A mosaic revealed during the excavation of the “Burnt Church” in Hippos. (photos by Michael Eisenberg via Ashernet)
A mosaic was revealed during the excavation of the “Burnt Church” in Hippos, which was built in the second half of the fifth or in the early sixth century CE and was probably burnt down during the Sasanian conquest in the beginning of the seventh century. According to the researchers, the descriptions in the mosaic, along with the location of the church, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, raise the connection to the “Feeding the Multitude,” the miracle performed by Jesus in the area, according to the New Testament. “There can certainly be different explanations to the descriptions of loaves and fish in the mosaic, but you cannot ignore the similarity to the description in the New Testament: for example, from the fact that the New Testament has a description of five loaves in a basket, or the two fish depicted in the apse, as we find in the mosaic,” said Dr. Michael Eisenberg, head of the excavation team in Hippos on behalf of the Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa, along with colleague Arleta Kowalewska. The excavation of the church specifically was placed in the hands of Jessica Rentz from the United States, who has exposed its entire internal area.
During the preservation process, headed by Yana Vitkalov from the Israel Antiquities Authority, most of the mosaic area was cleaned and preserved, and most of its decorations and two inscriptions in Greek were exposed. The first one tells about the two fathers of the church, Theodoros and Petros, constructing a sanctuary for a martyr, while the second one, which is located inside a medallion at the centre of the mosaic, exposes the name of the martyr, Theodoros. An initial reading of the inscriptions was done by Dr. Gregor Staab from the University of Cologne in Germany, expedition epigraphist.
Eisenberg continues to be cautious about the interpretation of the new mosaic. “Nowadays, we tend to regard the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, on the northwest of the Sea of Galilee, as the location of the miracle, but with careful reading of the New Testament, it is evident that it might have taken place north of Hippos within the city’s region.”
At the recent General Synod [of the Anglican Church of Canada in July], I had the pleasure of speaking from what we in Judaism call the bimah; literally, the “stage.” I sat next to extremely kind and welcoming incoming and outgoing primates, Archbishop Linda Nicholls and Archbishop Fred Hiltz, and the Rev. Gordon Maitland, national chairman of the Prayer Book Society of Canada. As Bishop Bruce Myers stood at the podium explaining the prayer he was proposing to change, I looked out at the rapt audience at the synod and smiled.
I had spent several weeks working with Bishop Myers to plan our presentation, and I was aware that it was a truly amazing moment. A bishop inviting a rabbi to share his thoughts on a prayer “for the conversion of the Jews” – offensive content for Jews throughout our historical relationship with Christianity – and the proposed replacement: a “prayer for reconciliation with the Jews.” Wow. When I took the podium and shared some words, a few meaningful images and even a laugh or two, I felt truly welcomed by the dedicated Anglicans gathered in Vancouver.
I was there on behalf of the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus, representing my fellow rabbis from around Canada. The Canadian Rabbinic Caucus (CRC) is the only national organization that unites rabbis from across the spectrum of Jewish practice in Canada. As an affiliate of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the CRC plays a key role on behalf of the organized Jewish community of Canada in fostering interfaith relations – including with our Anglican friends.
During the process of seeking to replace this prayer, the CRC was approached by the national leadership of the Anglican Church of Canada to provide guidance and constructive feedback on the details of the church’s revised prayer, which we were very pleased to offer. We are humbled to have played a role in this historic development, which is a natural and logical culmination of decades of growing Jewish-Anglican ties.
The Anglican church has made a significant effort, particularly since the 1980s, to acknowledge and tackle the issue of Christian antisemitism. Examples include the removal of a supercessionist Good Friday collect from the Book of Common Prayer in 1992 and the powerful document “From Darkness to Dawn” (Christian post-Holocaust reflections on antisemitism), published in 1989 and reprinted and disseminated again in 2015 through the active leadership of Bishop Myers. The decision to transform the prayer for the conversion of Jews into a prayer for reconciliation with the Jews, which repents for historical antisemitism among Christians, is a testament to this wonderful trend.
The church has spoken out strongly about the rise of antisemitism, including the neo-Nazi rally at Charlottesville (when the Anglican church partnered with the Jewish community on an interfaith statement of solidarity against hate), as well as the horrific attack at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, following which the church spoke out and stood with us to mourn the victims. That attack hit home for so many of us in the Jewish community; my synagogue’s senior rabbinic colleague is from Pittsburgh, and I have friends and colleagues who live shockingly close to where the attack took place. Interfaith support was thus all the more significant.
We were very grateful that the church’s leadership brought the upsetting prayer’s removal to a vote at the 2016 General Synod. Unfortunately, while it received majority support, it was one vote short of reaching the critical mass needed to pass that year. However, we understand the complexities involved in that vote and, in a way, it was a blessing in disguise. While the original proposal was simply to remove the older prayer, the new proposal, after a deep and fruitful process, led us to the beautiful and powerful new prayer.
The church leadership’s steadfast work in advancing this issue just goes to show how important it is to them – past and current primates, Bishop Myers, Fr. Maitland – and, for that, we are exceptionally grateful. It is incredibly heartening to see that the 2019 General Synod offered near-unanimous support for the new prayer. While this work will not be complete until the 2022 General Synod votes on a second reading of the proposed change, we are confident the new prayer “for reconciliation with the Jews” will be ratified at that time.
The timing of this decision is poignant. A recent Tel Aviv University study found that last year saw the highest number of Jews murdered in antisemitic attacks in decades. The Jewish community is experiencing a sense of vulnerability that, at least here in North America, is perhaps unprecedented – due in no small part to the two fatal shooting attacks on synagogues in the United States in the past 10 months. By replacing the prayer for conversion with one of reconciliation and acknowledgement of the history of Christian antisemitism, the Anglican church has sent a compelling message to the Jewish community that you stand with us at this worrisome time. As both a rabbi and a Jewish parent who is concerned for the kind of society in which my children will live, this is deeply appreciated.
The Anglican Church of Canada’s decision to revise this prayer in such a significant way is just one piece of evidence among many that this is a warm and growing relationship, one which will only enable our communities to further engage on other issues of common cause in a fruitful manner.
Rabbi Adam Steinis associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel. This article was originally published in the Anglican Journal, the national newspaper of the Anglican Church of Canada.
An April 15 press tour took journalists to the Israeli side of the Jordan River. Joshua and the Israelites made their crossing here. (photo by Gil Zohar)
Seventeen bulletproof buses of pilgrims, plus one carrying journalists, spilled their contents April 15 at Qasr al-Yahud (Arabic for the Jews’ Castle) on the muddy banks of the not-so-mighty Jordan River, 10 kilometres east of Jericho. The buses were provided by the Government Press Office in Jerusalem.
The holy site is also called the Land of Monasteries because of the seven Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Ethiopian churches there. Until 2011, it was a fenced-off, closed military zone ringed by minefields. Qasr al-Yahud is revered by Christians as the place where John the Baptist immersed his second cousin, Jesus of Nazareth.
For Jews, the shrine marks where, on Nissan 10, circa 1290 BCE, Joshua bin Nun led the Children of Israel to ford the Jordan River and begin their conquest of the Promised Land. But, with the cold peace prevailing between Israel and Jordan, soldiers of the Hashemite Kingdom’s Arab Legion warily monitored the crowds, making sure that no brave souls crossed to the polluted stream’s east bank to reenact Joshua’s miraculous crossing on dry land.
As Joshua and the 12 tribes approached the river, they were met by the kohanim (priests) carrying the Ark of the Covenant. The Jordan then miraculously split for them – perhaps caused by a landslide in the earthquake-prone region that temporarily blocked the river’s flow – allowing them to cross. After fording the Jordan, Joshua erected 12 stones taken from the river at Gilgal, whose location today is disputed by historians and archeologists.
Symbolizing that the process of the Israelites conquering the Promised Land some 3,289 years ago is still underway, Palestinian teenagers in Jericho pelted the armoured bus in which the journalists were riding, smashing one of the shatterproof windows. No one was injured in the attack.
For this writer, the explosive sound of the thump of the rock on glass brought to mind Joshua’s advice when the Israelites marched on ancient Jericho to begin their conquest: “Be strong and of good courage.” (Joshua 1:9)
Qasr al-Yahud is a corruption of “the Jews’ break,” traditionally the place where the Israelites crossed over, that is, “broke” the Jordan River after their 40 years of wandering in the Sinai Desert: “When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, that the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off, even the waters that come down from above, and they shall stand in one heap.” (Joshua 3:13)
It was here, too, that Elijah the Prophet ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot after he and Elisha crossed the Jordan: “And Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and smote the waters; and they were divided hither and thither, so that they two went over on dry ground.” (2 Kings 2:8)
The strategic and diplomatic significance of the Jordan Valley were spoken about by retired Israel Defence Force (IDF) deputy chief-of-staff major general Uzi Dayan, who was elected to Israel’s Knesset (parliament) in the country’s April 9 general election.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, and previously Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, spoke of the Land of Israel’s long centuries of foreign occupation, from the Romans to the British.
From 1948 until 1967, Qasr al-Yahud was under Jordanian control, and was a popular destination for tourists and pilgrims. In 1968, following the Six Day War, access to the site was prohibited by the IDF because of its location beyond the border fence in a closed military zone. In recent years, the Israeli Civil Administration – with the assistance of the tourism and regional development ministries – carried out infrastructure and development work at the site, including the clearing of mines. In 2011, the site was opened to visitors on a permanent basis without the need for prior security coordination.
Entering ancient Jericho, with its 8,000-year-old remains at Tel as-Sultan and two Byzantine-era synagogues, is another matter. Large signs at the entrance to the city proclaim in Hebrew and English that entry is prohibited to Israelis. In honour of the Nissan 10 celebration, however, Israelis were allowed to enter the city in Area A, the Palestinian self-rule section of the West Bank, which is off limits the rest of year.
And what of the minefields? One million square metres of land are currently being cleared of approximately 3,000 anti-personnel mines, antitank mines and other unexploded ordinance. The project is being carried out by Israel’s National Mine Action Authority under the direction of the Defence Ministry, together with HALO Trust, an international mine-clearance charity.
Christians preparing to be baptized in the Jordan River. (photo by Barry Kaplan)
A few days prior to Passover, the Israeli Government Press Office organized a special field trip to the Jordan River and Jericho. The bus with 40 journalists left the GPO office parking lot at 8:30 a.m. and traveled on Highway #1 to the southern part of the Jordan Valley with a guide. We passed Maale Adumim, now a city with 45,000 residents, and headed through the desert area.
We began the ascent to Jericho, passing the Inn of the Good Samaritan, the sea-level sign and the barren hills. A strip of restaurants and souvenir places seemed to appear out of nowhere. We heard about the history of Kibbutz Bet Arevo, situated in this area from 1939 to 1948, passed a veritable forest of palm trees and, by 9:20 a.m., we were at Qasr al-Yahud, where John the Baptist is said to have baptized Jesus. After it passed through the security fence, the bus parked and we walked down to the Jordan River.
Until 1967, this site was under Jordanian control and, in 1968, access was prohibited. In recent years, the tourism and regional development ministries have carried out various projects, including the clearing of mines, and, in 2011, the site was opened to visitors. The site and facilities are overseen by the Israeli Civil Administration and the Israeli Ministry of Tourism as part of a national park.
Running down the middle of the Jordan River is a metal divider. On the other side of it is Jordan. There were people standing around the river and, behind them, churches were visible on the Jordanian side. On the Israeli side, down more steps, people were wearing white cover-ups and going into the river, presumably to be baptized.
In addition to its significance to Christians, two Jewish events took place at this spot.
In the Book of Joshua, we read how the Israelites, after 40 years of wandering in the desert, led by Joshua, crossed the Jordan River as the river became a stream. Supposedly this happened on the 10th of Nissan, this year April 15. Our guide says this could have taken place 4,440 years ago.
The passage in the Book of Joshua reads: “When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, that the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off, even the waters that come down from above, and they shall stand in one heap.” (Joshua 3:13)
At this point in our trip, we were joined by Uzi Dayan, former major general, national security adviser and Israel Defence Forces deputy chief of staff. According to Dayan, this passage from Joshua describes “the first aliyah to Israel.”
Another biblical text (2 Kings 2:1-2) says Elijah struck the Jordan River water with his cloak. The water parted so that he and Elisha could cross. After Elijah ascended, Elisha again parted the waters with Elijah’s cloak so he could return to Israel. This occurred before Elijah ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot.
Dayan noted that, on the day of our visit, there would be 17 other busloads of people coming to commemorate what has happened here, and that a ceremony would be held that afternoon. We would return for it, but not stay (as I will explain later).
* * *
At 11:10 a.m., we reboarded the bus and became part of a convoy, with IDF soldiers and jeeps leading us and several soldiers inside each bus. On one side of the road are mine fields, still being cleared.
Our next stop was the sixth- or seventh-century CE Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue. Down some steps, we walked around the 10-by-13-metre mosaic floor that featured a menorah in its centre. It was identified as being the floor of a synagogue because of the images of the menorah, as well as an ark, shofar and lulav. The name stems from a mosaic inscription with the Hebrew words Shalom Al Yisrael.
The synagogue was probably used for hundreds of years, but then the Jericho Jewish community dissipated, and the synagogue was forgotten. It was revealed in excavations conducted in 1936 by Dimitri Baramki of the department of antiquities under the British Mandate.
After the 1967 Six Day War, the site came under Israeli military control and remained under the administrative responsibility of the Arab owners – the Shahwan family, who had built a house over the mosaic floor and charged admission to visit it. Tourists and Jews began visiting the site regularly for prayers. In 1987, the Israeli authorities confiscated the mosaic, the house and a small part of the farm around it. They offered compensation to the Shahwan family, but it was rejected.
After the 1995 Oslo Accords, control of the site was given to the Palestinian Authority. It was agreed that free access to it would continue, and that it would be adequately protected.
There have been some incidents. For example, on the night of Oct. 12, 2000, the synagogue was vandalized by Palestinians who torched and destroyed most of the building, burned holy books and relics, and damaged the mosaic. For more than eight years, no Jews were permitted in Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue, but, during that time, it was restored by the Municipality of Jericho. Since 2007, prayer services have been allowed once a week.
* * *
By 12:15 p.m., we were at the tel (hill, or mound), which some journalists climbed. Opposite is a building with restaurants, snacks and a kind of enclosed mall. Israeli soldiers patrol the entire area. Outside, a man was giving rides to people atop a camel, and soldiers sat around and chatted.
The archeological site is about 2.5 kilometres north of modern-day Jericho, on the site of the ancient city, 258 metres below sea level. It was inhabited from the 10th century BCE. Excavations began in 1868 and settlements are known to date from 10000 BCE.
The story in the Book of Joshua relates that, when the Israelites were encamped in the Jordan Valley, ready to cross the river, Joshua, as a final preparation, sent out two spies to investigate the military strength of Jericho. The spies stayed in Rahab’s house, which was built into the city wall. The soldiers sent to capture the spies asked Rahab to bring out the spies; instead, she hid them.
After escaping, the spies promised to spare Rahab and her family after taking the city, if she would mark her house by hanging a red cord out the window. When Jericho fell, Rahab and her whole family were saved, becoming part of the Jewish people.
The biblical battle of Jericho was the first battle that was fought by the Israelites. According to Joshua 6:1-27, the walls of Jericho fell after Joshua’s army marched around the city and blew their trumpets.
* * *
Our second-last stop was Moshav Naama, which is about 45 minutes from the centre of Jerusalem and one-and-a-half hours from Tel Aviv. About 50 families live there. We arrived at 2 p.m.
On the moshav, they grow grapes, dates and organic vegetables. Inon, one of the farmers, grows herbs in greenhouses. In the warehouse, sweet basil and tarragon are packaged for shipping all over the world to supermarkets.
Inon said 95% of the dates grown there are Medjoul and 5% are other kinds. Medjoul dates originated in the Middle East and North Africa, and are one of the most famous varieties. They are well-known for their large size and delicious flavour. The dates from the moshav will be harvested in September and October.
* * *
At 4:30 p.m., above Qasr al-Yahud, the baptismal site, chairs have been set up for the approximately 900 people who will listen to speeches commemorating the Israelites arrival in the Promised Land. However, since most of the journalists do not understand the Hebrew, the GPO bus boards at 5:20 p.m. and travels back to the GPO offices, arriving just over an hour later. Even though we didn’t stay for the whole proceedings, I am still excited to have been a witness to the ceremony.
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.
Crews from the office of the Rabbi of the Western Wall remove tens of thousands of written prayers from the Western Wall. (photo by Gil Zohar)
On April 10, equipped with long sticks, crews from the office of the Rabbi of the Western Wall removed tens of thousands of written prayers, which worshippers had wedged into crevices at the holy site over the previous half year. The painstaking work is done twice annually, in advance of Passover in April and Rosh Hashanah in September, to ensure space for new prayers. The notes that are removed are buried in Mount of Olives Cemetery.
The origin of the practice of placing small folded sheets of paper between the cracks of the 2,000-year-old ashlars is unclear. According to tradition, God’s female presence (Shechinah), has never left the holy site.
A retaining wall of the Temple Mount, built by King Solomon circa 960 BCE and destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the Kotel Maaravi (Western Wall) stands today beneath a religious plaza known in Arabic to Muslims as al-Haram ash-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). Jews believe the holy hill marks the navel of the world from where God began his creation 5779 years ago; the site also marks where Abraham brought his son Isaac to offer him up as a sacrifice. Muslims consider the Western Wall to be where Muhammad tethered his winged steed al-Burak when he ascended to the Seventh Heaven. And Christians believe Jesus was one of the millions of Jewish pilgrims in antiquity who came here during the festivals of Passover, Tabernacles and Pentecost.
From 1948 until 1967, when East Jerusalem was under the control of Jordan, Israelis were prohibited from visiting the site.
Left to right: Archbishop JohnMichael Miller, Dr. Gregg Gardner, Fr. Nick Meisl, Dr. Jay Eidelman and RabbiJonathan Infeld. (photo by Rabbi Adam Stein)
“This is a unique opportunity to learn and growtogether. What better way to open ourselves to that holiday spirit, to welcomethe mysterious and send away the fear of the unknown,” said Congregation BethIsrael president Helen Pinsky in introducing the Dec. 5 program at thesynagogue on Chanukah and Christmas, which was co-hosted by Beth Israel and theRoman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver.
After the lighting of a giant electronic
chanukiyah by Rabbi Jonathan Infeld, the reciting of the motzi by Archbishop of
Vancouver John Michael Miller and a latke-laden dinner, the crowd moved into
the sanctuary to hear three scholars: Dr. Gregg Gardner, Diamond Chair in
Jewish Law and Ethics at the University of British Columbia; Fr. Nick Meisl, a
professor at St. Mark’s College; and Dr. Jay Eidelman, who lectures on the
Holocaust and Jewish history at UBC.
Infeld started things off with a short talk.
“The neighbourhood we grew up in, in
Pittsburgh, was 50% Jewish or Catholic,” he said. “The kids did not refer to
themselves as Jewish or Christian but as ‘Chanukah’ or ‘Christmas.’ We don’t
love this, but it shows that the holidays have a particular power.”
Noting that, for many Jews and Christians of
the past, neither Chanukah or Christmas were important as religious holidays,
the rabbi quoted a documentary he had watched that argued that Charles Dickens
had created Christmas, quipping that maybe Dickens “created Chanukah as well,
in its modern version.”
Gardner spoke on the origins of Chanukah,
noting it was a festival created by the Maccabees to mark their military
successes against the Greeks in an effort to preserve traditional Jewish
culture. “Ironically,” he said, “creating a holiday to honour yourself is, in
fact, a very Greek thing to do.”
The “subversive” rabbis of later generations
altered the holiday to downplay its militaristic elements and its focus on the
Maccabees, Gardner explained, replacing that with a focus on God’s miraculous
intervention in the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days in the
In his remarks, Meisl said the balloon of his
“naive beliefs” about Christmas popped when, in the course of his studies, he
learned that Dec. 25 was not Jesus’s birthday, but rather a date chosen for
other reasons. He explored the theories linking the day to the ancient Roman
Saturnalia festival of late December, or the Dec. 25 holiday of Sol Invictus
(Unconquerable Sun). With humour, he quoted the ancient Christian theologian
Origen, who questioned whether Jesus’s birthday should be celebrated at all,
noting that, in the Hebrew Bible, only “bad people celebrate their birthdays.”
In seriousness, he said it seems that it was around 336 CE that Christians
began celebrating Jesus’s birthday on Dec. 25.
Eidelman took to the podium to the sound of the
1970s classic “Eight Days of Chanukah” by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, while
changing from his suit jacket to a tacky Chanukah sweater, in the style of the
dreaded Christmas sweater. His speech covered various historical and
pop-culture themes related to the two holidays, with a focus on how Jews have
imagined and reimagined Chanukah “as a way to define ourselves spiritually and
a way to claim space in a culture largely based on Christian customs.”
After a short question-and-answer period in
which people asked about the development of certain Chanukah customs and the
role the story of the Maccabees has played in the Christian tradition, among
other things, the archbishop wrapped up the event.
“This has been a wonderful evening of sharing
the joy we each feel in the holidays with each other,” said Miller, who made a
point of thanking everyone involved in the event by name, right down to the
members of the catering and kitchen staff.
“The event was a splendid manifestation of the
ties that bind Christians and Jews together in an age-old spiritual heritage,”
Miller told the Jewish Independent by email. “Such occasions foster
friendships and mutual understanding, and my hope is that they continue. I am
very grateful to Rabbi Jonathan Infeld for his leadership role in interfaith
Matthew Gindinis a freelance
journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN,
writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom
Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches
and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Jewish Conscience of the Church: Jules Isaac and the Second Vatican Council by Norman C. Tobias (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) is an extraordinary book about the volte face that the Catholic Church executed at Vatican II in 1963 when, as a result principally of the intellectual exertions of Jules Isaac, former inspector general of education in France, the Church radically altered its negative teachings about Jews and Judaism and repudiated its malignant doctrine of Jewish responsibility for deicide.
There are many anomalies highlighted in this meticulously researched and comprehensive survey of one of the most important developments in the 20th century. Tobias is, by profession, a skilled tax lawyer, who taught at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and who latterly earned a PhD in religious studies at the University of Toronto.
The focus of his doctoral dissertation, Isaac, was a man of many talents. Isaac’s textbooks on French and general history were staples of the high school curriculum in France, and regarded as authoritative sources for those subjects. That he would become the driving force after the Second World War towards the re-direction of Catholic doctrines vis-à-vis Jews is not something one would have expected from the high position he had occupied, quite comfortably, in France.
That comfort disappeared during the Nazi invasion of the country, and the occupation that followed. Almost 70,000 Jews were deported by the Nazis, most of whom perished in the concentration camps. Isaac himself narrowly escaped capture and survived only through the goodwill of friends, who hid him from both French collaborators and German troops. His wife and daughter, however, succumbed to the Nazi dragnet and he never saw them again.
Another element that makes it even more startling that Isaac authored a number of treatises on the image of Jews in official Catholic doctrine is that Isaac had really little sympathy for Judaism. In fact, as Tobias reveals, Isaac once indicated that he much preferred paganism as a religious code. His indifference to the sancta of Judaism, a secularism that was quite common among many French Jews in the 1920s and 1930s, may explain why his son converted to Christianity.
It was during the Nazi occupation of France that Isaac, who had been a close associate of Charles Peguy, an early 20th-century sensitive Catholic poet, essayist and editor, began to analyze the sources that had contributed to the hatred that targeted his wife and daughter. He came to the not illogical conclusion that certain theological constructions in Catholicism were responsible for the teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism.
Isaac, of course, as a gifted historian, knew that antisemitism existed before Christianity (as his Catholic interlocutors pointed out to him in later years) but he instinctively knew that pagan distaste for Jews was incidental, and recorded in minor chords, compared to the 2,000-year-old assault on Jews and Judaism first enshrined in Christian scripture and repeated century after century by the fathers of the Church and thereafter from Church pulpits especially in Europe. Isaac also knew that economic, political and social prejudices were sometimes hidden in the religious vernacular but his purpose was to show that it might be possible to alter the religious narrative through patient argument and persuasion.
The late Gregory Baum, a Catholic theologian of high repute, who wrote a warm introduction to the Tobias volume, originally responded to Isaac’s powerful Jesus and Israel (1948) by saying, in the early 1960s, that the New Testament was not antisemitic; it was an interpretation problem. Later, in the 1970s, Baum re-read Isaac’s work and reported that racial antisemitism was indeed present in parts of the New Testament.
For his carefully calibrated work, Isaac consulted with knowledgeable people and, during the decade from the end of the war, he organized his thinking in order to hone his criticism of the Christian texts with antisemitic tonalities and to suggest changes that would improve the image of Jews and Judaism. Isaac, in typical French style, created formats listing points to be analyzed like an explication de texte, that wonderful exegetical instrument.
It is not possible in a review to go through all of the points that Isaac deployed in his polemic but the major ones deal with the New Testament’s cruel caricature of Judaism as a corrupt and decadent civilization, its cavalier indictment of all Jews as being responsible for the crucifixion when most Jews actually lived in the Diaspora, and its horrendous “blood libel,” in which Jewish participants in the deicide legitimize their own punishment in perpetuity.
In the various encounters he had in print with respondents and in conversations with Catholic representatives in the 1940s and 1950s at various conferences in Europe – the descriptions of which Tobias offers with generous details, including a footnote apparatus I think should in some places have been inserted into the text – Isaac was always firm in his advocacy. His reputation as a sober, informed and flexible partisan of change in Church doctrines preceded him.
One of the most intriguing parts of the Tobias chronicle pivots on the road to Vatican II and the response to Isaac’s Jesus and Israel, just one of several of Isaac’s impressive works. Tobias has ferreted out the major reviews of the book that appeared in prestigious French journals. Not all were favourable, as might have been expected. One of the most acerbic criticisms focused on Isaac’s alleged memory lapse in not questioning Jewish unbelief after the crucifixion – as if this had anything to do with Isaac’s indictment of the New Testament’s “pogromist” attitude to Jews.
The Vatican II deliberations on Jews and other religions in 1963 incorporated, as far as Jews and Judaism were concerned, Isaac’s plangent plea for changes in statements about both. Isaac unfortunately passed away before it became official Church teaching but it was a wonderful posthumous reward.
On a personal note, in 1964, this reviewer heard Father Gregory Baum deliver a lecture at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario. I asked Father Baum how long it would take for Vatican II’s message to seep down to the parish level. He replied, “300 years.”
Arnold Ages is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of Waterloo.