The Two Novaks: Jews, Christians, and the One True God


September 1, 2006

It happens that in the various Slavic tongues the name Novak means new man, newcomer, stranger. Novak was a name often given to wanderers to a town, who might be of Jewish or of Christian background. Those of us whose name is Novak (or Novick, or Nowak, or Novakoff, or No­vacek, or other variants)—and there are a lot of us—cannot be sure on encountering that name elsewhere whether the bearer is Christian or Jewish.

So it happens that my “cousin” David Novak is a most distinguished rabbi and learned scholar of both Judaism and Christianity, who generously admits to his friendship with his “cousin” Michael Novak, the Catholic scholar—writer. Even our political leanings are in several areas quite oppo­site. Friendship, though, is a more powerful bond.

I thought I might seize on the happenstance of our common name to develop a theme that Rabbi Novak has often drawn upon in his work, and I myself have elabo­rated (in an essay on “Jacques Maritain and the Jews”);namely, the asymmetrical relation between Jews and Christians playfully put, the asymmetry between No- yaks. But there is more to this happenstance, symmetries and asymmetries both, than our mere sharing in a com­mon surname. There is friendship. And as with us, so with Jews and Christians generally, the time is right for talking about the asymmetries between Christians and Jews, precisely because the bond between us has become so close.

To everything there is a season. Some questions cannot be addressed for quite concrete and practical reasons at earlier times but, when the time is right, may later be addressed quite comfortably. As Rabbi Novak has explained, for some centuries Jews felt that they must keep themselves safe from Christian proselytizing, and so had to emphasize every­thing that separates and differentiates Jews from Christians. Thus, for many centuries, the inheritances that Jews and Christians shared in common went virtually unmentioned, if not wholly ignored.

Yet nowadays it’s different, as Rabbi Novak points out. In these days of an aggressive anti-religious fever and a ris­ing secularism—days in which, simultaneously, generations of amicable pluralistic experience have nourished bonds of trust and familiarity between Jews and Christians that were seldom felt before—something new is possible. It is now even a necessary thing to stress what Jews and Christians share in common. At the same time, it is also necessary for the integrity of both parties, and for the durability of the conversation between them, that they should begin for the first time to set forth and analyze the asymmetries involved in their relationship.

Judaism is not Christianity. Christianity is not Judaism. There are points at which the two religions are—or appear to be—in complete contradiction to one another. (That “appear” phrase pops up in order to allow for God’s way of seeing the matter.) Christians must hold that in some way—which Jews cannot in honesty accept—Christian­ity adds to and goes beyond Judaism. And Jews must hold in some way—which Christianity cannot in honesty ac­cept—that Christ was not what He said He was. A very good, prophetic, and holy teacher, yes; but not the Messiah and certainly not the “Son of God,” a term that must appear blasphemous to Jews.

To Jews, the Trinitarian God of Christianity must seem a breach of monotheism. To Christians, the God of Judaism must seem inadequately revealed in His inner dynamism and communion of life.

For good and honest dialogue to go forward, it is help­ful for Jews and Christians both to know precisely where they cannot go forward together, but must respectfully and perhaps even affectionately separate. These points of dif­ference being clear, there remains a very large universe of common cherishing, mutual reinforcement, and brotherly prodding and stimulation.

But the term “points of difference” does not go far enough. Also involved is a quite different angle of vision or “horizon.” And the effect of differences of this sort can be quite immense, indeed.

I have identified one crucial asymmetry in this way: In order to understand their own faith, Christians must also accept as true nearly the whole of the Jewish faith. But the reverse is not true. Jews can perfectly well understand them­selves without accepting the truth of the Christian faith. In fact, a self-respecting Jew may hold that in certain impor­tant respects, Christian faith must be in error. By compari­son, the Christian, while accepting that Jewish faith is true as far as it goes, and while holding that it lays the premises of and prepares the way for Christ’s coming, may ponder what it is that prevents Jews from seeing the truth of Chris­tianity. Why do Jews refuse to accept Christ?

I have long thought that there is a good book to be written by a Jewish author, or authors, about why the figure of Christ fails to attract Jews, as it draws Christians. Why are Jewish ways of looking at Christ so far from Christian views? I think rejection cannot always be based on avoid­ance of reading or thinking about Jesus.

By comparison, it is not so hard to imagine what it is that holds Jews back from Christianity—not only because of remembered historical wrongs, but even in the contem­porary period, on account of its social unattractiveness. A good number of persons who have become, for example, Roman Catholics, after having been raised Anglicans, Pres­byterians, Lutherans, or in other Protestant communions, have written about how the human appearances and real faults of the Catholic body actually repulsed them. It was not the “beauty” or the “aesthetics” of being Catholic that drew them; not at all. Jacques Maritain, Avery Dulles, John Jay Hughes, and others have described how they had to overcome their own inward revulsion.

In the past I have tended to look at the basic asymme­try from the point of view of the affirming attitude toward Judaism that is built into Christian self-understanding, in contrast to the wariness that is built into Jewish self-under­standing. For example, in fidelity to themselves, Christians begin by affirming the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the prophets; the Psalms, Proverbs, Histories, indeed the whole of the Jewish books of the Bible; the faith and the prayers and the traditional virtues of the mother of Jesus, and Jesus, and His apostles, and the like. In contrast, Jewish self-understanding has necessarily begun with more guard­ed and limited affirmations about Christian faith, specific virtues, and Christian practice.

Noting that nowadays the time is right for attending more to symmetries and common interests, in speaking of asymmetries at all Rabbi Novak has concentrated on several more technically stated ones.

In a statement signed by a number of Jewish schol­ars in 2000, followed up by a book called Christianity in Jewish Terms, Rabbi Novak and his colleagues considered the question of Christians living in a Jewish polity and Jews living in a Christian polity. From a Jewish perspec­tive, the only way that Christians could live in a Jewish polity—governed by Jewish law, that is—would be in a sort of resident-alien status, a status held by one whom Scripture calls “the sojourner in the city” (Ex 20:10). The same subordination has been experienced by Jews living under the Christian polities of early and medieval Chris­tendom. In other words, the asymmetry between the two religions is such that neither can accept in good faith liv­ing under subordination to the other. Jews cannot in good faith accept Christian theories that their own religion has been “superceded” by Christianity, whether in the radical sense of vacating the Covenant of Moses with God or in the less severe sense of “a branch grafted onto the tree”(Rom 11:17-24).

Thus, the asymmetrical relation requires the aban­donment of metaphors that suggest one genus, to which both religions belong; Rabbi Novak mentions “Israel,” and I wonder whether even “one people of God” might receive the same stricture. Rather, he and his colleagues propose looking to certain overlapping commonalities to carry the conceptual load for the new experiences of amity and the new experiments in cooperation. These overlapping com­monalities do not require “prior agreement on principles or agreement on final conclusions.” Law and commandments occupy just this territory, intermediate between first prin­ciples and the endpoint or telos. Since first principles in this matter will become clear only at the endpoint, and since the endpoint is shrouded “behind an eschatological horizon,” our best present prospects for mutual progress lie in any case in this intermediate territory. And since the three most basic normative categories of the Noahide law and/or the natural-law traditions of some Christians consist of prohi­bitions against idolatry, bloodshed, and sexual immorality, there will be much common work for Jews and Christians in precisely this territory.

For example, the idolatry of totalitarian power claimed by communism and Nazism in the 20th century—absolutiz­ing the state and leaving no room for God—obliged Jews and Christians to discern in a fresh way the liberating pow­er of religious liberty as the first human right in a secular society, “and to recognize that the denial or the belittling of the human quest for God entails an assault on human dignity and destiny.” Simultaneously, though, this struggle against one form of idolatry helped unmask another: the absolutizing of the untrammeled, unconnected, deracinated individual under the liberal secularism of the West. Liberal secularism—although not by way of atrocities such as those of related forms of secularism has also been hostile to communal, traditional, and public religions such as Judaism and Christianity. Liberal secularism tries to lock Judaism and Christianity out of the light of public life. Here, too, work for religious liberty is demanded of both communities. •

In obedience to prohibitions against wanton blood­shed, Jews and Christians also have much to do together, Rabbi Novak and his colleagues tell us, to achieve in the public square “the broadest possible definition of human personhood in order to include everyone genetically hu­man” within the prohibition against homicide. Pope John Paul II taught that, the “common heritage [of Jews and Catholics] drawn from the Law and the Prophets” required a “collaboration in favor of man.” They must fight together for an inclusive definition of human rights, expanding rath­er than contracting the circle of those born of human par­ents, in the image of God. This battle is especially acute in an age when too many groups claim superiority over other classes of humans in order to terminate them. The strong seek justifications for terminating the weak, the powerful for terminating the powerless.

In days of publicly lauded and highly promoted sexual immorality, it is also necessary for Jews and Christians to come to the defense of family life, the core of all authentic human community, by steadfastly opposing all those degra­dations of the human body that “Judaism and Christianity teach to be universally prohibited (incest, adultery, homo­sexuality, and bestiality).”

“All of the prohibited sexual acts contradict the claims of the heterosexually constituted family to be the exclusive arena for sexuality, with the purpose of conception, birth, and rearing of children (including the lifelong identifica­tion of children with their parents’ union, even when they themselves are adults).” It is no accident, our author goes on, that “for Jews, Jewish identity is primarily familial; and it is no accident that, for Christians, Jesus was raised in a traditional family.”

There is one last point that Rabbi Novak and his col­leagues add that goes beyond a narrow sense of the ethical, although it is an important part of the law and the com­mandments, namely, the worship of God and the conduct of a lifelong conversation with God.

With Jews worshiping the same God as we do, and read­ing the same book, it is inescapable that our religious ways of life are often parallel. Indeed, throughout our historical inter­action, Christians have learned significant things from Jewish piety, and vice versa. That is because we have been command­ed by the same God. Thus it is the centrality of the same mitz­vah to us both that offers the greatest content and the greatest hope for our relationship in this world and the next.

The Jewish scholars rightly qualify this point. We learn from each other in prayer by analogy, not by identity. Analo­gy emphasizes essential differences, even while also empha­sizing some significant similarities. If Jews and Christians adopted a common religious life together, one side or the other would have to capitulate, perhaps only slowly and subtly, but inexorably. This is no place for syncretism.

Still, both honesty and good faith allow for plenty of room to learn from each other, and to deepen one’s own faith by studying deeply in another’s. John Paul II noted that “our two religious communities are connected and closely related at the very level of their respective religious iden­tities.” There are many profound lessons for Christians to learn by drinking deeply of the Torah and the other books of the Hebrew Bible, and plumbing the original roots, us­ages, and meanings of key Hebrew words such as compas­sion, faith, shekinah, contrition, love, penance, and the like. Some Jews have learned much by studying Christian monastic classics on contemplation, abandonment, and the love of God. There is much to learn about the Christian Eucharist by celebrating the Passover with Jewish friends, as there are usually some surprises in store for Jews who discover the Jewish elements in their first Catholic Mass.

The tide of feelings and understandings between Chris­tians and Jews, therefore, sometimes flows inward, centripe­tally, to stress what we can learn from each other and what we have in common. At other times, however, that tide flows in the opposite direction. There are moments when in order to be honest and faithful to ourselves, our judgments and our sympathies dare not coincide. Our two faiths cannot both be embraced by the same person, holding to the same communal identity before and after. It may be possible—it sometimes happens in concrete human experience—that a Christian becomes a Jew, or a Jew a Christian. But this conversion normally means a severe rupture with the earlier community of belonging.

For the two communities do not stand upon identical ground, nor do they even face in the same direction. The Jew who becomes a Christian may well have come to believe that Judaism does point beyond itself and into Christianity, and so follows conscience where it leads. Put another way, a Jew who comes to believe that Judaism, no matter how much or how little she used to love and cherish it as the first home of her soul, is by the will of God superceded by Christianity, must become a Christian. Conversely, a Chris­tian who does not believe that Christianity has anything to add to, or that goes beyond, Judaism, is likely sooner or later to ask why he does not become a Jew.

In one vision, Judaism is aimed beyond itself. In the other vision, Judaism is not only a sufficient but a more truthful and morally saner alternative. These two visions are asymmetrical. At some vital and salient points, they do not cover identical spiritual realms, but realms that are mutually contradictory. To be seen embracing one of them is to be seen turning away from the other. But this is to view the conversion from outside.

In real life, people do have conversions—often turbulent conversions, sometimes quiet ones. Among our own fami­lies and friends, most of us can probably think of examples in both directions, from Christian to Jew, and from Jew to Christian. We can probably also testify that the experience for the one doing the conversion—the interior experience— is quite different from what the two external communities, the Jews and the Christians most closely involved with the convert, experience. For example, it may well happen that the Jew who in good conscience becomes a Christian ex­periences a rush of gratitude for every aspect of his or her Jewish experience as a marvelous preparation for the new experience of living in Christ. Such a person may feel no insuperable contradiction at all between the earlier and the later belonging, but only a certain preparatory “fit” between the two, as though both belonged in the nature of things to one another. This interior experience is only what one would expect of a genuine conversion, led by the deepest stirrings of personal conscience. The soul would be at rest in its new state, peaceful in its internal pilgrimage.

This internal peace, however, is often the opposite of the pain, confusion, sense of betrayal, non-comprehension, and even anger experienced by that person’s parents, sib­lings, other relatives, and childhood friends. In these two different experiences of the same act of conversion we en­counter yet another, and painful, meaning of “asymmetry.”

Rabbi Novak treats this painful asymmetry profoundly and beautifully in a delicate and painstaking essay on the conversion of Edith Stein. Stein, he discerns, “considered herself not a runaway from Judaism (however rudimenta­ry her own Judaism was) but, rather, a Jew whose Judaism brought her into the Church. Her logic was clearly super­cessionist. How could it have been otherwise?”

Since “supercessionist” is a fighting word to Jews and Christians today—infuriating some of the former, and em­barrassing some of the latter—Rabbi Novak quickly points out that supercessionism need not lead Christians to deni­grate Jews. On the contrary, Christians may believe they ought to learn from Jews, their “elder brothers,” as John Paul II liked to call them. Further, they can affirm that just as God made a new covenant with Christians, He did not an­nul His first covenant with the Jews. On the contrary, it is precisely because God, on His side, is everlastingly faithful to His covenants, that Christians may have utter trust in Him. Their trust in Him depends on His fidelity to His first love, His firstborn, His first people, His first covenant with the Jews. For if God can break His covenant with the Jews, why should Christians trust that He will be faithful to them, especially in the light of their own falls and betrayals?

Besides all this, there is immense and beautiful continu­ity between the Old Law and the New, which repays much close, attentive, and inexhaustible study down the ages. All this and more Rabbi Novak concedes in his long and pene­trating book. Yet the stubborn asymmetry stares us in the face. We cannot invoke Stein as patron saint of our dialog, a bridge between us, “because in this world one cannot be both a faithful Jew and a faithful Catholic in tandem. These necessarily communal identities are mutually exclusive here and now.” If we meet under the sign of Stein as we engage in Christian–Jewish dialogue, how will Jewish participants not be placed in a dishonest position? They cannot pretend to hold to supercessionism without betraying their own com­munity, whose communion is based upon an opposite con­viction. They cannot take Stein as a model for Jewishness, except insofar as she was a holy and learned person, faithful to her conscience.

Thus it happens that the road of a convert is very often a lonely road. Converts “cannot expect the approval of the covenanted community” they have just left. They must go off like Abraham, far from home. They often go without even a peaceful farewell; in fact, quite often the reverse.

Rabbi Novak points out that devout Jews may well sympathize with the Catholic community for the entrance into its daily life of a holy, intelligent, and devoted person such as Stein, even as they sorrow that their community has lost so holy a life. But they cannot empathize with Catho­lics. Jews can feel for Catholics in this happy event, but they cannot feel with Catholics. They can imagine how Catholics feel, and be glad for them, but in their own hearts they cannot feel the same way as Catholics feel about the action of Stein.

In this world of our real existence, Rabbi Novak prof­fers, “We are still strangers to each other.” But, of course, even here we live in the presence of the Great Lord and Creator of all things, who sees into our souls. And so he concludes:

It seems that we shall have to remain strangers to each other until God judges us all in the end in a world where we all hope to the lasting friends of God and thus lasting friends of each other. May that day come speedily, even in our own lifetime on earth!

This last sentiment actually limns a beautiful symmetry—a fearful symmetry—that lies behind, and gives ground to, the asymmetries that have been the focus of these brief reflections. The great Jewish lay philosopher Milton Himmelfarb, who passed into the presence of Yahweh just at the New Year, once announced at an agitated meeting and with tremulous voice: “One thing Judaism opposes is pa­ganism.” He went on to speak of the difference it makes to a life, and to a civilization, when it is lived in the pres­ence of, and under the undeceivable eye of, the Lord God Jehovah, Creator of all things above and below, within and without. And what a difference it makes to know, re­ally know, that no idol may ever be set in the place of the One True God.

“One thing Judaism is opposed to is paganism.” The same is true for Judaism’s daughter, Christianity. For both of them, the reason for that resistance is the love of the liv­ing God, whom paganism would deny, ignore, and disdain. Love and resistance—in that fearful symmetry is rooted communion between Jews and Christians in this world and the next.


  • 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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