Khurbinek: Some Thoughts on the Church of Israel

In order to speak about the Church of Israel, it is assumed that one has a precise understanding of what is Israel and what is the Church. This assumption is, of course, wrong. We are incapable of providing such definitions. For the sake of clarity, let us state that the name Israel refers to this ethnic-historical-cultural-religious collective body with which, according to the Holy Scriptures, God settled an eternal, unique covenant. Separating this collective body from the other nations, God appointed them as his own lot (for instance Exod 19:4–6, s’gulla, am kohanim, goi kadosh). This is the reason why Israel is the people of God. Regarding the Church, we shall not endeavor to define her with abstract terms. We shall only elaborate on the possibility of speaking about the Church of Israel from several different points of view.

As is commonly acknowledged, the Church was born 50 days after the Resurrection of Christ, on the day when the Holy Spirit came down on the apostles. However, in his Commentary on the Gospel of John, Origen claims that the Church is the blood and the water that poured forth from the side of Christ at Golgotha, as nourishment for the whole world (John 19: 34). Coming back to the same idea in another treatise, he writes: “From the wound on the side of Christ came out the Church and of her he made his bride.”1 Here Christ is the new Adam and the Church is the new Eve, coming out from his side. But this observation, as relevant as it is in itself, does not directly bear on the object of our current discussion.

It is worth emphasizing that, according to the literal meaning of this interpretation, the Church already existed at Golgotha. The Church is what nourishes the world, and it does so not only before Pentecost, but before the resurrection, although the world was still incapable of receiving its share of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We claim that the historical task of Israel, the people of God, is achieved when it is no other than he who nourishes the world with the blood that gushes forth from the side of the Savior at Golgotha. In this sense, Israel represents the Church. Pondering this reality should, as I see it, be a prerequisite to answering questions such as: What would a Church of the Jews be like? Or else: should Jews simply become part of the extant Churches? Although we shunned giving a definition of the Church, we still consider ourselves entitled to formulate a few elementary truths about her. Among the most obvious ones is the fact that the Church is an association. She was at one point composed of twelve members. She could as well subsist as a gathering of two or three individuals. A gathering of human beings and the relationships that bind them together are what constitute the Church. People are mortals; they are free to join and leave the Church. How could the Church get new members otherwise? Accordingly, the Church is an association moving towards self-completion. There is natural growth, since a substantial part of her members are the children of previous members, and there is also a process of recruitment. The latter contributes to Israel’s move towards its own completion.

Several literary sources from the Hellenistic period state that the people who left Egypt did not belong to a foreign tribe. They were the socially rejected—those who were plagued with diseases, the criminals, the poor, with someone who was of a different kin at their head. Manethon writes that he was truly the son of the supreme ruler—an illegitimate offspring of Pharaoh. After having failed to stir up a rebellion, he would have fellowshipped with the plague-stricken convicts on the building sites of Pitom and Ramses, whence he would have led them away sometime later. The story coincides with a passage from the book of Exodus (12:37–38): together with Israel went out erev-rav, the rabble. From such elements, one can infer that, firstly, the people of God is composed of those born Jews; that is, the sons of Israel. And yet at the same time—this is what I find most meaningful—the people of God is constituted of crooks, of the most wretched, despised, and socially-rejected people. God is their guide. He ceaselessly abides in their vicinity, as a pillar of fire during the night and a pillar of cloud during the day. He walked ahead, and all Israel was the unique son of God at that moment (Exod 4:22). Of course, there were times, under the rule of Solomon in particular, when Israel did not quite look like a throng of outcasts. The longing that characterized the re-established kingdom, though, did not desert Israel, even when it came to be reduced to such a throng of outcasts. Be that as it may, the reflected image or the reflected status of Israel, in this world, is the status of an association reduced to slavery, persecuted and humiliated. The people of God is an association, but an association of the insulted and the injured.

However, it is moving towards its completion. The main point is not that this oppressed association produces an offspring, something which is not altogether self-evident in the case of an oppressed minority. What is truly amazing is the fact that, in every generation, there appear volunteers that contribute to this process of self-completion. For a quantitatively insignificant but symbolically meaningful part, this process rests on the existence of proselytes. We shall come back to this point. The most fundamental aspect, however, is the fact that what brought about nezah Israel (the eternity/the victory of Israel) is a free-willing commitment to Jewish identity. We have in mind the commitment of parents on behalf of their children but also, to a no lesser extent, the commitment of an individual to remain a Jew, whatever may happen. We are all very much aware of the fact that, throughout the historical existence of Jews in Christian and Muslim countries, every single Jew continuously faced the one and same choice. Remaining a Jew meant that one would become prey to humiliation and persecution. One found oneself at risk, together with those who stood closest. Meanwhile, by converting to Christianity or Islam, one could become a full-fledged member of the surrounding society, with all ensuing rights. The decision to espouse this condition of vulnerability became the distinguishing feature of this association, although it never was the focus of Israel´s own quest for identity. The well-known and ancient formula used for the reception of a proselyte, which is quoted by Maimonides in his Epistle to the Yemenites, can serve as a witness here. Obviously, the lengthy list of humiliations and dangers pertaining to Jewish existence culminates in the following question directed to the candidate: “Are you fully aware of this?” As stated in the passage, “if the candidate answers: ´Eineni raui, I understand and I am not worthy,´ he or she is accepted without further enquiry.” Accordingly, what comes to the fore is an association of people who are conscious that being persecuted is a gift. To be Israel in this world implies that one has deliberately become a member of an association doomed to be persecuted. This is what nourishing the world is about. This is what being the water and the blood that gushes forth from the side of Christ means.

We claim that this is the historical task of the Church. She was meant to constitute an association of the insulted and the injured, moving freely towards its completion on behalf of those individuals who volunteer to join such ranks. As is plain to see, the further the Church shied away from this task, the greater grew the distance between herself and the Jewish people. The primeval Church was one with them; she was fully part of Israel. The Church of the Byzantine Empire was no longer an association doomed to be persecuted. She had lost all connection with the Jewish people, not to mention the Novella of the emperor Justinian, the content of which often goes beyond the dispositions of the Nuremberg laws. There is no need either to expand on the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people, as illustrated by the Crusades, the various “blood libels,” and the expulsion from Spain.

Unwilling to elaborate on the fateful debt of the Christian Church toward the Jewish people, we will limit ourselves to highlighting the following correlation: the stronger the influence of the Church over the society, the greater is the role of the Church herein, the more Israel experiences persecution and social marginalization. This does not come up as a coincidence. The Church is envious of Israel. At first sight, it is a very strange kind of envy. What is spiritual becomes envious of what pertains to the realm of the flesh. The eternal turns out as being envious of the temporal. Why should the Christian Church, the bearer of eternal life, experience jealousy when it comes to Israel, the one who is deprived of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that go together with sacramental life—the gift of Golgotha excepted?

Notwithstanding, besides eternal life, there is apparently a need for life here and now, life on a human level. Indeed, this life is nowhere to be found in such abundance as amidst the persecuted. The problem has little to do with the fact that an alliance with the state is something unethical. Rather, it has to do with the fact that the Church, as soon as it concludes an alliance with the empty and crushing power of the state, loses the momentum associated with life’s superabundance. She subsists along a dotted line, as it were, shifting from one religious service to the next. This has been the case in all cities, in all hamlets, that grew under the shadow of the Latin-Catholic and the Byzantine-Orthodox Churches’ respective spheres of influence. And yet, everywhere, throughout all cities, villages, and hamlets, the persecuted community of Israel lived on, as some kind of enduring reproach: deprived of hope, deprived of the feast of the resurrection, but remaining the Church, the Body of Christ, crucified for the sake of his persecutors, come hell or high water. However, Israel was not satisfied with being an enduring reproach, reminding the Church of what she was no longer in the state of doing. Within itself, Israel was accumulating the energy of life and love that poured out of the one innocent offered in sacrifice and was given to the world as nourishment. This, the Church—according to its historical existence—was meant to do, and this, precisely, she refrained from doing. The fact is that no other than the innocent victim, the one who—to quote the words of Simone Weil—refusing to draw out the sword, will die on the cross, can counter-balance the crushing weight of sin, spreading itself throughout the universe. At the critical turning-points of the world’s existence, the freedom of grace concentrates merely in the one who forgives and, in this manner, grants life to those who are guilty of murder.

These two parallel existential paths, echoing each other in a variety of ways, crossed unexpectedly during the catastrophe that struck European Jewry in the years during World War II, thus shaping a religious situation which, as I see it, is entirely new. The historical Church could not remain ignorant of the fact that she was now subsisting alone, as a seed of wheat that would have refused to die. When the catastrophe hurtled down, the historical Church found herself incapable of saving Europe, of becoming the main victim of Nazi violence or the main organ of the resistance that fought against it. The only reason for this that I can see—there are probably hundreds of them, but I see presently merely one—is that the Church, according to her historical form of existence, was trying to avoid death and therefore did not give life. The historical path of Israel was just the opposite, so that the Church was meant to cross it, to fuse her historical path with the one of Israel. What we have in mind is not that the Church, being incapable of realizing the great task originally assigned to her, should take up a more modest one, such as providing forms of social service. By doing this, she would fall away from the mission that God has providentially assigned to her. As long as the historical Church will shy away from the path of the cross, she will not be the Church, but a kind of administration intended to cater to the religious needs of a series of individuals. For sure, “catering to religious needs” is a program that includes sacramental life and preaching; namely, that which fills the universe with the power and the joy of Easter. However, this pertains merely to the meta-historical, glorious, supernatural dimension of the Church, not to the tragic and human dimension of the Church’s existence.

As we see it, the consequence of the catastrophe was that the claim regarding the human dimension of the Church became the one and only vital issue. Christ left temples for the gas chambers. It did not escape the notice of a number of people in post-war Europe. We are indebted to them if a Judeo-Christian dialogue, with all its weaknesses, has finally seen the light of day and still goes on. What will make Israel accept Jesus Christ as its Lord? Let us raise this age-old question. As I see it, it will remain impossible as long as the Christian world will not take the following step. In one interview on the theme of the reconciliation between the Catholic and the Orthodox Church (see the book called Crossing the Threshold of Hope), Pope John-Paul the II made this prophetic statement: “The path towards the recovery of unity between Churches goes through steps of mutual repentance for what was done to Jews during WWII.” Admittedly, the Pope was no less aware than anyone else of the situation specific to the Orthodox Church during the years of WWII. He knew that she had been trampled on to such an extent, that she was not in a condition to say something with her own voice. Besides, while German bishops have sometimes had the possibility to stand up for their rights, the stances taken by the Orthodox Church were of no significance whatsoever to the ears of the Nazi leaders. Accordingly, I believe that what the Pope had in mind, when he spoke about the fault of the Orthodox Church in relationship to Jews, and the need for her to repent, had more to do with some mystical dimension of her historical responsibility. Actually, this Church shows very little awareness of her responsibility when it comes to the catastrophe that struck the Jews. However, she is not the only one that could advocate a state of de facto powerlessness during these years. Therefore, the guilt lies beyond the collaboration of the German Protestant Church or the Croatian Catholic Church. It is the guilt of Christianity, of the Christian civilization, the one which, springing from the Pentecost, came to an end with Catholics celebrating Easter in Warsaw at the very moment when the residents of the ghetto were slowly starved to death.

The next step that needs to be taken is to apprehend the concrete reality of a crime, the victims of which have long turned into pure symbols, not only in the European but also in the Israeli consciousness, since there are so few living witnesses left. For sure, a martyr, a saint, always remains a symbol or an icon. However, it is not an abstract idea that he or she symbolizes. More than any ordinary character, a saint preserves or rather possesses a fullness of integrity as a person. In practical terms, this means that we pay greater attention to the words of a martyr than to that of an individual with a different sort of biography. His or her views are more important to us. We would not find the way Giordano Bruno conceives the structure of the universe so interesting, had we not known, since our early days as children, that the judges who issued the condemnation felt more fear than the one on whom their condemnation fell. Accordingly, what one needs to do in order to take this step is, first, to listen carefully to the different witnesses left by the victims. Secondly, one should commit oneself to fulfilling their legacy and celebrating their blessed memory in a liturgical mode. Christian denominations have different ways of doing this, according to whether they have canonical patterns of similar worship or not. The twenty-first century has witnessed a few attempts in that direction. The attention given to the works of Edith Stein is one of them. However, I have something else in mind. One needs to listen, interpret, and accomplish the word that unknown, anonymous, and silenced victims, children especially, have left us. Symbolically speaking, this kind of victim seems to have a representative of its own. His name is Khurbinek. One certainly remembers the pages that Primo Levi devotes to this character in Moments of Reprieve. The apparition of Khurbinek is something striking and unique. As a matter of fact, he was, probably, the only child of this age who managed to survive the catastrophe, if only for a few days. Primo Levi gives a precise description of him: “Khurbinek – the only child of Oswecim. Khurbinek, an offspring of Death, was born in Oswecim and lived until he reached three years of age.” Although the lower part of his body was paralyzed, he continuously tried to say something. Primo Levi describes how the Jews in the shanty, these survivors who, summoned together, knew all the languages of the earth, tried everything to grasp what the child made heroic efforts to say, to no avail, though. Maklo, masklo… In the shanty, some were inclined to hold the most natural of all conjectures: “Mama;” others believed he was indicating some kind of food in Russian: “Maslo (butter), miaso (meat).” However, Primo Levi rightly observes that Khurbinek, during the time of his short life, could hardly have ever heard the words butter and meat. The author concludes the story of Khurbinek in the following manner: “The word that Khurbinek tried to utter remained undecipherable. Here, through my own words, it makes itself heard.” There is an element that adds to the odd and polemic dimension of the tale. Primo Levi was so estranged from Judaism that he could not have guessed the meaning associated with the name “Khurbinek,” although he was well aware that it was a nickname and not a real name. In actual fact, this nickname must have originally been given by some religious Jew. It comes from “Khurban,” the word that means sacrifice. Khurbinek, therefore, means: “Small victim for the sacrifice.” The victim by the name “small sacrifice,” born in Oswecim, died on May 9, 1945. Is there anything more striking on a symbolic level? Be that as it may, he was a living human being and he tried to say his word. G. Agamben, who wrote on the same theme, interprets the indecipherable meaning concealed in the word of Khurbinek as the final failure of all potentialities associated with human communication. We are denied the possibility of grasping what he wanted to say and this forever dooms all attempts at endowing the catastrophe with some meaning, together with similar philosophical undertakings. Nevertheless, I would like to look at the same story from a completely opposite vantage point. During the last days of his existence, Khurbinek ceaselessly tried to establish a contact with the surrounding human beings. Accordingly, his legacy expresses some kind of trust, a trust that includes the possibility of communication and mutual understanding. He wanted to live—to live together with the other human beings, to talk with them, and to play with them. It is part of a legacy common to all victims: living must go on. In the framework of Christian culture, fulfilling this legacy not only implies honoring the perpetual memory of the victims, but committing oneself to serve these memories. The victims of the catastrophe deserve appropriate worship, since they were offered as a sacrifice of atonement. The world owes them its capacity of going on with existing. Mankind constitutes a whole. Therefore, it is all mankind, Europe in the first row, which bears the responsibility for what happened. With the exception of Denmark, no European state identified the catastrophe as its OWN, personal disaster. Not even a Jewish organization like Ishuv did everything it could have done for the sake of its perishing brothers and sisters. I would take the liberty to include all the social organizations of the free world into the list of those who bear a responsibility in what happened.

The fact is that this responsibility is so irremissible, that the only way out would be a collective suicide on the scale of Hiroshima. Besides, is this so far from what is continuously suggested by pre-eminent figures of our cultural world, a number of theologians included? Notwithstanding, the desire of the victims—that the world that has exterminated them would continue to exist—has had a redeeming effect. It saved the world and, since then, has never ceased to help in carrying it further.

Only once the Christian world will have fulfilled this condition shall we be able to start speaking about the Church of Israel. The various attempts to conceive what a Christian life of the Jewish people, a Jewish Church, could look like, generate a vast number of questions and spark off endless controversial debates. Should a Christian Jew practice the 613 mitsvot? Should he practice any of them? Do Christian traditions include elements that an authentic Jewish monotheism should dismiss as so many remnants of ancient paganism? As I see it, these important questions are but secondary in respect of what is really decisive. This touches on something that lies so far beyond human intellectual power that we can hardly do more than put it into words. If it is true that, throughout its historical existence, from Golgotha to the catastrophe, Israel is already one with the Church, can the Church who has Golgotha as the unique sacrament, take the step that will transform her into the Church of the resurrection and of the Pentecost? Pondering this theme borders on indulging in an arbitrary, mystical exercise of human fancy. Still, let me give a few hints in this direction as I approach the end of the present reflection.

In the spiritual life of a Christian, it is the Eucharist that achieves the passage from Golgotha to the celebration of the resurrection. In other words, the Last Supper is the decisive turning point. We hold it highly probable that the Last Supper was a celebration pertaining to the Jewish Passover, the Seder of Pessah. This is why we could conceive the path toward the constitution of a distinct Church of Israel as a way through Golgotha, understood as the expression of the historical existence of Israel, and this down to the moment when the Seder of Pessah will become the Eucharist. Through the Seder of Pessah, Jews of the present times find themselves in union with Jews of all times, going back to the Exodus from Egypt. This religious service does not imply the existence of the Temple or the use of its paraphernalia. The concrete elements of the celebration of the Seder are very simple. The pictures of the Last Supper provide a good illustration of it. This makes me hope that Pessah has the potential to become the Eucharist. If this point is ever reached, a time will come when Israel will not only share its particular gift pertaining to the redemption with the historical Christian Church. The blood and water that pours out of this gift will not only wash the Christian Churches. Israel itself will, in turn, partake of the sacraments of the Ecumenical Church and of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Israel will welcome what constitutes the Church of the Gentiles in its womb: its cultural traditions, its national forms of worship, and even the veneration of its saints. Only then shall we hear the word that Khurbinek wanted so much to tell us. <

Origen, Comm. on the Proverbs 31.16