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Book Review


Benedict XVI on Jesus, the Church, and the Jews

JofN CoverJoseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 374 pp., $24.95, Hardcover.

Reviewed by W. Patrick Cunningham




The election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 gave the world a Bishop of Rome coherent with, but significantly different from, his predecessor.  Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger were close colleagues in the Vatican for many years.  As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger was point man on several important doctrinal disputes that historians will consider crucial to John Paul’s papacy—liberation theology, faith and reason, and reproductive morality in particular.  Ratzinger was primarily responsible for the Catholic Catechism.  The two functioned almost as one mind.


But John Paul II was a philosopher and thespian at heart.  Reading his papal writings, particularly Fides et Ratio, is primarily a philosophical exercise with theological and scriptural excursions.  Cardinal Ratzinger was and is a teacher, theologian and writer.  His first, and so far only, encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, is a theological master work accessible to both scholar and person in the pew.


Unlike most recent popes, Benedict has a huge opera.  Ignatius has brought out a number of his works over the years, and the sum of just these fills a couple of feet of space on a bookshelf.  Although his theological production has slowed during the papacy, Benedict continues to write, and his latest is a book called Jesus of Nazareth, which he calls “solely an expression of my personal search ‘for the face of the Lord.’” The book, published in the U.S. by Doubleday in a very readable translation by Adrian J. Walker, appears to be intended as the first of two volumes.  The pope’s sense of humor and realism comes out as he admits wanting to publish this volume because he doesn’t know how many years he has left.


I had read a number of the pre-election works of Joseph Ratzinger, most notably his thick Introduction to Christianity and Behold the Pierced One, so I was taking a break from his writings when my plans were changed for me.  First my school president, a Marianist priest recovering from a brown recluse spider bite, told me how gripping Jesus of Nazareth was for him.  Then my Archbishop (also my boss) referred to the book when he was commenting on another article I had written.  I wouldn’t need a third hint to cause me to read it.


We don’t have much experience with modern popes writing about Jews and Judaism, but Benedict has no such reticence.   He sees the Jesus of Jesus of Nazareth to be steeped in Hebrew realities.  Jesus goes up to the mountain to preach.  But the disciples to whom he preaches are not limited by lineage.  “Everyone who hears and accepts the word can become a ‘disciple.’” (p. 66)  The mountain is not a “rocky mass in the desert.”  It is any place where Jesus prays and teaches.  There, on the mountain of the presence of God, Jesus fulfills the mission of Moses, the Jewish lawgiver, and of Elijah, who “experienced God passing by, not in the storm or in the fire or in the earthquake, but in the still small breeze. . .That transformation is completed here.”


Jesus, on the metaphysical mountain, becomes the new Torah-giver.  For Benedict, that reality calls for an honest dialogue with a modern rabbi, Jacob Neusner, who wrote A Rabbi Talks with Jesus (1993-2000, translated into six languages).  Neusner, currently holding an endowed chair in the history and theology of Judaism at Bard College, was one of the founding fathers of the academic study of religion that has infiltrated U.S. higher education in the past forty years.  Benedict has a deep respect for Neusner’s academic and personal integrity, and employs his book to discern answers to the greatest question of the first century, and an important one for our own: why do Jews not accept Jesus as Lord, the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham, Moses and David?  For Benedict, Neusner’s book is a dialogue between Neusner as a hearer of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus himself.  That dialogue “has opened [Benedict’s] eyes to the greatness of Jesus’ words and to the choice that the Gospel places before us.” (p. 69)


Benedict echoes the view of many scholars that the Beatitudes—the heart of the Great Sermon—are really a program for discipleship modeled on the lifestyle of Jesus Christ.  This is particularly true in terms of the call to purity of heart, the key to seeing God.  “It belongs to [Jesus’] nature that he sees God, that he stands face-to-face with him, in permanent interior discourse—in a relation of Sonship . . . We will see God when we enter into the ‘mind of Christ.’”  But to achieve union with Christ the Son, we must imitate his “descent of love” and his self-abnegation.  “These words mark a decisive turning point in the history of mysticism. . .God descends, to the point of death on the Cross.  And precisely by doing so, he reveals himself in his true divinity.  We ascend to God by accompanying him on this descending path.”


Benedict, no one to set up straw dogs, then confronts the philosopher whose thought poisoned the whole 20th century: Friedrich Nietzsche.  “It is not Christian doctrine that needs to be critiqued, he says, it is Christian morality that needs to be exposed as a ‘capital crime against life.’  And by ‘Christian morality,’ Nietzsche means precisely the direction indicated by the Sermon on the Mount.”  Nietzsche ridicules those who follow Christ as weak and unequal to life’s demands, avenging themselves by “blessing their failure and cursing the strong, the successful, and the happy.”  Benedict admits that much of this self-absorbed and success-pleasure orientation has captured the modern mindset.  Even Christians are inwardly resistant to the call of Christ.  But, he maintains, the Beatitudes demand conversion, “that we inwardly turn around to go in the opposite direction from the one we would spontaneously like to go in.  But this U-turn brings what is pure and noble to the fore and gives a proper ordering to our lives.”  In other words, it frees us to be like Christ.


The new Torah of Christ sets us free to be like Christ.  “The ‘Torah of the Messiah’ is totally new and different—but it is precisely by being such that it fulfills the Torah of Moses.” (my emphasis)  Benedict admits that much of Matthew’s redaction of the Great Sermon stands as a contrasting set of statements:  “It was said to them of old . . . but I say to you . . .”  “Jesus’ ‘I’ is accorded a status that no teacher of the Law can legitimately allow himself.”  Jesus taught with his own authority, not from the authority of some long-dead scribe.  Benedict tells us that the Greek says the people were “alarmed” by this kind of teaching.  But he knows it teaches us something “about Jesus, about Israel, about the Church.”  Here he turns to Neusner’s analysis for help.


As Benedict sees Neusner, he takes his place among the crowds listening to Jesus, compares Jesus’ words with those of the Old Testament and with the oral traditions of the Talmud and Mishnah.  Neusner is touched by the greatness and purity of Jesus’ words, but is troubled by the “ultimate incompatibility” at the heart of the Great Sermon.  In the end, Neusner “decides not to follow Jesus.  He remains—as he himself puts it—with the ‘eternal Israel.’”  Why does Neusner stop short of discipleship?  In an imagined dialogue with an ancient rabbi, he admits that Jesus left out nothing of the essential of Torah, but added Himself.  The central alarm of the believing Jew is “the centrality of Jesus’ “I” in the message, which redirects everything.  The scandal of Jesus is his words to the rich young man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell all you have, and come, follow me.” (Mt 19:21)  (p. 105—Benedict’s emphasis)


Neusner, according to Benedict, parts company with Jesus because he perceives Jesus commanding him to disobey three of the ten commandments: the third, the fourth, and the commandment to be holy as God is holy.  Benedict agrees with Neusner on one issue—Jesus, in saying “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27) is not just taking a liberal point of view, “a freedom-loving and rational man’s critique of an ossified legalism.”  He considers the action of eating grain on the sabbath to be a trivial issue.  Neusner’s scandal at Jesus’ teaching is tied up with Jesus’ assuming that he and the disciples now “stand in the place of the priests in the Temple; the holy place has shifted, now being formed by the circle made up of the master and his disciples.” (p. 108)  Indeed, in Matthew, the verses (11:28-30) immediately preceding this radical reinterpretation of the Sabbath set up Jesus as equivalent to the Sabbath rest:  “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (my emphasis)  In Neusner’s view, Jesus is attempting to replace the Torah with himself.


And this is entirely true.  “Jesus understands himself as the Torah—as the word of God in person,” just as John’s Gospel begins: “in the beginning was the word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (p. 110)  The Synoptic Gospels are saying exactly the same thing as John: the historical Jesus is the Logos, the Word of God, the true Torah.  Liberal exegesis has got it exactly wrong, when they say that the Son, Christ, is foreign to the Gospel of Jesus.  The Christ reality is always “at the center of it.” (p. 111)


But, Benedict continues, what bothers Neusner the Jew about Jesus’ teaching on Shabbat is not “just the centrality of Jesus himself. . .Rather, he is concerned with the consequence of Jesus’ centrality for Israel’s daily life: The Sabbath loses its great social function. . .[to] hold Israel together.”  Because now the community of Jesus’ disciples is the new Israel.  If one accepts Jesus as the Messiah of Israel, then “the eternal Israel” loses its identity, its viability, its existence.  Benedict admires Neusner’s candor as he poses the question to the Christian disciple: “Is it really so that your master, the son of man, is lord of the Sabbath? . . . I ask again—is your master God?”   As the Catholic Church, under Constantine, began to reform the Empire’s culture and habits, one of the first actions was to introduce to slaves certain Lord’s Day freedoms.  The new Sabbath was the eighth day, the day of Resurrection, not the seventh.  Despite the movement of the day of the week, the introduction of the Christian day of rest was in solidarity and continuity with the Jewish Sabbath. (p. 112)


Neusner’s concern about the breakdown of “the eternal Israel” implied by Jesus’ attitude toward the Third Commandment extends into the realm of the Fourth, as a matter of sheer logic.  The Fourth commandment, to him, anchors “the heart of the social order, the cohesion of ‘the eternal Israel,’” in the living family of Abraham and Sarah and their (Hebrew) descendants.  Jesus, however, decrees that this biology-based family is not adequate to the Father’s plan:  “Here are my mother and my brothers.  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mt 12:46-50)  Neusner accuses Jesus of teaching the violation of one of the two great commandments concerning the social order.  Benedict comments that Neusner’s charge is twofold:  “The first problem is the seeming individualism of Jesus’ message.” (p. 114)  Unlike Torah, with its hundreds of intricate regulations of daily life and worship, the Torah of Jesus offers no “politically concrete program for structuring society.”  The message of Jesus in the Great Sermon is located on “another level” than social politics.  Jesus is apparently setting aside all of Israel’s ordinances, laws that “have guaranteed its continued existence through the millennia and through all the vicissitudes of history.”  Jesus’ broadening of the fourth commandment “affects not only the parent-child relation, but the entire scope of the social structure of the people of Israel.”


Benedict admiringly notes that Neusner understands that the student of Torah was also admonished to turn their backs on home and family for long periods to study Torah.  But this action forged a stronger connection with Torah, and thus with “the eternal Israel.”  Jesus’ command is not designed for that purpose, but to bind the disciple to Jesus himself, to the “Jesus Torah.”  Neusner realizes that Jesus’ words imply Jesus’ divinity.  “Only God can demand of me what Jesus is asking.”  Only on the condition of Jesus’ divinity can he “have the right to interpret the Mosaic order of divine commands in such a radically new way.”  Only the Lawgiver can amend the Law.


Benedict’s critique of Neusner—a friendly and paternal one, for certain—suggests that the solution to this problem comes “when we read the Torah together with the entire Old Testament canon, the Prophets, the Psalms, and the Wisdom Literature.”  Once we do that, the pope tells us, we realize that Torah itself makes Israel responsible for more than itself.  If Israel is to live according to the “eternal” dispositions of the Law, it “exists to be a light to the nations.” (p. 116)  God does not “wish to abandon the nations to themselves.”  In the Old Testament as in the New, God’s dream is universal: “the boundaries will fall and. . .the God of Israel will be acknowledged and revered by all the nations as their God, as the one God.”


The Jewish critic objects, “So what has your ‘Messiah’ Jesus actually brought?  He has not brought world peace, and he has not conquered the world’s misery.  So he can hardly be the true Messiah, who, after all, is supposed to do just that.”  Benedict acknowledges that the peaceable kingdom of perfect justice has not come.  We may add that it cannot come while God respects our free will, a will that only in the eschaton will be “frozen” in eternal obedience or eternal rebellion.  But Benedict parries that what Jesus has done is to bring the God of Israel “to the nations, so that all the nations now pray to him and recognize Israel’s Scriptures as his word, the word of the living God.  He has brought the gift of universality, which was the one great definitive promise to Israel and to the world.”  (p. 116) This gift, for Benedict, is the clear proof that Jesus is the Messiah.


Moreover, Benedict tells us that the first great dispute of the early Church, the contest between Paul and his fellow missioners to the Gentiles and the so-called Judaizers, was precisely about the gift of universality.  “A literal application of Israel’s social order to the people of all nations would have been tantamount to a denial of the universality of the growing community of God. . .The Torah of the Messiah could not be like that.  Nor is it. . .”  In other words, to force the growing community of Gentile believers to adopt circumcision, the laws on foods and ritual purity, and especially Temple sacrifice (which in a few years were to cease, anyway, forever) would be to force new wine into old wineskins, bursting the Church and ruining God’s intention for the world.  Thus could Paul preach a freedom from the “cultural” requirements of Torah, a freedom that “is able to build the very thing that is at the heart of the Torah,” the Law of love of God and love of neighbor.


As the Holy Father sees it, Neusner is doing the Church, and the world in general, a great favor by showing all that Jesus is far more than a “liberal rabbi.”  To hear Jesus is to hear one who is speaking with the full authority of the Son, whose interpretation is “the beginning of a new communion in a new, free obedience.”  Jesus is either the divine Son, acting for the Father, God Almighty, or he is a total fraud.  Neusner, despite his reverence for Jesus, rejects Jesus’ opening up the family and the Sabbath, creating a “new and broader context for both.”  The social order of the “eternal Israel” is too important to Neusner.  Being Jewish is something he is unwilling to forfeit in the hopes of something more universal.


Before I comment on Benedict’s attitude toward the believing Jew, it is appropriate to look at the Pope’s commentary on the Parable of the Two Brothers, ordinarily referred to as the Prodigal Son.  He notes that the Fathers of the Church typically considered the prodigal brother to be analogous to the Gentiles, and the elder brother to correspond to the Jews.  Jesus “opened the door” for the pagan world to commune with the Father, and to feast with the whole Church in a banquet of reconciliation.  As the elder brother of the tale, Israel’s fidelity and image of God are clearly revealed in . . .fidelity to the Torah.


Benedict says that “the application to the Jews is not illegitimate so long as we respect the form in which we have found it in the text:  as God’s delicate attempt to talk Israel around, which remains entirely God’s initiative. . .It would be a false interpretation to read this as a condemnation of the Jews.”  Benedict goes on the teach that the broader meaning of the parable is to exhort all the righteous, Christian or Jew, to rejoice whenever anyone converts from the “Law-God to the greater God, the God of love.”  This does not mean that the “elder and faithful” brother has to stop obeying the Law.  It means that “this obedience will flow from deeper wellsprings and will therefore be bigger, more open, and purer, but above all more humble.”


How, then, can the habitual reader of this journal listen to the Pope tell us about the relationship between the Church and Judaism?  In what way can we integrate his teachings into our understanding of the historical conflict between the “revolutionary Jew” and the Church of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church?


First, we must note that Benedict is engaging in an imagined dialogue with a believing, practicing Jew, one who understands that love of God and love of neighbor are fundamental to keeping Torah.  There is no acrimony obvious in Jews like Neusner, and no reason for either Benedict or Neusner to fear the dialogue partner.  Neusner, and Jews like him, do not appear as revolutionary, in the sense that they are looking for a person or political system to establish a Jewish hegemony over everyone else by force or political guile.  As a result, many Jews support the secular state of Israel, some to the extent of making it a kind of Jewish “sacrament.”  In Stranger at Home (1981), Neusner says Zionism provides a reconstruction of Jewish identity for it reaffirms the nationhood of Israel in the face of the disintegration of the religious bases of Jewish peoplehood . . . with the end of a singularly religious self-consciousness, the people lost its understanding of itself.”  It was, however, Neusner who, a number of years ago, damaged the aliyah (return) by noting that Jews are safer in the U.S. than in Israel.


But neither does Neusner, or most Jews, act as Orthodox practitioners, some of whom even pray for the destruction of the secular Israeli state as being set up outside God’s timing.  Neusner himself distinguishes seven kinds of Jews, ranging from the ultra-orthodox to the secular Zionist.  The Orthodox Jews are themselves segmented, some supporting the Zionist movements, others resisting them.


The Holy Father’s lengthy dialogue with Neusner as a representative of Judaism, then, is only a way to come to a deeper understanding of Jesus as the new Moses, the center of the New Testament Torah.  Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth does not attempt an understanding of or dialogue with the revolutionary, secular Jew.  The work does, however, bring us to a deeper understanding of the Jewish-Christian divide.  Jews of all stripes reject Jesus not because they misunderstand his teachings, but because they clearly comprehend what he is demanding.  They do not follow him because he requires a universalization of the law of love of God and neighbor, a radical commitment to forgiving our enemies, and an incorporation into a new family comprised of Jew and Gentile, the Church, under the leadership of Jesus-Messiah, the divine Son. CW

This review was published in the October, 2007 issue of Culture Wars.

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