My host told me, a rabbi with a yarmulke on my head, to address the pope in Yiddish. This I did, and I could tell from the expression on his face and from the way he grasped my hand that John Paul II’s heart had been touched. I mentioned to him that Jewish tradition required me to utter a benediction (a berakhah) in Hebrew, thanking God for having “given some of his glory to flesh and blood,” which is to be said upon seeing (let alone conversing with) a king. To this benediction, the pope answered, “Amen.”
To me, this brief encounter with John Paul II in 1985 was much more than an unforgettable personal experience. It epitomized a connection to Jews and Judaism that pervaded the life and career of this saintly man.
Karol Wojtyla grew up with Jews. They were his friends, and some remained his lifelong friends. In one of his homilies he remembered the impression made on him by a Jewish family walking to the synagogue on the Sabbath: Their whole demeanor showed they were in the world but definitely not of it. He drew from this memory a lesson for contemporary Christians, namely to invest in their Sunday observance some of the spirit of the Jewish Sabbath (in whose observance, by the way, Jesus was so scrupulous during his life on earth).
After the war, first as a priest and eventually as archbishop of Krakow, Wojtyla helped Jewish parents retrieve the children they had placed with Christian families to escape extermination. He supported the valiant attempt of the surviving Jews of Poland—and especially their children and grandchildren—to rebuild Jewish life in the country. A few years before his death, he received some of the Jews who remembered that he had been their true friend during and after the war. Their respect and affection for him, and his respect and affection for them, was obvious for all to see and enjoy.
Not so long ago we thought that at best there were only about five thousand Jews in Poland, almost all of them being aged Holocaust survivors, who would be the final generation of Polish Jews. With the active support and encouragement of the Catholic Church in Poland, there are now more than fifty thousand Jews in Poland who identify with the Jewish people and with Judaism. Today, Polish Jews can, as it were, come out of the closet, because they now live in a much more hospitable political and cultural climate than that of Soviet or pre-Soviet Poland.
A good deal of the credit for that goes to John Paul II. For he was a major contributor to the formulation of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s revolutionary statement on the Jews and Judaism, which in 1965 confirmed the Church’s absolutely unique relationship with the Jewish people and respect for God’s everlasting covenant with the Jewish people, past, present, and future. Thus John Paul’s concern with Jews and Judaism was more than nostalgia for his prewar childhood and youth, and more than sympathy for the common plight of Polish Jews and Polish Catholics during the war. It expressed his profoundly theological concern for the covenanted people, whether that people be the Jews or the Church, sometimes together and sometimes apart until the end of days.
The Vatican’s recognition of the State of Israel in 1997 could not have occurred without John Paul’s leadership. I would like to think that this act was much more than the political or diplomatic act of one nation-state (the Vatican) recognizing another nation-state (the State of Israel), but also a recognition of what many Jews say when praying for God’s blessing on the State of Israel, that it is “the beginning of the dawn of our redemption.”
In turn, how could we, the Jewish people, think of “the beginning of the dawn of our redemption” without acknowledging that our redemption will not be complete until God redeems the whole world along with us? God promised Abraham at the very moment of his first call that “in you will all the families of the earth be blessed.” Have not our “younger brothers” of the Church recognized their participation in this universal redemption as a people by recognizing our participation in it as a people?
I call the Christians our “younger brothers” because in 1986, during his unprecedented visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome, John Paul II called us Jews his “elder brothers.” He did not regard Judaism—that is, what makes Jews Jewish—to be an “other religion” any more than one’s brother can be from an “other family.”
This belief is based in more than the fact that Jews and Christians acknowledge, worship, and obey the same God. For it can be well argued that Muslims acknowledge, worship, and obey the same God and that the liturgical differences of Islam from Christianity are not that different from the liturgical differences of Christianity from Judaism. All three religions claim to be monotheistic, but Muslims do not affirm the same covenant that Jews and Christians affirm as the locus of their relationship with this One God. As Maimonides pointed out in the twelfth century, Jews and Christians do not differ over what constitutes scriptural revelation per se but rather in our often differing interpretations of that same revelation. That is the difference that prevents us from being one community in this unredeemed world, but we could not be specifically different if we did not share generic commonality.
Christianity and Judaism are united above all in their common affirmation and implementation of the moral teaching of the Hebrew Bible, or “Old Testament,” and the traditions of interpretation of that teaching. Perhaps most crucially today, that common affirmation insists on a radical and increasingly countercultural understanding of human dignity. Theology always has moral implications, and morality is always undergirded by theology. Their respective sources (or causes) are not different; both theology and morality are “given from one shepherd,” as Ecclesiastes puts it. The difference is in their direct object: Theology and its attendant praxis intend God as the object; morality and its attendant theory intend other humans as the object.
The common moral praxis of Jews and Christians is most definitely theologically informed by the doctrine we share in common: The human person, male and female, is created in the image of God. That is our dignity: what we deserve (our dignitas, in Latin) as human beings, not because of anything we have done or could do, but because of what God has done, is doing, and will do for us. We are dignified because God has entitled us to be dignified and to act accordingly, sometimes as our human right and sometimes as our human duty.
This insight is rooted even more profoundly in a common understanding of election. During the war, Wojtyla clearly saw that the murderous Nazi persecution of the Jews was not different in kind from the Nazi attempt to destroy the Catholic Church. The major thrust of the Nazis’ program was to kill the God of Israel in the person of the people—whether the Jewish people or the Church, or both sooner or later—elected by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Here we see how election lies at the heart of human dignity. For God’s first election was to create the human person in his image, choosing the human person to be the unique object of God’s concern. What could dignify human beings more than that? And what could be more debasing of human dignity than to deny human identity to any human persons by declaring them to be Untermenschen, subhuman?
Every human person is created in the image of God and thus elected for a uniquely personal relationship with God. But since human beings are essentially communal beings, God has elected or covenanted with a people so that both individual and communal human life can be directly related to God in tandem. That is why in both the Jewish and the Christian traditions the commandment to love our neighbor presupposes the commandment to love God, and the commandment to love God entails the commandment to love our neighbor. So it is in the midst of the covenanted people that the human relationship with God and the relationship of humans with each other can be lived most coherently.
The practical meaning of this doctrine is what Jews and Christians can together bring into the public square. It is a truth that threatens any society that regards its claim on the human persons under its control to be absolute. John Paul II well understood, both from his rootedness in biblically based teaching and from his experience of living under both the Nazi and the Communist totalitarian regimes, why both of these evil regimes were so threatened by the very presence of the Jewish people and the Catholic Church in the world.
David Novak, a member of First Things’ advisory council, is professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. This article is based on a talk given at the United Nations in honor of John Paull II’s beatification.