The Catholic Church's Jewish cardinal
The death earlier this week of France's Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger underscores the very sensitive issue of Jewish identity. The traditional Orthodox Jewish view is that some one born of a Jewish mother is a Jew, but that Jewish identity is erased if a Jew converts to Christianity or any other religious faith. The late French cardinal steadfastly challenged that view. (In recent years, the Reform Jewish movement began to also accept persons with Jewish fathers as the basis for Jewish identity.)
Lustiger, who was the archbishop of Paris until his retirement two years ago, was born to Polish Jewish immigrant parents in Paris. In 1940, after the German occupation of France, he was hidden with a Catholic family where he was exposed to and converted to Catholicism at age 13.
Two years later, his mother, who had objected to his conversion, was deported to a Nazi German concentration camp, where she died the following year. His father, who had also objected to Lustiger's religious conversion, survived the Holocaust. When Lustiger was ordained a priest in 1954, his father sadly observed the ceremony from a seat far back in the church.
During his life, even as a Catholic cardinal, Lustiger always insisted that he had remained a Jew after his conversion, outraging Orthodox Jewish authorities. He remained fluent in the Yiddish language and often visited Israel, where he had close relatives.
In 1995, during to one of his visits to Israel, the chief Ashkenazi rabbi charged that Lustiger had "betrayed his people and his faith during the most difficult and darkest of periods" in the 1940s. The rabbi dismissed Lustiger's claim that he had remained a Jew.
Lustiger responded: "To say that I am no longer a Jew is like denying my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers. I am as Jewish as all the other members of my family who were butchered in Auschwitz or in the other camps."
To my knowledge, he never tried to justify or explain how he could be both Catholic and Jewish. But he evidently embraced the concept of Jewish ethnicity, a once controversial theory that is now generally recognized by virtually all Jews. The ethnicity factor is, of course, a key element in the Zionist philosophy that led to the creation of Israel.
The ethnicity argument is that Jewishness is more than a religious faith. With a common language and written alphabet (Hebrew), history, tradition, and culture, Jews are also an ethnic group. Historical and geographic circumstances, however, led to the emergence of three separate Jewish ethnic sub-groups--Ashkenazim (European), Sephardim (Mediterranean), and Mizrahim (Middle East and central Asia)--all of whom possess these common characteristics.
Some would even argue that belief in Judaism as a religion is not necessarily a requirement for Jewish identity. The late Cardinal Lustiger obviously held this view. Proponents of this view would note that there are atheists, secular humanists, and cults calling themselves "Jews for Jesus" and "Messianic Jews" who claim to still be Jews and retain certain Jewish cultural symbols.
Indeed, the Jewish establishment does recognize atheists and secular humanists born of Jewish mothers (or fathers, according to the Reform movement) as fellow Jews. But because of the historical trauma of centuries of Christian persecution of the Jewish people, the line is drawn against the acceptance of Jews who have converted to Christianity.
This is not only the view of Judaism's Orthodox and Conservative branches, but also of the liberal Reform and Reconstructionist movements. This is a highly emotional question that probably reflects the once primitive elements of tribal loyalty.
So while France's late Cardinal Lustiger still considered himself a Jew, the Jewish community at large did not. Nevertheless, had he been discovered in his boyhood shelter, even as a Catholic convert, he would clearly have been a candidate for the German death camps because of the dictates of Nazi racial theories.
In fact, thousands of other Jewish converts to Christianity perished during the Holocaust because they had at least one Jewish grandparent. Ironically, Israel has borrowed the same standard but, obviously, for far more benign reasons. The Jewish nation offers automatic citizenship to those with a single Jewish grandparent even if they do not necessarily practice the Jewish religion.