Bruce agreed to do an interview on the book in order to give readers of taste of it:
CLK: What's the book about?
BL: It engages the life of Rolf Menachem Gompertz. A devout Jew, Gompertz was raised in Nazi Germany and experienced Nazi atrocities first-hand. Those experiences were formative on him, shaping his outlook, his values, and his initiatives. Gompertz, who is currently 86 years old and living in Los Angeles, has lived a life worthy of consideration, respect, and emulation, so this book is about a life well lived.
Most importantly for “the Jesus blog,” in the early 1960s Gompertz wrote a novel about Jesus that was way ahead of its time (simply entitled A Jewish Novel about Jesus). If the onset of “the third quest for the historical Jesus” is best dated to the appearance of Geza Vermes’s Jesus the Jew in 1973, already in the 1960s Gompertz was occupying the space that would later be inhabited by many third questers in the 1970s and beyond. In broad brushstroke, the emphases of his novel include: the Jewishness of Jesus, the vibrancy of Jewish covenantal devotion, the political matrix within which the Jewish leadership in Judea had to operate, and Roman involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus.
In his novel about Jesus, Gompertz bypasses some traditional forms of retelling the Jesus-story (not least, retellings that depict the Jews en masse as “Christ killers”), arriving at a fresh retelling that he characterizes as his “response to Hitler.” Let me give just one example of the sort of thing he does.
Gompertz foregrounds one piece of historical data that is missing from canonical accounts – that is, the likelihood that the ceremonial robes of the High Priest were held in the Antonia Fortress and would have been handed over only after Roman officials had extracted certain assurances or agreements from the Jewish leadership (for this, see Josephus, Antiquities 20.6–9). What are the parameters for retelling the Jesus-story if these realities are given a certain priority, with a Roman official in the position to manipulate the Jewish High Priest to do his bidding? Gompertz’s novel explores that terrain, in conjunction with other fresh priorities.
Obviously, I could say much more about the importance of Gompertz’s Jesus-novel. But what is also significant, and what I try to do justice to in my book, is the way that Gompertz has lived almost the whole of his life as a testimony against the social Darwinism that Hitler advocated. Whether in his Jesus-novel, in his other books, in his speeches, or in his life in general, Gompertz repeatedly testifies to the importance of recognizing and affirming “our common humanity” despite our ideological differences, especially in times when social power is dangerously employed to the detriment of some for the advantage of others. This is a timeless message that Gompertz has continued to voice, not unlike a Jew from Nazareth two thousand years ago.
CLK: What made you want to write the book?
BL: I regularly teach a course entitled “Jesus in Film and Fiction,” and since 2004 I have always included Gompertz’s Jesus-novel in the syllabus of that course. I made email contact with Gompertz ten years ago in relation to that course. As email exchanges between us continued, Rolf (as I’ll refer to him from now on) and I began to nurture a friendship that has continued to flourish over the years, to the point that he has honored me by enlisting me as his literary executor upon his death.
In the course of getting to know Rolf, I began to realize the importance of what he stands for and to respect his vision about living a life of significance. These are the things about him that humble me, and things that I want my children to know about. I then came to the realization that I also want my students to come into closer contact with Rolf beyond simply studying his novel. And in fact, his is a life deserving of commendation to a much wider audience, especially in our dangerous times. And so I wrote this book about one of my heroes.
I also wrote it very much conscious of my identity as someone who is not Jewish, and in fact, someone who is a Christian. There are two things to mention in this regard. First, for about five years during my twenties, I spent Good Friday reading Elie Wiesel’s important book Night, in which he recounts the evils perpetuated against him and other Jews in Nazi Germany. My book, with its title Hitler, Jesus, and Our Common Humanity, draws some of its motivation from those “Good Friday” experiences of my twenties.
Second, this book is my own small and insignificant gesture in the face of three sobering realities: (1) Christian involvement in anti-Semitic pogroms throughout history; (2) the failure of Christians to protest the atrocities against the Jewish people during the Nazi regime; and worst of all, (3) the likelihood that I would have been complicit in the Nazi program if I had been born in another place and time. So in some ways, I perceive the writing of this little book as an act of penance, both personal and corporate.
CLK: The book situates itself very much within the context of Jewish-Christian dialogue. What are your thoughts about where that dialogue is now and where it should go?
BL: My own view, for what its worth, is that Jewish-Christian dialogue is a bit tired. That does not mean that it should not continue. It must continue. But what should its content be and how should it be configured?
I think we are at the point where Jewish-Christian exchanges should primarily be about listening to each other – to each other’s varied experiences of God and the world today. In the past there has been a lot of talking to each other about theological commonalities and differences; perhaps a freshness could enter into Jewish-Christian encounters if the emphasis shifted to prioritizing the act of listening to each other’s experiences.
Those encounters would also benefit from being conducted in conjunction with working jointly to identify, address, and offset the abuse of power in this world. There’s nothing like “working practically in love” (to borrow Paul’s words in Gal 5:6) to bring people together. And moreover, those encounters probably need to be conducted under the umbrella of the full spread of Abrahamic faiths – that is, as Jews, Christians, and Moslems together. These, it seems to me, are where the best prospects lie for future engagement.