Jewish Identity II: The Election Factor

In the last post I began a review of Fr. Elias Friedman’s Jewish Identity. Here I will follow up on the questions raised at the end of that post: What is the essence of Jewishness (the secret sauce, if you will), and what is the role of the Jewish community in Jewish identity? For Fr. Friedman, these questions are inseparable.

Having shown secular Zionist attempts to define Jewishness to be vague and inherently unsatisfying, Fr. Friedman proposes his own analysis. It is not of much use to the secularists who originally undertook to understand Jewish identity in separation from the God of Israel; but it clarifies matters significantly for the Christian convert.

Using the examples of communities whose membership within Jewry is in question (Samaritans, Karaites, Marranos, Falashas, etc.), Fr. Friedman argues for a “two-factor” structure of Jewish identity: participation in God’s Election of Israel and adherence to Judaism – Mosaic Judaism prior to the Resurrection of Christ, then rabbinical Judaism. Those partaking only of the first factor he terms Israelites or Hebrews. This modifier remains relevant for individuals who convert, while the term “Jewish-Christian” is relegated refer to Judaizing sects of Christianity.

In what ways is the Election factor manifest? Fr. Friedman outlines several of its consequences, or corollaries as he terms them. First, the Election is irrevocable (a claim he goes on to defend against objections in further chapters). It is the source of the people of Israel and of its unity. Furthermore, “from the Election flows a special providence which will govern the history of Israel until the end of time;” Fr. Friedman believes that this can be not only postulated but deduced  by studying Israel’s history. Most crucially:

The final aim of the Election is the vocation of Israel to bear collective witness to the Messiah. It will be compelled to do so in every phase of its history, positive or negatively, in ways varying with its “stand toward salvation”…

It is important to emphasize that Fr. Friedman does not see the Election factor strictly as a matter of heredity or blood. He rejects, for instance, the idea that the descendants of Spain’s Marranos who were absorbed into Catholic society are Israelites. He writes:

A person is born an Israelite in the sense of possessing at birth an innate quality which we call the ‘election factor.’ The quality is not hereditary. It is personal. It results from a transcendental relation between the person and the divine will, mediated by the community of the elect.

The argument for this view is rooted in Fr. Friedman’s conviction of the collective nature of the original Election. “The Election of Abraham should be distinguished from the election of grace,” he writes, “The first is collective, the second personal.” He quotes also Fr. Kurt Hruby: “The divine election is directed to the people as such, insofar as it is a collectivity.”

Fr. Friedman’s audience on this point is not just the convert Jew: it is also, and perhaps primarily, the Christian missionary. He writes: “The irrevocability of the Election authorizes one to reject the policy of the active proselytizing of Israelites in circumstances which expose their specific identity and that of their descendants to deterioration and loss.” Christian missionaries to the Jews, he believes, have historically insisted on and facilitated the cultural assimilation of convert Jews into the Gentile milieu. They have failed to consider and understand the importance of the community to Jewish identity, and hence the reason why Jews, including the leadership of the state of Israel, despise and resist their activities. This ignorance, Fr. Friedman believes, is inexcusable and must be remedied. He goes so far as to suggest that God may have protected rabbinical Judaism and prevented Christian attempts to proselytize the Jews from reaching significant success precisely in order to preserve Jewish community.

Preservation of Jewish collective identity is absolutely essential for Fr. Friedman – in no small part because it means that the vocation of Israel, which is fundamentally linked to its Election, can only be carried out collectively. Formation of the Association of Hebrew Catholics was Fr. Friedman’s key initiative for creating Israelite community within the Church.

This view is highly valuable, in my opinion, for two main reasons. First, Fr. Friedman competently analyzes and provides a theological explanation for the crucial role that Jewish community plays in Jewish psychology. Second, he shifts the discussion for the Christian convert from the problematics of Jewish identity to its vocation.

Yet an important question remains. If Jewish collective witness is so critical that it was worth the preservation of Rabbinism, why was the original Hebrew Church not preserved, leaving assimilation as the only option for Jewish converts to Christianity for most of the Christian era?  Fr. Friedman hints that the issue may have been its Judaizing tendencies, as well as “hostility of Christian Gentiles and sectarianism from within;” but he does not provide much detail, and the book of Acts only partially supports this interpretation. A better answer is needed if the convert Jew is to invest his energies into building an Israelite Christian community within the Church.

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About The Groom's Family

I was born in Soviet Russia and grew up in Israel. I was baptized Orthodox Christian in 2006. Today my husband and I live in Northern Virginia. I would love to hear from you, so please leave a comment!
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15 Responses to Jewish Identity II: The Election Factor

  1. Bill Burdick says:

    (Sorry I haven’t commented in so long!)

    This is great stuff! It sounds like he’s really on to something — I need to read this book. It sounds like some valuable clues to the mysterious distinction between the Church and the Jews.

  2. @Bill – the book is absolutely worth reading!

  3. Rueben says:

    There is something to be said concerning the End of this Age and what is the plan of God for the Temple System that is inevitably going to be restated. This matter may contain part of the answer to why God may have protected Rabbinical Judaism, if this is true many question that have been with us for the past few hundred years may find some clarity.

  4. Athol says:

    I regard to the Marranos- Judaism itself accepted Marranos as Jews without a conversion ceremony if they had Jewish ancestry back to 10 generations- this was because they practiced endogamy (only marrying other Marranos) and the Spanish kept good genealogical records. In Eastern Europe it was only back 3 or 4 generations due to intermarriage and poor records.

    • I think Fr. Friedman was referring to those Marranos who genuinely became Catholic and assimilated… but yes, I also had heard that they practiced strict endogamy, and was surprised by his claim (which he makes a few times over) that they cannot be considered Israelites.

  5. Paul Donohue says:

    I read Fr. Friedman’s book some time ago. My recollection is that his idea is that all Jews are Hebrews regardless of their beliefs and therefore if a Jew converts to another religion he/she still remains a Hebrew, and as a Hebrew remains part of the collective Hebrew people and the promises of God to that people even if he/she ceases to follow Moses sans Jesus, that is ceases to be a religious rabbinical Jew. It seems to me that the best argument of “Jewishness” from the standpoint of secular Jews is that they are Jews but not practicing Jews, yet can always become practicing Jews, whereas someone who is Jewish but becomes a believing Christian can no longer become a practicing Jew. The secular Jew is a “fallen-away Jew” but can still find reinstatement as a religious Jew just as a secular or non-practicing Catholic is a “fallen-away Catholic” but can still return to the Catholic Church. In hindsight, I think Fr. Friedman might have better chosen Israelite-Catholic rather than Hebrew-Catholic since that would accomplish the same purpose and better align the group with Israel. I notice in your essay that you speak of “Israelite Christians.” Ironically Fr. Friedman probably didn’t choose “Israelite” out of sensitivity to the feelings of the Jewish people.

    • @Paul – Interesting. I have not heard secular Jews make this argument myself. I would imagine that a Christian Jew would not have a more difficult time returning to Judaism than a lapsed Catholic who became a Protestant in returning to the Church; but it’s true that the psychology of the transition is different. I will soon be reading (and hopefully reviewing here) Stephen Dubner’s book (the guy who wrote Freakonomics) about his transition back to Judaism after being raised by Catholic parents who were Jewish converts; perhaps that will inform this discussion.

      As for the use of “Israelite” – I assumed it was just because “Israelite Catholic” sounds clunkier than “Hebrew Catholic.” But you may be right that sensitivity was an issue here as well.

  6. Paul says:

    Of course Lea, a secular Jew would not “use” the non-practicing Jew argument, but it is implicit in the Israeli Court’s ruling about Israeli citizenship. Looked at another way, a Jew is a person born to a Jewish mother who, if male, is circumcised, and who has not explicitly joined and continued in another religion. A Messianic Jew is even probably okay with the Israeli Court provided he/she doesn’t use the Christian label. If a Jew becomes a Christian and then reverts to being a Jew he/she also has no problem with Israeli citizenship. Fr. Friedman, however, wants the broader class of those of Hebrew or Israelite descent recognized as part of the chosen people of Israel, which they are by virtue of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, even if they are no longer strictly speaking Jews by the definitions mentioned above. You and I and Fr. Friedman know that Catholics are theologically Jews who accept the Jewish Messiah and that Catholics of Jewish descent are both theologically and actually Jews who accept the Jewish Messiah. Now all we need to do is to get everyone else to agree with us! LOL!

    • @Paul – All true. The way Fr. Friedman puts this, and I think he’s right, is that the issue is less whether a person can easily “go back” to being a Jew, and more their ties with the Jewish community (the “millet”). Converts are problematic because they are likely to worship, socialize, and intermarry with Gentile Christians more than other Jews (whether religious or secular Jews). Fr. Friedman’s point is that this is, indeed, a very real problem, and one that Christian Jews should work to address.

      • Paul says:

        Lea, I agree that Jewish converts to the Church are likely to worship more with Catholics (in Israel these would mostly be Jewish converts in a Hebrew-language Mass) but I see no reason why Jewish converts need to socialize or intermarry more with Gentiles. Indeed Israeli citizens in Israel who converted would be unlikely to do so. So the answer to the problem is conversions in Israel. Should a significant number of Hebrew-Catholics emerge among the born-in-Israel population all of whom continued to proudly lay claim to their Jewishness, they would almost certainly eventually be accepted as the Jews that they are, if not for a time by the Orthodox, at least by the other Israelis and other Jews worldwide. This could lead eventually to fulfilling God’s promises for corporate Israel and Saint Paul’s hope for his fellow Israelites and, at the same time lead Jews and Catholics to realize that the God-given national religion of the Jews has grown into a God-given universal or catholic religion of the Jews-and-Gentiles-in-Jesus.

      • @Paul – I am not convinced that converts in Israel are completely immune from the problem of isolation from the Jewish community and assimilation, given the difficulty of practicing Christianity openly in that country. But they must be free from it to a greater extent than those of us living here.

  7. Doron says:

    As a “universal/catholic” rendition, the above premise would be readily agreed with.
    If the premise however is that the “obvious” spiritual home for converts in Israel is in the
    Roman (catholic) Church, then this posit is countered by the reality.
    Israeli Eastern Orthodox Jewry being in the majority and growing.

  8. Pingback: Jewish Identity III: Prophecy | The Groom's Family

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