One of the bigger surprises awaiting those venturing into the interfaith arena for the first time is that there are many Jewish people who fully claim their Jewish identity, but who are, in fact, atheists. They even have a name for themselves: “Secular Jews”. They may practice the outward observances of Judaism to a greater or lesser or even non-existent extent, but for them there is no contradiction in being Jewish and being atheists. And while religious Jews would generally say that secular Jews are “not good Jews”, I have never once heard them challenge the right of atheistic Jews to call themselves “Jewish”.
I guess that is natural and follows from the fact that while it is possible to convert to Judaism, you are, in fact, born a Jew. Jews even have a term for this: they speak of the “Jewish Soul”, with which every Jew is born and which cannot be eradicated. Even in those who are not aware that they are in fact, racially Jewish, this “Jewish soul” will make itself known.
I therefore find it hard to understand why, apart from a deeply ingrained prejudice, Jewishness would be denied to those who are racially Jewish but who have converted to Christianity. I can understand that it is not possible to follow Judaism and Christianity at the same time, for as they exist today, these are two different religions (although closely related–see my blog here on Judaism MkIIA and MkIIB). But surely a Jew who converts to Christianity has at least as much right to still call himself a Jew as a Jew who abandons belief in God altogether has the right to be called a Jew.
My thoughts have been fired on this matter because of the death of Cardinal Jean-Marie Aaron Lustiger, Archbishop of Paris for just about as long as John Paul was pope (1981-2005). Lustiger, a French Jew of Polish parents, converted at age 13 to Catholicism against his parents wishes in 1939. His mother died in Auschwitz in the same year as St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and his father reluctantly attended his ordination as priest in 1954 (read good articles here by George Weigel and here by Raymond de Souza).
There has been positive tribute from the Jewish quarter for the Archbishop (see especially this article in HAARETZ.com about Lustiger’s relationship with the Chief Rabbi of Paris and this article in the European Jewish Press).
But always there is a questioning of his Jewishness. Even the article in Haaretz reports the Chief Rabbi of Paris as follows:
“I was once asked on television what has to happen for Lustiger to be considered Jewish,” Sirat said, “so I said that if he returns to the faith, I would even be willing to give up the chief rabbi’s seat to him.”
Did Sirat mean to say that Lustiger IS Jewish, and all that was required for him to be Chief Rabbi is that he return to Judaism, or that he WOULD BE Jewish if he returned to Judaism? One hopes he meant the former.
More starkly is this reaction from the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau: “He betrayed his people and his faith during the most difficult and darkest of periods.”
For himself, the Cardinal once said:
I was born Jewish and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many. For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim [gentiles]. That is my hope, and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.
And at another time:
To say that I am no longer a Jew is like denying my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers. I am as Jewish as all the other members of my family who were butchered in Auschwitz or in the other camps.