Responding to David Burrell's latest book is an honor. The author writes with the experience of someone who has studied each of the three faiths he discusses but also, and just as importantly, has enjoyed and appreciated what Louis Massignon called “sacred hospitality” that practitioners of each religion offer.1 One of the lessons he conveys is that interfaith discussion “can be a lifelong project” (p. 7). So rather than a complete review of the book's entire content, I hope to respond appropriately to its message.

Interfaith exploration often involves the important task of recognizing similarities between one's own religion and that of the other participants. With this in mind, one of the unusual observations that Burrell makes is that discussions of those issues that are not common to interlocutors are ultimately the most fruitful. On Burrell's account, then, the purpose of interfaith discussion is moved on. Dialogue is a way to reach out but can also become a means of introspection and, through the challenges posed by other participants, a demand to self-examination and soul-searching. Burrell's call to involve specifically Christian doctrines in interfaith exchanges has the obvious consequence of helping those who do not share them to understand the differences. It has the less obvious consequence of helping Christians to understand better their own faiths, and this is one of the paths that Burrell advocates. A good example is the doctrine of the Trinity, which was formulated in order to express responses to particular questions. Burrell notes that those very same questions are raised during interfaith conversations by outsiders trying to grasp the doctrine's meaning (p. 170). Christians can use such questions to help them clarify their own understandings.

While Christian theologians can benefit from being challenged by outsiders to clarify their claims, it may not seem so obvious that Jewish theologians would benefit from discussing Christian doctrines. However, I think that honest engagement with Christian theology can push Jewish thinkers to understand their own beliefs more clearly, as well as to learn about Christianity. I would like to suggest one way in which considering the doctrine of the incarnation of God in Jesus might be beneficial for Jewish theologians. Perhaps no other idea is more difficult for Jews to appraise, and Burrell acknowledges this by including it in the final chapter of the book, which deals with “outstanding neuralgic issues”. He writes that “both Jews and Muslims more readily balk at the incarnation than at trinitarian teaching, since the Word's becoming human represents a direct broaching of ‘the distinction’ between creator and creatures.”2

Despite unpromising beginnings, I think that belief in the incarnation is one of those differences that could prove fruitful for Jews to explore. Many Jews assume that it is challenged by the belief that God is absolutely transcendent. If God is not one of the created things, how can God be Jesus, who is a created human? In the harsh words of one medieval polemicist, if “he has a brain in his skull” a Christian would accept that the creator cannot possibly be “enclosed in the recesses of the womb, and imprisoned in the darkness of the belly, and like a fetus that does not see light. This doctrine is one shameful to utter, to listen to it is sacrilegious, and God forbid that I sin with my tongue by even mentioning this doctrine with the opening of my mouth, or by saying these things brazenly in the face of heaven concerning the creator.”3 If God cannot be in a place then God cannot be born as a human being. The proclamation “God is a man” seems nothing short of idolatry, identifying the creator with something created, and Christians could be branded “the worshippers of Jesus” as opposed to worshippers of God.4 These comments seem extreme, and perhaps those in Judah Halevi's Kuzari are a better indication of the preconceptions that many hold. The Book of the Kuzari was written in the eleventh century and has been popular ever since. By adopting the form of a dialogue, Halevi establishes a literary device that allows him to use an unbiased seeker to question scholars of each of the Abrahamic religions, and a generic “philosopher”, on a supposedly level playing field. The Christian is given short shrift, as the specifically Christian beliefs “leave no room for reasoning, but reasoning is distanced by most of these statements.”5

Most observant Jews today would shy away from such strong condemnation, but traces of these sentiments often remain, and many believe that Christian doctrine compromises God's transcendence: God is in heaven, so therefore not on earth. There may even be practical consequences. Jewish law prohibits entering idolatrous places of worship. Because of perceived idolatrous connotations, many Orthodox Jews today consider entering a church forbidden, though this should probably be ascribed to an opposition to icons as well as to doctrine.6 The incarnation is one of the major reasons. As Burrell notes, “a crucified Messiah can only be a scandal to Jews,” (p. 176) and a crucified God would be even worse. In contrast, there are no widespread laws forbidding entering a mosque on the basis that it might be a place of idolatrous worship.7

Given the doctrine's complexity, perhaps misunderstandings are understandable. Burrell observes that “it is certainly remarkable that it took the fledgling Christian movement four centuries to respond to its central faith question concerning Jesus: who and what is he?” (p. 9). This observation may be intended to warn Christians off facile interpretations, but it also serves to warn Jews that the question ought not to be dismissed immediately, as if it had not been thought through. After all, as with the Trinity, those criticisms that Jewish polemicists emphasized were raised by Christians too.8 Burrell asks, “must claims like these, usually appropriated by Aquinas from the riches of his tradition, be deemed idolatrous? The only answer must be ‘no’, if they are rigorously interpreted (as Thomas does) along the lines developed by Robert Sokolowski as ‘the distinction’.”9

The “distinction” between God and the world follows from the doctrine of creation, which is a question about which the medievals held a virtual discussion across religious boundaries.10 “In the paradigmatic case of free creation of the universe, we find them actually beholden to one another to elaborate this central teaching” (p. xii). Moreover, Burrell explains that “every other topic will return to the way one attempts to articulate the ineffable relation between creatures and creator,” (p. 14) so even doctrinal differences between the religions can rest on a common base, belief in creation. As creator of everything, God is not a part of the created order. “God is not one of those things”, (p. 16) all of which are created. This has consequences for how to conceptualize transcendence and, if it is necessary background for all doctrines, how we are to understand those beliefs that are not shared, such as the incarnation. And if a shared view is the basis of doctrines that are particular to Christianity, those doctrines ought to be as intelligible to Jews as to Christians, although Jews might not accept them. Engaging Burrell's work, and the incarnation, therefore challenges the polemical statements above, and could force theologians into a more nuanced understanding of God's transcendence. It is not my place to address the readership of this journal with comments about the incarnation, but I believe a few words will be fitting in order to make the point.

One of the major influences on Burrell's book is the great rabbi Moses Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, whose presence is felt in most branches of Judaism since the twelfth century. It is helpful to consider his “celebrated treatment of divine attributes” (p. 116) in order to explain how transcendence can be the assumed backdrop for the incarnation. Maimonides’ negative theology became known to the Christian world after Aquinas respectfully disagreed with some of the details.11 When explaining that there can be no reciprocal relation between God and creation, Maimonides instructs his readers to compare different kinds of created things.12 “One does not say that this red is more intense than this green or less or equally so, though both fall under the same genus, namely, color.” Red and green can be compared and distinguished as colors, but not by properties that are specific only to one of them. The intensity of color would be a property of the red or of the green, rather than of the genus color, so there is no common background against which to compare and contrast the properties. Another example that Maimonides gives clarifies the point further. “It is impossible to represent to oneself that a relation subsists between the intellect and color although, according to our school, both of them are comprised by the same ‘existence’.” Although both the intellect and color exist, they are different kinds of things so they cannot be compared easily. They can be compared as existing things but not as instances of quantities, qualities, or any other category by which we understand what existing beings are. “How, then, can there be a relation between him and one of his created things, given the great disparity in the reality of existence than which there is no larger disparity?” Ultimately, God cannot be compared to any created thing in any respect at all, since God and creation do not even share the same kind of existence. God cannot be likened to anything since God is absolutely transcendent.

Maimonides’ motivation was to secure “the distinction” and avoid lapsing into idolatry. If his ultimate assertion that only silence is appropriate seems drastic, that is because he tried to emphasize that God is not among the created beings. Christian thinkers cannot stop there but, if they are to account for the incarnation, must also accommodate God's involvement in the world.13 The incarnation forces them to articulate how God cannot be differentiated from creation in the same way as created things are differentiated from one another with an urgency that Maimonides would not feel, since he had no need to identify God with a created thing.

Another side of “the distinction” is that it becomes impossible to distinguish God from anything created in the way that created things are distinguished from one another. To distinguish God so absolutely from anything in the world entails distinguishing God from the kinds of distinctions that enable us to tell created things apart. To return to Maimonides’ examples, it is easy to tell a bright red apart from a dull red, and to explain how they differ, because they are very closely related. Red and green can also be differentiated from one another as colors, and they would be in different places, although they are not as closely related and therefore cannot be distinguished in the same way. It is more difficult to explain how the heat in pepper differs from the intellect because the relationship between the two is more distant, one of existence, although they do clearly differ. All created things differ, in Maimonides’ terms, even though they share the “genus,” so to speak, of existence. They can be compared to a degree, and also differentiated to a degree, because they all exist. However, the more they differ in kind, the more difficult it is to establish a relationship between them and, equally, the more difficult it becomes to differentiate the two. Any distinction between identifiable beings requires a prior likeness against which they can be distinguished. But if God is truly transcendent, there is no likeness between God and any being, and God is not identifiable. Therefore, God cannot be distinguished from created beings.

In the context of the incarnation, one could argue that while the space occupied by one human could not be occupied by another human, and the first would therefore exclude the second because they are both space-occupying beings, a human cannot be said to exclude God from a particular space because God does not occupy space. Aquinas, for example, argued that the distinction between God and creation renders the incarnation possible because of, rather than despite, God's transcendence. He then makes some logical distinctions that allow him to say that “God died on the cross”. Briefly, he distinguishes between the meanings that words have when used of concrete individuals and the meanings the same words have when used of generalities. Certain statements can be said of God in reference to Jesus, but without thereby compromising God's transcendence. So God does not die, if what is meant is that God's nature dies; the assertion is that God qua Jesus dies. These claims depend on being able to say that “Jesus is God” and that “Jesus is man” are both entirely true, which, in turn, depends on the view that God's transcendence escapes all created categories and limitations. So only with true transcendence can there be an incarnation, and only then can Aquinas make the move that allows him to predicate human attributes of Jesus qua human, and divine attributes qua God. Only because of God's transcendence can the two be held not to displace one another in the way that created things do.

Jews would probably remain uncomfortable with the idea of God's death, but Aquinas’ logical distinctions, and an insistence on God's absolute transcendence, allow him to explain the creed in a way that avoids criticisms made on the basis of God's unity. However intolerable it may be to say that “Jesus was God”, Jews can nevertheless recognize that the statement does not necessarily compromise God's transcendence, once they have been forced to think it through adequately. Indeed, if God is truly transcendent, God cannot be easily distinguished from Jesus without a lapse into the idolatry that Maimonides wanted to avoid, and that Christianity is sometimes accused of. For Jews too, then, considering the moves that Christians have had to make in order to account for the incarnation can lead to a more refined understanding of transcendence and, perhaps, of idolatry. Of course, it must also be stressed that a Jew would still not have a reason to affirm the proposition that “a man was God”. Even if one is to agree that the doctrine is neither incoherent nor idolatrous, it might still be false. A believing Jew could deny its veracity since she does not accept the authority of the Church or of the Greek Bible.14

To finish this essay, I ought to discuss the question of power, with which Burrell opens and closes the book: “Allowing a revelation to be harnessed to the service of power always betrays the tradition itself” (p. xv). An urge for power within a community can manifest itself in attempts to make a particular interpretation of the tradition dominant, and Burrell opposes this impulse. In his discussion of Maimonides’ major philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed, Burrell draws heavily on José Faur. Faur stresses the way in which Maimonides wrote his Guide to be a guide, a book which would accompany the reader through his or her learning. It is not merely a book to be read and understood in isolation, but a work to be meditated on and connected to the living Jewish tradition. Reading the Guide as if it were a regular philosophical book intent on communicating true doctrine would miss the point and distort its meaning. Burrell writes, “following the pedagogical dialectic of the Guide, there is no way of inferring Maimonides’ ‘true view;’ that would be like asking Socrates what he really thinks! Yet if Socrates were to tell us what he ‘really thinks,’ we would be inclined to accept his opinion of things, when his goal—like the Rambam's—is to spur us on to think it out ourselves” (p. 117). So the tradition cannot simply be handed on to a passive recipient, and the authorities cannot impose their version on others. Instead, “there seems to be no single path, though a path will open for each” (p. 114).

Faur's comments are aimed at the authorities that try to impose their brand of hierarchical Judaism on the community as a whole, but Burrell also alerts us to another kind of power relationship, that between different faith communities. This is a crucial and sensitive issue in Jewish-Christian dialogue.15 Burrell warns against the temptation to present religions as forms of successive revelations. Such impressions are easily given, even when not intended.16 To avoid that outcome, Burrell states that the “inquiry will proceed diachronically to show how each tradition, as it develops, displays features cognate to the other,” and he is thereby able to overcome a major concern of many Jewish participants in dialogue with Christianity, and of those who refuse to partake at all. The history of relations between Christians and Jews will inevitably influence future discussions. In the epilog, Burrell cautions once more against the corrupting potential lust for power poses to religion. These questions of power are important to Jewish theologians as well, as Halevi was acutely aware.17 Passivity and meekness may be virtues, but for much of Jewish history they have been enforced. Burrell outlines challenges facing each religion if they are to curb negative aspects that arise from the “collusion with power” (p. xv). For Jews, that challenge includes taking power without misusing it.

Far more than what is touched on here could and should be said about Burrell's new book, and about his wider project. I have tried to explain a way in which I have found the approach he advocates to be both enlightening about beliefs of another religion and also helpful for understanding my own. There are other interpretations of the incarnation, and there will be other ways for Jews to engage with it. My own comments here stem in part from opportunities to engage with people who show the openness and sensitivity to relations between Christians and others that this important book and its author embody.

  1. 1

    Louis Massignon, Testimonies and Reflections: Essays of Louis Massignon, selected and introduced by Herbert Mason (Notre Dame: IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989), p. 35.

  2. 2

    David B. Burrell, CSC, “Trinity in Judaism and Islam,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity, edited by Peter C. Phan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 344362; at p. 354.

  3. 3

    Jacob B. Reuben, “The Wars of the Lord” (Milḥamot ha-Shem), quoted in Daniel Lasker, Jewish Philosophical Polemics Against Christianity in the Middle Ages (Oxford; and Portland, OR: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2007), pp. 111112.

  4. 4

    E.g., “The Old Book of Polemics” (Sefer Niṣṣaḥon Vetus), quoted and translated in Hanne Trautner-Kromann, Shield and Sword: Jewish Polemics against Christianity and the Christians in France and Spain from 1100–1500 (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1993), p. 107. Different answers have been given by Jewish legal authorities to the question whether Christianity is idolatrous. See Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit, Idolatry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 210.

  5. 5

    There is an English translation by Nissan Daniel Korobkin of the medieval Hebrew translation: The Kuzari: In Defense of the Despised Faith (Northvale, NJ: J. Aronson, 1998), p. 9.

  6. 6

    A short recent responsum on the topic appeared in the Jewish Chronicle on 22 August 2008.

  7. 7

    A prominent exception is the ruling of Nissim of Gerona who, in his commentary on Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 61b, states that the practice of prostration is a form of idolatrous worship. However, the passage is not included in the earliest printed edition, published in 1509 and reproduced in Halachot of R. Yitzhak Alfasi (Jerusalem: Makor Publishing Ltd., 1973). In commenting on ‘Avoda Zara 25a he states clearly that Muslims are not idolators, a sentence that is somewhat garbled in the later versions.

  8. 8

    Witness, for example, Anselm's “Why God Became Man” for similar comments to those quoted above. Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, edited by Brian Davies and G.R. Evans (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 268.

  9. 9

    David B. Burrell, “A Philosophical Foray into Difference and Dialogue: Avital Wohlman on Maimonides and Aquinas,” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 76, no. 1 (2002), pp. 181194; at pp. 213–214.

  10. 10

    For further see Burrell's Freedom and Creation in Three Traditions (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1993).

  11. 11

    Some of the history is traced in Burrell, Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992).

  12. 12

    The best current English translation is by Shlomo Pines, The Guide of the Perplexed (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1963). Quotations here are taken from part one chapter fifty two.

  13. 13

    I take this expression from Herbert McCabe, “The Involvement of God,” in God Matters (London: Continuum, 1987), pp. 3951.

  14. 14

    I do not presume to speak about Jews who believe that Jesus was God, examples of which are Messianic Jews. For more on this movement, also known as “Jews for Jesus”, see Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Messianic Judaism (London: Cassell, 2000).

  15. 15

    The great American Rabbi, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, wanted to limit the involvement of Christian doctrine in Jewish-Christian dialogue, insisting that such an encounter requires total equality between interlocutors. See “Confrontation,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, Vol. 6, no. 2 (Spring-Summer, 1964), pp. 528 at p. 21.

  16. 16

    Note the extreme response of Eliezer Berkowitz, an important rabbi and theologian of the twentieth century, to the post-Nostra Aetate Christian desire to engage in dialogue: “All we want of Christians is that they keep their hands off us and our children!” “Judaism in the Post-Christian Era,” in F. E. Talmage (ed.), Disputation and Dialogue: Readings in the Jewish-Christian Encounter (New York: KTAV Publishing house, 1975): 293. His words remain a reminder about ongoing challenges and Jewish sensibilities. See Edward Kessler, “Changing Landscapes: Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations Today,” Melilah 2010.

  17. 17

    Judah Halevi, The Kuzari: 51. For a contemporary Jewish discussion, see Irving Greenberg, “The Ethics of Jewish Power” in Elliot N. Dorff and Louis E. Newman (eds.) Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality: A Reader (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 404.