Together Bound with God

John C. Merkle

College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University


Reading the story told by Mary Boys and Sara Lee about the Colloquium that they designed and guided has put me in an autobiographical mood. As the lives of Colloquium participants were transformed by their interreligious learning, so also my life as a Catholic Christian has been forever changed by my encounter with Jews and Judaism.

Some twenty-three years ago I began to read books about Judaism by Jewish authors. I was in my second year of graduate theological studies at the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. As an undergraduate I had majored in philosophy and minored in theology at another Catholic school, so I already had read numerous works of Christian theology. When I began reading Jewish sources about Judaism, I was stunned by the radical difference between the Judaism portrayed in those sources and the Judaism depicted in the classical Christian theological literature with which I had become familiar. There was almost no resemblance between the two Judaisms.

It soon became evident to me that the Judaism of Christian theology was a Christian invention. This caused an acute theological, even spiritual, crisis for me. The problem was not simply that the church of which I was part had engaged in misinformation about another faith. It went deeper than that, cutting to the very core of Christian self-understanding. For I was all too aware of the fact that, from the end of the first century onward, the church had defined its identity in relation to Judaism. Having emerged as a movement within Judaism, and then having gone its separate way, the church attempted to legitimize its independent status by presenting itself as the "new Israel" that had displaced the Jewish people who were thereby relegated to the position of "old Israel." It was now becoming clear to me that for such a claim to be considered true by Christians, Judaism had to be presented as something inferior to Christianity, as an outmoded religion which deserved to be replaced by Christianity. But the Judaism that I was encountering in Jewish sources—and eventually came to encounter in Jewish homes and synagogues—was very much alive and bearing the fruit of holiness. It was a noble and vital faith which had spiritually sustained countless Jews amidst untold persecutions—mainly at the hands of Christians. Soon I came to realize that the antisemitism manifested throughout Christian history was rooted in the anti-Judaism of Christian theology.

Along with, and related to, the moral problem of antisemitism, there was a profound theological problem with which I knew I had to deal: since the Church’s identity had been built in large part upon misinformation about Judaism, I wondered if there was a way of reconstructing Christian identity apart from anti-Judaism. I wondered how the church might legitimize its identity and mission other than by portraying itself as the "new Israel" that replaced the "old Israel." And this was no mere academic theological question, but a personal spiritual problem. For I was shaken to the foundations of my spiritual life by the realization that the church to which I belonged had in large part established its identity over and against a misrepresented Judaism.

It wasn’t long before I found out that other Christian theologians—though not very many of them—were also confronting this issue. And soon after I began studying Judaism, the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews issued guidelines for Catholic-Jewish relations, urging Catholics to understand how Jews as Jews define themselves (Vatican 1974). I understood this to include the recommendation that we Catholics should understand Judaism as Jews define it—not as Christians have defined it. At about the same time, another important church document caught my attention. In a statement of 1975, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops emphasized the seriousness of the new Christian encounter with Jews and Judaism. The bishops claimed that "the brief suggestions on Catholic-Jewish relations of the Vatican Council have been taken up by some theologians, but their implications for theological renewal have not yet been fully explored" (National Conference 1975). To a large extent, my own theological enterprise has been and remains a response to the challenge of the American bishops to explore these implications. This is not the time for me to describe in detail these implications as I have come to understand them, but I will indicate a few.

God, Torah, and the covenant peoplehood of Israel are the three central categories of Judaism. So it makes sense that when Christian theologians have attempted to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity to Judaism they have claimed that the Jewish understanding of God, the way of Torah, and the covenant of Israel have been superseded by the Christian view of God, the gospel of Christ, and the new Christian covenant. But in my study and my contacts with Jews, I have discovered that the Jewish understanding of God as it has developed through the centuries is every bit as profound as what Christian theologians have usually claimed could be attained only by means of Christian faith; that the way of Torah, which in traditional Christian literature has been declared abrogated, continues to bear the fruit of holiness, whether in Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox expressions of it; and that the Jewish people, whose divinely appointed mission supposedly had been superseded by the Christian community, has endured through untold persecutions precisely because of their spiritual and moral vitality. In the wake of these discoveries, I inevitably had to develop a new understanding of Judaism, one very different than the traditional understanding I previously held.

Here I want to stress that it was not only or even mainly my solitary study of Judaism that inspired my newfound appreciation of Judaism. Rather, it was primarily my contacts with Jews—including my study with them—that led me to perceive the abiding validity and grandeur of Judaism. I have been inspired by many Jews, but most of all by my late friend Rabbi Hershel Matt. In the spirit of the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium, I am moved to give witness to something of the transformative impact Hershel had on me.

The last moments I ever spent with Hershel were very much like many other moments we had spent together. Two months before he died, Hershel stayed for several days with my wife, Sarah, and me in our home. On the last day, just after Sarah left for work and about a half hour before Hershel had to leave to catch a plane, Hershel asked me if I would like to study a text of Torah with him. This was vintage Hershel! He always called my wandering mind back to God. Of course I wanted to study Torah with Hershel. To do so was to be spiritually renewed. But just by being with Hershel I felt spiritually uplifted. Not only was he a masterful teacher of Torah; his life was a sublime midrash on the Torah. More than anyone I have ever met, Hershel Matt embodied and made real the heart and core of the Torah.

I have never known a person with a more generous spirit than Hershel Matt, nor anyone with a greater sense of empathy. In moments of anguish, Hershel was always someone to whom I could turn, and he never failed to listen and respond with deep sensitivity. Hershel felt deeply not only my pain but also my joy. I will never forget the sheer glee with which he responded to the news of my engagement to Sarah. After writing a beautiful letter and a moving prayer for Sarah and me, Hershel began his next letter with a line I will never forget: "Am still aglow over the wonderful news about you and Sarah." And I knew it was true—Hershel was really aglow with our joy. He also traveled farther than anyone outside our families to celebrate our wedding with us, greatly enhancing our own joy on that festive day. Hershel was again aglow when Sarah and I told him of Sarah’s pregnancy. Throughout the pregnancy he wrote to us regularly and always with a sense of expectancy and joy. We remain forever grateful that he came to visit us toward the end of Sarah’s pregnancy; we are still deeply saddened that he never got to hear the news of Anna’s birth—and that she will never know in person this saintly man.

From the beginning to the end, Hershel was utterly generous in his friendship with me. We began to correspond in 1973 before we ever met. I wrote to him first after learning from a medical student at the University of Louvain that Hershel had been a student of Abraham Joshua Heschel, on whom I was then planning to write a master’s thesis at Louvain. I asked Hershel if he would send me a more complete bibliography of Heschel’s works than what I already had. He wrote back promptly—expressing enthusiasm for my project and sending me not only a bibliography but a stack of Xeroxed articles that he assumed (rightly) I would have a hard time tracking down in Europe. From that point on until just days before his death, Hershel remained my most faithful and engaging correspondent.

In much of our correspondence, as in many of our conversations, Hershel and I would "truly engage around questions of faith." Did these encounters, did this friendship, destabilize my faith? Indeed! Initially I had received the typical Christian education concerning Judaism as a religion that had been superseded by Christianity. Knowing Hershel Matt, experiencing the Judaism by which he lived, helped to undermine that initial education. My times with Hershel left me with the same question that Protestant theologian Robert McAfee Brown raised after his encounters with Rabbi Abraham Heschel (whom I never met): "What have I got to tell this man about God?" Brown confessed that he "never found an answer" to that question and "at this stage of Christian-Jewish dialogue" he remained "content to learn" (Brown 1973, 257).

That’s precisely how I felt after my encounter with Hershel Matt, even though Hershel was always genuinely interested in what I had to say about God. Brown confessed that his experience with Abraham Heschel left him "disquieted." My experience with Hershel Matt left me disquieted as well, destabilizing my previous Christian self-understanding. Since my identity as a Christian had been partially formed in relation to a caricature of Judaism, my new understanding of Judaism inevitably had to lead either to an abandonment of Christian faith or to a reformulation of it.

Fortunately, I have discovered a way to be Christian while at the same time acknowledging the permanent validity of Judaism. I have even come to realize that my own Christian faith is enhanced and strengthened by perceiving Judaism as an allied faith. Hershel’s approach to his faith inspired me in this regard. He was passionately steadfast in his Jewish faith while affirming the validity of Christianity. This is because for him Judaism was not the object of his faith but the means by which he lived his faith in God. My encounter with Hershel (and other Jews as well) forced me to realize that Christianity must never be the object of my faith but the means by which I express my faith in God. I became convinced that genuine faith in God demands a relativizing of one’s own faith, that faith in God is incompatible with the absolutizing of anything other than God, including a cherished tradition that exists to foster faith in God.

My newfound appreciation of religious pluralism obviously meant that I had to rethink the meaning of Christ. Without elaborating it here, I can say that while retaining my belief that God was incarnate in Christ, I came to believe that God was every bit as present to Jews through Torah as to Christians through Christ. I began to view the incarnation of God in Christ as a particular instance of divine involvement in human history, and I became convinced that Christian monotheism is attenuated or undermined if the doctrine of the Incarnation is understood to mean that Jesus must be considered the only way to God. This is because nothing but God alone, not even an incarnation of God, is absolute. God transcends divine manifestations—even a divine incarnation.

If we Christians hold such a view, we can make theological room for Judaism and other faiths as valid pathways to God. Of late the Catholic church and other churches have been making theological room for Judaism, affirming its abiding validity. Nevertheless, there still exists within the churches, including the Catholic church, the widespread conviction—expressed in both official and unofficial theological writings—that the Jewish covenant has been fulfilled by a new Christian covenant. In this view, Judaism remains a valid religion but is considered inferior to Christianity; the Jewish covenant is not superseded but surpassed.

In my view, this is not good enough. Having encountered the grandeur of Judaism in Jewish books and, more importantly, in Jewish lives, I have become convinced that Judaism has an irreplaceable role to play in the sanctification and redemption of the world. I believe with all my heart that God wants Judaism and the Jewish people to flourish. With a growing number of Christian theologians, I have learned how to sustain my commitment to Christianity while hoping that Jews sustain their commitment to Judaism rather than convert to Christianity.

Here’s how I see it. The God who formed Israel into a people by way of the covenant and who regards this people and their covenant as irreplaceable, this God reached out beyond Israel and called into being a church from among the Gentiles. Surely this was not to make of the church a "new Israel" that would take the place and usurp the role of the Jewish people. Rather, in accord with the divine promise to Abraham, it was to extend the blessings of covenantal life—albeit in a new form—to Gentiles.

To be sure, Judaism is not closed to Gentiles. Anyone who desires to respond to God by way of Torah may convert to Judaism. Still, I trust, the one God of Israel is pleased by more than one form of covenantal life. It is my conviction that as much as God wants Judaism and the Jewish people to thrive, and as much as God wants converts to Judaism, God also wills a way of covenantal life for Gentiles as Gentiles that is distinct from, though related to, the Jewish way of living in covenant.

I am delighted to know that there are Jews who share this perspective, believing, like Hershel Matt, that through Christianity "God’s covenant promise and providence have been opened up to extend beyond the People Israel" (Matt 1975, 404). I am confident that most Jews agree with Abraham Heschel’s statement that "holiness is not the monopoly of any particular religion" and, therefore, that "conversion to Judaism is no prerequisite for sanctity" (Heschel 1966, 130-131).

In my view, the same applies to Christianity: conversion to it is no prerequisite for sanctity. But Christianity, like Judaism and other faith traditions as well, is a means to sanctity, and a way by which people can help God sanctify and redeem life. I think of Christianity not as representing a new covenant that supersedes or even surpasses the Jewish covenant, but as a new way, coexisting with Judaism, of living in a covenant with God. Such a view constitutes a radical transformation in Christian self-understanding, but I believe it is closer to the vision of the earliest Christians who, like Jesus, continued to live within the Jewish covenant. I also believe this view is more compatible with the Vatican Guidelines which I already mentioned that urge Catholics to understand Judaism as Jews define it. Moreover, I am convinced it is one of the "implications for theological renewal," also previously mentioned, which the United States Catholic bishops urged theologians to explore.

The time has come for Christians and Jews to get beyond the disputations of the past and to see each other’s religion as an allied faith. Far too many people in various traditions waste far too much energy on arguing and fighting with each other when the task at hand is to join in common cause to fight against the nihilism, despair, and violence that is consuming our children and tearing our world asunder. God does not desire that we all be of one religion but that we of different religions be united in the divine and human task of sanctifying and redeeming the world. The task is urgent. Religious intolerance kills! And even when it doesn’t literally kill, it diminishes human beings. Mutual understanding and respect, born of interfaith accord, heals and enhances human lives. This is why it is so desperately needed--because it makes us and our society more humane and thereby brings honor and glory to God.

God is so great, far greater than any of our conceptions of God, far greater than either of our traditions—indeed, greater than all religious traditions. Yet however great and glorious, this God of ours needs our help. If there is anything I have learned from Judaism, and I have learned so much, it is that God does not redeem human lives without human cooperation.

Rabbi Heschel said "God’s mercy is too great to permit the innocent to suffer. But there are forces that interfere with God’s mercy, with God’s power. This is a dreadful mystery as well as a challenge: God is held in captivity" (Heschel 1970, 4). So this is our supreme responsibility: to help liberate God from captivity and let the divine mercy flow through our lives to save the innocent who suffer.

If God is absent from our world, if our lives are still largely unredeemed, we must not blame God. God creates a world sublime, but we fail to appreciate it; the glory of God fills the earth, but we do our best to conceal it; God’s will has been revealed to us, but we fail to heed it; God assaults our conscience with the demand for justice and love, but we ignore the outcry. Accusing God for being absent, as if we have been present; blaming God for the ills that plague us, as if we have been laboring to redeem the world, is not the way. No, what is meaningful is to put an end to evil by becoming vehicles of God’s redeeming presence.

May the peace for which both Jews and Christians long pervade our lives so that we may have the courage and the strength to be together bound with God and each other in the supreme task of putting an end to evil and mending our broken world.

John C. Merkle is Professor of Theology at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota and at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.


List of Works Consulted

Brown, Robert McAfee. 1973. Abraham Heschel: A passion for sincerity. Christianity and Crisis 33/21. 256-259.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. 1966. No Religion is an Island. Union Seminary Quarterly Review 21/2. 117-134.

_______________. 1970. On prayer. Conservative Judaism 25/1. 1-12.

Matt, Hershel. 1975. How shall a believing Jew view Christianity? Judaism 24/4. 391-405.

National Conference of Catholic Bishops. 1975. Statement on Catholic-Jewish relations. In Stepping Stones to Further Jewish-Christian Relations: An Unabridged Collection of Christian Documents, compiled by Helga Croner. New York: Stimulus Books, 1977. 11-16.

Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with Jews. 1974. Guidelines and suggestions for implementing the conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate, No. 4. In Ibid. 29-32.