1. First of all, I would like to thank the organizers of this study session for the invitation which has been extended to me, and for the opportunity that has been created for a fertile exchange of ideas, taking a biblical image as its starting-point. This meeting is taking place at a site that I have never visited before, but about which I have heard much; for many years, I have had the privilege of working together with a group of priests who graduated from this school, on common goals aimed at making the Bible more accessible to people. I have thus had a chance to appreciate in them, not only a solid foundation of learning, but also a spirit of great openness and willingness for discussion. I think that these are the most gratifying results for any school, and I can only hope that an outlook which has proven so fruitful may continue for a long time to come.
2. And now we come to our theme, which is Noah. One could certainly wonder what he could possibly have to do with universalism and with the relations between Jews and Christians. To start with, we could say that, at first glance, the only thing universal in the story of Noah is the Flood. The Bible recounts how humanity had arrived at such a point of degeneracy that God decided to destroy it completely, saving only one family—that of Noah, who had distinguished himself among his contemporaries by his righteous and proper behaviour. When everyone else perished, submerged in a flood, Noah saved himself, together with his family and every species of animal, in an ark. Therefore, all of humanity is descended from the family of Noah; because of this, all the nations are called, in rabbinic language, Noahides—children of Noah. Rabbinic interpretation pauses here, to reflect at length on the messages which the Biblical text offers about the person who would become our common patriarch, and about the story of how he was saved. When the text introduces Noah, it says of him that he was righteous and upright in his generation, and that he walked with God. The fact that the text specifies that he was righteous in his generation makes one think that, if that generation had been a bit more morally-advanced, perhaps Noah would not have stood out as an exceptionally righteous person. But at least he was for his own time. As for what we might term his “religiosity,” the text specifies that “Noah walked with God.” In order to understand the value and the limits of this expression, we must jump ahead a little. Concerning Abraham—the righteous man who appears ten generations after Noah—the text says that he received the divine command to proceed ahead of God. One story speaks of walking together with, the other of preceding. In practice, Noah did his duty and followed the rules honestly—but he did not push himself any further with any burst of enthusiasm. And again, still comparing him with Abraham: when it was announced to him that humanity would be destroyed and that he would need to build an ark to escape, Noah reacts as he always does, obeying without saying a word. When the imminent destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is announced to Abraham, he launches into an exhausting bargaining-session with God, seeking to save the sinful cities. There are those who are normal people, and those who are special. Abraham is the prototype of these “special people,” and Noah is the prototype of those who are honest but ordinary and not impulsive. The noteworthy fact is that, according to the Bible, it was enough to be ordinary and lacking in any particular enthusiasm in order to save oneself and found an entire new humanity.
3. It is well-known that Jewish religious doctrine has built around the name of Noah and his descendants a doctrine of twofold laws and twofold salvation. None of humanity can escape from the yoke of the divine law, which is expressed in at least seven essential principles. These principles are expressed in rabbinic oral traditions which are based (more or less obviously) on scriptural references. However, within the human family there exists a particular group, that of the children of Israel, who also were originally Noahides, but who—by virtue of their descent from Jacob/Israel, the grandson of Abraham and the one who carries on after him—are set apart, inasmuch as they must observe a much more extensive set of rules, made up of other regulations as well, which deal in part with religious ceremonies. It is a status that we could define as priestly, a rôle of service: “a kingdom of priests and a people set apart”. The fact that some are priests, with special requirements and laws, and that others are not, does not preclude rewards and salvation for the latter. The great novelty of this rabbinic doctrine is that it is not necessary to subject oneself to the special doctrine of the Israelite priesthood to obtain the future rewards which are promised to the Israelites. Jewish universalism means two parallel roads toward salvation; it is sufficient that every person follow the road in which they find themselves at the moment of their birth, and that they respect its particular norms. A Noahide who follows the seven rules and recognizes their divine origin is defined as a “devout person [hasid] among the nations of the world,” and has a share in the world to come.
4. These rules are: the prohibition against any worship apart from monotheistic worship; the prohibition against blasphemy; the obligation to establish law-courts; the prohibition against murder, theft, adultery and incest; the prohibition against eating anything taken from a still-living animal. These express the respect which is required toward creation, toward other people, and in relation to God. If we transfer these principles from theory to reality, we can see:
– that the social portion of the seven laws is a patrimony common to all civilized humanity;
– that the sexual laws are more or less those paralleled in civil legislation, and are certainly prescribed in religious legislation;
– that the norm of respect for animals is rarely transgressed.
Blasphemy is certainly prohibited in organized religions. With regard to monotheistic worship, apparently there are not any doubts regarding the major religions. For Christians in particular, the fact that they acknowledge the sacredness of the Bible serves as a recognition of the divine origin of these norms. Having arrived at this point, it would seem that everyone, both observant Christians and Jews, can arrive, each by their own path, at the salvation that has been promised. That said, we could conclude there, but that is not exactly the way things are. It would be worthwhile to explain this, because clarifications on this problem will throw light upon the current difficulties in Jewish-Christian discussions, and will provide tools to define future scenarios.
5. At this point, a clarification is necessary regarding Jewish theology, in which the topic of monotheism and how it is lived out by Christianity poses an essential dilemma which is the subject of debate. What is being discussed is whether the divinity of Jesus might be compatible, for a non-Jew, with the idea of monotheism (for a Jew it absolutely is not compatible). As might be expected, the answer to this question in Jewish theology is not unanimous; there are those who firmly deny this possibility, and there are those who admit the possibility, under certain conditions. The consequence is that, according to a strict opinion, a Christian is perhaps not on the path leading to salvation.
6. I can imagine what a Christian’s reaction would be when faced with that analysis. I can imagine it, because that sense of disbelief, of protest, of rebellion that a Christian feels is the same as that which Jews might feel when Christian authorities say to them that their faith is incomplete and cannot lead to salvation—except in mysterious ways known only to God. It is incomplete, because it has not been crowned by faith in salvation through Jesus. Many Jews protested last year when an official and particularly noteworthy Church document reasserted this concept. But the problem is not so much the Church’s conviction of the necessity for Jews to be saved by means of Jesus. The real issue is what is done with that conviction. If we were to apply the system of Noahide laws to the letter, we would have to do everything possible in order that the Noahides observe them—including the law dealing with the prohibition against worship of any other gods. Each person would have to become a missionary of the pure faith. And so we find ourselves at the current crux of our dialogue and discussions. What good is it for us to speak to each other? What really bothers Jews is what has been said in official Catholic documents: that the goal of dialogue is to convert one’s discussion-partner to one’s own faith. And what if we were to do exactly the same thing—if we used every opportunity for discussion to convince you that, yes, you are on the right track, but that you must “purify” your faith, by eliminating precisely that which for you is essential?
7. This, therefore, raises the question of whether there are alternatives to this dialogue between people who do not hear each other, which risks becoming disrespectful and not in keeping with the dignity of everyone involved. I can attempt to imagine two scenarios which are different but not necessarily contradictory. The first is of a primarily theological type, the second is predominantly political. The first solution relates to the possibility of elaborating, on both sides, a doctrine that we could appropriately call “parallel salvation”. Christians would have to come to a point where they could admit that Jews, by virtue of their original and irrevocable election, and of their possessing and observing the Torah, possess their own autonomous, complete and special path toward salvation—a path that has no need of Jesus. It is not enough to say (just as was recently said, with a praiseworthy attempt at doctrinal elaboration) that our “hope is not in vain” because it serves as a stimulus to Christians; no, what must be said is that we have value in and of ourselves, and that no one need justify our faith on the basis of any other faith. Concretely speaking, the consequence would be the end of every temptation on the part of Christians to transform dialogue into a system of gentle persuasion, alleviating Jewish mistrust. On the Jewish side, this movement would have to be matched by an affirmation of the principle that faith in Jesus (understood: on the part of Christians, not Jews) is not incompatible with the worship of the one and only God. This is a principle which has been accepted in authoritative traditions within Judaism, but which would have to become more prevalent and accepted by the majority. From this would have to follow, on the part of Jews, a greater understanding of Christian spirituality. Now then, anyone who has even a minimal experience of the ways in which theologies develop on both sides can understand the difficulties in achieving these results, at least in a short time and at the same pace.
8. And now the other scenario, which could be defined as a political one, and which essentially consists of a willingness for a type of moratorium, of a suspension and deferral to the inscrutable superior will until the end of time. Two great Jews, eleven centuries apart, and marshalled in opposing camps, have perhaps said the same thing. The first, Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul, when faced with the fact of Israel’s unbelief (which to him was inexplicable) formulated in Romans 11:25 the idea of the stubbornness of Israel, which will last until all other peoples shall have arrived at salvation, and only then “will all Israel be saved”. The second, Moses Maimonides, in the rules he gives for kings in his treatise (Chapter 11), after having denounced the invalidity of faith in Jesus, nevertheless formulated an interpretation of the providential significance of the spread of Christianity, “to prepare the road for the king-Messiah, and to help the whole world become accustomed to serving God together, as it is said, ‘At that time I will change the speech of the peoples to a pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him with one accord’” (Zeph. 3:9). Perhaps the parallel suggests the solution, which cannot be immediate but is eschatological. Each of us has the right to hope that the other will acknowledge that there is true faith in us, but we allow for that to unfold over a long period, which is beyond our control.
9. We have a dramatic and very current example of this, very near to us, which suggests some analogies for us: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Two peoples, two cultures who are fighting over the same land. For both sides, it is the same land that they desire, on the basis of history, faith and politics: from the sea to the Jordan, and perhaps beyond. From a political point of view, it has been said that the alternative to the violence and bloodshed could be the partitioning of the land. But that does not mean that one must surrender one’s memories, one’s dreams, or the sacredness of the land. It means only that the dream cannot be realized immediately. Many people do not tire of repeating that the priority must be a territorial surrender on the part of both sides. For dreams—and each side has a dream from their point of view—there is time.
The political realism that almost everyone is preaching could perhaps provide a model for behaviour in the Jewish-Christian theological debate. Even if today there are no lives endangered by this debate (though perhaps some souls are endangered, in some of the more extreme perspectives), needs and responsibilities demand a different climate, without renouncing one’s own convictions, or the dream that perhaps at the end of time, one’s own faith will be the one and only. But in the meantime, it would mean removing this goal from the agenda and limiting the discussion to everything else, which is certainly no small amount.
10. By putting forth these two possible scenarios, we depart from the theoretical presupposition that the only problem of Jewish-Christian dialogue that remains is that of the conversion of the other. Despite notable progress, that is not the way things are, because there are always signs of standstills and of a reversal of direction, even on topics and problems that we should consider resolved like, for example, the question of preaching. Scarcely a week ago, from the most authoritative of sources, concepts and methods have reappeared which threaten to send us back to the past again. With regard to the Middle East conflict, there has once again been talk of the law of talion, whose logic, it was said, “is not suited to preparing paths of peace”. We are sensitive to this vocabulary, because the law of talion (which among other things is absent from rabbinic law) is a theological symbol of the false and unacceptable antithesis between a presumed “religion of love” and another which is, instead, focussed on revenge. As if this re-flowering of Marcionism were not enough, lately there has appeared the risky use of a theological category to interpret and judge political behaviour. If we speak of “a logic of talion” (a religious concept) in the context of the Middle East, we risk attributing to the opponents a fundamental religious and cultural defect, and this judgement certainly does nothing to facilitate “the paths of peace”.
11. To conclude, let us return to our ancestor Noah, whom we have left bobbing along on the water in an ark. We know how the story ends. Noah comes out of the ark, plants a vineyard, and what happens is well known. The man who was saved from the water is not saved from the wine. The man, ish, who had started off an ish tzaddik, a righteous man (Gen. 6:9) ends up as an ish ha’adamah, a man of the earth (Gen. 9:20). There is another Biblical character (Moses) who starts off by being saved from the water, drawn out of a boat made waterproof with the same materials used for Noah’s ark. And for him as well, there is a metamorphosis in his being an ish: from being ish mitzri, an Egyptian man (Exod. 2:19), to ish ha’elohim, a man of God (Deut. 33:1). If we are all children of a common ancestor, who is too human and questionable, we can also be disciples of special Teachers, like our Teacher Moses. For this reason, we appreciated the journey of the Pope to Sinai, as a reminder to Christianity of the Torah which was given to Moses from heaven. This is no small thing—a common element which we are to witness to the world, each one according to their own path. The Torah was given in the desert, in a land belonging to no one, with no water. The water of the Flood had submerged the whole world, bringing death with it, but we await the day when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:9). It is not difficult to define common goals: to respect human beings as images of the divine, to offer them dignity, solidarity and justice, to carry the sense of the sacred in the world. In the face of these goals, these little theological shoving-matches (which derive from the more or less unconscious desire to impose one’s own truth on others in a short time) truly appear as petty disputes.
As he left the ark, Noah received the assurance that humanity would never again be entirely destroyed by God. Now, however, this risk still exists—not destruction by a divine hand, but by a human hand, with no guarantees other than our responsibility, which we (especially as religions) cannot escape. Commitments and facts must come before forms and ceremonies. This is the authentic message of the prophets, which we recognize as a common source, and the comfort promised by the divine mercy will recall once more the waters of Noah, no longer as a sign of destruction, but as a sign of protection. As the prophet Isaiah says (54:9): “This is like the days of Noah to me: Just as I swore that the waters of Noah would never again go over the earth, so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you”.
Translation from the original Italian by Father Murray Watson, revised by the Author