Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn
Every young Jewish child learns early in his Torah education that “Esav Soneh l’Yaakov”—Esau hates Yaakov. The original statement is found in Bereishit Rabbah, but it was Rashi who etched it in the minds of Torah Jews, when he quoted it in his commentary on Genesis 33:4. There the Torah tells us of the fateful confrontation of the two brothers. When they met Esau kissed Jacob—but was he sincere or did he merely mask his deep hatred for Jacob?
The original statement that “Esav soneh l’ya’akov” was uttered by the Talmuic personality Shimon Bar Yochai (“Rashbi”), who claimed that it was a well-entrenched law (“halakhah yidu’ah”)—a seemingly unchangeable eternal truth of the universe. For Rashbi and his Talmudic peers, Esau stood for the Roman Empire, which had put out a death edict on Rashbi, executed his beloved teacher, Rabbi Akiva, and cruelly oppressed the Jewish people. After the Talmudic era, Esau became a symbol for Christians and their faith. This was an easy transition, since like the ruddy Esav, the official color of both the Roman Empire and Christianity was red, and in the 4th century Emperor Constantine made Christianity the imperial religion of Rome.
It was during the Middle Ages in the 11th to 15th century that Ya’akov (Jacob) and Esav (Esau) became the popular symbols of Jews and Christians in Jewish polemical literature. In that era Jews had very good reason to believe Rashbi’s statement, since Christians ghettoized, converted, persecuted and often killed Jews in the name of Christianity. Judaism and Christianity were bitter implacable enemies. They fought theological and sometimes physical duels to the death—which the Jewish people could not afford to win. Rashbi’s claim rang true and Jews had every reason to understand Christians as living examples of Esav who was committed to killing Ya’akov and his faith.
Christians developed terrible teachings about Judaism and Jews—that God’s covenant with the Jewish people was replaced by the new covenant with the Church, that Jews were blind to Jesus as the true messiah, and that they were responsible for murdering Jesus. And because Jews were collectively guilty of deicide, they were like Cain. As a punishment, God took away their rights to their homeland and condemned them to wander the earth in humiliation and insecurity. This theology became known as “the teaching of contempt” and was responsible for Antisemitism throughout Christian Europe for more than 1,500 years. These teachings prepared Europeans for the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people, and was the reason that the Final Solution was so easily accepted by Christians in Germany, Poland, and Eastern Europe.
After the Shoah the Catholic Church and most Protestant churches realized the terrible role their teachings played in allowing Hitler to nearly succeed in exterminating the Jewish people. They understood their guilt and that for Christianity to have any moral credibility it had to radically change its teachings about Jews and Judaism. In addition, the miracle of the Jewish people’s return to its biblical homeland and the establishment of the State of Israel proved that the old teachings were false.
So beginning in the 1950’s, most churches began honest soul searching (heshbon ha-nefesh) and in 1965 at the Second Vatican Council the Catholic Church officially adopted new teachings about the Jewish People and Judaism. The church approved a document called “Nostra Aetate” (“In our Time”) that was revolutionary because it officially rejected the Church’s old teaching of contempt: It condemned “displays of Antisemitism at any time and from any source”, and formally rejected the idea that Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus. Perhaps most importantly for Judaism, it insisted that the covenant between God and the Jewish people was still a living covenant and that “the Jews remain most dear to God.” Because the Church still believed that we remain God’s elected people, Nostra Aetate also insisted that the roots of the Church are in the Jewish people, and “the glory and the covenant and the promise” of the Church come from the Jewish people.
Nostra Aetate was approved by nearly all the bishops of the Catholic Church around the world, and today is the official doctrine of the Church. Nostra Aetate was only the first of many official theological and practical documents that the Catholic Church published to demonstrate its sincere desire to reconcile with the Jewish people and their faith. This transformation in Church teachings created the possibility of new relationships with the Jewish people. Pope John Paul II became a great friend of the Jewish people and in 1986 he visited the Great Synagogue in Rome, warmly embracing his colleague, Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff. John Paul II repeatedly taught that Antisemitism “is a sin against man and God,” as have the popes who followed him. One of the first things that the current Pope Francis said after becoming pope was, “No Christian can be an anti-Semite,” since he too recognizes that the Church is based on its Jewish origins. Today, when there is so much Antisemitism against our people, the public condemnations of Antisemitism by the head of 1.2 billion Christians is a major influence in battling the disease that threatens our people. Jews must appreciate these helpful words.
It is important to understand that the Antisemitism in Europe today comes almost exclusively from Muslims and radical left-wing secularists—both of whom reject vehemently current Christian teachings and the authority of the Church. In contrast to the past when the source of poisonous Antisemitism was Christian theology and Christian leaders, today’s anti-Semites are people who also want to destroy the influence of Christianity. Islamic domination poses a mortal threat to Christianity in Europe, and old world Catholics–like the Society of Saint Pius–who insist on holding on to the old anti-Judaic teachings and reject Nostra-Aetate have been excommunicated from the Church. So it is incorrect to claim that today’s Antisemitism is pro-Christian in any sense. In fact, the opposite is true: Both the Jewish people and faithful Christians are fighting the same enemies, not each other.
The Vatican formally recognized the State of Israel and established diplomatic relations with us in 1994. In 2000 John Paul II visited Israel and met with government officials and the Chief Rabbis. He joined in our sorrow at Yad Vashem and prayed at the Western Wall, where he honored Jewish tradition by inserting this prayer in the wall: “God of our fathers, you chose Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations. We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused your children to suffer, and asking forgiveness we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the covenant.”
These are the words of a sincere ba’al teshuvah (repentant) and friend of the Jewish people. Liberal Protestant churches followed in this change. Unlike the past, no Catholic institution and only very few Protestant churches try to convert Jews today. As Cardinal Walter Kasper of the Vatican said in 2001, “There is no mission to the Jews; there is only mission withthe Jews.” In fact, many Christian universities in America and Europe now have Jewish scholars teaching Christian students about Judaism and Jewish history, because Christians now are eager to learn about the roots of their faith.
Because of the dramatic change in Christian teachings about the Jewish people, many Christians are the best friends of Israel. Tens of thousands of Christians come to Israel every year to celebrate the Jewish homeland and birthplace of Christianity. Many Christians around the world give millions of dollars to Zionist causes and to help Israel’s poor and hungry. Evangelical Christians are very different from Catholics, but in Washington DC, they are the strongest gentile supporters of the Jewish State. These Christians see themselves as partners with the Jewish people in teaching about and creating a world filled with tzedakah u’mishpat (justice and righteousness) and the worship of God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Jews also have something in common with Christians on the political level: Like Jews, Christians today are a persecuted minority and the victims of Islamist extremism, hatred and violence. They are suffering from the same persecutions of forced conversion, eviction, humiliation, and massacres that Jews experienced for millennia in Europe. It is not an exaggeration to say that today, Christians are the Jews of the Middle East.
So for both religious and political reasons, God has thrown Jews and Christians together to appreciate God’s Torah and to be allies against common enemies that want to destroy us, particularly in the Middle East.
Some religious Jews find it difficult to accept the new ideas that Christians no longer hate Jews or are trying to destroy Judaism, that Jews have common interests with Christians, and that many Christians are eager to learn about their Jewish roots. We are a history-oriented people. We have the obligation to honor to the lives of our parents and grandparents, and the scars that Christians inflicted on us them are still fresh and painful in our national memory. But our trauma from the past should not blind us to the fact that God has performed a miracle by allowing Christians to change their attitude and theology about Jews and Judaism. Today Christians wish to reconcile with and support us as their elder brother, and there is no reason to fear or hate the 160,000 Christians in Israel, where we are majority.
Yet what of “Esau always hates Jacob?” While this may have been true in the days of Rashbi and Rashi, thank G-d, it is no longer true today. We are in a new era and it is important for Jews—particularly Torah Jews—understand this monumental change. We have real enemies today, but Christians are not among them. We do better to focus our energies on fighting those who are actively trying to destroy the nation of Israel and its Torah.
We should also keep in mind that “Esau always hates Jacob” was never the consensus of mainstream Judaism nor was it ever a halakhah (a Jewish law) in the proper sense. Rather it expressed the political attitude and worldview of only one sage, R. Shimon bar Yochai. But Rashbi is not an acceptable model for us religious Zionists. The Talmud (BT Shabbat 33b) teaches us that Rashbi angrily denounced Jews who let any worldly or political activity interfere with learning God’s Word full time. Like today’s haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews), R. Shimon refused to believe that tilling and harvesting the land had any religious value. He also rejected engineering and general culture, and he certainly would have thought that working to build a Jewish state was a just waste of time in ephemeral politics (hayei sha’ah). So for both factual and Torah philosophical reasons, we have every right to reject R. Shimon’s worldview today.
Today the words of R. Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berliner (Netziv) describe our world much better. Netziv understood Jacob’s fateful reunion with his brother Esau differently than did Rashbi. Netziv observed that the Torah tells us that both brothers wept (v’yivchu) when they finally met. Here is how Netziv understood the Torah’s message to us: “Jacob also wept and felt brotherly compassion when Esau recognized the descendants and merits of Israel. When this occurs, then we, the people of Israel, will also recognize that Esau is indeed our brother too.”
Changing our attitudes toward Christians does not pose any halakhic (Jewish law) problem. Indeed many great rabbis like R. Moshe Rivkis (“Be’er Hagolah”), Rabbi Ya’akov Emden (“Ya’avetz”) and R. Shimson Raphael Hirsch had a positive appreciation of Christianity, noticing that Christianity brought the seven Noahide mitzvot to the nations of the world and that Christians believe in Creation, the Exodus from Egypt, and in Revelation at Sinai. Even Rambam (Maimonides) admitted that it is permitted to study Torah with Christians and that surprisingly enough, Christianity is preparing the world for the messianic era by bringing it closer to worshiping the Creator of Heaven and Earth.
Not long ago I experienced a miraculous moment at a conference in Salerno, Italy. There Orthodox rabbis and Catholic clergy spoke to more than 400 people for three days. Before the Catholic priests left to go home, they asked the rabbis to bless them. They understood the holiness of Jewish tradition and they recognized that the Jewish people is dear to God. Like the present teachings of the Catholic Church, these priests understood that we are a mamlekhet kohanim (a nation of priests) and they wanted us to be bestow God’s blessing on them: They believed the Torah’s promise of “all the nations are blessed through us
It is a great privilege to live in a time that Netziv dreamed about more than 100 years ago. God has blessed us by giving us the State of Israel as well as the friendship of Christians. Many Christians have gone from being our enemies to being true friends, and it is in our spiritual and physical interests to realize that we no longer live in Rashbi’s era. We will help ourselves when we learn more about who Christians really are today. With this knowledge we will understand that as friends, Christians can be our allies against the challenges before nation and people of Israel.
Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn is Academic Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding in Efrat and Jerusalem. This essay appeared originally in Hebrew in Makor Rishon on June 26, 2015.