The Jewish State is a Sign of God's Fidelity

Originally published by First Things (January 2020). Reprinted by permission.

In 1965, in Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council affirmed that God's covenant with the Jewish people is irrevocable. Lumen Gentium had done the same the year before, concurring with what St. Paul says about biblical Judaism in Romans 11:29 ("For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable"). In 1980, Pope St. John Paul II identified biblical Judaism with post-biblical Rabbinic Judaism. The Catholic Church thus sees contemporary Judaism as remaining in a covenant relationship with God: heir to the gifts, promises, and callings of God.

Many open questions remain, however. How is it that Judaism, long thought to have been invalidated by the coming of Christ, is now considered valid? Then, the very concept of Judaism is large and complicated. Reform, Conservative, Liberal, Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox: Which best represents "Judaism"? Christian doctrine teaches that the promise of the messiah is realized in Jesus, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was right in saying that this central Christian affirmation need not cast doubt on the validity of the Jewish covenant. But what this means isn't always clear.

Political tensions linger as well. The most prominent concerns Zionism. What is the status of the land promised to Israel in the Bible? More than two-thirds of the biblical mentions of the covenant are explicitly linked to the promise of the land. Is that gift still valid? Middle Eastern conflict makes the question perilous to answer. Yet as Catholics we must venture an answer, as I propose to do, albeit tentatively.

First we must consider God's promise of the land to Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 12, 15, 17). Key figures, including Moses, never enter the land. They are hardly less Jewish for it. The people exist first; Israel is a nation before it becomes a place. Moreover, the boundaries of the land are not stable. It is a large area in Genesis 15:18-21, and smaller in the various accounts of Deuteronomy 1:7, 7:22, and 11:24; Numbers 34:1-15; Ezekiel 47:13-20; and Exodus 23:28-29. Scholars dispute whether these boundaries are determined by God or by historical context and political conditions. Thus, whatever we say theologically about the land of Israel, we must not imagine that we can establish modern borders on the basis of biblical texts.

Our reticence is supported by the story of Abram and Lot. In Genesis 13:5-13, a dispute over the land arises between them. In order to resolve it amicably, Abram offers Lot first choice of territory. Lot chooses the finest portion and Abram is content. Peace and justice have been restored, at a cost to Abram. Some portion of what God gives may need to be sacrificed for the sake of God's ideal of peace. We may perhaps see the strong peace initiatives taken by earlier Israeli governments as conforming with the spirit of this story. Certainly, the story reflects the Bible's broader concern for the stranger in the land, which is expressed more than thirty times in the Old Testament. These expressions are often accompanied by an account of why this solicitude is so important: "You know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Borders matter, but so do the needs of the stranger. Palestinians are not strangers in the land of Israel, but a biblically informed Catholic Zionism, when it thinks theologically about their predicament, should include a commitment to hospitality.

God's gift of the land to Israel requires moral and cultic purity (Lev. 18:24-8; Deut. 28:15-68; Num. 35:34; Josh. 24:14-24). Moral purity requires treating the stranger justly, a duty God's chosen people often fail to uphold. Yet they remain God's elect. Modern Israel can be part of God's plan even though it is, like any nation, far from pure, cultically or morally. Imagine judging the Catholic Church by the criteria of Vatican II's Lumen Gentium , which describes the Church as the "spotless spouse of the spotless Lamb." The failure of the Church to live up to that high standard does not mean we should reject Catholicism. By analogy, just because modern Israel can be criticized does not mean we should not be Catholic Zionists.

The unconditional gift of the election of the Jewish people is the theological foundation of Catholic Zionism. But this affirmation must not become a cause for complacency. Leviticus 18:28 contains a stark warning: "If you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you." Catholic Zionists should resist the eschatological confidence of many Protestants who imagine the State of Israel as the fulfillment of prophecies about the end times. Modern Israel may, alas, be "vomited" from the land. One hopes and prays not. But we must acknowledge that there is a dramatic and tragic element in our waiting for Christ's return in glory, when Israel will become a light unto the nations.

In the New Testament, the Church is never called the "New Israel." The eighty usages of "Israel" usually refer to the Jewish people, their polity, or the land. For St. Augustine, Israel "after the flesh" was expelled from the land as punishment for its rejection of Jesus Christ. The exile and wanderings of the Jewish people served God's providential purpose of advertising the Scripture that would lead the nations to Christ. But the Church had become the sole recipient of God's promises.

In the modern era, close attention to key New Testament themes has led the Church to reject this supersessionist view and reconsider the proper disposition of Catholics toward the Jewish people, and toward the establishment in 1948 of a Jewish state. Many New Testament texts support the notion that Catholics should endorse Zionism. Jesus himself was a Jewish Christian Zionist. The Gospels situate his ministry in relation to the land, both at the beginning and at the end. The birth narratives enact the people's exile in Egypt followed by the Holy Family's return to the land from Egypt (Matt. 2:13-23). During his ministry, Jesus never leaves the land. He is concerned with Israel, his people (Matt. 15:22-28). He leaves the task of going "to the ends of the earth" to the Church gathered around him after the resurrection. The Church's mission conforms to expectations regarding the Jewish messiah. Christ makes Israel-the people and the land-a light to the nations so that all will worship Israel's God. Catholics accept that the Jewish people still have a providential role to play, and their return to the land of Israel may be part of the still-to-be-completed redemptive plan. A theologically grounded openness to this possibility is the seed of Catholic Zionism.

It is tempting to think of the Jews as a people with whom Catholics ought to have warm relations, but who need have no link to the land of Israel and whose friendship has no implications for Zionism. To a great extent, this temptation has prevailed at the Vatican, where theological openness to Judaism has competed with the concerns of the Arab Christian churches that were united with Rome in the nineteenth century. But many of Jesus's teachings link the Jews to the land of Israel. Take, for instance: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth" (Matt. 5:5). Many biblical scholars argue that this verse is better rendered: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land." Matthew was drawing on Psalm 37:11, wherein the Hebrew 'erets refers to the land of Israel, not to the world. Other verses in Psalm 37 repeat the phrase "inherit the land." The land of Israel is the clear referent.

After the resurrection, in Acts 1:6-8, Jesus affirms the restoration of the "kingdom to Israel." Any Jewish listener would know that his reference here is to the land. Jesus is not the only one to focus on land. St. Paul cites the gift of the land in Acts 13:19 as one of God's mighty acts culminating (but not concluding) in Jesus Christ. The same Paul calls these acts "irrevocable" in Romans 11:29, and as the Old Testament makes clear, one of these acts is the gift of the land. These and many other passages point to one thing: The early followers of Jesus knew that the land was central to the gospel, both in its promise to the Jewish people and in its relationship to messianic restoration and final redemption...

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Gavin D’Costa is Professor Emeritus of Catholic Theology at the University of Bristol and Professor of Catholic Jewish Relations at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. He advises the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. D'Costa's publications include Catholic Doctrines on the Jewish People after Vatican II (2019) and Vatican II: Catholic Doctrines on Jews and Muslims (2014).

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