How I Became a Jewsuit

 Sarit Kattan Gribetz Reflects on Jewish-Christian Difference in the 21st Century

In 1962, my grandfather, a Swiss Jew from Zurich, sent a letter to Pope John XXIII congratulating him on being awarded the Balzan Prize. In return, he received a telegram from Cardinal Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, then the Vatican Secretary and President of the Pontifical Commission, with wishes of “thanks and divine blessings” from the Supreme Pontiff. That telegram now hangs, framed, above my mother’s desk in her psychoanalytic practice in Beverly Hills. I suspect that my grandfather never imagined that, one day, his American granddaughter would be teaching Jewish Studies at a Jesuit University.

I was born in Tel Aviv but grew up in Los Angeles in a traditional Jewish family. My father, an Iraqi-Israeli expat, and my Swiss mother sent me and my younger sister to Jewish schools so that we could continue speaking Hebrew and remain a part of a Jewish community even as we no longer lived in Israel. In my final year of high school, those of us who planned on attending secular universities (as opposed to a Jewish university or religious seminary) were warned by our teachers to steer clear of Jewish Studies classes in college; they feared that learning biblical criticism and other academic approaches to Judaism and Jewish texts would challenge – and ultimately destroy – our faith. I initially heeded their advice.

When I arrived at my university, I quickly settled into life in the dorms. Being an observant Jewish woman, I opted to live in an all-women’s dorm, and unsurprisingly, those who had also requested such living arrangements were mainly Catholic and evangelical Christian women. My roommates and I became instant friends and, the following year, six of us would share an apartment. It was my friendship with these women, and my complete lack of knowledge about their faith, that motivated me to register for “New Testament and Christian Origins,” a popular course taught by a beloved professor. Though it was a religion course, it wasn’t about Judaism. So I was safe.

Little did I know that many of the texts in the New Testament canon – Paul’s epistles, the gospel of Matthew, the Apocalypse of John – were authored by first century Jews, and that the course was about the history of ancient Judaism and the slow and messy process through which some Jews, and later others, began following Jesus and eventually calling themselves Christians. Rather than continuing to shy away from Jewish Studies, as I had been instructed, I decided to embrace it. I found historical and critical perspectives to be compelling and meaningful ways of understanding religion (mine as well as those of others) and making sense of inter-religious relations.

The following semester, I read my first page of Talmud. My orthodox Jewish high school did not believe that teaching girls Talmud was appropriate – even as the boys at our school spent much of their day in Talmudic study. And so I did not learn to study Talmud until I enrolled in a course at Princeton with a German professor of Jewish Studies, who would later become my mentor when I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in ancient Judaism and rabbinic literature. It was with him that I also read manuscripts of Jewish mystical literature (termed Hekhalot), tales of pious Jews from medieval Ashkenaz (known as Sefer Hasidim), and Jewish anti-Christian polemics about the life of Jesus (a set of texts often termed Toledot Yeshu). These texts are often omitted in contemporary traditional Jewish education even though they were historically widely-read, studied, and circulated in Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East in previous centuries.

Much of my academic research today centers on moments of interreligious encounter and especially Jewish-Christian relations in the late ancient and medieval periods. The big questions that animate my work include when, how, and why Judaism and Christianity separated into two distinct, and often rival, religions, and when Jews and Christians formed two mutually exclusive clusters of identities and communities – what some scholars term “the parting of the ways,” and others “the ways that never parted.” While the details of this history are debated, most scholars assume that by the end of the fourth century, after Helen and Constantine’s conversions to Christianity and the Christianization of the Roman Empire under Theodosius I, and certainly in the subsequent centuries, the ways had largely parted.

I now teach Jewish Studies in the Theology Department of a Jesuit university. I now understand that the ways between Judaism and Christianity “have never parted.” They continue, now as they always have, to mutually inform one another, to intersect, and sometimes to merge.

My early experiences on campus challenged how I understood and historicized the supposed “parting of the ways.” The first conversation I had during my job interview on campus was with a professor of Christianity in late antique North Africa; her husband is a Catholic theologian and her brother-in-law a Jesuit. Almost immediately, she told me about her Jewish maternal grandmother. Even though her grandmother became Catholic when she emigrated from Hungary to the US, the grandmother passed along Jewish customs to her daughter and, through her daughter, to her granddaughter. This professor remembered her grandmother attending church services only during the season of Jewish high holy days in the fall, and her mother keeping a kosher home. Her mother never mixed meat and milk in her cooking, and she emptied the leavened bread, hametz, from her kitchen cabinets in preparation for Easter, as though there were a prohibition against leavened bread on Easter, as there is on Passover. Whenever this professor or her siblings wanted to eat a cheeseburger, her mother insisted that their Hungarian family didn’t eat such things; when the kids pointed to their school friends who frequented McDonald’s, her mother shrugged off the comparison – “that’s because they’re Irish Catholic!” (When I later met this professor’s daughter, I would learn that she still eats the cereal crumbs and other leavened remains in her pantry before Easter each year.) Here was my colleague, a devout Catholic woman with a strong Jewish past and an acknowledged Jewish-Catholic hybrid identity. Her stories taught me that the lines between Judaism and Christianity are certainly still blurred, even – or especially – in the twenty first century.

At my first faculty meeting, our department chair announced that he was instituting an “email Sabbath.” I knew what a “Sabbath” was – I had observed one each week for my entire life, and had just finished teaching a full course on the history of the Sabbath from antiquity to the modern period. So I was quite amused to learn that the Catholic theology department I had just joined would be committed to not checking email over the weekend. In true rabbinic fashion, echoing the opening discussion of the Mishnah that is devoted to determining the exact timing of the Shema prayer, we needed to decide as a department when the “Sabbath” would actually begin and end. That was no problem, my chair insisted – the Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday, and ends at nightfall on Sunday! “You know that will be very early in the wintertime,” one colleague chimed in. “Yes, but it ends early on Sunday then too,” my chair swiftly responded. My department’s Sabbath was unique, because it lasted two days, and only involved abstention from email and other departmental work, rather than the many rabbinic Sabbath laws that guide my own day-long Sabbath observance. But by adopting it we had committed not to work on Shabbat, and for the first time in my professional life I wouldn’t be the only person who did not read or respond to emails on Saturdays. And so there it was: another moment of similarity and difference.

When I began teaching, I was curious to learn from my students about what motivated them to register for a class about Judaism. Very few of them – one or two a year – were Jewish themselves, and they were there because they wanted to learn more about their religious and cultural heritage. A few more of them were there because, while they identified as Catholic, one of their parents, stepparents, or grandparents was Jewish or had been Jewish and they wanted to make sense of this part of their identity. One student was dating a Jewish man. More of them grew up in Jewish neighborhoods in and around New York – Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Borough Park, parts of Long Island – and saw Jews on a daily basis. Some had never interacted with their Jewish neighbors nor knew anything about them, others did not have good experiences or fond memories of their encounters, while others were regular guests at their classmates’ bar and bat mitzvah parties without understanding what this rite of passage signified. However, they all wanted to learn more about these Jews. The rest of my students were there out of curiosity, to push beyond their comfort zones, or because the course fit nicely into their schedules. For all of them, Judaism is in some way a part of their identity, whether through a familial connection, a friendship, a neighborhood, Woody Allen movies or Seinfeld or Transparent. All of them now study in the Bronx, a place with deep Jewish history. Judaism is thus a part of their personal and collective identities – those ways that never parted – just like Christianity and Christian history is a part of mine. Learning about Judaism teaches them about the world in which they live, a world that has formed them into the people they are today.

Moments such as these vividly remind me that, to this day, Jewish and Christian identities are still very much overlapped and intertwined, the ways never – or no longer – fully parted.

I am also reminded almost daily of the ways that most certainly have parted. This realization was highlighted most by history and terminology that I thought I understood until I arrived on campus. One of the sessions at the new faculty orientation was devoted to Jesuit history. As a scholar of Judaism, my main association with the early 1490s is the expulsion of Jews from Spain. On the 31st of March, 1492, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile issued an edict of expulsion: it demanded that the Jews of Aragon and Castile either accept baptism or leave the territories no later than July of that year, giving them a mere three months to uproot their families and find new homes. The vibrant Jewish communities in the Iberian Peninsula disappeared in a dramatic and traumatic summer of expulsion and conversion. No longer allowed to live in Spain, those who refused to convert to Christianity settled instead in the Ottoman Empire, Poland, the Netherlands, and, eventually, in the Americas (the first Jews, descendants of those expelled, arrived to Curacao in 1634). The year 1492 was a watershed year in Jewish history, so significant that some scholars understand the development of Lurianic Kabbalah in Safed and the popularization of Jewish mysticism to be a theological and ritual response to feelings of hopelessness, dislocation, and disempowerment wrought by expulsion. On the timeline of Jewish history, 1492 sits between the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. and the 20th century Holocaust as a dark defining moment.

So I was surprised when, at this orientation session on Jesuit history, a Jesuit and dear colleague of mine, began his presentation as follows: “1491 was an age of Enlightenment. It was an age of exploration. It was an age of Humanism. But most of all, 1491 was an age of chivalry.” In the fancy brochure about Fordham’s Jesuit identity, I read further: “As the 1400s came to a close, the great cities of Europe were prospering, adventurers were exploring distant lands, and a renaissance in learning was inspiring new ideas in the arts and sciences…” That era, and 1491 in particular, was indeed a glorious time in the history of the Jesuits. It was the year when Íñigo López de Loyola, later called Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, was born. According to Luis González de Cámera’s account of his life, Ignatius was the youngest of 13 children and lost his mother shortly after his birth; he worked for Ferdinand’s finance minister. A knight, Ignatius suffered severe injuries in battle and, during a long recovery, read Ludolph of Saxony’s De Vita Christi and a collection of saints’ lives, which transformed his perspective on life and meaning. Not long after, Ignatius was joined by six companions, founded the Society of Jesus, and became its Solicitor General. Within a few years of his death, there were Jesuit missions as far as China. Ignatius’ journey is fascinating, and it began in the year he was born, 1491, in the same region from which, mere months later, Jews would be forced to flee. (Importantly, 1492 was also the year when Columbus sailed across the Atlantic, a journey celebrated by Spaniards for its monumental discovery of a land previously unknown to Europeans and mourned by those whose land was subsequently colonized, their lives upended and often ended.) It’s not that one of these narratives is more accurate, or true. It is that these narratives are different, and radically so. The years 1491-2 can simultaneously be remembered as the best of times and the worst of times, depending on whether you see it through the lens of Jesuit or Jewish history.

There were other terms that, while they did not evoke the same depth of existential reckoning, nonetheless reminded me of my simultaneous distance and proximity as a Jew in a Jesuit context. When I heard “orthodox,” I associated the term with my Jewish community (an Orthodox one), but soon realized that, at Fordham, “orthodox” was short for “Orthodox Christian,” that is, the Eastern Orthodox Church. When my students “fasted” for Lent, they did something entirely different from my “fasting” on Yom Kippur.

At the new faculty orientation reception, held at the Jesuit residence on campus, I first met the Jesuit president of my university. He asked me if I knew the president of Yeshiva University, a dear colleague and friend of his, a real nice guy, “a saint.” He paused to add: “I would say ‘saint,’ you would say ‘mensch.’” Again, we were engaged in a complex dance of translation – saint implied an elevated, heavenly identity, while mensch was firmly grounded in the earthly realm, a good human. But in this context the words were meant to be synonyms. Similar, but not the same.

This act of translation highlights the complexities of the similarities and differences between Jesuits and Jews. It also points to the many paths traveled by Jews and Christians throughout history: not only the ways that parted and those that never parted, but also the intersections and forks, the road rage and the happy reunions along the way.

Sarit Kattan Gribetz is an Assistant Professor in the Theology Department at Fordham University. Her book, Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism, is under contract with Princeton University Press.

This essay is dedicated to my colleague Maureen Tilley, of blessed memory, who taught me much about Jewish-Christian history and interreligious tolerance.