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I’m a Catholic friar and also a Jew; the Law of Return should work for me

Antisemites don't distinguish between Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, and Jews who became 'members of another religion.' Israel shouldn't either
Shmuel Oswald Rufeisen, known as 'Brother Daniel' or 'Father Daniel,' in 1980. (Wikipedia)
Shmuel Oswald Rufeisen, known as 'Brother Daniel' or 'Father Daniel,' in 1980. (Wikipedia)

Everyone has a summer that he or she will never forget. Usually it is connected with a beautiful place and a nicely sentimental story. My summer was August 1990. The place was Jerusalem — more precisely Mount Scopus, where I was attending a summer ulpan of intensive Hebrew. If this month left an indelible mark in my memory, it was not because of a sentimental story however. The Gulf War had just started, and I was wondering whether Israel would be dragged into a conflict that would then spread like wildfire to the whole region. I found it difficult to concentrate on my daily pile of homework, as I was constantly drawn back to the prospect of a fateful personal decision. Either a war with Israel would break out, and I would enroll in the IDF after a hasty aliyah process, or there would be no war, and I would go back to Paris to enter the Dominican Order, one of the ancient monastic Orders of the Catholic Church. The Gulf War was not over at the end of August 1990, but it had manifestly spared Israel. I went back to Paris, and I was given the Dominican garb on September the 14th. This decision put an end to my career as a warrior, yet another сonfirmation that God knows what He is doing with the IDF.

I surmise that my state of mind during that summer of 1990 will come as a bit of a shock for anyone who happens to read these lines — a surmountable one, though, in a country that has been left somewhat jaded by extensive experience of many possible styles of craziness. Why would someone whose God is different from the God of the Jews and whose religious community has displayed such fierce hostility towards the nation of Israel throughout the past 2,000 years — let us shroud the appalling anti-Jewish policies of an Inquisition run by Dominican friars in a dignified silence — even contemplate giving his life for the State of Israel? The truth is that, rightly or wrongly, I did not see it that way at the time.

True, my whole family was Jewish and proudly so. The family tree established by my grandmother points to Isaac Abarbanel (1508), the treasurer of Isabella the Catholic, as our most famous ancestor. Over the course of my childhood, I repeatedly heard how Abarbanel had decided to join his people on the path of exile in 1492, although he had been offered to stay by the queen as an exceptional privilege. As a grownup, I never questioned the deep-seated Zionist convictions that I had inherited from my parents. Still, in contrast to my ferociously anti-religious parents, I chose to believe in a Jewish Messiah that Jews had dismissed as a fake one. I joined a Church that, after two millennia of Christian persecutions against Jews, had eventually disowned her own antisemitic stances of the past and radically changed her attitude towards Jews. I never felt that I should renounce my Jewish identity or my Zionist political convictions by joining the Catholic Church.

I certainly understood that a crushing majority of Jews thought otherwise. For them, the one who the rabbinic tradition calls Yeshu deserves the nickname “aher” — ” “the other” —   even more than Elisha ben Abuyah, the disgraced colleague of Rabbi Akiva. All manners of Christians are “aherim.” They cannot be Jews by definition. Knowing that most rabbis would feel deeply uncomfortable dealing with a Christian who claims to be a very different kind of Jew, I have carefully avoided getting involved in theological discussions between rabbis and Christian theologians during the course of my career as a Dominican priest.

Many will think that, in my situation, I would have done equally well staying clear of the State of Israel too. As much as I am sorry to disappoint them, here I am. After many years of ministry, among other things as an academic in Finland, I find myself currently established in Jerusalem as a member of a Dominican community. Admittedly, I am walking in the footsteps of dozens – hundreds at some point – of Catholics of Jewish descent. Like them, I did not come to proselytize among Jews (an activity that, by the way, has now been officially rejected by the Catholic Church). I came here to live side by side with the people to which I belong. Like these Catholic faithful of Jewish descent, I acted upon the inner conviction that there is a lot more to being Jewish than a specific religious creed or an affiliation to a particular type of synagogue. I came to witness the fact that the unity of the Jewish nation stands deeper and stronger than the anathemas that some categories of Jews are wont to cast upon other categories of Jews.

Meanwhile I quickly realized that being physically in Israel is a far cry from being able to take part in the life and destiny of the State of Israel. Foreign citizens who were granted a so-called “religious visa” are not allowed to work and are usually satisfied with remaining within their Christian ghettos, at a good social distance from the life of ordinary Israeli citizens. Personally, I am forbidden to apply for citizenship through the Law of Return. The reason for it — a paradox I wrestle with day after day — is that I am halachically Jewish. Things would be much simpler if I could count a single so-called “Goy“ among my closest relatives. Indeed, here comes paragraph 4B, a clause that was added to the Law of Return in 1970: “For the purposes of this Law, Jew means a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.”

I do not think that the mention of another religion has ever been applied to Jews who became Buddhists for example. But it is crippling in the case of Jews who, being halachically Jewish, have embraced the faith of Christians.

When one goes back to the reasons that explain the addition of paragraph 4b to the Law of Return; namely, the deliberations of the High Court regarding the case of the Carmelite Father Oswald Rufeisen, the hero of the Mir ghetto (known widely as “Brother Daniel” or “Father Daniel”), one cannot help being struck by the combination of logic and human depth displayed by Justice Asher Felix Landau. Let me quote the sentence that summarizes his whole argument: “By changing his religion, [Oswald Rufeisen] has erected a barrier between himself and his brother Jews, especially as this change has assumed so extreme a form as entering the gates of a monastery.”

I was born in 1962, the year the High Court rejected Rufeisen’s application for citizenship according to the Law of Return. Two years later, in 1964, the Catholic Church made amends for the accusation of deicide leveled at Jews — a charge that had caused centuries of Christian persecution — in the most solemn fashion (declaration “Nostra Aetate” of Vatican Council II). Throughout the more than half a century that followed, the Catholic Church issued numerous statements of repentance regarding past Christian antisemitism. These decades also witnessed a previously unheard-of blossoming of the theological dialogue between the Catholic Church and various rabbinic authorities within Judaism. Accordingly, the question reads: To what extent should Israeli legislation be beholden to the memory of the past? In other words, to what extent does this legislation allow for people and institutions to change? These days, a Jew who joins the Catholic Church does not ipso facto manifest a will to cut him/herself off from Klal Yisrael, the congregation of Israel. This is an option left to the individual faithful. Still, a “Jewish Catholic” may also decide to remain bound to Klal Yisrael, at the cost of his or her life if needed.

I am fully aware of the seriousness of this issue. The conversion of a Jew to Christian faith hurts on both sides, that of Jews who see themselves separated from their nation and that of Jews who view apostates as people who deliberately betrayed Klal Yisrael, its values, and its history. I would not turn the knife in the wound if I did not feel that threatening global trends constrained me to do so. On January 27, 2022, The Times of Israel reported that “antisemitic incidents had increased by 75% in France in 2021.” A day before, the same newspaper published the results of another inquiry: “Most Israelis believe life will get worse for Jews in Europe in near future.” Does anyone among the 53% of Israelis who believe so seriously think that antisemites in Europe distinguish between Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, and Jews who decided to become “members of another religion”? For my part, the last time I opened a book in Hebrew in the Paris “metro” was about 10 years ago. I swore to myself that I would never repeat this experience, due to the amount of hostile looks and attitudes that this trifling gesture immediately triggered around me. And I can assure you that, like most French Jews in a similar context, I was not wearing a kippah!

Of course, the idea of a European government issuing antisemitic measures on the model of the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, remains a speculative conjecture at this point in time. However, this is an issue of principle on a par with the series of issues that shape the laws of a democratic state. The laws of Nuremberg did not distinguish between “kosher Jews” and “non-kosher Jews,” such as Jewish converts. Jewish converts died in Nazi concentration camps alongside Orthodox Jews. One among them was the famous philosopher, Carmelite nun, and Catholic St. Edith Stein, on whose philosophical works I am currently writing a doctorate. Imagine a European government that would take its cue from the Nazi era. Would the current Israeli state let a new Edith Stein perish again in some European concentration camp under the pretense that she is not sufficiently “kosher” to be granted citizenship according to the Law of Return? An Israeli state that would do so would certainly not be my country. But I cannot believe the Israeli state would do that. That is why I consider Israel to be my country, whether its government ever acknowledges it or not.

The above reflects my private opinion. In no way do I claim to voice the position of the religious Order to which I belong or the community of which I am a member.

About the Author
Fr. Antoine Levy, OP, is an adjunct professor at the University of Helsinki (Department of Theology), and currently a research fellow at the Rosenzweig Center of the Hebrew University. He is also a founding member of the Helsinki Consultation, a forum of Christian theologians and intellectuals of Jewish descent.
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