Pope Benedict XVI’s recent revision of the “Prayer for the Conversion of the Jews” in the Latin text of the 1962 Good Friday liturgy set off a wave of questioning by puzzled Catholics and anxious concern among Jewish observers. Did the revival of language calling for the conversion of the Jewish people signify a departure from the ideals of the Second Vatican Council and its landmark document Nostra Aetate, which marked a radical change in the relationships between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people? Jews were wary of a return to preconciliar times, when the “teaching of contempt” marked the relationship between the two faiths. In restoring the 1962 liturgy, why did the pope not simply insert a Latin version of the lovely prayer adopted by Pope Paul VI and in use since 1970 in the vernacular services—a prayer that does not offend Jews and yet embodies the church’s hope for the union of the faiths at the end of days?
The concern expressed by Jewish leaders about a return to proselytizing Jews provoked two puzzling and unexpected reactions—one from Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, the other from Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. Cardinal George asked why Jews did not expunge passages in the Talmud that are insulting to Christians and refer to Jesus as a bastard. Cardinal Kasper reaffirmed “the freedom of Catholics to formulate our own prayers” and noted that “Jews have prayers in their liturgical texts that we don’t like.”
Are the charges true? Are there anti-Christian passages in the Talmud? Are there anti-Christian prayers in Jewish liturgy?
Censoring the Talmud
Over 5,800 pages long, the Talmud is a vast sea of learning that contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis, many of whom are not even named, on a variety of subjects, including law, lore, history, theology, ethics and many other topics. The Talmud does not represent authoritative law or theology or liturgy. There are perhaps four references to Jesus—all badly garbled, all written at least a century or two after his death. It is not at all clear if Jesus of Nazareth is even the intended subject of those citations.
In 1240, when Rabbi Yehiel of Paris had to defend the Talmud in a public disputation, he maintained that another man named Jesus, who lived a century before Jesus of Nazareth, was the subject of references in the Talmud. Jesus, after all, was the Greek name for Joshua, a common name at the time. In fact, Rabbi Yehiel argued, there was reference to another Jesus in the New Testament itself. But even if Jesus of Nazareth was the intended subject of some of these troubling passages, they reflect the opinion of one man, not the consensus of Jewish thought then or now.
Several polemical passages in the Talmud reflect the sharp controversies between rabbinic Judaism and the minim—a generic term that means “heretics or schismatic sects.” Whether the minim referred to in these passages are Judeo-Christians (Nazarenes, notzrim) or some other sect, like the gnostics, is not always clear from the text. Certain of these polemical passages were probably aimed at the new Jewish sect that split away from the synagogue and engaged in sharp theological and religious debates in the first centuries of the Common Era. Interestingly, the Talmud (Shabbat 116a-b) quotes only one passage from the New Testament, Mt 5:17—“I come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.”
In any case, the heavy hands of the censors removed the offensive passages. Sparked by the vindictiveness of apostate Jews who, for whatever personal or psychological reasons, maligned their former faith, cartloads of copies of the Talmud (and other Hebrew books) were torched in Paris in 1242. This happened again in Italy in the years 1553 to 1559. Censorship of all Hebrew books was introduced and enforced by agents of the Inquisition, often ex-Jews who turned with mindless fury on their former faith. Frequently the censors deleted inoffensive material; sometimes they substituted absurd and ridiculous texts for the original.
In 1554 in Italy, as a result of the relentless attacks on Jewish writings and in order to preserve the ability to publish Hebrew texts, Jewish communities installed a system of self-censorship so that no book would be published in the community without the approval of three qualified rabbis. As a result, no European edition of the Talmud contains anti-Christian texts or anti-Jesus statements. Texts published in oriental lands, however, were not subject to censorship, and they continue to contain the few offensive passages. Current editions of the Talmud text published in Israel indicate in the footnotes the original texts and explain the reasons for their elimination.
Problematic Liturgical Passages
Turning to the Jewish liturgy, we find it is virtually free of any references to other faiths except paganism and idolatry. There is not a single reference to Christianity or Islam in all the prayers. Yes, there are prayers that some day pagans will cease worshiping idols and come to acknowledge the God of Israel, the Father and Creator of all human beings, but surely no Christian or Muslim would object to these expressions of hope for the future?
Cardinal Kasper may have been thinking of two problematic passages in the liturgy of past centuries. The 12th blessing in the daily Amidah prayer, the so-called blessing of the slanderers, reads currently: “May there be no hope for those who slander and malign us and may all evil be crushed and all evildoers disappear.” This is a very ancient prayer; it was revised and rewritten any number of times in antiquity. It may have initially been formulated in the days of the Maccabees as a curse against the Hellenizing Jews who betrayed their people and the God of Israel. Later on, it was applied to the traitors who went over to the Romans and spied on the Jewish people. It was revised yet again as a prayer against the various sects and cults that contended with rabbinic Judaism: the Samaritans, the Sadducees, the gnostics—and for a time, the notzrim, the Judeo-Christians. In time, however, those ancient Palestinian texts were discarded. The version I have cited is the one universally used in the synagogue liturgy today—as it has been for centuries.
The second problematic text is the well-known Aleinu prayer, recited at the close of every synagogue service since the 14th century. The prayer has been attributed to the distinguished Babylonian sage Rav and his school of liturgists, who worked in the early third century, although recent scholarship has demonstrated that the prayer predates Rav and may well go back to the time of the Jerusalem Temple. The text clearly expresses the hope that some day the pagans who worship idols will accept the God of Israel and, in the spirit of the Prophet Zechariah, will unite in serving the one God. The line that has generated controversy reads, “For they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who cannot save, whereas we bow and prostrate ourselves before the King of Kings.”
As there were few Christians in Babylonia with whom Rav (if indeed he was the author) came in contact, the prayer is obviously directed against pagans, not Christians. Moreover, the passage is a fusion of two verses from Isaiah, 30:7 and 45:20, words uttered centuries before the appearance of Christianity. Once again, apostate Jews ignited the controversy. They claimed that the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in the offending passage equals the name of Jesus. Other apostates went even further: they insisted that the numerical value of the phrase equals Jesus and Muhammad. Rabbi Lippmann Muelhausen in Germany successfully refuted this slander in 1399, but the matter refused to die. Finally, Frederick the Great of Prussia ordered the passage stripped from the liturgy in 1703, installing guards in the synagogues to confirm that the phrase was deleted. And so it has remained in European liturgy until today. The Italian rite changed the verb to the past tense, “For they used to bow to idols and pray to a god who cannot save,” etc. Jews from the Middle East and orient retained the original text. Current Israeli prayer books often restore the text, sometimes placing it within parentheses. But I doubt if many or even any interpret the text as directed against Christians or Muslims. Needless to say, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jewish prayer books have eliminated the passages in question.
What conclusions may we draw from this information? Centuries ago, a few bizarre statements about Jesus and Christianity could be found among the tens of thousands of rabbinic statements. These passages, however, have been deleted for many centuries. A denunciation of the new Judeo-Christian sect possibly was inserted in the Palestinian liturgy perhaps 19 centuries ago, a reflection of the sharp and often bitter theological polemics that raged at the time. That passage, too, has been long banished. A line in the Aleinu prayer that was surely intended as criticism of paganism and may have been misconstrued by some was deleted.
But all of these controversial passages together are dwarfed by the oceans of anti-Jewish preaching and teachings that attacked Judaism from the first century on. John Chrysostom alone (fourth century) delivered eight vitriolic anti-Jewish sermons—and this comprised but a fraction of the literature.
No anti-Christian material was ever inserted in our most sacred liturgy on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, but the Good Friday service—one of the most sacred for Christians—codified anti-Jewish sentiment and, until 1962, slandered the “perfidious Jews,” who are blind to God’s truths and whose hearts are veiled to Jesus’ saving light.
It was not just the combination of external and internal censorship, however, that nudged Judaism to its stance. Jews concluded with the Prophet Malachi (3:10), that we all, indeed, have one Father, one God who has created us all. And the sages reasoned, perhaps as early as the second century, that “the righteous of all nations have a portion in the age to come” (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:2). There should be no place in our liturgy or teachings or preaching for the demeaning of any other faith. This explains why Jews—and many Catholics—are so puzzled and disappointed by Pope Benedict’s changes to the 1962 liturgy. Does this return to a language of conversion reflect an erosion of the advances of Vatican II and its landmark documents, which have been part of the magisterium of the Catholic Church? Are we to forfeit the remarkable legacy of the late, lamented Pope John Paul II? We all pray that we will not retreat, but rather move forward in our relationship, the relationship of elder and younger brother, to borrow Pope John Paul II’s matchless language, so that we both may be a blessing to each other and “a blessing to the world.”