Joseph Weiler interviewed in NCR

Weiler is the Orthodox Jewish attorney who recently defended the displaying of crosses before the European Court of Human Rights. See my prior blog post on the trial. It is a great interview. In a forthcoming book, he claims that Jews did indeed put Jesus to death as a false prophet based on Deut 13, thereby showed their loyalty to their covenant. Jews should take responsibility but not guilt for the crucifixion. I more then leery about the entire approach, and do not like the social implications at all, but I will wait to read the book. As noted in the comments at the source, it seems his Orthodoxy allows him to speak entirely from a religious perspective and not be concerned about the contingencies of history- specifically those Jews killed as Christ -killers. Here are some selections:

Tackling taboos on Jews and Christians, the cross and deicide
By John L Allen Jr Created Jan 21, 2011
Fascinating characters have always populated the landscape of Jewish-Catholic relations, but even in that milieu it’s tough to find a more intriguing personality these days than Joseph Weiler. A South-African born legal scholar and the son of a Latvian rabbi, Weiler is considered a leading expert on European constitutional law. From his perch at the NYU Law School, of all places, he edits the ultra-prestigious European Journal of International Law, and it would be easier to list the elite European universities from which he doesn’t hold honorary doctorates.

We’re talking about a deeply faithful Orthodox Jew, the father of a large Jewish family in the Bronx which keeps kosher and strictly observes the Sabbath. Yet in 2003, Weiler published the best-selling book A Christian Europe, pleading for the European Union to embrace its Christian heritage. Sporting a kippah, Weiler also recently stood before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights to defend Italy’s right to display the crucifix in public school classrooms. He took the case pro bono — arguing that forcing Italy to take down the cross would be a blow not against Christianity, but against pluralism.

In a forthcoming book on the trial, he’ll try to persuade fellow Jews that their efforts over 2,000 years to reject the charge of deicide have been misplaced. In a sense that Weiler carefully unpacks, he says “the Jews” did indeed put Jesus to death, and they were doing exactly what the Lord expected. (His aim is to offer a reading of the trial that renders both Jewish and Christian responses consistent with Scripture — a project, he readily admits, destined to stir fierce reactions on both sides.)

* * *
In November 2009, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the display of crucifixes in Italian classrooms violates religious freedom,

When the original decision came out, I was shocked by the weakness and the perfunctory nature of the reasoning. I wrote an editorial in the European Journal of International Law, saying that no matter what position you take on the outcome, it’s an embarrassing decision. I was also contemptuous of the way the Italian government argued the case. They claimed that the cross is not a religious symbol, it’s a national symbol. Apart from being dishonest, that was bad strategy, because it was very easy for the chamber to say it’s obviously a religious symbol.

My editorial made the rounds. When Italy decided to go to the Grand Chamber, a group of other states decided to join the case. I was invited to a meeting in Strasbourg where they discussed strategy. They asked if I would represent them, and to their surprise, I said I would as long as I did it pro-bono. I did not want anybody to say that this Jew will defend the cross, will do anything, just for money.

What was your pitch?
I said that one should go on the attack, arguing that removing the cross is actually illiberal. Allowing the cross is the liberal position, the pluralist position, because Europe has both a France and a Britain. France is an officially secular state, but in Britain the national anthem is “God Save the Queen” and the Queen is the head of the Church of England. Every picture of the Queen in a British classroom is both a national and a religious symbol.

What reaction have you received from the Jewish world?
I got an enormous amount of hate mail. I’ve had very harsh reactions, especially from the European Jewish community in Italy, France, Germany and elsewhere. How can the son of a “Lithuanian rabbi” do this? Very often they’ll say, you don’t know what the real church is like, let me tell you this story and that story. At bottom, the question was, ‘How can an observant Jew defend the cross?’
You don’t understand yourself to be defending Christianity but defending pluralism?

That’s it. In my book A Christian Europe, I said that if the preamble to the European constitution had only made reference to the Christian roots of Europe, and not to the traditions of Athens and the French Revolution, I would have written in defense of the latter. People have asked me a million times how a practicing Jew can defend a reference to Christian roots in the European constitution, and I’ve said that I’m not a practicing Jew in this context. I’m a practicing constitutionalist. I’m a practicing pluralist.

Speaking of the burden of the past, your new book is on the trial of Jesus. What point do you want to make?
I want to make three points. My first thesis is that the trial of Jesus has not been appreciated sufficiently as the bedrock of Western sensibilities about justice.

In the Biblical story, Jesus is defined as the most abject enemy of society. He’s the Osama bin Laden, the enemy who threatens the entire nation. Yet at the same time he’s the Son of God, he’s divinity. He is put on trial, and into our collective consciousness is written the imperative: ‘Nobody is so abject that he doesn’t deserve a trial, and nobody is so exalted that he can be excused from a trial.’

There’s a second element. For generations, people have protested the injustice of the trial.
Rule number two, therefore, is that the trial has to be fair. We don’t accept kangaroo trials, we don’t accept perjury, and we don’t accept tampering with witnesses.

What’s the second thesis?
In my research I discovered there’s actually no theology of the trial, and that’s the heart of the matter.
For the Christian narrative to work, Jesus has to die blameless, innocent, the Paschal lamb. If we were writing the story ourselves, as opposed to something we receive from God, it actually would be much better if Caiaphas had just sent somebody in the middle of the night to stick a spear into Jesus. He could still have been buried, resurrected, etc., but there would be no question about his innocence and blamelessness. He would be the perfect martyr. So you really have to ask: Why a trial?

I believe Deuteronomy chapter 13, verses 1-5, is the key.
It’s an extraordinarily strange thing. The first verse says, ‘This is my law. You will not add to it and you will not detract from it, forever.’ Then it says that if one day a prophet or a dreamer should come to you giving ‘signs and wonders’ … that’s code in scripture for somebody sent by God. So, if a prophet giving signs and wonders comes along and says to stray away from God, not to follow his law, you have to know that I’m testing you. This is the theologically baffling part: I am putting you to the test, and you must resist. Even though it’s a prophet, even though it’s signs and wonders which means it comes from God, you must put this man to death.

From a legal point of view, it’s a remarkable thing. God ties his hands to the mast. He says this is a law forever, and puts in place a device that will stop even Him from changing the law. (That does not compromise his omnipotence, because otherwise he would not be able to make an eternal promise). My thesis is that Jesus is the person referred to in Deuteronomy.

He is the one sent by God working signs and wonders, whom the Jews were supposed to kill?
There’s a deep theological challenge which Christianity really has not faced. If Jesus has to die innocently, someone has to kill him unjustly. This is very disturbing if you take the Bible seriously. It should offend the reader, because it means that for God to realize his design it depends on somebody going against God’s will.

In the trial, God achieves two things in one stroke. It’s a trial of the Jews, to remind the Jews that they have their covenant and their salvation lies in it. It’s also a trial of Jesus, in which he dies innocently because in that way he expiates the sins of everybody else. His death is the way of redemption for the world. At the end of the day, according to this vision, everybody is following the path of God.

For Christians, the difficult theological position is this: They have to accept that the covenant with the Jews endures to the end of days. John Paul II once said whimsically that God does not make covenants in vain. This means accepting that the Jews have their covenant, apart from the message of Christ.

What’s the third thesis?
Why the shift of responsibility from the cross to the trial? That’s what the culture has done. It’s shifted the responsibility for the death of Jesus away from an execution by the Romans to a finding of guilt by the Jews. The reason in my view is not directly deicide. It is the steadfast rejection of Christ by the Jews, before and after the Crucifixion. It’s not easy to condemn a people who faithfully stick to a covenant whom God himself proclaimed as eternal, so deicide comes in handy.
I’ve studied Nostra Aetate [the Vatican II document on relations with Judaism] very, very carefully.

Basically it says that not everyone at the time of Jesus, and certainly nobody ever after, was complicit in what the Jewish leadership did. Therefore, because we don’t believe in collective punishment and collective guilt, “the Jews” should not be held responsible. The startling thing is that by absolving the Jews, [the bishops] were also absolving themselves. They also say, in the very same statement, that despite the fact we have held the Jews responsible for 2,000 years, and because of that so many Jews were put on the stake … hey guys, there’s no collective guilt, no collective responsibility, so don’t blame us either.

That is one reason why I believe that John Paul II was one of the most impressive moral persons of our epoch. He never took that position. He said, ‘I’ve got something to say I’m sorry for.’ Not personally, of course … the man saved Jews during the Second World War. There are moving, moving stories. But representing the church, he said I’m not going to just rely on ‘no collective responsibility.’ There is something here to apologize for.

In the book, I say that as a Jew I don’t want to be “absolved” either. We have to differentiate between guilt and responsibility. I want to be able to say, yes, we Jews put Christ to death, because that’s what the Lord required us to do.

I can imagine a Jew saying: We spent 2,000 years trying to escape the charge of deicide, and here you are embracing it.
A good Christian-Jewish dialogue should not involve one side having to deny its core identity, which for Jews is the eternal covenant — Chukat Olam. I would say, if you just open the Talmud to the Sanhedrin tractate, it’s clear. Jesus came along and we put him to death, as we were required to do. The Romans are not even mentioned. The only difference between the Talmud and me is that they said Jesus was guilty of incitement, which is a reference to Deuteronomy 13, verse six onwards. That tractate is written at a time when the Talmud is the enemy of the church, and they don’t want to give Jesus the dignity of being a prophet sent by God.

Do you expect to get more criticism from Christians or from Jews?

I will get it the most from that segment of the observant Jewish community where anything positive you have to say about Christianity is somehow anathema. Make no mistake — I am no ‘Jews for Christ.’ I abhor that. But even as an observant Jew, it is not for me to exclude any possible plan the Holy One, Blessed Be He, may have had for the rest of the nations.
I think Christians will be either dismissive or will take it very, very seriously… I beg the reader of this interview to wait for the full text — it is nuanced, careful, and respectful.
Read the Rest Here

8 responses to “Joseph Weiler interviewed in NCR

  1. It’s a fascinating interview.

    It seems that he hinges his argument of Jesus being rightly convicted as a false prophet based on the phrase “o-tote u’mofe-sim” being code words for “sent by God” (i.e., a true prophet of God). And then he cites the Baal Ha-Turim as a source supporting that conclusion.

    I thought that the existence of prophecy in Israel concluded with the Anshei K’nesset Ha-g’dola (the Great Assembly) around the time of Ezra (around 500 BCE), after the end of the Babylonian exile.

    Does anyone have any more insight into Weiler’s reasoning?

    Does anyone have the supporting citation from the Baal Ha-Turim?

  2. This sounds like something Rabbi Klapper once wrote in Beit Yitzchak many years ago.

  3. I thought that the existence of prophecy in Israel concluded with the Anshei K’nesset Ha-g’dola
    Len- There is a detailed introduction on later prophecy and halakhah in R. Margaliot, She’elot u-Teshuvot min ha-Shamayim (1957); Ta Shema, On Shut Min Hashamayim, Tarbitz 57 (1988). Rav Kook discusses shut min hashamayim in his halakhic work. From other perspectives, see Heschel, Heavenly Torah, Moshe Idel has some articles about medieval Jewish prophets and Yuval Cherlow in his Torat E”Y has in the followers of Rav Kook. These articles have the sources.

    chakira- do you have the source?

    • Chakira, This shiur isn’t about prophecy after the last of the biblical prophets. It’s about dealing with error in halakhic decisions and za-kein mamrei.
      How do you see it as being relevant?

      Alan: When I hear ‘Shu”t min ha-shamayim”, I associate to cases of Bat Kol, as in “tanoor shel akhnai”. Is there something in your sources about prophecy past the time of the last biblical prophets?

      • The articles of Margaliot, Ta Shema and Heschel deal with the entire spectrum. They set the rubric and agenda as broad.

      • I just meant that both sides are doing two irreconcilable things and both a religious truths or imperatives. Its just the same kind of game. Sorry if it does not address the deeper issues of Weiler’s exegesis.

  4. btw does the Kierkegaardian love of paradox married to radical textualism actually appeal to anyone (who is not employed by First Things)?

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