Watching Notre Dame Burn: 5 Random Thoughts

The world is glued to the images coming from Paris. Time after time the spire of Notre Dame is shown collapsing. It has totally dominated the news. A fire, a single fire, leads to reshaping the home page of CNN, replacing its typical multi-column layout with a single focus.

The fire is also at the top of Israeli websites and news editions. Watching it live, here are some random thoughts:

  1. There is something captivating about watching a building burn. Disasters like plane crashes do not provide us with visuals. A building burning captivates the imagination, as we watch step after step of a process of slow destruction. The mind moves along two tracks, imagining the fire consuming the building to the end and hoping/praying that it is quenched immediately. A little under two years ago Grenfell tower burned in London. The building had none of the importance of Notre Dame. It was just a large housing project. Yet, the fire captivated global attention and occupied first place in the news for nearly a week. It totally eclipsed all other news. I know it. A press conference we held at the same time in London, to launch a global interreligious friendship initiative, was virtually unattended. What is it, then, that draws us to watching a consuming fire? Does it touch some deep place in our psyche that other contemporary calamities do not?
  2. Why should Israelis care about a burning church in Europe? Why should all major Israeli outlets, Times of Israel included, feature the fire as the top news item? Well, it is very comforting to know that when all is said and done Israelis are not as provincial as we might expect. I think it is not only that Israelis visit Paris and visit(ed) Notre Dame. There is a deeper sense of global citizenship, a common belonging. Moments of disaster bring out a deeper solidarity, transcending the narrow confines of our neighborhood.
  3. Notre Dame is not devoid of Jewish interest. Like many cathedrals, it too played its part in disseminating a message of Christian superiority over Judaism, a message we call supersession, with Christianity having taken Judaism’s place. This is engraved in Notre Dame’s statues. Notre Dame is one of many European Cathedrals where the victorious Church is presented in sculpture alongside the blindfolded synagogue. Christian theology has changed. The Church no longer teaches the teaching of Christian supersession. It no longer considers Judaism to be blindfolded, in disobedience. Yet the sculpture remains. My wife wrote many years ago to the Archbishop of Paris. Cardinal Lustiger, requesting that something be done about the ancient statues, that deliver a message that is no longer relevant. The point was not to remove them, but at least to add a plaque commenting on how times have changed and with them so has theology. She never got an answer.
  4. Cardinal Lustiger is deeply connected to Notre Dame. He was, for those who do not know, a Jew. Having lost his family in the Shoah, he eventually found a spiritual home in Christianity. During the Middle Ages this would have been accompanied by rejection of Judaism and hostility to Jewish people. Not so nowadays. Lustiger was a great friend of the Jewish people and a proponent of the need to cultivate an understanding of Judaism among Christians and of the need to deepen Jewish-Christian relations. I spent several days with him when I taught at Tel Aviv University in the 90s, and a colloquium on God’s silence (following the Shoah) was held. He came with a group of French theologians. There was nothing of the spirit of competition or debate that characterized the middle ages. This was a new age, an age of friendship and listening. The same is true of his visits to Yeshiva University with French priests. They visited YU to learn how Talmud is studied and to cultivate friendship between Jewish and Christians. Lustiger, the Jewish cardinal, was a friend of the Jews, and uncomfortable as that may be for many Jews, a bridge between Jews and Christians. As the joke went, when the Chief Rabbi of France and the Cardinal met, only one of them could speak Yiddish – the Cardinal. Notre Dame was not only his Church as archbishop of Paris. It is his final resting place. As we watch Notre Dame burn, we recall that in it is buried this individual, Catholic, but still a Jew. When he was buried there in 2007, Kaddish was recited in Notre Dame cathedral.

    Cardinal Lustiger with Chief Rabbi Rene Sirat, a visible friendship- Source: https://www.catholicsforisrael.com/articles/testimonies/78-in-memoriam-cardinal-lustiger
  5. A final thought. As a committed Jew, I cannot watch the burning of a house of worship without it evoking memories. A burning Church reminds him of the burning synagogues of Germany. But more significantly, it reminds me of that great conflagration that brought down God’s home, as we know and celebrate it in Judaism, an event we continue to mourn after nearly 2000 years: the burning of the Jerusalem Temple. Consider the magnetizing power of today’s fire, the amount of global attention it draws and the conversations, discussions and responses it will engender over the coming weeks. These are but a spark, a reminder, of that greater fire that burned down the Jerusalem Temple, that we Jews remember as the center of the world. How would that event have been perceived if it could have been broadcast live across the world? That conflagration is deeply embedded in our memory and psyche. This too is awakened as we watch with disbelief and empathy the fire that consumes one of the great monuments of humanity and its religious aspirations.
About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.
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