December 2, 2023
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Love thy neighbor: Research in Ireland to explore links between Judaism and Catholicism

An image from the eighth century Book of Kells in Ireland, showing the text that opens the Gospel of St. John. An image from the eighth century Book of Kells in Ireland, showing the text that opens the Gospel of St. John.
An image from the eighth century Book of Kells in Ireland, showing the text that opens the Gospel of St. John. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Ireland may not be the first place that springs to mind when you consider Judaism.

But the historically Catholic nation isn’t as far removed from Jewish and Mediterranean history as you might think. An early site of Christianization outside the Roman Empire, it was perhaps the first non-Mediterranean society to read and discuss the Torah, hear the word “Judaism” and learn about Jewish life and history.

In more recent historical times, Jewish figures played an active role in the foundation of the Irish Republic. The first Chief Rabbi of Ireland and later Chief Rabbi of Israel, Isaac Hertzog, spoke fluent Irish and supported Ireland’s independence. Abraham Weeks, a Jewish socialist and revolutionary from London, was among the first people killed by the British in 1916 during the Easter Rising.

“Although Ireland may not be, like New York, an obvious symbol of Jewish life in today’s world, its relationship with Jewish history and Judaism illustrates the dynamic and emancipatory potential for society when Catholicism and Judaism admit their shared theological principles and ignore the religious ones, and work together as theologies, not religions,” explained Michael J. Kelly, lecturer in Comparative Literature and Judaic studies.

Kelly, whose area of expertise is the early medieval Mediterranean, recently received a Fulbright award to study at University College Cork’s Department of Classics in Ireland. He’s currently a senior research fellow at the University of Hamburg’s RomanIslam Center in Germany, where he’s working on his next book on an historical origin of the concept of human nature, and the attempt by early medieval theologians to classify Jews as inhuman.

“In other words, I am showing how the idea of ‘human nature’ was constructed as a supposedly real and universal category for the very purpose of de-humanizing anyone who did not fit within the accepted parameters of that set,” explained Kelly, who will head to Ireland in January. “Once there was an ideological grounding for ‘human nature,’ anyone operating outside its principles could be labeled as inhuman or sub-human, and they were.

The role of theology

Theologically, Judaism and Catholicism have more similarities than differences, Kelly explained. When Jesus advises his followers to love their neighbors, he is expressing the same sentiment as was taught by the sage Hillel, for example.

Theology, however, is an intellectual discourse among individuals who are, as such, shaped by personal beliefs and motivations — including political and economic ones. Religions such as rabbinical Judaism or Catholicism represent a subjective choice by individuals and communities to adhere to a particular version of “divine truth.”

“At this point, increasing secular interests become involved in shaping the religion, building what are effectively political movements and identities that can be disconnected from the theology and primary sources that the religion claims to represent,” Kelly explained.

Consider, perhaps, a mega-church that promotes personal wealth and preaches a political message that discriminates against immigrants, or a Jewish organization that supports religious division and the removal of “foreigners.” Neither evidences a connection to their faith’s actual theology, he pointed out.

It’s an old story. In seventh-century Spain, bishops — particularly Julian of Toledo — weaponized Catholic theology in their attempt to exterminate Jews. Spurred by political aims and his own hatred, Julian drew on earlier Visigothic authorities, who called Jews “inhuman” and a “plague,” a sentiment that they had extended to anyone opposed to the state and its official religion.

The theological underpinning for anti-Semitism that Julian employed, however, wasn’t and hadn’t been widely accepted by Spanish Catholics. Both prior to and during the seventh century, they strongly rejected attempts at the forced conversion of Jews or the calls for their de-humanization or elimination. In fact, when Pope Honorius I, in the year 638, directed the Visigothic Church to force conversions, the leading bishop, Braulio, sent a sharp response.

“Braulio told him to stay out of their affairs because he, the Pope, was an idiot with an inferior knowledge of Christianity. And this was because, as the theological argument goes, God endowed all human beings with free will and thus the right to choose to act sinfully or not. Any removal of that will would be an act against the divine,” Kelly said.

But Julian, and others after him, found a workaround that would deny individuals the right to choose their own faith, such as Judaism: if they made their enemies “inhuman,” they would not be endowed with free will.

Debunking human nature

In Ireland, Kelly will work with world-renowned Catholic theologians on Christian eschatology, the theological study of death, eternity and the human essence. The late Visigothic Church, he claims, used eschatology to declare Jews “inhuman,” and Kelly hopes to flesh out the theology behind that contention during his time in Ireland.

“I aim to learn from the collective expertise of the country’s Catholic theologians — scholars and practicing Church figures — but also to collaborate and share and debate with them and with students the texts of rabbinical Judaism and each religion’s shared theology, aims and history,” he said.

A scholar of the Visigothic kingdom, Kelly explores the relationship between law, literature and theology in seventh-century Spain in his most recent book, Isidore of Seville and the “Liber Iudiciorum”: The Struggle for the Past in the Visigothic Kingdom, published in March. This current project functions, effectively, as a sequel to that work.

It’s also linked to a short-form monograph he’s finishing on a new theory of history he terms “speculative objectivity,” which directly engages the French philosophy that was the subject of his first book, Introducing Alain Badiou: A Graphic Guide, in 2014. The research he is conducting on this project in Hamburg will carry over into his Fulbright work in Cork, bringing together his philosophical expertise on the study of being with his historical concentration.

Kelly hopes that his research will debunk notions of “human nature” as being a real and stable category. Once a concept is seen as a product of history, it can no longer be imagined as universal or unchanging, he pointed out.

“This is a fundamental recognition for the progress of society and, moreover, demonstrates the central importance of historical awareness, and knowledge of historical methods, to democratic life. As long as we recognize that all human situations, concepts and ideas are historical, we know that they can be changed,” he said.

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