Monday, February 7, 2011

Our Younger Brothers in Faith

Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews -- A HistoryIn the last few days, I've finally taken on Constantine's Sword; The Church and the Jews, James Carroll's masterful crash course in the Church, Catholicism and the longest hatred. I hope to write a full review of the book when I've completed it, surprised as I have been with the author's turns of faith and potent intellect. If only to witness the fate of the disquieting storm that Carroll has raised amidst his own beliefs, I await his theological reconstitution, his spiritual conciliation with eager anticipation.

Still, I wonder, the book is now a decade old, and what has come of these ideas, and how much further will they travel within the Church, and extant of it. Is this merely a temporal slice of Catholic thought, too cerebral and challenging for canonical adoption, for mass contemplation and enduring reflection? Andrew Sullivan wrote an endorsement of this work when it launched - it's right there, on the back cover - and perhaps reviewed it on his blog (actually, in the NYT). And yet, not so long after, I could charge Carroll's own words with unmasking Sullivan's betrayal of them. A man who once termed Constantine's Sword, "Remarkable... a book of a deeper sort," has spent the last half decade ignoring its vital insights, forgetting its imploring lessons.

Perhaps Carroll will yet turn on me, as I am not yet halfway through, but surely it says something that a Jew of my persuasion has found little in this work at conflict with my core sensibilities, if we're honest about it, and that is no small achievement given the complexity of the subject. Carroll writes as a Catholic and a Christian, yes, and unapologetically so, but what will these terms mean to him, or to me, when he's done with them? Perhaps the stage being set for the answer lies in the following excerpt, on page 109:
Even though the pope's visit to Yad Vashem [John Paul II, in 2000] was the emotional high point of that week, his subsequent stop at the Western Wall was more important. For the pope to stand in devotion before that remnant of the Temple, for him to offer a prayer that did not invoke the name of Jesus, for him to leave a sorrowful kvitel, a written prayer, in a crevice of the wall, in Jewish custom, was the single most momentous act of his papacy. It was a culmination of the slow reversal of ancient Christian denigration not only of the Temple but of the Jews who had, as the scholar Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi writes, constructed "memory temples... out of the ruins of their material existence." That denigration has been the essence of supersessionism, and the source of antisemitism. The pope's unprecedented presence in Jerusalem had said, in effect, that the Catholic Church honors Jews at home in Israel - a rejection of the ancient Christian attachment to the myth of Jewish wandering, even if Catholic ambivalence about the Jewish state seems less than fully resolved. But whatever political problems remain, a religious threshold has been crossed. The pope's religious devotion at the Western Wall was an unmistakable act of affirmation of the Temple [the physical Jewish Temple, which the early Christians purposefully superseded with "the body of Christ"], and of G-d's unbroken covenant with the Jewish people today.
Never before had I contemplated the pope's visit having this significance. Indeed, the lay Jewish views of the pope's pilgrimage to Israel, frankly and to the extent that I know them, range from suspicion that Rome was staking a claim on the Western Wall to diplomatic but irrelevant interfaith dialogue. If the sentiment Carroll describes is widespread among Catholics, or Catholic thinkers and theologians, then a theological revolution in the Church is well under way. For if the Temple - and it's spiritual purpose, physical necessity and centrality in devotion (or as we Jews call it, avoda, divine service) - were never supplanted by Christ, in the mind's eye of the Church, then a real healing of the Christian-Jewish rift is neither impossible, nor so distant as we imagine.

On My Bookshelf