Ed. This talk was given at the first historic Hebrew Catholic conference, Jews in the Church, on December 11, 2004. It was included in The Hebrew Catholic #81. All rights reserved. Lemann Brothers Postulatum
Was it Really “Odd of God To Choose the Jews”?
We planned to begin our talks with short versions of our witness testimonies, or “conversion stories”, although for us to use the term conversion seems odd, since if the Catholic Church is anything, it is “post-Messianic” Judaism; it is the fulfillment of Judaism: it is what Judaism is all about after the Messiah came, while what is called Judaism is what Judaism, or one could equally well say Catholicism, was all about before the coming of the Messiah. So I thought I’d start with a quote from the Lemann Brothers, who are sort of my heroes and a major inspiration behind my book. They were twin orphaned Jewish brothers who lived in France in the middle of the nineteenth century; they entered the Church, became priests and canons, and ended up being close friends of Pius IX and active at the First Vatican Council. Anyway, at one point they wrote:
“You have heard it said that an honorable man should not change his religion…But this maxim is as false as it is cruel, and, with respect to a Jew who wishes to become Catholic, doubly false. It is false a first time because for him as for all who stray and then return, there is honor rather than dishonor in abandoning error to return to the Truth. It is false a second time, shamefully false, because a Jew in becoming Catholic does not change his religion, but fulfils his religion, completes it, crowns it. The Jew become Catholic is the religious man par excellence, who has grown into his fullness, as the seed grows into the flower… The religion was initially patriarchal, that is, identified with the family of the Patriarchs; then it was enlarged into a chosen people who were given the beautiful name People of God; and finally, in being universalized it became something even more beautiful, the Kingdom of God, the Catholic Church which is for all people. This is always the work of the Eternal, the progression from the less perfect to the more perfect, from the particular to the general.”
My Spiritual Journey
With that as an introduction, I’ll say a little about my own non-“conversion”, my own coming into the fullness of Judaism. At the time I was on the faculty of Harvard Business School, I was in my early thirties, I had achieved a lot in terms of the material world, had achieved what I thought would make me happy and fulfilled, but it did nothing of the sort, and the emptiness inside was actually greater than it had been because I had nothing more to look forward to that had any prayer of scratching the itch inside to find real meaning in life. It was in this rather introspective mood, walking in nature alone early one morning, when I was granted the extraordinary grace of finding myself from one moment to the next knowing that I was, very perceptibly, in the presence of God, and looking at my life as though I were looking back at it in His presence after death. I saw everything that I would be happy about, and everything that I would wish I had done differently. I saw that everything that had ever happened to me, especially those things that had caused the most suffering, had been the most perfect things that could have been arranged coming from the hand of an all knowing, all loving God. I saw that every action that I had done, that anyone did, had a moral content that really mattered for all eternity. And I saw that after I died, my two greatest regrets would be every hour that I had wasted not doing anything of value in the eyes of heaven, and all the time and energy I had wasted worrying about not being loved, when every moment of my existence I was being held in a sea of love greater than I could imagine.
And I remember praying at the time: “Let me know your name so that I can worship and serve you properly and know what religion to follow. I don’t mind if you’re Buddha and I have to become a Buddhist; I don’t mind if you’re Krishna and I have to become a Hindu; I don’t mind if you’re Apollo and I have to become a Roman pagan; as long as you’re not Christ and I have to become Christian.” And obviously God respected my free will in this prayer; He did not reveal His name to me at the time. But every night after that experience I would say a short prayer before going to sleep to know the name of my Lord and Master who had revealed Himself to me that day, and a year to the day after that initial experience I went to sleep, and I felt as though I was woken by a hand gently rocking my shoulder. (I know that physically I was asleep during this experience, but I ‘m describing it the way it felt.)
I was led to a room and left alone with the most beautiful young woman I could imagine. Just to be in her presence, just to feel the purity and intensity of the love coming from her, was to be in a state of euphoria greater than I knew could exist. I knew without being told that it was the Blessed Virgin Mary. She said that she would answer any questions I might have for her. I remember standing there and thinking should I ask this; should I ask that; and I remember, obviously, the questions that I asked and her answers, and then she spoke to me a little longer, and then the audience was ended. The next morning when I woke up I knew that it had been Christ who had revealed Himself to me that day a year earlier, and I was in love with the Blessed Virgin Mary. I still didn’t know what a Protestant was, what a Catholic was, that there were different denominations, and it took me a few years to find my way into the Catholic Church, but I was aided by knowing who the Blessed Virgin Mary was and by my love for her, which provided a pretty infallible guide to the Catholic Church. Anyway, that’s the short version of my “conversion” story.
How Odd of God to Choose the Jews
The title of my talk today is based on the line “How odd of God to choose the Jews” – a couplet that I have heard attributed to sources ranging from Ogden Nash to Father Feeney. Whoever the original source may have been, the question remains: Was it in fact odd of God to choose the Jews?
The first question is, “What did He choose the Jews for?” The answer includes to be, for the period of time up until the Messiah came, the people uniquely close to Him, the recipients of His divine revelation, the people living in an absolutely unique relationship with Him. It was to the Jews that He gave the revelation of Himself contained in the Old Testament, and with the Jews that He established a close personal relationship, a relationship that was only made available to the rest of mankind with the coming of Christ.
Why did God do this? The first thing one must recognize is that God had to choose someone, some particular people to be the special recipients of His preparatory revelation, if He was going to incarnate as a man. For how could the Messiah be recognized for who He was when He came, if the people to whom he came had not already been prepared, with knowledge of the one true God, of Creation, of the Fall of Man, of Original Sin, of the afterlife, of the need for redemption? How could He incarnate into a people if they were worshipping a host of demons or idols as gods, and who would mistake Him for just one of the pantheon? How could he incarnate into a people who lived in a state of filthy sexual immorality? How could he take His human flesh from an earthy mother who was not pure?
How could he be recognized if the people had not been prepared to wait for, and expect, the coming of the Messiah? and had not been provided with “proof text” prophecies by which they could confirm that it was, indeed He?
Working backwards from the incarnation, one can readily realize that a host of qualities, as well as specific knowledge, would have to be found among the people into whom He incarnated. In order to do this, God would have to choose and prepare a particular people to serve as the “womb” from which the Messiah would be born.
Then there are the practical considerations – if the “good news”, the Gospel, the message of salvation were to spread throughout all the earth, then the people to whom He came must be situated in an appropriate location – let’s say, within the Roman Empire, with access to its transportation and communication system and its language, but still enough of an “outsider” for the new religion not to be, per se, an expression of the empire.
What qualities should the people to whom He came have? For the two thousand plus years in which they were being prepared to receive the Messiah, they would have to stay rigidly separate from the rest of the pagan world around them, for which it would be advantageous if they were stubborn, proud, pugnacious, and xenophobic. Of course, direct commands from God that they avoid contact with pagans around them would be helpful, as would indirect commands in the form of requirements of daily life that would serve to isolate them. The Jews were given plenty of both of these – prohibitions against interactivity and intermarriage with the pagans around them, and laws of ritual purity which made it impossible to mingle with them in the least. It is precisely these characteristics that at times brought so much scorn to the Jews – one can think of the priest and the Levite who would not touch the dying man in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), and the Pharisees who would not eat with sinners (Mt. 9), etc. Certainly there is a tremendous danger for such religious rigidity to lead to spiritual arrogance and pride, even if originally imposed by God Himself to keep the Jews separate. And with the coming of Jesus, of course, the appropriate time for the separateness passed. Yet these characteristics were, in their origin, the qualities that God built into the Jewish religion and the Jewish people to preserve them from assimilation or decay for the two thousand or so years necessary to prepare for the coming of the Messiah.
But granted that God had to choose someone, why did He pick the Jews? There are myriad answers to this. One is that God likes to choose the weakest, the least significant, for special roles so that there can be no confusion about where the specialness comes from. One can think of those who are chosen for apparitions or revelations – Bernadette of Lourdes, the Fatima children, etc. Jesus said, in fact, to St. Faustina, when she asked why me, that if He could have found anyone more wretched, He would have chosen her instead. And in the Old Testament, in Ezekiel 16 (verses 2 through 14), God makes it explicit that that was the basis on which He chose the Jews:
“Thus says the Lord GOD to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite. And as for your birth, on the day you were born your navel string was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor swathed with bands…but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born. And when I passed by you, and saw you weltering in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live…’
“Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you, and anointed you with oil. I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with leather, I swathed you in fine linen and covered you with silk. And I decked you with ornaments, and put bracelets on your arms…and a beautiful crown upon your head… You grew exceedingly beautiful, and came to regal estate. And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor which I had bestowed upon you, says the Lord GOD.”
But if this is the “negative” answer, there is also the positive one told in the account of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. It was Abraham’s unswerving loyalty to and obedience to God, in being willing to sacrifice his only-begotten son on Mount Moriah, which brought the blessing to his “seed” forever. It was Abraham’s willingness to see his son Isaac sacrificed that was, in a sense, reciprocated 2000 years later when God Himself sent His only-begotten Son to be sacrificed on the very same mountain, to bring about the redemption of all mankind. (Gen 22:16-18):
“By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
“all the nations of the earth be blessed” is a promise which was always understood as referring to the coming of the Messiah.
So what were the Jews chosen for? To be a home to the Messiah when He came, which meant to be sufficiently indoctrinated in theology and to have a sufficient relationship to God to recognize His import when He came. To be sufficiently pure and free from the influence of pagan gods, who are in reality demons, and sexual immorality to be able, without sacrilege, to provide the flesh for His incarnation and the home for Him when He came. To expect Him, long for Him, and pray and sacrifice to bring about His coming, since for some mysterious reason God wants His graces to mankind to come about through the intermediation of man’s prayer and sacrifice. Then when He came, to make up His apostles and disciples: adoring, worshiping, and serving Him on earth and spreading the “good news” after His death. It was, without a doubt the most important special role ever given to any people, and ethnos on Earth, from creation to the end of time.
It’s a shame they blew it, right? After all, most didn’t recognize him; many thought he was crazy or an imposter, many treated him with scorn and abuse, and He was condemned to death amidst the cries of a crowd of Jews yelling “Crucify him!”, and after His death they did everything they could to wipe out His new religion.
But wait a moment – did the Jews blow it? Or did they succeed – perfectly, in fact. What were they asked to do? To bring about the coming of the Messiah, to enable Him to fulfill His mission, and to spread the Gospel after His death. What did they do? They brought about the coming of the Messiah, they enabled Him to fulfill His mission (tragically involving His crucifixion, but there was hardly going to be mission accomplished without that, would there?), and they spread the Gospel throughout the world after His death. For it was spread throughout the world, and the first generation of disciples and apostles were almost entirely Jews.
So was it odd of God to choose the Jews? Apparently not, that is, not if God wanted His plan to succeed. For He did, they did their part, and it did. Many of the traits which are seen as the most condemnable among the Jews – their extreme insularity, xenophobia, contentiousness; fill in the list – were traits which had to be placed in them for them to succeed. Other attributes for which Jews are often condemned are side effects from their Messianic mission incompletely understood – for instance, the disproportionate role Jews have played in Communism, which can be seen as the Messianic impulse to perfect the world misapplied in the absence of Christ.
But, to be honest, we must come to the heart of the question of the Jews’ failure or success – the failure of such a large proportion of Jews, both then and now, to recognize the Christ. The question is: Is this failure, or is this, too, success?
We know on the one hand that the issue perhaps dearest to Jesus’ heart was the conversion of the Jews. What did He say when He walked the earth?:
“These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” (Mt 10:5-7)
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Mt. 23:37)
This last was said immediately prior to the crucifixion, at a spot overlooking Jerusalem still called “the Lord wept”. Jesus clearly wanted the Jews to follow Him, and it is a horrible heresy, and disloyalty to Jesus, and lack of charity to the Jews, to pretend otherwise and to argue that Catholics should not evangelize Jews.
But there is, simultaneously, another side to this mystery, best brought out by St. Paul. Although Jesus longed for the Jews to love Him and follow Him, it was mysteriously, at the same time, a part of God’s plan that many should not. Romans 11 (extracts) says:
“… Israel failed to obtain what it sought. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear, down to this very day.’”
“…let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and bend their backs for ever.”…
“Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in…”
So it was God Himself who “darkened” the eyes of the Jews, that they might not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. For some mysterious reason, the Jews had to reject Jesus in order for Christianity to spread to the Gentiles; only after it has spread throughout the entire Gentile world, and “the number of the Gentiles is fulfilled”, will it be safe for the Jews, en masse, to enter the Church. The unbelief of the Jews is somehow an integral part of God’s plan to enable the Gentiles to be saved, but when the “full number” of the Gentiles has come in – presumably at the end of this age of salvation history, at the “end of time” – the “hardening” resulting in the Jews’ unbelief will be removed and “all Israel will be saved.”
In our times, we are faced with a new challenge to understand the role of the Jews as God’s “chosen people”, the challenge posed by the horrible tragedy of the Holocaust. The fact of it has caused an acute crisis in the Jewish community around just this issue – how can the Jews be the “chosen people”, a central tenet of Judaism, in the face of the Holocaust? If they are the chosen people, and if God is all-good and all-powerful, then how could He have allowed it to happen? As a result of this apparent paradox, Jewish theology has undergone a major, if largely unconscious, upheaval, I would even say apostasy, in the past 50 years. Jewish theologians have tended to resolve the apparent paradox by concluding either that God is not so good, or not so powerful, or unfaithful to His own covenant. These views can be found expressed by the absolutely most prominent theologians in American Jewry. Let me present a few recent quotes from the best known of them. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg (former president of the American Jewish Congress, and the author of “Judaism”) writes:
“I was aware then, in 1948, that I could never return to the Orthodox faith in God. I would not forgive Him for the Holocaust, and I would not absolve Him by agreeing that the death camps had existed in a realm that he could not control.”
Jewish theologian Richard Rubenstein:
“God really died at Auschwitz…. We are alone in a silent, unfeeling cosmos… If I believe in God as the omnipotent author of the historical drama and Israel as His chosen people, I had to accept [the] conclusion that it was God’s will that Hitler committed six million Jews to slaughter. I could not possibly believe in such a God nor could I believe in Israel as the chosen people of God after Auschwitz.”
Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate, Chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, head of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, said that in the Holocaust:
“For the very first time in our history, this very covenant was broken. That is why the Holocaust has terrifying theological implications.
“This was the meaning of the holocaust; it implicated not only Abraham or his son, but their God as well. … we [the Jews] proved to Him that we were more patient than He, more compassionate, too…we know that it is given to man to transform divine injustice into human justice and compassion.
This theme – that man, not God, is the noble one – is at the heart of Wiesel’s theology:
“Why, but why should I bless Him?…Because He had had thousands of children burned in His pits? Because He kept six crematories working night and day, on Sundays and feast days? Because in His great might He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many factories of death? How could I say to Him: ‘Blessed art Thou, Eternal, Master of the Universe, Who chose us from among the races to be tortured day and night, to see our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, end in the crematory? Praised be Thy Holy Name, Thou Who hast chosen us to be butchered on Thine altar?’
The unprecedented suffering of the Holocaust is obviously extremely difficult to resolve within the confines of Jewish theology, which has no real theology of the redemptive value of suffering. But this is not the case for us as Catholics. Not only does Christianity have a theology of suffering, but one could say without exaggeration that Christianity, the story of the Son of God who became Man to suffer and die on the Cross and so save all of humanity, IS a theology of suffering. If the Jews are the Chosen People, then from a Catholic understanding, isn’t it only logical that they should be chosen for a special role in bearing the suffering necessary to redeem Mankind? This is what Jesus, the Jew par excellence, was chosen for; shouldn’t it be what the rest of the chosen people are, to a lesser extent, chosen for, too? Although the theological significance may escape Jewish theologians who are limited to pre-Christian revelation, not so those who see it through the lens of Christ and Christian revelation. Compare the foregoing with the understanding of the Holocaust expressed by Edith Stein:
“I understood the Cross as the destiny of God’s people, which was beginning to be apparent at the time (1933). I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take it upon themselves on everybody’s behalf… Beneath the Cross I understood the destiny of God’s people.
“I firmly believe that the Lord has accepted my life as an offering for all. It’s important for me to keep Queen Esther in mind and remember how she was separated from her people just so that she could intercede for them before the king. I myself certainly am a poor and insignificant little Esther, but I take comfort from the fact that the King who has chosen me is infinitely kind and merciful.”
In an offering of herself to God she made in her final testament in 1939:
“I joyfully accept in advance the death God has appointed for me, in perfect submission to his most holy will. May the Lord accept my life and death for …the Jewish people, that the Lord may be received by his own and his Kingdom come in glory.”
By assuming human nature, Christ became capable of suffering and dying. His divine nature, which He has had from eternity, gave infinite value and a redeeming power to His suffering and death. Christ’s suffering and death continues in His mystical Body and in each one of His members. Everyone has to suffer and die. And if he is a living member of the Body of Christ, then his death and suffering acquires redemptive power through the divine nature of the Head. In the light of the mystery of redemption, [this] is the ultimate raison d’etre. …The way of the Son of God is to get to the resurrection through suffering and the cross. Getting to resurrection glory with the Son of Man, through suffering and death, is also the way for each one of us and for all mankind.
In her final recorded words, spoken to her sister Rosa as they were led from their convent to be taken to Auschwitz, she acknowledged the link between their sacrifice and the redemption of the Jews: “Come, let us go for our people.” And it may not be irrelevant that she perished with a train transport composed entirely of baptized Jews.
Now the conversion of the Jews itself has always been seen as associated with the Second Coming, since the days of the Church Fathers, based on some statements of St Paul in his letter to the Romans as well as on a few somewhat cryptic statements of Our Lord Himself. There isn’t the time to go into them in depth, but the key scriptures are:
“I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:25-6)
“… they [the Jews] will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” (Luke 21: 24-7)
For this reason, anything associated with the widespread conversion of the Jews tends to evoke ideas, or speculation, about the imminence of the Second Coming. How much more so the Holocaust, since the prototypical widespread slaughter of the Jews, the “slaughter of the innocents” under Herod two thousand years ago, was associated with the grace of the First Coming, which raises the question of whether the Holocaust might be a second “slaughter of the innocents” to precede the Second Coming. There is in any case underway today a widespread conversion of Jews to Christianity, which may be the biggest in history – it is certainly very large, and has some unique characteristics. Unfortunately, I would say tragically, the Jews who are converting are not by and large finding their way to the Catholic Church – the conversion is largely coming from Protestant circles, notably those associated with “Messianic Judaism”. I believe this is due in large part to the Catholic Church having dropped the ball – in a surfeit of sensitivity to hurting Jewish feelings as a result of the Holocaust, the interaction between the Church and the Jewish community has recently been dominated by a running away from any “threat” of conversion, at times going so far as to assert that Jews have no need for Christ, that God just wants them to remain faithful to their “original” covenant. As a result, when through the workings of Grace Jews are opened up to the truth of Jesus, rather than finding their way to the one true Church, which is far more Jewish than any of the Protestant denominations, they get scooped up by our “separated brethren”.
But the numbers are huge – from a start of three or four Messianic Jewish congregations in the US in 1967, there are now several hundred. There are probably about 200,000 Messianic Jews in the US, which is almost half as many as there are Orthodox Jews (420,000). Equally significant from an apocalyptic perspective, there is now virtually no city or town in Israel without a Messianic Jewish congregation, which calls to mind Jesus’ words to his disciples:
“When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of man comes.” (Mt. 10:23)
They’ve almost run out of towns!
The last large-scale conversions of the Jews took place in the late 19th century in Europe, when the Jews were for the first time emancipated and free to mingle with Christian society. At that time, too, the prevalence of Jewish conversion inspired speculation as to the immanence of the Second Coming. I would like to close with a story from that time. It was the time of the first Vatican council, 1870, and at the council were two Priests of Jewish origin, twin brothers from France who converted as teenagers, almost at the cost of their lives – the Lemann Brothers, who I view as the Patron Saints of my book. Anyway, with the Pope’s blessing they circulated a Postulatum, that is a petition, at the first Vatican council that was endorsed by virtually all of the Council Fathers, encouraging the entry of Jews into the Church. A common objection to signing it, one voiced by a number of Bishops, was that since the conversion of the Jews was to shortly precede the Second Coming, wouldn’t signing the Postulatum risk bringing on the end of the world? But in the end virtually all of the Bishops signed it; it garnered 510 signatures out of about 600 Council Fathers – (the final decree on infallibility had only 433). I’d like to conclude with the text of the Postulatum, as appropriate today as it was in 1870, making its prayer my own and, I hope, perhaps yours too.
Lemann Brothers’ Postulatum
Signed by Council Fathers of First Vatican Council
“The undersigned Fathers of the Council humbly yet urgently beseechingly pray that the Holy Ecumenical Council of the Vatican deign to come to the aid of the unfortunate nation of Israel with an entirely paternal invitation; that is, that it express the wish that, finally exhausted by a wait no less futile than long, the Israelites hasten to recognize the Messiah, our Savior Jesus Christ, truly promised to Abraham and announced by Moses; thus completing and crowning, not changing, the Mosaic religion.
“On one hand, the undersigned Fathers have the very firm confidence that the holy Council will have compassion on the Israelites, because they are always very dear to God on account of their fathers, and because it is from them that the Christ was born according to the flesh.
“On the other hand, the same Fathers share the sweet and intimate hope that this ardent desire of tenderness and honor will be, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, well received by many of the sons of Abraham, because the obstacles which have held them back until now appear to be disappearing more and more, the ancient wall of separation now having fallen.
“Would that they then speedily acclaim the Christ, saying “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed be He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Would that they hurl themselves into the arms of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, even now their sister according to the flesh, who wishes likewise to be their mother according to grace as she is ours!”