JERUSALEM–The Election of Israel is in the news again, with the report of a Vatican Commission that affirms the eternal validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. The Western elite long ago dismissed the subject as superstition. The vast majority of American Jews, think Election is a Jewish folk-belief like dybbuks or the Golem. (By contrast, 70% of Israeli Jews believe that the Jews are God’s chosen people).
The Western elite wants people to act rationally and considers all supernatural claims an affront to rationality. The trouble is that people aren’t rational (neither is the Western elite, but that’s another story). We want to live forever or we don’t want to live at all. When we lose faith, we stop reproducing. There might be a stray philosopher here and there so convinced of the immortality of the spirit as to despite death itself, as Socrates claimed to do (although I have my doubts even about him). We can’t live forever, to be sure, but we can take part in a culture that links our ancestors and descendants in an immortal chain.
That is why the Election of Israel remains the most important issue in the Western world today. Billions of non-Jews believe that God chose Israel: most of one-and-a-quarter billion Catholics, and most of a billion or so evangelicals, charismatics and Pentecostals. To these I would add some 1.3 billion Muslims, who do not believe but rather fear that Israel might have been chosen after all. (Chinese and Indians, whose civilization is older than Abraham, have scant interest in the matter).
Israel remains the center of the Western world because every human hope for immortality West of the Indus measures itself against the biblical God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 17:7) of an “eternal covenant” with his descendants. Until then no people thought of itself as eternal. Even the pagan gods were not eternal, although they had greater than mortal lie spans. Gilgamesh of Babylon sought eternal life and learned that his quest was futile. Yet Abraham of Ur of the Chaldees receives this promise unsolicited as an inexplicable act of love from the Maker of Heaven.
With Abraham’s promise appears the hope of eternal life among all the peoples of the world. The great Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod, who died Dec. 18, explained that God’s choice of Abraham and his descendants was a first love but not an exclusive one. On the contrary, he wrote, “the election of Israel flows from the fatherhood that extends to all created in God’s image, (and) we find ourselves tied to all men in brotherhood … when man contemplates this mystery, that the Eternal One, the creator of heaven and earth, chose to become the father of his creatures instead of remaining self-sufficient unto himself, as is the Absolute of the philosophers, there wells up in man that praise that has become so rare yet remains so natural.”
“Christianity,” Wyschogrod wrote, “expresses the longing of those not included in the Covenant with Israel for election by the God of Israel.” It is churlish of Jews to look down on other peoples’ hope for election—provided that this hope doesn’t require the elimination of the Jews. Christians also hope to live forever, as adopted children of Israel rather than as members of the ragtag assortment of tribes and nations that entered the Church. The self-sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross, Catholics believe, requited the sin of their birth as pagans, and no-one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven except through Jesus’ mediation—except, mysteriously, the Jews, the Vatican avers.
Wyschogrod observed wryly that God can make a covenant with whomever he wants, including (for example) the Christians. Without accepting Christian theology, I wish my Christian friends a very merry Christmas.
“That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery,” wrote the Vatican commission. What this means in plain English is that Christian hope for eternal life presupposes God’s preferential love for Israel, so God’s promise to Christians cannot be valid if his eternal covenant with the Jews is invalid—even if Christians cannot abandon the belief that Jesus is the sole road to salvation without ceasing to be Christian:
It is the belief of the Church that Christ is the Savior for all. There cannot be two ways of salvation, therefore, since Christ is also the Redeemer of the Jews in addition to the Gentiles. Here we confront the mystery of God’s work, which is not a matter of missionary efforts to convert Jews, but rather the expectation that the Lord will bring about the hour when we will all be united, “when all peoples will call on God with one voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder’ ” (“Nostra aetate”, No.4).
Contrary to some press reports, the Vatican Commission did not abandon the hope of converting the Jews to Christianity, but simply said that this will require divine intervention at some future time. There is nothing new in the recent report. Because the Church considers itself to be Israel, and also acknowledges that the Jewish people are part of Israel, it wants the two wings of Israel to be united as an eschatological hope. That was the upshot of the 2008 controversy over the revised Latin Easter liturgy which included prayers for the eventual conversion of the Jews.
The conversion problem strikes a raw nerve among Jews because of forced conversions in the past of which the most notorious was the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. That point is moot. The Church is in decline and has enough problems getting notional Catholics in the door, let alone converts. There is a much bigger problem between the Church and the Jews, which stems from their radically different ideas of what it means to be Israel.
The Catholic Church did terrible harm to the Jews last year when the Vatican recognized a Palestinian State in advance of bilateral peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. It did so when not only the United States but also Germany and many other Western countries refused to do so, for an obvious reason: the Palestinian leadership wants to achieve statehood without an agreement to a final cessation of hostilities and recognition that the Jewish State has a right to exist. Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert separately offered Yassir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas a state comprising 95% of the West Bank and half of Jerusalem. PA President Abbas recently declared that he had rejected Olmert’s 2008 offer of statehood “out of hand.” Abbas did not try to negotiate a better deal; he rejected any deal “out of hand” that recognized Israel. That is because a large majority of Palestinian Arabs cannot abide the thought of a permanent Jewish presence in its historic homeland.
To achieve statehood without a final settlement would make a Palestinian state another platform for rocket and terror attacks against Israel, like South Lebanon and Gaza. That is how the Palestinians believe they can destroy Israel. The Vatican’s recognition of “Palestine” advanced that agenda and put Jewish lives at risk. That in my view is a far worse offense than Pius XII’s reticence about criticizing Hitler. Catholics can try to convert me all day long. I don’t care. We Jews had a covenant with the Maker of Heaven for 1,300 years before Jesus of Nazareth was born. We’re founding partners. Even if Jesus turned out to be the boss’s son (which I don’t believe), we have irrevocable rights. But the recognition of a “State of Palestine” does real, tangible damage: it legitimizes the Palestinian obsession with the end of a Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael.
Yet I do not think Pope Francis signed this agreement with the slightest rancor against the Jews. Christians understand Israel as a spiritual entity: they style themselves the Israel of the spirit rather than the Israel of the flesh. To Jews, “Israel of the spirit” is an oxymoron, for Judaism is not simply a set of beliefs, but the national life of the people of Israel. Jewish nationhood and Jewish religion are inseparable; not in vain did we pray thrice daily to return to Zion after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Judaism is now predominantly an Israeli rather than a diaspora religion, and if current trends continue, it will be overwhelmingly Israeli a generation from now.
That is what Wyschogrod tried to teach Christians: Judaism is a religion of the body, an effort to make the physical people of Israel holy so that they might be a vessel for God’s indwelling (Shekhinah) on earth. To speak of God’s covenant with Israel while undermining the Jewish State, as the Church has done, bespeaks not so much hypocrisy as a profound theological confusion. The evangelicals know better and give their support to the State of Israel and the actual people of Israel. In that respect, the Vatican’s discussion of the covenant abstracted from the matter of the State of Israel disappoints intellectually as well as practically. Mystery, schmystery: The Church could do better, as I argued in a 2008 essay (“Zionism for Christians”) for the (mainly) Catholic journal First Things.
The Church misunderstands Islam as deeply as it misunderstands Judaism. Christians cannot affirm God’s promise to them without affirming God’s promise to the Jews. But Islam cannot affirm its own legitimacy without denying God’s promise to the Jews (as well as to the Christians). The view that the Hebrew Bible was a later forgery did not originate with modern “Higher Criticism” but with the 10th-century Islamic authority Ibn Hazm, who claimed that the Torah is a post-Exilic concoction by the scribe Ezra. If the Hebrew Scriptures were authentic, there was no need for a new revelation—except perhaps to make Arabs a new Chosen People in place of the Jews.
Islam is fragile. Unlike Judaism and Christianity, it hasn’t survived the withering criticism of the Bible critics, who cannot prove after centuries of effort that Jesus of Nazareth did not say what the Gospels attribute to him, or that Moses did not receive the Torah from heaven at Mt. Sinai. On the contrary: biblical archaeology has provided exhaustive evidence of David’s kingdom of 3,000 years ago. The origins of Islam, by contrast, are so murky that a scholarly case can be made that the historical Mohammed never existed.
It is career suicide (and perhaps actual suicide) to raise such issues in today’s universities. Scholars can challenge Christian and Jewish beliefs, but not Muslim beliefs. On the contrary: it is popular in the Muslim world to deny any Jewish connection to the land of Israel, which is self-imposed schizophrenia. An unthinkable, unbearable thought lurks in the heart of Islam, namely that the return of the Jews to Zion might validate the prophecies of the Jews at the expense of those of the Muslims. That is why the living presence of the Jewish people in their historic homeland and capital city is an existential threat to Muslim identity.
Very large numbers of Muslims (and a great majority of Palestinian Arabs) believe that Israel has nefarious designs on the Al-Aksa mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This is delusional, but the violent emotions that erupt in response to the slightest Jewish presence on the Temple Mount betray the deep insecurity of Muslims at the return of the Jewish people to Zion. That is why the Palestinians won’t take “Yes” for an answer with Israel. The Muslim world first fell behind Europe, and then fell behind Asia. Jewish success is a humiliation too great for many Muslims (and most Palestinian Arabs) to bear. A change in prospects for Middle East peace would require a profound change in Muslim sentiment, and that will not come quickly.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.
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