The star and the cross: essays on jewish-christian relations.
by Mother Katherine Hargrove, R.S.C.J.
The Bruce Publishing Co. 318 pp. $6.75.
Jesus was the last of the Jewish prophets, and the only one to claim to be more than a humble, even a reluctant, spokesman for God. His messianic claim was his undoing, for the Romans, who were the political overlords of Palestine at the time, construed this as a claim to be the rightful king of an independent Jewish state and so had him put to death for treason. The claim also upset some of his fellow Jews, who considered it either theologically offensive or politically unwise or both. But there were many currents in Jewish thought at the time, and Jesus's teaching, eccentric though it was in some respects, probably aroused much less opposition among contemporary Jews than had the teaching of, say, Jeremiah. He died as a Jewish rebel against Rome, not the first and very far from the last Jew so to die. And like so many Jews throughout subsequent history, including many murdered by Hitler, he expected God to recognize his special relationship to Him and intervene to save him at the last moment, but God did not, and Jesus's last recorded words were a cry of agony to God for having forsaken him.
In later years, some people came to believe that Jesus was himself God, or in some mystical sense one part of a threefold God, and at the same time the “only begotten son” of the God with whose threefold personality he was nevertheless bound up. The reasons for the development of this belief, so utterly at variance with Jewish belief in the unity and spirituality of God, are not wholly clear to scholars, who do not always agree in their explanations. The people who held this belief were called Christians (the name had arisen earlier), and the conversion to this faith of a Roman emperor made it both politically respectable and geographically extensive until it became the compulsory orthodox faith of all the peoples of Europe, except for the minority of Jews now scattered among the nations, who continued to regard the claims made for Jesus as both logically absurd and theologically blasphemous.
It is a strange story, but not nearly so strange as the story of how the teachings of this last of the Jewish prophets were used as a reason for subjecting the people to whom he had belonged, and whose faith he had always professed, to continuous contempt and persecution. If Jesus was God, he could not really be a Jew, and if the Jews refused to believe that he was God, this was further reason for dissociating Jesus from his original people. Further, if the Jews rather than the Romans were really responsible for the death of Jesus, acting out of malice and anger at Jesus's divine claims, then the Jews actually killed God. This, certainly, is a preposterous and self-contradictory concept, but that did not prevent it from being propagated for centuries throughout Christendom and indeed from being widely believed among ordinary Christians today. The tradition of savage persecution of the Jews, accompanied by persistent circulation of monstrous charges against them (such as that of killing Christian children and using their blood in the Passover celebration), made it easy to use the Jews as a scapegoat and a handy recipient of every kind of popular animosity. So that when Hitler wanted a scapegoat on a massive scale, centuries of Christian teaching had prepared people to see the Jews in this role. And so six million of them were done to death.
Enlightened Christians are now understandably unhappy about this, and The Star and the Cross is a product of that unhappiness and of the resulting attempt to develop a humane and intelligent dialogue between Jews and Christians, especially Catholic Christians. Mother Katherine Hargrove, the editor of this volume of essays by both Catholics and Jews, is a scholarly, courageous, and compassionate Catholic theologian who herself contributes four different pieces, each endeavoring to show that there are deep common factors in both religions, and to urge the necessity for mutual understanding, respect, and scholarly co-operation. It is a noble objective, and one cannot but be moved by it. The book as a whole, however, repetitive and not very logically organized as it is, produces a confused impression. There are analyses of anti-Semitism, sociological and historical, by both Jews and Christians. There are attempts to define both Jew and Catholic by a Jew and a Catholic respectively. There are bitter indictments by both Jews and Catholics of Christian anti-Semitism and Christian ignorance about, and prejudice toward, Jews. There is the now customary debate about the degree of guilt of Pope Pius XII in not formally and explicitly condemning Nazi anti-Semitism (he is both attacked and defended by Jewish writers, but Guenter Lewy's case for the prosecution seems to me unanswerable). There is hopeful discussion about the new spirit toward the Jews evinced by the Vatican Council. There is (as Mother Hargrove recognizes) a flabby and unsatisfactory discussion of intermarriage.
The concept of mutually tolerant religions in a pluralist society has been forced on Catholicism by the movement of history; and even if Catholics now try to prove that such a view was always implicit in Christianity, it is clear that what is happening (and not only among Catholics) is a redefinition of Christianity in the light of the movement of feeling about toleration that has been growing since the Enlightenment. (And in the light of the fact that Christianity no longer has a monopoly on faith in our civilization.) The United States Constitution is a product of the Enlightenment, and the Founding Fathers did not envisage an actively religious society at all: to the 18th-century men of the Enlightenment, a genial deism was a unifying faith for all civilized people. But the different religions did not shake down into a rationalist deism, even though for some time now spokesmen for different religions in the U.S. have vied with one another in proving that all religions are really the same. The commonest way to prove the compatibility of Americanism with any variety of religion has been to subsume differences in faith for which people in the past voluntarily went to the stake in a socially acceptable creedless religiosity. This book, or at least its editor, takes a different line: Mother Hargrove does not deny the differences between Judaism and Christianity, but she insists that they have common elements and also that each has unique elements that can be honestly respected and valued by the other. She insists further that each can respect and value the other's way of treating the unique past of his religion.
But nobody really dares to undertake the theological debate. The theological differences between Judaism and Christianity “are real and they are beyond harmonization” writes Samuel Sandmel, and he goes on to plead for tolerance. H. Gazelles wonders “if Judaism would not make a highly significant move if it reverted to things as they were in the year 61” [C. E.]. Wouldn't this bring us almost back to first base, with Jesus a Jewish prophet killed by the Romans, with no only-begotten son of God, no Trinity? This seems a good idea, but I think Christians would have to give up more than Jews if this were done. It is Christian theology (post-61) which sticks so hard in the throat of Jew and agnostic alike; this is the real bugbear, the primal absurdity. Let the debaters argue this one out and we'll have a real conflict of views. But to do so is regarded as tactless or useless, perhaps rightly. Meanwhile, since it is for the Christian or quasi-Christian majority to determine the degree of prejudice that Jews must suffer, we must be grateful to Mother Hargrove for her courage in exposing the guilt of her own Church, and her humanity in seeking through scholarship some kind of atonement and reconciliation. It doesn't really add up to a dialogue, but who's counting? Some of my best friends are Christians, and I am all for mutual respect and tolerance. Tolerance, of course, is not agreement, and if it were, there would be no virtue in it.