Crises, Tidings, and Revelations

Reflections on the Israeli-Vatican Agreement

On the night of the signing of the Vatican-Israel agreement last month, I got a call from my good friend, Saint Petersburg Bishop John Favalora, to share with his good friend, “Rabbi Jacob” (as he calls me), his joy at what he and I both saw as the day that God has made. Since we both believe not only in God but also that God acts through our respective religions, the call was natural.

But Bishop Favalora’s (and my) theological perspective scarcely sets the norm for public discourse. When the Vatican established diplomatic ties with the State of Israel, two languages clashed, one religious, the other secular. Catholics saw the event in the succession of Nostra Aetate, a further step in the reconciliation of Israel, meaning, their Bible’s Israel after the flesh and the promise, and the Church headed by the Vicar of Christ. Jews interpreted the agreement in a wholly this-worldly and secular way. That is because to be a Catholic is to participate in a Church that speaks of God, but for most Jews, to be Jewish is to belong to an ethnic group.

Judaism’s entire ethnicization over the past half-century came to ultimate expression in the asymmetry of perceptions when the Vatican and the State of Israel chose to meet. In the ceremonial chambers, the Jewish side, made up of emissaries of a sovereign state, saw the event in not theological but political terms—and rightly so. For at stake is the disposition of power: political conciliation, not religious encounter at all. Indeed, the language of “reconciliation” was carefully avoided or introduced only to be rejected.

Outside, a handful of demonstrators invoked the wrath of history: no reconciliation with the Church that called us Christ-killers and betrayed us in the hour of our passion; the “they” stayed the same. But the “us” of the demonstration remained the same as the “Israel” with whom the agreements had been negotiated, namely, the this-worldly entity, the ethnic group. No one spoke out of Judaism, no one even imagined speaking for Judaism—or, to use theological language, the Torah had no voice. Were the Pope the counterpart to the Prime Minister, the symmetry of negotiation and reconciliation—political grievances now brought to resolution—would have imparted sense to the event and meaning to the rhetoric that contained and conveyed it.

But that is not how things were. The Vatican sent an archbishop; the Government of the State of Israel, the deputy prime minister. And when the Pope comes on pilgrimage, he will meet a chief rabbi or two, but they are not his counterpart. Joining political power with moral authority, he has none. Were “Israel” to stand for not only the State of Israel, but also the holy people of the Torah, Judaism and Catholic Christianity would correspond in categories. But now, they do not.

Catholic bishops think chief rabbis are their counterpart. They’re not. Judaism sets forth no counterpart to the structure and hierarchy that Catholic Christianity knows. Ours is an inchoate hierarchy of moral authority: heads of seminaries raise money, heads of Jewish communities spend it. Rare is the voice of faith, rarer still, the theological vocation.

The Vatican, the institutional center of a vast, well-organized religion, understands by “Israel” the holy people of God, God’s first love. To explain “Israel,” Catholics appeal to Romans’ “children of the flesh, children of the promise,” and from the very beginning have affirmed holy Israel’s mystery. When Jews say “Israel,” they mean “the State of Israel,” and few commit the sin of erastianism or imagine that—however noble its human achievement—it is fundamentally different from other political entities.

The incongruity of an ethnic group engaged in dialogue with a religious one shades over into the grotesque when a Sir Sigmund Steinberg (U.K.) or an Edgar Bronfman (Canada) represents the Jewish community in its encounter with a Cardinal Cassidy or a Cardinal Willebrand, or, at the local community level, when the diocesan bishop meets with the president of the local Jewish Federation. The Catholic participant in dialogue represents not institutions alone but the faith and community of believers; he speaks with learning and authority about Catholic Christianity, which he practices. The Jewish counterpart represents an eleemosynary institution and has gained his position by sitting in chairs at meetings and giving lots of money.

Marginal to Judaism, both Steinberg and Bronfman represent the trivial power of great wealth, but not the enduring source of authentic authority yielded by great learning, and neither claims to exercise moral authority or even to embody the religious virtues that the religion, Judaism, espouses. True, rabbis such as James Rudin in the USA and David Rosen in Jerusalem speak with learning and piety, but they are employees of secular agencies, answerable to wealth but not to a conscience educated in committed learning. They are not the Judaic counterpart to bishops, nor are the chief rabbis that dot the European Jewish communities equal to Catholic archbishops (even though to play the role many put on dresses rather than suits and sport larger skullcaps than common rabbis).

Matters were not always so. We stand at the end of 200 years of militant secularization, which has profoundly transformed the world in general, and the Jews in particular. From the end of the eighteenth century, in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, a new being was invented in the world of holy Israel, a new possibility explored: the Jew by ethnic but not religious affiliation, the secular Jew. “Israel” had formerly stood for God’s holy people, defined by the Torah of Sinai, witness now to God’s will for all humanity and presence in, and love for, the world. This “Israel’s” history told the story of how God wanted things to be, and its destiny defined humanity’s hope. So the Torah taught, and so holy Israel believed. That is why this “Israel” lived a life in essential segregation, not in ghettos imposed by others, but by choice in enchanted circles of the faithful. But with the advent of the nation-state, dissolving the voluntary communities that sheltered the Jewish social order and defining the radically isolated individual at the disposal of the omnipotent state, that “Israel” lost ground to another aspiration altogether.

Many Jews wished to be both Jewish and something else—American, French, German, Italian, for example—in a world in which difference gave way to not only equal rights but common aspirations. The norms and convictions of the Torah (in secular language, “Judaism”) defined a social order of a unique and separate holy people that much of Jewry no longer affirmed. How to be both Judaic and German? The answer emerged in the redefinition of the adjective, “Judaic,” into two components, “Jewish,” meaning “ethnic,” and “Judaic,” meaning, religious.

The apostle Paul will have understood, since he founded his theology of “Israel” in Romans 9 on the distinction that forms the counterpart to that between the ethnic and the religious, namely, “children of the flesh,” the ethnic group, and “children of the promise,” the religious community. To our sages of blessed memory who wrote the documents of the originally oral Torah, by contrast, “Israel” always stood for a sacred fellowship of the faithful, as in “All Israel have a portion in the world to come,” a statement in the oral Torah that, for the purposes of defining “Israel,” appeals to not ethnic but theological affirmations, as in “. . . except those who deny that the Torah comes from heaven [= God], or that the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead comes from the Torah . . .” In secular language, the Judaism of the dual Torah that today yields Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaisms, knows no secular “Israel,” but only the sacred one.

The Jewish press reported last month that 20 percent of the American Jews celebrate Christmas, by which is meant not Christmas cards or even trees but church services; these Jews, many the children of mixed marriages, the papers said, are not accessible to “the Jewish community.” From the perspective of the religion, Judaism, Jews who celebrate Christmas are Christians. From the viewpoint of the ethnic group, the Jewish people, they are Jews who celebrate Christmas. There is a world of difference—eternity, in fact.

Rabbi Jacob Neusner is Distinguished Research Professor of Religious Studies at the University of South Florida, and author of A Rabbi Talks with Jesus: An Intermillennial, Interfaith Exchange.

Hollywood’s Lewis

In the widely broadcast TV ad for Richard Attenborough’s excellent film adaptation of the William Nicholson play Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis, played by Anthony Hopkins, says to his intended bride, Joy Gresham, “I want to marry you before the world.” One more second would have afforded the full line from the movie, “before God and before the world.” Perhaps the longer version didn’t pass the advertisers code that excludes troublesome ideas; the film itself excludes a few. Yet, one is hard-pressed to imagine a finer film production of a flawed play.

Hopkins’s portrayal of Lewis’s calm, understated, and deliberate side is superb. What the script does not allow him to show is joviality, magnanimity, powerfulness—also qualities of C.S. Lewis’s well-attested by those who knew him. (Sheldon Vanauken, who knew Lewis in his later years, told me that while he admired the movie, Hopkins “never became Jack.”) Debra Winger is in top form in her role of the spirited and (later) dying Joy. The cinematography is lush, the music evocative. Since few Hollywood products deserve their ticket price, we should take notice when a film of substance comes along that feeds the heart and mind both.

And yet. The Nicholson screenplay makes Lewis a repressed man, even an emotionally crippled one. It takes the experience of falling in love and having a woman invade the close, controlled world of Oxford dons to shake him into the reality of the pain and suffering that he gives smug speeches about earlier in the movie, and which, we’re given to believe, Lewis knew nothing about before Joy came along. Ignored or glossed over are the traumas he had endured since the death of his mother at age nine. Dramatic necessity and economy dictate much of this; contrasts must stand forth sharply. And it’s all well done. Truth suffers, though. Lewis’s love for Joy was indeed a highly charged episode in his life, and her death occasioned great soul-searching. But this soul-searching was not the beginning of his deep humanity; it arose from it.

Missing also in this film is the presence of religious faith as anything but misplaced hopes and wishful thinking. Anyone seeing this film with no familiarity with Lewis or his work will not learn of them here. It’s a serious mistake to discount the claims of eternity in any faithful portrayal of Lewis—that is what he was about. There is an insinuation that those claims belong to the nursery; grown-ups look after the things of this world, the one we can see. Not quite, to put it mildly, the way Lewis thought—before or after Joy’s death. It’s not that anything in Shadowlands is violently inconsistent with the truth. Better to say that certain elements move against the grain of truth.

But enough. Arm yourself with handkerchiefs and see it. Then go back to the books. The colors are much brighter there.

Tracy Lee Simmons

Catholic Bestsellers

Telling indications of the spiritual interest which endures in our secular age are provided by sales of two specifically Catholic materials. Catholic News Service alone has sold some 57,000 copies of the Pope’s recent encyclical Veritatis splendor, a figure which does not include even the Service’s 7,500 regular subscriptions to Origins, in which the encyclical was printed in full, or sales from other sources, such as bookstores operated by the Daughters of St. Paul. And in Spain, a compact disc of “The Best of Gregorian chants” prepared by the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos is atop the “pop charts,” with sales exceeding 250,000 copies. Research shows that 60 percent of the sales are to young Spaniards between the ages of 16 and 25. Elsewhere in Europe, the mystical music of Catholic composers Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki continues to lead recording sales.


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