A strange and moving story of a Jewish convert to Catholicism
May 9, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – When a theologically articulate French rabbi decides to write up an account of his journey to Christ, taking us along as a companion, you have a very special book: From the Kippah to the Cross, by Jean-Marie Elie Setbon (originally published in French in 2013 and then in English by Ignatius Press in 2015).
The story is truly remarkable. Not raised as an observant Jew, though he went to a Jewish school as an adolescent, Setbon was passionately attracted to Christ from an early age. He was drawn to the crucifix in particular, and even got hold of one and hid it in his room until it was discovered. He was terrified of the consequences but relieved when those who found it decided it was left over from past tenants.
Setbon tells of his struggles as he matures and lives as a married man with the two attractions: Jesus and Jewish orthodoxy. At a certain point he went to live in Israel. He committed himself fully to being trained as an ultra-Orthodox rabbi. “This religious double life may appear shocking. It was true; I was carrying two identities within myself. But it was more like a spiritual struggle than duplicity or betrayal” (p. 70). The greatest strength of the book lies in showing the reader what it looks like on the inside of Jewish thought and life. It remains a world that is very closed off to the average Christian of today, living in a heavily secular world, far from Jewish enclaves.
The author lives in suspension, caught between his longing for Jesus and his training, his identity as a Jew; as he says at one point—in a Pascalian moment—his heart against his reason (p. 125). He sought, as he says many times, a one-on-one relationship with God, which he did not feel he was obtaining within Judaism (see pp. 58, 85, 145). As time went on, he received mystical illuminations that settled him at last on accepting baptism, which for him was the fulfillment of a lifetime’s searching and longing.
Along the way, he makes some trenchant observations about the current religious scene. For example: “There is no question that [interreligious] dialogue is better than beating each other up. But if the exchange passes over in silence what is contentious, it serves no purpose. In dialogue, each participant, Christian as well as Jew, must stand up for what he believes and not betray himself in order to please or be appealing to the other” (p. 57). He praises a Catholic priest (pp. 96–97) who was able to listen to his ideas calmly and joyfully, not trying to hit him over the head with the truth. He complains at a different point about a Scripture scholar who considered himself such a master of St. Paul’s writings that he could not enter into any kind of debate or constructive dispute. Setbon interestingly notes that disputatio or formalized debate is a normal part of Jewish thought and life, and that Catholic theologians at their best have practiced this same flexible and truth-oriented way of argumentation, since no one possesses a complete understanding of the truth (see pp. 97–98, 113).
The last section, on the differences between Judaism and Christianity, is very illuminating. He says quite strikingly: “Mother Teresas do not exist in Judaism” (p. 140). Serving the neighbor, while obviously not absent from any of the great religious traditions, is uniquely emphasized in Christianity, so much so that it is synonymous with it (p. 141). He says that Christianity is a religion of daily forgiveness, not the once-yearly forgiveness represented by Yom Kippur; he has found the floodgates of mercy opened to him (p. 138). While admitting that the God of Moses and the God of Jesus is one and the same, he also points to the astonishing difference that Jesus, God’s human face, makes in our very conception of God (p. 146). His points here have relevance also to Islam. Setbon writes:
The idea of a God who loved me first before I did anything at all for Him is unfamiliar to Jews, even if He did reveal Himself in places in the Bible. In Judaism, for God to love me, I must conform to the letter of the Law, and the more I practice the Law the more I am loved by God. It is quid pro quo. For that matter, there are Christians who are stuck on that idea. They have not integrated Jesus’ good news that God loves us a father loves his children. With the Christian God, I have discovered another God, a God who loves me for what I am—which does not of course excuse me from leading a moral life since moral rules are the school of love…. Once you are living in love, external laws no longer need to be applied; you have already internalized them. (pp. 146–47)
There is, however, a serious flaw in the book that I would be remiss not to mention. Setbon narrates twice that he went up to receive Holy Communion, repeatedly as a child (pp. 33–34) and again as an adult (p. 106), prior to being baptized into Christ and His Church. That he had a fascination with Christ cannot be gainsaid, and it is possible (especially given the atrocious state of preaching and liturgy today) that he was personally unaware that a non-Christian should not go up for Communion for any reason. Baptism is the gateway to all the sacraments, conferring on the baptized the right to receive other sacraments fruitfully. It is, strictly speaking, a sacrilege to receive any sacrament without being baptized.
However, neither the author nor Ignatius Press furnishes so much as a parenthetical remark or footnote to point out that Setbon should not have done this. We are living in an era of rampant confusion about who may or may not go forward to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus. Pro-abortion politicians think themselves entitled to it, since they no longer acknowledge any obligation to hold the Catholic faith. Tourists have been caught at St. Peter’s Basilica taking hosts away as souvenirs. Pseudo-mysticism is rife: “I just felt I should do it…” A Catholic publisher owes it to its readership to state clearly that no matter how strong an emotional attraction may be felt towards the Eucharist, only baptized Catholics are permitted to receive the Lord—and this, by divine law, not by a changeable human regulation.
Apart from this flaw, there is much in the book to delight in, to be puzzled by, to think about further. In many ways, it is an exemplary religious autobiography and a model of serious interreligious dialogue.
Given the official discouragement from the Vatican of conversions of Jews to Catholicism—a trend that began as early as the middle of the 20th century when the Good Friday prayer for the Jews was targeted for change—it is always a welcome sign of fidelity to God’s grace, and of the power of His new and eternal covenant, when Jews actually do convert and become observant Catholics, thus inaugurating their journey to the Promised Land won for us by the Messiah.