Dear Holy Father,
There has been a lot of talk lately about Catholics who are “too rigid”. Those who attend the Latin Mass have been derided for placing love of tradition over love of each other. Those who follow the traditional teaching of the Church on the reception of Holy Communion have been similarly disparaged. I can relate to this accusation. I love the Tridentine Mass. I go at almost every opportunity. I, too, struggle with the idea that someone who is objectively living in a mortally sinful relationship should ever receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ.
I can also relate to this accusation for another reason. I am a Hebrew Catholic. That is, I am also Jewish. And as a Jew, I of course have something to say 😉
If ever one group were derided by the Church at large for legalism, it would have to be us. Stemming from the accusations against the Pharisees in the New Testament, you have to admit, we Jews have faced all sorts of these accusations. Indeed, are we not the ones who pass by the man on the road, leaving a Samaritan to care for him? Are we not the ones who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel, modern day Pharisees? As a Jew in the Church then, surely it is not surprising that I find myself in this “rigid” category?
The truth is that Jews are often misunderstood in their love of the Law. So, too, are more traditional Catholics. Being scrupulous is the plague of anyone trying to be holy, that is true, but attention to detail in keeping the Law, a desire to do what is right, is not the same as scruples, even if they might sometimes creep in.
In Judaism, when someone becomes Torah observant, we say that they are becoming “religious”. There is great rejoicing over this, not because it means people are finally “doing what they are told” and “obeying the Law”, but because they are entering into a deeper relationship with HaShem, or, as you might know him, the Lord. Becoming religious in Judaism is a romantic experience: you fall madly in love with G-d and you want to do anything to please him. You become aware of how small you are and how great he is, and how wonderful it is that he has chosen you.
Another way to look at it would be to say that you become more perfectly God’s child. Contrary to popular thought, the idea of G-d being Father did not begin with the earthly Jesus. True, in knowing the Son we came to know and distinguish the Father of the Trinity properly speaking, but in terms of a paternal relationship, we have had that in Judaism as far back as Moses, if not beyond:
“Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?” (Deu 32:6 NRSV) and everyone knows that “As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear him.” (Psa 103:13 NRSV).
Let us go back to those passages above. Firstly, the accusation of scruples to the Pharisees is actually part of an inner Jewish debate. Look at Tractate Shabbat in the Talmud, and you can see it continued on for centuries.
Holy Father, the first important thing to note is that Christ is not correcting the Jewish Law itself. Rather, he is pointing out that at the heart of Judaism is God’s mercy by which He draws us to Him (a subject you have been focusing on intensely this past year within the church). That it is the Spirit of the Law that really matters because the Law is a tutor, and if you build the fence around the Torah too high, you will not be able to see the commandment, and the purpose of it, itself:
“They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Mat 23:4 NRSV).
In Judaism, this principle is still practiced: when one becomes religious, one keeps the basics of the Torah first and builds up until one is fully observant. What matters is that you are trying, and you are on the road to holiness.
Finally, on the Good Samaritan, I say this: the priest and the Levite are travelling towards Jericho, not the Temple. Contact with blood is a matter of ritual not moral impurity, and the only need they would have had to worry about contact with it would have been if they were travelling towards the Temple: there is no problem in getting a bit bloody in Judaism. Just make sure you wash in a Mikhveh so you are clean to worship.
In fact, even if they had been travelling towards the Temple, they should still have stopped because the Law tells us to “love our neighbours as ourselves” (Lev. 19:18). Yep, that didn’t originate with Jesus, either! (Except as the Eternal Word, of course!)
You can break any law in the Torah to save a life. The problem was not that they would have been breaking the Law had they stopped, but that they broke it by not stopping.
Once we understand that the Law itself is not the issue, we see that at the same time as making sure you can still see over the fence, Jesus doesn’t mean you disobey the Law. Of those same Pharisees, he says, “do what they tell you” (Matt 23:3), after all. Indeed, you don’t want the devil jumping over and destroying the garden of your soul, and “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mat 5:20 NRSV). And anyone who truly loves God surely desires the latter with all their heart.
Holy Father, faithfulness, strict adherence, is not something contrary to the Gospel spirit. It is an outpouring of a desire to be with God, just as “becoming religious” is in Judaism. Moreover, it is how we should be. The possibility of over-caution in keeping the Law, and warning against it, is not the same as saying the Law is at fault and can, or should, be broken or changed. Of course, as Catholics, we believe that the Law is fulfilled in Christ. I am not saying don’t have your bacon sandwich on Sunday morning! However, let us never forget that it is fulfilled, and so in its new state, we must continue to keep it with all our hearts.
Time will tell what the Church will make of Amoris Laetitia. Until then, we pray and trust in God. But please let us end this nonsense over faithfulness to Tradition and Church teaching is blind “rigidity”. It isn’t. In the same way Jews are blamed for being rigid, but are, in fact simply doing everything to please God for the love of Him, so, too are those of us Catholics who are standing firm on Church teaching, and entering more deeply into the faith through an immensely enriching liturgy.
A Hebrew Catholic.