The Mystery of Israel

Years ago, I was sharing an office at Hunter College with a very observant Orthodox Jew, Michael Wyschogrod. He is a distinguished Jewish theologian — not only did he faithfully follow the Torah, but his religion was clearly at the very center of his life. This created a deep bond between us, finding ourselves in a radically liberal university in which religion was at best tolerated, at times overtly ridiculed, or subtly undermined by insinuations such as “passé,” “mediaeval,” and unscientific. No one should be surprised that according to Msgr. Herman Heide, a chaplain of the Hunter College Newman club, 65 percent of Catholic students lost their faith by their senior year.

Orthodox Judaism, however, was not the butt of persecutions. My colleague, born in Berlin, first went to a very orthodox grammar school. Then the family wisely emigrated to the United States. He went to a Yiddish-speaking Eastern European school, and spent a year studying the Talmud. He then received his Ph.D. at Columbia University. This “extra” religious education was no obstacle to either appointment or promotion at CUNY. Once in the course of my long career, a priest (no longer wearing his collar) applied for a position at Hunter. His outstanding curriculum vitae promptly landed in the nearest wastepaper basket. However, there were Rabbis and Protestant ministers on the Hunter faculty.

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Roman Catholicism, when taken seriously, was unacceptable in secular colleges because it aimed at converting people and thereby depriving them of their freedom of thought. Catholics by definition proselytize. Orthodox Jews do not share this fanaticism. Moreover, Catholics have a magisterium that necessarily has a paralyzing effect on intellectual “creativity.” Dogmas are an intellectual straight jacket that kills progress in the bud.

My colleague and I became friends; the bond between us was that we both took our faith seriously. With time we had more and more “non-professional exchanges.” One day, trusting my friendship, Wyschogrod said to me: “To be frank with you, what we Jews resent about Roman Catholics is that they are always trying to convert us.” To which I replied with Latin speed; “What we, Roman Catholics, deplore is that you never try to convert us.” His answer: “The Jews are God’s Chosen People. It is to them, and to them alone, that He has revealed Himself. Therefore, the treasures that we have received are not meant to be shared with others.” He added: “but you can be saved in your own way.” My efforts to convince him that man longed for the fullness of truth and could only find peace in finding it left him unconvinced.

He added that the covenant God made with Abraham and his descendants was sealed in blood: the circumcision. Judaism was “a carnal faith”; it is a covenant sealed in the flesh. To be Jewish is something that is determined by blood and therefore something that cannot be shared.

As a result, an orthodox Jew feels closer to an extremely liberal Jew or even to an atheistic Jew (whose Weltanschauung is radically opposed to his) than he does to a deeply believing Christian whose life is centered on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, because he shares the blood-factor with the first. In their views, blood seems to have priority over the question of faith.

Some Jews are firm believers, i.e. observant; some are conservative; some reform Jews, others are atheists; some believe in the immortality of the human soul, some do not. But those who deny God’s existence do not thereby sever their full-fledged incorporation in the Jewish race. As Wyschogrod writes: “Before God, there is only the one Jewish people, from which no Jew can resign” (The Body of Faith).

When I raised the question of the immortality of the soul, he evaded taking a definite position and dubbed it a “Greek idea.” To me, the question of Greek or non Greek was totally irrelevant; the only thing that mattered was “is it true?” To him, his key concern was “is it biblical?”

Blood is therefore crucial in Judaism and sheds light on the fact that full-fledged “conversion” to Judaism in the radical sense of this term, is, according to Wyschogrod, not possible. One should not forget, however, that Moses’s wife was Midian, and her name was Zipporah. She had no Jewish blood. Ruth, David’s great grandmother, was not Jewish, either. Yet both these women are deeply incorporated in Jewish history.

The many Jews who occupy key posts in universities are often either atheists, or extremely liberal in their views. Yet, as stated, they have no antagonism toward ultra orthodox Jews and favor them in elections over non Jews. They disagree on most anything, but their sharing Abraham’s blood creates a bond between them that nothing can sever.

The solemn covenant between God and Israel is one reason — among others — why when Jews enter the Catholic Church (I purposely avoid the word “conversion” because of the close bond that exists between the Old and the New Testaments), they are viewed as “traitors”; they have betrayed their blood. This is why the Jews recite over them the prayer of the dead — they have freely chosen to betray their heritage. This is all the stranger because I know several Jews for whom their Jewish roots played no role whatever until they entered the Holy Arch of the Church. They then discovered joyfully the privilege they had received by belonging to the race of the Savior.

It should be highlighted that a “converted” Jew who becomes a devout Catholic and a daily communicant, far from betraying his “blood,” is precisely the one who renovates it, for blood constantly needs to be renewed. One of the fundamental beliefs of both the Catholic and the Orthodox Church is that Christ is fully present in the Holy Eucharist: His body, His blood, His soul, and His divinity. On the basis of this fundamental belief, it can be claimed that the faithful who daily feed themselves on this Sacred Food receive the blood of their Savior, Who was a Jew. This leads us to the conclusion that far from “betraying their Jewish blood,” Catholics of Jewish descent are not only not betraying their blood, but are precisely those who renew it at this divine source. That was the blissful conviction of Father Raphael, a Jew who converted while taking my husband’s courses at Fordham and became a Carthusian. It was also the experience of St. Edith Stein. When she, with her sister Rosa, was arrested by the Nazis and on her way to Auschwitz her last words were “let us go for our people.” She was “happy” to offer her life for them, a people she had always loved, but whose love increased when she became a Catholic and deeply understood the words of Christ at the last supper: “there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friend.” She did give her life for them. St. Paul gives her a guarantee that her prayer will be heard, because one blessed day the olive branch will be re-united to the tree of life. This will take place at the time of the Second coming.

Therefore, Jews whose bond with Judaism is mostly or even exclusively a “blood factor” consider that those who join the Catholic Church deserve to be “cursed.” They have cut themselves off from the “blood line” of authentic Judaism.

It is our claim that the Jews who gratefully accept that Christ, a Jew, is the Savior of the world and feed themselves daily on His Holy flesh and blood thrive spiritually on this holy food that now they share with the “gentiles.” Indeed, as St. Paul writes, “there are no more Jews and Greeks” (Col 3:11). All of them are united in recognizing the Son of Mary, a daughter of Israel, as the Savior of the whole world. Holy communion is a “divine transfusion” that sheds light on the sublime words of Pope Pius XI: “spiritually, we are all Semites.”

Some Catholics might have difficulty accepting that a “blood factor” can be rated so highly by the Jewish people. Yet, in the light of the supernatural, its profound meaning becomes luminous. Both the crucifixion and the Sacrifice of the Mass help man penetrate more deeply into the Mystery of Israel and the Mystery of Redemption. For the Mass is the unbloody representation of the sacrifice of Calvary. The Crucifixion — the Sacrifice par excellence — is the shedding of Divine Blood for the redemption of mankind. Isaiah — the greatest prophet of Israel — is eloquent in referring to the Man of sorrow, “. . . he had no form or comeliness” (Is 53). More than one prophet refers to Him: “they contemplated Him that they had pierced . . . .”

He who contemplates Grünewald’s painting of the Crucifixion is struck with horror at a human face, covered with blood, so abominably deformed by blows that one instinctively closes one’s eyes. That was the price that Christ paid to save us.

That so many Jews fail to recognize Christ as their savior is one of the sorrowful mysteries of human life. Very few words of Holy Scriptures are as difficult to understand as the words of St. Paul: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear down to this very day” (Rom 11: 8). Humanly speaking, these words are totally incomprehensible. But in the blinding light of faith, they have a deep meaning. That those who were Chosen, and were instrumental in bringing the world its Savior, should have become blind is a clarion call to those who — without any merit of their own — have fallen on their knees and adore the God-man to pray for the conversion of those to whom, through God’s mysterious plans, they are so indebted. We also know through St. Paul that one blessed day, their eyes will open. Then there will be a great joy in heaven.

Given the closeness between the Old and New Testaments, it is and should be a source of deep grief to Catholics that the sons of Israel can gravely misread the Christian message. At a time when “dialogue” is so much in the lime light and strongly endorsed by Church authorities it is crucial that misinformation and misunderstandings should be cleared up. Without this clarification, no dialogue can be fruitful, nay even meaningful. Indeed, if one important partner in the Jewish-Christian dialogue chooses to ignore factors of key importance for his intellectual partners, a dialogue will turn out to be meaningless. But how is one to dialogue with a partner who simply denies and ignores the facts upon which Christianity is built?

Welcome as dialogues should be when they aim at clarifying misunderstandings and correcting erroneous views, certain conditions should be met: a Christian should be anxious to hear what observant Jews have to tell us, how they view their election, and the content of the message delivered in the Old Testament. A Jew should be anxious to have a valid interpretation of Christianity (in our case, Catholicism) and not tell Christians what passages of the Gospel they should disregard as invalid.

Alas, at times Wyschogrod clearly ignores or misreads the Christian message. He baffles Catholics when he writes in another book that Christianity (read Catholicism — Luther abolished celibacy) has a “distaste” for sexuality. (Abraham’s Promise). He bases his claim on the ground that the Catholic Church places celibacy above marriage, which is true. But his scholarship is sadly deficient. First of all, it is not celibacy as such that the Church praises, but consecrated celibacy, which is something very different. The Church has never granted special commendation for bachelors and old maids — even though every single state of life is open to holiness, the purpose of human existence, consecrated celibacy is a mystical marriage with the Savior, and this is why it is so highly valued by the Church.

He also omits a second crucial factor. He fails to mention that marriage is a sacrament that is a means of grace. Consecrated celibacy and virginity are not. A Church that makes this claim certainly does not show a “distaste” for the intimate sphere — a sphere in which a most mysterious collaboration between God and man takes place, for man, “homo,” is invited to collaborate with His creator in bringing new human beings into existence — a privilege not granted to angels.

The Christian (clearly the Catholic) position is distorted and misrepresented. Wyschogrod could know that from the very beginning of her existence the Church has condemned any form of Gnosticism. That a religion based on the Incarnation (caro factum est) and in whose sacraments matter is essential, a Church that shows such respect for man’s mortal remains, that honors the relics of saints, that believes in the resurrection of the body, should be accused of having a “distaste” for the intimate sphere is as ridiculous as if Judaism were accused of being polytheistic.

For years, Wyschogrod has been involved in the Jewish-Christian dialogue. He is a well-known Jewish theologian and has written two valuable books on Judaism; The Body of Faith and Abraham’s Promise. At the beginning of The Body of Faith, he writes “Jesus’s personality is spiritually powerful. It would be foolish to overlook his intelligence” (sic). But, according to our author, Jesus pays “. . . little heed to the kingdom that is of this earth” (Ibid). The conclusion he draws is clear: Jesus’ message has little value for our earthly life. This is why it is, to Catholics, a source of sorrow when his reading of the New Testament and of the Church’s doctrine are so completely distorted.

Later in the same work, apparently forgetting what we have just quoted, he writes: “Jesus was crucified precisely because he was perceived by the Romans as a figure threatening their rule ” (The Body of Faith). That someone whose message is other-worldly should be a menace to the Romans is baffling indeed. What is saddening is that not a single word is mentioned about the role played by the Jewish authorities in Christ’s passion and death. That Christ was arrested in Gethsemane; that He was brought to Caiphas and Anne, then to Herod; that the Jewish Sanhedrin condemned Him to death for blasphemy because He had declared Himself to be the Son of God (Lk 22: 70); that the high priests brought Jesus to Pilate — the incarnation of cowardice –who alone had the authority to condemn Him to death, are facts apparently not worth mentioning. As far as Wyschogrod is concerned, it is very much as if the four Gospels had never been written; his purpose is clearly to exonerate the Jewish authorities for Christ’s condemnation, crucifixion, and death. That they have been accused of this crime for centuries should, therefore, be viewed as the biggest lie in history. All four Evangelists (Matthew 27: 1, Mark 15: 1, Luke 22:66 and 23, and John 18: 12), two of whom were apostles, give us the same testimony. The Evangelists’ testimonies are unanimous in informing us of the role played by Jewish authorities who brought Christ to Pilate with the request to put Him to death; being under Roman rule, they could not do so on their own. The apostles are certainly not presented as heroes: one of them betrayed Christ, all of them fled when Jesus was arrested, another denied Him three times. It is remarkable that the Evangelists do not embellish their conduct (a very human tendency). This is a reason for fully accepting the historical value of their testimony. All of us like to “forget” or play down our weaknesses. Not so with the Evangelists: they bluntly depict the cowardice of men who, for three years, had received the unfathomable of being the daily companions of the Savior.

It would have been understandable had Wyshogrod challenged the historical validity of the four Evangelists’ testimonies in the light of “modern scholarship.” But to ignore altogether the message of the four Gospels is sad indeed.

All human beings — with the exception of Mary
, the Blessed one — crucified Christ by their sins. But the Jews — because of their privileged position in the drama of salvation — acted as representatives of the human race, just as Adam and Eve acted in the name of humanity. The Jews were “deicides’ because all men are deicides. Ignorant Christians put the whole blame on the Jews because it is always tempting to put the guilt on others; they were wrong and unjust. Wyschogrod puts the whole blame on the Romans; he is also wrong. One thing is to challenge the unjust accusation that the Jews bear the whole responsibility for Christ’s death; another is to willingly choose to deny historical evidence.

It should be a source of daily grief to faithful Catholics that some of their members, in the name of Vatican II, now claim that our Jewish brothers have their own road to God, and that therefore it is illegitimate not only to evangelize them, but even to pray for their “conversion.” To my mind, this sheds a new light on the fact that the Jewish Mother of the Savior is called Mater Dolorosa: what agonies had the Blessed one suffered on Good Friday when she heard the cries “Crucify Him, crucify Him” uttered by Jews. (Let us not forget however that the women of Jerusalem cried over Him). Kierkegaard claims that no man would ever have dared to strike the Holy Face of the Godman, had he been alone, but mobs are capable of any horror for they stand for “cruel anonymity”: no one is responsible. This is why they commit unfathomable abominations, with no feelings of guilt.

To the Christian, the election of Israel as God’s Chosen people needs no explanation; it was God’s choice, causa finata est. But in The Body of Faith, Wyschogrod offers an explanation. Let us briefly sketch his arguments: Hashem, having created the world, discovered that He was terribly lonesome. He had created Adam, and declared that “it was not good for man to be alone.” Then He gave him Eve, flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones: male and female He created them. By telling them to be fruitful and multiply, He realized He would be excluded from this intimate union (become one flesh), and as a result, would doubly feel His lonesomeness. He then decided that He would elect one special people, His people, the Jews, to be His partners. They are a sort of “incarnation” of God in the material universe. Therefore, the Jewish people do not need another incarnation (as claimed by Christianity); their very existence as a people of God is one.

A Catholic reading these lines will inevitably raise the following objections. On the one hand, Wyschogrod knows that God is infinitely perfect. This is precisely what it means to be God. But how can an infinitely perfect being suffer from lonesomeness, which clearly indicates a lack, a need? This is left unexplained.

Moreover, the Catholic (Christian) belief in a Trinitarian God excludes ab ovo the notion of lonesomeness. Unwittingly a Jew sheds some light on the mystery of the Trinity: namely that the divine nature has an inner richness, an inner plenitude typical of love. It is a fundamental Christian belief that love is the bond between Father and Son and Holy Spirit. The reciprocal love of the three Divine Persons certainly excludes solitude.

To envisage for a moment that God, Creator of Adam and Eve, felt “excluded” from their joyful union is, once again, something bound to baffle a Catholic. We have seen above that according to our author, Catholicism nurtures a “distaste” for the intimate sphere. Now the moment has come to show that it is precisely in this sphere that there is an amazing closeness between the spouses and God: for if by uniting their bodies, the husband and the wife can contribute the sperm and egg which God has placed in them as a gift, it is God and God alone who creates the soul of the child. The closeness of the collaboration between God and man sheds light on the sin of contraception, let alone abortion.

Every single ardent Christian should pray daily that the Chosen People, through whom salvation came — should find their way back to the descendant of Abraham, the Son of Mary and the Son of God. For “salvation comes from the Jews” (Jn 6 ).


  • Alice von Hildebrand

    Alice von Hildebrand is professor emerita of philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York and the renowned author of many books, including The Soul of a Lion (Ignatius, 2000), The Privilege of Being a Woman (Veritas, 2002), and Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (Sapientia, 2010).

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