Monday, March 10, 2008

A Response to Martin Marty and Jacob Neusner on Catholic Prayer

From Sightings 3/10/08

Jacob Neusner on Catholic Prayer

-- Martin E. Marty

A week from Friday is Good Friday, a most solemn day for Christians. It is also a problem day for Jews, and for the evident Christian majority which is (or wants to be) sensitive to the sensibilities of Jews. For centuries the most painful element in the Roman Catholic liturgy came from the Good Friday litany in the Latin Rite, which began: "Let us pray for the perfidious Jews: That Almighty God may remove the veil from their hearts so that they too may acknowledge Jesus Christ our Lord..." There was also reference to "Jewish faithlessness" and "blindness." In 1960 an offended and thoughtful Pope John XXIII deleted "faithless" (perfidis); in 1970 the prayer was radically altered. So far, so good.

Last summer Pope Benedict XVI allowed for reversion to the world and words of pre-1970, to a 1962 Missal version of the liturgy. This act was received ambiguously by American Jewish leadership. The American Jewish Committee expressed "appreciation" for some of the papal steps forward, but the Anti-Defamation League called the pope's action "a theological setback" and a "body blow" to Catholic-Jewish relations. On February 6 the Vatican announced an emendation of the 1962 Missal. Tradition-hungry Catholics will now pray this revision: "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…"

Recently I conversed with a Jewish professor of New Testament at a largely Christian theological school, and expected her to speak of "setback" and "body blow." To my surprise, she said that while all such prayers make Jews uncomfortable, given the painful history we inherit, she thought that the notion of one faith-community praying for the spread of its faith to others was not the highest offense. "Many do it." OK.

Then I chanced on this headline in the Jewish weekly Forward (February 29-March 7): CATHOLICS HAVE A RIGHT TO PRAY FOR US, above an op-ed by veteran Professor Jacob Neusner, a scholar of Judaism uncommonly informed about such matters. His main point will surprise many non-Jews and many Jews as well: "Israel prays for gentiles, so the other monotheists, the Catholic Church included, have the same right to do the same—and no one should be offended, as many have[.]"

Rabbi Neusner notes that a prayer "for the conversion of 'all the wicked of the earth,' who are 'all the inhabitants of the world,' is recited in normative Judaism not once a year, but every day." He quotes several passages from standard Jewish liturgies, which "leave no doubt that when holy Israel assembles for worship it asks God to illuminate gentiles' hearts." Prayers of both covenanted sets of people have "an eschatological focus and mean to keep the door to salvation open for all peoples. Holy Israel should object to the Catholic prayer no more than Christianity and Islam should take umbrage at the Israelite one."

Whoever thinks that in one short column even Dr. Neusner can deal with all the complexities and subtleties of the subject, or that his will be a last word—it's virtually a first, in the current context—should be ready for many rejoinders, reservations, and qualifications, because much goes on between now and the eschaton, "the fullness of time." Both sets of believers have work to do to express their hopes thoughtfully and to follow them up with empathic acts. But this first word might help make Good Friday more a day of solemn contemplation than of polemics. "It is our duty to praise…"

Alan J. Weisbard wrote (to Sightings):
I read with increasing distress Martin Marty's recent piece in Sightings, headlined "Jacob Neusner on Catholic Prayer."

For what it is worth, Jacob Neusner is regarded by many American Jews as an exceptionally peculiar and idiosyncratic figure. I would be cautious in taking his views as in any way representative of the American Jewish community. He 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.

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 differences in degree as to the extent of harm done and its long term consequences, not to the fact of harm, and, perhaps, tactical considerations by some of those engaged in long-term interfaith efforts.

The Hebrew prayer being referred to, the "Aleynu", does not call for conversion of all gentiles to Judaism; it does privilege monotheistic faiths and reject what Judaism regards as idolatry. 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 not all) of the problematic passages cited by Professor Neusner, and reinterpreting others.

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.

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 and less destructive 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 by 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."

1 comment:

Scott Lerner said...

A lucid and welcome reflection on Neusner's intervention in the debate concerning the Latin prayer. Thank you.