The American Catholic novelist Walker Percy once asked: “Why does no one find it remarkable that in most world cities today there are Jews but not one single Hittite, even though the Hittites had a great flourishing civilization while the Jews nearby were a weak and obscure people? When one meets a Jew in New York or New Orleans or Paris or Melbourne, it is remarkable that no one considers the event remarkable. What are they doing here?. . .if there are Jews here, why are there not Hittites here?. . .Show me one Hittite in New York City.”
Good questions in light of the recent anti-Semitic attacks in New York and elsewhere. But I would also add that the Jews offer credibility for the existence of a covenantal, personal God.
Credibility, though often overlooked, is an important part of our Catholic faith. It’s addressed quite early in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 156). Catholic theologian and Jewish convert Lawrence Feingold argues that there are various “supernatural signs that manifest the miraculous action of God.”
The Catechism explains: “so ‘that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit.’” These include “the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church’s growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability,” which serve as “the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all.” They demonstrate that the assent of faith is “by no means a blind impulse of the mind.”
Jews see the continued existence of the Jewish people and faith through so many centuries and in the midst of so many calamities, including that of a two-thousand year exile from their homeland, as a great sign of credibility in the truth of the Mosaic Revelation that formed that faith.
Consider all the nations who have disappeared from history. Genesis 15 names among the tribes occupying the land of Canaan the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites. Or, for those who endured years of high-school Latin, consider the tribes of Gaul conquered by Julius Caesar: Tectosages, Averni, Bituriges, Senones, Veneti, etc.
Thus, Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod observes: “It seems to be an indestructible people. While all the peoples of the ancient world have long disappeared, the Jewish people continues to live and has lived for two thousand years.” Surely this is something exceptional, though there are other cultures who can draw a line to their ancient, millennia-old ancestors: Iranians (Persians), Chinese, Andeans in the mountains of Peru and Bolivia, etc.
So we shift to another aspect of credibility: the Jewish faith. It’s not simply that the Jewish people have stood the test of time – it’s also their unique faith tradition. To be a Jew is to be a member of a religious community, one whose traditions reach back to the beginning of history. Since the time of the pyramids and Homer’s Troy, the Jews have worshipped YHWH, read the Hebrew scriptures, practiced rites like circumcision, and observed kosher dietary regulations. As Feingold notes, “they have maintained the same faith for well over three millennia!”
A skeptic might press: have not Hindus from the Indian subcontinent been practicing the same religion for approximately 4,000 years? Many of these Hindus, at least those from the highest class of Hindu society, the Brahmins, are just as focused on protecting the purity and exclusivity of their religio-linguistic-racial group.
This brings us to a paradoxical element of credibility: the Jews’ strange refusal to shake off their identity, even when they have largely rejected most of its elements. I was struck by this when I came upon a copy of the Atlanta Jewish Times. The magazine, about forty pages, has many stories about Jews and Judaism – their holidays, news, successes. Yet despite a number of stories about synagogues and rabbis, I couldn’t find a single reference to God in the entire publication. No theology. No column, as you usually find in a diocesan newspaper, on spiritual growth.
Granted, I only saw one edition of the Atlanta Jewish Times, but I wouldn’t be surprised if YHWH makes few, if any appearances in the magazine from year to year. This, I’d argue, is because many Jews are atheists or agnostics. One 2011 study found that about half of all American Jews have doubts about the existence of God. This compares to 10–15 percent of other American religious groups.
Nevertheless, despite what we might call a deep “lack of faith,” Jews, even atheist Jews, remain committed to their own. This is even the case when one’s Jewish parents, and even one’s Jewish grandparents, aren’t believers, as is increasingly the case.
I’ve known many Jews who, despite having no faith, maintain certain Jewish religious observances, and even regularly attend temple. Why? Why would a population group, when their daily language is English, their nationality American, their religious belief non-existent, continue to strongly identify as Jewish?
Perhaps because some transcendent power (i.e. God) has marked them, marked them so indelibly that even when faith in YHWH has expired, the mark persists. How else might we explain, to quote Feingold, “their continued vitality through so many centuries until today?” I don’t have a good answer, except to believe, as do some Jews (and many Christians), that God chose them.
Indeed, as our own Catechism teaches:
To the Jews “belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ,” “for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”
The Jewish people and their faith are more than a historical curiosity – they are one sign of the credibility of the God of Revelation. If this is so, to be anti-Semitic isn’t just prejudice. It’s to wage war against God Himself.
*Image: The Praying Jew by Marc Chagall, 1923 [Art Institute of Chicago]