Can One Convert if One Never Practiced?

I’m grateful to David Goldman for his book review: “A Letter to Andrew Klavan: For a Jew to Become a Christian, He First Must Be a Jew.” Andrew Klavan is a secular Jew who at age 50 found his way to Christ and wrote The Great Good Thing to tell his journey.

David’s review is a friendly and charitable letter to Andrew offering the remarkable perspective that a secular Jew can become a Christian only by first being an observant Jew. Jesus addressed this very point: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn 14:6). In Hebrew, halakha is “the way,” as on a pilgrim journey. Jesus said, “I am the halakha,” the Torah made flesh! As a Hebrew Catholic, born Jewish now Catholic, I take particular interest in the conversation and am grateful for the opportunity to participate.

I was also glad to see Andrew’s response, particularly his observation, paraphrasing, that it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to tell a secular Jewish convert that he doesn’t really become a Christian until he has lived an observant Jewish life. Makes me wonder whether I should have tried out all the girls I could before marrying the one I did.

David as a Jew is right to find his support in Moses. “We were called to be God’s people at Mount Sinai some 3,400 years ago. You were there, even if you don’t remember it. This is something that Christians also believe, for they read the same Bible as the Jews.” We do. The Catechism of the Catholic Church devotes about 18 percent of its content to the Ten Commandments as God’s eternal moral law. The first three-quarters of the Catholic Bible is the Jewish Bible.

The rabbis say that only a national revelation can prove God’s existence, that we recognize our Shepherd’s voice only when all the members of a religious community receive its revelation at the same time while they are gathered together. God’s people Israel received their revelation as a nation at the foot of Mt. Sinai. From this we know that Judaism is true as far as it goes.

Isaiah prophesied, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (Is 40:5). Since the revelation through Moses had already occurred, Isaiah was foretelling a second national revelation.

Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones included God’s promise, “Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel’” (Ezek 37:12). God’s fulfillment came at the moment of Jesus’ death on the Cross, “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Mt 27:52-53).

From the time of King Josiah to AD 70 when the Temple fell, including the time of Jesus, Passover was a a pilgrim feast, (Deut 12:5-6). Every Jewish family had to travel from its home to Jerusalem, to celebrate the Passover sacrifice in the Temple. The Torah only commanded that the men, heads of households, make the journey, but the custom was that families traveled together. Jesus’ Crucifixion was during the Passover celebration, when all the world’s Jews were there. And they all knew. On the road to Emmaus, Cleopas exclaimed to Jesus, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in those days?” (Lk 24:18). This was the second national revelation.

David writes to Andrew: “I presume that you have never observed a full Shabbat—welcoming the Sabbath Queen in synagogue, blessing the candles and the wine and the bread at home, standing for a personal audience with God during the Eighteen Benedictions at morning services and hearing the weekly Torah portion, returning to the Sabbath meal with its blessings of bread and wine and its concluding grace, and, finally, ushering out the Sabbath with wine, fire and fragrance.” I have done all these things and participated in many Passover Seders. I know how remarkably similar the Jewish experience and the Catholic experience really are in our hearts.

When I enter my Catholic parish church, usually an hour before Mass begins, I first notice the Tabernacle. I remember my synagogue where its Tabernacle held the Word of God, with its ner tamid. My parish Tabernacle holds the Word of God Made Flesh, with a very similar eternal light. Then I notice the altar. My synagogue had a bima, a raised platform with a reading desk where the Word of God was unrolled and read to the congregation. At the altar the priest will consecrate bread and wine into the Word of God Made Flesh to be served to the congregation. Then I notice the lectern, where the priest or deacon will read from the Gospel and offer a homily, and remember when our rabbi offered his sermon at a similar lectern. On the side I notice the parish’s memorial candles, which we light in remembrance of the departed, and recall the yahrzeit candles we kept at home.

Then I watch the boy light the altar candles which will remain lit during the entire Mass, and remember our home Passover Seder which began with lighting the festival candle. As the Mass proceeds I reflect on Jesus’ Last Supper, a very special Passover Seder. I remember the matzah, unleavened, pure as Jesus was pure, striped as Jesus’ back was striped by Pilate’s scourging, pierced, as Jesus was pierced on the Cross. I remember breaking the middle matzah and “burying” it in the white linen matzah tof from which it would later be “resurrected.” I reflect on Jesus, as the priest prepares to re-present his one Crucifixion, as he led his apostles in eating the maror, bitter herbs, and the charoset, fruits and nuts which reminded us that even in great trial God can bring sweetness, and reflect on what Jesus might have said to his apostles.

At least some of this occurs on the Jewish side as well. David writes, “My late teacher Michael Wyschogrod showed that Incarnation is a Jewish idea, specifically that God’s presence (Shekhinah) dwells in the flesh and blood of the people Israel.” We Catholics say that the state of grace is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

The Catholic Church, the Messiah’s fulfillment of Judaism, is the new Israel. The Catechism, § 877, says, “Likewise, it belongs to the sacramental nature of ecclesial ministry that it have a collegial character. In fact, from the beginning of his ministry, the Lord Jesus instituted the Twelve as the seeds of the new Israel and the beginning of the sacred hierarchy.”

David spoke more truth than he knew when he said, “I do not question your right to convert, but it is not clear to me that you have actually done so.” Because the Catholic Church is the new Israel, in the Catholic mind a Jew, secular or religious, who devoutly enters straight into the Catholic faith is not converting at all. The Catechism, § 839, says, “When she delves into her own mystery, the Church, the People of God in the New Covenant, discovers her link with the Jewish People, the first to hear the Word of God. The Jewish faith, unlike other non-Christian religions, is already a response to God’s revelation in the Old Covenant. To the Jews belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.”

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, added, “It is evident that dialogue of us Christians with the Jews stands on a different level with regard to the dialogue with the other religions. The faith witnessed in the Bible of the Jews, the Old Testament of Christians, is for us not a different religion but the foundation of our own faith” (“L’eredità di Abramo” [The Heritage of Abraham], L’Osservatore Romano, December 29, 2000.) Judaism is the foundation of our Christian faith. We follow our forefathers into Christ.