A couple of months ago I had the privilege of speaking with Father Patrick Reardon – an Orthodox priest and scholar, editor of Touchstone magazine, and former Trappist monk no doubt familiar to many of you. I will post the interview here in three installments, of which this is the first.
Father Patrick, you write a good amount, in Touchstone and elsewhere, about the Jews – their role in Scripture and in the Church. What is the nature of your interest in this topic?
I have, and always had, an enormous interest in everything Jewish. I subscribe to the Jewish Review of Books and several other Jewish magazines. I’m always keeping an eye on what is happening within the Jewish world.
I think this interest comes from a deep, subterranean need. I grew up during the Shoah and learned about it when I was quite young. It left a profound mark on me; I felt an enormous sorrow for the plight of the Jews in the modern world. It’s a deep emotion with me that’s hard to explain. When I was young, I taught myself Hebrew. I use it to read the Bible; for the Mishnah and Talmud, I have to rely heavily on translations.
I know there is a deeper theology of the Jewish people – Romans 11 is one of the passages that makes it clear. I know that, but I am myself unable to read the signs. Several decades ago I read a book called My People, My Land, which draws attention to the Prophets, with their emphasis on justice, and argues that the state of Israel should be the fulfillment of the prophetic word: a model for how to treat the poor and the dispossessed. He was critical of the state of Israel, where he saw oppression of parts of the population. That led me to start thinking of Israel as a state that had to prove itself as a model of justice. But by now I have lost all faith in Israel’s ability to prove itself in this way. I see events there going in a very tragic direction; it appears to me now that the state of Israel is in great danger, set up for an even worse Shoah. Sometimes the situation appears to me to be hopeless.
I have a love for the Jews in principle, and I’ve found it very easy to love the Jews I’ve gotten to know. I love the Jews particularly because of Jesus and His mother and the apostles. I know that God can raise up children for himself out of stones; in fact I am one of the stones. But if we truly believe in the incarnational principle, it appears to me that there should be a great love for the Jews within the Christian tradition. I think God is still speaking to us through the Jews – which is why I try to stay abreast of the news. But I am not sure what He is saying.
I keep coming back to the social teaching of the Prophets and the Wisdom literature. A colossal breakthrough was made in the 8th century BC: the writings of the Prophets, unlike the Torah, were directed to all people, not only to Israel. You can see that in Amos, verse 4, for example. And if this is true of the Prophets (nevi’im), isn’t it true of the Wisdom literature (ketuvim) – do we not see there a response to other schools of thought in the Middle East? The Wisdom literature is a very explicit effort to dialogue with the wisdom traditions of Egypt and Babylon; in the case of Ecclesiasticus, also with Greece.
I’ve published commentaries on Job and Ecclesiasticus, and will probably publish more if the Lord gives me a few more years to live. I believe that, seen from a Christian perspective, we have in Ecclesiasticus a real, definitive step toward the Incarnation. He is writing in the 2nd century BC, at the height of the prevalence of a politicized Greek philosophy; yet his attitude is so different from both the Maccabees and Daniel, of whom he is a contemporary. In Job, we see the writer coming to grips with various cosmologies, represented by Job’s three comforters – they are spokesmen for schools of thought in the Middle East. These writings appeal little to the Torah, and more to God’s law written on man’s heart – Amos, in particular, doesn’t cite the teachings of Torah at all when he criticizes the brutal practices of pagans. There is a universalism to the Prophets. Contemporary Jewish moralists make a great deal of this, and are right to do so.
Thus Jewish thought is addressed specifically to the Gentiles. This phenomenon has not been explored yet. I see the prophets and the wisdom literature as the link prior to Jesus between Hebraic thought and the rest of the world. Even if you take Jesus out of the equation, there would be an enormous existential link between the prophetic literature and the rest of world culture. This link started with the Septuagint. Amos would never have agreed that the Prophets were written for the Jewish people only. He had some terrible things to say about both Israel and Judah. In the very first sections, it is as if he draws an X through the four corners of the Holy Land.
I know you don’t mean to imply this conclusion, but one could see how this point may be used to support replacement theology, the claim that God has rejected the Jews.
The idea that God had rejected the Jews is heresy. They will be God’s children forever. Anyone who says God has rejected the Jews is a heretic.
What about the wording in some of our Holy Week services, regarding God’s curse of the “Hebrew race”?
I don’t particularly like the wording of these services. But in all fairness it must be pointed out that it’s not any stronger than anything in the Gospel of John and in the writings of Paul. Of course they are allowed to say anything they want, because they are Jews themselves. It’s like me telling Irish jokes. Paul says some awfully sarcastic and nasty things about Jews, but his love for them is explicitly stated and indisputable. To raise these statements to the status of metaphysical truths about the Jewish people is completely wrong.
Why, then, has the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the Jews been so fraught?
The Orthodox Church is a crazy mixed-place, more crazy and mixed-up than any other place in the world. Only Rome is comparable. Everything we could have done wrong, we’ve done wrong, and nowhere more so than in our treatment of the Jews. I can’t understand how any Jew joins the Orthodox Church. It’s a marvel of God’s grace.
Why? Because of the sin in every man’s heart. Or perhaps because the Church began its life by being expelled from the synagogue. Later the early Christians wanted to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the revolution of Bar-Kokhba – claiming not to be part of it, not to be Jews.
In the most extreme form, there was Marcion – he believed the Jews worshipped an altogether different God. That thesis was condemned. However, after the edict of Milan in the 4th century, when the Christians came into power, many of them wanted to get back at the Jews and make their lives difficult. The Church was very preoccupied with doctrinal questions at the time, and did not pay enough attention to moral issues. People like Ambrose and John Chrysostom turned a blind eye to the burning of synagogues.