The election of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI may be regarded by American Jewish leaders as an unwelcome omen for interfaith relations. It needs to be remembered, however, that our community’s leadership doesn’t necessarily represent the views of most Jews–and it certainly doesn’t represent Judaism.
On Monday, as the cardinals were about to enter upon the awesome task of choosing a new pope, Ratzinger delivered a sermon that sounded a striking call to resist relativism and secularism. For all that the German cardinal has been called a clone of his predecessor, Ratzinger seems if anything to exceed John Paul II in the vehemence of his opposition to the idea that there is no singular truth about God. On the contrary, Ratzinger powerfully insists that there is such a truth and that his church is in possession of it.
His words, which will become famous, are worth contemplating: “Having a clear faith, based on the creed of the church, is often labeled today as a fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, which is letting oneself be tossed and ’swept along by every wind of teaching,’ looks like the only attitude acceptable to today’s standards. We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”
At the highest reaches of our Jewish communal-bureaucratic structure, this is not a popular theme. That’s putting it mildly. It’s one of the melancholy facts about Jewish life in modern America that the closest thing we have to a leading moral authority, representing us as Jews to the world, is not a rabbi or any spiritual exemplar. Rather, whenever you see a Jewish leader on CNN or Fox, commenting upon the “Jewish” position vis-à-vis events of the day, it is most likely to be someone from one of the anti-defamation organizations, most likely Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League.
For all the undoubted value of its stated goal of fighting anti-Semitism, the ADL has committed itself to a program of relativism. As Foxman himself has said, “It is pure arrogance for any one religion to assume that they hold ‘the truth.’” Presumably this would apply to Judaism too. For Ratzinger to assert the truth of his religion was therefore wrong, in the ADL’s eyes, as it would be wrong to assert the truth of Judaism.
In Ratzinger’s important sermon, which will likely be remembered (so presumably he intended it) as striking the keynote of his papacy, he cited a prophecy from Isaiah looking forward to “a year of favor unto the Lord and a day of vengeance for our God, to comfort mourners” (61:2). Apart from the allusion to the mourning going on among Catholic worldwide at the death of a beloved leader, one key phrase of the verse was clearly intended to be understood as fighting words. Isaiah promises “favor” for the Lord’s servants, but “vengeance” for His enemies.
No verse in the Bible makes it clearer that God asks us to take sides. In the great controversy of our own day–the controversy surrounding the question of truth versus relativism–Ratzinger knows on what side he comes down. The most prominent American Jewish leader comes down on the other side.
Alas, the ADL’s viewpoint is all too commonly encountered in our community, as I have been reminded from the very recent personal experience of publishing a book that argues for the truth of Judaism. Although my book, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, a history of the Jewish-Christian debate about Jesus, can be seen as a critique of Christianity, I’ve found that in speaking to mixed groups of Jews and Christians, it is often the Jews who take umbrage at being told their religion is true while the Christians genially accept that it entirely appropriate for a Jew to argue in this way.
What’s going on? Only that Christians, including traditional Catholics like Joseph Ratzinger, perhaps more than many Jews today, appreciate the deepest assumption that our two religions share: the assumption that there is a truth out there, a singular truth, to be found and embraced.
Pope Benedict XVI has his truth. Jews who believe in Judaism, as opposed to relativism, have ours. The pope and the Jews can’t both be right–but that fact, that there can only be one truth, is a singularly important truth in itself, arguably more important than any of the doctrinal points on which Jews, Catholics, and other Christians differ. Let’s hope the Jewish community can rise to meet the new pope, seeing in him the fellow believer in truth that he is, offering him our sincere congratulations and good wishes for a blessed and successful papacy.