Friday, January 27, 2023

Judaism's Dual Mission


The Angel of Death and the First Passover, 1897 Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster

In 1965, Pope Paul VI issued a major statement on the Catholic Church's attitude toward Jews and Judaism. The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (otherwise known as Nostra Aetate, or Our Time) condemned antisemitism, and renounced previously held views that Jews had been responsible for Jesus’ death and rejected by God. This change by the church was revolutionary; and many Jews, who before would have been reluctant to do so, were now willing to engage with their Catholic counterparts. At the time there was an outburst of interreligious dialogue, and not just with Catholics; Jews and Christians were spending more time together than ever before. The well-worn genre of jokes about “a rabbi, a minister, and a priest walked into a bar” dates back to this time, as new friendships developed across religious lines.

Within Orthodox Judaism, the response was different. In March 1967, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote his cousin, Rabbi Joseph B. Solovetichik, about interreligious dialogue, and outlined his concerns:


Regarding some of the young rabbis, who are trapped in the snare of the Head of the Priests in the Vatican (Pope), which is called the Ecumenical Council, whose intent is to cause all the Jews to convert to their faith, God forbid. The cardinals and the bishops have been ordered by him (the Pope) to establish connections between priests and rabbis through committees in every locale, and also conventions. This act of Satan has succeeded, as a number of rabbis have engaged in such associations on the basis of a horaat heter (a permissive ruling), that, although they may not speak on matters of faith, they may speak regarding social issues. Yet, aside from the fact that nearly every issue becomes one of religion, and the priests will have a different view … it is obvious that any association with them, even on quotidian matters, is a prohibited act, at all times and every instance...

Rabbi Soloveitchik never responded, because he was the one who had granted the permission for interreligious dialogue in the first place.

The specter of interreligious dialogue was actually quite troubling for Rabbi Soloveitchik as well; like Rabbi Feinstein, he had good reason to doubt the sincerity of the Vatican Council. They both had firsthand experience, in Europe, of Christian antisemitism. And they were well aware that inside the Vatican Council, there was serious pushback against issuing Nostra Aetete, and leading priests had offered explicitly antisemitic criticisms of it.

In the early 1960s, Rabbi Soloveitchik had condemned Jewish involvement in the Second Vatican Council; he pointed out that Cardinal Bea, who was in charge of drafting this statement, had said in an interview that he couldn't understand why the Jewish community wouldn’t accept Jesus. Soloveitchik felt that for rabbis to lobby the church for changes “with crooked knee and hat in hand” was an affront to Jews; it was the Catholics who needed to reach out and apologize first.

Yet at the same time, Rabbi Soloveitchik was developing a larger philosophical response to interfaith dialogue, which he outlined in an essay entitled "Confrontation." In it, he relates the theology of interreligious dialogue to a far more profound question: What is a Jew's place in the world? Are Jews meant to be a light unto the nations, and deeply enmeshed in the larger society, or are Jews meant to be a nation that dwells alone, pursuing a unique destiny on their own terms?

This question is directly addressed by this week’s Torah reading. The first Passover Seder in Egypt, which is found in Parshat Bo, is seen by the Talmud as an act of conversion, the point when the Hebrews in Egypt become Jews (Yevamot 46a). It follows then that the Seder rituals carry a foundational message about Jewish identity. But what is that message? The two primary rituals of the Seder have dramatically different meanings, one that emphasizes universalism, the other particularism.

Matzah commemorates how the slaves, rushing out to escape Pharaoh's rule, did not have time to let their dough rise before baking. The Seder is meant to be a classroom of freedom, and Matzah offers a vision of a future free from tyranny.

The lessons of freedom are meant to be put into practice, and not just for other Jews. The rights of strangers are to be protected so that no new Pharaoh can enslave them; one must “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19) Shabbat, the day of rest, also commemorates the Exodus; therefore, every person, even foreign-born servants, are freed from service and work. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the God of freedom asks nothing less of his covenantal people than that they shape a social order of universal freedom, in which the basic requirements of human dignity are available to all.

This quest has transformed the world. Michael Walzer, in his book Exodus and Revolution, points out that virtually every freedom movement has drawn its inspiration from the Exodus story. Revolutionaries such as Cromwell, Savonarola, Calvin, and Knox constantly preached about the Exodus; and the American Revolution, the Civil Rights movement, liberation theologians, and a German peasants revolt, among others, all found their inspiration in the Book of Exodus. The search for freedom begins at the Seder, and the matzah carries a lesson for all of humanity.

The Passover sacrifice, or Korban Pesach, offers a very different message, one of separation. In Egypt, the Jews put the blood of the Korban Pesach on their doors, to receive God’s protection during the plague of the firstborn. Jewish homes were passed over; Egyptian homes were not.

It should be added that the plague of the firstborn symbolically represents the fact that Jews are a chosen people. When Moses is sent to Pharaoh, God informs him that ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son….But you refused to let Israel go, so I will kill your firstborn son.’” (Exodus 4:22-23) The Korban Pesach is directly tied to the notion that the Jewish people are chosen by God.

Particularism becomes part of the laws of the Korban Pesach. "No foreigner may eat of it." (12:43) This sacrifice is a celebration of the covenant between the Jews and God, and only Jews may partake of it.

Although they could not be more different, Matzah and the Korban Pesach sit side by side at the Seder.

One could see this as confusing. But that is the very lesson of the Seder: being universalistic or particularistic is not an either-or proposition. Even if it is paradoxical, Jews must carry both responsibilities.

In Confrontation, Rabbi Soloveitchik offered a similar approach to interreligious dialogue, and explained: We Jews have been burdened with a twofold task: we have to cope with the problem of a double confrontation. We think of ourselves as human beings, sharing the destiny of Adam….and as members of a covenantal community which has preserved its identity under most unfavorable conditions...In this difficult role, we are summoned by God, who revealed himself at both the level of universal creation and that of the private covenant, to undertake a double mission - the universal human and the exclusive covenantal confrontation.

In other words: Jews must both embrace their own unique destiny and love all of humanity at the same time.

In a letter written in late 1964, Rabbi Soloveitchik explains how the philosophy of double confrontation shapes his vision of interreligious dialogue. The unique covenant of the Jews means that dialogue can never extend to religious discussions such as “...Judaic Monotheism and the Christian idea of Trinity,... or the Messianic idea in Judaism and Christianity..” Dialogue on these topics would betray a lack of loyalty to one’s own mission. On the other hand, Jews must embrace their responsibility to all mankind, and engage in “dialogue on significant topics such as war and peace, poverty, freedom, man's moral values, the threat of secularism, technology and human values, civil rights, etc.” Being charged with a double mission demands a unique perspective. 

Undoubtedly, this dual mission is profoundly challenging. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that most Jews have chosen one mission or the other; there are Jewish universalists and Jewish particularists, but few chose to take on both responsibilities. But when properly fulfilled, the double mission is a matter of beauty.

On April 14th, 2000, the New York Times wrote a moving article about an international bone marrow donation. Rabbi Ronald Barry had gotten tested in 1991 to be a bone marrow donor. A few months later, a match came up for him. There is a small risk to one’s life, 1 in 20,000, associated with giving bone marrow. It is a small risk, but it is a risk nonetheless, yet Rabbi Barry decided to be a donor. As his wife Miriam explained: How many people get the opportunity to say, 'I saved a life'? What a thing to take up with you at the end of days!

The recipient turned out to be a 9-year-old boy named Nicola Trevisan, from the village of Tonco in the Asti region of Italy. The families began to correspond, and then in 2000, the Barrys went to visit Italy for a day to meet Nicola’s family.


The Barrys were received like royalty, and taken on a grand tour, including to a nearby synagogue that had been built in 1599. In the guestbook, Nicola’s father wrote: This is the reunion of the Barry family of Brooklyn and the Trevisans of Tonco...


But then there was the matter of religious observance. The Trevisans, who had never met Jews before, took a crash course in Judaism. They brought kosher food in from Milan, and bought new pots, pans, and an oven so the Barrys could cook. The careful preparations even extended to their greetings. The New York Times wrote: Mrs. Trevisan embraced the rabbi's wife, but, having learned that some Orthodox Jewish men will not shake a woman's hand, held back from offering the rabbi hers. Instead, the boy's mother asked Mrs. Barry to hug the rabbi for her.


And that night, at the Tonco city hall, the entire village came out to welcome and thank the Barrys. ''We do what we can,'' the rabbi told his new friends, in a country no longer so foreign to him. ''But the outcome is a blessing from God.''


This was a moment when the universal and particular stood side by side, and the double mission of the Jewish people was on full display. And, if I might add, it was a moment that had been anticipated long before, at the first Seder in Egypt.

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