In the Tuesday, September 29 edition of the National Post (Toronto), long time columnist Conrad Black wrote “Why I Became a Catholic.” I was intrigued by Lord Black’s story of his spiritual journey to a more intense Christianity, yet I began to recoil when reading his dismissal of Judaism as a real spiritual option for himself (or for anyone else like him).
It is not that I want Conrad Black to have converted to Judaism. Historically, Jews only accept converts rather than actively seeking them. Instead, I want him to recognize that his now deeper commitment to Christianity should not have led lead him to dismiss Judaism in the way he has dismissed Islam or Eastern religions. Why? Because Christianity came out of Judaism, whereas Islam and the Eastern religions did not. In fact, the very first heresy declared by the Christian Church was that of Marcion (in the second century), who tried to sever Christianity from the God of Israel, the people Israel, and the Torah revealed to Israel. Thus Judaism is not only Christianity’s origin but, just as much, its constant companion. In fact, it could be said that thoughtful Christians might have to ask themselves why they have not remained within Judaism, whether literally (as in the case of Jewish converts to Christianity) or figuratively (as in the case of those who accept the later Christian tradition built on the earlier Jewish one).
What Conrad Black has missed in his spiritual journey to God (via ad Deum) is that the God he has found in the Catholic Church is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (or Israel), whose Messiah, who he promised to the Jews, Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew, claimed to be. If one seeking a relationship with this God believes this claim is true, then one should become the best kind of Christian he can be (which Lord Black believes is to become a Catholic). But, if one does not believe this is true, and still wants to be fully related to the God of Israel, then he should become the best kind of Jew one can be. That is why the choice to become a Jew (or to become a better Jew) and the choice to become a Christian (or to become a better Christian) depends on one’s belief about who Jesus of Nazareth is or is not. That is the difference in kind between living as a Jew and living as a Christian. These two faith commitments are mutually exclusive; it is an issue of either/or.
This difference in kind (what the French would call la différence même) is not that the Christian makes a positive commitment and that the Jewish commitment is simply its negation. Instead, the Jewish commitment to the Messiah-yet-to-come is positive vis-à-vis the future in the same way the Jewish commitment to the Torah revealed at Sinai is positive visa-via the past. And both faith commitments are made in the present when a Jew learns Torah, practices the commandments (mitsvot), and engages in Jewish worship.
A good Jew is much more than someone who has simply said “no” to the Christian messianic (let alone trinitarian) claim. An atheist could more easily do that. Thus the Jewish “no” to Jesus of Nazareth (who is not “the Christ” for us) is not an essentially negative form of self-identification. Instead, it presupposes the “yes” a good Jew makes by accepting the Torah revealed at Sinai, by doing what the Torah requires of him or her, and by anticipating the “yes” to be made to the Messiah-yet-to-come who will truly fulfill the Torah’s promises. As such, Jews who think their Judaism need be nothing more than their disaffirmation of Christianity are the type of reactionaries who end up as nihilists by their negation for its own sake.
When it comes to Judaism, Lord Black makes two serious errors. These errors are due to his making differences of degree between Judaism and Christianity into differences of kind, and even making these differences of degree more than they are in fact.
First, there is no solid evidence that “80 percent of the early Jews became Christians” as Black claims. Those who do invoke that spurious statistic are, in effect, making an old Christian theological claim—now, by the way, rejected by the Catholic Church since Vatican Council II in the 1960’s— that Judaism and the Jews who still practice it are some sort of “fossil” (as the British historian Arnold Toynbee famously put it) having no vitality or even religious legitimacy in the present. Before employing this “majoritarian” or displacement logic, however, Conrad Black might do well to remember that Islam has now displaced Christianity in large parts of the world.
Black’s second error concerns the present state of the Jews and Judaism. What does he mean when he says “Judaism, though close theologically, is more tribal and philosophical than spiritual”? I assume he means “tribal” to be the antithesis of “universal.” Some Christians still do like to think of Christianity as a “universal” religion that is much wider and all-embracing than narrow “tribal” Judaism. Yet one could make a very good case that Judaism is as universal as Christianity, and Christianity is as tribal as Judaism. Judaism is universal inasmuch as Jews can live their Judaism anywhere in the world (though always best lived in the Land of Israel), and anyone can become a Jew who is willing to accept the kingship of the God of Israel (who is also the Creator of the universe) and pledge himself or herself to live according to the commandments of the Torah as taught by ongoing Jewish tradition. And Christianity is as tribal as Judaism inasmuch as those Christians baptized in infancy are as much born into the Christian people (the Church as an extended tribe) by virtue of their Christian parents as I was born into the Jewish people by virtue of my Jewish parents. In fact, the tribal notion of birth being how one is joined to one’s people is so strong in both Judaism and Christianity that both traditions consider converts to be “born again” rather than just being individual volunteers. Moreover, unlike a voluntary association, one cannot “check out” or be “kicked out” of either the Jewish people or the Christian Church, whether a native-born or naturalized member thereof.
No doubt looking at the rather assimilated Jews in his social circle, Conrad Black has not seen their Judaism (such as it is) to be “an accessible faith.” Yet he does recognize “the Orthodox” as being “apart” from this Jewish spiritual fault. But, are the Orthodox—namely, those Jews who have faith in God’s revealed Torah and who attempt to live according to its commandments—really “apart”? Apart from what? Apart from whom? They are hardly apart from the Jewish tradition; they are the ones who most fully access it. And they are hardly apart from the Jewish people in the sense of being some sort of marginal fringe group. Thus, though about 20 percent to 25 percent of Canadian Jews would call themselves “Orthodox” (“traditional” might be a more inclusive description), I would say that almost twice that percentage of Canadian Jews under the age of forty probably fall into this category.
Finally, if “spirituality” is a palpable concern with the God–man relationship, and if Black wants to see a real live manifestation of Jewish spirituality, let him attend a service in the Orthodox synagogue where I and others like me regularly pray to God and are instructed in God’s Torah.
Wouldn’t Conrad Black’s Catholicism be more genuine if it were not made by what seems to be a process of elimination, one largely made at the expense of Jews and Judaism, both of which he knows much too little?
David Novak is the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Professor of Jewish Studies in the University of Toronto, and Vice-President of the Union for Traditional Judaism.