My best friend, a Jewish atheist (or, is it “atheist Jew”?) often teases me that I am trying to turn him into a Christian. He says this, not because I continually press him to conversion (I don’t), but because of the fondness I have for Simone Weil and Edith Stein (later Saint Teresia Benedicta of the Cross), two Jewish philosophers who both had life-changing encounters with Catholicism. While I am not in the habit (pardon the pun) of evangelizing my friend, my love for these two thinkers cannot be denied. But my fondness for Judaism predates my encounter with Weil or Stein.
As a young man (I came late to academia), I studied Hebrew with a conservative Jew at his home in Oak Park, Michigan. Richard worked as an engineer. I would meet with him every Wednesday evening and he led me through the rudiments of Hebrew, what he called and I still think of as “the Holy tongue.” Often Richard and his wife Irene would invite my wife and me to enjoy their Shabbat meal with them. I still remember some of the prayers and recite them for my children upon occasion. They mean the world to me.
Through my undergraduate and graduate studies, I encountered the work of other Jewish thinkers whose impact on my own thinking has been profound. I don’t know who I would be had I not met with the writing of Martin Buber, a thinker so audacious as to write about, “the likeness—impossible in any feeling whatsoever—of all who love, from the smallest to the greatest and from the blessedly protected man, whose life is rounded in that of a loved being, to him who is all his life nailed to the cross of the world, and who ventures to bring himself to the dreadful point—to love all men.” Likewise, the work of Walter Benjamin, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Derrida brought me to a deeper, philosophical understanding of the way we come to see the other—including the Big Other. From them I learned that every important question is, at its core, a religious question.
As a scholar of seventeenth century English religious literature, I have, of course, met many people working in my discipline. When I asked one of them, an Italian Israeli and observant Jew living in Jerusalem, what attracted him to the Metaphysical poets (John Donne, George Herbert, Aemelia Lanyer, and others), his answer was simple: “The poetry, the intelligence, the wordplay—and the mysticism, man.” He instantly became for me one of the most important people on the planet.
I am an Eastern Rite Catholic and, as far as I am concerned, that makes me the member of a heretical branch of Judaism. I am, of course, fully aware of the problematic relationship between Judaism and Christianity over the centuries which has often seemed to me to be a manifestation of Oedipal rage writ large. That is to say, anti-Semitism is pathological.
Unfortunately, I think the pathology of anti-Semitism is alive and still unwell. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can pronounce that Israel “should be wiped from the face of the map” and still be allowed to pursue nuclear capabilities by the world community—this does quite a lot to confirm my suspicions. This example is not the only one. The outcry two years ago against Israel’s blockade of flotillas loaded with angry, club-wielding “peaceful” protestors did much to illuminate (in my eyes, at least) the latent anti-Semitism of the international community. And, this sort of pathological state of soul has even touched Noble laureate Desmond Tutu whose criticisms of the state of Israel are fairly indistinguishable from anti-Semitism, including his bizarre complaint about “the Jewish monopoly of the Holocaust.”
Tutu conflates criticisms (valid or invalid) of the Israeli body politic with Judaism, a pretty common mistake. As far as I am concerned, government of any form is, at best, a necessary evil—but it’s still evil. But something bigger is at stake here.
Taking my cue from Isi Liebler, for me, the persistence of the Jewish people and the existence of the State of Israel are evidence not of some human conspiracy of power and influence, of capital and coercion, but of Tikkun Olam, the reparation of the world.
It’s the mysticism, man.
"Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, Who distinguishes between the sacred and the secular, between light and dark, between Israel and the nations, between the seventh day and the six days of labor. Blessed are You, LORD, Who distinguishes between the sacred and the secular."
Spero columnist Michael Martin teaches at Marygrove College in Michigan.