Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Jerusalem-based quarterly Azure (Techelet in Hebrew) has the unique virtue of appearing simultaneously in Hebrew and English. I have been a steady reader since its inception and strongly recommend it. In the Autumn 2009 issue, Azure’s new editor-in-chief Assav Sagiv writes vividly about the need for Jews and Christians to cooperate on matters of urgent mutual concern. The magazine’s website has a preview of Sagiv’s editorial:

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Israel this past May is not likely to be remembered as a landmark event. Nor is it likely to be viewed as a turning point in the history of Jewish-Catholic relations. Sadly, however, it will be remembered as a decidedly less-than-pleasant affair. To be sure, feelings were tense from the outset, with Israeli politicians on both the right and the left openly expressing their dissatisfaction at the pope’s impending visit; Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin went so far as to boycott the official welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport. The pope’s much-anticipated speech at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, hardly improved matters, at least for those who sought an express apology for the Holocaust (and didn’t get one).


What was overlooked amidst all this animosity and mistrust, however, is the fact that Benedict XVI—the former Joseph Ratzinger—is actually one of the best friends the Jewish people has ever had in Vatican City. On the eve of the pope’s visit, Aviad Kleinberg, a scholar of Christian history and a columnist for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, attempted to remind his readers of this. Ratzinger, he explained,

“was the confidant of Pope John Paul II, and his immense theological authority was a critical aspect of the previous pope’s moves…. John Paul and Ratzinger buried once and for all not only the accusation of the Jews’ murdering the messiah, but the entire theological theory that the Christians replaced the Jews and are now the Chosen People and that the New Testament annuls the Old Testament. The Old Testament is still valid, declared the two, and the Jewish people is still God’s chosen and beloved people.”

A few days later, in reaction to what he called an “embarrassing demonstration of tactless and boorish behavior” toward the pope, Kleinberg wrote, “It is particularly obtuse of us to demand of others what we would never demand of ourselves. Try suggesting to any of our rabbis that they should declare what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have declared. For example, that Christians are our young and beloved brethren and that their covenant with the Lord is also intact—‘Excuse me?’ you say. ‘Did we understand you correctly? Give us a break!’”

Indeed, while Catholic leaders of recent times have repeatedly expressed sorrow and even remorse for hundreds of years of antisemitism, the Jewish world has not yet shown a comparable willingness to reconsider its own perception of Christianity. No one, of course, has demanded this of Judaism, for understandable reasons. Ever since Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century c.e., it was the Jews, the so-called Christ-killers, who were persecuted by the Church, and not the other way around. Today, however, circumstances demand that all established religions reexamine their traditional attitudes toward each other. Christianity, in all of its various denominations, has generally risen to the occasion. Judaism, for its part, has not.

(Emphasis added)

In the Israeli national discourse, Sagiv’s essay represents an extraordinary sort of tough-mindedness. Within the Jewish State, where the Catholic presence is tiny (a few hundred Israeli Catholics attend Hebrew-language Church services) and the Arab Christian posture tends towards the extreme fringe of anti-Zionism, self-righteous outrage over past Christian persecution is the path of least resistance. There is nothing to be gained tactically, moreover, by demanding that Jews acknowledge the good will of the Catholic Church, since the Vatican’s Middle Eastern policy remains hostage to the small and vulnerable population of Lebanese Maronites. Encircled by Hizbollah, the much-diminished Maronites in communion with Rome could be wiped out any time Hizbollah’s masters in Iran give the command. That makes Rome gunshy over the Iranian problem, which most Israelis view as the main existential threat to the State of Israel.

Benedict’s unprecedented efforts to draw near to Judaism as a religion were summarized by the Bonn University theologian Karl-Heinz Menke, who argues that His Holiness is the first pope since St. Peter to read the whole of the Gospels as a Jewish work. From a theological standpoint, the Jewish people have had no better friend in the Vatican since the founding of Christianity. There is quite gap between Benedict’s theological labors, though, and his inability to get Vatican foreign policy out of a rut.

What shines through the fog of peace—if that is the right phrase—is Benedict’s whole-hearted embrace of the continuing Election of Israel. Christians who agree that we still are God’s people, whatever our theological differences, are our friends, whatever other issues may arise. My views on the subject run parallel to Assaf Sagiv’s, with some differences in emphasis—but to explain these, I would have to present material reserved for Azure subscribers.

Rather than nitpick Sagiv’s presentation, I recommend that anyone concerned with the great issues of our time subscribe to his excellent quarterly.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles