There are only two possible strategies for Jewish survival in a gentile world. One is to be tolerated. The other is to be indispensable. The first strategy hopes that if every minority is tolerated, then perhaps even the Jews, the minority with the longest history of persecution, might also be tolerated. The second hopes that the gentiles will in some way acknowledge Israel’s election and thus safeguard Israel because Jewish holiness is indispensable.
Neither strategy is without flaw. The case for tolerance is growing harder to make to the Islamic world in the midst of its own retrenchment against the threat of modernity. The four-millennium miracle of Jewish survival, moreover, fails to impress the nations of Europe, who themselves cannot expect to survive long if their demographic decline continues. For the fading nations of the industrial world, the State of Israel is an inconvenience, at best. Meanwhile, the matter of the Jewish people’s election resonates only among Americans—and, among those Americans, to a dwindling number of Jews. Never, perhaps, in Jewish history has such a high proportion of Jews asked nothing more than to cast off the burden of election and to dissolve into an ethnic soup.
Over the past sixty years, the Jewish plea for toleration has been made in the context of the Holocaust, a horrifying example of the consequences of intolerance. For the generation that lived through the Second World War, the horror of the Holocaust and pity for Jewish victims won support for Jewish survival. But a gauge of the American Jewish mood these days can be found in the 2009 film Defiance, in which the spiritual leader of a partisan band in wartime Belarus intones: “We have no more prayers, no more tears. We have run out of blood. Choose another people. . . . Grant us but one more blessing: Take back the gift of our holiness.”
I doubt the partisans thought this way. (Two of my father’s cousins survived the war as partisans in Belarus and afterward raised large and observant families in Israel.) Jewish scriptwriters in Hollywood, however, do think this way, along with a majority of American Jews. We have found it expedient to teach the Holocaust rather than holiness to our young people—and too many of them have concluded that Jewish election, if it is not a megalomaniacal conceit in an egalitarian age, must be a dangerous and undesirable thing. Election makes us uncomfortable; Conservative as well as Reform Jewish prayer books relativize the issue. We have turned away from holiness, but it has not profited us, for American Jewish youth think far less than their elders about the State of Israel and Jewish survival.
The numbers are clear. As Kenneth Wald of the University of Florida reported in a 2005 study, “Older members of the community, particularly those who were politically conscious in the late 1960s and 1970s, can remember a time when Israel’s continued existence was uncertain. For younger members of the community, by contrast, Israel’s existence can be taken for granted.” Similar results were obtained by other researchers, including the centrist Steven M. Cohen and the Republican pollster Frank Luntz. The Jewish lobby organization J Street stands so far to the left that it has elicited a sharp rebuke from the Reform movement, but the results of its March 2009 poll should not be ignored. J Street claimed that the appointment of the nationalist Avigdor Lieberman to a senior position in Israel’s cabinet “would weaken their personal connection to Israel because Lieberman’s positions go against their core values. This rises to 40 percent among Jewish adults under thirty years of age, and raises concerns about the relationship that younger generations in the United States will have with Israel.”
A group like J Street, of course, uses this data to demand ever greater tolerance—even for the likes of Hamas, who wants to kill them. Here’s the curious thing, however: J Street may have done the Jewish people a service by exposing just how absurd the strategy of toleration can be. And this, at the same time that the other possible strategy of Jewish survival—the strategy premised on the election of Israel—has become more credible than at any time in the past two thousand years.
It is no exaggeration to say that observant Jews and orthodox Christians have more in common with each other than either has in common with liberal or secular Jews on the one hand and liberal Christians on the other. Indeed, Jews who affirm the election of Israel should consider it all the more providential that Benedict XVI comes now as a witness to Jewish holiness. He told delegates of the Israeli rabbinate on March 12, “The Jewish people, who were chosen as the elected people, communicate to the whole human family knowledge of and fidelity to the one, unique, and true God.”
The pope stands alongside observant Jews on one side of a great divide within the Jewish people. It is just as remarkable that observant Jews have become allies of the pope against his own detractors in the Catholic Church. The pope’s letter to Catholic bishops on the mishandling of the Lefebvrist-bishops affair (published the same day as that meeting with the Israeli clergy) declares: “I was saddened by the fact that even Catholics who, after all, might have had a better knowledge of the situation, thought they had to attack me with open hostility. Precisely for this reason I thank all the more our Jewish friends, who quickly helped to clear up the misunderstanding and to restore the atmosphere of friendship and trust which—as in the days of Pope John Paul II—has also existed throughout my pontificate and, thank God, continues to exist.”
In the aftermath of the Lefebvrist scandal, perhaps it is no longer adequate to speak of Catholic–Jewish relations. Instead, there are two kinds of Catholic–Jewish relations: an explicit alliance between the pope and Jews who affirm the election of Israel and a de facto alliance between the left of the Catholic Church and liberal or secular Jews.
Observant Jews whose suspicion of the Church has been honed by centuries of ill experience have trouble absorbing the odd circumstance that Providence has placed them in the same foxhole as Benedict XVI. But the crisis in Catholic–Jewish relations over the lifting of the Lefebvrist bishops’ excommunication has led to a moment of clarity. After the pope’s response, there can be no doubt that we have in Benedict a theologian with a deep understanding of Jews’ relation to God. We have also learned that the pope’s opponents inside the Church are our opponents. As a simple matter of fact, the pope’s opponents now aggregate on the left; the atrophied right wing of the Church, held up as a horror story to frighten the Jews, has little remaining influence—with the result that Catholics who oppose the pope on the ordination of women, the Church’s claim to unique truth, and the preservation of Europe’s Christian character are the Catholics who also overwhelmingly embrace the Palestinian Arab cause.
This moment of clarity offers an opportunity to reconsider our communal demands on Christians. Perhaps we have underestimated both our friends and our antagonists in the Christian world. Perhaps we should ask whether our past negotiating positions toward Christians, and to the Catholic Church in particular, are well- or ill-considered.
Think, for example, of the fact that the main request that the Israeli rabbis made to the pope at the March 12 meeting in Rome was that Catholic schools include the Holocaust in their educational curriculum. In itself this is doubtless a good proposal, but the emphasis betrays a thought process that deserves closer scrutiny.
Sadly, a good case can be made that toleration will soon lose even more of its effectiveness as a survival strategy. Why should gentile nations go out of their way to help Jews survive when they have neither the desire nor the capacity to survive themselves? We stand on the cusp of a great extinction of the nations without precedent since late antiquity. Of the 6,000 languages now spoken, half will disappear over the next century, according to consensus estimates. Most of these are indigenous tongues spoken by small populations, but the demographic decline of several of the industrial nations, including several of the world’s largest, portends the eventual extinction of Ukrainian and perhaps even Russian and German over the next century or two. Japan’s population will fall by almost 30 percent by mid-century, and half of those who remain will be at retirement age.
In our insularity and self-absorption, we often forget that other nations do not always want the same things that we want. Jews tend to love life and hate death. This is a matter of observed fact: The State of Israel has the highest fertility rate and the lowest suicide rate among all the industrialized nations. But we should not assume that all nations love life and hate death, for the data indicate that many of the industrialized nations do not care to survive. Why should they care if we, who have survived for more than four millennia, survive for another few centuries? They will not be there to find out whether we have succeeded or not.
If tolerance has reached its best-used-by date as a survival strategy, the other strategy demands that Jews find someone who considers their survival indispensable. Christians have taken an existential interest in our return to Zion from the earliest days of the Zionist movement, and the State of Israel never would have come to be without their support. Absent Lord Balfour’s religious convictions, the 1917 declaration of British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine never would have emerged. And without President Harry S. Truman’s Christian Zionism, America never would have backed the founding of the State of Israel in 1947, which Truman did over the vehement objection of his cabinet members (including Secretary of State George Marshall, who threatened to resign and campaign for Truman’s opponent).
Today, evangelical Christians form the strongest base of support for the State of Israel in America, stronger in some respects than the support of the left-leaning American Jewish community. Jews often misread Christian motivation for supporting Jewish survival. When Christian theology declares that the New Testament fulfills the Old, they mean in effect that the history of Israel is a map to the inner life of every Christian. And this history is not simply a record interred in a book. The history of the Jewish people is manifest in the life of the Jewish people, for we are our history: Every one of us stood with Moses to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, and all who clung to YHWH are alive today, as we pray before reading the Torah in public. We, the living people of Israel, are a flesh-and-blood map to the salvation of every Christian.
The Christian dies to this world in order to be reborn by water and the Holy Spirit into Israel. Christians believe that their adoption into Israel is made possible by the self-sacrifice of God through the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. In Christian theology, Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross is a new Passover, in which Jesus is the Lamb, while his Resurrection is a new Exodus from Egypt in which all humanity may join, and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles at Pentecost is a new giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
For Christians, it is not merely that God’s earthly incarnation was as a Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, or that God’s promise to the Jews stands surety for what Christians believe to be his promise to them. The Christian’s rebirth to citizenship in Israel demands an inner transformation. When Christians say that Jesus fulfills the Torah and that his life recapitulates the defining miracles in the history of Israel, they mean that each Christian’s participation in Jesus’ sacrifice is the reliving of the history of Israel. The continued presence of Jews on this earth in God’s service is indispensable to Christian salvation, because it is the life of the family of Abraham that Christians must relive.
For that reason Abraham Joshua Heschel averred without a hint of exaggeration that the wise old men who lead the Catholic Church know that Israel is so holy that our disappearance would endanger the existence of the Church. It is the Jew who converts the inner pagan inside each Christian, wrote Franz Rosenzweig, by which he meant that, absent the living people of Israel, the Israel of the Spirit into which Christians hope to be adopted too easily becomes an abstraction.
“Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life,” Jesus declares. Self-sacrifice is the price of eternal life. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and therefore himself, was the foundation of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. God’s love removes us from the altar; a ram substitutes for Isaac so that Abraham may live, and, in Christian doctrine, Jesus of Nazareth sacrifices himself for all of mankind so that mankind may live and be free from sin and death. To be a Jew is to continue the life of Abraham; to be a Christian is to be reborn in the spirit into the life of Abraham.
As Henri de Lubac puts it: “To St. Paul the Church is the people of the new covenant. Israel according to the Spirit takes the place of Israel according to the flesh; but it is not a collection of many individuals, it is still a nation albeit recruited now from the ends of the earth, ‘the tribe of Christians,’ says Eusebius, for instance, ‘the race of those who honor God.’” In other words, Christianity invites gentiles to worship the God of Israel—not the gentile peoples as peoples but those among the gentiles who are reborn of the Spirit into the “tribe of Christians,” the people of the new covenant.
The historical life of Israel is the inner life of the Christian. That great difference and great identity separate and unite the two revealed religions. And it means that Jews have a claim on the inner life of Christians and should be unashamed to exercise that claim—provided that we keep up our side of the bargain.
In practice, to be sure, Christianity in the past has been far too tolerant of pagan remnants lurking in the hearts of Christians—just as the biblical Hebrews were more tolerant of the tribe of Amalek than God demanded. In both cases, excessive tolerance had catastrophic results. Neopaganism laid its cuckoo’s eggs in Christianity and hatched them in the form of the national movements that would fight for dominance in Europe and leave the formerly Christian continent a secularized hulk. It is petulant for Jews to blame Pius XII for failing to save more of them when he could not even save Polish priests from the Nazis. Whether or not the wartime pope did as much as he could, the Vatican was in no position to change the outcome of the war.
But it is entirely fair for Jews to remonstrate with Christians for having failed to suppress pagan elements that foster anti-Semitism. If we were chosen only for ourselves, and our peculiar rites and habits had no other significance than an esoteric knowledge and behavior restricted to our own people, we could abandon them without consequence, for they would have no value beyond our own folkways (as a pernicious Jewish current insists). But the rest of the world will never let us squirm out of election. “Salvation is of the Jews,” that is, the rest of the world first learned of salvation—eternal life—from God’s promise to us. The desire of the nations for the eternal life first promised to the Jews is unquenchable, which is why it will never let us forget election.
The gentiles recall the election of Israel in a benign way when Christians look to the living people Israel as a map of their own path to salvation. In a malignant way, it occurs when other nations, coveting election, seek to arrogate election unto themselves. This is most obvious in Islam, which insists that the Jews, like all other peoples, received the true revelation from Allah but intentionally perverted it. The Muslims claim to be in possession of the corrected, purified, and final revelation, of which the Torah is a fraudulent version. As long as Jews walk the earth, Muslims never can be quite comfortable in their proprietorship of the final revelation, and a Jewish commonwealth with its capital in Jerusalem constitutes a perpetual affront against the authority of Islam as the final revelation.
So what should Jews ask of Christians? Before the Lefebvrist affair, Jewish concerns seemed focused on the Pro Judaeis prayer in the updated Latin Easter Liturgy. Italy’s rabbinate had withdrawn from an annual conference on Catholic–Jewish relations in protest. The revised Latin liturgy prays that “God our Lord should illuminate [the Jews’] hearts, so that they will recognize Jesus Christ, the savior of all men.” Although the cardinal responsible for Catholic–Jewish relations, Walter Kasper, averred that the prayer expresses an eschatological hope rather than a conversion campaign, forced conversions over the centuries are burned into Jewish memory.
Writing in the Jesuits’ Italian-language monthly Popoli, the chief rabbi of Venice, Elia Enrico Richetti, declared:
This has been the more-or-less official response:...the Jews have nothing to fear, the hope expressed in the prayer Pro Judaeis is “purely eschatological,” a hope for the End Times, and not an invitation to active proselytism (which already was forbidden by Paul VI). This response has not satisfied the Italian Rabbinate. If I insist, even in a purely eschatological tone, that my neighbor would have to become like me to be worthy of salvation, I am not respecting his identity. It is not a matter, therefore, of hypersensitivity; it is a matter of the most banal sense of respect owed to the other person as a creature of God.
With all due respect to Rabbi Richetti, the implications of Pro Judaeis are precisely the opposite of what he seems to believe. Catholic theology presumes the unity of God’s people. For the Catholic Church to acknowledge that the Jewish people remain God’s people is one of the most problematic conclusions that Catholic theology has reached in many centuries, for it suggests a schism within Israel between the Israel of the flesh and Israel of the Spirit.
Continued divine favor to the Jewish people despite our refusal to accept Jesus of Nazareth as the messiah requires the painful acknowledgment of a mystery on the part of Christians. The schism within Israel will be healed only when God’s purposes are revealed in the End Times. Catholic theology thus requires that Catholics pray for a healing of this split within Israel as an eschatological hope, precisely as Cardinal Kasper indicated.
Jews have a similar eschatological hope. In the aleinu prayer, Jews petition God three times daily for a day to come on which all humankind will call God by his unique name. For Catholics to pray in this fashion for God to heal the split within Israel is to acknowledge that the physical, actual Jewish people is in fact the Israel of the Bible. We should ask Catholics to recite Pro Judaeis not only on Easter but three times a day, just as we recite aleinu, and ask why the explicit affirmation of continuing Jewish election is to be found in the liturgy but not in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the authoritative statement of Catholic doctrine.
As the Israeli rabbis acknowledged at their March 12 meeting with the pope, the Jewish people cannot ask for a better friend than Benedict XVI, who in turn asks for our friendship in his own trials within the Church. Richard John Neuhaus observed in his posthumous book American Babylon that the Catechism is less emphatic than the documents of Vatican II, let alone the declarations of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in its discussion of the Jewish people. “While the catechism is of course an authoritative presentation of Catholic teaching,” Neuhaus writes, “one misses in its discussion Nostra Aetate’s sense of the present-tense relation of the Church to the Jewish people from which the Church learns and draws sustenance. Nor, in this connection, does the Catechism’s treatment of eschatological expectation suggest a promised understanding of resolution of differences beyond that which the Church already knows and embodies.”
As the preponderance of the Christian population shifts to the Global South and China (which now has 130 million self-identified Christians), Christian theology will be put to new trials. In most of Europe, Christianity survives at the margin of society. Even where the Church represents the mainstream—for example, in Poland—the future is bleak. Poland’s population will fall by nearly a third between now and mid-century, and its median age will jump from thirty-six to nearly sixty. Christians in the Global South will have to come to grips with the syncretic compromise with paganism that ultimately undermined Christianity in Europe. How will the new Christians of Africa or China identify with Israel? A great deal hangs on the clarity of Catholic doctrine, and the Jewish people have a long-term interest in the benevolent theology of Benedict XVI.
The risk is that a future pope might declare the teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI on the election of Israel invalid, embracing instead the supersessionism of the Catholic left. The Church, to be sure, will mold the magisterium at its own pace, and no other religious group will dictate how and when that may occur—if it ever occurs.
Nonetheless, Jews have a definitive interest in seeing Benedict XVI’s interpretation of the election of Israel written in stone for the ages. We should welcome the opportunity to befriend this pope, all the more so when he is facing down the enemies of Israel within the Church. We should seek opportunities to make common cause with Catholics on the issues that unite us, above all the holiness of life, which is what God first called us to his service to defend. And we should cajole our Catholic friends to enshrine the philo-Semitism of John Paul II and Benedict XVI in the magisterium of the Church so that this moment of clarity becomes a monument for our common journey.
David P. Goldman is associate editor of First Things.