“The Historian Jules Isaac: From the Teaching of Contempt to the Teaching of Esteem”

“In 1963, both Pope John XXIII and Jules Isaac passed away. Unfortunately, the valiant historian and the Pope were not granted the opportunity to witness the fruition of their tenacious efforts… the adoption of Nostra aetate”
~ Carol Iancu and André Kaspi from the film, “The Historian Jules Isaac”
“Our [Masorti] movement is uniquely qualified to understand that both laws and concepts change in accord with differing times and conditions and that not everything said and taught in the name of Judaism need be defended. Indeed, it is our responsibility to define what is appropriate for us in our time basing it upon those teachings within the tradition that represent the highest ideals of Judaism.”
~ “The Status of Non-Jews in Jewish Law and Lore Today”
A teshuvah unanimously adopted by the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Law and Standards in 2016

From left to right: Cardinal Augustin Bea, primary drafter of Nostra aetate; Jules Isaac, the renowned historian and postwar advocate of Jewish-Christian reconciliation; and Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962

PARIS, France — A French production company, Beamlight Films, has released a documentary about the life, sorrows, and lasting achievements of the distinguished French-Jewish scholar Jules Isaac (1877 – 1963), author of the seminal work Jesus and Israel. The 53-minute film — titled The Historian Jules Isaac: From the Teaching of Contempt to the Teaching of Esteem — traces the career of one of the most influential European scholars of history, who was dismissed from his position as Director General of Public Education in France during the German occupation, and whose wife and daughter perished at Auschwitz.

After the Second World War, Jules Isaac played a central role in the 1947 Seelisberg Conference and in persuading Pope John XXIII to address antisemitic elements of Catholic theology at the Second Vatican Council. Ultimately, this led to the publication of Nostra aetate: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Proclaimed by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965.

The documentary was produced and directed by Emmanuel Chouraqui, a filmmaker whose father was the renowned French-Algerian-Israeli lawyer, author, scholar, and politician André Chouraqui (1917 – 2007). A deeply spiritual man, the elder Chouraqui spent much of his life fostering rapprochement between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. A member of the French resistance during WWII, André Chouraqui helped save Jules Isaacs’ life by embedding him within a rural community of pious French Protestants after the Nazis occupied Vichy France. André Chouraqui was also a close associate of René Cassin, a French jurist who co-authored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In summarizing the historic achievements of Jules Isaac, the film concludes:

André Kaspi (Historian and author of Jules Isaac — Historian and Protagonist of the Judeo-Christian Rapprochement): We need to think about Christian antisemitism, because if we denounce it, and if we succeed in demonstrating that there was no reason to justify this antisemitism, the whole philosophical architecture of (Christian) antisemitism collapses. That is why Jules Isaac’s battle was a fundamental one, aimed at showing that there is no justification for Christian antisemitism. It’s important to stress that Jules Isaac had no intention of denigrating Christianity. He was trying to understand it. His intellectual approach was to try and understand what happened in Europe in Christian lands between 1933 and 1945.

Jean Dominique Durand (Historian and President of the Judeo-Christian Friendship Society of France): So he’s taking a positive approach. He’s not taking a negative, deconstructive approach. He simply wants to show that in the end, if Christians want to remain faithful to the Old Testament, as well as to the New Testament, to all of which they lay claim, they need to revise their knowledge and views on Judaism. On the other hand, he wanted to work with Christians, and in particular with those around him. He founded the Judeo-Christian Friendship Society in 1948, so there were Jews with him, Edmond Fleg, for example. There were also many Catholics. So there was a willingness to work together.

André Kaspi: Jules Isaac took two extremely important steps. He managed to be received by Pope Pius XII. It wasn’t a long audience, lasting just a few minutes. But Isaac essentially wanted to obtain something regarding the Easter Liturgy.

Carol Iancu (Historian and former President of the Association of Friends of Jules Isaac): It’s the famous, or rather infamous, “Oremus et pro perfidis Judaeis” prayer. You can imagine the effect when children would go to church, who had never seen a Jew, were told “now let us pray for the perfidious Jews.” So we (Christians) tried to change that a little not to say “perfidious Jews,” but to say “unbelieving Jews,” although, of course, they are the first people to believe.

André Kaspi: He wanted this unfavorable situation for the Jews to be removed, and he got it. His second meeting with a Pope was with John XXIII in June 1960. On October 10, 1960, Jules Isaac sent a comprehensive letter to Charles de Provenchère…

Carol Iancu: And the same letter to whom? To André Chouraqui. I quote: “The Pope has taken good note of the request I presented to him and, I am told, he is greatly interested in it… The issue will be examined, and if I am to believe Cardinal Bea’s statements, in a favorable context.”

André Kaspi: However, this did not happen immediately because things were progressing very slowly. The meeting took place in 1960.

Carol Iancu: The Vatican Council did not open until October 11, 1962. Indeed, Pope John XXIII entrusted the drafting of the document on the Jews to Cardinal Bea, but the document was not completed and published until the fall of 1965. In the meantime, in 1963, both Pope John XXIII and Jules Isaac passed away. Unfortunately, the valiant historian and the Pope were not granted the opportunity to witness the fruition of their tenacious efforts. Isaac died on September 5, shortly before the opening of the second session of the Council.

André Kaspi: When the motion (Nostra aetate) was adopted in 1965, neither John XXIII nor Jules Isaac were alive. However, this motion, which essentially denounces Christian antisemitism, was delivered at a time when the two principal authors had both passed away. This, I believe, is perhaps the most noteworthy aspect, because it signifies that it was no longer just two men battling for truth, but that truth has triumphed, and essentially, it is no longer contingent on the life of one or the other.

The world is in need of an alternative Islamic orthodoxy”

While Westerners often criticize orthodox Islamic law for mandating the establishment of a state religion, it is well to remember that prior to the Second Vatican Council, Catholic doctrine similarly mandated the establishment of a state religion — i.e., Roman Catholicism. Indeed, it was not until the adoption of Dignitatis humanae in 1965 that the Roman Catholic Church declared that every human being has a right to religious freedom.

As the world’s largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, points out in the Gerakan Pemuda Ansor Declaration on Humanitarian Islam (2017):

  1. In the theory of classical Islamic law (usul fiqh), religious norms (ahkam; singular, hukm) constitute a response to reality. The purpose of religious norms (maqasid al-shari‘ah) is to ensure the spiritual and material well-being of humanity.
  2. The authoritative Sunni jurists, Imam al-Ghazali and Imam al-Shatibi, identified five primary components of maqasid al-shari‘ah, viz., the preservation of faith, life, progeny, reason and property.
  3. Religious norms may be universal and unchanging — e.g., the imperative that one strive to attain moral and spiritual perfection — or they may be “contingent,” if they address a specific issue that arises within the ever-changing circumstances of time and place.
  4. As reality changes, contingent — as opposed to universal — religious norms should also change to reflect the constantly shifting circumstances of life on earth. This was in fact the case during the early centuries of Islam, as various schools of Islamic law (madzhab) emerged and evolved. For the past five centuries, however, the practice of ijtihad (independent legal reasoning, employed to create new religious norms) has generally lapsed throughout the Sunni Muslim world.
  5. When contemporary Muslims seek religious guidance, the most widely-accepted and authoritative reference source — indeed, the standard of Islamic orthodoxy — is the corpus of classical Islamic thought (turats) — and especially fiqh (jurisprudence) — that reached its peak of development in the Middle Ages and was then frozen in place, largely unchanged to the present day.
  6. A wide discrepancy now exists between the structure of Islamic orthodoxy and the context of Muslims’ actual (lived) reality, due to immense changes that have occurred since the teachings of orthodox Islam grew ossified towards the end of the medieval era.
  7. This disjunct between key tenets of Islamic orthodoxy and the reality of contemporary civilization can, and often does, lead Muslims into physical, moral and spiritual danger, if they insist upon observing certain elements of fiqh, regardless of their present context.

Among the complex issues that lie at the heart of this discrepancy are:

  • Normative practices governing relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, including the rights, responsibilities and role of non-Muslims who live in Muslim-majority societies, and vice versa;
  • Relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim world, including the proper aims and conduct of warfare;
  • The existence of modern nation states and their validity — or lack thereof — as political systems that govern the lives of Muslims; and
  • State constitutions and statutory laws/legal systems that emerged from modern political processes, and their relationship to shari‘ah.
  1. Social and political instability, civil war and terrorism all arise from the attempt, by ultraconservative Muslims, to implement certain elements of fiqh within a context that is no longer compatible with said classical norms.
  2. Any attempt to establish a universal Islamic state — al-imamah al-udzma (the Great Imamate), also known as al-khilafah (the Caliphate) — will only lead to disaster for Muslims, as one aspirant battles with another for dominion of the entire Islamic world.
  3. The history of Islam following the death of the Prophet’s (saw.) son-in-law, Sayyidina Ali, demonstrates that any attempt to acquire and consolidate political/military power in the form of a Caliphate will inevitably be accompanied by the slaughter of one’s opponents, and tragedy for the Muslim community as a whole, particularly at the outset of a new dynasty.
  4. When this effort is fused with the orthodox injunction to engage in offensive war against non-Muslims — until they convert or submit to Islamic rule, so that the entire world may be united beneath the banner of Islam — this constitutes a summons to perpetual conflict, whose ever-widening appeal to Muslims is rooted in the very history and teachings of Islam itself.
  5. Indeed, authoritative elements of fiqh describe such conflict as a religious obligation — which, at times, is incumbent upon the Muslim community in general, and others, upon every Muslim adult male, depending on the circumstances involved — for these religious norms emerged at a time when conflict between Islam and non-Muslim neighboring states was nearly universal.
  6. If Muslims do not address the key tenets of Islamic orthodoxy that authorize and explicitly enjoin such violence, anyone — at any time — may harness the orthodox teachings of Islam to defy what they claim to be the illegitimate laws and authority of an infidel state and butcher their fellow citizens, regardless of whether they live in the Islamic world or the West. This is the bloody thread that links so many current events, from Egypt, Syria and Yemen to the streets of Mumbai, Jakarta, Berlin, Nice, Stockholm and Westminster.
  7. Civil discord, acts of terrorism, rebellion and outright warfare — all pursued in the name of Islam — will continue to plague Muslims, and threaten humanity at large, until these issues are openly acknowledged and resolved.
  8. Clearly, the world is in need of an alternative Islamic orthodoxy, which the vast majority of Muslims will embrace and follow.
  9. The question that confronts humanity — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — is: how can we encourage, and ultimately ensure, that such an alternative not only arises, but becomes the dominant orthodoxy?

As Bayt ar-Rahmah and Gerakan Pemuda Ansor observed in the 2018 Nusantara Manifesto (point 154):

To one who is intellectually honest and informed about the facts in question, it is obvious that many (though of course not all) members of ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood [including Hamas], Hezbollah, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and countless other Islamist groups are true believers in the problematic tenets of Islamic orthodoxy and possess the courage of their convictions, to the point that they are prepared to suffer and die for their beliefs.

In a major break with Islamic conservatism, in 2019 the world’s largest Muslim movement — Nahdlatul Ulama — abolished the legal category of infidels, those who do not adhere to Islam, which has long cast a shadow over the faith’s relationships with other religions.

Following a February 2019 conference attended by some 20,000 ulama (religious scholars) in Banjar, West Java (“2019 Munas”), the Nahdlatul Ulama Central Board published Findings of the 2019 National Conference of Nahdlatul Ulama Religious Scholars, which endorsed the concept of a nation state rather than caliphate and declared that all citizens, irrespective of religion, ethnicity, or creed, are entitled to equal rights and obligations.

The 2019 Munas decreed that the modern nation state is theologically legitimate; that there is no legal category of infidel (kafir) within a modern nation state, only “fellow citizens”; that Muslims must obey the laws of any nation where they dwell; and that Muslims have a religious obligation to foster peace rather than automatically wage war on behalf of their co-religionists, whenever conflict erupts between Muslim and non-Muslim populations anywhere in the world.

Rabbis and Muslim Scholars at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (Masorti) in New York City on 12 December 2023

“The Status of Non-Jews in Jewish Law and Lore Today”

Like pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism and Islamic orthodoxy today, Judaism also stands heir to what Prof. Rabbi Alan Brill describes as “Problematic Exclusivist Texts.” In 2016, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Law and Standards unanimously adopted a seminal teshuvah (responsa, or religious ruling) authored by Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a preeminent Masorti (Conservative) authority on halacha (Jewish law).

Titled The Status of Non-Jews in Jewish Law and Lore Today, the teshuvah was written to address “passages in rabbinic literature, Kabbalah and medieval philosophical works that depict Gentiles in negative terms, as inferior to Jews and sometimes as even less than human.” The teshuvah cites the publication, in Israel, of “books lauded by a small number of well-known extremist rabbis in which non-Jews are depicted as being of a lesser species than Jews and in which slaying Arabs, including young children, is deemed permissible and even commanded.”

As the Masorti teshuvah states:

If we are not to descend to the level of simple apologetics, it will be necessary to deal honestly with the sources, to admit that different attitudes existed over the course of the development of Judaism and to candidly criticize and reject certain parts of the tradition while embracing others as representing the Judaism we wish to promulgate and which we believe represent the true core of Jewish belief beginning with the Torah itself. Our movement is uniquely qualified to understand that both laws and concepts change in accord with differing times and conditions and that not everything said and taught in the name of Judaism need be defended. Indeed it is our responsibility to define what is appropriate for us in our time basing it upon those teachings within the tradition that represent the highest ideals of Judaism.

You may view the video The Historian Jules IsaacFrom the Teaching of Contempt to the Teaching of Esteem by clicking the image below.

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You may also wish to read:

R20 Working Group 3 on the recontextualization of obsolete and problematic tenets of religious orthodoxy

“Problematic Exclusivist Texts,” by Rabbi Professor Alan Brill

The Status of Non-Jews in Jewish Law and Lore Today

Gerakan Pemuda Ansor Declaration on Humanitarian Islam