A Jewish physicist and convert to Catholicism shares his thoughts on how the Jewish roots of Catholicism inform his faith.
Just one verse each day.
And if some of the branches be broken off [i.e. the Jews], and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree;Boast not against the branches. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in.For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee.And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be grafted in: for God is able to graft them in again. [emphasis added] As concerning the gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the father’s sakes.—St. Paul, Letter to the Romans 11 (KJV)
The second reading at Mass on the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 20) was from Chapter 11 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. As I heard it, I reflected that, although I was born a Jew, it had always been science (before my conversion, “Science!”) that had been an obstacle to my conversion. While I still remember being beaten up at the age of 7 by a couple of neighborhood youths for having for having “killed Christ,” that in itself did not prejudice me against Christianity, since I didn’t really know who Christ was at that time.
Did St. Paul do a good thing by severing Christianity from Judaism? My wife, a cradle Catholic who is much more knowledgeable in things Jewish than I—she has mastered Yiddish expressions, Jewish history, and, best of all, Jewish cooking—does not think so. After Mass she startled me by calling Paul her least favorite among the apostles. If it hadn’t been for Paul, she reasoned, Christianity might have been formed as just another Jewish sect, retaining most of its Judaic heritage, instead of just a portion of it.
I don’t agree. In order for Christianity to spread, it had to become separate from Judaism. As Paul argues to “the foolish Galatians,” it is faith in Christ, not obedience to the Law, that saves and sets free.
Nevertheless, there are Jewish elements to the Catholic faith. The Eucharist is derived from the Passover celebration, the Last Supper, and at my first Mass, I was amazed by the similarities between the liturgy of the Eucharist and the Passover Seder: the ritual washing of hands, the offering of wine, and, most importantly, the sacrifice of the Lamb.
There is a group of converted Jews called The Association of Hebrew Catholics (here’s their website) who try to maintain a Jewish identity within Catholicism. I was a member for a few years after my conversion; there were good articles and letters, but since I was never a religious Jew it did not seem, ultimately, a good match for me.
A portion of my Jewish heritage has remained, though: the adherence to yearly repentance and atonement for my sins at Yom Kippur (this year, September 29-30). Before my conversion, I would take the day off and try to go to some secluded place and meditate on the past year, what I had done wrong, and ask forgiveness from the God in whom I did not quite believe. I would also fast—a Jewish fast, much stricter than Catholic—taking only water.
After my conversion, I continued to take the day off and fast, lightening the fast somewhat by taking coffee. I followed a Yom Kippur custom, ignored before my conversion, of asking people against whom I had trespassed for forgiveness. You’re supposed to ask once, and if pardon isn’t given to ask twice more; if pardon still is not given, you’ve done your best and can consider the trespass forgiven.
The most important post-conversion difference has been that I ask pardon from Jesus Christ in the sacrament of Reconciliation, from a priest, inPersona Christae; this atonement is effective, unlike that which I had attempted before my conversion.
There has been a change in my ideas about suffering. Before my conversion, I had thought that suffering in this life would possibly be compensated by reward in heaven (even though I wasn’t totally convinced that heaven existed). After conversion, I have come to believe that our own suffering is the way we partake in the Passion, Our Lord’s suffering, and that in some sense then, such suffering is a gift. Sometimes this belief is intellectual, but more and more it has come to be from the heart.
So, should I be proud of my Jewish heritage, secular though it was? According to St. Augustine (my favorite saint), it was the Old Testament, Judaism, that was the road to Christ, and it was God himself who kept the Jews from seeing Christ as Savior:
St. Augustine agreed with the older Christian tradition that the Old Testament prophesies bore witness to Christ and that the Jews should have recognized Him. But he developed the idea that God Himself was deliberately blinding the Jews from seeing this. He saw this as providential. Jews existed in large numbers throughout the Roman Empire and even outside of it. Their religion was ancient and respected even by pagans. Wherever they went, they brought Scriptures with them. When Christian missionaries began preaching the Gospel, they could then point to the books of the Jews as an independent witness to Jesus Christ.
—Arthur C. Sippo, St. Augustine’s Defense of Judaism, New Oxford Review, October 2009
St. Augustine’s point, in short, was that the Jews are “People of the Book.” As a convert, I am “a person of the Book.” I believe my Jewish heritage, secular though it was, has enriched my Catholic faith, as has my training as a physicist. For example, today the first psalm in the Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours readS,
“By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept, remembering Zion…” Psalm 137:1 (Book of Shorter Christian Prayer)
That resonates with me in a way that it would not had I been a cradle Catholic. So I realize, along with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, that the Old Testament is the road to the New. I am grateful that the little I learned in Hebrew Sunday School was preparation for the greater gift of the Holy Spirit in showing me the truth of the Resurrection.
I believe with St. Paul that God has not forgotten his covenant, and that the day will come when my people will acknowledge the Messiah.