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The Judaism of Jesus

In “ The Passion ’s Passionate Despisers” (June/July), Kenneth L. Woodward summed up his critique of the Jewish critics of the film by writing that “Jews should realize [it] is not about them.” Mr. Woodward’s conclusion is accurate, but that is precisely the problem with the movie.

Jesus was Jewish and he never renounced Judaism. In fact, Jesus clearly stated that he did not come to change the Law, i.e., the Torah and its teachings, but rather to fulfill it. This is exactly the pledge that all Jews take on their bar/bat mitzvah day. Almost all of the followers of Jesus during his lifetime, i.e., in the time frame of the movie, were Jewish. Jesus did not introduce a single new moral concept and all of his moral teachings came straight from the Torah. The Golden Rule, for example, is stated clearly in the Torah and the Torah even extends this rule to include non-Jewish immigrants in addition to neighbors.

Jesus did have conflicts with the Jewish establishment, but his complaints were typically Jewish complaints that Jews had had and expressed for centuries. Jesus fought the Sadducees because they believed in a form of Judaism in which special privileges were provided to a small minority, i.e., priests, and in which this minority put itself between the people and God. It is interesting that present-day Judaism has rid itself of this priestly class, while Christianity (and especially Catholicism) has not. Jesus also had conflicts with the Pharisees, but these complaints concerned their use of the Oral Law or extra-Torah sources to interpret the Law. This is the same complaint that was lodged by the Karaites centuries later, and it is also the theological basis of the largest present-day Jewish sect, the Reform movement.

Mr. Woodward is correct that The Passion is not about Jews, but that, to repeat the point, is the problem. All of its characters (aside from a few Romans) are Jews and all of the issues it raises are Jewish issues.

Ivan M. Lang
glendale, wisconsin

Kenneth L. Woodward replies:

I thought I was clear in my article when I wrote, “Gibson’s Christ is not the parable-telling, halacha -defying rabbi that Reform Judaism at its origins more than a century ago promoted as a figure closer to its own tradition than to Christianity.” This is the Jesus Mr. Lang wants to find in Gibson’s film, but he is not there. I would add that the “fulfillment of the Law” spoken of in the New Testament has nothing to do with the bar/bat mitzvah pledge but everything to do with the passion and death that Gibson’s film portrays. Similarly, the priesthood of Christ, and therefore of the Catholic Church, has nothing to do with the Sadducees but everything to do with the sacrifice Jesus completed on the cross, which is celebrated in the Mass by all the faithful through the ordained ministry of the priesthood, which in no way gets between Christians and their God. Rather, it unites the people as the body of Christ.

A Catholic Shakespeare?

Edward T. Oakes’ review of three recent books on William Shakespeare (June/July) puts me in mind of Hugh Ross Williamson’s line to the effect that wondering whether Shakespeare was a recusant is like asking whether Abraham Isaac Jacob Solomon is a Jew. No one element is conclusive in itself, but all of them together suggest Cardinal Newman’s “convergence of probabilities.” One prothonotary warbler does not make a May Day, but Shakespeare has bare ruined choirs full of them. The very “plausible deniability” of the evidence is itself further proof. Ultimately it is the difference between seeing the edifice from the outside and living inside of it. If there is such a thing as the argument from history, then the burden of proof lies with those asserting that the world’s greatest playwright was an Anglican.

Blaise Thompson
toronto, ontario

Edward T. Oakes replies:

Unfortunately, Blaise Thompson is not the only one who likes to apply the logic of “plausible deniability” to hypotheses supported by flimsy evidence. Oxfordians also use it to explain why Edward de Vere didn’t want the plays he wrote to be known as his. To me, arguments from plausible deniability smack too much of the old argument from silence, on which The Da Vinci Code rests its case: Jesus was married, but the New Testament suppressed the fact. The argument allows for just about anything but square circles (you can’t see the invisible cat on my chair because it’s invisible). And speaking of the argument from silence, I never said Shakespeare was an Anglican, just that I don’t know what his personal convictions were. I don’t doubt he was patriotic, but was he royalist or republican? I don’t think the plays tell us. Similarly, if he was a Catholic at the time of the Gunpowder Plot, how did he react to this act of Catholic treason, when religiously motivated terrorism first reared its ugly head? Again, we don’t know, except, I suppose, that he took a dim view of Jesuit participation in the plot. Outside of those slim pickings, Shakespeare hides behind his characters, so effectively in fact that the Authorship Controversy still drags on to this day. But I like to imagine that, just as he managed to avoid Elizabeth’s thought-police while he was alive, Shakespeare is today smiling like the Cheshire Cat at the way he has so far avoided getting pinned down by contemporary critics, historians, Oxfordians, Catholicizers”and theologians.

The Spirit of Reaction

David B. Hart’s “Freedom and Decency” (June/July) reminded me of the writings of the great twentieth-century American critic Paul Elmer More. More was a Christian humanist and Platonist whose literary and cultural criticism appeared in the Independent , the New York Evening Post , and the Nation from 1901 to 1914. Now among the “forgotten men” of the New Humanism, in his day he was praised by Walter Lippmann in the following encomium: “To read him is to enter an austere and elevated realm of ideas and to know a man who, in the guise of a critic, is authentically concerned with the first and last things of human experience.”

Some think Western culture and civilization so decadent that it is no longer worth saving or defending. They are wrong. For all our faults, we in America are still engaged in a worthwhile experiment in human liberty. This side of the Parousia , we remain the best hope for mankind.

It is the moral thing to continue to criticize that which is wrong in our culture, and in that respect I express my sincere admiration for Dr. Hart. He continues in the long and noble tradition of intelligent criticism, contrasting the beauties of eternal and universal truths with the vulgar fashions of the moment, even at the price of being labeled a “reactionary.” When this familiar epithet was thrown at More, he responded, “The world is not contradicted with impunity, and he who sets himself against the world’s belief will have need of all a man’s endurance and all a man’s strength . . . . If a man doubts this, let him try, and learn. Submission to the philosophy of change is the real effeminacy; it is the virile part to react.”

Gary Inbinder
woodland hills, california

David B. Hart replies:

My thanks to Gary Inbinder for an elegant response to my article, and I can assure him that Paul Elmer More is not an entirely forgotten man.

There is not space here to address the substance of Mr. Inbinder’s concluding reflections. I should say, however, that “Western civilization” (which for me, I must be clear, means “Christendom”) is something of which I would never despair, however much I might despair of the present state of Western culture. The particular question of our “experiment in human liberty” is far too intricate to unfold here, unfortunately, especially as regards its implication in the larger history of the voluntarist misprision of freedom that I have claimed is the besetting heresy of modernity.

Neither, however, do I grant that America is, this side of the Parousia , the best hope of mankind. That title I can accord only to the Church, which springs up and flourishes in whatsoever places the Spirit­ ”who is notoriously unpredictable”chooses. Seen thus, there are certain respects in which it may be the case that at present Nigeria is more important for the future development of mankind than the United States. I love my country, but here we have no enduring city, and one should avoid hyperbole.

Reckoning with Goldhagen

Regarding Richard John Neuhaus’ criticism of my Azure review of Daniel J. Goldhagen’s A Moral Reckoning (While We’re At It, June/July), I feel it is necessary to offer a clarification. My review of that book was mixed, since I agree with some of Goldhagen’s analysis regarding Catholic anti-Semitism and the origins of the Shoah. I certainly do not believe his proposals to radically reform Catholicism are practicable, though some changes are inevitable and desirable.

Father Neuhaus’ claim that a few years ago I helped “to torpedo a Jewish-Catholic project studying Vatican archives pertinent to the Holocaust” is somewhat more perplexing. The historical commission to which Fr. Neuhaus refers came to an end because the Vatican was not ready at the time to grant us access to the archives we needed for our work. Since then, a significant part of those archives has been opened (though not yet for the crucial period from 1939 to 1945)”an important move that I welcome. I believe that my principled position to end the commission was correct at the time”and I sincerely hope that all of the material that scholars (Catholic, Jewish, and others) would like to see will eventually be made available.

Robert S. Wistrich, Director

vidal sassoon international center
for the study of antisemitism, jerusalem

RJN replies:

Professor Wistrich’s clarification that he does not deem the end of Catholicism something to be hoped for is welcome. As to his role in ending the work of the commission, many Catholics and Jews, including other members of the commission, were not amused.

Catholic Charities?

Richard John Neuhaus’ assessment of the California Supreme Court case requiring charities to provide prescription contraception coverage is off the mark (While We’re At It, June/July). The case addressed a specific Catholic charity and found that, as a matter of law, it did not meet any of the requirements in the legislation under consideration that would characterize it as being religious in nature. It was not a question of being “religious enough,” as Father Neuhaus claims. Rather, the court found that the charity wasn’t religious at all, and rightfully so.

Catholic Charities of Sacramento, Inc., v. The Superior Court addressed “a church-affiliated employer’s constitutional challenges to the Women’s Contraception Equity Act (WCEA), under which certain health and disability insurance contracts must cover prescription contraceptives.” The ruling of the court forces Catholic Charities of Sacramento to provide birth control benefits to any employee upon request or cease providing any drug coverage to all of its employees. The decision should serve as a warning to Catholic charity organizations everywhere.

The WCEA defines a “religious employer” as “an entity for which each of the following is true: the inculcation of religious values is the purpose of the entity; the entity primarily employs persons who share the religious tenets of the entity; and the entity serves primarily persons who share the religious tenets of the entity.”

Whether we like it or not, Catholic Charities of Sacramento, by its own admission, does not inculcate religious values, does not employ a majority of Catholics in its work force, and does not serve primarily persons who are in communion with Rome. In other words, giving money to Catholic Charities of Sacramento is no different than giving money to the United Way.

The most serious problem presented by many Catholic charities is that they fail to promote a sense of Catholic identity among American Catholics. Most other religious charities, whether serving primarily Muslims, Methodists, Hindus, or Lutherans, are able to form a sense of identity with those they help. Catholics in California and elsewhere have a right to know that there is a place for them to go when they are in need”a place where they will be helped by an organization that is Catholic rather than secular in nature.

The current approach of offering social services to the general public and employing a diverse group of persons, the majority of whom are not Catholic, is counter to the identity of the Catholic Church in this country. When Catholic Charities starts acting like a religious organization then maybe the courts will start treating it like one.

Leonard Stevens
sherman oaks, california

RJN replies:

Mr. Stevens makes important points. I do not know the facts regarding Sacramento, but one should keep in mind that entities going by the name of Catholic Charities vary from diocese to diocese. The third criterion in California law for a “religious employer” should be challenged. There is nothing wrong and, one might argue, a great deal that is right with an organization motivated by religious faith to serve everyone, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof. But an organization calling itself Catholic should have high among its purposes the sharing of the Catholic faith and, to that end, would have to have a sufficient number of Catholic employees. Historically, and in some places, Catholic Charities denied its specifically religious purpose in order to receive government funding. That is the problem addressed by President Bush’s “faith-based initiative.” But if a nominally religious entity has no distinctively religious purpose, Mr. Stevens is right that it should be entitled neither to religious exemptions in law nor to the support of the pertinent religious constituency.

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