Thursday, July 26, 2012

Are the Torah and the Gospel mutually exclusive?

Brethren: Peace and Good to all of you.
Medieval engraving showing Christian and
Jewish scholars engaged in discussion.
I've been reading lately several works on textual, form, literary, and historical criticism of the Bible, as well as the relationship between both Testaments, and as corollary, the relationship between the Church and the Jewish people. Today I reached the millenary impasse: for the Jews to accept Jesus as their Messiah would entail, in their view, a rejection of the Torah; for us Christians to reconcile with them would entail the rejection of the core of Christianity  - without a necessary conversion to Judaism which they don't see as necessary for "righteous Gentiles" to reach "the world to come". At least in the view of those Jews who still believe in "a world to come."

Testing my diamond

During my investigation, I found a letter to Yemeni Jews by the Jewish medieval sage Moses Maimonides to be upsetting. The quote is as follows:
Ever since the time of Revelation, every despot or slave that has attained to power, be he violent or ignoble, has made it his first aim and his final purpose to destroy our law, and to vitiate our religion, by means of the sword, by violence, or by brute force, such as Amalek, Sisera, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, Titus, Hadrian, may their bones be ground to dust, and others like them. This is one of the two classes which attempt to foil the Divine will. 
The second class consists of the most intelligent and educated among the nations, such as the Syrians, Persians, and Greeks. These also endeavor to demolish our law and to vitiate it by means of arguments which they invent, and by means of controversies which they institute.... 
After that there arose a new sect which combined the two methods, namely, conquest and controversy, into one, because it believed that this procedure would be more effective in wiping out every trace of the Jewish nation and religion. It, therefore, resolved to lay claim to prophecy and to found a new faith, contrary to our Divine religion, and to contend that it was equally God-given.  
Thereby it hoped to raise doubts and to create confusion, since one is opposed to the other and both supposedly emanate from a Divine source, which would lead to the destruction of both religions. For such is the remarkable plan contrived by a man who is envious and querulous. He will strive to kill his enemy and to save his own life, but when he finds it impossible to attain his objective, he will devise a scheme whereby they both will be slain. 
The first one to have adopted this plan was Jesus the Nazarene, may his bones be ground to dust. He was a Jew because his mother was a Jewess although his father was a Gentile. For in accordance with the principles of our law, a child born of a Jewess and a Gentile, or of a Jewess and a slave, is legitimate. (Yebamot 45a). Jesus is only figuratively termed an illegitimate child. He impelled people to believe that he was a prophet sent by God to clarify perplexities in the Torah, and that he was the Messiah that was predicted by each and every seer. He interpreted the Torah and its precepts in such a fashion as to lead to their total annulment, to the abolition of all its commandments and to the violation of its prohibitions. The sages, of blessed memory, having become aware of his plans before his reputation spread among our people, meted out fitting punishment to him. 
Daniel had already alluded to him when he presaged the downfall of a wicked one and a heretic among the Jews who would endeavor to destroy the Law, claim prophecy for himself, make pretenses to miracles, and allege that he is the Messiah, as it is written, "Also the children of the impudent among thy people shall make bold to claim prophecy, but they shall fall." (Daniel 11:14). [1]
The allegation that Jesus had "a Gentile father" notwithstanding - based on a Talmudic passage alleging that Jesus was the product of a Roman soldier's rape - I took the text of the letter at face value for analysis and asked myself C.S. Lewis' famous questions: Jesus was either evil, a madman, or who he said he was, the Messiah, Son of God. Maimonides, along with post-Second Temple Judaism denied the third option. Therefore, we're left with defining Jesus within an spectrum of possibilities located anywhere between two extremes: he was either crazy as a loon or as evil as the devil.

(You might be asking why I even care to ask that kind of question. Well, because I care about the truth. I tell people I possess a diamond that I want to share with them, but that this diamond is unique because giving it away will not make me any less wealthy, whereas those receiving it may become as wealthy as I am. Ocassionally, I like to step back and test my diamond for its beauty and hardness.)

Ratzinger's reply

As I said before, I asked myself: is the price to pay to reconcile myself with my Jewish brethren fully and in heart and through this reconciliation, reach the "true" knowledge of the God of Israel, my abandonment of the central claims we make about Jesus of Nazareth, namely that he's God incarnate, the new Moses and lawgiver, Son of God and of Man, and Israel's Messiah?

I didn't have an immediate answer and therefore I prayed for one. God answered the prayer inmediately. It so happens that someone else had asked that question before. Here's how he put it:
The history of the relationship between Israel and Christendom is drenched with blood and tears. It is a history of mistrust and hostility, but also thank God a history marked again and again by attempts at forgiveness, understanding and mutual acceptance. After Auschwitz, the mission of reconciliation and acceptance permits no deferral.

Even if we know that Auschwitz is the gruesome expression of an ideology that not only wanted to destroy Judaism but also hated and sought to eradicate from Christianity its Jewish heritage, the question remains, What could be the reason for so much historical hostility between those who actually must belong together because of their faith in the one God and commitment to his will?

Does this hostility result from something in the very faith of Christians? Is it something in the "essence of Christianity," such that one would have to prescind from Christianity's core, deny Christianity its heart, in order to come to real reconciliation? This is an assumption that some Christian thinkers have in fact made in the last few decades in reaction to the horrors of history. Do confession of Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of the living God and faith in the cross as the redemption of mankind contain an implicit condemnation of the Jews as stubborn and blind, as guilty of the death of the Son of God? Could it be that the core of the faith of Christians themselves compels them to intolerance, even to hostility toward the Jews, and conversely, that the self-esteem of Jews and the defense of their historic dignity and deepest convictions oblige them to demand that Christians abandon the heart of their faith and so require Jews similarly to forsake tolerance? Is the conflict programmed in the heart of religion and only to be overcome through its repudiation?

In this heightened framing of the question, the problem confronting us today reaches far beyond an academic interreligious dialogue into the fundamental decisions of this historic hour. One sees more frequent attempts to mollify the issue by representing Jesus as a Jewish teacher who in principle did not go beyond what was possible in Jewish tradition. His execution is understood to result from the political tensions between Jews and Romans. In point of fact, he was executed by the Roman authority in the way political rebels were punished. His elevation to Son of God is accordingly understood to have occurred after the fact, in a Hellenistic climate; at the same time, in view of the given political circumstances, the blame for the crucifixion is transferred from the Romans to the Jews. As a challenge to exegesis, such interpretations can further an acute listening to the text and perhaps produce something useful. However, they do not speak of the Jesus of the historic sources, but instead construct a new and different Jesus, relegating the historical faith in the Christ of the church to mythology. Christ appears as a product of Greek religiosity and political opportunism in the Roman Empire. One does not do justice to the gravity of the question with such a view; indeed one retreats from it.

Thus the question remains: Can Christian faith, left in its inner power and dignity, not only tolerate Judaism but accept it in its historic mission? Or can it not? Can there be true reconciliation without abandoning the faith, or is reconciliation tied to such abandonment? In reply to this question which concerns us most deeply, I shall not present simply my own views. Rather, I wish to show what the Catechism of the Catholic Church released in 1992 has to say. This work has been published by the magisterium of the Catholic Church as an authentic expression of her faith. In recognition of the significance of Auschwitz and from the mission of the Second Vatican Council, the matter of reconciliation has been inscribed in the catechism as an object of faith. Let us see then how the catechism sounds in relation to our question in terms of its definition of its own mission.
Read the whole essay here.

The man who asked himself the same question and then proceeded to answer it was Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. God does answer prayer and comes to the rescue at the precise moment when one is looking down the chasm on the point of vertigo.

A torn, seamless garment

In words repeated by the scholar - and frequent advisor to the US Catholic Bishops - Amy-Jill Levine, I feel a "holy envy" towards Judaism, more so because without Judaism, Christianity would be unintellgible. I study Judaism just before, during, and after the New Testament era with utter seriousness, respect, and many times, admiration.

Yet, my readings have led me to believe that after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, Judaism resembled - if you allow me the analogy - a seamless garment ripped and torn at the bottom. I think that the Jewish remnant in the Holy Land also saw the discontinuity because, starting with the sucessors of the Pharisees at Jamnia and through the Talmudic age, the Jewish sages applied themselves to "hem" the jagged edges, cut, tie, and add new tzitzits to the torn, seamless garment, sometimes without paying attention to the discontinuities their repairs created.

As a consequence, Judaism became self-contained, unique, standard, and logically impervious to Christian evangelism and apologetics. This is, for the most part, the Talmudists greatest achievement which in turn guaranteed the survival of Jewish identity throughout the centuries.

These centuries were not not good for the Jewish people as they endured persecution by Christians in East and West which in turn  cemented in the emotions of the Jewish people what they had previously held intellectually: that any claim of Jesus as the unique Jewish Messiah was a non-sequitur, to be rejected a priori at all times, and at all places. For, "how can this man ever be considered as God's supreme intervention when his followers kill, persecute, and often disposses and disenfranchise us." It is a fair question and the answer should encourage in us a deep self-reflection.

Nevertheless, and setting momentarily aside the Jewish people's sorrowful history. as a Catholic Christian I can see that the "ripped garment" missing piece is precisely Jesus of Nazareth, his life, teachings, and redemptive mission. Every fiber, every shape of the missing part fits perfectly to its ripped counterpart to the last thread. That many Jews understood this explain why so many of them accepted Jesus as Messiah - and a crucified one at that - shortly after his reported death. For these Jews - and not all of them were yokels from the boondocks - the Christ-event made sense in the light of Israel's election, the Torah, and the designs of a universal God who wanted to draw every single human being toward himself. If Jesus made sense to these Jews, then there was something to Jesus that can invalidate Maimonides' the harsh evaluation he made of Jesus.

This is so, in my view, because as then Cardinal Ratzinger said, Israel's vocation was oriented toward universality. Judaism after Jesus placed its universal vocation in the back fire, at times because survival was of the essence and other times, well, what's the point? Since God will admit righteous Gentiles into his Kingdom, Jews are free to be themselves while leaving to God the fulfillment of Israel's universal vocation.

Yet, this very vocation uniquely seems to have been fulfilled in a single Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, and based upon then Cardinal Ratzinger's solution, I can conclude that not only there is no mutual exclusivity between the Torah and the Gospel, but that their ultimate intelligibility depends on their mutual dependence. Only in this way Israel's universal vocation can be realized, as the God of Israel is made known to all peoples. This is why so many Jews accepted Jesus as Messiah, this is why Christianity is intelligible in Jewish terms.

Love is the key

Yes, I know that most of my Jewish brethren, conditioned as they are to deny any thought of Jesus as Messiah (and for the reasons we have discussed) will reject my conclusion. Alas, I can't do more.

The rift between Jews and Christians will not be healed in my lifetime, I don't think. However, I do think that the claims of Jesus, as preserved and proclaimed by the Church, make sense even withing the Jewish crucible from which Christianity surged. My faith and my reason are secured, but the problem remains: how do I take the Gospel in an affirmative fashion to my Jewish brethren while preserving both our identities? The only personal solution I can find at the moment is by loving them as Jesus loves them, and as we love ourselves. Once we love with this intensity, the remainder will resolve itself through mutual forgiveness before the God who loves, forgive, and judge us all.
[1] Halkin, Abraham S., ed., and Cohen, Boaz, trans. Moses Maimonides' Epistle to Yemen: The Arabic Original and the Three Hebrew Versions, American Academy for Jewish Research, 1952, pp. iii-iv. as quoted in the Wikipedia.