Abraham's Knife: The Mythology of the Deicide in Antisemitism

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Reviews of Abraham's Knife

  • Dr. Jeffrey Tigay, Ellis Professor of Hebrew & Semitic Languages & Literatures, Graduate Chair, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania
  • Jack Fischel, Hadassah Magazine, March 2005, p. 68.
  • Dr. Bernard Kaplan, M.B. B.Ch., F.A.A.P. Laffey-Connolly Professor of Pediatric Nephrology, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, The University of Pennsylvania
  • Rabbi James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Saint Leo University.
  • The Jewish Book Review

Dr. Jeffrey Tigay
Ellis Professor of Hebrew & Semitic Languages & Literatures, Graduate Chair, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, University of Pennsylvania

Abraham's Knife is a remarkable work that traces the background and history of the anti-Semitic portrayal of Jews as "Christ-killers." Judith Civan explores the relationship of this myth to ancient child sacrifice and the Biblical tale of Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac and, in an eye-opening chapter on "The Merchant of Venice," she follows its perpetuation down through the evolving portrayal of Shylock in Shakespeare's time and since. Based on solid historical and literary scholarship and psychological insight, the book is learned without being ponderous, and the author's style makes reading it an esthetic as well as intellectual experience.

Jack Fischel, Hadassah Magazine, March 2005, p. 68

Having weathered the storm emanating from Mel Gibson's incendiary The Passion of Christ, it is perhaps time that Jews educate themselves on the history behind the centuries old libel that the Jews killed Jesus. The problem is that many of the books that deal with this canard have been written by scholars for an academic audience and are not easily digestible for the general reading audience. Fortunately, Abraham's Knife is different. A journalist by profession who studied Hebrew language and literature at Gratz College and the University of Pennsylvania, Civan has written a thoughtful and readable book about the formative events in the early history of Christianity that led to the deicide or "Christ-killer" charge.

Civan relates that she decided to write about the deicide slander when she came across a letter written in 1919 by the French premier George Clemenceau to Chaim Weizmann, who had sought the premier's support for the Zionist effort, and was rebuffed by Clemenceau with the remark that " We Christians can never forgive the Jews for crucifying Christ." It is apparent that despite the subsequent efforts of the Catholic Church during Vatican II to eliminate the deicide charge, it remains alive and well among too many Christians, as evidenced by the success of the Gibson film and the support he received from large segments of the Christian community. Drawing on primarily secondary source material, Civan has written a book geared to a lay audience, but which also has the merit of filling a gap in the historiography of the subject.

Civan finds the source of the deicide charge in the Akedah. Using Abraham's aborted attempt to sacrifice Isaac as her starting point, Civan argues that the Church fathers found themselves in a conundrum in their efforts to link the Akedah ( the basis for the covenant between God and the Jews) to the the Crucifixion ( the justification for the "New Covenant" between God and Chrisianity). According to Civan, if Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his only son was a test not only of his faith in God, but also God's signal that human sacrifice must come to an end, then how were they to explain God's willingness to sacrifice his only son ? Civan contends that instead of grappling with this difficult theological question, the Gospels placed the blame for the Crucifixion on the Jews by inventing the words, "his blood be upon us and our children,"thus deflecting responsibility away from the Romans, as well as to " absolve the beneficiaries of the sacrifice, the Christians, and their God.".

Civan concludes her important book by proposing that in the post-Holocaust era, there is no longer room to tolerate the deicide charge within Christianity, and it is time for the churches to examine its theology. If Christianity wants to be a religion of love and morality, Civan argues, it must "confront the consequences of its teaching and actions."

Dr. Bernard Kaplan, M.B. B.Ch., F.A.A.P.
Laffey-Connolly Professor of Pediatric Nephrology
The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia
The University of Pennsylvania

On a trip some years ago, we had a distressing conversation with an Austrian acquaintance who treated us to Wiener Schnitzel and Sacher Torte at the Hotel Sacher Wien in the Judenrein city of Vienna. This educated gentleman wondered why Jews are so upset with Austrians. What about Hitler, what about Kurt Waldheim, what about the Judenrein city of Vienna, we asked. Where are Mahler and Freud and Zweig and all those other famous and ordinary Jews? He opined that Hitler was born in a part of Austria that had once been German, that the Jewish attitude to Kurt Waldheim was Zionist plot, that post-war Austria had a Jewish prime minister - Bruno Kreisky. But he had to admit that Vienna no longer had any Jews. Our visit to Austria left a bitter taste.

Judith Civan had similar reactions but transmuted them into a work of great depth, erudition and interest. While looking at a painting by Hieronymus Bosch she began to think quite logically about Auschwitz in the Judenrein city of Vienna. The sweetness of all the sachertortre in Vienna could not over-ride, for her, the bitterness of countless depictions of Jesus in agony. The brilliance of her subsequent analysis is based not on the agony of Christ per se, but on the countless acts of wanton cruelty that have been carried out against his own people by his so-called followers. She discusses in detail one of the most important events in Jewish history, the Akedah (binding of Isaac) that led to the aborted sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Her analysis leads quite logically from the Akedah to the annihilation of European Jewry.

With many fascinating digressions and meanderings, she takes us on a journey through the history of western thought, and lingers at the way-stops of Greek mythology, Paul and Shakespeare. The Akedah is a turning point in the history of sacrifice Ė this may be the first time that a god gave a man permission [once it was clear that the man was willing to obey the god] to substitute a sacrificial animal for the manís son. This substitution of an animal, by God, for a son of man was turned on its head when God substituted his own Son, the Son of Man, the Christ, as the sacrificial object. God substituted a ram for Isaac thereby ushering in the Jewish practice of temple sacrifice. Judith has gotten me to thinking that at almost the precise moment when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans, Saul/Paul substituted the sacrifice of Godís only begotten son, Yehoshua as the sacrificial lamb. Jews substituted Torah for sacrifice; the Pauline Christians substituted the sacrifice of Jesus for Torah.

The Akedah may also be a turning point in the history of infanticide [for a more detailed discussion of this appalling subject please refer to an article by William L. Langer, The New York Review of Books, April 28th 1977]. It is impossible to summarize Judith Civanís careful and gentle attempts to explain how all of this came about. It is even more difficult to summarize the complicated paths that she negotiates in her attempts to understand why the Christians who worshipped a Jewish rabbi, began to hate, and then to kill Jews. Many roads lead to Auschwitz, Babi Yar and the mass grave in Krok, Lithuania where my family was murdered by the Einzatsgruppe in 1941.

Judith Civan provides so much food for intellectual thought in this dense oriental carpet of interwoven facts, fancies and ideas [please forgive the mixed metaphor!]. Like the greatest oriental carpets, her account also has its abrashes or imperfections. The book is very dense and requires patience and thoughtful study, it is sometimes repetitive, and it is really three books in one. However, it is a labor of love and a tour de force, with excellent notes and an extensive bibliography, that will reward the reader with information and insights.

Rabbi James Rudin
American Jewish Committee's senior interreligious adviser, and Distinguished Visiting Professor at Saint Leo University

France's World War I premier, Georges Clemenceau warned, "War is much too serious a matter to be entrusted to the military." Similarly, some religious issues are too serious to be entrusted solely to professional theologians and scholars whose main concerns are frequently the number of footnotes and the length of the bibliography.

But Judith Civan's new book, "Abraham's Knife: the Mythology of the Deicide in Antisemitism" (Exlibris) is different. Although Civan holds a graduate degree from Columbia University and is knowledgeable about Christianity and Judaism, her book was not written to score academic debating points.

Instead, Civan directly confronts an issue that has plagued Western culture and civilization for centuries: the deicide or "Christ-killer" charge.

The belief that the Jews murdered Jesus, and because of their infamous actions are forever condemned by God to be a cursed people provided theological justification for centuries of physical assaults. During the Nazi regime, two bishops confronted Adolf Hitler on his virulent anti-Semitism. In response, the German dictator told his clerical visitors he was only putting into effect what Christianity had taught and practiced for 2,000 years.

Civan is dismayed that the deicide charge still remains embedded in the hearts and minds of many Christians today despite the best efforts of church authorities, especially the Second Vatican Council, to eradicate it. Ironically, it was another Clemenceau quote that sparked Civan's interest in the deicide charge.

In 1919 the French premier met the Jewish leader Hayim Weizmann, who 30 years later would become Israel's first president. Weizmann sought Clemenceau's support for the Zionist effort, but was rebuffed. Clemenceau remarked: "We Christians can never forgive the Jews for crucifying Christ." Weizmann quickly replied: "Monsieur Clemenceau, you know perfectly well that if Jesus of Nazareth were to apply for a visa to enter France, it would be refused on the grounds that he was a political agitator."

Civan was stunned that Clemenceau had used the "Christ-killer" epithet. After all, Clemenceau had battled two decades earlier in behalf of the falsely accused French Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus, and the same Clemenceau had fought reactionary and anti-Semitic elements within the Catholic Church and the French Army.

Civan wondered if Clemenceau, a "rational person," truly believed the deicide charge. But if people like Clemenceau accepted the ancient anti-Jewish calumny, Civan was forced "to begin afresh ... to revise my worldview ... it would all be turned inside out."

In her closely reasoned 352-page book, Civan plumbs the depth of the "Christ-killer" canard, reaching back to the origins of the church. She asserts that in the "early Christian centuries Jesus was represented not only as a living but also a youthful figure." However, by the time of the murderous Crusades in the 11th and 12th centuries, Jesus was transformed into a bearded, suffering and bloody figure familiar to us in medieval paintings.

Civan believes that along with this profound change in the Christian perception of Jesus, also came an escalation of anti-Jewish teachings and increased physical attacks on the people who, it was believed, forced Jesus to endure intense pain and suffering on the cross. She believes the failure of Jesus to return to Earth in the millennium year 1000 created new Christian emphasis on his anguish.

Civan's book concludes with a comparison of two Jerusalem holy sites: Moriah and Golgotha. Moriah was where Abraham raised his knife to kill his beloved bound son, Isaac, before God intervened and stopped the sacrifice of a child. Golgotha was where another "child," Jesus, was killed this time without God intervening.

Was the Crucifixion the completion of Abraham's aborted attempt to sacrifice Isaac or was the death of Jesus part of God's plan? Civan believes the Crucifixion was a form of child sacrifice so traumatic that it required a scapegoat, an entire guilty people, to blame for such an abhorrent act. Civan is unblinking in her radical conclusion: Christians were taught, "the sacrificer (of Jesus) was actually not God Himself, but the Jews, the descendants of that Abraham who almost wielded his knife at the near sacrifice of Isaac. The love could be ascribed to God and the anger and blood to the Jews."

"Abraham's Knife" is sure to create controversy because it compels Christians and Jews to re-examine long-held beliefs about child sacrifice, the Crucifixion, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Christian-Jewish relations.

Finally, scholars of religion: not to worry. There are 25 pages of footnotes and nine pages of bibliography in "Abraham's Knife."

The Jewish Book Review

Judith Civan seeks to trace a thread linking child sacrifice and the fear of infanticide to the charge of deicide in the legacy of Christian anti- Semitism....In her view, both Jews and Christians need to confront the fear of child sacrifice that is at the root of the religious traditions, and find a way to promote reconciliation of children and parents, that is, between Christians and Jews. As she puts the case, "The myth of deicide, dangerously entwined with the fear of infanticide, reaching into the unconscious recesses of parents' and children's hearts and minds, is what we all, Christians and Jews, have to confront."...

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