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.