A Doctrine of Contempt
In 1943, famous French-Jewish historian Jules Isaac narrowly escaped the clutches of the German Gestapo. His wife wasn’t as fortunate. Her last message to miraculously reach Isaac read: “Jules, take care of yourself, have confidence and finish your work, the world is waiting for it.” And it was…
Sometimes you just get lucky.
I recently acquired a copy of The Teaching of Contempt, written by French-Jewish historian Jules Isaac. It had been withdrawn from a local college library where it had been on their shelves since March 1980. The 154 page book, a distillation of the historian’s classic work Jesus et Israel, was first published in France in 1962, translated into English by Helen Weaver, and republished in 1964 by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, New York. The out of print publication has become difficult to find and a pricey collector’s item.
Jules Isaac (1877-1963) was a well-known and highly respected historian in France with an impressive career in the world of education when World War II broke out. A history professor for over 30 years, Isaac was responsible for a seven volume series on French and world history published by the Hachette Book Group in France. Practically all secondary schools and universities in France used the series for decades. As Inspector General of Public Education, Isaac held the highest position one could hold in the French department of education and science during that period.
In the fall of 1940 he lost his position due to the anti-Jewish measures of the Nazi’s who occupied a large part of France. No Jew was allowed to work for the government from then on. In 1941 Isaac went into hiding with his wife and the rest of his family. The extreme anti-Jewish measures and unrelenting Jew-hunting of the Nazi regime made him wonder about the roots of this new and bewildering phenomenon. At the age of 64 it brought him as a historian into new territory: the field of theology.
It didn’t take long for Jules Isaac to discover the age-old anti-Judaic trend in Christian theology. Being an expert in Greek gave Isaac the ability to study the Gospels in depth in the original biblical Greek. It took him three years of study and deep research to complete the 600 page classic work Jesus et Israel. All the while fleeing from one hiding place to the next.
In 1943, the German Gestapo arrested Isaac’s wife, daughter, son in law, and one of his sons. Isaac escaped the arrest only because he was out for a walk during the raid. His son escaped from a camp in Germany, but the other three later perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
The blow to Isaac was enormous but he managed to continue his research thanks to a small note his wife penned to him after her arrest and which miraculously reached him. She wrote: “Jules, take care of yourself, have confidence and finish your work, the world is waiting for it.” This small note from his wife fueled his determination to finish his work following this immensely personal tragedy.
In 1946 Isaac completed his manuscript. In the book’s dedication he wrote: “In memoriam to my wife and my daughter, martyrs killed by Hitler’s Nazis, killed simply because their name was Isaac.”
The book Jesus et Israel offers a 600 page analysis of anti-Semitism and Christianity that draws a comparison between the texts of the Gospels and Catholic and Protestant scriptural commentaries which Isaac believed were largely responsible for the anti-Semitic conditioning of European Christians. In the book Isaac created the phrase “the teaching of contempt.”
In the preface, Isaac wrote that the book “was born of persecution. It is the cry of an outraged conscience, of a lacerated heart,” and urged Christians to “recognize their initial responsibility for anti-Judaism and to engage in a strenuous examination of conscience.”
Jules Isaac presented the manuscript of his book at the historical Seelisberg Conference in Central Switzerland in 1947. Officially known as the International Emergency Conference on Anti-Semitism, it was a meeting of the International Council of Christians and Jews.
The book caused a great stir in France and Italy following its publication in 1948 leading to the first of two private meetings Isaac had with Pope John XXIII. On June 13, 1960, at age 83, Isaac had his second private audience with the Pope. At the end of a warm meeting, Isaac asked the Pope whether he could “carry away a bit of hope.” The Pope replied, “You have a right to more than hope.” The meeting was the major impetus for the Pope’s decision to direct Cardinal Augustine Bea, on September 18, 1960, to draft a declaration on the Catholic Church’s relationship to the Jewish people for the upcoming Second Vatican Council.
This was the genesis of what became “Nostra Aetate,” (Latin for “In our Time”) on October 28, 1965, with the Catholic Church departing from an almost 2,000-year-old anti-Jewish doctrine, a profound break with the age-old teaching of contempt.
Jules Isaac died on September 6, 1963. Although he, like Pope John XXIII, did not live to see the results of the Vatican II Council in the “Nostra Aetate” published in 1965, it was Isaac’s impeccable work of scholarship and passionate appeal for justice in Jesus et Israel, that played a decisive role in the groundbreaking declaration of the Second Vatican Council.
Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli who became Pope John XXIII reigned from October 28, 1958 until his death in 1963 and is one of the most popular Popes of all time. He inaugurated a new era in the history of the Roman Catholic Church by his openness to change, shown especially in his convoking the Second Vatican Council. The man known affectionately as “Good Pope John” died on June 3, 1963. His life’s example and the changes he fostered live on. So also, is the haunting indictment he left behind to a church in need of righting an ancient wrong.
In 1965, the Catholic Herald newspaper quoted Pope John XXIII as saying: “We are conscious today that many, many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people nor recognize in their faces the features of our privileged brethren. We realize that the mark of Cain stands upon our foreheads. Across the centuries our brother Abel has lain in blood, which we drew, or shed tears we caused by forgetting Thy love. Forgive us for the curse we falsely attached to their name as Jews. Forgive us for crucifying Thee a second time in their flesh, for we knew not what we did.”
The Teaching of Contempt was the final published work of this noble and scholarly French-Jewish historian, a work bringing Christians to a deeper examination of the roots of ancient prejudice.
It’s a message still relevant in our day and and I’m honored to add a copy of this historic work of purification to my personal library.