“...the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)
* No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the copyright owner and without credit to authorship.
In the spring of 1996, I was profoundly inspired to find the origin of Judaism’s “tenet” religion, with Orthodox, Conservative and Reform sections. I wondered whether or not a tenet religion like Judaism might be a solution to what seemed a deadlock between Roman Catholic liberals and an orthodox hierarchy. My good friend Anita Lewis Damiano had loaned me her copy of “The Second Jewish Book of Why” (Kolatch) so I decided to begin there. I randomly opened the book and there before my eyes on page 47, it said, “…Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch who believed in harmonizing Judaism with the ways of the world and in maintaining a working relationship with all elements of the Jewish community...” wrote a book in 1836 entitled, “The Nineteen Letters about Judaism by Ben Uziel.” It was not an easy find, but a trip to the Boston Public Library yielded not only the original book but a providential 1995 translated version by Rabbi Joseph Elias. It seemingly was just waiting for a Roman Catholic to pick it up. The following paper is a result of my studying “Nineteen Letters” from a Catholic’s perspective. Rabbi Hirsch was suggesting that Jews ask themselves “What does it mean to be a Jew?” It made me ask myself, “What Does It Mean To Be Catholic?” LH
In 1836, when some of the teachings in Judaism were being questioned by a new generation of reformers, looking to change their religion to conform to the times, a young rabbi named Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) wrote a book called Nineteen Letters about Judaism by Ben Uziel1. A fictitious dialogue between a philosopher and a youthful intellect, Nineteen Letters challenged opponents to examine their identity and religious belief. The concept proposed was so divergent, yet so simple, that Rabbi Hirsch used a pen name for fear of embarrassment. The book became a landmark in transforming Judaism into the religion it is today, one that simply embraces all religious philosophies from ultra-conservative to ultra-liberal. Rabbi Hirsch, still considered to be the supreme head of German neo-Orthodoxy2 agreed that reform was needed. However, he submitted that it was the Jew who needed reformation, not the Jewish religion; that perhaps the failure had been in the emphasis of its teachings. He also believed that Jews with varying philosophies could maintain a working relationship.
The contents of The Nineteen Letters helped me understand that the dilemma in today’s Catholic reform movement in the 1990s may be similar to that of 19th century Judaism. These contents may also provide an outline for personal and/or group studies:
The First letter “Complaint” presented the main arguments that were raised against traditional Judaism by the reformers. The basic complaint: Judaism just was not up to par with the times (1836); religious practice and observance of the Torah (The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) interfered with the lifestyle of the new generation.
In the Second letter, Rabbi Hirsch, suggested that before trying to judge Judaism, a study of its history and teachings must be done “from the only authentic source, the Torah.”
Letter Three “God and World” taught that in order “to understand Judaism and the Jewish people in their historical role, we must first learn about God and His creation of the world, the role of man (humankind) in the world, and the course of human history in general,” and how it is all inter-related according to God's plans. It explains how everything and everyone in life is very different, created to be different, but to harmonize with one another. Rabbi Hirsch said, “In this way everything contributes according to its strength, however much or little, to the existence of the whole; and if it destroys a fellow creature, it robs itself of what it needs for its own
existence…None exists by itself and for itself; there is a constant striving of each creature with, through and for others, on behalf of the whole, and of the whole on behalf of the creature… The Harmonizer of Opposites is His Name,” said Hirsch.
Letter Four dealt entirely with “Man" (human species), and how we differ from the rest of nature because we are the only beings who have the freedom to do God’s will--or to disobey--the only ones who can take advantage of the world God has provided us. We will be judged by God and God alone, according to how well we have used, and provided for, God's world.
The Fifth letter entitled, “Education”, covered good and bad deeds, sin and punishment, and the education that takes place from our life experiences. We relive, in this chapter, the stories of Adam, Cain and the great Flood with reminders of how important our loyalty to God is.
Letters Six through Nine reviewed the history of the Jewish people, and the significance of the Torah in their lives throughout the ages.
Letter Ten began the discernment process, examining the Torah with emphasis on The Ten Commandments, and its application in the Code of Jewish Law. The process continued in Letters Eleven through Fifteen with a more practical examination of The Commandments, grouping them into three basic concepts:
JUSTICE means consideration for every being as a creation of God, for all possessions as having a purpose before God, and for the natural order as being ordained by God; and, therefore, compliance with the claims that they make on us.
LOVE means acceptance of all beings as children of God and as our brethren, and promotion of their welfare and of their fulfillment of their God-given mission—all this without their having any claim on us, but purely because it is the Will of God, the fulfillment of a Divine command.
EDUCATION of oneself and others to such a way of life means taking these truths to heart as one’s moving principles, giving expression to them for himself and for others, and—if through life’s vicissitudes [changes] he has lost sight of them—struggling to re-instill them in his heart.
The Sixteenth letter stressed that the bond among people needs to be spiritual rather than political; that it is possible to lead a normal civilized life and still be loyal servants of God.
Letter Seventeen admitted that there was certainly a need for “reform,” for improvement. Fault, however, was placed on the “system”--a system that perhaps had spent too much time teaching the law when it should have concentrated on the Spirit of the law. Rabbi Hirsch suggested that, “Instead of dwelling on the present sad picture, let us rather sketch some outlines for bringing about what we see as authentic reform, as well as means to attain it.”
In the Eighteenth letter, Rabbi Hirsch spoke of two generations confronting each other; one which had “inherited Judaism practiced by men from habit, a revered but lifeless mummy which it is afraid to bring back to life; and the other, though in part burning with noble enthusiasm for the welfare of the Jews, regarded Judaism as bereft of any life and spirit, a relic of an era long past and buried... threatening to sever its last life-nerve.” Hirsch’s message: “Judaism must be studied and understood out of itself and be elevated, all by itself, to a science of wise living.”
Rabbi Hirsch stressed that Jews must not be concerned about each other’s school of thought. It was necessary to go back to the truth...the Torah. He asked the questions, “What does it mean that I am a Jew?” and “What is Judaism?” He further asked, “Should we just look at its (Judaism) dusty exterior and, solely because of that, cast away as worthless the precious possession for which our ancestors sacrificed life, property, and liberty and all of life’s joys?”
He said in the Nineteenth letter, “By all means, let the scales swing. The more freely they land, and the more reliably they will assess truth and life in the end, the more violently they must swing at this time. But, once the scales have come to rest, the spirit of Yisrael will stand revealed in its full brilliance, comprehending itself, its teachings and its destiny, pervading all of Yisrael’s members and engendering the fullest life in this spirit.”
What many people, including some Jews, don’t know is that it wasn’t until the late 1800s (a short time ago in comparison to how far Judaism goes back in history) that the religion took the form that it has today--a community expressed through three major religious groups--Orthodox, Conservative and Reform.
The Orthodox tenet maintains a strict code in the letter of the Jewish Law. Conservative Judaism, while it recognizes the authority of Jewish law and tradition as Divine, believes in and observes differing interpretations. Reform Judaism puts more stress on the prophetic teachings and less on the ritual observances of Judaism. Faith in God forms the basis for Judaism and the three basic groups (now with various other options) still have one umbrella.
While biblical law is taught and observed, it only serves as a standard for religious practices and community conduct in the non-Orthodox clusters. Local custom usually prevails. (Soferim 14:18) Several recordings attest to the fact that Rabbis “do not impose a hardship on the community that the majority cannot endure.” For instance, while homosexuality may be in violation of Jewish law, it is argued that homosexuals like everyone else are made in the likeness of God. Some synagogues, therefore, have been established by and for homosexuals3. Likewise, divorced individuals, marriages of mixed faiths, couples practicing birth control and others who may have difficult life choices are encouraged to continue practicing their faith and are not turned away from full community worship. The basis for the argument, “When Moses went up to heaven, he refrained from food for forty days and forty nights. And when the angels came to visit Abraham, they partook of his meals, each one submitting to the custom of the place.”4 (Talmud: Baba Metzia 86b)
While the Orthodox will not recognize women as rabbis (there is even separate seating for men and women in some synagogues), women rabbis are more common now in some of the Conservative and Reform synagogues4.
The history of Roman Catholicism is one of schism (separation) with many Protestant offshoots. Today, however, is perhaps the first time in history when Catholics seeking change refuse to call themselves anything but Roman Catholic—refuse to go elsewhere like Henry VII, Martin Luther and others did. Perhaps for the first time in history, Catholicism, like Judaism, has a new meaning beyond religion; maybe we too, have become a culture. A Jew is a Jew forever. It is a way of life, not a religion. Is it possible that Catholics have also reached that pinnacle?
Finding Catholicism’s “authentic source” may be more challenging than we think. While Catholics agree that Jesus is center to our culture, there is reluctance by some to use the Bible’s New Testament as our “authentic source” because the Christian Church was formed before the New Testament was written. The Ten Commandments, which Christians also observe, are found in the Old Testament—The Jewish Bible. If research the early history of the Catholic Church, we will find evidence married Popes, Bishops and Priests, divorced remarried Catholics accepted as full members of worshipping communities; also women priests according to Vatican archives. If we follow Jewish culture during Jesus’ life we would have to wonder if Jesus might have been married. Almost every Jewish historical account indicates that no Jewish male was still single at 33, especially if he preached in the temple. There is now evidence that he and Mary Magdalene may have been.
Judaism and Catholicism
Since the early Christians were Jewish, it is no surprise that our religions are alike in many ways. For instance, the Catechism is Catholicism’s answer to the Jewish Talmud. They have The Jewish Book of Law; ours is called The Code of Canon Law. We have Confirmation; they have Bat/Bas Mitzvahs, both acknowledging the age of spiritual reasoning. The Torah, central to Jewish worship, is kept in a curtained "ark" in synagogues; in the Catholic Churches, a Tabernacle holds the Communion Host, believed by Catholics to be the body of Christ, and both are isolated from the public when not in use. Vestments are also an important part of each religion's rituals. At one time, we each had dietary laws. We each have a Sabbath, though on different days. Even our hierarchy wear a Catholic version of the "Yarmulke" (reserved for High Priests in the Scriptures)3. The calendar of high holydays is also similar. While we combine Christmas and New Year to follow the traditional calendar, it is a copy of the Jewish Yom Kipper and Hannukah. In the spring, we have Holy Week and the Resurrection, they celebrate Passover around the lunar corner. The list goes on.
If we apply the same percentage of American Jews of varying philosophies to American Catholics, we would be looking at approximately 26% liberal/reform, 40% traditional/conservative and 20% orthodox (remaining 14% split among different degrees in between).
Some of our differences
Apart from our hierarchical structure which contrasts Judaism’s Home Rule, we believe that Jesus was the Messiah, not just another prophet as Jews do. There are also major differences between Catholicism and Judaism in the process used to arrive at practical laws for worship and conduct.
Great emphasis in Judaism is placed on the Torah which contains the Ten Commandments. The Talmud, written version of the Oral Law, is an interpretation of the Torah. The Code of Jewish Law contains practical applications of The Talmud. Catholic lineage, on the other hand, is not so clearly defined.
Our original catechism, called the Didache, was, written in the first century.6 It too, was an interpretation of the Old Testament because the New Testament had not yet been written. Through the centuries, The Didache evolved to our current Catechism first issue 1918, one year after the first publication of The Code of Canon Law.. The newest 1995 version was also a combination of Scriptures, non-infallible Catholic teachings and Canon Law.
The Existential Question
It would seem that we need to find our identity, our truth, before we can determine our destiny. We too need to ask ourselves, “What does it mean to be Catholic?” We too need to examine God’s role in our existence and our relationship to one another, according to God's plan. Perhaps the failure, as was suggested about Judaism in 1836, has been in the Catholic Church’s teachings. Maybe the concentration of Catholic teaching has been too much about the letter of the law, as demonstrated in the above diagram, rather than the spirit of the law. We too need to search our heritage with new eyes and clear minds in order to discern our future.
While “Nineteen Letters” was written for Jews, the philosophy of God’s concept for civilization is universal. Hirsch’s book, therefore, may be an appropriate study guide for anyone interested in pursuing spiritual self-examination, either in group work or individually.
The more recent writings including those of female theologians may provide a new perspective that may not have been available 160 years ago because there were no female theologians in those days. (All Scripture and church history throughout the ages may have been authored by men, because women were not allowed to be educated, to have a voice or a written word--to even pray. Interpretations of Scripture have, therefore, been conceived by male biblical scholars. All practical laws deriving from same would have been studied, interpreted, written and controlled by men.)
We must preserve the beauty that exists about our religion and its people. Should we therefore make it our duty to make the distinction between what is of God and what is not?
In “Nineteen Letters,” Rabbi Hirsch said that God is the “Harmonizer of Opposites.” He did not say that God is the “Segregator” of opposites. I’m not sure if Hirsch’s intention was to segment “like minds” the way they are in the various Jewish tenets, though it did pave the way for women rabbis.
Catholics need to determine whether Catholicism is a religion or whether it’s a way of life as it is with Jews as well as Moslems.
The many similarities I found 11 years ago between Christianity and Judaism left me with even deeper questions.
A. So Why Christianity? If our religions
are so similar, was God’s concept
B. Why are Catholics today on the same
threshold of reform that Jews were 170
In the Nineteenth letter, Rabbi Hirsch wrote, “given these insights, one would ordinarily begin scholarly investigation and then apply to life those conclusions that had proven true…however, the events of the time demand a different course.” He added, “Will I be able to write the truth with all the clarity needed to convince the minds, and all the forcefulness required to capture the hearts?”
My Personal Journey
At the time of my curiosity about Judaism, I was at odds with what had been ingrained in me about my religion. Even though I was trying to do my part in reforming the Church through Celibacy Is the Issue --CITI, the notion of standing on church steps with picket signs or petitions was for me, irreverent, even though I knew that what was going on inside the building was unjust. I had been a “pay, pray and obey” Catholic all my life.
I could not walk away from the Church either, like the 50 million other U.S. Catholics who have. There are too many things about my religion that I love.
In my discernment, I realized that rather than being taught how to develop our own relationship with our sibling Jesus, institutional rules and regulations were applied to prevent that relationship. I prayed over what affirmative action I should take while still remaining the practicing Roman Catholic that I am. This led a personal “Weaning Process” similar to what teenagers experience as they become adults. Simply put, at birth we are given a body, a mind and a soul; and in our formative years, we are conditioned to take responsibility for our own destiny as adults. We learn to eat the right foods if we want to remain healthy and to educate ourselves if we want to be successful in life.
That natural evolution did not take place, however, regarding our Roman Catholic soul. While we were also taught spiritual and moral values during our early years, the “weaning” process of our conscience was not fulfilled by the institution. We have never been given, nor have we felt free to take, control of our own moral decisions and remain Catholic. Today, the Sacraments—Holy Communion in particular—are still treated by the institution as “rewards” rather than “sustenance” which is what they are.
Through prayerful discernment, I did the “weaning” myself. I recognized that I’m in charge of my own body, my own mind and my own soul…and that I don’t have to change denominations to take control of the latter. I can remain who I am—a Roman Catholic.
I have become a liberated or “spiritual” Catholic even though I’m still traditional/conservative in my philosophy.
Recognizing that Jesus lives within each of us and not just inside some church building or on a mountain where some people think He will show up one of these days, is freeing.
I am left with questions, however. For instance, since we seem to be in the shadow of Judaism, is it possible that it is meant for Catholicism to have three tenets as well? Would there be a coming together of the minds and souls if we had an Orthodox Catholic Church, a Conservative Catholic Church (we might want to call it traditional) and a Liberal (or Reform) Catholic Church. There would then be room for all philosophies. How many Catholics would return?
What do you think?
Louise Haggett, All rights reserved, 1996, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2007, firstname.lastname@example.org
No part of this paper may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright owner and without credit to authorship.
Thanks to Feldheim Publishers for permission to use the contents of “The Nineteen Letters”, newly translated with comprehensive commentary by Joseph Elias.Jerusalem, Israel and Nanuet, NY1995, (Available at Jewish book stores or through CITI--$24.95+$2.50s/h)
2. Judaism: Between Yesterday & Tomorrow by Hans Kung. Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992.
3. The Second Jewish Book of Why, by Alfred J. Kolatch, Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., Middle Village
NY, 1995, page 151, 289, 290, 295
4. The Jewish Book of Why by Alfred J. Kolatch, Jonathan David Publishers, Inc., Middle Village NY, 1985, page 121.
5. Religion in America: The Demographics of Belief and Affiliation by Dean R. Hoge, Ch. l. Religion and the Clinical Practice of Psychology, edited by Edward Shafranke, Washington D.C. American Psychological Association, 1996.
6. Catholicism by Richard P. McBrien, Winston Press, Minneapolis, 1981, page 802
7. The Jewish Encyclopedia, Funk & Wagnalls, NY
8. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago
9. The World Book Encyclopedia, Field Enterprises Education Corporation, Chicago