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A Discussion of Messianic Judaism, the Emerging Messianic Jewish Paradigm, and Related Leadership Issues from the Preoccupied Mind of Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD.

All Contents ©2004-2007 Stuart Dauermann - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Book Review - Michael Wyschogrod: "The Body of Faith: God and the People Israel"

Wyschogrod, Michael, The Body of Faith: God and the People Israel (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996).

Wyschogrod is a Modern Orthodox Jewish scholar-philosopher, born in Germany, who taught at Baruch College, at the University of Houston, and at a number of other institutions in the USA and abroad. He is perhaps the closest the Jewish community has to a biblical theologian, and for this reason, is more accessible to Christian readers than most.

He holds for the priority of election as a category that must be recovered by the Jewish community. He sees the entire seed of Abraham and Sarah as elect and as one, despite ideological variations and differences. All Jews as obliged to live out the meaning of their election through maintining Jewish communal coheshion and intergenerational survival. Despite denials and avoidance of all kinds, Jews are meant to live lives of Torah faithfulness as a context and manifestation of authentic relationship with the Living God. He sees the Jews as “the abode of the divine presence in the world. It is the carnal anchor that God has sunk into the soil of creation” (256). As such, Jewish survival and fulfillment of its communal mission is important not simply to the Jews, but to the entire world—for God has chosen to make Hiself one with this people, and to join His name to theirs.

Chapter 1, “A Partial Knowledge,” discusses the eclipsed role of philosophy in Judaism, and he deals with Jewish revelation as being a “dark knowledge,” because it awaits an apocalyptic and therefore discontinuous future consummation. Chapter 2 continues the discussion of philosophy, and how the Christian theological tradition has embraced a philosophical approach alien to Jewish epistemology. Christian theology and philosophy abstracts principles, while Jewish revelation and experience are in the nature of story. The Christian and Jewish worlds contrast both epistemologically and existentially. Israel’s election is communal and corporeal, and this people coheres as an extended family rather than in ideological mutuality. “The foundation of Judaism is the family identity of the Jewish people as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob . . . the seed of Abraham elected through descent from Abraham, This is the crux of the mystery of Israel’s election” (57).

Chapter 3 , “The Personality of God,” further confronts the divide between the Jewish and biblical revelation of God and that of philosophical theology. God is seen as a character in the great story in which Israel plays a central role. He is a person who, by creating a real world of real actors, and by becoming part of the story, freely takes on a certain vulnerability. This God is diametrically opposite to the static Prime Mover of the philosophical theological tradition, whether Christian or Maimonidean.

Chapter 4, “Created Being,” is even more philosophical than the foregoing, and examines the relationship between being and God. “The chapter argues that nonbeing is the necessary corollary of being and that nonbeing, expressed in action, is violence” (xxxv). It also considers the issues of being, non-being, and existence, and how these pertain to thought about and the reality of God.

Chapter 5, “Ethics and Jewish Existence,” considers the issue of the nature and purpose of law, especially God’s law. Again, philosophical theology is seen as concerned with generalities and overarching principles, while Judaism concerns itself with particulars. Here he also discusses how God’s specific-incident based law can be rightly applied to new circumstances in such a manner as to conform to the Lawgiver’s desires. The Jewish people and the reality of God are seen to be prior and other than principles and philosophy. The reality that is Israel partakes of the unassailable otherness of existence itself: “God appears in history as the God of Israel and there can therefore be no thought about God that is not also thought about Israel” (175).

Chapter 6, “The Unrealized,” speaks of the apocalyptic again, and contrasts a minimalist and a maximalist messianism. The former postulates a conservative and somewhat rigid and fearful continuity between the Torah Judaism of today and the eschaton, while the latter recognizes that in the nature of the case, the saving acts of God bring in unforeseen newness. He advocates for a Judaism open to the future, one that preserves the Jewish people, faithfully awaiting a surprising consummation.

For its scope, clarity, and brilliance, The Body of Faith stands alone, a tour de force that welcomes us into the mind and soul of a great man and profound thinker who, in Abraham and like Abraham, stands before God. Bold and courageous, he confronts comfortable assumptions, Jewish and Gentile, secular and religious. He challenges the Jewish world to live out the meaning of its corporeal election, and the Christian world to recognize that its supersessionism is not only inappropriate, but that any dismissal of the continuing election of Israel removes God from the world.

Wyschogrod’s language is unfailingly careful and precise. His voice is authoritative without self-aggrandizement. He comes across as a humble man, who, out of his service to the truth, has had to speak prophetically to communities that may not like what they hear. While some books must be reread because they are obscure, this one warrants rereading because Wyschogrod calls us to greater depth and breadth than we are accustomed to. The book merits a hadran: a final word which says, "hadran alach--we shall return to you." Like a classical Jewish text, this one warrants repeated, even perpetual study.