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Repairing the Jewish-Christian breach

By way of negative theology.

18th-century portrait of Maimonides
18th-century portrait of Maimonides

18th-century portrait of Maimonides

Fifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council effected the most important repair of Jewish-Christian relations since the two sides parted ways in antiquity. Pope John XXIII had laid the groundwork by getting rid of the Good Friday prayer for the “perfidious (faithless) Jews,” but in the fourth section of Nostra Aetate — the Declaration of the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions — Roman Catholicism went where it had never gone before, repudiating the charge of Jewish deicide and abjuring all expressions of anti-Semitism.

Marking the anniversary of Nostra Aetate last week, the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews — which  for 40 years years has fostered increasingly amicable ones — issued “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable,” a theological essay that takes its title from chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Romans, where the Apostle Paul informs his Gentile audience that “all Israel will be saved.” Embracing something like this Pauline position, the essay declares that the Church must therefore refrain from conducting or supporting missions to the Jews.

Not that the economy of Jewish salvation is clear. “That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery,” it asserts.

Taking this mystical via negativa represents a significant if not (yet?) official departure for a tradition that much prefers scholastic positivism. Catholic theology may, however, have no better approach.

Meanwhile, on the Jewish side, 25 Orthodox rabbis from Israel, Europe, and the U.S. also marked the anniversary of Nostra Aetate by issuing a statement recognizing the role of Christianity in God’s plan: “Now that the Catholic Church has acknowledged the eternal Covenant between G-d and Israel,” they write, “we Jews can acknowledge the ongoing constructive validity of Christianity as our partner in world redemption, without any fear that this will be exploited for missionary purposes.”

That’s pretty good for a bunch of Orthodox rabbis, to be sure from the liberal end of the spectrum. And give them credit for working hard to find statements from Jewish tradition to support their position, including by the two greatest Jewish writers of the Middle Ages: “As did Maimonides and Yehudah Halevi,[1] we acknowledge that Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations.”

OK, that’s a bit of a stretch. Halevi’s alleged acknowledgement comes from the Kuzari, a dialogue among representatives of the three Abrahamic religions and the king of the Central Asian Khazars who is trying to figure out which religion to embrace. in Book 4, section 22, the king praises the Christians and Muslims (as opposed to the Jews) for valuing humility and martyrdom over power and material prosperity.

As for Maimonides, the rabbis cite a passage from his codification of Jewish law (the Mishneh Torah) that Jewish authorities in 17th-century Europe censored because of its hostile view of Christianity. After noting that Jesus “aspired to be the Messiah,” the sage writes:

Can there be a greater stumbling block than [Christianity]? All the prophets spoke of the Messiah as the Redeemer of Israel and its Savior, who would gather their dispersed and strengthen [their observation of ] the Mitzvot [the commandments]. By contrast, [Christianity] caused the Jews to be slain by the sword, their remnant to be scattered and humbled, the Torah to be altered and the majority of the world to err and serve a god other than the Lord. Nevertheless, the intent of the Creator is not within the power of man to comprehend, for His ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts, our thoughts. [Ultimately,] all the deeds of Yeshua of Nazareth and that Ishmaelite [Muhammad] who arose after him will only serve to prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming and the improvement of the entire world [motivating the nations] to serve God together, as [Zephanaiah 3.9] states: I will make the peoples pure of speech that they will all call upon the Name of God and serve him with one purpose.”

You’d have to say that, as unfathomable mysteries go, that’s about as unfathomable as it gets for Jews. But as with “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable,” the via negativa is often the theological way forward.

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