Let Us Work Together: On Jewish-Christian Relations

Editor’s note: The following address was delivered on April 15, 2016 before the Harvard Hillel Society and is printed with permission of the author.

I am so glad to be back in cooperation with the Harvard Hillel Society. Long, long ago, in about 1961, the Hillel Society and the Harvard Catholic Club almost at the same time launched companion periodicals, Mosaic and The Current. In those days, we both felt a little more like outliers than we do today. “Those were the days, my friends!”

Today I would like to put forward several lessons that I have learned over the years about the deepest ties between Jews and Catholics. I think you may agree with me that interactions between Jews and Catholics have never been as deep and extensive—internationally and locally—as they are today. And we have to do still better.

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The Ten Lessons I Have Learned
First. I have learned that the relation between Jews and Catholics is asymmetrical, in this sense. By faith and by history, in order to be Catholics, Catholics need to be Jews. Very little about our faith makes sense apart from Judaism. Without telling the story of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, one cannot understand the story of Jesus Christ. The significance of the Catholic faith, the credibility of the Catholic faith, is given its texture by the significance and credibility of the Jewish faith. If the Jewish covenant is not vital for all time, the Christian covenant cannot be. If the same God were unfaithful to one, how could we expect him to be faithful to the other?

By contrast, in order to be a faithful Jew, one need not be a Christian. Judaism is self-intact, in a way that the Catholic faith is not.

Second. The Catholic faith is a missionary religion in a way that Judaism is not. Thus, one of the world-historical roles of the Catholic faith is to have made the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob known around the world, wherever Catholic missionaries have gone. Judaism is not the faith of the relatively small band of Jews only, but also the faith of more than a billion Catholics. Catholics add on to Judaism many levels of belief that Jews do not accept. But from a Catholic point of view these new levels of faith gain their earliest significance and credibility from the faithful teachings of Judaism.

Third. In order to understand itself deeply and well, the Catholic Church does best when it is in living contact with actual, lived Jewish faith. For that is how Catholics gain access to the living God as Jesus came to know him. Cold words and books do not give such access; only lived contact does. Worshipping in a Jewish congregation from time to time gives an irreplaceable touch of what and how Jesus prayed.

Fourth. For this reason, it is important for the Catholic faith that the Jewish faith remain a living witness until the end of time. To put matters this way may seem ungracious—to be talking about what Catholicism needs from Judaism. Yet don’t you feel a little more certain when everybody is frank about their own self-interest? Catholics do have an intense self-interest in the health and fidelity of the Jewish Community.

Fifth. When Catholics need help at a time of ill-treatment, it means a great deal to them when Jews come to their defense. That is a generous action. When Jews need help, it is equally touching when Catholics step forward with strong support. There are not many things worse than feeling alone, abandoned by everybody. Having others at one’s side adds unexpected internal strength.

Sixth. A healthy challenge from atheists, offered in mutual respect and with a quest for better mutual understanding, is of great benefit to Jewish and Christian believers. Both Jewish and Christian Scriptures insist that no one sees God. Thus, it always benefits Jews and Christians to think more deeply about their beliefs, and why and how they hold them. Each of us, both Jews and Christians and unbelievers must in the end make his own choice, in answer to the irrepressible question, “Who am I, under these stars, with the wind on my face?” Each of us must decide, no matter how anybody else decides, who am I and how shall I live? In answering these questions, Jews, Christians and unbelievers each remain in considerable darkness. Yet choose we inescapably must, and do.

And by the way, “agnostic” is obviously a false answer to that question. … “Who-Am-I?” That choice is not made in words. It is in action that words become real, not just empty breaths. No matter what they tell themselves in words, agnostics choose in action. They act as those who ignore God’s word, or as those who are faithful to God’s word. If one, not the other.

Seventh. The God to whom Jews and Christians remain true is undeceivable. He scrutinizes the secret movements of our twists of mind—and turns of heart. He is satisfied only with the blinding inner truth. He is the God of Spirit and Truth. We struggle uselessly to hide truth from ourselves. In his blinding light, self-deception toasts away.

Eighth. I sometimes find myself imagining this: When Zarathustra found God dead, Zarathustra … wept. Zarathustra warned others: “Do not rejoice that God is dead. Do not laugh.” For if God is dead, so is truth, and so is reason. If there is no God, there is no direction, there is no point to anything. Everything we do is meaningless.

“At that point” (Zarathustra continues), “Reason has lost its privileged seat. Everything belongs to Power, everyone bows down when Power enters. The empire of the thugs has come.”

“And to anyone who protests, ‘That isn’t right! That’s unjust!’—the Will to Power answers back: ‘That’s just your opinion.’ ’’

Ninth. Great civilizations can be destroyed from within, as well as from without. Usually, that is how they are destroyed.

For centuries, Torah stressed that beliefs lead to action. Catholic faith stressed that to go deeper into worship and prayer is a necessary spring for lasting action. Today, alas: “tikun olam” is replacing Torah, and a partisan “social justice” is crowding out contemplative action.

The inner springs of Jewish faith—and Christian faith—water in us a most serious obligation to care for others, as in Matthew 25:31ff and in Deuteronomy 24:17. But to keep the inner springs of Torah and the Gospel running deep and strong, worship, prayer, and obedience demand serious time. If instead the noisygods of politics drown out silent worship, the wells of Jewish and Christian faith run dry. Without a vision, the people perish. A Godly vision. The tinny noise of the Sierra Club and the raucous passions of politics choke the oxygen of God from our hearts.

Tenth. In the world today, both Jews and Christians proceed under threat of extinction.

We ought, then, to think together very carefully. We ought to pray together.

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤

Rabbi David Novak has suggested that I close with the words that our mutual friend Pope John Paul 11 addressed to the Synagogue of the City of Rome on his historic visit there almost exactly thirty years ago today (on April 13, 1986):

In a society which is often lost in agnosticism and individualism and which is suffering the bitter consequences of selfishness and violence, Jews and Christians are the trustees and witnesses of an ethic marked by the Ten Commandments, in the observance of which man finds his truth and freedom. To promote a common reflection and collaboration on this point is one of the great duties of the hour….

The problems of [this city] Rome are many. You know them well. Each one of us, in the light of that blessed heritage is conscious of an obligation to work together, at least to some degree, for their solution. Let us seek, as far as possible, to do so together. From this visit of mine and from the harmony and serenity which we have attained, may there flow forth a fresh and health-giving spring, like the river that Ezekiel saw gushing from the eastern gate of the Temple of Jerusalem (cf. Ez 47:1ff.)….

Dear friends of the Harvard Hillel and the Harvard Catholic Club, Let us work together!

Photo caption: Pictured above are Pope John Paul II and Rabbi Elio Toaff at the Rome Synagogue on April 13, 1986. (Photo credit: CNA photo/ L’Osservatore Romano


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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