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The “mystery of Israel”—that’s what Jacques Maritain called Israel’s endurance as the people of the Old Covenant, its indomitable insistence on Jewish particularity over and against the universal claims of Christianity. Through the ages it has been a source of both legitimate theological disputation and illegitimate anti-Jewish feeling on the part of Christians. As a son of the Church and a son of the Middle East, I offer here a personal expression of love for “Israel after the flesh.” This love must take the measure of the theological and philosophical barrier that divides Christians from our Jewish friends—what makes it so that “Israel after the flesh” and “Israel after the spirit” aren’t identical communities, notwithstanding great overlap.

Maritain regarded the mystery of Israel as a supernatural “problem without solution.” But it is also the stuff of ordinary discourse between Catholics and Jews. In early 2017, soon after my reception into the Catholic Church, I met with an older Jewish friend, an alumnus of the Bush administration. He greeted me warmly and congratulated me on becoming Catholic. “But you know what? There’s something missing from your New Testament.”

“Go on . . .”

“A sense of humor. Your Jesus and his disciples have no sense of humor. Not so with the Old Testament. Go to the part in Exodus where the Israelites get fed up with following Moses around Sinai. They say to him”—here my friend effected a voice recalling Jeff’s wife in Curb Your Enthusiasm—“‘Moses, you schmuck, were there not enough graves back in Egypt, that you had us schlep all the way to the desert? At least the Egyptians gave us some vegetables. What is this you’ve had us do, Moses? Were there not enough graves in Egypt?’ That is a distinctly Jewish voice, resounding three thousand years later. As a secular Jew, I can’t read that passage without detecting something in it that is distinctly of my people.”

I immediately grasped his point, as an Iranian who remains marked by the homeland I left behind more than two decades ago and haven’t returned to since: “something that is distinctly of my people.”

Another friend, an Israeli American, put things more bluntly: “Listen, I love Catholics. But you guys are trying to impose your lofty-rational-Hellenistic God on our desert God, our hilltop God, our angry-bush God. It doesn’t work for me.”

The divide between Jewish particularity and the universalism of the Church can run all the way down to the level of epistemology: to what can be known about God and morality and how we may come to know it. For Catholics, “the West” is the product of the encounter and eventual synthesis between reason and revelation, between a Greek rationality in search of the deepest origin of reality and a Jewish God professed to be the very ground of being (the “I Am” of Exodus 3:14). Later, that same God identified himself even more intimately with reason (“In the beginning was Logos, reason, and reason was with God, and reason was God”).

A contrasting Jewish view was elaborated starkly by the late rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: The God of the Hebrew Bible was never the God of the academy. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is neither the unmoved mover nor the ground of being, but a historical God, who has put himself in dialogue and relationship with one people, the Jews. More than that, who has entered into a covenant with Abraham after the flesh. He is a universal creator, but little about him could be deduced by the operations of reason. He is best known through the moral revolution heralded by Abrahamic faith.

Of course, the Jewish response to the Catholic synthesis of faith and reason is as variegated and complex as two millennia of Christian–Jewish intellectual encounter. Many Jewish sages, not least Maimonides, have engaged with classical metaphysics. Nevertheless, it is safe to venture that Sacks spoke from within the Jewish tradition on this point. Michael Wyschogrod, who like Sacks was sensitive to the Christian message and solicitous of Jewish–Christian friendship, nevertheless lamented that Christianity’s “deep involvement with Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy” had generated “myriad problems.” The Christian shift of the locus of divine election from flesh to faith forced the Church to rely ever more on philosophy to supply it with “universal structures,” Wyschogrod said. “For this reason, the Christian mind was driven to an ever greater concern with philosophy, a tendency that, while not totally absent in the history of Judaism, never reaches the proportions it does in Christianity.”

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the founding fathers of Modern Orthodox Judaism, regarded the cosmic yearning of philosophy as perfectly legitimate, indeed, an echo of the biblical impulse to subdue the earth (see Gen. 1:28). If the Jews had been absent from the cosmic quest for many centuries before the dawn of modernity, this wasn’t by their choice, but owing to the bigotry that regarded Israel as a “subhuman object.”

But on the question of morality, Soloveitchik turned from celebrating to chastising man’s search for the universal. “In the opinion of cosmic man,” he writes, “morality must be intelligible and rational, appealing to the conscience and to the mind.” Cosmic man expects to find the same legible patterns in the moral realm as he finds elsewhere, patterns he can map and master. “Philosophical ethics beginning with Plato and Aristotle,” Soloveitchik writes, “is victory-minded and success-oriented. Man sets himself up as king and strives to triumph over opposition and hostility. Judaism, however, knows that the kingship-victory morality is not always adequate.” Sometimes, God commands us not to eat certain kinds of fish, and that is that.

Through the ages, countless attempts have been made to explain away the Torah’s cultic (as opposed to moral) commandments by way of reference, for example, to hygienic considerations. Yet as the historian Martin Goodman notes, these attempts have failed. The decrees of the Torah, the hukkim, are what they are. Writes Soloveitchik, “Acceptance of hukkim, statutes which the logos cannot comprehend, is alien to the philosophy of cosmic man.” The hukkim in their entirety can’t be reduced to universal moral laws naturally legible to the human mind, though certainly the moral laws enshrined in the Ten Commandments can be articulated in that way.

The argument isn’t just between Aristotle and the Rav (let’s say). It also implicates Christians. A faithful Jew might accept the Christian view, for example, that the Torah’s dietary restrictions point humankind to interior purity—purity in what we think, desire, and say (see Matt. 15:11). Even so, the dietary commandments and the entire body of hukkim finally are what they are, revealed once and for all by God at Sinai. They define a social order, an order flowing from Abraham’s seed—“something,” as my friend said, “distinctly of my people.”

The question of community or social order brings us to the political dimension of the persistent antinomy between Jewish particularity and Christian universality. Christianity emerged in and through the Roman empire, with the result that Rome’s universalist impulse structured the mind of the early Church, whereas the Torah-ordained Jewish political form is the nation. “The mystical body of Israel,” writes Maritain, “is that of a specific people; its basis is temporal and involves a community of flesh and blood.” To be sure, the experience of dispersion, which began before the Christian era, lent a universal character to the Jewish experience, but it was a tragic universality, and thereafter Jewish prayer hummed with the yearning for Jerusalem and for Zion.

Thus, when Christians grapple with the “mystery of Israel,” it isn’t just a question of assent (or of withholding assent) to Jesus as the Messiah or the Second Person of the Trinity. It’s also a matter of two religious communities with different ways of being in the world—one concentrated into a distinct people and place, and the other reaching outward toward all nations. I don’t think this difference can be overcome by a winning theological or philosophical argument. But we can delineate differences and seek as much common ground as our Jewish and Christian commitments permit.

In 1993, Jacob Neusner published his wonderful book A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. In it, he probed a central question for Jews: Does Jesus of Nazareth, as we encounter him in Matthew, merely fulfill the Torah, as he promises to do, or does he stray from it to a degree that a Torah-observant Jew cannot abide? Neusner concluded that though Jesus’s Torah teaching is in many places correct and downright sublime, his dispensing with the cultic commandments undermines Israel as a “social order” and an “enduring society in sanctification,” which is to say, as a particular people with a divine vocation.

Pope Benedict XVI engaged with Neusner’s book, responding to the rabbi’s concerns with magnanimity and gentleness. I find the pope’s counters persuasive. Then again, I happen to be Catholic. But the debate about Jesus’s fulfillment of the law is intractable. The larger point is this: The persistence, against all odds, of the body of Israel—as both a community and a physical reality of flesh and blood—must have a meaning for Catholics that transcends differences over the Torah, or over the scope of natural reason. That the body of Israel after the flesh persists against all odds must tell us something, as St. Paul recognized and meditated upon in chapters 9 through 11 of Romans

The body of Israel, this living and indestructible depository of divine love, is a reminder of the incarnational nature of our own faith—and thus of the particularity that paradoxically fuels Christian universality. “Judaism,” Walker Percy once wrote, is “offensive” to the soulless, scientistic spirit of our age, “because it claims that God entered into a covenant with a single tribe, with it and no other.” By the same token, Christianity offends our age “because it claims not only this but also that God became one man, he and no other.” In him and through him are all men saved.

And though Judaism rejects the notion that God became man in Jesus Christ, the Hebrew Bible time and again speaks of God in anthropomorphic terms. This, for Wyschogrod, was no accident. In the “indwelling of God in the Tabernacle, in the Temple of Jerusalem, and in the Jewish people,” he writes, “I detect a certain diluted incarnation.” Expounding 1 Kings 8, he writes: “God dwelled in the Tabernacle, in the Tent of Meeting, and now dwells in the Temple built by Solomon. God has taken residence among the people of Israel. That is what makes the space and its environs—Jerusalem and Israel—in which he dwells holy and it makes the people among whom he dwells holy.” A Christian might take this further, asserting that God’s dwelling among Israel prefigured the Incarnation of Jesus Christ—a claim that, needless to say, is more than Wyschogrod’s “diffuse incarnation” can bear. What matters is that the Most High dwelled in a special way in one land and not another, among one people, in one people.

St. Paul speaks of gentile Christians as wild olive shoots grafted onto the olive tree of Israel after the flesh, an image that encourages Christians to regard God’s habitation with his people in their land as spiritually significant. Should the Holy Land mean little to us because, after all, we can immediately encounter the incarnated God in the Eucharist at any time, almost anywhere in the world? Why shouldn’t we propose that the Old City of Jerusalem be replaced with a giant Walmart? No: This land and this people and the connection between the two are pregnant with meaning for those who follow the Christian way—and I insist on the physical aspect of pregnancy as much as the figurative one.

Opposing anti-Semitism should be a matter of honor for all Christians. God dwelt in this land, among this people, in this people, on that mount. Add the fact that we believe that God dwelt, quite literally, in a Jewish womb. As Maritain said, “It is no small thing for a Christian to hate or despise, or to wish to treat in a debasing way, the race whence issued his God and the immaculate Mother of his God.”

The body of Israel gave birth to Christianity’s universal mission. This fundamental theological reality, and not apocalyptic or “dispensationalist” reasons, nor nationalistic or chauvinistic zeal, imposes on us a duty of Jewish safety, including in the modern State of Israel. We Christians are not Israelites after the flesh. But our faith (like our reason) compels us to join the Jews in proclaiming, Am Yisrael Chai.

Sohrab Ahmari is a founder and editor of Compact. This essay is adapted from a keynote address delivered at “Nostra Aetate and the Future of Catholic-Jewish Relations at a Time of Rising Antisemitism,” co-hosted by Franciscan University of Steubenville and The Philos Project.

Image by Jörg Bittner Unna licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped, filter added.

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