Jewish Journal

Conversations with a Pharisee and a Christian

by Brad A. Greenberg

October 17, 2007 | 5:29 pm

In 1964, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “I am ready to go to Auschwitz any time, if faced with the alternative of conversion or death.” The prominent Jewish theologian was protesting a reference to the future conversion of the Jews in a Vatican II working document on Catholic-Jewish relations. Both The New York Times and Time magazine picked up on Heschel’s letter, which alienated many of his Christian friends.

That was 1964. This is 2007. Jews still find the subject of conversion extremely painful. For them it is, as Heschel said, tantamount to annihilation. Christian hopes for conversion can be a deal breaker in interfaith friendships.

Yet a few Christians and Jews have found a way to be friends despite this Christian hope (Romans 11:25ff). Among them are R. T. Kendall and Rabbi David Rosen. In their book, The Christian and the Pharisee (Warner Faith), they model a warm friendship as they “debate the road to heaven.”

This is from Christianity Today. What follows is a sampling of the interview CT editor in chief David Neff did with the two.

In your first meeting, it was your different understandings of Pharisee that sparked conversation. What understanding do you each now want Christians to associate with the word?

Rosen: My hope would be that Christians would associate Pharisee with a good Jew, one who lives in the sense of the divine presence and seeks to fulfill the divine Word and will in his or her daily life. But I think we’ve got too many centuries of negative indoctrination.

Kendall: So one of the major reasons you had for writing the book was to make Pharisees look a lot better?

Rosen: It was to take away the unfair stigma. The argument between Jesus and some of the Pharisees is a legitimate family dispute. This is like when the ancient prophets condemn the children of Israel. They talk about the bad behavior, but they don’t disassociate themselves from Israel. They see themselves as part of it.

So I believe that Jesus was a Pharisee who knew that there were wonderful Pharisees around, probably the majority, but there were some who were actually desecrating the name, the message, and the tradition they were meant to be the custodians of.

Kendall: When we started the book—don’t laugh—I wondered if he was a secret believer. I mean, his spirit is so great. I thought, You certainly do make Pharisees look a lot better. But then, halfway through the book, when you stopped debating Scripture and started putting forward the rabbinic authorities instead, I said, “Ah, you’re somewhat like the Pharisees after all.”

Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You make the Word of God null and void through your traditions.” And they only quote the authorities; they didn’t want to quote Scripture.

Rosen: I think that Jesus would have understood—as all Jews would have understood—that it is not possible to understand all of the biblical text totally literally. Interpretation is necessary.

As you wrote this book, both of you remained firm in your own traditions. Why is it important in inter-religious dialogue for people to be rock solid in their beliefs?

Rosen: I believe that a real dialogue is most authentic when people are deeply committed to their faith. To say that my truth is my truth does not mean that my truth is the only truth, but it is truth.

Kendall: I don’t see this as only dialogue. I had one sincere desire, and that was to present the gospel to David with the love I feel for him so that the Holy Spirit would arrest him like Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus.

Who knows whether God can use a man like this to precipitate the lifting of the blindness described in Romans 11. I know that’s grandiose, but I thought what if, somehow, God got to this wonderful, learned, world-famous man. Of course, I annoyed him a bit along the way, though we stayed friends.

Rosen: Our motives were different. For me, dialogue doesn’t mean, as some people suggest, any kind of relativism. And it certainly doesn’t mean any weakness in one’s own tradition. Communication is a value in and of itself. But I want R. T. to be a good Christian. I don’t want him to change. I just want him to let me be a good Jew and to be satisfied that that’s my way to God and that God is very happy with me living the way I live.


Many Jews have a deeply negative view of Jesus’ followers. What would it take to rehabilitate that view for Jews?

Rosen: That rehabilitation has started to take place. Within the Catholic church, that happened with the Second Vatican Council and Nostra Aetate. After the visit of the Pope to Israel in the year 2000, for the first time Jews really began to understand that there is a change. What would it take? The answer is very simple for a Christian.

Kendall: And that is?

Rosen: And that is love. The more love Christians show Jews, the more they will be able to overcome the tragedies of the abuse of the past in their name.

But that’s very difficult for someone like R. T. to be able to do effectively, because even though he is genuine about demonstrating love on our personal level—I genuinely feel it—from a collective point of view as a religion, if he’s relating to me as someone who’s going to burn in hell, then I can’t really see that as genuine love toward my people and my faith.

I am suggesting to those evangelicals who could hear this, out of your sense of duty to the people from which your Savior came, and out of your sense of responsibility for the terrible abuse that’s been done in your name historically, suspend your proselytizing and allow the Almighty to do whatever the Almighty thinks in his wisdom is the thing to do in his own time.

Kendall: If I have failed you, it is because I haven’t loved you enough. As I re-read what I wrote, I think I was trying to make you see it intellectually. And that isn’t the way a person comes to Christ.

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