Losing a Great Theologian

One of the greatest Jewish theologians of our era passed away on December 17, 2015. Michael Wyschogrod was born in Berlin in 1928, and immigrated to the United States when he was around ten years old, escaping the Holocaust “by the skin of his teeth,” as he once described it.

Wyschogrod is a popular name among Jewish and Christian scholars, Jewish-Christian relations scholars, and especially Messianic Jewish scholars. Even though he was a Modern Orthodox Jew, he had strong relationships with theologians of other faith traditions. He gained their respect and they gained his. There was a mutual interest in learning and uncovering the most important spiritual principles of faith. Wyschogrod was influenced by some of his Christian counterparts, and he influenced many of them strongly and positively in regard to the continuing election of Israel.

Some of Wyschogrod’s most important works are Body of Faith and Abraham’s Promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations, among others. Wyschogrod is known for stressing the absolute and irrevocable election of the natural, physical descendants of Israel. He speaks of God’s complete love for Abraham, saying that God was so in love with Abraham that he in turn deeply loved his descendants Isaac, Jacob, and the rest of the Jewish people. He speaks of God indwelling “among or alongside” the Jewish people. Wyschogrod strongly adheres to and promotes this election, clarifying that it was an “election of a biological, instead of an idealogical, people,” and he expresses the understanding that the covenant is with the carnal, rather than the spiritual, seed of Abraham.

Does this love and election for Israel negate any feelings that God has for the nations? Certainly not. Wyschogrod is not placing Jewish election as a superior status to that of Gentiles, rather as a calling and a task to which a Jew must aspire. In addition, it is a calling from which a Jew cannot shrink back. Since this election is carnal in nature, stemming from the Jews’ literal and physical descent from Abraham, they cannot divorce themselves from the calling. They may ignore it, but the calling remains. However, according to Wyschogrod, HaShem’s love for the nations also stems from his love for Abraham, because he also loves Ishmael and Esau.

God also loves the other nations of the world who do not have any physical tie to Abraham. He loves them through Israel’s election. This may sound strange—that Israel would be the conduit of God’s love for all humanity—but it is precisely what we say in Messianic Judaism, the difference being that HaShem’s love is personified in ideal Israel, i.e., the Messiah.

Wyschogrod and Messianic Jews

Wyschogrod had good relationships with Messianic Jews. Some of our prominent Jewish thinkers in the movement were in dialogue with him, and he considered some of them to be friends and formidable colleagues. Of course, he would occasionally tell these Messianic Jews that they would be better off by abandoning their faith in Yeshua, but he agreed that these Jews remained Jews and should continue living as such. After all, they can do nothing to erase their election.

I had the opportunity on a few occasions to meet with Michael Wyschogrod a few years ago. He was the student of the illustrious rabbi, the father of Modern Orthodox Judaism, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and word had gone out that I was in the process of translating a work by one of Soloveitchik’s great uncles, Rabbi Eliyahu Tzvi Soloveitchik. This provided an opportunity for us to meet, and having my translation printed and bound, I drove my car from Long Island, NY to his senior living residence in the Bronx.

I’ll never forget the first time I went. He and I sat in his small, cozy, overly heated living room discussing theology. He was so kind, so sweet, and I remember feeling honored that he would even speak with me at such great length since I was just a young woman of twenty-three or twenty-four years. I told him as much, and that I greatly respected his work and learned much about my own theology from his writings.

To this day his words have stayed with me: “If you said Jesus was a prophet, Judaism could accept that; if you said Jesus was the son of God, Judaism could accept that; even if you said Jesus was the Messiah, Judaism could accept that; but when you say ‘Jesus is God,’ that raises red flags.” He said this in a most tender and accepting manner, and it gave me an opportunity, young as I was, to explain my nuanced theology of the deity or divine nature of Messiah, drawing on various rabbinic sources. I felt quite inadequate to debate theology with him, but he thanked me for the clarification, said he understood what I was trying to convey, and we moved on. Afterward, we went downstairs to the tiny synagogue within his senior living home and we prayed minchah ma’ariv. I spoke more about this in an FFOZ blog a few years ago entitled “Respecting the Mechitzah.”

We have just lost one of the greatest Jewish theologians of our time. His theology was clarifying and his approach gracious. He sought to teach others and he sought to learn from others. I don’t know that I have met a man who was so brilliant and yet so humble and so concerned with finding and revealing truth than Michael Wyschogrod. A great man has fallen in Israel. Baruch Dayan Emet.

Source: First Fruits of Zion