Monday, March 10, 2008

More on Catholic Prayer

Here is a somewhat edited version forwarded to the Jewish Forward, where Prof. Neusner's article was originally published. (Issue of March 6)

I read with some distress Martin Marty's recent piece in Sightings, headlined "Jacob Neusner on Catholic Prayer," based on Jacob Neusner's contribution to the Forward Forum of March 6.

Jacob Neusner is a serious (and certainly prolific) scholar, and one with an unusual and distinctive history among Jews in relation to Catholic thought. He is certainly entitled to express his views, which should stand or fall on their intellectual merits, and not on his authority as a spokesperson for American Jews, many of whom consider Prof. Neusner an idiosyncratic and not a representative figure.

To present American Jews as having a mixed or "ambiguous" reception to the Vatican's recent actions on the Good Friday prayers (as Professor Marty does) is grossly misleading. Opinion is strong and virtually unanimous in opposition to Pope Benedict's marked backsliding from the considerable progress in Jewish-Catholic relations since Vatican II. Such disagreement as does exist reflects honest differences in perception as to the extent of the harm done and its long term consequences, not to the fact of harm. Differing formulations may also reflect, at least in part, tactical considerations by some of those engaged in long-term interfaith efforts (perhaps including Prof. Neusner himself).

The Hebrew prayer being referred to, the "Aleynu" (or "Aleinu"), does not call for conversion of all gentiles to Judaism; it does clearly privilege monotheistic faiths, reject what Judaism regards as idolatry, and express the eschatological hope (as Neusner correctly states) that all will come to acknowledge the one God. Normative Judaism has never viewed Islam as idolatrous. There have been varying interpretations over time on whether Christian worship before images or representations of Jesus constitute idolatrous practice, and whether Catholic concepts of the Trinity are consistent with, or violative of, Jewish notions of monotheism. For the most part, normative Jewish views in recent centuries have come to regard Christian faith as monotheistic.

The Aleynu prayer has a checkered history, and certain offensive passages have been--in my view, quite properly-- excised from the currently normative version of the text--much as Jews would prefer in the Good Friday Latin liturgy. Even in its current form, many liberal Jews (and some Jewish denominations), contra Neusner, choose to further modify the written or spoken text in a number of respects, rejecting some (but, for the most part, not all) of the passages cited by Professor Neusner, and reinterpreting others. The direction of change in the text and interpretation of this ancient prayer has, for the great majority of Jews, been toward a more ecumenical interpretation.

To the degree that Jews, Christians and Muslims (in my view properly) understand themselves as worshiping the same God (in the Christian case, God the Father), the current "Aleynu" text, calling on all humankind to invoke, worship, and give honor to God's glorious name, is, contra Neusner (and apparently Marty), far from fully parallel to the revised language in the Latin prayer, "Let us also pray for the Jews: That our God and Lord may illuminate their hearts, that they acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men…grant that even as the fullness of the peoples enters Thy Church, all Israel be saved…" It is revealing that Professor Neusner declines even to cite the "that they acknowledge Jesus Christ is the Savior of all men" in his mistaken missive. Jewish concern does not focus on the Catholic prayer's language that "God ...may illuminate their hearts" (which Neusner stresses, correctly, as a parallel theme to the Jewish prayer language), but on the explicit rejection of the validity of Jewish belief in favor of acceptance of Jesus' divinity and the exclusivity of the Christian path to salvation. One of the distinctive changes in Catholic theology in recent decades has been toward greater recognition of the permanence of God's covenant with the Jewish people; this recognition is a key pre-condition for educational efforts to instill greater respect for Jews and Judaism by contemporary Catholics, and it is hard to reconcile the language and implicit theology of the revised Good Friday Latin liturgy with these efforts.

Professor Neusner's theological musings are shockingly insensitive to the historical dimension of Good Friday prayers, and the significance of post-Holocaust (and particularly post Vatican II) efforts to chart a new, less destructive, and more mutually respectful course. Judaism does not have much of a recent (say, the past couple of thousand years) history of oppressing, proselytizing or forcing conversions to Judaism on Catholics, other Christians, Muslims, or members of other (non-Abrahamic) faiths. These deep historical patterns provide an essential context for evaluating the parallels, and non-parallels, in the respective prayers, and for assessing the impact of this distressing retreat from the post-Vatican II commitment to healing the rifts between Catholics and Jews. At best, with the Vatican's deletion of the adjective "perfidious" as applied to Jews, this is an instance of one step forward, two steps back.

Professor Marty's essay ends, "It is our duty to praise...". I would fill in his ellipsis as follows: "...that which is worthy of praise." Whatever the "right" of Catholics to pray as they wish, which I do not dispute, this latest development is unworthy of Jewish praise.

Alan Jay Weisbard

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