Catholic Preaching on "the Law"

Torah: A Lesson in Respect

[Unofficial translation; published in La Repubblica


The letter of the chief rabbi of Rome on the Vatican controversy

While our concerns are focused on COVID and the Afghan situation, it would seem odd to be distracted by a small recent interfaith controversy. But the topic is of some interest and explanations are useful. It arises from a recent papal commentary on Paul's letter to the Galatians, in which he spoke of the role of the law and the Torah with respect to faith; then criticism followed. The Baal Shem Tov (d. 1760), the legendary founder of Hasidism in Eastern Europe, was mentioned [in the brief comment by Victor Manuel Fernandez in the August 30th L'Osservatore Romano], with regard to a sentence on the meaning of [someone’s] deeds; from which you can move to another of his sayings. In the days of the Baal Shem Tov there was no public transportation, and it was necessary to rely on unknown coachmen. The Master, who traveled extensively, had a rule for deciding who was trustworthy. If the coachman, passing in front of a church, made the sign of the cross, he could be trusted. For the Baal Shem Tov a simple act of faith, even if not Jewish, was a sign of credibility. Faith counts for so much for the great masters of Judaism. The Jewish religion is made up of rules to be observed, along with a belief system. From its distant origins to today, there is discussion in Judaism on the value that the observance of the precepts can have without adequate spiritual participation, without believing. There are many Masters who stressed the absolute importance of faith before and after the Baal Shem Tov. But none of them ever dreamed of saying that if there is no faith, one should not be observant, and that observance serves only to prepare for a new faith. The problem was posed by nascent Christianity, especially when it had to find a rationale to differentiate itself from the Jewish milieu. The solution proposed by Paul was, very simply, that not only faith should prevail, but that observance was now outdated; one had to believe and not submit to the laws of the Torah. In his choice, Paul evoked issues discussed in the Judaism of his time; he was convinced that new times required radical reforms, but by saying that the Torah was abrogated he put himself out of Judaism and created a different religion.

But today what do we care about these discussions of two thousand years ago? It is because they can be the object of preaching to the general public, leading to problems. [This is] because presenting ancient disagreements anew in simplified terms runs the risk of confirming hostile stereotypes, in this particular case that of Judaism as an abrogated and formalistic religion—all duties, without spirit—or simply as a preparation, "pedagogy" for the new faith. Dealing with these issues requires attention and an assessment of the repercussions. Certain official defenses are also surprising, and become paradoxical. To those who protested about the way in which Paul's words were explained, the reply was that Paul only meant that for him the Torah without faith has no value, and in this he affirmed a Jewish principle. Certainly, Paul has solid positions in the Jewish tradition, but his thinking is also revolutionary. It cannot be said that his thought is Jewish when he proposes his radical re-reading of the Torah, which serves as an introduction to a new faith; nor to affirm today that anyone who defended the Torah [then] was a “fundamentalist missionary,” a term that in these days should be directed elsewhere. The Baal Shem Tov put faith in the foreground, even the faith of non-Jews, but the Torah was not relativized by faith. It would be useful to use the lesson of the Baal Shem Tov, not to make him say things he never dreamed of saying, but to teach mutual respect, which in this case was lacking.