We Have Been Obstinate

The term 'a stiff-necked people,' used to describe the Jews' betrayal of God on Mt. Sinai, has been erroneously applied throughout history; but in one case, at least, it is sadly apt.

Originally published by HaAretz

Romuald Jakub Weksler-WaszkinelThe people of Israel, who left a house of bondage in Egypt "with great power and with a mighty hand" (Exodus 32:11 ), wandered in the desert to the Promised Land. During their journey, at Mount Sinai, God says to Moses, "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto Myself. Now therefore, if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant, then ye shall be Mine own treasure from among all peoples; for all the earth is Mine; and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation" (Exod. 19:4-6 ). In the desert, the people of Israel, who had been enslaved in Egypt, learn how to be free, but at the same time also learn how to cope with God's demands.

One important confrontation between the people and its God produced the term "a stiff-necked people": When Moses tarries on Mount Sinai, and the people doubt his return, they grow impatient and seek to have a golden calf made to worship instead. In response, God says to Moses, "Go, get thee down; for thy people, that thou broughtest up out of the land of Egypt, have dealt corruptly; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them ... I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people" (Exod. 32:7-9 ).

This is not the only instance in the Torah in which the Israelites are so described (see, for example, Exodus 33:3 and 34:9, and Deuteronomy 9:6 ). We must examine the term carefully: As early as the second century C.E., Christian theologians cited such a description as proof that God rejected the Jews and chose in their place the Christians in his New Testament. According to this view, the Christians were chosen because the Jews did not recognize Jesus of Nazareth as the messiah, and crucified him. Why did they not recognize Jesus, and why the crucifixion? The first Christians replied: Because the Jews are a stiff-necked, unfaithful people.

These three rebukes - that the Jews are guilty of the death of Jesus of Nazareth, that they were rejected by God, and that the Christians took their place - had a snowball effect. They rolled through the course of history, gathering size and momentum, spawning ever greater hatred - particularly since the fourth century, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire - and turned into a horrific landslide in World War II, when millions of Jews were exterminated. Even though Nazi ideology was not Christian, the Nazis were able to exploit existing anti-Semitism and mobilize Christian Europe in hatred of the Jews.

I was born in that period, in 1943, to a Jewish family. When I was still an infant, my mother placed me in the care of a Polish Christian family, who raised me lovingly. My Polish mother did not tell me about my Jewish origins until I was 35 - by which time I had been a Catholic priest for 12 years. I first trod on Israeli soil in 1992, and very soon met my aunt and uncle, my father's brother. One of the first questions my uncle, a religiously observant Jew, asked me, was: "How can you carry within you, as a priest, the Christians' 2,000-year hatred of the Jews?"

I had a hard time answering. His question struck a place that hurt me, and hurts me still. Nevertheless, I replied that I could not speak in the name of 2,000 years, but rather only 49 (my age at the time ), and that I love Jews. But my uncle continued to interrogate me: "How many Catholic priests would say they love Jews, like you?" I could not provide a precise number, but was able to say that the priest who loves Jews more than all of them was the head of the Catholic Church: Pope John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla ).

Mistaken rebukes

The first inkling of change in the Christian world regarding the Jews occurred almost immediately after World War II (in the Jewish-Christian conference held at Seelisberg, in Switzerland, in 1947 ). The annihilation of the Jews in Christian Europe ultimately opened the eyes of many Christians. But the concrete change in the attitude of the Catholic Church toward the Jews was instigated by Pope John XXIII.

It was at Easter, when the Church marks the crucifixion of Jesus, after the Jews' guilt had been emphasized for generations - it was precisely then that the pope declared that prayers should be said for the Jews, too. The fundamental change in the perception of the Jews and of Judaism took place in the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965 ). By decision of that body, the three ancient Christian rebukes were declared mistaken pseudo-theological opinions. Henceforth, it would be said that the Jews are not guilty of Jesus' death, that it is not correct that God ever rejected the Jews, and that Christians have not superseded the Jewish people, who remain the chosen people.

The term "a stiff-necked people" as a description of the Jews' betrayal of God was applied hastily and erroneously. It is true that history saw cases in which Jews rejected God in the name of freedom to wage a struggle - as in the case of Karl Marx and his followers - but history also saw many cases of faithfulness to God entailing martyrdom. After all, many who were burned at the stake in the Spanish Inquisition or who were about to enter the gas chambers uttered the words, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one."

Were the Jews of the ghettos in Warsaw, Lodz, Lvov or Vilna actually the descendants of a stiff-necked people? And was my Jewish mother stiff-necked when she reminded my Christian mother, before placing me in her arms, that Jesus was a Jew?

It is therefore necessary to reexamine the description of Israel as "a stiff-necked people." To that end, we must recall the existential situation of the Israelites in the desert. They still bore the fresh memory of years of bondage, were fearful of returning to enslavement and yearned to be free in the Promised Land. Therefore, when Moses lingered on Mount Sinai, they said to Aaron, "Make us a god who shall go before us" (Exod. 32:1 ). They wanted to press on more quickly, become free and, above all, feared to be alone and wanted to feel the presence of some sort of divinity.

What they urged Aaron to do was a bitter mistake, almost a betrayal - but we should dwell on Moses' reaction in his words to God: "Consider that this nation is Thy people" (Exod. 33:13 ); and afterward, "I pray Thee, go in the midst of us; for it is a stiff-necked people; and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for Thine inheritance" (Exod. 34:9 ). Mistakes were made in the process of learning how to be a free people, so this nation deserves forgiveness. And, indeed, it was said, "Behold, I make a covenant" between the people and its God, an everlasting covenant.

The biblical description of Israel as a stiff-necked people is not unequivocal. It has many aspects, which attribute different significance to the effort to learn to be a free people - or, more accurately, to their effort to reconcile between personal freedom and obedience to God. But at the same time, it must be remembered, God remains faithful to his people, even though the people are not always faithful to their God.

Although purveyors of Christian apologetics circulated the three rebukes mentioned above among the first Christian communities (in part from envy ), the apostle Paul (Saul of Tarsus ) wrote in a radically different style to the Christian community of Rome: "I say then, Hath God cast away his people? God forbid ... God hath not cast away his people which he foreknew" (Romans 11:1-2 ), and later, "For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance" (Romans 11:29 ).

A view from the outside of the relations between man and God reveals a colorful, attractive picture: The people of Israel are still learning by a variety of routes to be free and at the same time to cope with God's demands. But in relations between man and his fellow man - one can find in Israel much enmity, repulsion and sometimes even contempt with regard to relations between the different conceptions of God and of those who remain indifferent to him. I am saddened by such attitudes.

But what saddens and worries me most is the attitude toward the stranger and the "other." From this point of view, the people of Israel have the stiffest necks of all. After all, God's commandment to the people is very clear: "The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:34 ). Even in Israel's complex local situation, we must remember that the stranger and the "other" must be one of us. Is that possible, or is it an unfulfillable dream?

Many believe that this land is capable of miracles. The Kotzker Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Morgenstern (1787-1859 ), answered the question of where God is to be found with the famous saying, "Wherever he is allowed to enter." We can learn from that. When we invite an important guest in, we must first tidy up the house; only afterward can we expect miracles.

Prof. Romuald Jakub Weksler-Waszkinel taught philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin in Poland. Today he lives in Jerusalem and works at Yad Vashem.