In today’s “politically correct” environment, honest and respectful debate over religious differences is an increasingly endangered species. This is especially true in the long tradition of theological disputations between Jews and Christians. Nowadays formal discussion and debate is often set aside in favor of “interfaith dialogue.” Such dialogue usually focuses on areas of mutual agreement and cooperation, to the exclusion of honest engagement over areas of disagreement. In light of this trend it is gratifying to be able to commend The Christian and the Pharisee: Two outspoken religious leaders debate the road to Heaven.
In this 190-page book just released by Faithworks Publishing, well-known Christian author and minister R.T. Kendall engages Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, in a discussion of the theological issues that divide Judaism and Christianity. The debate takes place in the form of 14 letters exchanged between the two leaders, beginning with a discussion about what makes a true Pharisee. A broad-ranging discussion follows as the two manage to remain irenic without soft-pedaling areas of genuine disagreement.
In light of the long and tortured history of disputations between Jewish and Christian leaders, it is rare to see such theological debate bring both heat and light to the subject matter. In the past there has been plenty of heat, but not much light shed. Genuine and interesting debate seems to require both. These authors manage to accomplish this in a surprisingly genuine, personable, respectful and refreshing manner. They engage at some length on specific Messianic prophecies in the Bible, such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 110. They also enter into meaningful discussion over such issues as Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah, sin and atonement, the Temple, the authority of Scripture, the Oral law, the reality of heaven and hell, and the value of evangelizing each other.
In one sense I feel like I have lived my entire adult life between the pages of this book. Jewish believers in Jesus often wrestle with these issues as we relate to our own families specifically and to people of the Jewish community in general.
The reader may decide who might be the “winner” in this lively debate. Personally I believe the real winner is the reader who is privileged to listen in on the conversation. For those of us who are committed to the value of proclaiming the gospel, the book itself is indeed a winner.
Some might be tempted to second guess some of the ways R.T. Kendall chose to engage Rabbi Rosen, but we can all be proud of his firm and loving manner. I was also gratified that he brought up the subject of Jewish believers in Jesus and sought to engage the rabbi on the legitimacy of our choice to follow Y’shua. We have witnessed many a Christian leader who, out of fear of offending, has soft-pedaled the gospel and ignored the very existence of Jewish followers of Messiah. Not Dr. Kendall, and for that we owe him a debt of gratitude.
Rabbi Rosen is both respectful and direct in addressing Dr. Kendall’s challenges to his traditional Orthodox Jewish positions. His answers demonstrate how much discussion regarding Judaism and Christianity misses the mark because of differing presuppositions. Christians and Jews are often asking and answering different questions, making genuine engagement difficult. Many Christians may be surprised to read the pluralistic, even universalistic perspective expressed by Rabbi Rosen. But inasmuch as his views are fairly representative of modern Orthodoxy, it will be quite instructive if a little disappointing to those who might have expected a more biblically-based worldview. The fact that Judaism doesn’t teach the doctrine of original sin or the deity of the Messiah seems to surprise Dr. Kendall, but to his credit he engages Rabbi Rosen on these and other issues, even when the rabbi seems intent on sidestepping them. Perhaps some Jewish readers will hear the gospel in a new way as a result.
Both Jewish and Gentile believers will learn more about Judaism and its arguments against the gospel from reading this book. For us Jewish believers, most will come away wishing we had more opportunities to engage Jewish family and friends with the gospel message like Dr. Kendall did here. Please God may it be so.