Commentary Magazine


The Bridge, edited by John M. Oesterreicher

Christian-Jewish Dialogue?
by Jakob J. Petuchowski
The Bridge. A Yearbook of Judaeo-Christian Studies, Volume I. Edited by John M. Oesterreicher. Pantheon. 349 pp. $3.95.

Traditionally the Christian Church has had an ambivalent attitude towards Judaism. On the one hand, the Jews were the people who, being singled out by grace to have the Messiah born into their midst, were yet so blind as to reject him. On the other hand, the Jews were, after all, the Chosen People, the descendants, if only in the flesh, of that Israel to whom the Sinaitic Covenant had been vouchsafed, custodians of the Law which is accepted by the Church as “the schoolmaster leading unto Christ.” Hence the special position of the Jews in the divine scheme of things could not be gainsaid—at any rate, not as long as Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were understood as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. The day would surely come when the eyes of the unbelieving Jew would be opened, and when, at long last accepting their true Messiah, the Israel of the flesh would again become part of the Israel of the spirit. The Jews are, in the words of one of the contributors to this volume, the Christians’ “elder brother,” and they must be treated with “the deference due pioneers, believers whose very downfall stems from zeal.”

Meanwhile, however, the continued existence of this unregenerate people could only be an irritant—as irritating to the 1st-century author of The Epistle of Barnabas as to the 20th-century author of A Study of History. Nor have the last two thousand years been lacking in attempts to get rid of this irritant. Sweet reasonableness alternated with violent invective, and forced “disputations” often served as the prelude to the stake. And all the while there grew up an immense literature, trying to demonstrate, in one form or another, that the literary sources of Judaism—and not only the Biblical, but even the Rabbinical—unmistakably point to Jesus as the Christ. One of the great classics in this genre is Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, written in the 2nd century. In this work, the Church Father has a rather amicable discussion with a cultured Jewish gentleman, who makes so many concessions to the Christian’s claims that, on this basis alone, modern scholars have doubted his reality. Put bluntly, the Trypho of Justin’s Dialogue was a “straw man,” and the Church Father had no trouble “knocking him down”—even though Justin wore kid gloves in the encounter.

The volume under discussion makes much of the fact that in Justin’s Dialogue the two contestants conclude by praying for one another, and the hope is expressed that The Bridge will likewise “lead to love.” But love requires understanding, and understanding knowledge; and so it is the express purpose of The Bridge to disseminate that knowledge which alone can lead to a friendly theological meeting of Jews and Christians.

With this purpose in mind, the book offers a number of studies, essays, and reviews by Catholic scholars trying to show that, in the words of Pius XI, “spiritually we are Semites.” The Catholic has a profound sympathetic interest in Jews and Judaism. Witness the Church’s dissociation from Marcion’s anti-Jewish gnosticism, reiterated here by Monsignor John J. Dougherty. Witness Barry Ulanov’s skilful proof that Portia’s “quality of mercy” in The Merchant of Venice leaves as much to be desired as Shylock’s “justice.” Witness, too, Father Pierre Charles’s meticulous demonstration that “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” is a forgery, and Father Keller’s condemnation of the Nazi slaughter of six million Jews.

The Jewish reader feels reassured. The Catholics speaking to him in The Bridge are his friends. And, being his friends, what they have to say deserves respectful attention. What, then, do they have to say?

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Basically, it is what the Church has been saying to the Jew all along. Of course, these representatives of the Church are not as crude in their efforts as are some of the worthies discussed by A. Lukyn Williams in his Adversus Judaeos: A Bird’s-Eye View of Christian Apologiae until the Renaissance (Cambridge University Press, 1935). They are all extremely polite. Nevertheless, they are saying much the same thing. The Bridge, then, is not an example of what Catholics can achieve in the realm of pure scholarship (although one expects such scholarship from a volume announcing itself as a Yearbook of Judaeo-Christian Studies). It is not even an attempt by Catholic writers to show that they are really aware of the Jewish position on the points at issue between the Synagogue and the Church. The book simply gives us a number of expositions of the central Christian dogmas, using as “proof texts” certain facets of Jewish literature, thought, and life.

As in most symposia, the individual contributions are of unequal merit, though some reflect the nature of the whole enterprise a little more clearly than others. Thus, for example, Father Barnabas M. Ahern’s study on “The Exodus, Then and Now” is merely a modern specimen of the “typological” interpretation of the Old Testament so dear to the old Church Fathers, and as unconvincing to the modern Jew as it was to his medieval forbear. This method of interpretation attempts to derive from the Old Testament, with unconcealed Christian bias, not only some vague foreshadowing of later New Testament “fulfillments,” but concrete images which show the Old Testament authors to have been fully aware of Christian imagery and symbols. It would follow, then, that a belief in the inspiration of the Hebrew Bible must lead to the acceptance of Christian dogma. For instance, the “tree” in Exodus 15: 25 which had the magical quality of making sweet the bitter waters of Marah can be regarded as the type of the Christian cross, while the same “type” is evident in the “crossing” of Jacob’s hands when he was blessing his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 48: 14). (These two illustrations of typological interpretation are not given by Father Ahern, but are taken from Rabbi Yomtov Lipman Muehlhausen’s Sefer Ha-nitzachon, a medieval Jewish work of apologetics and polemics in which these and similar “arguments” are refuted.)

The Rabbis themselves were not, of course, innocent of this kind of exegesis. The Midrash is full of it. But, as A. Lukyn Williams (who was himself interested in converting Jews to Christianity) rightly remarks in his above-mentioned book, “Jews never attributed to such Midrashic and Haggadic methods the force of proof in the strictest sense.” Such interpretations “had, no doubt, their own benefit for devout souls, but could not possibly serve as proofs to establish any doctrine.” The Christian writers using this typological interpretation simply “never understood the mind of the Jews.”

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If, then, Father Ahern informs us that “Christian life fulfills the typology of Israel’s exodus because it is life in Christ and a full sharing in His wondrous mysteries,” and if, by way of proof, he shows how the details of Jesus’ redemptive career match the details of the Exodus story in the Hebrew Bible, he does indeed give us an interesting piece of Christian midrash which can be appreciated in its own right: But the reverend Father fails to reckon with the sense of humor which has always been an active ingredient of both the production and the appreciation of Jewish midrash. That there is a strong connection between the story of the Exodus and that of the Resurrection of Jesus, I would not want to deny, but it is found on a level quite different from the one selected by Father Ahem. It could, for example, be claimed that the whole New Testaman account of Jesus has consciously been written as a midrash on the Passover drama (First Redemption—Last Redemption, or, in Rabbinic parlance, pesach mitzrayim and pesach le’atid”). It might even be said that both the Jewish story (Redemption from Slavery) and the Christian story (Redemption from Death) are, in their own ways, merely adaptations or reinterpretations of motifs inherent in nature religion, and going back to the spring festivals of prehistoric times.

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Mother Marie Thaddea de Sion’s essay on “The Jewish Burial Service” is interesting as a demonstration of how far, and how thoroughly, a Catholic can become familiar with aspects of Jewish life. But it hardly constitutes a contribution to “scholarship.” Still, it is suggestive to discover about the Jewish burial service that “there are few words in it, if any, that a Christian could not pray, though some he would understand in a different spirit.” Yet Mother Marie “misses the voice which alone can say: ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’” This, no doubt, is meant to show the insufficiency of Judaism. But it is merely evidence of the author’s personal feeling. She misses that “voice.” The Orthodox Jew, however, without benefit of that particular “voice,” has the requisite faith and conviction to recite the Burial Kaddish: “Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He will renew, reviving the dead, and bringing them to eternal life. . . .

Raissa Maritain has a fine piece on “Abraham and the Ascent of Conscience” which contrasts favorably with the now popular treatment of the same Biblical character by Kierkegaard. Yet here, too, the author cannot refrain from pitting the “New Law” which “derives its pre-eminence from the very grace of the Holy Spirit given inwardly to believers” against the “Old Law which consisted chiefly of deeds.” This invidious comparison, natural to a Gnostic, psychologically intelligible in a St. Paul, and possibly excusable in a Protestant, is ill-befitting a Roman Catholic writer whose own religious discipline “consists chiefly of deeds.” No doubt, Mme. Maritain would forcefully deny that there was a conflict, or even merely a contrast, between the “deeds” and the “grace given inwardly to believers” within her own religious loyalty. The Jewish reader, who can look back to an even older tradition in which “faith” and “works” were harmoniously blended, has a right to expect fairer treatment at the hands of Christians in general, and of Roman Catholics in particular.

Cornelia and Irving Suessman provide a profound Christological interpretation of Chagall’s various “Crucifixion” paintings (with reproductions that, unfortunately, are not in color). While there is no objective criterion by which this thesis can either be established or refuted, it is, I believe, of no little interest to note that Chagall (who is here quoted as saying about his own paintings: “I don’t understand them at all”) has not, to date, become a convert to Christianity.

Some of the contributions, however, are valuable in their own right, even outside the realm of Catholic apologetics. Father John Oesterreicher’s exposition of “The Enigma of Simone Weil” is one such. Simone Weil rebelled against her Jewish antecedents and found her way to the very gates of the Roman Church, but in Father Oesterreicher’s view she never quite grasped the full Christian truth. And her inability to become a whole-hearted Christian was due, mirabile dictu, to her very opposition to Judaism, and hence to the Judaic element which went into the making of Christianity. Father Oesterreicher performs a great service by quoting in detail those pronouncements of Simone Weil’s on “Israel” which are generally omitted from the English translations of her works “to spare the sensibilities of their readers, and not least those of “Simone Weil’s admirers.”

Dr. James V. Mullaney’s review of Will Herberg’s Judaism and Modern Man offers a healthy corrective to Mr. Herberg’s rather onesided “commitment.” “By selecting the existentialist approach to the Bible and Jewish tradition, and excluding all other sources, Mr. Herberg has cut himself off from that uncomplicated love of truth which rejoices in every articulation of the truth.” It is good to see that Catholics still expect a modern spokesman of Judaism to link himself to the classic intellectual tradition of Maimonides and the Schoolmen, and that they do not regard the current anti-naturalist, existentialist orientation as the last word that can be spoken on behalf of Judaism to modern man.

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The Bridge also contains the most sober and dispassionate account of the infamous Finaly case (see Nicolas Bandy’s “The Affair of the Finaly Children” in Commentary June 1953) this reviewer has yet encountered. Father Edward H. Flannery exhibits a full command of all the relevant facts, and a fine appreciation of the rights and wrongs on both sides. It should be remembered, however, that he wrote his piece after the conclusion of the case. This may have something to do with his attempt to clear the Church of any initial responsibility, or even interest, in the matter. Thus, Mlle. Brun, the “villain” of the drama who had the children baptized, is shown to be rather lukewarm in her Catholic attachments, and as having no religious motivations for her action, “but only the natural desire to have [the Finaly children] included in the festivities of First Communion, a high point in school life.”

But the final decision of the courts is by no means the end of the affaire as far as the Church is concerned. Baptism, after all, works ex opere operato, and, therefore, while the baptism of the Finaly children is now admitted to have been “illicit and imprudent,” it is nonetheless “valid.” The cleric, deprived in our day of the secular arm of the state, can only hope that “Christ will triumph in their souls even though they are removed from the Church’s motherly care.”

Father Flannery refrains from bringing the Mortara case into his discussion. It began when, in 1858, a Christian maid-servant of the Jewish family Mortara, in Bologna, admitted that she had baptized the young child Edgar in order to save his soul. The police was immediately sent into the house to snatch the child away from his parents so that he could benefit from a Catholic education. All protests, including those of the press, of Sir Moses Montefiore, and even of Napoleon III, proved unsuccessful. Pope Pius IX backed this kidnapping to the full, and the universal protest merely induced the pontiff to change his “liberal” attitude towards the Jews into one of hatred. Edgar Montara was kept away from his parents, and educated for the Catholic priesthood.

The historian of church-state relations will find it most instructive to note how the Church, adamant in the somewhat analogous Mortara case of almost a hundred years ago, can now find theological support for her acquiescence in the outcome of the Finaly case.

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The book makes interesting reading, but whether it can serve as a real “bridge” is quite a different question. We have noted the role of Trypho in Justin’s Dialogue as merely that of a straw man. In The Bridge not even a Trypho appears. Therefore, to claim as the editors do in their “Statement of Purpose” that one party to this modern dialogue “speaks but indirectly” is to indulge in understatement. The Jewish facts are refracted through Christian interpretations so consistently that the Christian is unlikely to obtain any worthwhile information about Jewish life and thought. The Jew, on the other hand, appreciative as he may be of the attempt at “bridge-building,” will be wary of the materials that went into the construction of this particular bridge, and will find himself too estranged by its very terms of reference to give the Christian claims their due attention.

The fundamental question raised by the publication of The Bridge is one that concerns the very possibility of a real “dialogue” between the Church and Judaism. A Maimonides and, to a somewhat exaggerated extent, a Franz Rosenzweig could appreciate the historic role of Christianity within the divine scheme of things. A Claude Montefiore could bring a sympathetic understanding to the Synoptic Gospels, a Klausner to Jesus, and a Harry A. Wolfson to the Patristic literature. But can the Church be satisfied with this? Can a Jewish understanding of the central Christian “facts” ever go far enough, from the Christian point of view, without an ultimate conversion to Christianity? Can we be so sure, moreover, that the results of such objective investigations into Christian origins by Jewish scholars will be welcomed by the Church in all cases?

Yet it is only along such lines that the modern Jew can come to an understanding with Christianity. This is where our age differs from those previous centuries during which Judaeo-Christian “dialogues” (if such they can be called) took the form of argument about the Christological interpretation of Old Testament “proof texts.” The Christians propounded, and the Jews refuted. Today, this defense of the Hebrew Bible against Christological imputations is carried on by liberal Christian scholars themselves, and the Jew can now exchange his defensive attitude for one of active appreciation of the Christian sources in their own right. This has led to the interesting result, which must be quite unacceptable to traditionally inclined Christians, that Jews are beginning to reclaim the “Jewish Jesus,” while not budging one iota from their ancestors’ rejection of the “Christian Christ.”

What, then, will the Synagogue have to say to the Church in view of this new approach? To a certain extent it depends on whether the Synagogue is going to give up its general state of passivity in the battle of ideas, and resume its long interrupted active missionary endeavor. In any event, the Synagogue will show a sympathetic understanding of the political, historical, and psychological factors which made for the wide acceptance of trinitarian Christianity. The Synagogue will show understanding, not condemnation. At the same time, the Synagogue will not conceal its conviction that, necessary as the spread of Christianity may have been, it presents in its traditional formulations but an intermediate step between paganism and the ultimate acceptance of Jewish monotheism.

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And even before “the End of Days,” the Synagogue can admonish the Church to be true to that heritage of Israel which it claims to have incorporated within its own system. Jews can help to clear up time-honored errors that have been the stock in trade of Christian conceptions of Judaism—such as the relation between Justice and Mercy, Faith and Deeds, Universalism and Particularism. (We have seen that even the well-meaning contributors to The Bridge cannot completely divest themselves of this antiquated baggage of polemical misrepresentation.) Above all, the Synagogue can speak to the Church about the dynamics of Jewish religious development, pointing out the absurdity of regarding Judaism as something that was frozen into an unchangeable pattern some time before the birth of Jesus.

And what can the Church say to the Synagogue? For, it should be remembered, the Church has to speak to the Synagogue, and as long as it would remain true to its own spirit and raison d’être it must hope for the ultimate conversion of Israel. This hope may be soft-pedaled in the interests of good will and political expediency, but no sincere and convinced Jew would demand the sacrifice of sincerity and conviction on the part of the Christian. Thus the Church will continue to preach to the Jew about its crucified Messiah. But it will have to adapt its preaching to the changing needs of the times. It can no longer operate with a Christological interpretation of the Hebrew Bible based, in addition, on a belief in verbal inspiration which not only many Jews but a considerable part of Christendom have by now given up.

And the Church will have to realize (as some contributors to the Bridge indeed do) that it is no longer dealing with a pre-Herodian people of Palestine whose enthusiasm could be enlisted for a scion of the Davidic dynasty or for an apocalyptic savior “coming with the clouds of heaven.” The Church will have to take modern Judaism for its base of operations, and try to fill what spiritual voids it can discover therein. What these are, or rather, what the Church can do by way of remedy even where these voids are felt and realized by Jews themselves, it is impossible for a believing Jew to say. This only the believing Christian can know. But in scrutinizing Judaism with this helpful aim in view the Church, whatever its own conclusions, will keep Judaism on the alert—just as a vigorous Judaism will stimulate the Church. It is on this level, and this level alone, that we have to look for the real “bridge” and the true “dialogue.”

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