In 1840, a fierce debate broke out in the liberal precincts of German Protestantism—pitting the more orthodox against the more rationalist—beginning with a series of sermons and soon sparking a flurry of pamphlets and articles. At issue was the newly emerging source criticism of the Bible, and the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. Soon the controversy was joined by Samson Raphael Hirsch, a pioneering German rabbi associated with what would later become Modern Orthodoxy. Michah Gottlieb explains:
Liberal Christian theologians . . . sought to draw a bright, invidious line between the Old and New Testaments, and hence between Judaism and Christianity. The God of the New Testament was, [they] argued, a rational, ethical God who preached universal love of humanity, while the God of the Old Testament was a tribal God who displayed his power through magic (as evidenced by Moses’ ten plagues), permitted Jews to steal from Egyptians (Exodus 3:21–2), promoted genocide (Numbers 14:15), and put minute religious ceremonies on par with eternal laws of morality.
Hirsch opened his broadside with an explanation for why he was jumping into a debate between Protestants. The Old Testament was, he wrote, “a sacred treasure that millions of people from near and far cling to with every fiber of their being.” Liberal Protestant biblical criticism did not reflect calm, unbiased scholarship. On the contrary, it was animated by an age-old anti-Jewish bigotry that should have been buried long ago: “It is high time for the non-Jewish thinker to set aside convenient pre-judgments and to begin to construct Christendom without having to destroy Judaism. It is high time to do justice to Judaism.”
After challenging accusations of the Hebrew Bible’s inhumanity on textual and theological grounds, Hirsch noted that it was Christians, not Jews, who suppressed heresy, slaughtered members of rival denominations, and persecuted Jews. He then adduced a contemporary example:
As evidence of Christians’ failure to appreciate the full meaning of the Jewish teaching of the one God, Hirsch made a surprising turn to America, the “land of freedom” where white European Christians enslaved black people. He presented American slavery as of a piece with European Christians’ anti-Jewish discrimination.
For Hirsch, Judaism’s teaching of God’s unity was not an abstract idea or dogma to be confessed. It was meant to animate one’s entire life, leading one to treat all human beings with dignity and love. Christians adopted the Jewish teaching of God’s unity as an idea, but most had not adopted it as a living principle. Otherwise, they could never countenance enslaving black people and imposing severe restrictions on Jews while claiming to be good Christians. Hirsch concluded that far from lecturing Jews on how they should be reforming their religion to bring it closer to Christianity, Christians have much to learn from Jews and Judaism.