Myodicy, Issue 18, May 2003

The Court of the Gentiles:
A Place for Harvey Cox

by Theodore Plantinga

Relations between Christians and Jews have long been clouded by the specter of anti-Semitism. Sad to say, anti-Semitism is nothing new: in one form or another, it has been around for many centuries. What kept it going for so long? Some scholars associate anti-Semitism fairly closely with what is called "theological anti-Judaism." The suggestion is that the Christian rejection of the fundamental tenets of what we now call Judaism either amounts to a form of anti-Semitism or has helped to pave the way for it.

And so the notion that the Jews deserve ill treatment and should never be shown respect has been with us in the Christian camp for many centuries. Since the Second World War and the horrible events of the Holocaust, a great many Christians have been shamed into a better attitude toward the Jews. But what sort of attitude? Presumably, a positive one. But what might that mean in turn? Are we to be kind to the Jews? What is involved in being kind?

Many Christians would say that the best way to love and welcome the Jews is to invite them into our fellowship -- to ask them to join our churches, which would, in some sense, involve asking them to them affirm that Jesus Christ of Nazareth is the long-promised Messiah. But such an affirmation is out of the question for a great many Jews.

For quite some time, there have been suggestions that Judaism and Christianity should simply recognize one another as legitimate religious traditions. If this were done, they would then set aside any thought of attracting people from the one tradition to the other, just as two Christian churches representing separate denominations and housed in buildings facing one another on opposite sides of the street do not seek to convert one another's members, even though membership transfers are not refused either. The great Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) comes to mind as a proponent of such thinking. Because he died before the Second World War, Rosenzweig did not have his understanding of Jewish-Christian relations colored by the specter of the Holocaust. And so his writings manifest a remarkably positive attitude toward Christianity.

But among more recent Jewish thinkers, we often encounter a pronounced hostility toward any suggestion that Christians might seek to convert Jews and bring them into the Christian fellowship. And then there are some Jews who characterize themselves as "messianic," by which they mean that they have formed fellowships of believers in which Christ is indeed worshipped but in which some Jewish rites are also continued, such as the Passover.

By and large, Jewish thinkers are do not look upon such developments with favor. One Jewish thinker who shakes his head sadly is Emil Fackenheim, who has said the following about "messianic" development: "`Jews-for-Jesus' ... combines the uncombinable: unless its members propose in perpetuity to marry only other Jews-for-Jesus, their distant offspring may conceivably be for Jesus, but they will not be Jews." [NOTE 1]

Many Christian thinkers seem to have the same attitude. They maintain that we ought to repent of our previous desire to convert the Jews. One thinker who comes to mind is Gregory Baum, who has written: "After Auschwitz the Christian churches no longer wish to convert the Jews. While they may not be sure of the theological grounds that dispense them from this mission, the churches have become aware that asking the Jews to become Christians is a spiritual way of blotting them out of existence and thus only reinforces the effects of the Holocaust. ... The major churches have come to repudiate mission to the Jews, even if they have not justified this by adequate doctrinal explanations." [NOTE 2]

Note carefully the choice of words here. Baum speaks of "reinforcing the effects of the Holocaust" and of "blocking the Jews out of existence." To do such a thing, of course, would be to give Hitler and his henchmen something to cheer about. And this has been a matter of concern especially to Fackenheim, who has propounded his famous 614th commandment in an effort to head off any such possibility. Fackenheim formulates this commandment as follows: "... the authentic Jew of today is forbidden to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous victory." [NOTE 3]

Fackenheim comments on his own new commandment and explains it as follows:

"... we are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, second, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler's victory at Auschwitz, would be to hand him yet other, posthumous victories." [NOTE 4]

A Christian theologian who often takes an unusual approach to issues of theology and religious thought is Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School. Cox describes himself as a Baptist, but he also mentions Quaker roots for his spirituality, and some of his ancestry is Quaker. In various books written over the years he has shown himself to be remarkably open-minded, not just in terms of considering ideas from other traditions, but also in terms of trying out some of the practices and rites of those other traditions. His book Turning East (1970) comes to mind.

In a recent book Cox makes a contribution to the question of Jewish-Christian relations, but there is a unique personal angle to what he has to say. It has to do with marriage: after a first marriage that produced three children, Cox married a second time. By that point his three children were grown up and out of the house. His second wife was Jewish. Cox and his second wife then produced a son. Would the son be raised as Jewish or Christian? Cox reasoned that since Jewish identity flows through the mother rather than the father, the son of a Jewish mother should be considered Jewish and should be raised as such. So this is what he and his wife decided to do.

How would one implement such a decision? In Cox's case, it involved participating in Jewish worship in the synagogue. This did not mean that he was converted to Judaism or underwent circumcision. He continued to regard himself as a Baptist, and because he is a theology professor, his religious self-identification was not a trivial issue. Yet he participated in many Jewish rites, came to understand and appreciate them more deeply, and decided to tell the world about them. He did so by writing a very engaging book entitled Common Prayers. [NOTE 5]

Much of the book consists of a tour of the major festivals on the Jewish religious calendar. Cox explains the significance of those festivals and makes a number of interesting connections with Christian ideas and presuppositions. Even a person reasonably well versed in Judaism would be likely to learn new things from his account of these festivals.

But running through his "tour" is a personal story -- the story of his involvement with his second wife. He reports: "Like the gentile woman Ruth's famous words, `Whither thou goest, I will go,' I have faithfully journeyed with my Jewish partner, and I have become, insofar as I could, part of her people. [NOTE 6] He also made it a point to journey with his son. Part of the story, of course, is the boy's Bar Mitzvah.

But the element in the story that is of greatest interest for me in terms of Jewish-Christian relations is the suggestion on Cox's part that the Jewish tradition has long meant to leave room for the Gentile. It did so by providing what he calls "the Court of the Gentiles." Now, this phrase will ring a bell with informed readers, for there was a court of the Gentiles in the temple of the Old Testament. He explains:

In keeping with the vision of their prophets, the builders of the ancient temple in Jerusalem designed it to be a house of prayer for all peoples. There was an inner area where only Jews were admitted. Here stood the Holy of Holies, which only the high priest was permitted to enter, and that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. There was also a section explicitly named "the Court of the Gentiles." Throughout the ancient world, many gentiles worshipped with Jews without ever converting to Judaism. The Jews welcomed them as "God-fearers," and their presence in the Temple reflected the age-old Jewish hope that one day all nations and peoples, including "strangers and sojourners," would join in praise of the One who created them all. [NOTE 7]
That temple, of course, was subsequently destroyed, rebuilt, and then destroyed again, but the ideas it embodied still continue to animate Jewish traditions and practices. Cox looks upon the notion of a court of the gentiles as a unique opening or opportunity for someone in his position -- an opening to participate in some of the rituals of Judaism and to benefit from them while accompanying his son in his journey to religious adulthood. The knowledge that there had once been an actual "Court of the Gentiles helped him interpret what he was experiencing as neither an insider nor an outsider. He explains: "... as a Christian, I experience Judaism from the perspective of a kind of metaphorical Court of the Gentiles, not as a complete outsider, but not as a full insider either." [NOTE 8]

Many Christians will find Cox's practice odd. Wouldn't he eventually become dissatisfied and want to be all the way in or all the way out? Cox reports no such dissatisfaction but assures us instead: "After 2000 years of history and my fifteen years of marriage to a Jewish wife, I'm still in the Court of the Gentiles. I still like it here. I have no intention of trying to enter the inner courtyard, where only male Jews are permitted. But I also have no inclination, having trod on the holy ground, to leave and go somewhere else." [NOTE 9]

The question we are left with as we ponder Cox's journey is whether Christian congregations should somehow reciprocate by welcoming Jews in a manner akin to how Cox was received in his wife's synagogue. Should we make place for the Jew who insists on remaining a Jew in terms of his religious self-identification but who may, for whatever reasons of his own, wish to be with us or to join us for some of our worship and rituals? Many Christians have never considered such a question before. Cox points out: "There is no Court of the Jews in the various temples of the gentile faiths. Muslims come closest to having one. They define Jews, along with themselves and Christians, as `people of the Book.' But Christianity has no such category." [NOTE 10]

Many Christians would be inclined to answer: we do not need a Court of the Jews, for we make room for the Jew in our worship services. And they would quickly add: we hope that any visiting Jew who attend our services will be converted to Christianity. Of course Cox and Rosenzweig and Baum and various others would dissent and say that there needs to be room for the Jew to be genuinely welcomed among Christians without being made to feel that he is thereby taking a step down the road leading to a switch in allegiance, with the result that his prior religious self-identification will eventually be negated. The apostle Paul understood something of this tension.

So the question remains: what might such a court of the Jews look like? What would we be asking our churches and worship communities to do in terms of welcoming Jews? Must all visitors be evangelized in some overt manner? Or are we content to welcome sojourners in our midst, assigning them a distinct place at our festivals, and leaving the outcome in God's hands? Remember that the sojourner was to enjoy sabbath rest along with God's people, thereby tasting of shalom (see Exodus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 5:14). Cox has given us something to think about. [END]


Fackenheim. To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought (New York: Schocken Books, 1982; republished in 1989 with the subtitle Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought ), p. 283.

In Eva Fleischer, ed., Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1977) p. 113.

The Jewish Return into History: Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and a New Jerusalem (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), p. 22.

Jewish Return, pp. 23-4.

Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian's Journey Through the Jewish Year (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001).

Common Prayers, p. 276.

Common Prayers, p. 1.

Common Prayers, p. 3.

Common Prayers, p. 271.

Common Prayers, p. 273.

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