: The second book on Benedict XVI's 'Jesus of Nazareth'
while looking at the same truth
The most obvious way in which a Jewish reader could read the second book of Benedict XVI on Jesus of Nazareth is to look for an image of Jewish-Christian rapport. It would be a legitimate reading, but a limited one. It has been said, with some malice, that after the lauds given to Nostra Aetate, nothing could receive greater praise. This is not so. Nostra Aetate was a fundamental document because after many dramatic centuries, it formed the basis of a dialogue based on respect and recognition of common and inalienable roots. It was a first step; and mainly methodological. Other decisive steps were then taken on the level of human relationships, and still others which confronted the central question.
Amongst these second steps – as I have already outlined in the pages of this paper – a fundamental role was played by the document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible.” (2001). Its exegesis aimed to remove the largest barriers from the path of dialogue, mainly anti-Jewish prejudices deriving from a superficial reading of the Gospels. That document clearly established the indissolubility of the relationship between the two Testaments with the affirmation that a “dismissal of Christians from the Old Testament” would imply the “dissolution” of Christianity.
The new book by Benedict XVI completes this work, removing the final stone on the path of dialogue, when it definitively clarifies that the responsibility in the trial and condemnation of Jesus is imputable only to a restricted group of Jews and cannot in any way be attributed to the Jewish people as a whole, much less to successive generations. Having removed this obstacle, the dialogue enters into the heart of the argument: “After centuries of opposing positions, we recognize as our duty that these two ways – Christian and Jewish – of reading the Biblical writings – must enter into dialogue with each other to correctly understand the will and word of God.”
It is a dialogue that already began, for example, with the contribution of Rabbi Jacob Neusner (A Rabbi Talks with Jesus), leaving its traces in the first volume of Benedict XVI on Jesus of Nazareth.
The dialogue immediately encounters the central theme of divergence: the divinity of Jesus, the nature of his mission, its meaning in history and in redemption and the very concept of redemption. In this regard it is natural and legitimate that Benedict XVI indicates the uniqueness of the Christian vision in the idea that the Temple is finished in “the historical-salvation sense,” and “in its place is now the living arc of the alliance of Christ crucified and resurrected.” The beginning of the time of the gentiles, “during which the Gospel must be brought to all the world and to all men,” is compatible with the fact that, “in the meantime, Israel conserves its own mission,” and thus clarifies a question which for centuries has generated “grave misunderstanding.” It is even more legitimate to claim that which is considered radically new in Christianity, in order to remove another source of misunderstanding, and not of method but of substance.
There is not a single page of the book which revisits the old and unfounded contrast between the Old Testament as a book which speaks of a God of only justice and never love, even a God of vengeance, and the Gospels as a message of charity and love, nor of the categories of universal Christianity versus a particular Judaism. Certainly, as we have just stated, the specificity of the Christian message is found in having overcome the confines of the Temple and making of the crucifixion the Temple for the redemption of humanity; but this specificity is not in opposition to the message of the Old Testament, on the contrary, it is rooted in it.
The vocation of Israel is not in itself only a particular one, “one the one hand, the Jewish people are segregated from other peoples, but on the other hand, it is so because they carry out their role for all people, for the world. That is what is meant by the qualification of Israel as a ‘holy people.’” This is the universal message of Isaiah, “It is too small a thing…to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (49:6). It is fundamental to have established a direct connection between the Prophets and the message of Jesus who, “with his actions intended to bring the fullness of the Law and of the Prophets.”
This connection is continually emphasized in the book, placing the message of Jesus “within the great lines of the heralds of God in the preceding story of salvation.”
One can go further. The criticism of the reduction of religion to a legalistic reading of precepts does not just belong to the tradition of biblical prophets, but runs through the whole history of Judaism, both in its Talmudic literature as well as kabbalistic literature. For example, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz drew upon a passage of the Talmud in which mediating on why the Second Temple was destroyed even though Jewish people scrupulously observed the precepts and intensively studied the Torah, he notes that, “Jerusalem was destroyed only because the laws of the Torah were scrupulously followed.” Steinsaltz observes that, “this formula is embarrassing and complex: the people of Jerusalem were punished because they did not practice indulgence but only judged in strict conformity with the laws of the Torah. This means that even though the existing laws weigh upon each person, there are certain cases in which their rigor should be attenuated by the application of mercy. If those who have the power to pronounce judgments do not act with measure, their behavior announces the coming of destruction.”
I have highlighted this point, amongst many, in the book of Benedict XVI because it speaks to a central point in Jewish reflection. If it is true that after the 70’s a rabbinic reading of the Torah claims, “the canon of biblical writings as a revelation of God without the concrete world of the cult of the temple,” and this is presented as an interlocutor of Christianity, I do not think that one can say that after Jesus of Judaism, “only Phariseeism survives.”
The vitality of Judaism, before and after the fall of the Temple, is continually fed by the dialectic between a legalistic reading of the Torah and the exploration of the theme of redemption in universal terms, that is, a reconsideration of the characteristic theme of prophecy. The end of this dialectic would signal a dramatic unfruitfulness of Judaism and the loss of a sense of its mission. It is with this living Judaism that dialogue can bear fruit.
Reading Benedict XVI’s book brings to mind the memory of those who had already found a way of overcoming centuries of misunderstanding through common theological and spiritual roots. One thinks of a book published fifty years ago by a Jewish French intellectual, Robert Aron (brother of Raymond), entitled, Les annees obscures de Jesus, in which the author explored the years in the life of Jesus of which the Gospel accounts say little. Aron looked to the spirituality of the Jewish prayers which Jesus knew from his infancy, for the roots of the message he would bring: “Is it possible,” Aron writes, “that every day, even today, some Jews still pronounce the prayers that marked the beginning of the most extensive religious movement in the world? Is it possible that a great number of Jews and almost all Christians ignore this fact and have not meditated on it? Why are believers, of whatever religion, not obsessed by such a mystery which persists after many other mysteries?
Aron was encouraged in his work by his visit to the synagogue in Livorno, Italy, where he discovered the great kabbalistic rabbi, Elia Benamozegh, who was full of prophetic universalism. One needs to re-read Benamozegh’s book, Israel and Humanity to realize how much faith there was in dialogue even a century ago. “There is no Jew worthy of this name who does not rejoice in the great transformation operated by Christianity in a world which at one time was stained by many errors and moral misery. As for us, we have never heard the psalms of David from the lips of a priest without feeling similar sentiments. Never have we been left cold by certain passages of the Gospel: the simplicity, the greatness, the infinite tenderness that breathe in these pages move us to the deepest parts of our soul. We are aware of being even more Jewish, the more we do justice to Christianity.”
It is a faith which could be contagious, as evidenced by a document which I found amongst the papers of my father, Saul, who was Aron’s friend: a copy of a letter sent by Charles De Gaulle to the author in 1960, upon reading his book. He wrote: “Voila qui est profond, humain et religieux! Voila qui montre comment et pourquoi ce que l’on pourrait croire si different et si eloigne est, au fond, tres semblable e tres proche! Voila qui fait voir et sentir qu’il n’y a qu’un Dieu, partout ou est Dieu!”
Unfortunately, the journey is made difficult by the fact that today, religions confront a threat born from the idolatry that Aron had already foreseen: “As long as we think, on one side or another, that Christians and Jews and maybe even non-believers, are not equally threatened by growing idolatry and profanation of the world…as long as war between revealed religions and maybe also between secular humanism, takes precedence over the fight to work together against the current and ancient enemy, Jesus will remain on the cross and Israel will remain threatened by nations.”
It is a threat which today has many faces, among them that of a scientific reductionism which debases the richness of human reason. This is a central theme in Benedict XVI’s thought, which re-appears forcefully in a particularly pregnant passage of his book. When the author refers to the belief that the genetic code allows us to decipher the secret of creation, the language of God and comments, “«But unfortunately not the whole language. The functional truth about man has been discovered. But the truth about man himself - who he is, where he comes from, what he should do, what is right, what is wrong – this unfortunately cannot be read in the same way. Hand in hand with growing knowledge of functional truth there seems to be an increasing blindness toward 'truth' itself – toward the question of our real identity and purpose”.
I wanted to close with this quote because this too is a theme which can unite Jews and Christians. In fact, as a great Jewish thinker, Gershom Scholem, said, “a living Judaism, whatever its conception of God, cannot but resolutely oppose naturalism.”
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