Sunday, October 3, 2004

On 'The Jewish rejection of the Messiah' (response to Jeff Culbreath)

Commenting on my previous post, Jeff Culbreath takes issue w/ my criticism of EWTN's Fr. Echert:

["Fr. Echert: "The Bible and the Tradition are clear: the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed as a chastisement upon apostate Judaism for its rejection of the Messiah and for the blood of all the innocent, from Abel to Jesus."

Is this not true? It echoes the words of Our Lord Himself. A religion that once knew God, and then rejects God, is more than a false religion, it is an apostate religion. Does not Judaism fit this description? Is Judaism not dependent upon the rejection of the Messiah for its very existence? Does it matter? Does Christ matter? Does God care? Should we care?

The Jewish "rejection of the Messiah"

Regarding the Jewish rejection of the Messiah, the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews says that Christians must "strive to understand the difficulties which arise for the Jewish soul -- rightly imbued with an extremely high, pure notion of the divine transcendence -- when faced with the mystery of the incarnate Word", and note as well that "it is true that a widespread air of suspicion, inspired by an unfortunate past, is still dominant in this particular area". 1

The majority of Israel failed to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, to listen to the apostles, and to the Church. They did so for a number of reasons: Against the assertion that God had taken on humanity and walked among us, they continued to insist on the oneness of God; against the assertion that the Messiah had come, the Jews expressed their disbelief, appealing to the descriptions of a Messianic Age that had not yet arrived; against the assertion that the Mosaic laws and religious feasts which were instituted in the Torah were abrogated in light of the New Covenant, they continued their observance in what they percieved as fidelity and obedience to the covenant which God had established at Sinai. Even after the destruction of the temple the Jewish people continue to do so, in the face of suffering and persecution (often, regretfully, at the hands of Christians), they continued to believe that God would not abandon them.

Steve Golay commented on my earlier post, recommending the book Salvation is from the Jews by Roy Schoeman (a Jewish convert who is doing much to counter the watered-down presentation of Judaism that Catholics are accustomed to, as well as to evangelize to fellow Jews outside of the Church). In an interview w/ Zenit, Schoeman remarked that many Jews today "mistakenly believe that Christianity teaches contempt for Jews -- despite the fact that "their" God himself was one -- and that when a Jew recognizes Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, he or she ceases to be a Jew." 2 Sadly, over the course of 2000 years the Church (as chronicled in Fr. Edward Flannnery's Anguish of the Jews) has done much to perpetuate and enforce Jewish belief that Christianity is anti-semitic, that it means the complete renunciation of Judaism, the complete assimilation and dissolution of the Jews as God's Chosen people.

These are all mitigating factors in "the Jewish rejection of the Messiah", and we should be wary of pronouncing divine judgement on -- or abandonment of -- his chosen people as Christians had done in the past.

St. Augustine said: "When we speak of within and without in relation to the Church, it is the position of the heart that we must consider, not that of the body . . . All who are within the heart are saved in the unity of the ark" (Baptism 5:28:39). He was referring specifically to the Donatists, but I also think his statement has a universal application.

If one looks at the Church's thought on salvation and the development of its teaching on extra ecclesiam nulla salus, it appears that over the course of time the Church's position evolved from the consideration that all non-Christians were objectively guilty of a conscious rejection of the Messiah to the recognition that they could, in fact, "err in good faith" due to psychological and intellectual barriers to understanding -- that one could be presented with the teaching of the Church and yet fail to comprehend its truth and necessity for salvation; and that such could be distinguished from the conscious acknowledgement of and willfull rebellion against the Church. (This would certainly be the case with a religious Jew). 3

Fr. Echert's description of Judaism as an "apostate religion"

I consider Fr. Echert's description of Judaism as one of "apostasy" misleading for this reason: the definition of which is: "An abandonment of what one has voluntarily professed; a total desertion of departure from one's faith, principles, or party; esp., the renunciation of a religious faith." The Catholic Encyclopedia [1917], there are three kinds of apostacy: "apostasy a Fide or perfidi£, when a Christian gives up his faith; apostasy ab ordine, when a cleric abandons the ecclesiastical state; apostasy a religione, or monachatus, when a religious leaves the religious life."

Jews may reject the claims of Christianity for a number of reasons as indicated above, but the complete renunciation of faith and religion as implied by the term "apostasy", is, I would argue, inappropriate. Jews do not recognize Christ, but they maintain their faith in the Father. It is to the same God they honor every Shabbat; it is to the same God they confess their sins at Yom Kippur; it is to the same God they pray for the coming of the Messiah. I do not believe God does not hear the prayer of His people, and I do not believe their hopes for the Messiah will go unanswered.

The repudiation of a 'theology on contempt' and a positive appreciation of the Jews

Christianity has wrestled with the continued existence of the Jews (as a people, a nation, and a religion). Some, like St. Augustine, saw their providential role in negative terms, existing as a witness people 'for the salvation of the nation but not for their own', testifying to the truth of the Messiah and God's justice through their dispersion and suffering. But while Augustine nevertheless reminded Christians to treat the Jews in "a spirit of love," there existed a 'theology of contempt' which characterized the Jews as "as Cain, as Judas, as a murderous people, a 'deicide' people . . . an abomination to the Christian world" (Prof. Jules Isaac). It was not for nothing that the Church, in the document We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, considered the question "whether the Nazi persecution of the Jews was not made easier by the anti-Jewish prejudices imbedded in some Christian minds and hearts", and recognized that "the spiritual resistance and concrete action of other Christians was not that which might have been expected from Christ's followers." 4

It should be noted that neither Prof. Jules Isaac nor Fr. Flannery believes the 'teaching of contempt' to be essential to Christianity. Rather, it is a perversion of the Christian faith that should be rooted out, and which the Church -- through Vatican II and under the pontificates of Pius XII to the present -- has taken steps to exorcise from Christian teaching and liturgy.

This disagreement will be a point of contention and dispute between us -- Christians and Jews -- until the end of time and the the Messiah's return. It is true that Christians saw the destruction of the temple as a sign of God's divine judgement on Jews, divine chastisement for their rejection of the Messiah -- but this is not the last word on the matter.

The Church, in witness to the tragic suffering and fate of the Jewish people, repudiates a "teaching of contempt" which portrayed the Jews as wholly abandoned, even cursed, by their God. But the Church goes further than merely criticizing the negative portrayal of the Jews. As Roy Schoeman points out, "the survival of the Jews against all odds and almost constant persecution; their disproportionate prominence in world affairs; the mysterious character of anti-Semitism itself; the re-establishment of a Jewish national homeland against all odds; and the mysterious tragedy of the Holocaust" has compelled the Church to further reflection on its relationship to the Jews.

Just as St. Paul affirmed the continuing fidelity of God to his chosen people, so has the Church -- with Vatican II -- recognized Israel's continuing covenant relationship with God, as expressed by the Church in light of St. Paul's reflections on the enduring mercy of a God who is faithful to his promises:

For Paul, Jesus' establishment of "the new covenant in [his] blood" (1 Co 11:25), does not imply any rupture of God's covenant with his people, but constitutes its fulfilment. He includes "the covenants" among the privileges enjoyed by Israel, even if they do not believe in Christ (Rm 9:4). Israel continues to be in a covenant relationship and remains the people to whom the fulfilment of the covenant was promised, because their lack of faith cannot annul God's fidelity (Rm 11:29). Even if some Israelites have observed the Law as a means of establishing their own justice, the covenant-promise of God, who is rich in mercy (Rm 11:26-27), cannot be abrogated. Continuity is underlined by affirming that Christ is the end and the fulfilment to which the Law was leading the people of God (Ga 3:24). For many Jews, the veil with which Moses covered his face remains over the Old Testament (2 Co 3:13,15), thus preventing them from recognising Christ's revelation there. This becomes part of the mysterious plan of God's salvation, the final outcome of which is the salvation of "all Israel" (Rm 11:26).5

As I mentioned on Bill Cork's blog, one of the best summaries of this new vision of the Jewish-Christian relationship is found in the reflections of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger:

. . . Perhaps it is precisely because of this latest tragedy [the Shoah] that a new vision of the relationship between the Church and Israel has been born: a sincere willingness to overcome every kind of anti-Judaism, and to initiate a constructive dialogue based on knowledge of each other, and on reconciliation. If such a dialogue is to be fruitful, it must begin with a prayer to our God, first of all that he might grant to us Christians a greater esteem and love for that people, the people of Israel, to whom belong "the adoption as sons, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; theirs are the patriarchs, and from them comes Christ according to the flesh, he who is over all, God, blessed forever. Amen" (Romans 9:4-5), and this not only in the past, but still today, "for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:29). In the same way, let us pray that he may grant also to the children of Israel a deeper knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth, who is their son, and the gift they have made to us. Since we are both awaiting the final redemption, let us pray that the paths we follow may converge. 6

Why I take issue with EWTN's Fr. Echert's remarks about the Jews

My chief problem with Fr. Echert is that I see little or no indication of a charitable attitude toward Jews. Rather, he looks at post-biblical [rabbinical] Judaism and can only see it as a false religion ("a religion in apostasy, for its rejection of the Messiah. . . . a new religion, separated from its roots"), the adherents to which are a blind and stubborn people, cast aside while the true Church dons the mantle of the 'Chosen' ("True Judaism was the remnant core of the Apostolic Church, which soon became swelled with the ranks of Gentile Christians, to continue the true religion of the successive Covenants"), and of their leaders, contemporary Jewish leaders and rabbis: "Pride ran high and deep among the priestly class who served the Temple and the scholarly class who interpreted religious law, such that the majority was misled by their proud and wicked shepherds, instead of following the one Good Shepherd. . . . the history of the Old Testament, which continues even in the present times, is that wicked shepherds mislead the faithful, often with devastating results."

It is only right that one of Fr. Echert's readers would defend the Jews: "God led the Rabbis at Javneh, and subsequently Judaism, to prayer, study of the Torah, and deeds of loving kindness as the appropriate response to the lacuna left by the destruction. God remains faithful to God’s promises to Israel." And any Christian who has bothered to study contemporary Judaism or who has encountered the life and actions of religious Jews today would be apalled. I wonder whether Fr. Echart has ever bothered to look at a siddur, or venture to meet and speak with Jews as Pope John Paul II has done on on many occasions (the first pope to ever step foot inside a synagogue!) -- would he persist in his attitude of disrespect and outright hostility?

It is for this reason why I see the Pontifical Biblical Commission's advice to be of crucial importance:

. . . On the part of Christians, the main condition for progress along these lines lies in avoiding a one-sided reading of biblical texts, both from the Old Testament and the New Testament, and making instead a better effort to appreciate the whole dynamism that animates them, which is precisely a dynamism of love. In the Old Testament, the plan of God is a union of love with his people, a paternal love, a spousal love and, notwithstanding Israel's infidelities, God will never renounce it, but affirms it in perpetuity (Is 54:8; Jr 31:3). In the New Testament, God's love overcomes the worst obstacles; even if they do not believe in his Son whom he sent as their Messiah Saviour, Israelites are still “loved” (Rm 11:29). Whoever wishes to be united to God, must also love them.

Fr. Echart's characterization of Judaism indulges in a "one-sided reading of biblical texts" that the Pontifical Biblical Commission has warned us about -- it is utterly lacking of the positive vision put forth by the Church today, recovering St. Paul's insistence in Romans that God has not rejected and remains faithful to his people (Rom. 11: 1-2); or his assurance that "in respect to election, they are beloved because of the patriarchs. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11: 8-9).

  1. Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate (n. 4), Jan. 1975.
  2. "Jews' Role in Christ's First and Second Coming", Nov. 10, 2003.
  3. "Salvation Outside the Church(?) -- and of Jews in Particular", musings on the topic Feb. 22, 2003.
  4. On St. Augustine's view of the Jews and 'Christian anti-semitism' in general see Fr. Edward Flannery's Anguish of the Jews.
  5. The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible. The Pontifical Biblical Commission (2001). See the entire concluding section ("Pastoral Orientations" sections 86-87) for an elaboration on the new approach to Judaism.
  6. "The Heritage of Abraham: The Gift of Christmas" (L'Osservatore Romano 29 December, 2000).

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