Judaism is often described as a religion of law while Christianity is a religion of love. This simplistic comparison is often not helpful when trying to understand two great religious traditions filled with whole libraries of material and scholars who often disagree. Indeed, Judaism cherishes love while Christianity also values the law. Take for example the Hasidic tradition that emphasizes the love of God through music, dance, and joy. On the other hand, the strictures of Catholic canon law create dilemmas for its contemporary adherents as the church has yet to allow women to become priests in an increasingly egalitarian world.
The subject of law and love is a touchy one in Jewish-Christian relations. We cherish the Torah and the commandments even if we don’t always follow them. Over the millennia our devotion to the law has been criticized and demeaned by Christian authorities. Talmuds were banned and burned, and the Church taught that Jesus superseded the law. The belief that Jews, therefore, were stubborn in their foolish devotion to an obsolete Torah was one of the roots of anti-Semitism.
Today the Catholic Church has mostly rid itself of these kinds of anti-Jewish doctrines, but the sensitivity remains, which is why the Chief Rabbinate in Israel sent a letter criticizing a sermon delivered recently by Pope Francis. In his speech, he writes “The Law, however, does not give life, it does not offer the fulfillment of the promise because it is not capable of being able to fulfill it.” Out of context this seems like a criticism of Judaism with its focus on the commandments, and perhaps there is some residual anti-Jewish sentiment at play. However, when one looks at the pope’s homily in full, his message about the law is actually more nuanced.
First, it is interesting that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel would even be aware of the pope’s words. Do they monitor Vatican pronouncements on a regular basis? Did someone happen to read this speech and send it to them for a response? Also, something might be lost in the translation. The pope is a bit vague in the sentence. What does he mean when he says that the “Law … does not give life”? Does he mean in this world or in the world to come? It’s not entirely clear.
The main point of Pope Francis’s homily is to explain a debate in early Christian thought about the new faith’s relationship to Judaism. Should Christians observe the commandments of the Torah or not? This was an important debate because while the first adherents of Jesus were Jews, later converts were not. While “Jewish” Christians might want to continue to observe their ancestral traditions, should newly converted pagans do the same? After all, what the Christians call the “Old Testament” was still holy scripture and God’s word. Should it not be fulfilled?
The pope explains that the apostle Paul believed that the Law, what we would call the Torah, was important, but it had already been fulfilled by the coming of Jesus. The Torah was necessary in an ancient world dominated by idolatry. Pope Francis emphasizes that the Torah was the way that the Jewish people fulfilled the covenant with God that had been established by Abraham, but that the Law and the covenant are not one and the same. God had chosen Abraham, but the Torah was not given until hundreds of years later.
Paul and the pope are correct in their analysis, but we Jews part ways in the implications. Indeed, God’s covenant with Abraham is separate from the Torah, but there is no reason to claim that there is only one possible covenant with God. In the Jewish tradition there are two: the Abrahamic/Davidic promise which is that God will always care for and protect Israel and the covenant at Sinai which teaches that God will provide for Israel as long as it fulfills the commandments of the Torah. These two expressions of God’s covenant seem paradoxical but are expressed throughout Jewish history. Over millennia we have experienced exile and destruction, which we have traditionally understood to be punishment for our sins, but God inevitably takes us back in love.
Christianity does not reject law; instead, it sees law as a necessity for life in a troubled world. Unlike in the Jewish tradition, law for the pope and his followers is not the path to fulfillment and meaning. It is a means to end. Is such a sentiment anti-Jewish? Perhaps in the sense that it reflects a fundamental difference of approach and outlook. When two religions revere the same text but take two different messages from it there will inevitably be theological conflict. As long as these differences of opinion do not encourage hatred there is room enough in the world for us to agree to disagree.