In the last post reviewing Judith Kornblatt’s Doubly Chosen, I briefly re-sketched her description of the Russian-Jewish Soviet intelligentsia and their discovery of Orthodoxy in the search for freedom and truth. The appeal of the Orthodox Church to these people was, in many if not most cases, mediated by a most remarkable man: Father Alexander Men’ (1935-1990), a charismatic priest and martyr at once profoundly Jewish and profoundly Orthodox.
I won’t rehash Kornblatt’s compassionate and detailed presentation of the man, except for one vignette. According to Father Meerson, who was a close disciple of Father Men’, the latter told him he had had the following reaction to the declaration of Israel’s statehood in 1948:
I was terribly concerned with how I could contribute to the cause of Jewish survival. So I decided something very strange. I decided I’ll become a priest.
Father Men’ was thirteen years old at the time – the age of mitzvah.
If this seems like a counterintuitive decision for a person concerned with Jewish survival, that of Aron Jean-Marie Lustiger(1926-2007), Catholic archbishop of Paris for over two decades and later Cardinal, is even more so. Both Men’ and Lustiger as young boys saw the times when the “Jewish question” was most acute worldwide, when Jews had to gather as a nation and stand by one another, as also the times when Christ most clearly needed to be present among them.
Having spent summers in Germany in the late 1930s with boys his age who were in the Hitler Youth, thirteen-year-old (again that number!) Aron Lustiger, born in France of Polish immigrant parents, knew before many adults what Nazism would entail. It was in light of this profound awareness of the suffering about to befall the Jewish people that Lustiger sought baptism into the Catholic church and resolved to become a priest.
“It was in Germany,” Lustiger told Israeli journalists in 1981, “that I guessed why God has committed himself to the Jews because of the Messiah. It is the opposite of Gott Mit Uns on [Nazi] soldiers’ belts.” Only in Christ could the history of Israel – small as the mustard seed in His parable, humiliated and persecuted – be seen as “the history of salvation, as opposed to the history of damnation that the war was displaying at the time.”
As for Father Men’, Father Meerson writes:
Men’ thought that if Jesus is the Messiah of Israel, the time of the people of Israel to acknowledge Him as such will eventually come. The emergence of the Jewish state was a sign. Living in diaspora, the Jews had to preserve their identity… With the restoration of the Jewish state, the danger of assimilation would eventually disappear. The people, liberated internally from the fear of losing their national identity, would become ready to look at what Men’ considered the earliest Jewish legacy – the New Testament. At this point the need for Jewish priests and preachers of the Gospel would be felt.
For Lustiger, the Shoah made it both more necessary and more possible than ever for Israel to see itself in its suffering yet triumphant Messiah. For Men’, it was the triumph of Israel in its newly regained nation that called for preparations for the Messiah’s triumphant return.
(Incidentally, Lustiger shared Father Men’s view that an Israeli identity was conducive to Jewish openness to Christ in a way that a Jewish identity in the diaspora could not be. I was surprised and encouraged that my earlier post on this topic turns out to have echoed the same sentiment, however poorly.)
Note: My impressions of Lustiger’s conversion are based on the first of several interviews with him collected in this little book, which I highly recommend.