“The Great Embrace”
We continue our quest for Jesus, following in Benedict’s footsteps. Today, a discussion of the relationship between Christ and the Jewish people, that is, Israel
By Robert Moynihan
“Israel Does Not Exist Simply for Itself”
A few days ago, I wrote that I would set out on a “quest” centered on the “question” of the mystery of Jesus.
I would set out, I said, not simply because it is my own conviction that this is the “heart of the matter,” the central search of all human searches, but quite honestly because this is “the” story of Pope Benedict’s pontificate.
It makes “news sense,” in other words, to focus on the “real” news, and not on anything else.
In a sense, Benedict himself has given me an instruction, by his example, to cover his pontificate in this way.
Since he is focusing his intellectual energy as Pope on writing about Jesus — publishing one book in 2007, publishing a second in early 2011 (in a few months time), and working on a third right now during his summer vacation out at Castel Gandolfo — anyone following his papacy must above all else follow what he is saying in these books.
In a preliminary way, I must confess that I have been struggling to find an appropriate form for this quest.
I would like to deal, of course, with daily news events — the ordinary decisions the Pope takes, the appointments he makes, and all the other important religious, political, economic and cultural news that affects the Church, and men and women everywhere.
But I would also like to take my writing to a “higher level” by dealing with truly fundamental matters, matters of ultimate importance.
And so the dilemma: how to reconcile what is daily “new” with what is eternally “new”?
One can of course try to discern “eternal verities” in the very fabric, the warp and woof, of “the events of time,” and in a sense this has always been a goal of all my writing.
But I have now announced this special quest: to read closely the Pope’s first book on Jesus, entitled Jesus of Nazareth, and to try to make clear the central findings of that book, as a contribution to answering the fundamental question of Christianity, which is, and as I hope to make ever clearer in coming days, the central question of this papacy: Who was Jesus of Nazareth?
Yet, the news stories keep coming — Vatican stories, political stories, legal stories, human interest stories, anniversaries of important past events, and on and on…
So what do I do?
Should I leave aside all coverage of such “breaking news” while studying the Pope’s book?
Should I “add on” the news stories at the end of each reflection on the Pope’s book, making the “letters” longer and longer? (I don’t think this is a good solution; the letters are getting too long as it is…)
Should I send out more than one letter in a day, one with “news” and one on the “quest” for Jesus?
But then I might start irritating readers with too many emails. (I certainly do not wish to fill up the email boxes of readers! If these emails are a bother, please write and I will unsubscribe you. However, if you appreciate them, please encourage others to sign up, or send the email addresses of friends and family members, and I will sign them up. I do think that these emails may come in handy for many in the not-too-distant future, if events begin to unfold with great rapidity, and thoughtful and informed analysis becomes rare.)
In a housekeeping move, therefore, I have decided to divide these “newsflashes” into two main groups:
(1) “News” dealing with current events, and
(2) “Investigations” dealing with everything else.
I will place the “Quest” series under “Investigations.”
I am therefore calling this letter: Letter #39, 2010: Investigations, Quest #4.
I am considering Letter #35 the first letter about the quest, in which I announced it, so that is Quest #1. Letter #36 is the second letter about the quest, or Quest #2 (on the Transfiguration) and Letter #38 is the third letter about the quest, or Quest #3 (on Christocentrism).
Today’s letter, Quest #4, focuses on Israel.
Israel, the Jewish people and the faith of Judaism, are absolutely central to the Pope’s understanding of Jesus, his identity, his mission, and his meaning in our world today.
Pope Benedict writes in his book, Jesus of Nazareth:
“Now, when we read the Torah together with the entire Old Testament canon, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Wisdom Literature, we realize very clearly a point that is already substantially present in the Torah itself. That is, Israel does not exist simply for itself, in order to live according to the ‘eternal’ disposition of the Law — it exists to be a light to the nations.
“In the Psalms and the prophetic books we hear more and more clearly the promise that God’s salvation will come to all the nations… We hear that all the boundaries will fall and that the God of Israel will be acknowledged and revered by all the nations as their God, as the one God.” (p. 116)
And Pope Benedict finds in this point — that “Israel does not exist simply for itself” — one of the most telling arguments on behalf of the claim that Jesus was “the Christ,” the “Anointed One,” the Messiah awaited by Israel — the one who would complete the historical mission of Israel.
It isn’t an easy point.
But it is a central one.
It isn’t easy because anyone — and perhaps Jews most of all — can look at the world today and say that, 2,000 years after the coming of Jesus, the world is a mess.
“He Can Hardly Be the True Messiah”
And this is precisely what Benedict says (and it is rather interesting here to see the German Pope of the Roman Catholic Church take quite seriously the doubts of Jews who openly declare that they do not believe in Christ, because he has not changed the world as they believe a Messiah should):
“It is our Jewish interlocutors who, quite rightly, ask again and again: So what has your ‘Messiah’ Jesus actually brought? He has not brought world peace, and he has not conquered the world’s misery. So he can hardly be the true Messiah, who, after all, is supposed to do just that.” (p. 116)
And central, because, if there is no good answer, then the entire Christian claim — the Jesus was the expected Messiah — is overthrown.
Is there any possible answer?
Benedict says there is.
“What has Jesus brought? We have already encountered this question, and we know the answer. He has brought the God of Israel to the nations, so that all the nations now pray to him and recognize Israel’s Scriptures as his word, the word of the living God.
“He has brought the gift of universality, which was the one great definitive promise to Israel and the world. This universality, this faith in the one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — extended now in Jesus’s new family to all nations over and above the bonds of descent according to the flesh — is the fruit of Jesus’ work. It is what proves him to be the Messiah.”(pp. 116-117)
Benedict is telling us, in essence, that the Church, a community of people from every race and nation which stretches to the ends of the earth, but which embraces the books of the Old Testament as their scriptures, is the sign that Jesus was the true Messiah.
How is that?
“The vehicle of this universalization is the new family, whose only admission requirement is communion with Jesus, communion in God’s will,” Benedict writes. “It is entry into the family of those who call God Father and who can do so because they belong to a ‘we’ — formed of those who are united with Jesus and, by listening to him, united with the will of the Father, thereby attaining to the heart of the obedience intended by the Torah.” (p. 117)
But where does this leave the Jews, and their literal observance of the Torah?
“The Torah did indeed have the task of giving a concrete juridical and social order to this particular people, Israel,” Benedict writes. “But while Israel is on one hand a definite nation, whose members are bound together by birth and the succession of generations, on the other hand it has been from the beginning and by its very nature the bearer of a universal promise.” (p. 117)
And the Pope here goes on to explain how the first great dispute in the Church, at the first Church Council in Jerusalem in about the year 49 A.D., was focused precisely on this point of literal observation of the Jewish Torah law, and was resolved, following the teaching of St. Paul, by the decision to no longer the laws universally in their literal historical form.
So that the origin of the Church as the “new Israel” or the “fulfilled Israel” depended on the “universalizing” of the Torah by its spiritualization.
“A literal application of Israel’s social order to the people of all nations would have been tantamount to a denial of the universality of the growing community of God,” the Pope writes. “Paul saw this with perfect clarity. The Torah of the Messiah could not be like that. Nor is it, as the Sermon on the Mount shows…”
What the Pope means here is that the Sermon on the Mount reveals a spiritual Torah that goes further even than the literal Torah, by asking Christians to love even their enemies.
The Pope sees in this “spiritualization” of the Torah based on “an underlying communion of will with God” an “epoch-making event in world history that has not occurred as such in any other culture” and which helps to explain why our secular world is as it is today.
“The underlying communion of will with God given by Jesus… frees men and nations to discover what aspects of political and social order accord with this communion of will and so to work out their own juridical arrangements,” the Pope writes. “The concrete poltiical and social order is released from the directly sacred realm, from theocratic legislation, and is transferred to the freedom of man…”
Of course, this “freedom” is a freedom “in God’s will” which ought to enable man “to see the right and the good.”
This freedom, the Pope writes, “is a freedom that, as a result of this new way of seeing, is able to build the very thing that is at the heart of the Torah — with Jesus, universalizing the essential content of the Torah and thus truly ‘fulfilling’ it.” (p. 119)
The Pope then adds this: “In our day, of course, this freedom has been totally wrenched away from any godly perspective or from communion with Jesus. Freedom for universality and so for the legitimate secularity of the state has been transformed into an absolute secularism, for which forgetfulness of God and exclusive concern with success seem to have become guiding principles. For the believing Christian, the commandments of the Torah remain a decisive point of reference…” (p. 119)
But if the commandments of the Torah remain a decisive point of reference for Christians, what does the claim of Christ to be the Messiah, and fulfill the Torah by “universalizing” and “spiritualizing” it, mean for a faithful Jew?
“By Some Mysterious Twist of Fate…”
One of the most moving conversion accounts of the 20th century was written by a Bavaria-born Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist named Karl Stern (1906-1975). Stern emigrated from Germany in 1936 to England, then Canada, finding work in Montreal. In 1943, after much soul-searching, and ultimately influenced by encounters with Jacques Maritain and Dorothy Day, Stern received baptism as a Catholic.
His book, Pillar of Fire, was published in 1951 (and republished by Urbi et Orbi, the publisher of Inside the Vatican magazine, in 2000; you may order a copy from us).
The book is an extraordinarily profound treatment of what it meant to be a Jew in central Europe in the middle of the 20th century, and of how the Christian faith appeared, and appealed, to an educated Jew of that time.
It is a marvelous work, worth reading and re-reading.
But there are perhaps no passages in the work more moving than the one’s which describe what it means to a believing Jew — what it meant to Stern himself as a believing Jew — to convert to Christianity.
“The great German Lutheran writer, Ricarda Huch, once remarked that for the Jews to become converted to Christ means an extraordinary sacrifice,” Stern writes. “Not only, says she, must the individual die with Him in order to live; it is the whole people that must die with Him.
“By some mysterious twist of fate the Jews are the only people which cannot remain a people and be Christian at the same time. Christ extolled a double sacrifice from His people; not only the individual Adam has to die to be dissolved in Him — the group too has to be dissolved.”
“This is one of the most profound remarks ever made on the so-called Jewish Problem. It touches the very center of it. The Jewish contemporaries of Christ who rejected Him knew that by accepting Him they would sacrifice the nation. The one and only condition under which they would have accepted Him, He had to refuse. He could not be their ‘national leader’…”
Stern is here referring to the same fact that is at the center of Pope Benedict’s argument: that Jesus was the Messiah of the Jews precisely because he called the Jews to the fulfillment of their historical mission, which was to transcend themselves through the universalizing and spiritualizing of their law.
“The physical existence of the Jewish people is, from the point of view of the metaphysics of history, an incongruity,” Stern writes. “The Jews are here, they are living, whereas the ultimate meaning of their existence as a people is that it should transcend itself.
“This is perhaps the reason why not infrequently Jews who approach Christ struggle more against His final embrace than anyone else. In all those Jews whom I saw approaching the Church and remaining with one foot on the threshold there is, besides a thousand natural obstacles, besides the fear of cowardly betrayal, besides the anxiety of isolation, something else; there is a seemingly invincible horror, something which reaches deep down beneath the social and biological strata of the personality, something that seems to arrest the pulse and make the blood curdle in the veins, there is a cosmic fear, a panic of death and dissolution…
Stern continues: “Every Jew who is conscious of his Judaism and is converted to Christ goes, in his lifetime, through the spiritual destiny of his race. Hence this particular intensity and agony of development, hence this profound anxiety which is nothing but primeval fear of death and of birth…
And Stern concludes: “We all go through these and similar mental contortions before we have torn up all our earthly roots and let ourselves fall into space and into the great embrace.”
(to be continued)
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