Friday, 20 May 2016

The Call of Philosemitism

Following Apostolic Teaching

We have just finished reading an interesting volume on the Jewish Question--about the place and position of Jewish people upon the earth.  In the West, anti-semitism is making a "comeback" it would seem.  This is taking place, in part because of the influence of Islam in general and the attitudes and activities of  some Islamic refugees in Europe, on the one hand, and because of the recent tendency of the Left sympathetically to embrace Islam, and Islam's prejudices.  Anti-semitism is one such.

How refreshing it has been, then, to read Gertrude Himmelfarb's The People of the Book: Philosemitism in England, From Cromwell to Churchill (London: Encounter Books, 2011). The historical, gradual re-acceptance of Jewish people into the United Kingdom is fascinating in part because of the cast of actors involved over a three hundred year period, from Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans onward.  This cast begins with Cromwell, of course, who was staunchly philosemitic (that is, a lover of the Jewish people).  The Jews had been expelled from England: Cromwell began the reversal of that position.  But it also includes luminaries such as philosopher, John Locke, scientist, Isaac Newton, and notables such as Edmund Burke, William Macaulay, author and politician, Benjamin Disraeli, Gladstone and Winston Churchill, as well as literary figures such as Walter Scott, George Eliot and Charles Dickens.

This political and literary tradition, coupled with the attempt by Hitler to exorcise the Jewish people from the human race and the reaction that was part of World War II has left the English speaking world largely philosemitic--at least up to our generation, when things have begun to change.

Himmelfarb documents the connection between a love of the Old Testament amongst Christians--one of the great consequences of the Reformation--and a sense of kinship and respect for the Jewish people that was one of its fruits, particularly in England.  Puritan scholarship with respect to the Old Testament, to the Hebrew language, and to traditional rabbinic teaching was legendary.  Out of it came an abiding theme of philosemitism that flowed through to the wider culture of learning, the arts, and politics.  It did not win Jewish people full civil and political rights immediately--but the leaven was at work, and in the end the "revolution" was bloodless and a consequence of the "natural acceptance" of higher and deeper truths.  It represents a particular high water mark of Christian civilisation.

With the attenuation and decline of the Christian faith in the English speaking world--already well under way by the end of the nineteenth century, and gathering pace throughout the twentieth, it was inevitable that the Jewish Question would arise again.  And so it has come to pass.
 In this light, it is worthwhile to reiterate what was obvious to many of our forebears: namely, that the Christian faith is profoundly and necessarily philosemitic.  The classic biblical passage is the three chapters of Romans 9-11.

The Apostle Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, opens the discussion by declaring his undying love for his countrymen.  As Gentile Christians, we are bound to follow his example.
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed for ever. Amen. [Romans 9:1-5]
Secondly, he declares that Israel had enjoyed sovereign election by Almighty God--not because Abraham and his descendants were worthy of God's grace--the contrary was more the case--but because God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy, and He hardens whomever He will.

Thirdly, he states that despite the hardness towards Christ that has come over the Jewish people, this was so that the good news of salvation would go to us, the Gentiles. Underneath it all, God has a deeper purpose, and that includes and involves the ongoing election of Israel: in time they will be fully included into the Church of Christ, the Messiah of both Jews and Gentiles.

The Gentiles, he says, are the equivalent of a wild branch that has been grafted into the olive tree.  The Jewish branch had been cut off, so that the wild one could be grafted on--but God will graft the natural branches (the Jewish people) back into the olive tree in due course.

The end result of all this is that the Christian Church is to be, must be, profoundly philosemitic.  If it fails in this bounden obligation, it risks having its own parts and branches cut off.
But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant towards the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity towards those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. [Romans 11: 17-23]
In what appears to be an increasingly antisemitic climate in the West, we Christians are going to have to put on the garb of the earnest philosemite once again.  It will be both our privilege and duty so to do.

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