The Eternal Significance of the Jew

(I’ve just read Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.  Consider this a creative reflection on his wonderful book)

The Church has been struggling internally against anti-Semitism since the time of Marcion.  The dualism that periodically surfaces in our history courts it–from “Matter Is Evil” to “Creator Is Evil,” it is a short jump to tar that Creator’s Chosen People.  Marcion’s “theoretical anti-Semitism” found practical cause in the splitting of the synagogue and the rancor of a divided family; later forms found their blood from the more insidious fear of Other.  An interesting thought–as it has become more bloodless, it has become more appalling.  Though I suppose I need to account for the wealth and banking angle that drives some people; economic hardship and class envy is anything but bloodless.

Marcion got as far as he did by being enormously selective in his use of the New Testament canon (I take him as the first deviant, the reaction against him a sign that the canon is already largely formed).  Overemphasis on the writings of St. Paul is his major tool, and it shows a weakness in the Apostle’s writings (or rather, our understanding of them)–St. Paul’s references to “The Law” are not always clear and often confusing.  Marcion was the first but by no means the last to take “The Law” as meaning everything from Adam to the Baptist, and to overlook all references to that Law as good and necessary.

A neighborhood friend put me in mind of this New Testament challenge when he (and later his wife) asked my opinion on a book about marriage.  It was one of those ubiquitous Christian couples counseling books, not at all my cup of tea, and doubly perplexing for my Jewish friend.  The question at hand was the way the author of that book made mention of Moses as the speaker of Deuteronomy.  Was this a common thing in Christianity, to make Moses the speaker instead of God?

One of the solutions to the problem of “The Law” in St. Paul runs exactly along these lines.  Whereas God gave the Law in Exodus, after the sin of Israel at Beth Peor that triggers the second law, Moses is the primary speaker and lawgiver.  Old Testament Humor: God tells Moses that he needs to deal with his people because He has had enough.  On that basis Deuteronomy is taken as a provisional and self-retiring addition to the good and necessary law that God had already given.  It is the dramatic finale to a process that runs throughout the Pentateuch: Israel sins, God adds new laws.  You could have had 10 but noooo, you screwed up so much that you end with 613.

When St. Paul speaks of “The Law” as a force of death and condemnation, whose time has mercifully passed with the death and resurrection of Jesus, it is Deuteronomy (so goes this general account) that he has in mind.  The ambivalence in St. Paul reflects a deeper ambivalence in the law itself, which was not handed to the Israelites as One Thing from the beginning.  The title of that fifth book, Deuteronomy, turns out to be highly significant.  Nor is St. Paul alone in this–Christ Himself, in speaking of divorce in St. Matthew’s gospel, names Moses as the giver of the divorce law found in…Deuteronomy.

Marcion’s extreme reaction to Judaism is by no means representative of the whole Church.  He was, after all, condemned a heretic!  The resolution of Judaism and Catholicism into two religions is a drawn-out affair that varies considerably with respect to place and time.  It is no mere theological nicety, but a biological and sociological fact as well, that the two are originally one family that divides over the “Jesus Question.”  Like all family disputes it gets ugly.  But “Jesus was a Jew” is not just a slogan, and this is why the Church has spilled so much ink on explaining how she uniquely relates to Judaism.

I dare not whitewash the history of very real anti-Semitism in Catholic history.  However, I think the gravity of those nefarious periods often attracts and holds the gaze of memory disproportionately.  We too easily overlook the much more positive eras of Catholic-Jewish relations, or re-define those people or periods as exceptions.  And perhaps that is all they are, but I think perhaps not.  The writings of St. Anselm, for example, show a generous spirit toward Judaism.  Does that make him a famous exception and magnify his sanctity?  Does he nobly transcend his “obviously” anti-Semitic (because medieval) culture?  Or is he perhaps a product of his culture, formed by a pro-Jewish spirit to which we are blind?  Is he evidence that 11th century England is not so anti-Semitic, or at least not so uniformly anti-Semitic, as we tend to think?  I can’t help but embrace a studied agnosticism and resist labeling him as an exception or outlier.

All of which is to say that our history together is complicated.  The Catholic-Jewish Question is fundamental, born in our Great High Priest and Covenant Mediator Himself.  St. Paul’s cri de coeur in his letter to the Romans is still the essential, unresolved treatise to which Nostra Aetate can only be a clarifying footnote (an important one, but a footnote no less).

And now we come to Walter Miller’s masterpiece, A Canticle For Leibowitz.  One of the fascinating elements of this novel is the way Miller treats the eternal significance of the Jew.  It is his special grace–bred in his bones by God’s irrevocable vocation–to endure and to await the Messiah.  History alone is enough to show us the first, for Judaism’s survival is in its own way as miraculous as the Church’s.  Can there be any doubt but that they will still be with us on the trumpet’s day, as proud of their ancient portion as ever?  Of course the Jew miraculously survives Miller’s Flame Deluge, wanders the wastes, and chameleon-like endures into our skiffy future.  But no, not a chameleon–quite recognizable, if we but look, if only for that smirk!

To the undeniable perma-resilience of Judaism Miller adds a startling observation: the world needs a vigilant skeptic to await the Messiah.  Why?  A surprising convergence for the Jew and the Catholic!  Miller’s cantankerous, mysterious Jew waits for and rejects every false messiah the world has to offer.  His indefatigable skepticism is justified.  Until the last day, this nay-crier will be inerrant in his repudiation of the Caesars, Mammons, and Scientists of history.  Christ Himself warns us of the apocalyptic misleaders; God’s Chosen People safeguard the world–or at least those who will listen–by skewering these pretenders again and again.  In the last lines of chapter twenty Benjamin, the old hermit Jew, after expressing keen interest in meeting the great scholar of the day, finally has his chance:

Benjamin kneaded the arm while he stared hopefully into the scholar’s eyes.

His face clouded.  The glow died.  He dropped the arm.  A great keening sigh came from the dry old lungs as hope vanished.  The eternally knowing smirk of the Old Jew of the Mountain returned to his face.  He turned to the community, spread his hands, shrugged eloquently. [Ed.: asyndeton!]

“It’s still not Him,” he told them sourly, then hobbled away.

That some Jews did not recognize Him in his first guise does not invalidate the ongoing mission of their children.  Catholics and Jews await the same One–divided for a time, they will embrace Him together on the last day and be united in His gathering embrace.  On that day there will be no mistaking Him by anyone.  But in the meantime, wry skepticism of all the world’s empty promises.  And in this the Jew is a master.

But one last twist: that some Jews did not recognize Him in His first guise is why their children will on the last day.  For Miller’s Jew is Lazarus–friend of Christ, risen from the dead by His voice, never to die again.  In each false messiah he looks for the face of that old friend, awaiting no vague messianic abstraction but rather Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary, a face he knows as no one else can.  This is the mysterious source of the Jew’s inerrancy–God turning that first rejection into a perpetual good for the rest of humanity.  And when again he beholds the face of that Friend, there will be tears of joy, and the end of the ages…and a rueful admission.  “Yeah, I screwed that one up, didn’t I?”

Objection: this romantic notion of Lazarus is the role of the Church, not a preternaturally preserved Jew (or Jewish people).  No doubt Miller takes poetic license here–Lazarus is the brother of two disciples, Martha and Mary, after all.  That by itself is no overreach: Christ Himself told us that faith in Him would divide families, and a hard-headed brother rounds out that family beautifully.  But beyond that, the inerrant memory of the One Who Came?  This is to pre-empt the Church Christ founded, is it not?

Reply: the Church knows that divine face now, glorified and eternal.  She recognizes Him even now as her animating principle, with her supernatural senses, and makes Him present to the world in her members.  Miller’s flight of fancy does not require that the Jew and the Church be in the same standing.  But they are not exclusive either, and St. Paul’s letter to the Romans requires something at least like this.  And Miller is only cashing in on obvious dualities: grace and nature, Eve and Adam, eternity and time.  The Jew does in the negative what the Church does in the positive.  And while it is Christ Himself who is the New Adam, there is a fittingness to His flesh–His genetic flesh–searching for Him through time.  For God does not discard His people.

There is a danger to creating of the Jew a romantic ideal and grave risk of insult to fitting them into an interpretive framework, declaring “This is what you mean.”  As unavoidable as this may be for the Catholic, it is no less a risk and skates within easy reach of theological error.  Proclaiming the Gospel on this point must never lose sight of the Jew as a true older brother, and must not silence his voice of self-understanding.  But this is a tangle complicated by centuries of ugly history and the wages of sin.  Small wonder avoidance and cheap solutions so often prevail.

I dislike simple or treacly answers on principle, but in the face of this discouraging conflict there can only be peace through love–a robust, familial love stronger than the hurts that divide.  I do not know what resolution would look like, and St. Paul doesn’t really seem to either; it is eschatological, at the horizon of history and of our individual lives.  Short of this, there is only a love over the shapeless void.  This loving ignorance–call it a variation on St. Augustine’s docta ignorantia–finds artistic expression in one of Miller’s most moving scenes in the book.

In chapter sixteen, Dom Paulo, abbot of the monastery, visits with the old hermit Jew–old since even Paulo was a novice, and Paulo is now very near the end of his life.  While they fence and spar over current events and their complicated relationship, they come upon the deep waters where Catholic and Jew meet:

Benjamin shrugged eloquently.  “Difference, secular scholars,” he echoed, tossing out the words like discarded apple pits.  “I have been called a ‘secular scholar’ at various times by certain people, and sometimes I’ve been staked, stoned, and burned for it.”

“Why, you never–” The priest stopped, frowning sharply.  That madness again.  Benjamin was peering at him suspiciously , and his smile had gone cold.  Now, thought the abbot, he’s looking at me as if I were one of Them–whatever formless “Them” it was that drove him here to solitude.  Staked, stoned, and burned?  Or did his “I” mean “We” as in “I, my people”?

“Benjamin–I am Paulo.  Torquemada is dead.  I was born seventy-odd years ago, and pretty soon I’ll die.  I have loved you, old man, and when you look at me, I wish you would see Paulo of Pecos and no other.”

Benjamin wavered for a moment.  His eyes became moist.  “I sometimes–forget–“

“And sometimes you forget that Benjamin is only Benjamin, and not all of Israel.”

“Never!” snapped the hermit, eyes blazing again.

A powerful book on many counts, and this by no means exhausts my interest in it.  But as someone who teaches Catholic theology to Jewish students, this thread moved me tremendously.

Read more books.


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