I am alluding to the fact, often pointed out, that the Hebrew Bible has a linear rather than a cyclical view of human history. That is to say, it looks forward to a future time when all that is now wrong with the world will come right.  

This hope expresses itself in two ways: national and universal. The national hope is closely associated with the monarchy. It is that in the more or less near future a king will sit on the throne of David who will lack all the vices and possess’ all the virtues of past kings, who will in fact prove to be an ideal ruler, and under whose leadership the Israelite nation will therefore flourish both politically and spiritually as never before.  

The universal hope does not generally have anything to do with the monarchy. It envisages a golden age in the ultimate or eschatological future when all will be united in the worship of the One God, and ‘they will beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again train for war’ (Isa. 2:4; Micah 4:3).  

Sometimes, but rarely, the two hopes are combined. Then the national restoration of the Israelite people is seen as a prelude to the redemption of all humanity. The outstanding example of that is the eleventh chapter of Isaiah, which begins by describing the righteous qualities of the future Davidic king and goes on to paint an idyllic picture of a world at peace, when wild and domestic animals will pasture side by side, and concludes: ‘They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Eternal One as the waters cover the bed of the sea’ (11:1-9).  

Of these two forms of the hope, which has a better claim to be regarded as, one of the permanent values of Hebraism? Surely the universal, for even apart from the fact that the national one lost most of its significance when the Davidic monarchy came to an end, the universal one is clearly the more inspiring, the more coherent with the other permanent values of Hebraism, and the more universally meaningful.  

Messianism in Judaism and Christianity  

Nevertheless, in Judaism both forms of the hope were maintained and combined — the national one by virtue of the expectation that one day the national existence of the Jewish people in its ancient land would be restored under a restored Davidic monarchy. This expectation, moreover, was only part of a more general back-to-square one eschatology. That is to say, as it was in the beginning, so it shall be in the end: Monarchy, Temple, Sacrifices, Priesthood, Ritual Purity, and all the ancient legislation pertaining to these, will be reinstated. I find that an atavistic way of seeing the future, one of the least inspiring aspects of Judaism, of little significance for non-Jews, and therefore certainly not to be regarded as one of the permanent values of Hebraism. Whereas of course the universalistic vision of a golden age for all humanity, which Judaism has also maintained and emphasised, remains as valid as ever.  

But now I must add that in Judaism these two future hopes combined with a third: that of the Messiah. You will have noticed that I have not used that word up to this point. That is because in an eschatological context it does not occur in the Hebrew Bible. And if that surprises you to the point of incredulity, let me quote to you H.L. Ginsberg, one of the greatest Bible scholars of modern times. In his Encyclopaedia Judaica article on our subject he wrote: ‘This is a strictly postbiblical concept’28.  

What he meant is not that the word Messiah does not occur in the Hebrew Bible — it does occur about twenty times, but never in the eschatological sense which it acquired later. In that sense the concept is a creation of the apocalyptic movement, and though there are indeed traces of apocalypse in the Hebrew Bible, especially in Zechariah and Daniel, it came into prominence during what Christians call the intertestamental period.  

Apocalyptists as Charlatans  

But it seems to me that the apocalyptists were — not to mince words — charlatans. They imitated the prophets while lacking prophetic inspiration. They predicted the future, which is not what true prophecy was all about. They did so by misinterpreting Scripture as a collection of oracles, which it is not. More generally, they pretended to a knowledge of the ultimate future which is not humanly attainable. Therefore, not only is it inherently unlikely that the sort of transformation of humanity which the Messiah is supposed to bring about could be accomplished by one individual, but there is actually no good reason for believing in a Messiah in the first place, any more than in the other outlandish fantasies of the apocalyptists. And therefore, too, I have been using the word Messianism only metaphorically, as a portmanteau term for all kinds of eschatological expectations, not necessarily involving a personal Messiah.  

If the Pharisees made a mistake in going along with the apocalyptic concept of a personal Messiah, Christianity took it over. But then Christianity gave the term, in its Greek translation christos, a very different meaning. In Christianity it came to mean a superhuman Saviour from sin and from death. And that is a concept which, once again, has no basis in Hebraism but must be evaluated on its own merits.  

Obviously, most Christians will continue to believe in the Messiahship of Jesus in that sense, just as most Jews will continue to believe in a Messiah yet to come in the traditional Jewish sense; and nobody should question their right to do so. But if the question is asked, which of these concepts belongs to the permanent values of Hebraism, or which of them is capable of uniting humanity, I must answer: neither.  

What does remain, however, is universal hope which both our traditions share: that ultimately God will be vindicated and humanity redeemed. And whether that happens through the First Coming of the Jewish Messiah or the Second Coming of the Christian Messiah, or simply through the victory of good over evil in human society as a whole, is of little consequence. What matters is the end-product. The hope that that will ultimately come about does indeed belong to the permanent values of Hebraism, and is indeed capable of uniting, not only Jews and Christians, but also Muslims and many other branches of the human family.  


I have tried to identify six major aspects of Hebraism which seem to me to have the double virtue of permanent validity and potentially universal appeal. In singling them out I do not mean to dismiss the many other aspects either of Judaism or of Christianity. I am not arguing for eclecticism. On the contrary, I think it positively desirable that both Judaism and Christianity, and all the varieties of each as well as of Islam and all the other major religions, will continue to exist and flourish for an indefinite time to come. But if it is a matter of the utmost importance that our respective religious traditions, over and above satisfying the many different needs of their own adherents, should also make a positive contribution to the cultivation of a global spirituality and a global ethic, then the permanent values of Hebraism are what we should above all emphasise. In that sense, Hebraism is both our common heritage and our common hope. •  



1. Culture and Anarchy, chapter 4, p 110.  
2. Judaism and Modern Man, p. 55.  
3. Where Judaism Differed, p. 30.  
4. See, e.g., Deut. 7:1-5; I Kings 18:20-39; Isa. 44:9-20; Psalm 115:4-8.  
5. A History of God, Mandarin Paperbacks, 1994, p. 124.  
6. The title of William James’s classic work.  
7. Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 61b.  
8. For a recent example see Marcus Braybrooke’s The Explorer’s Guide to Christianity (1998), p. 67: ‘Just as no human being can live fully in isolation from other people... so the interior nature of God is relational’.  
9. A History of God, Mandarin Paperbacks. p. 138.  
10. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodey Torah 1:8-12; Guide of the Perplexed, Part I. Chapters 46f.  
11. E.g., Siddur Lev Chadash, p. 525.  
12. Hans Kung’s argument to the contrary in his Judaism, pp. 382f, does not seem to me convincing.  
13. Jesus the Jew, chapter 8.  
14. E.g., Amos 5:21-24, Isa. 1:11-17, Micah 6:6-8, Jer. 7:21-23, Isa. 58:2-7.  
15. For instance, Hillel the Elder (Shab. 31a), and Rabbi Akiva (Sifra 89b).  
16. See, for instance, Service of the Synagogue, 18th edition, Routledge & Kegan Paul, Day of Atonement, Volume 1, pp. 8-10.  
17. Avot 3:14.  
18. E.g., Siddur Lev Chadash, p. 113; Ber. 60b.  
19. Avot 3:16.  
20. Songs of Songs Rabbah 5:2.  
21. Nicolas Bentley & Evan Esar, The Treasury of Humorous Quotations, p. 61.  
22. Meg. 10b.  
23. Tosefta Sanh. 13:2.  
24. Sanh. 56a, 105a.  
25. Exod. Rabbah 19:4.  
26. A History of God, p. 125.  
27. Hans Kung wrote: ‘There can hardly be any dispute that already in the New Testament there is an anti-Judaism which was to have devastating consequences in later times’ (Judaism, p. 354). See also Samuel Sandmel, Anti-Semitism in the New Testament.  
28. Volume 11, p. 1407.  

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