Just because I’m thinking about this today, I’ll take a detour for a couple of days from the Israel theme. Some of the below might be (or might not be?) controversial to both Jews and Orthodox Christians, and perhaps some Catholics as well. If you do find it controversial, I would be grateful if you chose to share your thoughts either directly with me or as a comment.
A couple of years ago I spent nine months in Western Ukraine, working at the Ukrainian Catholic University. Though an Orthodox Christian by choice (including the explicit choice not to become Roman Catholic, which was my other serious alternative), I worshipped regularly and enthusiastically with the University’s Byzantine Catholic community; I came to love those people and admire their piety, and bought into a fair chunk of their nationalist narrative. I also came to see their Eastern Catholic Church as they see it: as an ecumenical bridge between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, rejecting neither, and working and praying for the unity of the two.
That is not a typically Orthodox position; Orthodox believers are more likely to lament the existence of Byzantine Catholicism as a deceptive distraction from the real differences between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and therefore an obstacle either to their thoughtful resolution or to a definitive affirmation of Orthodoxy. But here is why I came to think the way I do. The Ukrainian Church has always been wedged, geographically and spiritually, in the middle of the battle – over land, souls, and doctrinal purity – between Rome and Constantinople, and later Moscow. The Great Schism, from the Ukrainian perspective, was a fight between the big dogs in the neighborhood. Taking a side in this fight was a painful choice forced upon the Western Ukrainian community from the outside, by both Rome and the Orthodox world; not surprisingly, their bishops resisted it, staying in communion with both centers of Christianity as long as they could get away with it. When the alternatives have been defined by those outside one’s community in the course of their own conflict, one can take a stand if one must, but it is impossible to make a meaningful choice about one’s identity.
I recognize that some people will respond to this by saying that the theological differences between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy are significant, and that therefore these two alternatives are not merely the result of a conflict between entities outside of Ukraine – rather, they reflect a conflict of values, on which Ukrainians must take a stance. Perhaps that is so. The fact remains, however, that from the Ukrainian perspective the dichotomy was forced upon them: because they see a way to reconcile the denominational conflict (regardless of whether they are right about it), and because both Orthodox worship and connection with the West and the Western Church are historically part of their identity as a Christian people.
I recently found myself thinking of the Ukrainians’ situation in terms of that of children of divorce, inspired largely by Elizabeth Marquardt’s book, Between Two Worlds. Marquardt points out that a child whose parents could not keep their marriage together finds himself having to do something utterly unnatural for a child: either choose a parent or continually find ways to reconcile the two parents’ increasingly different worlds.
The Christian Jew must straddle an even greater divide than the Great Schism, and thus finds himself in a position in which he can fruitfully learn from the Ukrainian Catholic (frankly, regardless of whether my analysis of the latter’s predicament is correct). After Jesus died and was resurrected, some Jews chose to believe in Him. Others did not. With the acceptance of the Gentiles into the Church, the Jews who did not accept Christ became the official representatives of Judaism, which increasingly defined itself against Christianity. The rabbinical establishment decided that there was no room for Christians among the Jewish people. It thus subsumed the dichotomy of Jew versus Christian, which is how the Jewish convert sees the two sides, under the dichotomy of Jew (or Hebrew) versus Gentile – which is NOT how the Jewish convert sees the two sides. The wisdom and the consequences of forcing Hebrew Christians into this false choice are similar to those of forcing the Ukrainian to choose between his Orthodox identity as a worshipper and his Catholic identity as a communicant.
The times when we must, and can, meaningfully take a stand are when the choice is between good and evil. Most choices are not like that, and certainly not the choice between one’s ethnic heritage and one’s faith.