Michael Novak’s Reflections on What Jews and Christians Hold in Common

Feb. 23 2017

The distinguished Catholic thinker Michael Novak died last week at the age of eighty-three. Perhaps best known for The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, which advances the moral case for economic freedom, he wrote extensively on a number of subjects, including Christian-Jewish relations. Herewith, an excerpt from his 1993 essay on the French Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) and his writings on the Jews:

The debt Catholics owe to Jacques Maritain for his reflections on Judaism is enormous. As teacher to a whole generation of bishops and theologians, his contribution to the statement of Vatican II on the Jews was significant, perhaps philosophically indispensable. Maritain saw . . . that God’s covenant with the Jews is unbreakable; and that the friendship between Christians and Jews is an obligation springing directly from the vocation of both as vessels of God’s inscrutable love. . . . Further, he viewed the history of Judaism as a mystery linked to the fate of the entire world. . . . Maritain read all of history in the light of this mystery—including, in his later writings, the existence of the new state of Israel. . . .

[T]he Jewish interpretation of Christianity is at odds with the Christian interpretation of Judaism. Of this there is no doubt. Still, to assert that each must deny certain claims of the other and let these mutual denials dominate attention is to go too far. It is wrong to allow the sharp and central point of difference between Christianity and Judaism to obscure all that they hold in common. It is wrong not to walk together as far as possible, on the excuse that at one crucial point there is a clear difference. For neither in Jewish nor in Christian thought is it held that this difference must last for all eternity, or even for the entire duration of temporal history. . . .

To be a Christian is not only to be “spiritually a Semite” [in Maritain’s phrase], but in some very subtle sense to be a Jew. A great many of the prerogatives of the Christian faith belong first of all to the Jews. Many of the elements basic to a Christian way of life were first basic to a Jewish way of life: a reverence for the Scriptures; a sense of the sacred; respect for the law; humility before the transcendent; the cherishing of the human capacity for reflection and choice; the sharp taste of the existing (as distinct from non-existing), and of being (as opposed to nonbeing), and therefore of the blessed contingency of this created world; the practice of compassion; the ideal of friendship with God and of “walking with God”; the habit of prayer; and a sense of the presence of God during the activities of every day—all of these are habits of life that Christians share with Jews and have learned from Judaism.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Catholicism, Christianity, Jewish-Catholic relations, Jewish-Christian relations, Judaism, Religion & Holiday

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays