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Jacob’s Younger Brother: Christian-Jewish Relations after Vatican II

23 October 2023

Jacob’s Younger Brother: Christian-Jewish Relations after Vatican II

Karma Ben-Johanan; Image Credit: Two Nice Jewish Boys

Excerpt from Jacob’s  Younger  Brother: Christian-Jewish Relations after Vatican II by Karma Ben-Johanan, (Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press, 2022).

The events of the twentieth century shook Western civilization to its core. The ruin of two world wars—especially the horrors of World War II, with its ideologically justified bloodshed and institutionalized slaughter of those regarded as Others, perpetrated by the very paragons of high European culture—had left Europe reeling from a sense of moral failure. The cultural achievements of the century before had all too easily given way to barbarity. Regard for the Other became the cornerstone of the West’s attempt to rebuild a moral foundation and redefine its values. Where universal reason, progress, and objective truth had once commanded center stage, the protagonists in the postwar period were now pluralism and the discourse of human rights. 

In view of the iniquities that had defiled Europe, the Holocaust in particular, the Christian world had to contend with difficult and penetrating questions: Why had the Christian churches failed to save Europe from the abyss of cruelty? Had they fallen prey to secular regimes, or had Europe’s Christian legacy itself sown the seeds of destruction? Was it even possible to “speak theology” after such a catastrophe, or was it better to finally depart from doctrinal obsessions? In the latter half of the twentieth century, Western Christianity grappled with the ethical challenge posed by—to use Emmanuel Levinas’s words—the face of the Other. 

Yet those same Others—that is, the Jews—were also called on to adjust to the new ethical challenge that had crystallized in response to their torment. Which face should Jews present to the West, with its new moral sensibilities? 

Must that face remain anguished and subjugated, or was it now permissible to bare some teeth? And when facing their own Others—when facing Christians—must Jews assimilate the West’s new ethical imperative and play by the rules formulated by those who had only yesterday been their murderers? Would the Jews embrace the lessons that had been learned from their own torment, or would they refuse, once again, to participate in the Western project, reluctant to adopt the new gospel of reconciliation as their own? 

Jacob’s Younger Brother focuses on the relation to the Other as a key component in the consolidation of religious identities in the second half of the twentieth century. It concentrates on mutual perceptions of Christians and Jews after they rose from the debacle of the world wars and reorganized themselves in a postmodern, multicultural, and liberal reality in which Jews have become sovereign in their own state and the Catholic Church has largely accepted the separation of church and state and withdrawn from many of its historical political aspirations. 

It is in this context that the book discusses the religious literatures of two specific communities: the Roman Catholic community and the Orthodox Jewish community. Under the term Roman Catholic, I subsume the Christian communities that see themselves as subject to the spiritual authority of the pope. Under the term Orthodox Jewish, I subsume a diverse group of Jewish communities (from Modern Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox) that regard themselves as faithful representatives of Jewish tradition and as having an obligation to preserve it, especially through their commitment to halakha—the evolved (and evolving) body of laws, derived from the written and the oral Torah, that guide Jewish life and religious observance. 

I chose to focus on these communities for several reasons. First, they have tremendous influence on contemporary religious identities. The Catholic Church is one of the most influential religious institutions in the world, and Jewish Orthodoxy fills a crucial role in defining Jewish identity for Jews both inside and outside the Orthodox community. In Israel, it holds a hegemonic position. 

Second, there is a prominent common denominator that makes looking at these otherwise so different communities together eye-opening: Orthodox Jewish and Catholic leaders negotiate their traditions in the modern setting in a similar way. Unlike other Christian and Jewish denominations that often openly reject significant swaths of their traditions that are incompatible with contemporary value systems, Orthodox rabbis and Catholic priests and theologians define themselves as fully obligated to maintain the entire scope of their religious heritage. They can resort only to reinterpretation, not rejection. 

Finally, the Christian-Jewish dialogue of recent decades is often represented by the images of a cardinal in a red cape and a bearded Orthodox rabbi—probably because these two specific communities symbolize “thick,” traditional religious identities and are associated in Western memory with the historical Christian-Jewish rivalry that the contemporary phase of modernity seeks to solve. The problematization of this image—of religious tradition as the arena of conflict and of contemporary dialogue as this conflict’s ultimate overcoming—is one of the objectives of this book. 

The choice to focus on Catholic Christianity and Orthodox Judaism does not imply that Orthodox Jewish and Roman Catholic mutual perceptions are the only factors that define the direction of the Christian-Jewish relationship today, nor that these communities are more important than others. There are other fascinating and lively aspects of this relationship that are worthy of their own research. 

This work focuses on the relations between Jews and Christians in the age of reconciliation. More specifically, it concentrates on the time between the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate (1965) and the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI (2013).1 Nevertheless, several sections of the book are dedicated to earlier periods in the twentieth century, revolving especially around the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust and the foundation of the State of Israel. Developments that occurred later than 2013 are discussed only briefly, in the Epilogue. In the fourth paragraph of Nostra Aetate, the Catholic Church turned its back on its anti-Jewish heritage and paved the way toward rapprochement between the church and the Jewish people. The political independence of Jews in Israel has also removed many of the problems that characterized Christian-Jewish coexistence in the past. Yet these fundamental changes have not rescinded the ambivalence that has characterized the Christian-Jewish relationship throughout history. For many Catholics, the reconciliation with the Jews caused a theological avalanche and disorder. For many Orthodox Jews, the demand to adapt themselves to the conciliatory perceptions of Christians seemed to be another attempt to force a Christian agenda and a Christian timetable on them, this time with a liberal flavor. The process of reconciliation led, in both cases, to complex consequences. This book inquires into the elements that constitute the Christian-Jewish rapprochement of recent decades and the identity transformations that that rapprochement has demanded from each of the parties. 

The book examines the discourse within each of the religious communities with respect to the other—that is, what Orthodox Jewish rabbis tell Jews about Christianity, and what Catholic theologians and priests tell Christians about Judaism. This focus reveals layers within the Christian-Jewish relationship that do not find expression in the explicit interreligious dialogue that is currently taking place between Jewish and Christian official representatives and that is careful about political correctness. I am interested mainly in the closed conversations in which one community discusses the other without diplomatic considerations. 

To describe these internal discourses within both faith communities, I analyze a diverse body of sources that spans magisterial pronouncements, official declarations, journal articles, well-known halakhic rulings, and obscure internet discussions. I evaluate the texts not according to their official standing but according to the weight they carry in Catholic and Orthodox Jewish discourses as a whole. This strategy is central to the book, since it brings to the surface the tensions between what is done and thought officially and what is done and thought unofficially, a tension that is present in both communities’ preoccupations with the relationship between them. 

I do not pretend to cover the entire set of opinions of all Orthodox Jewish and Catholic thinkers on the issue. My objective in writing this book was to extract dominant trajectories out of a vast mixture of diverse phenomena. Moreover, I dedicate particular attention to the aspects of Orthodox Jewish and Catholic reciprocal perceptions that have remained underexplored in contemporary scholarship. My assumption is that the fruitful and overt dialogue that has been taking place between Orthodox Jewish rabbis and Catholic priests and theologians in the last decades is already known to the reader. The book thus seeks to bring to the surface precisely the points of resistance to Christian-Jewish dialogue, especially within the Orthodox Jewish world, and the sophisticated means by which the deepest questions raised by reconciliation are avoided, especially within the Catholic world. In other words, this book is about the problems of rapprochement and not about its successes. 

The book, then, tells two different stories, a Catholic one and an Orthodox Jewish one, that progress in parallel and often with the agents of each group being unaware of the details of the other story.

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