Sibling Rivalries

The Promise
Jean-Marie Lustiger
Eerdmans, $18, 177 pp.

The Catholic Church and the Jewish People
Recent Reflections from Rome
Edited by Philip A. Cunningham, Norbert J. Hofmann, and Joseph Sievers
Fordham University Press, $50, 256 pp.


Nothing in Italy starts on time. Except, apparently, conference sessions at the Pontifical Gregorian University. I scanned the packed auditorium from the doorway. All the good seats (in the back) were already taken, and the best free seat I could find was next to an old priest in the front row. It was available because no one but a self-assured young American would presume to sit next to Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. I didn’t know it was he, though. How could I, when he wasn’t wearing his scarlet zucchetto?

The occasion was a fortieth-anniversary conference on Nostra aetate and interreligious dialogue, and Lustiger was a distinguished guest. To many Christians (and some Jews), Lustiger was a source and guarantor of rapprochement between these two religions during the long pontificate of John Paul II. In his later years, he became a regular speaker on the topic, often at conferences of Catholic and Jewish leaders. He was rightly commended for promoting a penitential attitude among church officials concerning the church’s failures during the Shoah. But to many Jews (and some Christians), Lustiger was a faulty or even false symbol of Jewish-Christian relations. The late archbishop of Paris was a convert.

In The Promise, Lustiger’s posthumous book, he engages the broad topic of Jewish-Christian relations from his unique position as ethnic Jew, convert to Christianity, survivor of World War II, archbishop, and confidant of the pope. From where he sat—whether the cathedra of Notre Dame or a bench at Auschwitz, where his mother died—the religious identities commonly called “Jew” and “Christian” were not so easily distinguished. One wonders, when he said Kaddish for his father, did he remove the zucchetto from his head and place a kippah there instead? Or did one skullcap do double-duty?

The book’s two parts are both oriented around Jewish-Christian relations, but their tones are vastly different. The first (and main) part collects and translates a series of retreat talks Lustiger offered in 1979 to the nuns of a French convent. They had invited him to help them “pray and reflect on the mystery of Israel,” and he responded by offering passionate remarks on the Gospel of Matthew that weaved a web of themes: Christians and Israel (that is, God’s people, not the modern state); prophecies and fulfillment; the relationship of the Old and New Testaments; and the Shoah, about which silence had only just begun to be broken in France.

Stuck at the center of this web was Lustiger himself. How could he not speak about Israel, Christianity, and the Shoah? If he could not, who could? During the first part of The Promise, Lustiger interfuses the terms of Judaism and Christianity in his prayerful speech. For example, he often refers to election, covenant, and idolatry in ways adherents of both religions understand. Yet his meditations are undeniably Christian, as Christ’s Passion remains the apex of his talks and of God’s revelation to humanity.

The memory of the Shoah figures prominently throughout the series of talks. In hindsight, he described them as “a meditation of the divine Word as it resonates in the silence of the abyss” of the Shoah. The most poignant moment is his interpretation of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, as read through the memory of the death camps. Herod’s pagan kingdom becomes the Third Reich, Rachel’s weeping becomes Elie Wiesel’s horror, and the children of Bethlehem become those of Auschwitz. In the crux of these memories, “we can thus see—in a way which may be scandalous and terrifying for our sensibilities—the prophetic announcement of the nature of all sin, which is always a refusal of election, a refusal of grace, a refusal of God, a compromise with the homicidal tendencies in man’s heart.”

The second part of the book departs from the prayerful, spontaneous, and adventurous tone of the first. It compiles Lustiger’s later speeches (1995–2002) to Jewish groups in Israel, France, Belgium, and the United States. For the most part, he summarizes the achievements and problems of Jewish-Christian relations in the present day, and the general content would be of limited relevance if not spoken by Lustiger. But one topic, which can be traced throughout these speeches, does distinguish his viewpoint from many others. Lustiger wants Israel to “rediscover its call to universality.”

I was immediately skeptical of this theme. Christians have often set up a false dichotomy pitting ethnocentric Judaism against universalistic Christianity. In Lustiger’s view, does Judaism’s “rediscovering its universality” mean “becoming more like Christianity”? When he encourages a universalistic Judaism, while also claiming that Christianity is God’s vehicle to bring “light to the goyim,” he leaves me confused about his understanding of the two religions. (I am not left confused, however, about how Lustiger became such a controversial figure: he was a convert from Judaism to Christianity advising the world’s Jewish leaders about how to be Jewish! Insert chutzpah joke here.) Moreover, ethnocentrism is no stranger to Christianity, a fact Lustiger knew all too well. Consider how French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre—who was later excommunicated—lamented the appointment of Lustiger as archbishop of Paris, saying the symbolic city would be led by “someone who is not truly of French origin.” Quel dommage! And there is also universalism in Judaism, depending on what one means by it. Modern Judaism has produced volumes of careful analysis of the subject. However, for Lustiger, Jewish “universality” means that “the difference between Israel and the nations is not determined by ethnic or cultural factors,” and that Israel’s particular revelation is for “the salvation of all nations.” On these points, Jewish leaders can be forgiven if they experience déjà vu. Ancient Jews already heard (and mostly rejected) this message from the apostle Paul. And, frankly, Paul said it better.

In short, Lustiger’s preaching about the mystery of Israel (part 1 of the book) surpasses his argumentation about Jewish-Christian relations (part 2). For precise and erudite examples of scholarly argumentation on Jewish-Christian relations, one can turn instead to The Catholic Church and the Jewish People, a set of historical and theological essays compiled from conferences like the one mentioned above. (See also recent essays in Commonweal: “A Nearness in Difference,” January 13, 2006, and “Uncharted Waters,” July 14, 2006.) In addition to essays, the book offers a useful set of primary-source appendices, such as English translations of the drafts leading up to Nostra aetate at Vatican II, available here for the first time.

The historical essays address epochal flashpoints of Jewish-Christian relations, from second-century polemics to medieval blood libels to the Shoah. Especially welcome are the “insider” accounts of formal Catholic-Jewish relations during the past fifty years, many of which come from Italian scholars and religious leaders not usually heard in American discussions of these issues. When combined with Cardinal Edward Cassidy’s history of the same events (see Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue), a reader gains a colorful image of the personalities shaping the public dialogue. How profitable it is to read the cautious stance of Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, chief rabbi of Rome, who rightly labels the Christian theology of Judaism as “rather hazy.” He also fears the “aggressive potential” that can be hidden in Christian extensions of dialogue, asking—perhaps with Lustiger in mind—“is the Jew who converts to Christianity a model of dialogue or its negation?”

The theological essays are incisive. Some are audaciously constructive, such as Archbishop Bruno Forte’s presentation of the “messianic character” of both Judaism and Christianity. Many of the authors rely on the recent document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2001), to articulate a new understanding of Christian messianism, one which reemphasizes its unfulfilled aspect. This document, unknown to most Christians, is now starting to be incorporated into Catholic theological thinking about Judaism. For both historians and theologians, The Catholic Church and the Jewish People is a careful assessment of the past and a rich resource for moving forward.

The essays do not explicitly mention Cardinal Lustiger, and it remains to be seen whether The Promise will also be one of the resources for moving forward. But even if Lustiger’s argumentation is trumped by more precise work from other scholars, his life of prayer—on display in the first part of his book—can still serve as a model. When I read his talks on the “mystery of Israel” like prayers, the paradoxes of his relationship to Judaism hold a productive tension. In prayer, as in poetry, a contradiction unresolved can be the site of revelation. One of his talks concludes that Christians “share in Israel’s hope while we proclaim its fulfillment.” How can that be? Can Christians share a hope and proclaim it already fulfilled? Lustiger could, and the rest of us can pray for understanding.


Related: Le Bulldozer, by Steven Englund

Published in the 2008-01-18 issue: 

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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