Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Why I’m “Christian-Friendly”

Jews are funny. Responding to my post on a certain strain even in Orthodox Judaism that resists accepting the implications of our being in exile, galut, a reader shot back that I must be some kind of Uncle Tom since I, a supposed Orthodox Jew, am associated with the “Christian-friendly” Discovery Institute. 

I get this accusation all the time. My Wikipedia entry, for example, cites as definitive the weighty opinion of one Larry Yudelson who “charges that Klinghoffer is paid to promote his ideas by his employer, the Discovery Institute” — paid by his employer, oh the scandal! — which the said Yudelson in turn “charges” with promoting a viewpoint that’s “Christian-friendly.” 
As one Jewish blogger mildly pondered, “David Klinghoffer: Self-hating Jew, or Hitler sympathizer?
I guess in the sense that intelligent design creates a space for theistic belief, whether Christian or Jewish, whereas Darwinism makes such belief really difficult to justify, there’s some truth in that. The Big Bang also has theistic implications. That’s why some scientists initially resisted it too, for giving comfort to that phantom menace, “creationists.” But sober minds know that a scientific idea, including Darwinism, needs to be judged independently of its implications. Of course, if those implications are destructive, that’s a fine reason to take a second look at the substance of the idea.
That’s all to one side. I speak only for myself here, not for the Discovery Institute, which has bigger fish to fry. But yes, I’m “Christian-friendly.” Why on earth would I not be? We don’t live in Europe — medieval, mid-20th century, or modern — where religious, ideological, and secular-fed anti-Semitism was and is rife. We live in America, the most philo-Semitic country in history and arguably the most passionately Christian in the world today. 
But even medieval Europe may get an unfairly simplistic rap. That was one conclusion I drew in a Forward column some years back on the heritage of Torah-thought bequeathed to us by a French rabbinic sage, the Meiri.


Jews and Christians alike need a way of understanding what it means to be tolerant of other religions and cultures in a way that does no violence to the integrity of our own faiths, or to common sense.

Happily, Jewish history provides a solution to the problem. Let me introduce the fascinating medieval figure of Rabbi Menachem Ha-Meiri, who lived in Provence, in southern France, and died around 1315. Among Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers he went further than any ever had done before in articulating a rationale for religious tolerance. Best known for his Talmud commentary, Beit ha’Becheirah, Ha-Meiri set forth criteria for determining the characteristics of those cultures that deserve admiration and acceptance. He distinguished between “nations restricted by the ways of religion” (ummot ha’gedurot b’darchey ha-datot) and “nations not restricted by the ways of religion.”


The former merit our warm regards however they might diverge theologically from a true conception of God and His ways (that is, from Judaism). Ha-Meiri’s dividing line was based not on religious dogma, in which area Christianity with its Trinity and incarnation falls short, compared to Islam with its rigorous monotheism.

Rather, as Moshe Halbertal of Hebrew University has written in an essay on Ha-Meiri in The Edah Journal, the difference is “between nations possessed of law and lawless nations, i.e. between barbarism and civilization.” There is even a certain sense in which such nations — again despite their errors in dogma — are to be considered under the designation of “Israel.”


Of course, this doesn’t mean we can intermarry with them or breach other walls that God, wishing to set us apart for special responsibilities in the world, established to keep Jews separate from other peoples. Even with such limitations in mind, Ha-Meiri’s way of thinking still sounds radical from a medieval rabbinic sage.

Yet traditional scholars today accept him as a standard interpreter of Judaism, because he constructed his ideology of tolerance on a sound Torah basis. The talmudic rabbis had formulated a distinction between, on the one hand, religious laws and other truths that can be known only through revelation and, on the other hand, those that can be discovered through our own powers of reason. The latter could form the basis of non-Jewish religions that promote the values of civilization, lifting gentiles to the heights of human potential — and “this would be entirely sufficient for them, according to the nature of their religions.”


Looking around himself at the Christians of Provence, he saw a nation “restricted by the ways of religion,” a worldview “entirely sufficient for them.” Utterly to be condemned, however, were those peoples not possessing a religion, or possessing a religion that promoted barbarism. If he were alive today, we can guess what he might think of America, with a majority of Christian believers, a country that spends her own money and blood around the world promoting civilized values. And we can guess what we would think of what’s become of his own native land, France, where secularism is the state orthodoxy and laws are formulated to outlaw the display, in public schools, of religious garments such as Islamic headscarves and Jewish skullcaps.


That’s right, a key rabbinic interpreter of the Talmud was “Christian-friendly” in 14th-century France. Yet it’s somehow disloyal to Judaism to think similarly in 21st-century America? Oh please.
Read the rest of my column and let me know what you think.
Comments read comments(14)
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Your Name

posted May 7, 2009 at 5:55 pm

I’m sure you’re friendly to anyone who supports your belief in magic.

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Rebecca Moulds

posted May 7, 2009 at 8:38 pm

Dear Mr. Klinghoffer,
How do you respond to a Christian who found out quite late in life that her maternal Italian grandfather was Jewish? I have always accepted Judaism even before I knew that I shared some of that wonderful heritage. We even celebrate a sort of Passover/Easter and light Channukah and Shabbat candles. And it irks me beyond words that some misguided people think that Hitler was a Christian!!! He definitely was not. That word “Christian” was only used once or twice in the New Testament, by the way, and not by the believers themselves. A true Christian would never have done the horrible things that Hitler and such ilk did; nor were the Crusaders right; remember the Spanish Inquisition–I was once privy to scrolls dating from that time, depicting the tortures inflicted on those who refused to believe in the Catholic Church–and they believed that they were “Christian”! I’m afraid that word is used much too broadly and must be defined within the limitations that exist in that belief.
Thank you for your wonderful articles and thoughts—I enjoy receiving them.

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Steve Shay

posted May 7, 2009 at 8:54 pm

Your Name
May 7, 2009 5:55 PM
“I’m sure you’re friendly to anyone who supports your belief in magic.”
Your Name:
Militant Muslims also support “magical” beliefs if you feel all religion is magic, yet Orthodox Jews need not befriend militant Muslim magic as a rule. I can see how being friendly toward someone who believes our Jesus was a Christian is morally valid, while being friendly toward someone who wants to kill us for the reward of 72 virgins is morally invalid, whether there is a magical component or not.

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Charlie Hall

posted May 7, 2009 at 11:33 pm

I happen to agree with the author regarding HaMeiri and secular relativism. But contemporary Orthodox rabbis are quite reluctant to do so. It is misrepresenting Orthodox Judaism to promote HaMeiri’s views as normative and to fail to mention that there is a significant body of contemporary rabbinic thought that holds that it is absolutely forbidden for even a non-Jew to practice Christianity.

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David Klinghoffer

posted May 8, 2009 at 12:55 am

Charlie — Let’s employ a simple test of what’s normative in Orthodox life. I call it the Rabbi Artscroll test. If a given rabbinic authority is frequently cited by Artscroll publications, then he is normative, at least in sociological terms. The Meiri’s views are cited everywhere in the Artscroll Talmud edition. He is not some kind of obscure authority cherry-picked by me only because I like what he implies about Christianity. He is gold-standard.

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posted May 8, 2009 at 6:35 am

Mr. Klinghoffer: You display your parochialism with the “Artscroll Test.” Artscroll has truly revolutionized the Jewish publishing business, and made the breadth of halachic literature available to the masses. However, by no stretch of the imagination can Artscroll be described as normative. Artscroll has its own agenda, and they routinely quote scholars in line with their particular philosophy. Artscroll as a matter of policy does not quote Rav Soleveitchik. I guess then by the Klinghoffer standard he is not a normative/accepted Jewish scholar. (For the record, the Stone Chumash was the first to use Soleveitchik commentary – but only because the Stone family who funded it requested that they do so.)

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David Klinghoffer

posted May 8, 2009 at 9:48 am

Mark, the Artscroll Test only says that if a given authority is heavily cited in Artscroll, then you can safely assume he is mainstream in Orthodox thought. Logically, the converse doesn’t necessarily follow: that if he’s mainstream, he is heavily cited by Artscroll. I never said that and I don’t believe it.

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Your Name

posted May 8, 2009 at 11:33 am

Jews may indeed be “funny”, but pseudo Jews like you are even funnier.

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Larry Yudelson

posted May 8, 2009 at 12:50 pm

The fact that the Meiri is a mainstream Orthodox figure shouldn’t obscure how revolutionary his pluralistic theology of Christianity was and remains. On this question, his views are not part of the ArtScroll culture–which is one reason I’m not an ArtScroll Jew myself.
The Meiri stands as a model of theological pluralism, and as a useful gauge by which to measure Christianity’s teshuvah — repentance — for the oceans of Jewish blood it spilled during its millenium-long domination of Europe. The other measure is the most basic step of repentance — acknowledging the harm.
The Catholic church, for example, acknowledged the Christian sin in Vatican II. More recently, Pope John Paul II followed in the Meiri’s footsteps and acknowledged Judaism as a path to God.
My problem with David Klinghoffer’s relationship with Christianity is not that he follows the Meiri (and Franz Rosenzweig) and acknowledges the religion as a path to God for individuals and nations; it’s that he assumes all the problems of Christiandom — inquisitions, pogroms, massacres, expulsions, a theology of contempt that led to genocide — have been miraculously washed away by… something or other. (Maybe the sins of Charles Darwin?)

But what are his fellow Jews to make of David when starts praising “the farsighted Pope Urban II” and his Crusade as a religious model, as he did in How Would God Vote (p.202)?
The Encyclopedia Judaica accurately notes that “in the memory of the Jews, the Crusades became a symbol of the opposition between Christianity and Judaism. Historians believe that the semi-mourning that marks the period between Passover and Shavuot reflects the events of 1096,” when the Crusades decimated the Jewish communities of Germany.
In accepting the Crusades for their averred theological goal, rather than their actual historical cost, David fails the Vatican II test: He doesn’t hold Christianity to account for its sins.
In other words, my problem is not that David sees the theological good of Christianity, but rather that he is blind to its historical evil.

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David Klinghoffer

posted May 8, 2009 at 2:12 pm

NB: I’m happy to let Larry Yudelson reply. However, I’ve edited out some egregious factual distortions about the Discovery Institute, indicated in the redacted version by an ellipsis. Providing a platform for debate and strong disagreements, not for lies and slanders, is what I intend to do with this blog.

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posted May 8, 2009 at 2:35 pm

David wrote: “But sober minds know that a scientific idea, including Darwinism, needs to be judged independently of its implications. Of course, if those implications are destructive, that’s a fine reason to take a second look at the substance of the idea.”
What do you mean by “take a second look at the substance of the idea?” For the sake of argument, let’s assume that there is good reason to believe that the widespread belief that evolution is true has negative consequences overall for society. One’s having reason to believe that the widespread belief that evolution is true has negative consequences overall for society might be grounds for trying to determine whether evolution is indeed true only if it weren’t already known that evolution is true. For example, let’s say I know that the widespread belief that evolution is true has bad consequences overall for society. And let’s say I don’t know whether evolution is true and have reason to believe that it is not true. Then it might be good for me to “take a second look” at evolution in order to try to determine whether evolution is true. If I could determine that it is not true and show others that it is not true, I could help avoid having these negative consequences occur. However, we already know that evolution is true. I already know that some of my ancestors are fish. So, it does no good to “take a second look” at whether evolution is true, because any new research I do and discoveries that I make is not going to enable anyone to know that evolution is not true. And it also would take time to do this research. It would be a waste of time. Analogously, let’s say I have reason to believe that everyone’s believing that the earth is not flat would have negative consequences overall for society. It would still be ridiculous for me to “take a second look” at whether it is true that the earth is not flat.
Now if one were to know that having everyone in society believe that evolution is true would cause a nuclear war, that would be grounds for not TEACHING evolution. But if all of almost all people believing that evolution is true were to contribute to a nuclear war, that would, of course, be completely irrelevant to whether anyone knows that evolution is true. Similarly, let’s say that everyone in society believing that the earth is not a flat disk that rests on the back of a giant tortoise were to contribute to a nuclear war. I’m still sure that the earth is not a flat disk that rests on the back of a giant tortoise.
Moreover, I believe that evolution is true, and I’m a good person. Everyone in my family believes that evolution is true, and they are all good people. The percentage of people in Scandinavian countries and Iceland who believe that evolution is true is much higher than the percentage of U.S. citizens who do. And, overall, the Scandinavian countries are good countries. They are strong democracies, with low violent crime rates, low poverty rates and higher literacy rates. For their sizes, they contribute a lot to science, philosophy, art, music, technology and innovation. So, there is good reason to believe that having high percentage of people in a society believing that evolution is true does not tend to make society worse than having low percentages of people in the society believing that evolution is true.

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David Klinghoffer

posted May 8, 2009 at 2:43 pm

Thank you for your kind words, Rebecca. Regarding your question about having a Jewish grandfather, I’m not sure what the significance of that spiritually might be. It could be that you are in some way being prompted to reconnect a Jewish link in your family’s history that had been severed.

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Glen Davidson

posted May 8, 2009 at 3:16 pm

But sober minds know that a scientific idea, including Darwinism, needs to be judged independently of its implications. Of course, if those implications are destructive, that’s a fine reason to take a second look at the substance of the idea.

Sober minds know that teaching theism in the place of science is morally reprehensible, and tends to be especially oppressive to minority religions.
Ask the right question.
One needn’t even look at the “implications of Darwinism” if one recognizes that freedom is what matters in the first place. Do we really need to ask if non-coercive science is best for science, and generally also for society?
When government steps in to determine what will be officially allowed “science,” as it did in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s time, that the destructive implications of theocratic control become realized.
Glen Davidson

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Kenneth M

posted May 9, 2009 at 1:41 am

Comments on:
Why I’m “Christian-Friendly”
“religious dogma, in which area Christianity with its Trinity and incarnation falls
short, compared to Islam with its rigorous monotheism.”
You are welcome to Islam, “slay the infidels where ever you find them” and suicide bombers killing Jews in particular, and even muslims.
I get Emails from Israel about the carnage and hatred, and lies the muslims use to discredit Israel. UN condemns Israel but pays no attention to the violence and deceit of the Muslims in many countries, where they are murdering innocent people.
The Torah starts with “In the beginning G_d created” and the name is plural, but used as if singular all through the Torah. The christians are correct in that G_d shows himself in three ways, or in three aspects, not in one way only. Further down the page you say:
“and other truths that can be known only through revelation”
This is one of the aspects by which G_d communicates.
Ken M

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