Catholic Preaching on "the Law"

Dialogue and Monologue

[Published in Moked (The Portal for Italian Jews); unofficial translation] 

 by Gadi Luzzatto Voghera

The Sunday Gospel focused on by Father Antonio Spadaro in the Fatto Quotidiano about a passage from Mark has aroused many criticisms in the Jewish world. These are observations that I share and that lead to broader reflections on the value of Jewish-Christian dialogue, begun several decades ago in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. The author of the reflection is not a minor character. A man of broad culture, a leading exponent of the Jesuit ethos from which the pontiff himself comes, he is the editor of a magazine, La Civiltà Cattolica, which in its lineage unfortunately boasts decades of militant antisemitism in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century and then, during Fascism, harsh articles with an unmistakable tone. Caution would be in this context a skill to be desired when, signing as editor of that publication in a national newspaper, one decides to write about Pharisees, Jews, and religious practices. But let us consider the core of Father Spadaro's Sunday preaching. The reasoning is flawless: basically (putting aside Jews and Pharisees for a moment), the polemic is aimed at all those formal ritual and religious practices that take away the essence of the profound depth of the religious message. Nothing revolutionary. The Jewish tradition is full of such reflections and the words of the Gospel of Mark – as a rich scholarly literature has long attested – testify to a debate among Jews that is still unresolved. Who the "Pharisees" or "scribes" were to whom the ancient text refers is not known and, in any case, they must be contextualized in the land of Israel two thousand years ago. But there is another question here: when it is used today, in 2021, in a popular media outlet, anti-Jewish polemic is presented so sharply in the letter by Paul of Tarsus about the political / theological project that founded Christianity, that we end up even unintentionally entering into the slurry of ancient anti-Judaism that has produced so much historical and human damage. The reason for this editorial choice is not known. But for those who for decades have been engaged in a long, passionate, and fruitful path of dialogue between Jews and Christians, consisting of mutual recognition and knowledge and sincere friendships, the return of such pre-conciliar ideas can only generate fatigue and discouragement.

I ask with emotion Father Spadaro, and why not Pope Bergoglio, a rhetorical but sincere question: quo usque tandem [“how much longer”]? How long do we have to listen to and read about Christian preachers who openly condemn the Pharisees (as read in the Gospels) without taking into account that that group emerged and structured the post-biblical Judaism that is the basis of current Jewish communities? How long will we have to chronicle this semantic flattening that produces accusatory sermons against the “Jews” and their practices, without taking into account that in history the word and the concept of “Jew” has produced unspeakable persecutions? How long will the image of Judaism transmitted in preaching from the pulpits or in secular newspapers (Il Fatto Quotidiano in this case) remain linked to ancient Pauline polemic, while the numerous and profound theological documents produced by the Church of Rome after the Council go unmentioned? How long will the Hebrew Bible be called “Old” or “Old Testament,” implying a fatal and modern overpowering that would make it superfluous, thus relegating Jews to the roles of relics: the inexplicable dross of salvation history? How long will Jewish religious practices be labeled as outdated and ancient, a legacy of anthropological pasts that are now obsolete if not useless? A final note on this last aspect, specially addressed to Father Spadaro and the mockery of the Jewish practice of washing hands (“we do not need disinfectant washings to dialogue with God”): Father Spadaro, is this really the right moment for this? The whole world has been washing and disinfecting its hands for two years, thus saving millions of lives, following a precept of elementary hygiene that is both physical and spiritual. But really? Come on ...

Gadi Luzzatto Voghera is the director of the CDEC Foundation (Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea)