Wednesday, August 08, 2007

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.

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Blogger Hoots said...

Another good post, Mort. I don't get much traffic but I blogged it so you may get a hit or two.

The bonds that couple Jews and Christians seem stronger now than in the past due to a rising awareness of Islam. But I think the trend would be healthier if it were pro-active rather than reactive.

A model family that attends our church has an unconverted Jewish head of household who is there every Sunday to support his wife and children. He is a vital part of the congregation, accompanying them to communion where he stands behind his wife and receives a blessing from the priest as she receives communion. It is a rich blessing all to see...a dedicated strong father and husband, leading his family thus in their spiritual life. (And when the church observed a seder, we didn't have to look around to find a host!)

Thursday, August 09, 2007 7:09:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You owe me the courtesy of a response...mary

Thursday, August 09, 2007 9:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've picked it up too. A very interesting article.

Friday, August 10, 2007 10:10:00 AM  
Blogger Mortart said...

Mary, what am I supposed to respond to? And how can I respond since you have not provided an e-mail address?

Friday, August 10, 2007 12:10:00 PM  
Blogger joared said...

As a non-Jew, perhaps I should stay out of this discussion. I've always thought of Jews as a diverse ethnic group, embracing Judaism for some,different religious beliefs for others,even non-religious belief by some. Interesting the many different views.

Saturday, August 11, 2007 3:07:00 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

My conversion to Christ did not take place in a church and was not induced through a childhood that was steeped in any religious instruction at all. My knowledge, therefore, of Biblical matters was almost zilch. I was thirty years old and also knew nothing of what others believed. To me, with what little I learned in pushing forward, a Jew was a Jew was a Jew. Chaim Potok's "The Chosen" was my eye-opening illumination to the truth that Christianity wasn't the only faith community divided into several different camps. I enjoyed your post, then, as it, too, adds to my enlightenment....

Saturday, August 11, 2007 4:30:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I started to write a comment here quite a while ago, and found it too long to post here. So it's at my blog

Tuesday, August 21, 2007 6:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of your comments are factually incorrect.

According to Jewish law, one always remains a Jew. A Jew who converts to another religions is, in Jewish law, a sinful Jew but a Jew nonetheless. So there is no doubt that as a simple matter of Jewish law, the late Cardinal Lustiger remained a Jew.

But the Cardinal was making a more profound claim, that as a Catholic he was still in some sense practicing Judaism and fulfilling a Jewish calling. He wasn't merely citing a technical legal point. This is what people objected to.

I am a Conservative Rabbi and gave a sermon on this last Saturday.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007 2:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jews who practice traditional Judaism (Reform, Conservative, Orthodox)believe that Jesus was a man, not the Messiah, not the son of God. Catholics believe Jesus was the Messiah and the son of God.
I assume Cardinal Lustiger accepted Jesus as the Messiah and the son of God. If he did (and if he didn't, how could he be a Cardinal...) then I would say he could only be considered Jewish ethnically, due to his parents. Religiously, he was
Catholic, not Jewish.
Messianic Jews claim you can have it both ways and want Jews to accept Jesus as their "savior". This makes no sense to a traditional Jew, but they have an agenda: They are trying to convert Jews to Christianity.
One of the biggest reasons that Christians have been hostile to Jews over the centuries is the refusal of Jews to convert to Christianity. Since Christianity started out as Judaism (Jesus was a Jew after all) Christians have seen that refusal as a criticism of their religion (Can Judaism and Christianity both be right about Jesus?)and therefore have hated Jews for it.

Friday, August 24, 2007 2:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mWPymU Your blog is great. Articles is interesting!

Friday, October 26, 2007 2:38:00 AM  

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