Single Standard of Truth: A Rabbi’s Reading of ‘Veritas’

The advent of a papal encyclical framed in so broad and encompassing a perspective, provoking discussion of fundamental issues of morality that govern everyone everywhere, calls forth not only admiration at the vision but a sneaking breath of envy that such a thing is possible. The papacy’s union of authority—moral and intellectual—with power has no counterpart elsewhere. In my own religion, Judaism, those with authority exercise no power; the governance of the Jewish community is in the hands of men (few women) of worldly power but negligible learning and moral authority, while the exercise of authority is assigned to persons denied worldly power and even, in secular Jewry, a hearing. “Chief rabbis” form no counterpart to archbishops, as most of them possess little learning and less power, and Presidents of Jewish Communities (in Europe) or Jewish Federations (in the U.S.) usually stand for little more than the money in their own pockets. And the quite different situation in the State of Israel proves still less enviable: its rabbinate possesses no capacities for dealing with the secular world or, outside of narrow circles, the authority of learned, wise and moral leadership. So reading the present encyclical, with its clear and legitimate presumption of worldly power on the part of the head of a mighty institution, but also its obvious aspiration to exercise the moral authority of persuasion in the name of a well-reasoned encounter with revealed truth and tradition of a given faith, underscores the enormous, this-worldly advantage that the papacy confers upon the Catholic Church.

So far as the Pope addresses specifically Catholic concerns, outsiders possess no claim to a place in the debate. But when, as in this magisterial statement, the fruit of years of learning and reflection within the framework of a cogent and experienced perspective, address turns to the natural condition of humanity, Catholic theology opens the door to everyone addressed by its claims to truth. For the issues taken up here face every religion that sets forth principles of right and wrong that apply everywhere and to everybody at all times. When the document refers to “doubt . . . about the intrinsic and unbreakable bond between faith and morality, to the extent of theorizing the possibility of forms of pluralism which are in fact incompatible with ecclesial communion,” it speaks to the world of Judaism as much as that of Christianity in its Catholic embodiment.

The framing of Judaic norms in statements of law or halakhah sets forth that same bond between faith and morality of which the Pope speaks. Our faith begins at Sinai, with the self-revelation of God through the Torah revealed to Moses our rabbi and handed on through the chain of tradition, in written and in oral form, to our sages of blessed memory, who, in the early centuries of the Common Era, reduced the whole to a representation of their own in the Mishnah, Midrash, and Talmuds. The revelation at Sinai set forth not only that the Lord is God, but also what the Lord God demands of us. Those demands take very specific terms. For Jews, the counterpart of the Magisterium is the sacred writings of our sages, and the teachings of those sages today who possess moral authority serve as the authority without power that defines norms and discerns right from wrong. For, as I said, without institutions of worldly grandeur, such as the papacy or the church council and their equivalents in Islam, all we have is the power of intellect formed on the foundations of learning in the Torah.

How then to respond to the Pope’s insistence that revealed morality does govern and does not negotiate truth? It is by appeal to the Torah, written and oral, and, especially, to the one Torah, the written mediated by the oral, that, in secular language, constitutes Judaism. For us, natural law that is universal and permanently valid comes to us in the authority and through the power of God at Sinai, when to Moses these words are spoken: “And the Lord said to Moses, Say to all the congregation of the people of Israel, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy. Every one of you shall revere his mother and his father, and you shall keep my sabbaths; I am the Lord your God. Do not turn to Idols or make for yourselves molten gods; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:1-4). These are non-negotiable truths; the commandment to revere mother and father and keep the Sabbaths, not to practice idolatry, directs the conduct of all who constitute Israel, which is to say, all humanity when the sovereignty of one God comes to be acknowledged and the kingdom of that one God to be realized. For “Israel” is not more “ethnic” than “the Church” is corporeal. Just as the Church is “the mystical body of Christ,” so “Israel” is “the holy people to whom God gives the Torah,” the spirituality of the one corresponding to the supernatural character of the other.

In this context, natural law, a morality that applies to all, comes to holy Israel in our sages’ teachings of the Torah. So let us ask precisely what being holy as God is holy requires. Among a variety of important and compelling responses, one is the most germane to this context:

11     A. “You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy”;

B. “Just as I am holy, so you be holy.”

C. “Just as I am separate, so you be separate.”

  1. A. R. Eleazar ben Azariah says, “How do we know that someone should not say, ‘I do not want to wear mixed fibers, I don’t want to eat pork, I don’t want to have incestuous sexual relations.’

B. “Rather: ‘I do want [to wear mixed fibers, I do want to eat pork, I do want to have incestuous sexual relations]. But what can I do? For my father in heaven has made a decree for me!’

C. “So Scripture says, ‘and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.’

D. So one will turn out to keep far from transgression and accept upon himself the rule of Heaven.”

[Sifra CCVII:II.11,13, in my own translation]

To be “Israel” is to be holy, like God, and that means to separate oneself from the world that ignores God, and from the ways of that world. The positive side of sanctification comes to expression in the teaching of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah: to be holy is to do what God commands, not because one wants to do what God commands as a matter of natural instinct or sheer reasonable persuasion, but because one does not want to do what God commands but accepts the rule of Heaven. Here Eleazar explains what we must do to enter the kingdom of Heaven, which is, to accept God’s sovereignty over our lives and God’s rule over the community formed by that Israel that is framed by the Torah of Sinai.

Catholics immersing themselves in the study of Veritatis splendor with a seriousness that is commensurate to the Pope’s intellectual ambition will look beyond the narrow issues of the moment. Details matter for here and now. But the principles endure, and the Pope’s insistence upon the constitutive relationship between freedom and truth—”human freedom and God’s law meet each other and intersect,” in the language of the Vatican’s summary—will provoke deep thought indeed on not only the meaning, but the source, of both freedom and truth. His insistence that “conscience itself must be formed in the light of truth” resonates for holy Israel, educated as we are in Eleazar’s statement, “my father in heaven has made a decree for me.” The Pope’s urgent demand that there be one standard of morality, deriving from outside of time and speaking to us from eternity, echoes the Torah’s formulation of morality, solely in the setting of God’s sovereignty: “So Scripture says, ‘and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.’ So one will turn out to keep far from transgression and accept upon himself the rule of Heaven.”

Veritatis splendor is addressed to the “venerable brothers in the episcopate,” but the issues transcend the farthest limits of the Catholic Church and the echoes resonate in the hearts of all who meditate upon the diversity of humanity and the mystery of the God Who calls to us all, to each in the voice and language of his or her comprehension. Amid the glorious plurality of humanity, the Pope insists, there is a single standard of truth and morality. He would have been derelict had he not made clear what he knows that standard to be. Affirming that same point of insistence by appeal to a different source of revelation, we who find our way to God through another path, who know God through God’s self-manifestation in the Torah in particular, find much in general to affirm—but, in rich detail, in the specifics of defining the good and the evil in the here and now—still more to share. Now we have to get down to work and study this document, and, in the framework of Judaism, conduct that Auseinandersetzung, the comparison that permits authentic Catholic Christianity to engage in dialogue with the Torah of Sinai as in our time and in our place we understand and perform it. For, as all of us know, God lives in the details. For us, that is why there is not only the Torah, but the halakhah, the norms of right and wrong, that the Torah comes to teach. When the Pope insists upon natural law that governs everywhere, we respond with halakhah, those laws of detail that dictate what we must do not because we want to, but because God wants us to, in the here and now. Just as the Torah stands for that revealed will that takes its form in norms, a proposition that, in his terms, the Pope affirms in this encyclical, so we may take our place on the side of those who teach an unchanging norm for right and wrong to the world that appeals to circumstance and context.


  • Rabbi Jacob Neusner

    Jacob Neusner (born 1932) is an American academic scholar of Judaism. He is often celebrated as one of the most published authors in history, having written or edited more than 950 books.

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