O Jerusalem, Jerusalem …
From the heart of a Jewish convert:
An open letter to William Cardinal Keeler
in response to “Reflections on Covenant and Mission”
Ed. Reprinted with permission from This Rock, a magazine of Catholic Answers, Inc., P. O. Box 19000, San Diego, CA 92159 Phone: 1-619-387-7200; Web: www.catholic.com. This article was reprinted in “The Hebrew Catholic”, #77, Fall 2002, pp. 20-23. Cardinal Keeler is the U.S. Catholic bishops’ moderator for Jewish relations.
Dear Cardinal Keeler:
I am grateful, your Eminence, that by issuing Reflections On Covenant and Mission (August 12) you have encouraged serious reflection by Jews and Catholics throughout the United States, and I beg you to bear with me as I try to convey to you the things so heavy on my heart. (All quotes below are from the document unless otherwise indicated.)
Having been born and raised in a Conservative Jewish home, I have a deep love and respect for the Jewish people, many of whom see me as a traitor now that I’m a Christian (or, more specifically, a Hebrew Catholic). While I fall far short of the depth of Paul’s heart for his kinsmen according to the flesh, wishing himself accursed and cut off from Christ for their sake (Rom. 9:3), I anguish yet at Israel’s unbelief in the Messiah who came for them, through them. One of the most heartrending statements to me in all of Scripture is that of our Lord as he wept over Jerusalem: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem. . . . How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not” (Matt. 23:37).
Yet Israel’s lack of belief is not so great a mystery to me as my belief. That we are born in original sin, which plunged us into darkness, is a fact, however sorrowful. That, in addition to our fallen condition, “a hardening has come upon part of Israel until the full number of the Gentiles come in” (Rom. 11:25) is another. But that the love and grace of God should have penetrated my heart and drawn me to him is a mystery for which I will sing God’s praises through all eternity.
Though the document was “meant to spur reflection,” it caused me considerable distress. I agree with much of what it says, and I am grateful for the love of the Jewish people that is at its core, but I believe the conclusions it reaches are opposed to the temporal and spiritual welfare of this people. I beg your forgiveness if, in stating my thoughts so forthrightly, I offend you in any way. That is not my intention.
To begin with, it seems to me that the main point of Reflections is stated in the third paragraph of the preface: “The Roman Catholic reflections describe the growing respect for the Jewish tradition that has unfolded since the Second Vatican Council. A deepening Catholic appreciation of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people, together with a recognition of a divinely given mission to Jews to witness to God’s faithful love, lead to the conclusion that campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church.”
I could not agree more, nor should attempts to “target” any people be the mode of operation in our missionary endeavors. I’ve taken Peter’s words as the model for all evangelization: “Sanctify the Lord Jesus Christ in your hearts always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you for the hope that is within you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Pet. 3:15).
Toward that end, I applaud all efforts to build mutual respect through a dialogue that dispels the ignorance and caricatures that have been the cause of untold persecution through the years and that strives toward the understanding of each others’ beliefs. And I am grateful for the documents—from Nostra Aetate to the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible—that have sought to understand the depth and extent of God’s eternal, irrevocable covenant with Israel, not only in light of the new covenant but also in reference to that part of Israel yet outside the Church.
But I am at a loss to understand how anyone can conclude, with Walter Cardinal Kasper, that “the Church believes that Judaism, i.e., the faithful response of the Jewish people to God’s irrevocable covenant, is salvific for them, because God is faithful to his promises” (emphasis mine).
It is this statement above all that has created in me, and in many others, such turmoil. Why then, if Israel is already in a saving covenant with God and if his coming was for the “nations other than Israel” (see comment in Reflections re Matthew 28:19) did Jesus weep over Jerusalem? Why then did the apostle Paul wish himself accursed for the sake of his kinsmen if their covenant was salvific?
There are so many confusing statements in Reflections that, if I took each sentence or even each paragraph at a time, this letter would become a small volume. The above is one instance. Who among us would deny that every individual’s freedom of religion and freedom of conscience should be respected? But to deny that it is Christ alone who saves, that the old covenant was, as Paul says, “our schoolmaster to lead us to Christ” (Gal. 3:24, NASB), the one mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5), is to deny Christ for ourselves. If he is not the Messiah of Israel—God come in the flesh (1 John 4:2)—then he is no one’s Messiah.
The document quotes Cardinal Kasper in saying, “The term mission, in its proper sense, refers to conversion from false gods and idols to the true and one God, who revealed himself in the salvation history with his elected people. Thus mission, in this strict sense, cannot be used with regard to Jews, who believe in the true and one God.”
Since no source is given for Cardinal Kasper’s definition of mission “in its proper sense,” it is difficult to comment on its context. Certainly mission includes the proclamation of a message that would lead people from false gods and idols to the true and one God. But to define mission in so limited a sense and then conclude that such a definition “cannot be used with regard to Jews, who believe in the true and one God,” is misleading. Is it our mission to reduce the gospel message to that of monotheism alone, conversion to the true and one God? Nothing of the Incarnation? Nothing of the death and resurrection of the One who died and rose again that we might have life? Nothing of baptism, the sacraments, the Eucharist, the Church that the true and one God founded in his Son?
Did not Jesus say to Nicodemus—a Jew who already believed in the “true and one God”—“Unless a man is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3)? And did not our Lord say to the Jews who believed in the God of Abraham, “You will die in your sins unless you believe that I am he” (John 8:24)? Did not he tell them that he himself was God (John 10:30), that it was him of whom the prophets spoke (Luke 24:44), and that to reject him was to reject the One who sent him (Luke 10:16)?
Does not our mission involve the full knowledge of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who sent his Son to his own (John 1:11) that they might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10)? The Gospel reading of this past Sunday included the very words of our Lord who said to the Canaanite woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). Why did he come to them who already believed in the true God, and in what sense were they lost if the covenant under which Israel existed prior to Christ was salvific?
The Catechism’s definition of mission seems to be quite different. Quoting John Paul II, it states, “The ultimate purpose of mission is none other than to make men share in the communion between the Father and the Son in their Spirit of love” (CCC 850).
I don’t imagine, your Eminence, that I could cite a Scripture passage or quote a Church document that you and your committee have not dealt with in the past twenty-plus years of Catholic-Jewish dialogue. This makes it all the more difficult for me to understand how you are able to conclude that Israel does not need to believe in the Messiah, the Christ, for its salvation.
The document describes the Pharisee Gamaliel in Acts 5:33–39 as declaring that “only undertakings of divine origin can endure” and concludes therefore that “Rabbinic Judaism . . . must also be of God.” But such a conclusion does not follow.
To begin with, Gamaliel’s message was that “if [this undertaking] is of God, you will not be able to overthrow [its supporters]” and further, “You might even be found opposing God!” (v. 39). That’s not quite the same as saying—and more, describing as a “New Testament principle”—that “only undertakings of divine origin can endure.” Under such a “principle,” how would we not conclude that Buddhism, for example, which existed before Christ, is from God as well?
That is not to say that God does not permit certain undertakings, as, for example, Rabbinic Judaism, as a means of preserving his people and accomplishing his purposes. But to conclude that it therefore is of divine origin on a par with the old covenant does not follow.
The Catechism says, “In the history of salvation God was not content to deliver Israel ‘out of the house of bondage’ by bringing them out of Egypt. He also saves them from their sin. Because sin is always an offense against God, only he can forgive it. For this reason Israel, becoming more and more aware of the universality of sin, will no longer be able to seek salvation except by invoking the name of the Redeemer God.
“The name ‘Jesus’ signifies that the very name of God is present in the person of his Son, made man for the universal and definitive redemption from sins. It is the divine name that alone brings salvation, and henceforth all can invoke his name, for Jesus united himself to all men through his Incarnation, so that ‘there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’” (CCC 431–432).
In the section titled “The Mission of the Church: Evangelization,” the document reads, “Such reflections on and experiences of the Jewish people’s eternal covenantal life with God raise questions about the Christian task of bearing witness to the gifts of salvation that the Church receives through her ‘new covenant’ in Jesus Christ” (emphasis mine).
How is it that the “new covenant” in Jesus Christ is her “new covenant”? Does the document mean that the “new covenant” is the Church’s new covenant apart from Israel? Is the Church not born from the root that is Israel (Rom. 11:17–27)? Did not our Lord institute the new covenant at the Last Supper with the twelve apostles, all sons of Israel, the people for whom he came and through whom he would bring life to the world (Luke 22:19–20, Jer. 31:31–32, Heb. 8:7–9)?
A similar statement indicating that the gospel is for all nations except Israel is made later in the document in reference to Matthew 28:19. The argument is made that the Hebrew word goyim, a translation of the Greek word ethne, excludes Israel. The Catechism, however, applies Matthew 28:19 to “all men” (CCC 849). What sense would it make for our Lord to commission twelve Israelites to preach to every nation a gospel of salvation that did not apply to them? And why then did he charge the Twelve at the beginning of their mission to “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5–6)?
The last paragraph of this same section states, “Thus Catholics participating in interreligious dialogue, a mutually enriching sharing of gifts devoid of any intention whatsoever to invite the dialogue partner to baptism, are nonetheless witnessing to their own faith in the kingdom of God embodied in Christ” (emphasis mine).
I agree that when we engage in interreligious dialogue with Jews, we, through our conversation and the witness of our lives—even apart from inviting them to baptism or from sharing any part of the gospel message—are yet giving witness to God in Christ, particularly since, in this case, our dialogue partners know we are Christians. But to say we may witness to God without speaking of Christ or the necessity of baptism (CCC 1256) is not to say that the Jewish people do not need to come to faith in Christ and be baptized. Why then did Peter say to the 3,000 Jews at Pentecost, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38)?
Growing up in a Conservative Jewish home in Brooklyn, New York, I experienced considerable amounts of anti-Semitism, often from Catholics through whom, though I did not understand so at the time, the face of Christ was disfigured. It is not difficult for me to understand the reluctance—or, perhaps more accurately, the aversion—that most Jews have to hearing the gospel.
Yet God, in his infinite grace and mercy, reached out to each member of my immediate family, my parents included, and not only brought us through those experiences but into the Church—and thereby into communion with the very people, though few, whose anti-Semitism had caused us such travail.
Here is a remarkable irony: In a day past when hatred, distrust, and misunderstanding prevailed between Catholics and Jews, the Church “targeted” Jews for conversion. Now, in a time when—thanks to good fruits of Vatican II and the tireless efforts of dialogue—new attitudes of trust and understanding are being built, Catholics speak of withdrawing the gospel message?
Sadly, much of the wording of Reflections can be found in an article, dated July 14, 2001, by Eugene Fisher entitled, Why convert the saved? (www.thetablet.co.uk/cgi-bin/archive_db.cgi?tablet-00544). The title, referring to the Jewish people as “the saved,” is as problematic as its contents. The article states that “the Church believes that Judaism is salvific for Jews” and that “the Church needs today to concentrate on what might be its mission ‘with’ the Jews, not ‘to’ the Jews.” Sympathetic to the “centuries of collective mistreatment of Jews by Christians,” Dr. Fisher anticipates a certain amount of skepticism from the Jewish people and poses this question:
“But, many Jews would say, though the Church has abandoned any formal attempts to convert Jews, and understands itself to be ‘with’ and not ‘over against’ the Jews, don’t Catholics still in their hearts long for their conversion? Might not that longing, frustrated, pop out again one day as it has so often over the centuries?”
Dr. Fisher responds with an evaluation of the official prayer for the Jews in the liturgy of the Church and concludes, “So, no, the Church does not wish the conversion of the Jews as a people to Christianity. Otherwise Catholics would at least pray for it.”
But we do. We pray in that liturgical prayer “that the people you first made your own may arrive at the fullness of redemption.” Dr. Fisher states that “the phrase ‘fullness of redemption’ here is not historical but looks to the Last Things.” However, the “fullness of redemption” is to be found only in Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12), and unless we embrace him in this life we cannot presume to be happy with him in the next.
Can the people of Israel be saved apart from faith in Christ? The Catechism says they can be. Not that they will be saved or that they are already saved, but that they and those who, “through no fault of their own, do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation” (CCC 847). But such an end is not ours to presume. Rather it is given to us to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15) and, Paul would add, “to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).
As stated in Dominus Jesus, “There is only one salvific economy of the One and Triune God, realized in the mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, actualized with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit, and extended in its salvific value to all humanity and to the entire universe. No one, therefore, can enter into communion with God except through Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit” (12).
It is because God is faithful to his promises and to his irrevocable covenant with Israel that he sent his Son to do what the Law could not do—not to abolish, and certainly not to leave them in their sins, but to fulfill (Matt. 5:17), to bring about a new and everlasting covenant (Jer. 31:31–34; Heb. 8:8–13, 13:20).
I say “Amen” to the document’s statement that “this evangelizing task no longer includes the wish to absorb the Jewish faith into Christianity and so end the distinctive witness of Jews to God in human history.” In becoming a Christian, my Jewish faith was not absorbed into Christianity. It was transformed into the fullness of what was promised to the Jews by the One who promised. Often, as I travel and teach our glorious faith, I tell people that the most Jewish thing a person can do is to become Catholic.
I have no doubt, your Eminence, that the Jewish people will be pleased with this document, relieved perhaps to feel that they are no longer the target of the Christian agenda. But one day they will know (Zech. 12:10). One day they will see him (Rev. 1:7). One day they will bow before him (Phil. 2:9-11). And in that day, we will hang our heads in shame, before them and before the God who gave his Son for them.
“You knew?” they will say to us. “You knew that we did not know the Messiah, that we did not recognize him at his first coming? And you did nothing? Were you afraid of our rejection of you? Did you not care more for our souls? Should we not have known the new birth and the graces that flow from the Messiah who came from our loins? Should we not have tasted of his body and blood?”
Cardinal Keeler, I have spent the last week reading hundreds of pages spanning 37 years of documents since Nostra Aetate was published in 1965. I am grateful for the Church’s confirmation of God’s eternal covenant with Israel as a people. Yet I am troubled with the apparent conclusions of those involved in the Catholic-Jewish dialogue. To say that we can work together in a common cause with the Jewish people is not to say that we should not speak to the Jews about their own Messiah (cf. Rom. 10:1–17).
Please accept my gratitude, your Eminence, for bearing with me through this letter, which a communicator more apt than I probably could have accomplished in half the space. I pray for you daily.
“May the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in you that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Heb. 13:20–21).
In the love of our Messiah and his Blessed Mother,