The Jewish Chronicle
There’s an elephant in the church
SO PILATE asked them again, ‘What then do you want me to do with the One you call the King of the Jews?’ And they shouted back, ‘Crucify Him!’ ‘Why?’ asked Pilate. ‘What evil has He done?’ But they shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify Him!’” In a few weeks’ time, that New Testament passage will be ringing out in Catholic and Anglican churches just before Easter. I’ve heard it every year for decades. For many churchgoers, it’s the primary exposure they get to Jewish people, especially the sort of worshipper that only goes to mass on the big feast days.
It’s clearly not a very flattering picture of Jews. But it was such a repeated given in the liturgical calendar and lifecycle — the Jews crucified Christ and the rest is Christian history — that I never really thought about it much. Until the Labour Party’s recent problems with antisemitism. Initially, I really was stumped: How could this still be an issue on this scale in modern Britain?
But then I recalled how when I went to a Catholic prep school as an eight-year-old near the end of the 1980s, the banter at the sweet shop routinely involved sayings such as “Don’t be a Jew”, or “Don’t be such a Yid”, if you declined to share your Apple Jack sweets or fizzy cola bottles.
I imagine that almost all the schoolboys, like me, had never actually met a Jew and simply used the words because everyone else did so, and to fit in. There were only two Jewish figures I was familiar with at school: Shylock from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Anne Frank, both of whom popped up in English literature classes (my familiarity with Jews didn’t develop much more during my teenage years, beyond exposure to Woody Allen films). But clearly that school-boy slang pointed toward something darker that is still threaded through British society.
Although it rarely gets discussed, surely one of the sticking points in the complex relationship that Christian societies like ours have with Jews is how little interaction there is between the Christian and Jewish faiths and their respective followers. They exist religiously in entirely separate silos, despite their close connections, ranging from common use of the Bible to various cultural parallels, commonalities and shared values. I don’t know what happens in a synagogue vis-à-vis commenting on Christianity, but it’s extremely rare to hear a priest at the pulpit directly address Christianity’s derivation from Judaism or to explore all the nuances and implications that imparts.
“It is interesting to me how much of Jewish worship has been lifted lock stock and barrel into Catholic observance,” I was told by Deliana Garcia, a Jewish friend who notes that, while growing up as a Jew, she was educated by Jesuits. “I went to a funeral once that had a mass as a part of it and was taken aback by the Jewishness of it: ‘Holy, holy, holy’ – ‘kadosh, kadosh, kadosh’, or the priestly benediction: ‘The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord look kindly upon you, the Lord grant you peace’ [just like] ‘Yevharekh-kha Adhonay veyishmerekha, Yaer Adhonay panav elekha vihunnekka, Yissa Adhonay panaw elekha veyasem lekha shalom’.”
It is extremely rare to hear a priest at the pulpit directly address Christianity’s derivation from Judaism’
She notes that if her synagogue has Christian visitors, “our Rabbi always assures them that there is nothing we say and that they could do that in any way would conflict with their beliefs.”
From an old Christian perspective, if those chanting Jews hadn’t insisted on Jesus being crucified, his mission to save mankind by dying for our sins couldn’t have been completed, surely? Nor would there have been Christianity and all that it has done to shape Western civilization. Does that mean Christians should actually be thanking Jews?
I have no idea. Jewish faith leaders don’t appear to speak out about how the Jewish and Christian faiths should relate to each other either, especially when it comes to Jesus. Whenever I have raised this with Jewish friends, I am told the issue of Jesus being condemned by Jews, and who he was or might have been, just isn’t raised among Jewish communities.
“I cannot recall a single conversation where we discussed the Jewish role in the death of Jesus,” Garcia says.
It seems a big thing for both sides to leave out, especially as it has played a significant part in how Jews have endured one of the worst, if not the worst, fallouts from the menace of identity politics: the response of a group of bawdy Jews more than 2,000 years ago staining an entire people. Antisemitism existed prior to Christianity, as the work of the Egyptian priest Manetho from the third century BCE shows, but it increased considerably following the rise of Christianity in Europe, notes the Wiener Holocaust Library, the world’s oldest archive on the Holocaust and the Nazi era.
We are all getting a small taste of it during today’s culture wars, in which some people feel they can again write off whole echelons of society based on the transgressions of a tiny segment, or on views now judged incomprehensible. In the pushback against this divisive ideology, secular commentators such as Douglas Murray and Jordan Peterson followed the efforts of the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.
In his 2020 book Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times, Sacks addressed the dangers of “political campaigning focused not on the nation as a whole but on a series of selfidentifying minorities,
Some people feel they can write off whole echelons of society based on the transgressions of a tiny segment’
leading to the counter-politics of populism on behalf of a beleaguered and enraged native-born population who see themselves side-lined by the elites and passed over in favour of the minorities.”
In summing up the subsequent fissures breaking out in society, Sacks resorted to a Jewish saying: “Start worrying. Details to follow.” That’s very Woody Allen, and no wonder Jews have developed a keen sense of protective humour after all they have endured over the millennia.
Sacks does a great job in his book of mining 4,000 years of Jewish survival to offer the rest of us non-Jews the resulting wisdom.
Ultimately, he accepts that “a society with only competition and very limited cooperation will be abrasive and ruthless, with glittering prizes for the winners and no consolation for the losers”, while also offering a resolute defence of moral truths and virtues such as forgiveness, that are increasingly presented by some today as outdated and unnecessary.
It’s the sort of stuff Christians should be hearing from their religious leaders. Unfortunately, many of them went AWOL during the pandemic lockdowns.
Despite the inspiring work and example of Jewish leaders like Sacks, I’m not considering converting. But the more I learn about Judaism and Jewish culture — when Rosh Hashanah coincided with lockdown last year, inspired by an American Jewish friend I baked a challah, which turned out fantastically — the more I am intrigued.
I hope I can continue addressing my Judeo-Christian roots and that religious leaders on both sides help facilitate that process. Jesus, whether the son of God or just a rebellious Galilean hippy, represents the crossover of two magnificent traditions.