Two Fires in Paris – The Talmud and Notre Dame
When I shared some initial reflections, as I watched the image of Notre Dame set afire,I ignored one discussion that came up within minutes of the news breaking. A member of a religious discussion group I am subscribed to made the connection between the burning of the Talmud in Paris and the burning of Notre Dame. It was a moment of solidarity, not of internal religious polemics, so I chose to not comment on just how problematic it is to claim we know God’s reasons for doing what he does when he does it. I did not realize at the time how frequently the association would come up in private and public communications. Whether as punishment, providence or what my uncle Gershon Hepner, following William Blake, referred to as “fearful symmetry”, that moment of global focus was, for many observant Jews, not divorced from a deep seated Jewish memory.
One vocal case in point is Rabbi Shlomo Aviner who, though he seems to know better, eventually succumbs to the temptation of considering the fire at Notre Dame as punishment. Why a rabbi who recognizes that this reasoning easily boomerangs and can be used against Jews, who are not immune to calamities, eventually gives in to such an explanation is best understood from an analysis of how the problem of theodicy is intertwined with two fundamental issues. An analysis of his “teaching” on the matter suggests there are other agendas at play that lead to the theological failure of nerve that allows the rabbi to speak as though he had access to divine secrets. In this, he joins the dubious company of such luminaries as Martin Luther, who, despite his theological foundations, couldn’t resist explaining God’s punishment of the Jews. (This is spelled out in my Luther the Antisemite). In both cases, there are other agendas at play that lead to the theological failure of nerve that allows the Christian preacher or the rabbi to speak as though he had access to divine secrets. In the case of Rabbi Aviner we note the following.
a. A blind faithfulness to historical memory. It is remarkable that Jews should continue to feel pain inflicted upon them 777 years ago (the Paris burning the Talmud). It is a sign of faithfulness, the depth of memory and fullness of commitment to tradition. But faithfulness to memory can be blind, when it fails to take into account changing times. In an exchange of sorts, I commented on Rabbi Aviner’s challenge to Pope Francis, that he should apologize for Christianity’s misdeeds towards Jews, if he wanted to be taken seriously. I commented on the ignorance and failure to admit to historical change, given the multiple apologies issued by recent popes. When the memory of past hurt is kept alive and no healing or reconciliation is admitted, petty-minded gloating at the fall of (yesterday’s) enemy is inevitable, as is the attribution of one’s narrow vision to the good Lord and his just ways.
Is Christianity Idolatrous?
b. A second factor feeds the jaundiced theodicy that justifies the Notre Dame conflagration in the name of Judaism. The juxtaposition of arson, or fires, and churches, is slowly gaining a pedigree. Multiple contemporary instances of arson against churches are justified by the claim that Christianity is idolatrous, thereby continuing to fuel not only churches set afire, but also a perception of Christianity as the enemy. In the same way that a partial reading of history lies at the root of how today’s Christianity is situated in relation to previous centuries, so the complexities of a halachic view of Christianity that have served Judaism well for centuries have given way to a simple-minded and univocal declaration of its status as idolatry, Avoda Zara. This is one of the reasons why when the Tabgha Church was set afire by people who share the views of Rabbi Aviner (even though he does not consider their actions wise or beneficial), I organized a group of rabbis in support of a fundraising campaign to rebuild the church. The idea was to demonstrate there is more than one way to view Christianity. Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, who headed the group, did so as a means of giving public expression to the halachic view of Christianity as a legitimate religion, that is non-idolatrous.
Building and Rebuilding Churches
The issue of churches worldwide and churches in the Land of Israel was dealt with by Israel’s first chief Rabbi, Rabbi Isaac Herzog. He affirmed Christianity’s non-idolatrous status and hence the permissibility of constructing churches in the Holy Land. How odd that a disciple of Rabbi Kook’s school, such as Rabbi Aviner is, must turn to the arch-enemy of religious Zionism, the Rebbe of Satmar, to justify his views on Christianity in the Holy Land, while ignoring teachings of key personalities in his own Jewish sub-tradition.
Halachic tradition actually goes a step further when it comes to churches and fire. The Notre Dame fire is far from being the first time a church burnt. There are discussions in halachic literature regarding the permissibility of Jews participating in the restoration of churches that have been burnt. Suffice it for present purposes to recognize a healthy plurality of opinions within the halachic tradition, within which one can also find eminent authorities who permit or support the participation of Jews in the restoration of houses of worship of the other religion. One famous precedent is that of R. Mordechai Horowitz of Frankfurt (d. 1910) who permitted such participation in his responsa Mate Levi. This view must assume a degree of belonging to broader society and a positive view of such society, alongside a principled view of Christianity as non-idolatrous, at least for non-Jews. But such a sense of broader belonging is exactly what we saw when Notre Dame was on fire – it was a global event, that touched all.
The possibility of Jewish involvement in Church restoration should not be dismissed as an exilic (galuti) perspective, dependent on certain historical conditions that no longer apply now that we are in the Land of Israel. Several Israeli poskim have upheld this view. The previous Sefardi chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shalom Mesas, considered this a valid and acceptable view. Anyone was free to practice stringencies, but this is the basic halachic perspective (See Shemesh Umagen 3, p. 60).
If Rabbi Mesas were asked whether Jews should help rebuild Notre Dame he would likely ask what need it served, what its benefits might be and so on. In all likelihood, he would respond in the affirmative. In any event, Jews already are contributing to Notre Dame’s restoration. Halacha, Jewish theology and our capacity to accept the religious other are far far wider than some teachers would like us to think or than they themselves realize. Responses to the Notre Dame fire are a good occasion to recall this.
It is hard to publish this piece on the eve of Passover that is also the eve of Easter, without taking note of the time. These are moments when we can highlight what separates us or what unites us. The fire at Notre Dame provided a moment of global solidarity. Reflecting on this event leads to affirmation of our common humanity and our shared spiritual aspiration. Let us enter our respective celebrations in a spirit of gratitude and joy, a joy that can be shared across our religious divide.