Beyond Supersessionism: Paul Tillich on Judaism

Susannah Heschel Reviews Robert Meditz

Image result for Robert Meditz. The Dialectic of the Holy: Paul Tillich’s Idea of Judaism within the History of Religion. Berlin: DeGruyter.
Robert Meditz. The Dialectic of the Holy: Paul Tillich’s Idea of Judaism within the History of Religion. Berlin: DeGruyter. pp 208. $140.

After reading this excellent study of Paul Tillich, based on the author’s doctoral dissertation, I realized that the canon of Protestant views of Judaism needs revision: Tillich, in Meditz’s presentation, was an innovative analyst of Judaism and of Christian anti-Judaism. Why his views have been neglected is curious; thanks to Meditz, Tillich deserves thoughtful reconsideration. His emphasis on “prophetism” as the key to Judaism and Christianity is striking, as is Tillich’s early statements regarding Christian responsibility for the Holocaust. At the same time, as Meditz shows, Tillich continues to articulate positions regarding Jews that are troubling and even offensive. Moreover, Tillich, who emigrated from Germany in 1933, made postwar statements about the German Protestant church’s response to Hitler that are false and misleading.

What were Tillich’s views of Judaism? The question bears many implications. As one of the most widely read liberal Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, Tillich’s views might be compared to others of his era – the anti-Judaism of Adolf von Harnack has been thoroughly analyzed, for instance – and given his personal circumstances (he was 47 years old when emigrated from Nazi Germany), his views take on political connotations. The precise reasons for his emigration remain a bit cloudy, but it is clear that his 1933 publication, The Socialist, placed him in danger of losing his professorship and possibly his life. Trying to gain a foothold on the question of Tillich’s understanding of Judaism and of antisemitism is not easy; his published words on both topics appear as sidelines of his major theological writings, and they were published in circumstances that might raise eyebrows.

What turned Tillich away from the conventional supersessionism of German Protestantism? Meditz offers several possibilities, all highly plausible: Tillich’s involvement in the Kairos Circle, which included Jewish members; his interest in the Frankfurt School of critical theory, which had many Jewish intellectuals and scholars; his turn to socialism and away from church politics, especially after WWI; and, perhaps most interesting, Tillich’s engagement with the Hebrew prophets as the biblical figures central in shaping his theological views. For Tillich to have embraced the Hebrew prophets is striking because German Protestants, both Bible scholars (such as Gunkel, Duhm, and Hölscher) and liberal intellectuals (such as Troeltsch), had denigrated the prophets; Troeltsch described them as rural figures with a naïve message. However, Tillich did not shed classic anti-Jewish motifs altogether; Meditz notes Tillich’s early conviction that Judaism is partially responsible for the emergence of capitalism, an old canard with suspicious implications.

In turning to the biblical prophets, especially Amos, as the key to understanding Judaism, Tillich sounds more like an American than a German theologian. No doubt he was influenced by his socialist convictions and by his association with the Institut für Sozialforschung (IFS); Meditz notes, for example, that Tillich served on the Habilitation commission for Theodor Adorno’s dissertation on Kierkegaard. Through that association, Tillich came to incorporate terms such as “anxiety” and “insecurity” in his theological writings, moving theological anthropology beyond the often-naïve views of the Social Gospel movement.

Meditz is thorough in his examination of Tillich, providing helpful summaries of his major writings on Judaism, and restraining himself – perhaps a bit too often – from critical commentary. For example, Meditz quotes a speech given by Tillich on November 21, 1938, at a rally in Madison Square Garden, held in response to the Nazi Reich pogrom less than two weeks earlier that set fire to nearly all the synagogues in Germany: “the struggle for the eradication of Judaism […] [is] a struggle to eradicate Christianity.” Was Tillich arousing support for Jews or attacking the German Protestant movement to Nazify Christianity? This question is pursued effectively in the book, and Meditz is careful to demonstrate Tillich’s strong opposition to the so-called pro-Nazi “German Christian Movement” within the Protestant church. Yet Tillich seems to have backed away from his opposition in his 1952 lectures in Berlin, in which he claimed that the Christian churches were initially “bewildered” at Hitler’s antisemitism, and likewise he did not make a “decision against National Socialism” on the basis of prophetic Judaism in order to “guard the church from sinking back into a national religion, that is, to paganism.” A significant percentage of Protestant pastors, bishops, and theology professors were neither “bewildered” nor opposed to National Socialism; the German Christian Movement was at the forefront of racial antisemitism and welcomed the Nazi regime enthusiastically. Did Tillich truly believe this nonsense or was he trying to curry favor with the postwar church? Meditz does not speculate.

Those comments were delivered by Tillich as part of a series of lectures on “The Jewish Question” that he delivered in the summer of 1952 in Berlin to the Deutsche Hochschule für Politik. These were the only lectures Tillich gave in Berlin after WWII that were not well-received, Meditz writes, and while he doesn’t supply a reason, it was a moment when German theologians had not yet considered the responsibility of Christian anti-Judaism in creating racial antisemitism.

Sometimes Tillich amazes and disappoints with the same claim. While promoting Judaism’s prophetic spirit of justice and equality in a way that is rare among German Protestants, he claims that “the average Jew […] never measures up to the prophetic ideal,” let alone the Jewish people in its entirety. Elsewhere, however, Tillich gives a clear and strong analysis of the structural reasons for Christianity’s denigration of Judaism, both in antiquity and as a consequence of the Protestant Reformation. When he turns to modern antisemitism, however, Tillich’s analysis is infused with concepts influenced by the IFS. He writes that antisemitism is a projection: “The anti-Semite […] is terrified by the mirror which the Jews holds before him,” namely, the prophetic tradition. For Tillich to have put forth that claim in The Socialist Decision, published in 1933, is interesting, but to repeat it after the Holocaust turns German murder into a kind of narcissism that seems inappropriate.

Elsewhere, Tillich repeats old themes – for instance, that Judaism failed to transcend its nationalism, even though its own Hebrew prophets demanded a renunciation of the “idolatry of religious nationalism.” Yet, Meditz argues, Tillich deserves credit for departing from other Christian theologians who deny Jews their prophetic history. Moreover, he credits the Reformation with attempting to restore the prophetic tradition to Christianity, an argument also made by some nineteenth century German Jewish thinkers. Indeed, Tillich sounds a bit like Hermann Cohen when he writes, “The Protestant principle is the prophetic principle […] there exists a close relationship between Protestantism and Judaism.” Luther’s own expectation that the Jews would join his movement precisely because he had revived prophecy was disappointed.

Tillich’s views are presented thoroughly and extensively by Meditz, who has done us a great service with his study. While the book at times reads a bit too much like a doctoral dissertation, resting on summaries rather than analyses, Meditz whets our appetites for further consideration of Tillich. His presentation of Tillich’s views of Gnosticism, for example, and his use of the time-space problem in relation to his discussion of Christianity and Judaism, as well as Tillich’s dissertation on Schelling, are intriguing and will surely lead to additional research. The incorporation of insights from the ISF into Tillich’s theological writings is yet another element that suggests we take Tillich more seriously. This book does a great service to scholarship of the present and the future.

Ultimately, Tillich’s emphasis on the prophetic traditions of Judaism make him sound far closer to Jewish self-understanding than other German Protestants of his era. Had history moved in a different direction in 1933, a remarkable conversation between Tillich and Jewish theologians might have emerged. Meditz leaves us wondering if that conversation might have become one of the great moments of Christian-Jewish understanding. At the very least, thanks to Meditz, Tillich should now be viewed as a major step in the right direction.

Susannah Heschel is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. Her scholarship focuses on Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of biblical scholarship, and the history of antisemitism. Her numerous publications include Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (University of Chicago Press), which won a National Jewish Book Award, and The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (Princeton University Press). She has also taught at Southern Methodist University and Case Western Reserve University.