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It was true that the seventeenth-century Dutch were a very practical society, concerned at least as much with their economy as with their theology, and this practicality was good for the Jews. At the time of Spinoza’s birth, 1632, the Jews had been living in Amsterdam only a few decades, but they were already contributing to the thriving Dutch economy, using their connections to other Marranos scattered around the world, including those still back in Spain and Portugal, to import and export. Still, there were Protestant theologians even in Amsterdam, particularly those Protestants known as “Calvinists,” who weren’t thrilled about the Jewish newcomers […] And it had been a condition of the Jews being allowed to reside in Amsterdam–because, of course, they had to get official permission–that they keep order and decorum among their own, in regard not only to behavior but to beliefs as well. Strangely enough, the Dutch authorities wanted the Amsterdam Jews to abide by the Torah. They wanted Amsterdam’s Jews to be frum.

-Rebecca Goldstein, Betraying Spinoza

One assertion made both by the Committee on Church Doctrine’s study paper, “One Covenant of Grace”, and by the mover of an amendment to the proposed statement on the relationship of The Presbyterian Church in Canada with Jewish people, is that countries where the majority of the population was Calvinist were less prone to pogroms and other instances of anti-Semitism; the implication of this assertion is that Calvinists in general, and Canadian Presbyterians in particular, don’t need to worry about the poor history of relations between (other) Christians and Jews. True, as the study paper points out, Scotland didn’t expel its Jewish population like England did… in 1290, long before the Reformation–so I’m rather unconvinced that Reformed theology had much to do with that. True, the people of the Netherlands went to great lengths to protect the local Jewish population during the Second World War… but so did the people of Sweden and Norway, and I’m not hearing too many Lutherans using that as proof that their theological relationship with Judaism doesn’t merit any critical self-reflection. And, yes, Amsterdam welcomed Jews from Spain and Portugal fleeing the Inquisition, and Cromwell did eventually let Jews back into England, but, as even the small passage quoted above (quoted, I admit, because I have that book near to hand, and my more substantial histories are packed away, mostly on another continent) suggests, there were strong motives besides theology for those policies.

But beyond the rather narrow understanding of history evidenced by accounts which want to give theology all of the credit when things go right, but none of the blame when they go wrong, there’s a deeper issue hinted at by Goldstein (and supported by other historical studies, as well as by contemporary theology and, yes, by my own experience in interfaith work). Calvinist theology, in 17th century Amsterdam and in 21st century Canada (and Scotland), can just about cope with the existence of Jews as long as we act in a way that supports theological preconceptions about Judaism. We can be the “law” side of the one covenant of law and grace, as long as our way of being in the world supports an understanding of law as rigid, repressive, and limiting–and thereby testifies to the need for grace to balance things out.

This is why, for example, the Church of Scotland can refer uncritically to “Jewish law” in order to support continued opposition to same-sex relationships, but cannot cope with halakhic rulings from the Conservative or Reform movements which would undermine a the simplistic literalist reading of Leviticus that members of the Church imagine to be authentically Jewish–even though those rulings are also Jewish, and also carry the weight of law in their traditions. We can be objects of “relationship”, as in the statement put forward by The Presbyterian Church in Canada’s Committee on Church Doctrine, but never subjects: the only Jews that can be admitted to the consideration of the Doctrine committee are flat cardboard cutouts, going through the motions and speaking the lines that the Committee assigns to them. And the Jews of 17th century Amsterdam could be tolerated as long as their existence was a living testament to the existence of the old tradition that Christ superseded–as long, and only as long, as they acted the part of living, breathing stereotypes. Real Jews, who speak with their (our) own voices, make their (our) own rules, re-interpret their (our) own tradition, have no place in the theological imagination of this particular understanding of Reformed theology.

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