Benedict and the Rabbi
A Christian pope on the Hebrew Bible.
by Meir Y. Soloveichik, director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and associate rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan
After Pope Benedict XVI’s surprising announcement that he would resign from the papacy, leading adherents of diverse faiths immediately began to evaluate his legacy. Catholic theologians have emphasized the enduring import of the thought of the man who spent most of his life as the theologian Joseph Ratzinger. Jewish leaders, meanwhile, have by and large celebrated the pope’s statements against anti-Semitism, promotion of interfaith amity, and the further improvement of Vatican-Israel relations. Yet there is one fascinating aspect of Benedict’s legacy that neither side has noted, in which philosophy and interfaith engagement are joined: that he began and ended his papacy by celebrating the Hebraic, traditional Jewish understanding of love and marriage.
Known as John Paul II’s doctrinal enforcer who inveighed against a modern “dictatorship of relativism” at his predecessor’s funeral, it was expected that his publications as pope would cultivate further controversy. Many were therefore surprised when Benedict began his papacy by issuing the encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), an examination of the biblical notion of erotic love. In this encyclical, Benedict began by noting that much of religious thought tends to draw a sharp distinction between eros, the “love between man and woman which is neither planned nor willed, but somehow imposes itself upon human beings,” and agape, the term taken to mean spiritual, benevolent, generous love. Benedict notes that some Christian thinkers have rejected eros as selfish and physical, and that Christianity in the past has been criticized as having been opposed to the body; he admits that “it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed” in Christian thought. What can cure Christianity of this mistake, he shows, is a deeper study of the Hebrew Bible’s description of love. The Hebrew Bible, while firmly opposing pagan sexual practices, nevertheless celebrates man’s and woman’s desire for each other as divinely designed. To engage in utter rejection of eros would be to divide the physical and spiritual, the body and soul, which only together constitute the essential identity of human beings:
Man is truly himself when his body and soul are intimately united; the challenge of eros can be said to be truly overcome when this unification is achieved. Should he aspire to be pure spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity. On the other hand, should he deny the spirit and consider matter, the body, as the only reality, he would likewise lose his greatness. . . . [I]t is neither the spirit alone nor the body alone that loves: it is man, the person, a unified creature composed of body and soul, who loves. Only when both dimensions are truly united, does man attain his full stature. Only thus is love—eros—able to mature and attain its authentic grandeur.
Under this understanding, eros and agape are not opposites; rather, in marriage, they complement each other, with eros serving as the foundation for agape. In seeking a term that implies the sanctification and elevation of the erotic impulse, the pope emphasized a Hebrew word for love, ahavah, at the heart of a biblical book. “How,” Benedict asks, “might love be experienced so that it can fully realize its human and divine promise? Here we can find a first, important indication in the Song of Songs, an Old Testament book well known to the mystics.” In this book, a searching lover finally finds his beloved, and discovers, in Benedict’s reading, the importance of love beyond one’s self. The ideal of ahavah, for Jewish scripture, is marriage, in which man and woman’s natural urge for each other become sanctified not by denying their natures but by directing their love toward each other. Here, Benedict turns to the first story in the Hebrew Bible.
The biblical account thus concludes with a prophecy about Adam: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Two aspects of this are important. First, eros is somehow rooted in man’s very nature. . . . The second aspect is equally important. From the standpoint of creation, eros directs man towards marriage, to a bond which is unique and definitive; thus, and only thus, does it fulfill its deepest purpose. Corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage. Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa.
Benedict then turns to more particularly Christian aspects of religious thought, but the encyclical is remarkable for its sensitive philosophical and exegetical engagement of Hebraic ideas. Let us now flash-forward to 2012, and the pope’s annual Christmas address to the Roman Curia. The world’s one billion Catholics did not know—but Benedict undoubtedly did—that this would be the last Christmas address he would deliver as the leader of the Catholic faith. In his speech, Benedict defended the age-old definition of marriage as the union of man and woman. This of course is unsurprising; yet what was unexpected is that the pope chose to do so by citing another European religious leader, one who is not a bishop or cardinal, but rather the chief rabbi of France, Gilles Bernheim. In a recent lengthy essay defending his opposition to same-sex marriage, Bernheim stressed the importance of the Genesis account in teaching us philosophically about the nature of marriage and identity, and emphasized the ideal of a child being raised by both father and mother. Benedict referred to Bernheim’s essay as “profoundly moving” and cited it extensively in his address.
This elevated Bernheim’s document from an essay written on behalf of French Orthodox Jewry to a statement studied by Catholics all over the world. Because it was written in French, many Orthodox Jews around the world knew little about it. Yet after Benedict’s address, Bernheim’s piece was read and translated by Ralph Hancock, a political philosopher at Brigham Young University, and thereby made available to Jewish thinkers everywhere. Recently published in First Things magazine, Hancock’s translation can be read at firstthings.com.
Let us consider, in summation, this remarkable turn of events. A rabbi, writing in Paris, defends Judaism’s traditional notion of marriage. This essay is read and cited in Latin by a Catholic leader and thinker in Rome, who from the very beginning of his papacy exhibited a deep interest in Jewish thinking about love and marriage. The pope’s endorsement thereby leads to the translation of the essay by a Mormon philosopher living in Utah. The essay is then exposed to diverse communities of faith in the English-speaking world.
All eyes now turn to the conclave of cardinals who will select Pope Benedict’s successor. One of the questions the cardinals will unquestionably consider is which Catholic leader can most eloquently and effectively defend a traditional moral worldview that is no longer taken for granted in the West. Members of other faiths are equally concerned with this task, and one of the lessons of Benedict’s writings is that different religious communities can learn from each other in this moral and philosophical endeavor. As such, the statements and encyclicals that bracketed this brief but important papacy are a possible sign of more enduring intellectual interfaith engagements yet to come.
Meir Y. Soloveichik is director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and associate rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan.