Charleston, West Virginia; Toronto and Chicago

Jesus and Christianity

In his memoirs, Can Faith Survive? Rabbi Eisendrath recalls the negative responses that he received from two addresses that he delivered on the topic of Jesus. The first was given at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto in 1934, and the second he delivered at a Biennial convention of Reform Jews in Chicago in 1963. Rabbi Eisendrath is particularly disheartened by the negative reaction to the latter address. He had hoped that in the more open society of 1960’s America, the era of Pope John XXIII and a revised Roman Catholic attitude towards Jews, Jews would be open to re-evaluating their attitudes towards Jesus.

"How long," Rabbi Eisendrath asked in his Biennial address,"before we can admit that [Jesus’s] influence was a beneficial one—not only to the pagans but to the Jews of his time as well, and that only those who later took his name in vain profaned his teaching?"

The rabbi goes on in his memoirs to encourage the teachings of Jesus in Religious Schools and synagogue services. "What conceivable objection could there be ... to including the majestic sentences of the Sermon on the Mount among the other post-Biblical readings in our synagogues?" Further, “... I would teach such moving stories and utterances [as the Good Samaritan] diligently unto our children along those of Moses and Hillel."

In fact, Rabbi Eisendrath’s fascination with Jesus goes back much further than 1963 or 1934. We have, in manuscript form, no fewer than seventeen sermons on Jesus and Christianity written between 1929 and 1931. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the topic was, for the rabbi, something of an obsession in his early rabbinate. Although with the coming of the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler, and the ensuing World War, Rabbi Eisendrath preached less about Jesus and Christianity, this obsession never really left him, as evidenced by his Biennial address and the chapter in Can Faith Survive?

It is perhaps not surprising that Rabbi Eisendrath would be so obsessed with Jesus and Christianity. The world he lived in was Christian. Canada in the 1920s and 30s was much more an identifiably Christian country than it is today. Jews who wanted to be successful in business and the professions had to break into a decidedly Christian environment. Reform Jews in Toronto were, in many cases, a generation ahead of their Orthodox coreligionists in this respect, and they were attempting to leave the world of their parents behind and make good in the wider Christian world, yet without abandoning their Jewish faith. It’s no accident that, in 1897, Holy Blossom built its new synagogue structure, not in the centre of Jewish Toronto, but close by several of the establishment churches of the day. It’s also no accident that, forty years later, Holy Blossom’s new building, which Rabbi Eisendrath urged upon the congregation, was among the most imposing houses of worship in the city.

Given the desire of his congregants to work (and, to some extent, socialize) in a Christian world, while at the same time retaining their Judaism, we can begin to understand the rabbi’s concern with Christianity. He wanted to demonstrate to Jews that the faith of their neighbours is rooted in their own, but at the same time, he wanted them to understand that the two faiths are distinct. He wanted them to be respectful of Christianity, but to remain Jews. Likewise, he wanted Christians to understand that Jesus came from a Jewish background that still held validity for Jews in the contemporary world.

The earliest sermons on Christianity among our collection were delivered in the United States, at Rabbi Eisendrath’s first congregation, Temple Israel in Charleston, West Virginia, a pulpit he held from the time of his ordination in 1927 until he came to Holy Blossom in 1929.

Three sermons, probably given on successive weeks in 1929, are worth looking at: "Is Judaism Superior to Christianity?" "Is Christianity Superior to Judaism?" and "Must Judaism and Christianity Be Surpassed by Humanism?" These sermons are a response to a series of sermons with slightly different titles given by John Haynes Holmes, minister of the Community Church in New York City in 1928. Rev. Holmes' sermons, we have recently discovered, were titled "Where Judaism is superior to Christianity", "Where Christianity is superior to Judaism" and "The religion superior to both Judaism and Christianity."

John Haynes Holmes

Rev. John Haynes Holmes
Because Rabbi Eisendrath refers frequently in his sermons (not only these three but many others over the years) and seems to have been influenced by Holmes’s views of both Christianity and Judaism, it is worth a moment to look at this man and his life’s work.

Born in 1879, John Haynes Holmes was a generation older than Maurice Eisendrath. He was ordained a Unitarian minister by Harvard Divinity School in 1904 (when Maurice Eisendrath was two years old). Like Rabbi Eisendrath, he was an ardent pacifist, especially during the First World War, a position that earned him opprobrium from other Unitarians, including former President William Howard Taft, at the time president of the Central Conference of Unitarians. Holmes was also a committed socialist, a position with which Rabbi Eisendrath would have sympathized, as he often inveighed against the evils of commerce and materialism.

Holmes was a co-founder of both the NAACP and the ACLU. In 1924, he debated Clarence Darrow on the topic of prohibition, taking the side in favor of the continuance of the practice in the United States. We have a copy of this debate from Rabbi Eisendrath’s personal library. (We don’t know the rabbi’s opinion on the subject, but we do know that Holy Blossom Temple was, except for the ceremonial use of wine, ‘dry’ until 1960, long after the rabbi had left.)

John Haynes Holmes was Minister of the Unitarian Church of the Messiah from 1907—1918, at which point he insisted that, as a condition of his remaining there, the church rename itself the Community Church of New York and become just that, ministering to anyone, Unitarian or not, who wished to join, and becoming “a living center for developing work outside the community.” Holmes remained as senior minister there until 1949.

Early in the twentieth century, Holmes worked closely with Rabbi Stephen S. Wise to clean up the civic life of Mayor Jimmy Walker’s New York City. Their friendship has been recorded in a book by Hermann Voss, Rabbi and Minister: The Friendship of Stephen S. Wise and John Haynes Holmes.

In a 1921 sermon, Holmes declared “The Greatest Man in the World” to be Mohandas Gandhi. In 1931, in a sermon in Toronto, Rabbi Eisendrath gave Gandhi the same honorific. In 1961, John Haynes Holmes and Maurice Eisendrath were jointly awarded the Gandhi Peace Prize for their efforts in promoting “Internal peace, universal socio-economic justice, [and] global environmental harmony.”

It will be interesting for us to explore, through a search of their respective archives, what meetings or communication existed between Holmes and Eisendrath before 1961. It’s clear that Rabbi Eisendrath was deeply influenced by the teaching and preaching of John Haynes Holmes.

John Haynes Holmes died in 1964, Maurice Eisendrath in 1974.

"Is Judaism Superior to Christianity?"

This was title of the first of Rabbi Eisdendrath's responses to Rev. Holmes.  Although the title appears on the handwritten manuscript, we do not know if it was ever used when the sermon was delivered.  Nevertheless, the difference between the titles of the two sermons is telling.  Rev. Holmes asserts that there are aspects of Judaism that are superior to Christianity; Rabbi Eisendrath puts his title in the form of a question, postponing any assertion to later in his address.

It’s clear that Rabbi Eisendrath had either been to the Community Church in New York City and heard Rev. Holmes preach or that he had read Holmes’s sermons. It’s remarkable that even a minster as liberal as John Haynes Holmes would, in 1929, deliver a lecture on the superiority of Judaism to Christianity. Of course, the minister’s subsequent sermons may have given a more nuanced view of the matter.

Rabbi Eisendrath begins his sermon with encomiums to Rev. Holmes, and then he goes on to say that any errors in Holmes's evaluation of Judaism is due to his confusion of Orthodox with Liberal Judaism. (This is a remarkable statement, and, in our view, an unnecessary put-down of Orthodoxy on the rabbi’s part.)

Rabbi Eisendrath then outlines the three arguments that Holmes gives for his conclusion that Judaism is superior to Christianity. (It would be more appropriate to say the three ways in which Judaism is superior to Christianity.)

1. Judaism is superior because of its emphasis on the moral law, as opposed to Christianity’s emphasis on theological belief. Conduct, in Holmes’s view, is more important than faith, law more important than creed.

2. Judaism is concerned with life in this world; Christianity is concerned with life beyond the grave. According to Holmes, a majority of Christians have little concern with anything except heaven and hell.

3. Judaism is about community; Christianity is about individual salvation. Holmes contrasts John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress with the Hebrew Bible. In Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian (a character in the story), at the counsel of Evangelist (another character), flees the doomed city to save his soul. In the Bible, Abraham argues with God to save the city of Sodom if there be but ten righteous men in the city. In defence of his emphasis on community, Holmes asserts, “... if this make us [the Community Church] more a synagogue than a church, I am not ashamed but proud.”

In responding to Holmes’s arguments, Rabbi Eisendrath emphasizes that, while Judaism may be superior to Christianity, Jews don’t always live up to its standards. Jews need to practice their faith. In the same way, liberal Christians will come to bring these [Jewish] truths to their Christian faith. Christianity, the rabbi reminds his audience, was Judaism, and Christianity is rediscovering Judaism.

Holmes, as Rabbi Eisendrath so often does, notes the progression from legalistic Judaism to the prophets. The rabbi quotes Holmes’s statement that it is “from the Jew that the moral idealism of the race has come and insofar as this idealism is central to the problem of human life upon the earth—I affirm that Judaism is superior to Christianity.”

Rabbi Eisendrath goes on to comment that “Christianity is a system of salvation for a future life. Remove this element from the texture of Christian faith you would have nothing left just as you would have nothing left in Judaism should you efface its vision of the day when the Lord will cause right and peace to spring forth before all the nations.”

The rabbi also notes other elements in Judaism “which Holmes had no time to consider”: the absence of original sin (a “pessimistic conviction”), faith in the future rather than the past, and the sense that the divine pervades all things. Once again, however, the rabbi stresses that it is Judaism, not Jews, in which these qualities reside. He castigates Jews who elevate ritual above the moral law.

Rabbi Eisendrath encourages Christians to rediscover their roots in Judaism, in the Old Testament (his term) and the prophets. He notes that the inscription on the wall of the Congressional Library is from Micah, not the New Testament: the injunction "to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God."

"Is Christianity Superior to Judaism?"

The second sermon in this series is again a response by Rabbi Eisendrath to a sermon given at The Community Church in New York by John Haynes Holmes. This sermon of the rabbi’s presents us archivists with some special problems. First, the handwriting in the manuscript is in places difficult to decipher. Second, the rabbi often uses incomplete words and short forms, and third, his sentences are often poorly constructed. It’s as if (and it may in fact have been the case) he were writing this manuscript for himself, to be finalized and typed at a later date.

The topic must have presented a conundrum for Rabbi Eisendrath. Although he regarded Jesus as among the pantheon of Jewish prophets, as a rabbi he could not agree with the proposition that Christianity is superior to Judaism; Rev. Holmes, maverick minister that he was, could so agree, even while arguing that Judaism is in some ways superior to Christianity. In fact, Rabbi Eisendrath announces at the outset of his sermon that he will take issue with John Haynes Holmes, even while acknowledging him as “the noblest exemplar of religion.”

Holmes sees Jesus as a paragon of human behavior, “the noblest personal embodiment of religious idealism the world has ever seen.” This characterization disappoints Rabbi Eisendrath. While he is prepared to say that Jesus was a great prophet, he is not prepared to say that he was the greatest prophet. Jesus may be the embodiment of religion for Christendom, but he cannot be that for Jews. (Nor, he adds, for India, for whom Buddha is that, or China, for whom Confucius is that. The rabbi’s understanding of eastern religions may be less than his insight into Judaism and Christianity.) However, Rabbi Eisendrath avers that Holmes is correct in saying that Jesus should be included among the prophets.

Rabbi Eisendrath also says that Homes is correct in his suggestion that Jesus was right in his ranking faith above ritual, but that Holmes is wrong in his interpretation of the principles of Judaism. That is to say, Holmes is right in his recognition of Jesus’s justified critique of Jewish practice but wrong in seeing this as a critique of Jewish principle. All of which, of course, is consistent with Rabbi Eisendrath’s conception of Reform Judaism as a religion that emphasizes principle over practice and ethics over ritual. Just which principles trump which practices he does not, at this point, elaborate on.

The rabbi goes on to say that whatever truths Jesus spoke, he was not the first to speak them. As illustration, he refers to Jesus's statement that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” [Matthew 5:27]. Rabbi Eisendrath says that this moral principle has precursors in Judaism. As proof, he includes paraphrases of the texts of Proverbs 23:7 and Jeremiah 31:31.

Holmes refers to the old canard (our word) of Christianity’s being the religion of love, whereas Judaism is the religion of law. Again, Rabbi Eisendrath refutes this characterization:
All hearts hunger after love and thirst for right and without minimizing or denying to Christianity its own ideals of love and mercy we firmly maintain that both before and after Christianity these ideals constituted an essential part of Judaism, flesh of its flesh, spirit of its spirit for the world Olam hesed yiboneh [Psalm 89:3], the world itself according to the Jew is founded in love, upon it rests the hope of all human happiness and peace.
Finally, Rabbi Eisendrath responds to Rev. Holmes’s charge that Christianity is a universal religion while Judaism belongs to a nation and a people. The rabbi declares (again in keeping with Reform ideas of the time) that Judaism is not overly particularistic, that there is a universal element to Judaism, especially of the liberal variety, namely that it is the duty of Jews, by practicing their religion, to raise the level of ethical behavior of all humanity.

Rabbi Eisendrath accuses Rev. Holmes of being inconsistent and self-contradictory, in as much as Holmes himself had by then divorced himself from mainstream Christianity and the [Unitarian] Universalist Church for being too particularistic and exclusionist. It’s difficult to know, says the rabbi, whether Holmes is being critical or admiring of Jews when he mentions their belonging to a nation or people.

Rabbi Eisendrath ends this sermon with some rather provocative ideas, first, that Jesus added to Judaism his own personality, and, more startlingly:
As Christians are going to the Old Testament we agree that Judaism should go forward into the New. As the history of Christendom is worthless without the history of the prophets, so the story of Judaism is incomplete without the story of the Nazarene. We are knit together we Jews and Christians whether we like it or not. Ours is one story, one tradition, one dream, one vision, one hope. Why not also, we ask with [Rev. Holmes], why not also one family, one fold?
"Must Judaism and Christianity Be Surpassed By Humanism?"

In his final sermon in his series, Rabbi Eisendrath, following John Haynes Holmes in his corresponding sermon, provides an outline of Humanism, which both men regard as the religion of tomorrow.

The religion of tomorrow, Holmes says, will be truly universal. Like the universe itself, it will be evolutionary, "an unfolding, enlarging, ever changing form of spiritual experience which will stop with no revelation or discoveries of the past but will move ever onward, with the unceasing progress of the race."

There is, Holmes says and Eisendrath agrees, no one-time Revelation of the Truth on Mount Sinai or in the person of Jesus. (Here Holmes, it appears from Rabbi Eisendrath's manuscript, quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson about Christianity dwelling “with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.” Indeed much of Holmes’s Humanism is Emersonian in content and tone, which is not surprising, given Holmes’s background in the Unitarian Church.)

According to Holmes, science must be the arbiter of truth as much as the Codes and Bible were such arbiters in the past. “Science is invincible,” Rabbi Eisendrath maintains, “and will yet conquer the last outposts and fortresses of irrational truth.”

Rabbi Eisendrath, like Rev. Holmes, does not believe in the truth’s being revealed once only to Moses on Mount Sinai. He says that even Moses and Jesus could not foresee the future as we know it today, and therefore their revelation would be inadequate to the task. Nor does the rabbi believe in a divine source of ritual practices. He places his faith in science. However, he is not prepared to give up on Judaism if it can meet the challenge of the time and evolve “truly in the present moment … preparing for a new and greater revelation yet to be.” (Note: It’s not clear whom the rabbi is quoting here. It could be Holmes.) Rabbi Eisendrath makes the same claim for Christianity, that it need not be surpassed by Humanism if it evolves and, importantly, that it not seek to convert others.

Rabbi Eisendrath uses the occasion to be critical of the Judaism that, to his mind, does not evolve, the Judaism (or the majority of its adherents) that wants to retreat into a self-enclosed community that would exclude “the hog-eating gentile.” He lambastes this narrow minded Judaism for its pilpul and mysticism. The rabbi avers that the prophets “vehemently repudiated the whole legal code.” (He is, we believe, on very shaky ground here. The prophets may have said that the ‘legal code’ had no value if its practitioners were lacking in moral and ethical practice. They did not anywhere suggest that the legal code, and ritual practice, had no authority over Jews or should not be adhered to.)

The rabbi maintains that both Judaism and Christianity have “within themselves the very seed which has helped to create the lovely tree which men are just beginning to behold.” He looks forward to “rediscovering the soul of our common prophets, including, of course, the preacher of Nazareth… .”

Rabbi Eisendrath concludes by saying that, if Christianity and Judaism remain fixed and static, then John Haynes Holmes’s Humanism is superior to both. However, if these two religions “slough off the false accretions and dead integuments” of the past, then they may yet have a viable future.

Rabbi Eisendrath liked to end his sermons with a poem. Here, he ends with a hymn by Edwin Henry Wilson from the hymnal of the Unitarian Universal Fellowship (not coincidental given his topic). As usual, he does not identify his poem’s source. The first stanza is:
Where is our holy church?
Where race and class unite
As equal persons in the search
For beauty, truth, and right.
What are we to make of these sermons? They were given very early in Rabbi Eisendrath’s career. He was only twenty-seven years old when he delivered them, and he had not yet made his move to Toronto and Holy Blossom Temple. It was also a period of great optimism in American life in the 1920s. The rabbi was clearly impressed by John Haynes Holmes and saw in him a kindred spirit. He was drawn to his vision of an evolutionary and universal religion, unencumbered by revelation or ritual. Like Holmes, he was attracted to Jesus as an exponent or prophet of such a religion, not as part of the divine or more than human.

But Maurice Eisendrath was also a rabbi, the spiritual leader of Jews, and as such he could not be entirely universal, even if he emphasized the universal within Judaism. Holmes’s Humanism appealed to hem, but he could not, in the end, as a Jew and a rabbi, fully embrace it.

These three sermons record the beginning of Rabbi Eisendrath’s encounter with Christianity and with Jesus. It was an encounter that would continue throughout his life.


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