"When my friends ask me what it's like for a practicing Jew to work at a Jesuit university, I reply half-jokingly that it's the perfect place to be," says University of San Francisco's Prof. Andrew Heinze. His weekly prayer service for Jewish faculty and staff has developed a strong and welcome inter-denominational aspect.
Jackie Mason closed his 1988 Broadway comeback with the story of his beginnings as a stand-up comic. His father was a rabbi, his brothers were rabbis, and it was expected that he would follow the same path. So he became a rabbi too and took a pulpit, but his heart wasn't in his work. He found himself making jokes in his sermons, and more and more people started coming to hear him, Christians as well as Jews. He began charging a cover and a minimum (so the joke continues), and before long he ended up as the only rabbi of a Gentile congregation!
Mason's routine came to my mind last spring when I started a weekly morning prayer service for the Jewish faculty and staff at the University of San Francisco. Invitations were made to all, Jews and non-Jews, and I soon found myself at 7:30 every Tuesday morning wearing my tallit (prayer shawl), tefillin (phylacteries), and yarmulke and chanting the traditional Hebrew liturgy for a small "congregation" that ended up with more Christians than Jews!
Some of the Catholic participants told me that they liked the Hebrew service because it evoked the aura of a sacred language they enjoyed in the Latin mass of their childhoods. Others were stimulated by reading the ancient daily prayers that dated to the era of Jesus and the Jewish Christians; these illuminated and perhaps served as a bridge to the foundation of their own religious tradition.
Although I did not set out with this goal in mind, last semester's foray into Jewish prayer dovetailed with the mission of the Church in regard to Judaism. Starting with Vatican II, the Church made a historic revision of how Christians ought to understand Judaism. Renouncing pernicious generalizations about the Jewish people, the council also affirmed the elemental and fundamental relation of Judaism to Christianity.
The seed of this radically new conception sprouted bountifully in the words of John Paul II two decades later. "The Catholic faith is rooted in the eternal truths of the Hebrew scriptures and in the irrevocable covenant made with Abraham," the pope said eleven years ago to a Jewish audience in Australia. "We, too, gratefully hold these same truths of our Jewish heritage and look upon you as our brothers and sisters in the Lord." Suddenly rehabilitated, in the Church's eyes, from the "de-elect" to the "re-elect," from the status of lost and wandering souls to that of eternal bearers of God's original covenant, the Jews and their religion posed a creative challenge to Catholics and their universities.
Traditionally in the academic vanguard, Jesuits responded to papal calls for interfaith dialogue and collegiate instruction in Judaism and the history of the Jewish people. The University of San Francisco (USF), the first Catholic university to have a Judaic Studies program, translated the new doctrine into the kind of warmhearted respect I have encountered as a Jew on campus.
When my friends ask me what it's like for a practicing Jew to work at a Jesuit university, I reply half-jokingly that it's the perfect place to be. If I were on a Jewish campus I would be caught in Judaism's version of the culture wars between traditionalists and liberals. If I were at a secular university, I would face the skepticism and elite distaste with which the intelligentsia tends to greet religion. At USF, on the other hand, when I do something such as start a prayer service, I get phone calls and e-mails thanking me for enhancing the university's religious life.
My relation to the Jesuit community is also strangely euphoric. Because I espouse biblical values but am not involved in the battle between the Catholic right and left, the Jesuits and I can be, in one respect, the best of friends. I support their religious dedication and they support mine; I don't have to decide whether the right or the left better represents the Catholic spirit, and they don't have to take a position on my way of practicing Judaism.
My engagement with the Jesuit program may start with this sort of mutually detached appreciation, but it doesn't end there. Last year I participated in Soup and Substance, a campus program in which groups of ten or so meet for lunch and discussion of religious values and ethics. A Jesuit loosely moderates each group, which is likely to include people of different religious backgrounds. My group was mostly Catholic, but there was also one former Protestant who had been married to a Jewish man. At the very first meeting I told everyone that, as a Jew, I would be there mainly to listen to their discussion of Catholic themes; I was interested in Catholicism, I said, but of course as a Jew I felt I would not have much to contribute.
No sooner was this disclaimer made than, in Jewish fashion, I began commenting on every issue that was raised. The group did not merely welcome my comments but seemed to enjoy my irrepressibility, which contrasted so visibly with the restraint they learned as youngsters in Catholic school. (Anyone who has seen the hilarious scene in the movie The Frisco Kid in which Gene Wilder, playing a Polish rabbi, tries to keep quiet in a silent monastery will recognize what I'm describing.)
One of the most interesting episodes in Soup and Substance, for me, came when I realized that one of our monthly readings on Catholic values paralleled Judaism so closely as to be nearly identical to it. The article, "Finding God in all Things" by Monika Hellwig, described the two primary types of relation to the Divine in Christian tradition: the via negativa, which seeks God through the negation of our sensual and mental experience, and the via positiva, which seeks God through "appreciation of what God does in creation." Ignatian spirituality, Hellwig says, "emphatically chooses" the via positiva as the proper path for most people. In this activist approach, the morally accountable individual views the world as "a badly broken and distorted one which can be restored and can be immeasurably better and happier than it now is."
The Jewish worldview could hardly be described better. The only difference is that the Ignatian ideal centers on Jesus as the guide to correct engagement with the world, whereas the Jewish ideal centers on the example and insight of the Talmudic sages. Theologically this is a huge difference, but pragmatically, in terms of actual effects on our world, these two models look a lot alike.
In the end, the epic rapprochement between Judaism and Catholicism, between Christians and Jews, will not and does not take place primarily on the basis of texts, no matter how convergent Jewish and Christian interpretations of them may be. That relationship must be embodied by people and detailed with all the subtlety and depth of human interaction.
When I think of the meaning of my being a Jewish member of this particular Jesuit collegiate community, I think of my friend and fellow historian Fr. Mike Buckley, SJ. From our first meeting several years ago Fr. Buckley impressed me by his humble commitment to the Jesuit ideals of scholarship and service to the needy. He impresses me even more by the way he views me. He sees me and would have me be exactly as I am, a Jew. He can do this, I believe, because of his deep religious faith, which allows him to intuit that my human fullness will be contained in the vessel of Judaism, as his will be in the chalice of Christianity. We are mutual in this regard.
As much as I am moved by the passion of converts to Judaism and as much as I love the Torah, I could never envision Fr. Buckley as anything other than a Catholic stirred by the mysteries of the cross. I can no more fathom Christian theology than he can imagine being enveloped in the Talmud. But I look at him, a man I see only occasionally during each semester, and I understand the meaning of Christianity in this world, the potential of the Church in society, and the example of Ignatius among men and women in community.
Although Judaism in a Jesuit place is now possible, it remains something of a paradox. Perhaps it should be considered one more mystery in the mysterious territory of faith. However we think of it, Jesuits will agree with Jews that one good deed is better than a hundred good thoughts, and in the realm of the deed there is much we can do together.
I think Jesuits would also approve the Talmudic adage about our personal role in the mission of Tikkun Olam (repair of the world): "You are not obliged to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it."
Page maintained by Richard VandeVelde, [email protected] Updated: Fri., May 29 1998