A very good friend of mine (CA) lent me a great book about Judaism, entitled “What is a Jew?” and aimed at providing an introduction to a broad variety of aspects of what it means to be Jewish. The book is structured in the form of questions and answers and its tone exudes warmth and a desire to share rather than to impose or indoctrinate. Even before I started reading the book, I was looking forward to learning more about Judaism, both because of a desire to have a better understanding of the religion of several friends of mine, and because of the heightened insistence on a rediscovery of Judaism made by the Catholic Church since Vatican II.
John Paul II was famously the first pope to visit a synagogue, during which visit he spoke with clarity and warmth about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism:
“The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. [...] With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”Benedict XVI went on to maintain very strong relationships with Judaism, both acknowledging the Church’s past wrongs and expressing its gratitude and debt to the Jewish people:
“Abraham, father of the people of Israel, father of faith, has become the source of blessing, for in him ‘all the families of the earth shall call themselves blessed.’ The task of the Chosen People is therefore to make a gift of their God - the one true God - to every other people. In reality, as Christians we are the inheritors of their faith in the one God. Our gratitude therefore must be extended to our Jewish brothers and sisters who, despite the hardships of their own history, have held on to faith in this God right up to the present and who witness to it...”Finally, Pope Francis has not only continued along the direction indicated by his predecessors, but has also benefitted from close personal friendships with the Jewish community. An example of this is the book - “On Heaven and Earth” that he co-authored with Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who also accompanied him on his recent visit to Israel and who has been a frequent visitor at the Vatican. Pope Francis has also reiterated, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the brotherly relationship that his predecessors have stressed:
“We hold the Jewish people in special regard because their covenant with God has never been revoked, for “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29). The Church, which shares with Jews an important part of the sacred Scriptures, looks upon the people of the covenant and their faith as one of the sacred roots of her own Christian identity (cf. Rom 11:16-18). As Christians, we cannot consider Judaism as a foreign religion; nor do we include the Jews among those called to turn from idols and to serve the true God (cf. 1 Thes 1:9). With them, we believe in the one God who acts in history, and with them we accept his revealed word. Dialogue and friendship with the children of Israel are part of the life of Jesus’ disciples. [...] While it is true that certain Christian beliefs are unacceptable to Judaism, and that the Church cannot refrain from proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Messiah, there exists as well a rich complementarity which allows us to read the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures together and to help one another to mine the riches of God’s word. We can also share many ethical convictions and a common concern for justice and the development of peoples.” (§247-9)Against this background I was particularly pleased to see the relationship between Christianity and Judaism described by Rabbi Morris Kertzer in “What is a Jew?” as follows:
“[The] German dramatist, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, caught the essence of this common heritage [of Judaism and Christianity] in a play called Nathan, the Wise. One of the most memorable scenes depicts a meeting between a friar and the Jew Nathan. Moved by the beauty of Nathan’s character, the friar exclaims, “Nathan! Nathan! You are a Christian!” His friend replies, “We are of one mind, for that which makes me, in your eyes, a Christian, makes you, in my eyes, a Jew!”” (pp. 279)I have to say that this paragraph from the last pages of the book very much rang true for me and expressed with accuracy the feeling I had as I made my way through the whole book. To give you a sense of what triggered such a recognition of what I believe to be very much mine in Rabbi Kertzer’s description of Judaism, I will share a number of excerpts from it next.
To begin with, the mystical tradition in Judaism, and its propensity to expressing itself by means of short stories reminded me immediately of the stories told about the Desert Fathers (and also about Zen kōans and the stories of the Sufi Mullah Nasrudin):
““Rabbi,” one of the disciples complained, “some of the congregants are gossiping in the midst of prayer!” “How wonderful are your people, O God,” The rabbi retorted. “Even in the midst of gossip, they devote a few moments to prayer!”Next, I was struck by a repeated insistence on orthopraxy, which has a strong tradition in Christianity too:
“Can you tell me, Rabbi, why the wicked are always looking for companions while the righteous are not?” “The answer is simple: The wicked walk in darkness, so are anxious for company. Good people walk in the light of God; they don’t mind walking alone.”” (pp. 21-22)
“Jews are urged to put their religion into action. “Talking is not the main thing; action is,” goes a talmudic maxim, and action includes not just activity within the confines of the Jewish world, but working for the welfare of the larger society in which we live. We call this tikkun olam, meaning the “reparation of world.”” (pp. 30)And Rabbi Kertzer goes on to recounting the same story about the building of the Tower of Babel that Pope Francis reflects on in his above-mentioned book, and then to presenting a synthesis of principles that resonate very strongly with Christianity too:
“The Rabbis used telling parables to illustrate this point. Why did the Tower of Babel crumble? Because the leaders of the project were more interested in the work than in the workers. When a brick fell to earth, they would pause to bewail its loss; when a worker fell they would urge the others to keep on building. The brick was more important than the human being. So God destroyed the imposing edifice. [...]A couple of questions later, Kertzer then sets out an understanding of Scripture that could have come from the Vatican II dogmatic constitution Dei Verbum:
Basic to Judaism are these fundamental principles, which are also basic to democracy: 1) God recognizes no distinction among us on the basis of creed, color, gender, or class; all of us are equal in God’s sight. 2) We are all our brother’s and sister’s keepers; we bear responsibility for our neighbors’ failings as well as for their needs. 3) All of us, being made in God’s image, have infinite capacity for doing good; therefore the job of society is to evoke the best that is in each of us. 4) Freedom is to be prized above all things; the very first words of the Ten Commandments depict God as the Great Liberator: “I am the Eternal your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”” (pp. 31)
“[M]ost Jews look upon the accounts of miracles as inspiring literature, rather than as actual historical events. That is to say, we do not necessarily accept older interpretations of their significance, since an important lesson for the fifth century may be unimportant in the face of today’s spiritual questions; but we do use these tales as sources of inspiration ourselves, trying to draw religious lessons from the text, even the text of an event that may not be literally true. God did not create the world in precisely six days, just as the biblical text insists, but we can learn lessons for our lives from such stories as the Garden of Eden or the Tower of Babel.” (pp. 45)On the subject of death and the Kaddish prayer, the book presents a profoundly beautiful reflection by Rabbi Steinberg:
“It is easier for me to let go of life with all its treasures, because these things are not and never have been mine. They belong to the Universe and the God who stands behind it. True, I have been privileged to enjoy them for an hour but they were always a loan to be recalled.The juxtaposition of an enjoyment of the beauty of the universe and a detachment from it leads to an experiencing of everything in relationship with and gratitude to God:
And I let go of them the more easily because I know that as parts of the divine economy they will not be lost. The sunset, the bird’s song, the baby’s smile, the thunder of music, the surge of great poetry, the dreams of the heart, and my own being—all these I can well trust to the God who made them. There is a poignancy and regret about giving them up, but no anxiety. When they slip from my hands they will pass to hands better, stronger, and wiser than mine.
Life is dear; let us then hold it tight while yet we may. But we must hold it loosely also! It is at once infinitely precious and yet a thing lightly to be surrendered. Because of God, we clasp the world, but with relaxed hands; we embrace it, but with open arms.” (pp. 67)
“Because of its innate trust in both God and God’s world, Judaism affirms the value of life and life’s pleasures. It is therefore a religion that urges us to pay attention to the wonderful universe about us. To help us do so, it provides blessings for all of life’s bounties: seeing a rainbow; experiencing a thunderstorm; observing the first blossoms of springtime; putting on new clothes; even eating our first garden produce, as each crop ripens year after year.” (pp. 85)That the above relationship with God is not simply an individual matter is shown clearly through the concept of minyan, which also reminded me of Jesus’ promise of his presence where “two or three” are gathered together in his name:
“Personal prayer between the individual and God may take place anywhere, any time, and with no one present but God and the individual worshiper. Public services, however, have traditionally required what is known as a minyan, that is, the presence of at least ten adult worshipers. [...] Behind the idea of a minimum number is the notion that Jewish spirituality is in some sense communal. We all received the Torah together on Mount Sinai. We are all part of the people Israel.” (pp. 86)Kertzer then goes on to presenting a simultaneous openness to diversity and faithfulness to God, that has echoes in the Church’s desire for “unity in diversity”:
“Our experience with diverse cultures has enriched our religion in many ways. Above all, perhaps, has been our hospitality to differences. Every question of Jewish law contains both an austere interpretation and a liberal one, and the Rabbis ruled that “both opinions are the word of the living God.” [...] One famous rabbinic aphorism pictures God as saying, in effect, “As long as Jews do My will, they need not believe in Me.” That is an exaggeration, of course. Judaism does teach some beliefs, among them the firm conviction that God is real: a real presence in the lives of men and women, children and adults. We can know that reality as surely as we know the beauty of love, the satisfaction of faithfulness, or the buoyancy of hope.” (pp. 108)In more specific terms, the three pillars of the Jewish faith are presented next, and unity among them is declared:
“We believe, then, in God: a personal God whose ways may be beyond our comprehension, but whose reality makes the difference between a world that has purpose and one that is meaningless.The transcendence of God, the universal access to following Him and its being rooted in a putting into practice of His qualities brings the exposition of the Jewish faith to completion:
We believe all human beings are made in God’s image; our role in the universe is thus uniquely important, and despite the failings that spring from our mortality, we are endowed with infinite potential for goodness and greatness.
We believe too that human beings actualize their potential as part of a community. The people Israel is such a community, harking back to Sinai, existing despite all odds from then until now, and still the source of satisfaction for Jews who wish to pursue a life of purpose grounded in the age-old wisdom we call Torah.
And we believe in Torah, therefore, as a continuing source of revelation.
It has been said that you can sum up Jewish belief in these three words, God, Torah, Israel. As the mystics used to say, “God, Torah, and Israel are all one.” If we lose our faith in any one of them, the others quickly perish. [...]
In antiquity, it was common for scholars to distill the essence of religion in a simple formula. Thus, Hillel, the great Rabbi and scholar of the first century B.C.E., was asked to sum up Judaism while the questioner stood on one foot! Hillel replied: “Certainly! What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is all there is in the Torah. All the rest is mere commentary. I suggest you study the commentary.”” (pp. 109)
“Jews believe in the existence of a God who cannot be accurately conceived, described, or pictured. But God is a real presence in the universe at large; and the lives of each of us in particular. We believe also that we most genuinely show God honor when we imitate the qualities that are godly: As God is merciful, so we must be compassionate; as God is just, so we must deal justly with out neighbor; as God is slow to anger, so we must be tolerant in our judgment.” (pp. 110)Finally, Kertzer also speaks very powerfully about the necessity of remembering the horrors of the Shoah:
“It is the recognition of the reality of God, and the basic moral virtues, such as kindliness, justice, and integrity, that we regard as eternal verities. But we claim no monopoly on these verities, for we recognize that every great religious faith has discovered them. That is what Rabbi Meir meant some eighteen centuries ago, when he said that a non-Jew who follows the Torah is as good as our high priest.” (pp. 113)
“[T]he moral reason [to remember the Shoah] may be the most important one. When the mass murderer Adolf Eichmann was on trial, the Israelis informed the world that the motive behind the judicial proceedings was not vengeance but the moral education of contemporary women and men. The striking thing about Eichmann was precisely that he was so ordinary, a living symbol of what historian Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” Contemplating the events of the Nazi era, we came to see that the sin of omission on the part of the decent peoples of the world was the sin of silence, the refusal to believe that a highly enlightened people like the Germans could permit themselves to be led by a madman into acts of national depravity that culminated in the events of Auschwitz and the other death camps. We had to learn to readjust our vision and take evil seriously once again.” (pp. 161)Not only is it essential to pursue the doing of good, but so is a taking seriously of evil and a standing up to it, since omission and silence too are grave sins - insights that are of acute relevance today and that were at the time of the Shoah also shared by Christians. The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose anniversary of being murdered in the Flossenbürg concentration camp in 1945 was yesterday, said:
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil:
God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak.
Not to act is to act.”