Israel and Humanity
Israel and Humanity By Elijah Benamozegh
Translated by Maxwell Uria, in the series Classics of Western Spirituality. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995. US$22.95.
Elijah Benamozegh's Israel and Humanity appeared originally in Italian at the end of the nineteenth century. Rabbi Benamozegh was the spiritual leader of the Jewish community of Livorno, Italy, and a well-known kabbalist and religious leader of great influence in European Jewry.
Benamozegh's book is an important contribution to Christian-Jewish dialogue, and by his reflection on the meaning of Christianity, he became a pioneering figure, inspiring both Jews and Christians to reflect on the meaning of the Jewish-Christian encounter in our time. Israel and Humanity is a reflection on the meaning of Christianity for Judaism, as well as a personal, very interesting story.
The following dialogue was prepared by Reverend James Loughran and Rabbi Leon Klenicki and published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis' CCAR Journal, 4/1999. Rabbi Klenicki kindly forwarded it with a strong recommendation to use the book to further the Christian-Jewish encounter. Father Loughran is the Director of the Commission on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Catholic Diocese of New York. Rabbi Klenicki is the Director of the Anti-Defamation League's Department of Interfaith Affairs.
The Thought and Life of Elijah Benamozegh
A Dialogue on a Pioneer of Christian-Jewish Understanding
James Loughran and Leon Klenicki
Rev. James Loughran: Paulist Press recently published a translation of Elijah Benamozegh’s book, Israel and Humanity. It is a valuable contribution to the dialogue between Judaism and Christianity, because it makes available to the English-speaking world the thoughts of an important nineteenth-century Italian rabbi in the theological discourse of what has come to be called the “dual-covenant” theory.
Rabbi Leon Klenicki: Rabbi Benamozegh may not be known to many people, so I think it is important to give a brief sketch of his life and his thought.
Elijah ben Abraham Benamozegh (1823-1900), whose family had come to Italy from Morocco, was a rabbi of the important Jewish community of Livorno (Leghom), an intellectual leader of nineteenth century Italian Jewry, and its most articulate advocate of Kabbalah. Among his distinguished volumes, Israel and Humanity is perhaps his masterpiece.
Israel and Humanity forms a grand synthesis of Benamozegh’s religious thought. It is at once a wide-ranging summa of scriptural, Talmudic, Midrashic, and kabbalistic ideas, and an intensely personal account of Jewish identity. It is also a systematic, meticulously reasoned philosophy of Judaism in its relation to the other religions of mankind, especially its daughter religions, Christianity and Islam. Scrupulously Orthodox in his Jewish perspective, Benamozegh was a highly original thinker and wholly at ease in European secular and religious culture. His book breathes the exceptionally tolerant religious atmosphere of nineteenthth-century Italy.
Rev. JL: Benamozegh’s attitude toward Christianity is almost fraternal His insights, based on the Law of Noah and the use of kabbalistic traditions, lead him to believe that Judaism and Christianity can work as religious partners in telling the world that God is One. Jews should remain absolutely committed to Judaism, which he prefers to call “Hebraism” and Gentiles should learn of the One God through Christianity. As a thoroughly Orthodox rabbi, Benamozegh does not attempt a theological fusion of Judaism and Christianity, but he is theologically progressive when he examines Christianity’s relationship with Judaism
Given all the other urgent needs of the Jewish-Christian dialogue, a theological examination of this kind among Jewish scholars is most welcome by Christians like me. We continue to work on the priorities of a reckoning of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust and the relationship of Christians with the State of Israel. Christian scholars have also developed a better understanding of how Judaism is treated in Christian theology, voiding theories of a theology of contempt. A Jewish theological treatment of Christianity can assist us as well in strengthening the trust between our communities.
Benamozegh’s attitude about Christianity is, basically, that it is a true path to knowledge of the One God for Gentiles who follow the proscriptions of the Noahide Law.
Rabbi LK: As a matter of fact, Benamozegh’s book was the result of a conversation he had with Aime Palliere (1875-1949), who wanted to convert to Judaism. Benamozegh was very influential in his community, in the nineteenth century.. He told Palliere that there was no need for his conversion. He stressed the point that Aime had a mission and a vocation by himself. That mission was to bring God to humanity by following the traditions of Noah and Jesus according to the rabbi’s interpretation. Palliere lived in France during the Nazi occupation and was involved in saving Jews from deportation.
Rabbi Benamozegh’s book, nearly a hundred years old, is especially significant for our dialogue, and particularly to the understanding of the spiritual and theological meaning of our witnessing together in the world.
Rev. JL: Benamozegh certainly suggests there can be cooperation between Judaism and Christianity when he writes, “For Judaism, the world is like a great family, where the father lives in immediate contact with his children, who are the different peoples of the earth. Among these children there is a first-born, who, in conformity with ancient institutions, was the priest of the family, charged with executing the father’s orders, and with replacing him in his absence.... Such is the Jewish conception of the world. In heaven a single God, father of all humans alike; on earth a family of people, among whom Israel is the ‘first-born’” (p. 53).
Benamozegh dedicates a whole section of his book to promote the ideas of the universality of Judaism. Judaism is not, contrary to stereotypes, closed in on itself. it has a universal mission. As the Jewish people live halakhah, the life of Torah, they minister not only on their own behalf but on behalf of the whole human race. This concept was enlightening for me. At the same time, he limits the priestly ministry to Judaism, which is a concept not accepted by Christianity.
Rabbi LK: Benamozegh, rooted in the Jewish medieval philosophical heritage, tries to understand Christianity in the design of God, overcoming what I call the “triumphalism of memories.” Many Jews approach Christianity through the lens of past experiences of Christian anti-Semitism, and present realities in certain Latin American and European countries. There is, in contrast with the past, a new reality. It is the growing Christian theological recognition of Israel’s ongoing role in God’s covenant, and the Christian condemnation of anti-Semitism. Jews are challenged to reflect upon the meaning of Christianity as a “partner” in God’s design. Benamozegh was aware of this idea even before our late-twentieth-century formulation. For him, both Judaism and Christianity are the arms of God toward a world that has had to keep God’s commandments.
Rev. JL: Rediscovering Benamozegh in our time is most exciting and gives Jewish scholars a strong argument that there is precedence for discussing Christianity in theological terms without fear of conversion or disputation.
Benamozegh offers a clear Jewish perspective that there is one true and universal religion in which all people recognize the One God and are obedient to the covenant God made with Noah. He does not see a conflict between Jewish obedience to the Torah and Christians finding God through belief in Jesus, as long as they accept the Noahide commandments.
Rabbi LK: Benamozegh follows an idea that was already rooted in some Jewish medieval thinkers, that is, that the first covenant was established by God with Noah entailing moral commandments. These are the seven Noahide laws: prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, illicit intercourse, theft, eating the meat of a living animal, and the maintenance of justice.
These basic laws were supposed to be followed by Noah and his family in order to become partners in the covenant with God. He fails, and God decides, according to rabbinic thought, to choose Abram to be a witness of the moral covenant with God. Abram and Sarai changed their names to Abraham and Sarah in accepting God’s call, as a testimony to the fact that a religious commitment changes the life of the individual and the community. These are the two covenants revealed in the biblical text, one of God with all humanity, and the other with Israel.
Rev. JL: A problem arises here for Christian tradition. The dual covenant approach of Benamozegh and other Jewish scholars is appreciated for the fact that at least it legitimizes Christianity as a valid religion. At the same time, it is in disagreement with Christian self-description.
Christian theology teaches that the Christian covenant with God is something much more particular than the covenant with Noah. Throughout the New Testament and in the course of Christian interpretation throughout tradition, Christianity sees itself as the successor of all the covenants made between God and humanity in all of scripture. Christianity has a covenant with God sealed in the blood of Jesus, whom we accept as the universal Messiah.
As a result, we do not consider ourselves gentiles. Gentiles are non-Jewish nonbelievers. Our language gives us away on this. In the Roman Catholic Church we always consider our mission to be “ad gentes” to the nations. Once a person is incorporated into the Church, he or she shares, through the Christian covenant, in the heritage of Israel as well as the heritage of all humanity. We say that we are children of Abraham by adoption. Our theologies here are probably not reconcilable.
In our own modern theology of Judaism’s relationship with Christianity, we are able to say that we believe the covenants with Abraham and Moses have never been revoked and are still in effect for Jews. At the same time, we cannot comprehend the possibility of Christianity existing separate from its Jewish inheritance.
Rabbi LK: I sincerely think that at this stage of our dialogue and encounter, we Jews need to consider the meaning and purpose of Jesus and Christianity in God’s design. I share Benamozegh’s belief that Jesus fulfills God’s covenant with Noah. I feel, however, the need to reflect on the Christian theological claim of descent from Abraham.
Rev. JL: I appreciate the potential of the dual covenant theory as promoted by Benamozegh, because in many ways he does see Christianity as more than just another monotheistic religion teaching moral values. He speaks rather lovingly of Christianity as a “daughter” religion. There is a definite link here between Judaism and Christianity.
He even attempts to reconcile the concept of Trinity with monotheism, using kabbalistic ideas about the theory of “emanation.” On page 68, he wonders if the three persons of the Trinity don’t actually merge somehow into a greater unity. This is not in agreement with the Christian dogma of the Trinity, but with his desire to understand it; to demonstrate a theory of flexibility in Jewish monotheism to allow for Christian monotheism is most commendable.
Benamozegh is far ahead of his time among Jewish scholars. He can look beyond the sins of Christians to the beauty of the message and the reality of their faith in the same God who is the God of Israel. His work is truly important and can be a great catalyst for further discussion.
Rabbi LK: The translation and publication of Benamozegh’s book by the Paulist Press in its beautiful collection, “The Classics of Western Spirituality” is a real contribution to our present relationship and discussion. This book would have caused some problems forty or fifty years ago. Nowadays, the Christian-Jewish encounter is one in which we can share our traditions without any fear of syncretism or spiritual confusion.
The importance of Benamozegh is his invitation to dialogue at a theological level. We Christians and Jews have to deal with social and economic problems, with questions of racism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Semitism, but we also have the need, I would even say obligation, to consider theological matters. I’m using the word “consider,” not “discuss.” Our theological considerations should be undertaken with a sense of commitment, respecting the other person as a fellow child of God, not as an adversary. I must clarify that considering and discussing theology evokes for Jews the memory of the reality of medieval European confrontations.
That time is over, and it is important for us to deal with religious matters coming out of our respective theological commitments. Otherwise, our dialogue will continue being an encounter of “tea and sympathy” that Benamozegh would consider lacking spiritual weight. Rev. JL: I would like to add to your words an invitation. I invite Christian-Jewish dialogue groups to study Elijah Benamozegh’s Israel and Humanity. In doing so, they will be challenged to think in a deeper way about the knowledge of God and our joint testimony to God.^