Decorated initial I

n 1911, Oswald John Simon (1855-1932), the son of a successful British barrister and Jewish philanthropist, issued a call for Christians to reform their anti-Semitic ways in a pamphlet dedicated to Claude Montefiore entitled “What think ye of Christ?” He called Jesus “misunderstood” by Christians; “misjudged, in a thousand ways, by Jew and Gentile alike.” Simon indicts the “cruel bondage” and oppression of the “remote descendants of [Christ’s] own kinsmen,” alluding to the persecution of “millions of Jewish subjects.” Simon’s work indicates the changes that had taken place in progressive Jewish thought at the turn of the century. While by 1911 Simon was defending against anti-Semitism, in 1893 he had focused on the universalist aspects of Judaism by singularly arguing for proselytism.

Simon endeavored to realize the ideal imagined by the most progressive Reform rabbis: a universalist faith. For him that would be a Judaism wherein prospective converts would inhabit a hybrid space like early Gentile followers of pre-Pauline Christianity. Redolent of Victorian evangelicalism and the idea of mission, Simon articulated his vision (similar to Montagu’s use of western literature) in his 1893 “Missionary Judaism,” published in the Jewish Quarterly Review. Simon’s Judaism borrowed from Christianity’s missionary strategy.

Simon’s mission to reform Judaism involved removing its ethnic particularism. Simon took pride in his tradition, the obligations it carried, and the degree to which that missionary particularism justified Jewish difference. Through deeply Victorian evangelical rhetoric, Simon asserted that the particular history of the Jewish people has a universal message. At an historical moment when anti-Semitic anthropology was naming “the Jews” an inferior race, Simon celebrated peoplehood even as he protested it is religion that he was concerned with. Simon used Jewish history to suggest that the universalist message of Judaism stands outside of both people and age.

Simon’s gospel speaks to the individual steeped in the intellectual production of the nineteenth century. The faith of the Reform Jew is personal. Simon’s theology is a product of the Victorian faith in progress; it is quintessentially modern as it cannot be limited by circumstance or occasion. The personal God of the mystic – and the sentimental Victorian Christian, the voice that shaped Lily Montagu’s Jewish devotion – was Simon’s. As in Montefiore and the German-American David Einhorn, his is a theology of love often associated with Christianity more than Judaism. For Simon, universalist theology is liberationist. The Mission to the Gentiles must reflect the progress of modern thought. The concept of chosenness was reconfigured in terms of mission: the means for teaching God to one’s fellow humanity as a vocation; doing not being.

Simon would further develop his ideas in “The Mission of Judaism,” published in the Fortnightly Review in 1896. There he articulates “what constitutes Judaism to those who are Jews by faith and not merely by blood.” He sought and promised a spiritual transformation greater than the material/national transformation of either the assimilationist or Zionist ideal. Simon read Jewish history through the lens of Israel’s mission to spread ethical monotheism. Diaspora is blessing, achievement, and God’s will. Here it is also Divine Conquest in the mission of spreading Judaism, a manifest destiny of faith. The triumphalist rhetoric of Simon’s prose evokes the Christian metaphor of resurrection, life through death.

For Simon, Jewish identity is always chosen. Only anti-Semitism can make Judaism compulsory. Simon challenged the raciality of Jewishness and insists on religious definition. Emancipation of Jews in the “West” made this kind of argument possible. It would have been untenable to suggest that anyone embrace Judaism in a Christian culture (like Poland in the eighteenth century) that punished Jewish conversion with the death penalty. Simon’s advocacy of a purely religious Judaism distinct from race directly challenged the anti-Semitic disparagements of his own age. He rejected an essentialist Jewishness that separates and limits the Jew. In harmony with his contemporary liberal Jewish thinkers, Simon judaized Jesus and his teachings even as he understood authentic Christianity to be a realization of the mission of the Jewish people. For him, Jesus was visionary and exemplary of the priest-people’s vocation.

Simon called for a new diaspora of Jewish faith in the lands of exile: uniting the Jewish Other to those who are Other to the Jew. For Simon, Christianity as the world knew it was an inauthentic representation of the outgrowth from Judaism. It is not Jewish at all. Simon rejected the standard Christian theological arguments about Judaism’s historicity: its status as a museum piece in the world’s religions. Simon’s goal was to teach about Christianity’s distinctness from Judaism; and Judaism’s richness that has been ignored or gone unnoticed. He imagined that he could more truly realize Jesus’s Jewish vision. Simon’s vision of a new faith for the Gentiles was based on profession rather than ritual observance. Like Pauline Christianity, wherein Gentiles need not be circumcised, neither did Simon require brit milah (circumcision) in hybrid Judaism. Institutionalized religion would dispense with rite and ritual appropriate for the Jewish community and the prayerbook would be edited to eliminate particularist references. Yet the mission would be led by Jews. Simon took the teaching of the Reformers to its logical conclusion when he made the great fast day, Tisha B’Av, a great feast day. The destruction of the Second Temple allowed the Jewish people to realize their mission of proselytism in diaspora. Simon understood his vocation as awakening his co-religionists to this sacred calling. The new faith, a hybrid faith, would not mean the end of Judaism. Rather, it would lead towards its rightful exaltation by the indictment of Christianity whose anti-Judaic (and often anti-Semitic) supersessionist claims would be challenged. The political inflection of this advancement of Judaism should not be overlooked, as Simon names the reality of anti-Semitism Despite Christian misunderstanding and misreading, Judaism is more than the Old Testament.

By 1897 the Jewish Quarterly Review had organized an issue in which Simon presented his thought, followed by responses from leading Christian and Jewish thinkers. Simon sums up his ideas in this piece, arguing that his proposal is in the spirit of the prophet Isaiah. The failure for Judaism to live out its missionary impulse in an increasingly safe society to do so, in a world of greater Jewish emancipation, is the failure of the priest-people to keep their covenant with God and do his will. The mission to the Gentiles would be good for Judaism as well as Christianity. Simon maintained that the prospect of opening Judaism up, teaching it to the outside world, might draw some Jews back to their faith. Jews would learn to love Judaism, develop Jewish pride, and shed their Jewish shame in the face of their Gentile neighbors.

Just as Gentiles learned about the God of Israel by knowing Jesus, so too could they learn more about God’s truths by studying with Jews who are living Judaism. Christians would move from their knowledge of God through Jesus to a deeper monotheism that would enable them to appreciate Jesus as Jew (and contemporary Jews) all the more. Simon’s fin-de-siecle prose is messianic, anticipating the end of his own age in a vision of human progress and religious utopia. Hermann Adler (1839-1911), the (Orthodox) Chief Rabbi of Britain from 1891-1911, provided the first response to Simon’s scheme, demonstrating the seriousness with which Simon’s suggestions were taken in English Judaism. Adler dismissed his project, placing it in the same category as reforms to traditionalism. He suggested that the authentic convert to Judaism would be insulted by any dilution. It is worth noting that conversion to Judaism under Orthodox auspices is notoriously difficult to this day in Britain. The London Beit Din (rabbinic court) turns away a vast number of prospective converts who come before them. Thus Adler’s Judaism is actually not for the multitudes or as open as it might sound.

But many prominent Jews supported Simon, including Sylvie d’Avigdor (1872-1954), who translated Herzl, and not surprisingly, Claude Montefiore. Colonel Albert E. Goldsmid (1846-1904), founder of the Jewish Lads’ Brigade and the Maccabaeans, himself converted “back” to the Judaism that his ancestors had renounced in favor of Christianity. Like Adler, he read Simon as a call for the restoration of the ancient Jewish category of the “Proselytes of the Gate,” a hybrid Jewish identity for Gentile converts. Goldsmid endorsed this call to open the outer court of the metaphorical Temple to those disenchanted with doctrinal Christianity. In the following issue of the Review, Simon offered a reply. It is more a theological summa about the reform of Judaism than solely a response to the comments on his view of mission. Although he had previously endorsed continuation of particular rites for Jews, his co-religionists’ responses drove him toward a more universalist profession than a reconciliation with traditionalism for his community and their proselytes. In celebrating the success of Reform divested from ritual commandments and embracing the universalist theology inherent in Judaism, Simon distinguished between ritual and mission.

Simon viewed Christianity through a Jewish lens: seeking to find similarities, not to embrace messianism. He claimed that he was not interested in founding a new sect or a borderland between the faiths that is neither one nor the other, even as his project created a gray area that suggests just that. Rather, for the first time in millennia, a Jewish thinker sought to create a literal space within Judaism for Gentiles who may be drawn to the religion if not the tribe. Through Simon’s advocacy for active proselytism, he attempted a reinvention of Judaism and Jewish identity. His work was in the tradition of his rabbinic contemporaries; indeed (he might argue) in the tradition of Jesus if not Paul. Simon wrote an order of service for a Gentile gathering for Jewish worship. However, his great project never came to fruition. Missionary Judaism did not take off. Even so, like Montagu and Montefiore, indeed like all the Reformers (German and American as well), Simon did not seek to create a new faith. They all dedicated their lives to the authentic Judaism they professed. Simon’s endeavor points specifically to the question of conversion, as Adler and Goldsmid observed. They compared his argument to Abraham Benisch’s call for the revival of the category of “proselyte of the gate,” an ancient term from the “national” age of tribal Judaea for when a foreigner came to live among the Jewish people. The new age of nationalism -- the nineteenth century, when western Jews were increasingly becoming part of the countries of their citizenship -- offered revived and revised proselytic opportunities and strategies. The impetus was often the reality of intermarriage, a phenomenon familiar in Biblical narrative. There was a need to create a means for the Gentile to enter the peoplehood, not just the religion, of Judaism. Thus Benisch (1811-1878), the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, had proposed his vision in lectures delivered in 1874. Benisch begins with the premise that ancient Judaism and Christianity were always mixed in the Hellenism of the ancient world. He cites the Greek translation of the scriptures intended for the Alexandrian Jews who knew little Hebrew. Paul’s thought was a product of this multicultural, diverse context. Benisch maintains that Paul learned from Gamaliel, the student of Hillel, perhaps the most important rabbi of his age. Benisch follows the German trend in defense of Jesus. He laments the failure of Jesus’s ministry to remain within Judaism.

Benisch professes the priest-people notion of Reform Judaism and advocates active proselytism, defending the practice with reference to the Jewish tradition. The proselytism Benisch advocated invokes the so-called Noachide laws, which forbid idolatry and blasphemy and advocate ethical behavior. This ancient code articulated how non-Jews might follow the God of the people Israel in spirit rather than letter. Noachidism was also the bridge to Jewish observance for the few who might move from ethical monotheism to Jewish identification. Benisch proclaimed the Noachidism of the Abrahamic faiths as preparation for acceptance of Judaism. In a culture that viewed it as an outmoded, particularist faith, as the fossil record that preceded Christianity (and Islam), and actively condemned of Jews for their failure to profess Christianity, Benisch instead pronounced Judaism to be a supreme zenith, not a superseded origin.

To spread this ethical monotheism is the vocation of the priest-people Israel; doing so will bring about the messianic age. Benisch assumed and presumed full Jewish emancipation. He imagined a world in which the changes that had begun to take place for the Jews of Europe would be their manifest destiny going forward. He acknowledged that the potential for intermarriage drove this opening of the gates. The ancient category of the Proselyte of the Gate would preserve Jewish identity despite those mixed marriages. Welcoming the stranger was pragmatic so as to avoid the many losses that were occurring to Judaism in the nineteenth century. But Benisch, who saw a silver lining, imagined a world in which this greater exposure to Judaism might lead the unexpected convert to the faith. Benisch thus found a way to maintain Israel’s mission in a world in which the particularism of Jewish identity was becoming less relevant, and less of a reality. In his idealistic hope, he envisioned that same messianic moment: that all that had been waiting to occur in the spread of Judaism throughout the world might be more fully realized.

Last modified 12 June 2018