Israel could not have hoped for as passionate an admirer as Fr. Marcel-Jacques Dubois, this most Israeli of traditionalist Catholic theologians, yet received at the same time almost as passionate a critic. His story and its theological legacy bring into sharp relief some of the permanent obstacles in Jewish–Christian relations.
Born in 1920 into a traditional Catholic family in rural France, at the age of eighteen he asserted his independence of spirit by joining the Dominican Order. Together with fourteen of his Dominican brothers, during the war he helped conceal Jewish children within the walls of Catholic institutions. At the request of the order, he spent the last forty-five years of his life as a Christian thinker on the Jewish question and a senior Church envoy to the Jewish state.
In 1962, Pope John XXIII pronounced to the Second Vatican Council that “the Church should never depart from the sacred treasure of truth inherited from the Fathers. But at the same time she must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and the new forms of life introduced into the modern world.” It was in this spirit of mediating tradition with the challenges of the twentieth century that the forty-two-year-old Dubois, recognized as a gifted theologian and scholar of Thomas Aquinas, was tasked by his superiors with strengthening the Catholic presence in Israel.
Having lived during the Holocaust, Dubois regarded the establishment of Israel as profoundly improbable and nearly sublime. Submitting himself almost as a pilgrim to the common experience of immigrants to Israel, he succeeded in mastering the Hebrew culture, and more gradually in cultivating a deep familiarity with Israeli academic and intellectual life. His first permanent Israeli home was the small but later influential West Jerusalem Dominican community, the House of Saint Isaiah.
Established a few years earlier by Bruno Hussar, a Dominican monk of Jewish origin, Isaiah House was intended to be a center for Christian–Jewish dialogue, a much-needed sanctuary for Israeli converts to Catholicism, and a retreat for Christian contemplation of the “mystery of Israel.” In distinction to what was widely regarded in Israel as the heavily Arabist bias of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the members of Isaiah House shared a passion for wrestling with the theological meaning of Israel for the believing Christian. The gentle and disarmingly charismatic Dubois rapidly became the leading figure of the community.
More gradually, he also became a powerful presence in Israeli intellectual life. By 1968, he had been appointed professor of philosophy at the country’s flagship Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and he later headed the department. His introductory class on Christianity was a perennial favorite with students, attracting hundreds each semester.
During these early years, he immersed himself in engaging and contemplating all things Israeli, and was outspoken whenever he perceived Church bias against Israel. In response to accusations circulating in 1971 that Israel was driving Christians from the newly conquered territories of the West Bank, Dubois publically and emphatically denied the charge.
But his most fundamental concern was to overcome old assumptions about Judaism’s relation to the Christian faith. For centuries, Christians had for the most part maintained that the historic mission of the Jewish people was to prepare the way for Jesus. After Jesus’ arrival, the Jews were sometimes understood to have exhausted their historical function, or as St. Augustine argued, to persist as a suffering and scattered witness of their sinful rejection of the new covenant. As Dubois explained, “the Church experiences paralysis because it recognizes only the wandering Jew, whereas the Jewish nation and the state of Israel find no place in Christian theology.”
In response to precisely this problem—the problem of accounting for the successful Jewish ingathering from exile—Dubois long devoted himself to developing a theology of the people of Israel from a Christian perspective. “If the Church does not regard Israel from a Christian point of view,” he remarked, “if it does not recognize the theological significance of this people, having a national destiny that can be cultivated only in Zion, the Church has no right to pass judgment on Israel.”
In his view, the Holocaust and the Jewish return from exile, as well as the general opening of the Church toward non-Christian religions, had exploded the old, supersessionist view. In her recent and illuminating biography of Dubois, When a Christian Loves Israel, Israeli professor of philosophy Avital Wohlman remarks that “the hallmark of brother Marcel was to have perceived that this new state of affairs was undermining the solution proposed by the Church.” The issue was, in fact, “threatening the Church’s identity.”
Although a growing number of Catholic thinkers agreed with Dubois, as a traditionalist Dominican who understood Israel from within, his position was almost unique, and invaluable. In 1974, he was appointed to the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jews. That same year, following a special request to his close friend, the legendary pluralist mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek, Dubois also became an elective citizen of the State of Israel.
The essence of Dubois’s theology was a rejection of the supersessionist view that Judaism after Christ has no place in God’s plan other than as a witness to the perils of the sinful rejection of Christ. Instead, both in the suffering of the Holocaust and in the triumphant Jewish return from exile, he saw the call of a radical new Christian task: “to see the Jews as God sees them, to love them as He loves them, to understand their place in the divine plan for Salvation according to the theological vocation of God’s people.”
He developed a Thomistic position in which the Jewish people are to be understood as a “concrete universal.” This meant for him that a proper Christian theology of Judaism had to be developed through contemplation of the actual existence of the Jewish people,and especially the actual Jewish state.
This translated into a theology of “God’s double choice” reflected in separate but complementary realities: “Israel lives its faith, the Church believes.” The idea that Jews express in their very being an unconscious faith in God allowed Dubois to see even secular Zionism as reflecting providential designs.
The “mystery of Israel” encouraged him to understand modern Jewish history as an unconscious performance of providential destiny. “By permitting the chosen people to be itself, to live according to its vocation and at the level of implicit awareness suitable to it,” wrote Dubois, “God encourages Christians better to measure their vocation, that of sincere and enlightened interpreters.”
In his last major work, published in 2006, Nostalgie d’Israël, Dubois reminisces that initially and under the influence of this theological imperative, “every Israeli was a powerful hero to me, with a destiny, someone who returns to his land with the memory of the past: it was astonishing.” But already by the mid-1980s, with much of progressive world opinion toward Israel souring, Dubois too had begun to see things differently. Wohlman notes that “he no longer found it honest to conceal his disappointment from the chosen of Israel who had become so insensible toward the gift of election.”
In an interview given in 2000, following the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Dubois confessed that he and his colleagues at Isaiah House had been “naively Zionist, confusing the Jewish adventure with the Israeli one.” Many of his Jewish Israeli friends, largely figures on the religious left, shared this view and were at the forefront of the intellectual transition from utopian Zionist intoxication to its post-Zionist hangover. Following this very Israeli trajectory of discontent and an inchoate feeling that Israel had deviated from the path of righteousness, Dubois moved from Jewish West Jerusalem to an Arab village on the city’s outskirts.
But there were uniquely Christian and theological reasons as well. Dubois had always seen himself first and foremost as a missionary. The great dual challenge of his mission in the Jewish state had been, on the one hand, to reform modern Christianity’s understanding of Judaism, while on the other hand, to bring salvation to the Jews. But as Dubois implicitly understood, actively seeking Jewish conversion was, under the general conditions of the late twentieth century, neither a theological nor a political possibility.
Dubois’s pious genius had sought to satisfy the old missionary impulse through a new kind of Jewish–Christian dialogue. There would be mutual respect and cultural exchange, certainly, but also a Christian duty to interpret the unself-conscious faith of the Jewish people. The Church, in recognizing the providential nature of the Jewish return from exile, would also acquire an implicit right and duty of interpreting and guiding the renewed Jewish national life.
But a Christian vocation to theologically interpret concrete Jewish being in the light of providence could not fail sooner or later to entail judging the sins of the Jews. It was Dubois’s essential error not to have seen that holding Jewish existence up to a unique form of Christian scrutiny could never be acceptable to Jews.
Initially, when he was supportive of Israeli policy, his Zionist interlocutors failed to take notice of the matter. But as he shifted to a theological condemnation of Israeli politics, the disappointment became mutual. Dubois felt he had been exploited politically; the Zionists felt politically victimized and morally constrained by his elevated notion of their moral destiny.
Uniquely receptive to Jewish identity, Dubois’s theological imagination remained directed toward Christian self-understanding. Underlying his theology was a vision of redemption focused on the Jews. The unself-conscious Israel would rise to the Church’s idea of its destiny; both Christian and Jew would become more perfect through dialogue. Yet, as the traditionalist Dubois was forced to admit, “the perfect Jew is a Christian Jew.” Dubois’s theology of Jewish existence was, most fundamentally, a sincere but failed attempt to adapt the missionary impulse to twentieth-century conditions.
Dialogue with Jews meant for him learning to be a more perfect Christian, but it required of the Jews that they be exemplary for Christians on Christian terms. When he was confronted by their failure in the task he himself had set them, Dubois condemned Israel with the same fervor with which he had admired it.
Fr. Marcel-Jacques Dubois’s legacy remains, as he would have hoped, one of Catholic–Jewish reconciliation. But it has a more tragic meaning as well. It points to the hard fate of the sincere believer in a pluralistic age, and reminds us again why Jews are perhaps not altogether wrong to experience anxiety “when a Christian loves Israel.”
Jonathan Yudelman, a graduate student in philosophy at Hebrew University, is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Jerusalem Post.