Michael Wyschogrod and God’s First Love

by Kendall Soulen

Kendall Soulen teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 27, 2004 pp. 22-27. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


A major theme for Wyschogrod is that God’s election of Israel is based solely on God’s unalterable love and hence cannot be abrogated from the human side.

I first read Michael Wyschogrod when I was in graduate school. The experience was electrifying. As I sat in the library finishing his essay "Israel, the Church, and Election," I remember being overcome by an almost physical sense of discovery, as though I had bumped into a hitherto invisible rock. What I had just read was undoubtedly the most unapologetic statement of Jewish faith I had ever encountered. Yet instantly I knew that Wyschogrod had helped me to see something in Paul that his Christian commentators had not. It was the theological relevance of the distinction between gentile and Jew.

Of course, the distinction was not wholly unfamiliar to me; far from it. I was accustomed to writers who treated the distinction as a useful bit of historical, sociological or religious description. Above all, I was familiar with the traditional Christian view that held that since Christ’s coming the distinction between Jew and gentile had lost whatever theological significance it may once have had. This, after all, was Paul’s own view, at least according to his commentators.

But Wyschogrod treated the difference differently. For Wyschogrod, the distinction was the indelible mark of an irrevocable divine choice: God’s choice to enter history as the God of Israel. The distinction therefore mattered not only in the past, but also in the present and future. What is more, Wyschogrod treated the distinction as something that mattered not just to Jews, but also to Christians. He addressed Christians not merely as Christians but quite specifically as gentile Christians. With a shock of discovery, I realized that in this respect Wyschogrod was closer to Paul than were his Christian interpreters.

Born in Berlin in 1928, Wyschogrod emigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1939. He grew up in Brooklyn, where he received a Talmudic education at Orthodox Jewish schools. After studying at the City College of New York and Columbia University, he had a distinguished career as a professor of philosophy at several colleges in New York and at the University of Houston, a post he retired from in 2002.

Wyschogrod is best known for his book The Body of Faith, a comprehensive interpretation of Judaism. But over the years his primary mode of literary activity has been the short essay, of which he has published several score. Whatever the topic at hand, Wyschogrod’s thought orbits a single center of gravity: God’s free yet irrevocable love for the people Israel, and in connection with Israel, for the world as a whole.

A major theme for Wyschogrod is that God’s election of Israel is based solely on God’s unalterable love and hence cannot be abrogated from the human side. "Now it is the proclamation of biblical faith that God chose this people and loves it as no other, unto the end of time."

God did not choose Israel because it was superior in any way to other peoples; indeed, in some respects it may even possess slightly more negative characteristics than other groups. Nor is God’s election conditional upon Israel’s obedience to the commands that God imposes on Israel as the expression of God’s will for Israel’s conduct. God’s election brings with it God’s command and the threat of severe punishment should Israel fail to live up to its election. Yet in spite of the fact that the Jewish people have struggled endlessly against their election, with the most disastrous consequences for themselves and for the rest of humankind, the divine election remains unaffected because it is an unconditional one, based solely on God’s love. Ultimately, God’s anger is a passing phase that can only temporarily obscure God’s overwhelming love for Israel. Israel can be confident of its election and of God’s special love for it amid all the families of the earth.

But these affirmations lead to difficult questions. Why should God be a God of election at all? Why should God love one people as no other? Wyschogrod’s understanding of God’s freedom prohibits him from arguing that God had to be a God of election, since this could be shown only by submitting God to a higher principle of justice or rationality. Yet it is possible, as a way of expressing praise, to seek reasons for what God has done, in order to display God’s will as the basis for human gratitude.

Wyschogrod notes that it is common to distinguish between two kinds of love, agape and eros. Agape is charity in the purest sense, without superiority or condescension, while eros is sensual love, in which desire and jealousy are possible. The distinction corresponds to some degree to that between soul and body Agape is disinterested and impartial, without regard to persons, while eros is interested love, concerned with this person rather than that and desirous of the body of the other. Wyschogrod notes that God’s love for the human creature is usually said to resemble agape rather than eros. As agape, God’s love cannot exclude.

For Wyschogrod, this account of agape is doubly suspect. It is untrue to the human condition because it overlooks the fact that genuine human charity can be truly directed to particular persons only when it concerns itself with their particular identities.

What is more, this account of love is untrue to the character of God’s love as depicted by the Bible. It fails to see that the glory and dignity of the biblical God consists in God’s freedom to engage humanity in a human way. That is to say, God has chosen in favor of genuine encounter with the human creature in his or her individuality. For this reason, God’s love is not undifferentiated, having the same quality toward all God’s children. Precisely because God is so deeply concerned with human creation, God loves it with a differentiated love, and it comes about that there are those whom God loves especially, with whom, one can only say, God has fallen in love.

This is what has happened in God’s election of Abraham and his seed. God’s love for Abraham is more than an impartial, disinterested love, but includes an element of eros. God loves the descendants of Abraham above all the nations of the earth, and desires their response in return. That is why God reacts with wounded fury when rejected by Israel.

But this brings us back to our previous question with renewed force: What of those who are not elected? Wyschogrod admits that It is painful to recognize that one is not the specially chosen child. As a result of God’s joining the redemption of the world to Israel’s election, difficult roles have fallen to Jew and to gentile. All too frequently, both have acted their respective roles poorly.

Uncannily expert in the failings of the nations, often remembering only its faithfulness and rarely its unfaithfulness, turned inward by the hostility of the peoples among whom it lives, Israel tends to forget that its election is for service, that it is a sign of the infinite and unwarranted gift of God rather than any inherent superiority of the people.

Israel’s record is mixed, so is that of the nations. Instead of accepting Israel’s election with humility, [the nations] rail against it, mocking the God of the Jews, gleefully pointing out the shortcomings of the people he chose, and crucifying it whenever an opportunity presents itself. Israel’s presence is a constant reminder to them that they were not chosen but that this people was, and that this people remains in their midst as a thorn in the flesh. Minute by minute, the existence of Israel mocks the pagan gods, the divine beings who rise out of the consciousness of all peoples but which are gentile gods because they are deifications of humanity and the forces of nature rather than the true, living God of Abraham.

Israel and the nations each fall victim to characteristic distortions of their respective identities: Israel to vain pride in its own election, and the nations to envy of and rage at Israel. As a consequence, they place obstacles in the path of God’s plan to consummate creation through Israel’s election. Still, in the end, there is a limit to what human freedom can do. This limit consists in humanity’s inability to nullify God’s purpose: the election and redemption of Israel and through Israel of humankind as a whole.

Moreover, according to Wyschogrod, the most important consolation still remains. By allowing room for God’s freedom to fall in love with Abraham, the gentiles gain a heavenly Father who is also concretely concerned with them, and not just with humanity in the abstract. In the end, the uniqueness and unsubstitutability of God’s love for Israel turns out to be the guarantee of God’s fatherhood toward all persons, elect and nonelect.

The comprehensive character of God’s claim on Israel provides the necessary context for understanding Israel’s relationship to the land. Viewed apart from the reality of election, Israel’s connection to the land of Israel is largely incomprehensible.

Unlike that of other peoples and nations, Israel’s memory extends back to its entrance into the land: it remembers that the land was originally possessed by others. Moreover, Israel has repeatedly experienced expulsion from the land. It has therefore learned that its existence as God’s people is not dependent on dwelling in the land.

Yet for all of that, the land that God promised to Abraham’s descendants is an indispensable part of Israel’s life with God. Because God wills to have a people that is holy in every aspect of its existence, God provides a land in which it may dwell, so that even this most elementary dimension of human existence may be brought within the compass of relationship to God.

But this also means, in Wyschogrod’s view, that dangers of failure are especially great whenever the Jewish people inhabits the promised land.

The Divine Word is unmistakably clear concerning the Land of Israel. It is the soil which above all demands the faithfulness of the people of Israel to its election. Whenever the people of Israel have attempted to constitute a national life on this soil in disregard of its election, the soil has rejected them under the most catastrophic circumstances.

That Israel possesses a right to the land cannot be doubted by those who accept the reality and trustworthiness of the God whose Word is found in the scriptures. But whether that right is rightly exercised in a particular set of circumstances is far more difficult to say. Wyschogrod is therefore unwilling to claim divine warrant for the state of Israel or for specific territorial claims in the present day.

To tie the fate of Judaism to the fortunes of the state of Israel, for whose preservation and prosperity we all fervently pray, is simply unauthorized and therefore irresponsible. Along this path could lurk, God forbid, a catastrophe similar to those that was the fate of other messianic claims.

In the present circumstances, therefore, Wyschogrod holds that the deepest layer of Jewish messianism calls for an attitude that combines love of the land with love for all of its inhabitants, and therefore a practical posture that eschews violence.

I do not preach absolute nonviolence under all circumstances. But I preach a high degree of nonviolence, a hatred of violence, a love of the land combined with a high degree of nonviolence, a largely nonviolent Zionism, a messianic Judaism that keeps alive the living expectation of the Messiah but also the messianic repudiation of violence, a love of all human beings whether Jewish or non-Jewish, a willingness to wait and even temporarily yield territory if this will save us from bloodshed.

For Wyschogrod, theologically significant conversation between Jews and Christians is possible because both Christianity and Judaism acknowledge "a movement of God toward humankind as witnessed in scripture," a movement that engages humankind in God’s election of Israel. To be sure, the two communities understand this movement in ways that unmistakably diverge, at least at certain points. Yet the gulf that results is not so wide that understanding is impossible. Indeed, Wyschogrod holds that because the two traditions share certain common premises, it is possible for "each side to summon the other to a better understanding of its own tradition."

For Wyschogrod, Jewish-Christian relations concern something more important than "dialogue." They concern a common search for truth in light of the Word of God.

Two topics regularly recur in Wyschogrod’s discussions of Christianity: Christology and the church, especially the church’s relation to Mosaic law. Surprisingly enough, it is in the former that Wyschogrod perceives a certain crucial convergence between Judaism and Christianity.

To be sure, Wyschogrod makes clear that Christian claims on behalf of Jesus of Nazareth are problematic from the perspective of Jewish faith. The claim that Jesus was the Messiah is difficult for Jews to accept because Jesus did not perform a key messianic function: he did not usher in the messianic kingdom. More difficult by far, however, is the Christian claim that God was incarnate in Jesus. For a Jew to subscribe to this belief would mean a grave violation of the prohibition against idolatry.

Nevertheless, Wyschogrod does not think that Jews are entitled to dismiss the Christian claim about God’s incarnation in Jesus out of hand. To reject the incarnation on purportedly a priori grounds would be to impose external constraints on God’s freedom, a notion fundamentally foreign to Judaism. According to Wyschogrod, there is only one condition under which Israel would be entitled to reject the church’s claims about Jesus out of hand, and that is if these claims were to imply that God had repudiated God’s promises to Israel. For that is something that Israel can safely trust that God will never do, not because God is unable, but because God honors God’s promises.

The question, then, is whether the church’s Christology entails or implies the abrogation of God’s promises to Israel. Wyschogrod does not believe that this is necessarily the case. Indeed, Wyschogrod suggests that the doctrine of God’s incarnation could be understood as a kind of intensification of God’s covenant with Israel. Although the incarnation is not foreseeable on the basis of the Hebrew Bible, once the fact of the incarnation is assumed (as it is by Christians). it can be regarded as an extension of the Bible’s basic thrust.

The covenant between God and Israel . . . depicts a drawing together of God and Israel. . . . [I]n some sense it can also be said to involve a certain indwelling of God in the people of Israel whose status as a holy people may be said to derive from this indwelling. Understood in this sense, the divinity of Jesus is not radically different -- though perhaps more concentrated -- than the holiness of the Jewish people.

In contrast to Wyschogrod’s cautiously conciliatory tone with respect to the issue of Christology, he seems to view the church with a mixture of wonder and ambivalence. Here is a community of persons assembled from all the nations who are united not by common descent or language but by a common desire to worship the God of Abraham. What should Israel make of this astonishing phenomenon?

For Wyschogrod, it is evident that Israel should approach the church with hopeful respect.

The wonder is that nations not of the stock of Abraham have come within the orbit of the faith of Israel, experiencing humankind and history with Jewish categories deeply rooted in Jewish experience and sensibility. How can a Jewish theologian not perceive that something wonderful is at work here, something that must in some way be connected with the love of the God of Israel for all his children. Isaac as well as Ishmael, Jacob as well as Esau?

Ultimately, however, the question of whether Israel can see in the church a sign that is fundamentally congruent with God’s plan of salvation for the world depends upon the church’s attitude toward the Jewish people. Will the nations be content to receive God’s blessings if these are attached to God’s covenant with Israel? Or will they seek to do away with the beloved child in order to usurp the favored place in the Parent’s affection?

Unfortunately, on this point the phenomenon of the church threatens to turn from a reflection of God’s promise to another dark token of the nations’ rage at and envy of Israel. Traditionally, the church has not understood itself in terms of its relation to God’s ongoing covenant with the Jewish people. Instead it has proclaimed itself to be the true Israel, comprising the faithful of all nations, in relation to which the old carnal Israel existed as a temporary foreshadowing.

For Wyschogrod, the acid test of Christian supersessionism -- the belief that the church has replaced Israel as the bearer of God’s election -- appears in the church’s conduct toward Jews in its own midst. i.e., toward Jews who are baptized. It is precisely at this point that the church demonstrates in an ultimate way whether it understands itself in terms of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. If the church acknowledges the permanence and centrality of Israel’s election as central to its own identity, it will expect baptized Jews to continue to affirm their Jewish identity and continue to observe Torah. But if the church truly believes that it has fundamentally superseded God’s covenant with Israel, it will prohibit baptized Jews from obeying Torah and maintaining a distinct identity within the church.

In sum, Wyschogrod believes that the problem of supersessionism turns on the church’s capacity to understand its own identity in terms of the abiding religious significance of the distinction between Jew and gentile. On this crucial issue Wyschogrod carefully distinguishes between what he believes was the church’s original view and what later became its standard position.

Originally, Wyschogrod argues, Christians envisioned a fellowship with two branches, the Jewish and the gentile (cf. Acts 15). They had in common their faith in Jesus, but differed in that Jews remained under the commandments of the Torah while gentiles were bound only by the Noachian laws. This understanding of Christian existence still presupposed the reality of God’s covenant with the stock of Abraham while adding to this the belief that in Jesus of Nazareth the blessings of the covenant had begun to accrue to the gentiles as gentiles, i.e., apart from circumcision and observance of the Torah. Through faith in Christ, gentiles became not Jews but associate members of Israel’s covenant.

Gradually, however, this view of the church was replaced by a very different one. According to this second view, Christ’s coming meant that the difference between Jews and gentiles has been erased. As a consequence, the practice of the Torah was formally forbidden among baptized Jews, and baptized Jews typically lost their Jewish identity within two or three generations. This shift in practice, together with the judgment that it reflects regarding the significance of the corporeal body of Israel, is the heart and soul of supersessionism.

Since the church did not insist that Jews retain their identity even in the church, it can be inferred that the church seriously holds that its election supersedes that of the old Israel.

The church’s posture demonstrates its belief that God’s relation to the world no longer entails God’s covenant with the Jewish people. Now the church views itself as the true spiritual community that was the goal of God’s purpose all along.

That Wyschogrod would seem to argue in favor of Torah observance among baptized Jews might strike some as quite incredible. It presupposes a level of concern for the Jewish Christian and for the church’s theological integrity that might appear quixotic -- to put it mildly -- in light of the historic relation of Judaism and Christianity. Yet the position flows quite inevitably from Wyschogrod’s first principles -- above all, from his understanding of Jewish identity as participation in the family of God’s irrevocable election. Writing early in his career on the case of "Brother Daniel," a Jewish convert to Christianity who sought to immigrate to Israel under the Israeli law of return, Wyschogrod explained:

I would like to be understood well. I have no intention of minimizing the seriousness of apostasy, which is a break with a legacy of martyrdom that every Jew carries in his flesh. But I am not prepared to write any Jew off, whether he wears a gray flannel suit or a cassock. The God Who found Jonah in the belly of the fish and Who dwells with Israel in the midst of their impurity can find Brother Daniel on the slopes of the Carmel and bring him back, on the wings of eagles, to the Jewish fraternity.

The question that Wyschogrod presses time and again is whether on this particular point the proper Jewish understanding is not the proper Christian understanding as well. To be sure, of the two views identified above regarding the church’s posture toward Jewish followers of Jesus, it is the second that has determined the church’s practice for most of its history -- a development that Wyschogrod regrets. The basis of what eventually became the church’s dominant self-understanding, he believes, is the redefinition of God’s true covenant in terms of an exclusively spiritual relation between God and the faithful.

The church declares that what matters is not one’s corporeal identity as either Jew or gentile, but One’s inward spiritual identity as one who believes. In this way, the church separates membership in the church, the New Israel. from membership in a natural human family, and thereby makes the covenant open and accessible to persons from every nation. But it does so at the cost of discarding the bond that joins God’s covenant to the natural seed of Abraham, thereby casting off the carnal anchor joining God to creation.

At this point, Wyschogrod believes, Judaism can no longer meet the church’s teaching with firm but respectful dissent, as it could its christological claims. By claiming to be God’s new people, the church directly assaults the trustworthiness of God’s promise to Israel and the world. From the Jewish point of view, the church’s claim is one more example of the nations’ protest against the election of the stock of Abraham, which Israel must repudiate as a rebellion against God’s word.