In Lucem Gentium: Anecdotal Reflections on Growing Up and Out of the Jewish Ghetto, Part XI


Previous installments in this series have traced to the early rabbinic period the anxieties expressed by my teenage friends when I invited them to join me at Midnight Mass. In view of the Jews’ conspicuous indignation over the infamous “blood-libel” of which they have been accused, I have pointed out the irony of the ancient (and modern) Jewish allegation that the central rite of the Christian liturgy involves child sacrifice and cannibalism. In fact, I regard this as doubly ironic, inasmuch as I have never in my lifetime been witness to a religious rite involving child mutilation and blood – other than Circumcision. Whenever familial duty requires my attendance at such an event, I note that the adults present invariably reassure themselves that the male neophyte is too young to understand what is about to befall him, or to be sensible to its pain. But their consoling assumptions are belied by the wailing protests of the child as soon as the Rabbi’s knife bites into his flesh.

Whether or not their theory of infant anaesthesia is scientifically sustainable, there is no doubt that the Jewish rite is grossly primitive. In the baptismal ceremony, the infant’s drowning death is mimetic and symbolic; in the Eucharist, Christ’s blood is volatilized into the archetypal imagery of the wine. In Circumcision, the victim’s blood is real. I mention this as merely the most graphic example of the fundamental incapacity of Judaism for symbolic or spiritual imagination.


In a passage I’ve already quoted, Origen remarks on the purpose of the ancient Jewish anti-Christian propaganda campaign: to make non-Christians think twice before entering a church. It worked. My young friends in the Manor didn’t so much decline my invitation as recoil from it. But then, the ecclesiaphobia they exhibited has, it seems to me, been a more or less permanent Jewish condition.

As I am reminded whenever one of my relatives returns from a trip to Europe, the atavistic fear that churches are infectious breeding grounds of superstition and black magic is never wholly banished, not even when Jews reach the age at which they should have put away such childish things. The first destination for Jews visiting such European capitals as London, Paris, or Rome is usually the old Jewish quarter, with its narrow streets and medieval synagogues, to whose magnificent architecture they seem to respond even as they insist on building the sterile boxes that enclose the Holy of Holies in such North American suburbs as the Manor. The great churches of Europe are, however, off limits.

I remember a second cousin reporting enthusiastically on a circuit he had made of the cathedral towns around Paris, which so impressed him that he was inspired to rank their facades: first Rheims, Amiens second, Laon, then Chartres, and so on. But he couldn’t allow himself to enter and enjoy the consonant glories of their interiors. An uncle back from Paris was particularly impressed by the sixteenth-century rows of the Marais (once the Jewish quarter, naturally). When I asked what he thought of Notre Dame, Ste. Chapelle, St. Eustache, or the Pantheon, he seemed to regard the question as an impertinence. Why would he visit a church? To change the subject, I wondered if he had gone anywhere outside of Paris. Yes. A Paris cabby had informed him that Chartres was a “must-see”; but when he arrived he realized it was “just another church”, so he got back on the train and headed for the high-priced shops on the Champs d’Elysee.


To inflict upon oneself such cultural and aesthetic deprivations for the sake of a primitive taboo against the “pollutions of the Gentiles” seemed to me as absurd as it was illiberal. When, at eighteen, I proposed my ill-fated outing to Christmas Mass, I had already been going to churches (as opposed to going to Church) for some time. My earliest pilgrimages were musical and architectural, rather than religious. At that time, before such wildly successful (and state-sponsored) groups as Tafelmusik and Opera Atelier had come into fashion, Toronto’s nascent early music ensembles performed in local churches, rather than concert halls. Their directors rationalized that their intimate settings were more congenial to the small consorts and choirs that the music of the period called for; but the main reason was economic: Renaissance motets or Baroque oratorios were still exotic fare, and it was easier to fill a small church.

The nineteenth-century Gothic and Romanesque buildings into which I was invited for the purpose of listening to the music of Gabrielli or Monteverdi were hardly St. Mark’s in Venice; but by comparison to the bungalows and strips malls of Bathurst Manor, they might as well have been. These journeys downtown opened my eyes as well as my ears. Indeed, as any concert-goer knows, it is not only the acoustics of these old buildings that enhance the concert-going experience; there is also the visual acoustic of the architecture. You don’t have to be a medieval art historian to understand why Gothic and Romanesque interiors have been described as “polyphony in stone”. The fact that what I was seeing was the bowdlerized institutional Gothic and Romanesque of the modern North American city could in no way diminish its effect on an adolescent hick from the architecturally impoverished suburbs.

While still a teenager, I was as yet only dimly aware that the aesthetic awakenings I was experiencing had anything to do with my ancestral Judaism, or, indeed, that such awakenings were an almost hackneyed theme in the narrative of the modern Jew’s journey out of the ghetto. The fear of setting foot inside a Christian church is, of course, merely emblematic of the besetting problem of the Jew who, trapped within the temenos of the tribe, finds himself poised guiltily on the threshold of the greater cosmos of human art and culture, looking in.

Every Jew must at some time or other come to grips with the implacable logic of his forebears’ separatist syllogism: Gentile culture is polluted; world culture is Gentile culture; therefore, world culture is polluted. It is an impossible dilemma, especially for a group that so obviously cherishes learning and the life of the mind, and is just as obviously the inheritor of enormous intellectual and artistic gifts. Ironically, it is the intolerable prohibition against Gentile art and culture that has resulted in the self-estrangement of so many Jews, and their eventual assimilation into Christianity.

It is a simple fact that for the last three thousand years, the highest achievements in human thought, literature, and art – Greek and Roman for the first millennium, Christian for the subsequent two – have been the achievements of a “Gentile” civilization. Any Jew who aspires to a life of genuine learning and culture must sooner or later accept this fact, and venture forth upon the “high places”. Many have done so, but often, it seems, at the price of their “Jewishness”.


Since, with the Stoics, I assume that the first step in achieving full humanity is the casting off of the purely accidental inheritances and allegiances of tribe, race, or nation, I don’t, obviously, regard this as calamitous. Most Jews, by contrast, have persuaded themselves that it is a matter, not only of religious purity, but biological survival. For them, parochialism is a duty.

Naturally, this makes for the most absurd contradictions. The Jews of my grandparents’ generation rejoiced at the world-wide fame of Jolson, but they would always rather that he had stuck with songs like “My Yiddishe Momma” than “Mammy”. That Irving Berlin was renowned as the greatest lyricist of his day was worth pointing out to the Goyim, but that his fame was achieved with compositions such as “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade” was regarded as a cause of embarrassment if not a betrayal.

The ancient separatist ethos of Judaism inevitably complicates the equally primitive impulse of Jewish racial pride. Jews revere Maimonides as a Talmudic scholar, but that his famous “Guide to the Perplexed” is really a standard twelfth-century synthesis of Platonism, Aristotelianism, and incipient Christian scholasticism – making its teaching genuinely universal, and providing the condition for its fame – is so problematic that it can scarcely be mentioned. Similarly, Jews note with satisfaction that Salamone Rossi’s madrigals were so brilliant and fashionable that, like Joseph at the court of Pharaoh, he rose to prominence at the ducal court of Mantua; but they are embarrassed into silence, once again, over the fact that his equally magnificent settings for the synagogue are wholly atypical of Jewish liturgical music, and wholly typical of the Christian motets that so palpably influenced them.

To the degree that so many Jewish writers and intellectuals – Spinoza, Freud, Marx, Bergson, Durkheim, Panofsky, Einstein, Simone Weil, Philip Roth, to name as eclectic a group as I can come up with off the top of my head – have achieved their distinction with no relation to, or in direct repudiation of their Jewishness, the problem becomes all the more acute: to the point where separatist discomfort can cancel out Jewish ethnic pride altogether, and the person of distinction descends, from the rank of Landsman to that of “self-hating Jew”, a mere step in the hierarchy above the Goyim.