My God, My God, Why Have I Forsaken You

Originally published in Inside the Vatican magazine, May 2004.

The Passion of the Christ has highlighted the relationship between Jews and Catholics who together stand witness to all of salvation history.

During the past few decades the relationship has suffered because some in the dialogue have tried to create the appearance of progress through polite avoidance of substantive issues. Christ boldly foretold the Holy Eucharist at Capernaum. He knew the Jews would go away on hearing His hard saying, but He also knew that many would return. And he told us, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” Jn 20:21. We are to do as he did.

In this my brothers in Catholic faith bear the greatest responsibility. The Messiah had told his Apostles, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” Mt 10:5, and, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” Mt 15:24. Yet only recently we have heard Catholics in responsible positions say that Jews live in a separate saving covenant and do not need Christ. A Catholic who knows Christ’s teaching, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” Jn 3:5 and still tells Jews that they do not need baptism, needs prayer. “Woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would be better for that man if he had not been born” Mt 26:24.

But there are also those on the Jewish side who deploy the “anti-Semite” charge merely upon hearing what they do not like. Anti-Semitism is a visceral hatred of Jews, not a statement at variance with Jewish theology and sensibility. Spurious charges of anti-Semitism poison the dialogue; it’s hard to sustain a disciplined conversation with someone who is calling you names.

Catholic Outreach and Jewish Response
True Catholics cannot ever be anti-Semitic. We revere as the Messiah the most famous and influential rabbi who ever lived, Yeshua ben David, whose shlikhim, memorizers of his oral teaching, included Shimeon (Kefa), Yaakov ben Zevdi, Yokhanan ben Zevdi, T’oma, Matityahu, Yaakov ben Halfai, Shimeon HaQana, Yehuda Ish Krayot, etc. Some of His other close disciples were Yokhanan Hamatbil, Shaul ha-Tarsi, and Bar Talmay.

They were, we are, Jews who have become complete in the Messiah. After rising from the tomb, Rabbi Yeshua went to his shlikhim in the Upper Room and said to them, Shalom alekhem, “Peace be with you” Jn 20:19. Shalom also means “completion;” the Jewish mind finds true peace only in completion, the house built, the promise kept, the Messiah arrived. The Catholic Church has become the new Israel; every Catholic priest today re-presents the Final Sacrifice; Jewish priests no longer sacrifice.

This is not Protestant “supersession” theology, which casts aside Rabbinic Judaism as a spent force. The Jews who reject Rabbi Yeshua remain our brothers, sons of our Father in heaven. They hold to an earlier and incomplete part of God’s revelation, but it remains God’s revelation. They still have God’s election. They are prodigal sons. Our family is not complete without them, and we await their return (cf. CCC § 674).

Rabbi Yeshua told us, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” Jn 13:35. That kind of love can only cherish and protect. During the past half century the Catholic Church has reached out to Jews in an extraordinary way. Nostra aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, October 28, 1965, § 4, says: “Indeed, the Church believes that by His cross Christ, Our Peace, reconciled Jews and Gentiles, making both one in Himself.” Then came Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, December 1, 1974, and Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church, July 1, 1985. The Catechism of the Catholic Church § 839 speaks warmly of the Jewish people. So do We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, March 16, 1998, and Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and Faults of the Past, December 1999. All of these were published at high levels of Vatican authority.

Yet on the Jewish side there is only Dabru Emet, published by the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, with a modest number of signatures by rabbis and Jewish scholars. And we should mention the small but welcome group of observant Jews who have been friendly and supportive, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Michael Medved, Dennis Prager, Paul Greenberg, Jonah Goldberg, David Frum, Jeff Jacoby, David Horowitz, Mona Charen, Suzanne Fields and others. But Dabru Emet has encountered strong opposition within the Jewish community.

Jewish Provocations
If Jews ask Catholics to avoid provoking anti-Semitism, we should expect that Jews would avoid provoking anti-Semitism. But the liberal Jewish approach to Christianity during the second half of the twentieth century has been, in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ classic phrase, “shouting fire in a crowded theater.”

Since 1963 liberal Jews have consistently attacked Pope Pius XII as a surrogate for the Church. They objected loudly to the canonizations of St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Edith Stein, and to the beatification of Bl. Pope Pius IX. But the most hostile attacks have occurred in the New York City art world, where Jewish influence is dominant. In 1999 Arnold Lehman, the Jewish director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, presented “Sensation,” an exhibit by a British Jew, Charles Saatchi, featuring several works that attacked the Catholic faith, including Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary,” a black Madonna with breasts made of elephant dung surrounded by cutouts from pornographic magazines. When Mayor Rudy Giuliani, deeply offended, insisted that Catholics should not be forced to pay for the desecration of their own religion, a New York Times editorial declared that Giuliani’s proposal to withhold city funding “promises to begin a new Ice Age in New York’s cultural affairs.” In a single op-ed, playwright Jon Robin Baitz managed to invoke the Inquisition, Stalinist Russia, and Nazi Germany.

Liberal Jewish influence is also strong in Hollywood. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, a 1988 box-office disaster for Universal Pictures, depicts Jesus saying to an unidentified man, “Lucifer is inside me. He tells me I am not a man, but the Son of Man, more the Son of God, more than that, God.” Its last half hour is devoted to a hallucination scene that begins when a beautiful child appears while Jesus is dying on the cross and says she is his guardian angel, sent by God to save his life. She tells Jesus that God does not want him to die, but had been only testing his loyalty. Now that he has passed the test, he can come down from the cross. Jesus asks, “You mean I’m not the Messiah,” and the angel replies, “No.” This guardian angel leads Jesus to Mary Magdalene. Jesus marries her and makes love to her while the angel watches. Then Mary is shown partially naked at nearly full-term pregnancy. A blinding light appears and she is killed. The angel tells Jesus that God killed her. Next, the angel leads Jesus to Mary and Martha. Jesus marries Mary and commits adultery with Martha. They both bear his children. And so on. It was highly praised in Hollywood.

When liberal Jews legitimize such disrespectful attacks on religious belief they open the way for disrespect of Judaism. Some time ago Leonard Nimoy published a book, Shkhina, fifty-four black-and-white photographs of women, many naked but wearing the tallit (prayer shawl) and tephillin (phylacteries). Growing up, he attended an Orthodox shul in Boston where he saw kohanim part their fingers in a V sign, making the Hebrew letter shin, as part of a blessing, and later used it in Star Trek as Spock’s Vulcan salute. Live long and prosper.

Jews tell us that anti-Semitism is pervasive even in the United States, yet not a single Christian-made “work of art” or movie comparably offensive to Jews has become prominent. We can only conclude that the liberal Jewish establishment retains sufficient influence to suppress such works and has chosen to allow those that vilify Christianity.

These attacks are inconsistent with Jewish interests. Jews today urgently need Christians as friends. We live in a time when real anti-Semitism is rising all over the world. In Turkey synagogues have been bombed, in France defaced, in California sprayed with gunfire, by Muslims, not Christians. One would expect Jewish strategists to cultivate a good relationship with active Christians as a bulwark against Muslim hostility. Moreover, Islamists have said openly that their attacks on the United States are retaliation for U.S. support of Israel. Let Israel be destroyed, they say, and there will be peace. American support for Israel, driven by strong Christian support, has been its temporal protection.

They are also inconsistent with Jewish teaching. Mishna Shabbat 31a tells us that a Gentile once approached Shammai and said to him: “Convert me, but teach me the entire Torah as I stand on one foot.” Shammai, assuming that he wasn’t serious, chased him away. The Gentile then approached Hillel with the same request. Hillel realized that the Gentile had not studied Torah from youth and was looking for a central organizing principle by which he could learn it. Hillel’s “Torah on one foot” was, “That which you hate, don’t do to others.” Hillel added, “That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”

The spiritual war is currently being fought as a war between God and government as the source of all that we need and the organizing principle of our lives. In our age we see liberalism, the advocate for government, working through many front organizations. When President Bush nominated Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, DC, Hispanic organizations opposed him. When President Bush nominated Janice Rogers Brown to another seat on the same court, the black and women’s organizations opposed her. These organizations ostensibly exist to support the promotion of Hispanics, blacks, and women to high office, but when a conflict arises between their stated objectives and their liberal objectives, liberalism prevails every time.

Are the liberal Jewish congregations merely front organizations for liberalism? Each congregation has to decide for itself whether it is authentically Jewish or the Democratic Party with holidays. Hillel’s golden rule of tzedaka, charity, or liberalism? Tefila, prayer, or liberalism? Teshuva, repentance, or liberalism?

The Passion of the Christ
When Mel Gibson announced that he was working on The Passion of the Christ, the provocations suddenly went ballistic, reminding many Christians of St. Mark’s Gospel, which describes the numerous exorcisms needed to combat Satan’s sudden whirlwind of activity when Christ began his public ministry. Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, led the charge, and other liberal Jewish elites followed. The King of Kings in 1961, The Greatest Story Ever Told in 1965, and Jesus of Nazareth in 1977 all portrayed a scheming Caiaphas leading a Jewish mob to demand crucifixion, yet the major Jewish organizations raised no objection. But this attack started while Gibson was filming the movie in Italy, long before any of the protagonists ever saw a script. It looked like a coordinated attack on the Catholic Church using Gibson as a surrogate, similar to the attacks that used Pope Pius XII as a surrogate.

Weeks before The Passion of the Christ was released, Mort Zuckerman’s New York Daily News, in articles, opinion pieces, and editorials, predicted that the move “will” (not “might”) incite violence against Jews and maybe ruin Mel Gibson’s Hollywood career. When The Passion of the Christ was released, Daily News reviewer Jami Barnard called it “… the most virulently anti-Semitic movie since the Third Reich.” Jonathan Foreman, in the New York Post, called it “sadistic,” “pornographic,” and “the product of a distinctly perverted sensibility.”

At first the argument was that the movie was anti-Jewish. When it became clear that the details described as “anti-Jewish” were true to the Gospels, liberal Jews said that the Gospels were anti-Jewish. That is a hard saying when applied to books written by Jews for Jews about a Jew put to death at Jewish insistence.

So they began to say that the Gospels were not inherently anti-Jewish but that Christians often drew anti-Jewish conclusions from them. But Evangelical Christians, the biggest Bible thumpers of all, read their Gospels at home, hear them proclaimed each Sunday at worship service, and are the most energetic defenders of Israel today.

Jews say that it is not provocative, but only fair, to ask why The Passion of the Christ portrays the Jewish authorities as corrupt. Michael Medved wrote in Christianity Today, March 2004, “For Jews, however, there’s a special squirm factor in watching the officials of a long-destroyed Temple, which we still revere as a holy gift from God, behaving in a selfish, officious, and sadistic manner.”

To understand, we need to go back several centuries. Solomon had immense wisdom and the privilege of building the Temple, but after his glory days he married pagan women who seduced him to abandon God and build temples for the Moabite and Ammonite idols. His Temple did not have God’s presence in the pillar of fire that the Tabernacle had.

God allowed the land of Israel to be divided. During the next two and a half centuries nineteen kings governed the northern kingdom of Israel with its ten tribes. All of them worshiped idols and led their people to worship idols. Finally, God allowed the Assyrians to take Israel. The southern kingdom of Judah lasted more than a century after that, because it was not as corrupted by idolatry. But after Josiah’s reign, Jeremiah told us, they defiled the Temple and “… built the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind,” Jer 7:31 The Israelites were sacrificing their own children to pagan gods. The Assyrians who had conquered the northern kingdom were themselves conquered by the Babylonians. God allowed the Babylonians to conquer Judah as well and burn the defiled Temple to the ground.

When the Babylonian Exile was over God led King Cyrus of Persia to rebuild the Temple, but this time God’s Shekinah presence over the Ark of the Covenant was absent. The Holy of Holies was a small empty room.

Our patient Father showed His children of the covenant that holiness is greater than worldly power. When Shimon HaTzaddik was high priest, Alexander the Great bowed down to him and spared the Temple, which he would otherwise certainly have destroyed while instituting Greek pagan culture throughout most of the known world. But after Shimon HaTzadik’s time most Jews began to absorb the pagan Greek culture.

Yehuda haMaccabi led a heroic rebellion that recaptured the Temple that had been profaned by the Seleucid king Antiochus, and God returned the land of Israel to the Jews. But Yehuda’s Hasmonean descendants fell back into sin. The first ruler of the newly restored Israel was Shimon, a priest like his father Matthias. No man could be both priest and king; kings had to come from the tribe of Judah and priests from the tribe of Levi. Shimon carefully called himself nasi, leader, but ruled as a king.

The downward spiral continued. After Shimon, Yochanan Hyrcanus expanded the borders of Israel and forced the conquered peoples, including the Idumeans, to convert to Judaism, an abominable violation of God’s rule of separation. Hyrcanus’ son, Alexander Yanai, was so pagan that he executed hundreds of Pharisees after forcing them to watch the slaughter of their families, all during a Greek style feast.

The last Hasmonean rulers were two brothers, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. They fought over which should be king, and asked Rome to mediate their dispute. The Roman general Pompey was glad to help. In 63 BC his legions marched into Jerusalem and made Israel the Roman province of Judea. It was soon ruled by Herod the Great, the Idumean who killed so many people including his own family that Augustus Caesar once observed, “It is better to be Herod’s dog than one of his children,” and who ordered the killing of all children under two years of age in Bethlehem in an effort to kill the Messiah (Mt 2:16).

Jewish tradition holds that the Romans descended from Esau, the pagan red-haired bloodthirsty brother of Jacob. Jews call Rome Edom, another name for Esau, which means both “red” and “blood.” But Jews under the Roman occupation had some twenty-four different factions all fighting against one another. Among the most prominent were the Pharisees, mainstream Jews who tried to curry favor with the Romans while practicing Torah Judaism. The Sadducees, wealthy Jews who did not believe that God had inspired the Oral Torah, also cooperated with the Romans to maintain their power and influence, thereby dominating and corrupting the Temple hierarchy. The scribes, professional interpreters of the Law in the synagogues, too became interested in currying influence and prestige. The Roman presence was prosperity for these hellenized and assimilated Jews. They deeply resented the Zealots, who were eager for war against the Romans and saw any cooperation with them as traitorous. Even Torah Jews took sides; some followed Rabbi Hillel while others followed Rabbi Shammai. Hillel’s followers intensely disapproved of Shammai’s teachings, and Shammai’s followers intensely disapproved of Hillel’s teachings. It was the time of sinat khinam, hatred without cause (Mishna Yoma 9b).

God marked the decline of Jewish observance of the Mosaic covenant. The Mishna, Yoma 39a and 39b, quotes from a Baraita narrative that describes five Temple miracles. During the time of Shimon HaTzadik, the Baraita tells us that the five Temple miracles occurred with complete consistency. But after that, as the Jewish spiritual level fell and Jews increasingly embraced paganism, the five Temple miracles occurred less and less often. By the time of Herod the Great they occurred only rarely.

This was the environment when Yeshua ben Yosef came into the world. The peace of his arrival was a sign that He was the Messiah. This is why He had to tell His followers, love eveh your enemies. The Jewish authorities of the day were not tzadikim but priest-politicians who had risen to power in a treacherous environment.

My God, My God
Why would major Jewish organizations so assault Christian sensibility, especially against The Passion of the Christ? Do they fear that Jews will see The Passion of the Christ and encounter their Messiah? Virtually every Jew would say no. The Passion is a hard saying for Jews, who could accept it? But, in Rabbi Yeshua’s time many Jews did accept it. Acts 2:41 “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”

The movie clearly reflects some effort to comfort Jewish sensibilities. The scene after the scourging, when Mary of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene clean up Rabbi Yeshua’s blood, is a Jewish touch, reminding us of the Hevra Kadisha, Holy Society, which comes after every terrorist attack in Israel in which blood is spilled. Also, Caiaphas says in clearly audible Aramaic, “Let his blood be on our heads and on our children’s heads,” but there is no subtitle, so that the movie remains true to the Gospel narratives while allowing only Hebrew or Aramaic speakers to pick up that detail.

If I had seen The Passion of the Christ while still Jewish I would have watched Rabbi Yeshua in Gethsemane offer Himself as the Final Sacrifice for all our sins. I would have reflected that He taught Hillel’s summary of all Torah, Mt 7:12 “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.”

When I saw the mob come to arrest Rabbi Yeshua, I would have reflected on His teaching, Mt 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And when I heard Him say from the Cross, Lk 23:34 “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” I would have known that He meant every word of it.

I would have watched the drops of blood fall from Rabbi Yeshua on the cross and remembered, Lev 17:11 “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life.” And I would have remembered the Mishna, Yoma 5a, “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.” cf. Heb 9:22

I would have heard Rabbi Yeshua say, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me,” remembered, Ps 22:18 “They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots,” and reflected that this was foretold in King David’s prophecy.
When I heard His final words, Ps 31:5 “Into thy hands I commit my spirit,” at the moment of His death, I would in astonishment have recited from memory the rest of that verse, “Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”

Then I would have recalled Rabbi Yeshua’s prophecy that He was the new Temple and reflected on Mishna Yoma 39b. The Baraita tells us that, from the year of Rabbi Yeshua’s Final Sacrifice, God accepted no further Yom Kippur Temple sacrifices.

And when I saw the Temple curtain torn, as a Jewish father tears his garment at the death of his son, I would have thought of our Father in heaven. Mishna Shekalim tells us that the curtain was “a handbreadth thick.” Our Father in heaven had torn his garment. At that moment I would have seen my own soul in the empty Holy of Holies, closed my eyes, and prayed, “My God, my God, why have I forsaken you?”