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Jews and Jesuits: Contacts Across the Ages

The conference on ‘Jews and Jesuits: Contacts across the Ages’, organised in Antwerp on February 1st-2nd 2018 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Chair for Jewish-Christian Relations of the Institute for Jewish Studies of the University of Antwerp and the University Centre Saint-Ignatius Antwerp, brought together nine experts from Europe and the US, to present case studies from the history of intellectual encounter and exchange between Jewish communities and the Society of Jesus from its inception in the 16th century up to the present.

Keynote speaker at the public evening lecture, Robert Maryks, editor of the Journal for Jesuit Studies, from the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences at Boston College, US, set the tone by referring to Jesuits and Jews as the ‘tragic couple’.

Jesuits and Jews did form a distinctive couple, a tragic couple, in part because they were both the most frequent victims for those who sought a total, diabolical explanation for how history operated. They were perceived as devotees of Modernity: the same spectacles which detected the Jesuits as fathering the French Revolution saw the Jews as the creators of the Russian one.

Spatially, they operated outside of any specific territory and aspired for domination globally; they lurked behind thrones of monarchs and desks of political leaders at the same time that they were quite willing to overthrow those very rulers and leaders. Jews and Jesuits were preeminently people of the city and, thus, were accused of being allied to wealth, lax morality, and a cunning, deracinated intelligence, which was contemptuous of the traditions of the rural past.

The Jesuits had developed their own enmity towards the Jews. Whereas Ignatius of Loyola initially welcomed Jewish converts to the Society, he later on in his life supported the Pope in his segregationist laws which led to the creation of the Roman ghetto in 1555. Jewish converts were banned from the Society for four centuries. Half a century ago the adoption of the declaration Nostra aetate during the Second Vatican Council marked the most decisive step toward reconciliation between the Christian and Jewish faith communities. The Society of Jesus has been a leader in the Catholic Church’s dialogue with the Jewish people, most clearly in the role that the Jesuit cardinal Augustin Bea (1881–1968) exercised in formulating this groundbreaking document.

The lecture was preceded by the presentation of the publication Is there a Judeo-Christian Tradition? A European Perspective (De Gruyter Mouton 2016) which emanated from the conference which was organized in 2014. First editor, Emmanuel Nathan from the Faculty of Theology and Philosophy of the Australian Catholic University, explained how the book is structured in three chapters, respectively sketching the historical context (18th-19th centuries), the current political impact (19th-20th centuries), as well as a philosophical and theological inquiry, starting from the thesis of F.C. Baur, founder of the Tubingen School of Protestant Theologians, that the Judeo-Christian tradition is a myth. Nathan expressed his gratitude to IJS and UCSIA for offering him the opportunity as a junior scholar to be involved in the book project. Today he supports the development of a chair in Jewish-Catholic studies at his university in Australia.

The other four parts of the conference were devoted to the intellectual encounter (Theodor Dunkelgrün & Piet van Boxel, of the universities of Cambridge and Oxford), mutual influences in the formation of identity and authority (Irene Zwiep & David Ruderman, of the universities of Amsterdam and Pennsylvania), conversos and Jesuits (Claude Stuczynski & Emanuele Colombo, of the universities of Bar-Ilan in Israel and DePaul in Chicago) and Jewish-Jesuit relations today (Paul Begheyn SJ of the Netherlands Institute for Jewish Studies, Amsterdam).

For Theodor Dunkelgrün, an expert in Hebraica and the Antwerp Polyglot Bible, the conference offered a chance to revisit the chair he held in the beginning of his career and to meet his mentor Piet van Boxel. He introduced two Jesuits from the Low Countries, from the decade after the death of Ignatius, who were protagonists in the study of the Hebrew language and the Jewish Bible, Johannes Willems from Haarlem (who studied at the Collegium Triligue and became the teacher of Robert Bellarmine) and Franciscus van den Enden (who studied at the Antwerp Jesuit faculty under Carolus Scribani until he dropped out of the Order to become a medical doctor and went to Amsterdam where he became a teacher of Spinoza; as a political philosopher he then moved to Paris to found a free republic and was executed). Their encounters with contemporary Jewish culture were mainly through texts.

Piet van Boxel, curator of Judaica and Hebraica at the Bodleian Library, presented the work of Robert Bellarmine, who introduced Jewish text sources into Catholic scholarship through catalogues he composed and which were used as the basis of study for the Jesuit order. He was involved in the development of the ratio studiorum.

Irene Zwiep, an expert on medieval Jewish philosophy of language (who joined the Warburg Institute in London as a fellow during the nineties), was keynote speaker at the first academic opening lecture of IJS 18 years ago with a lecture on drama as a Jesuit educational method applied in Jewish schools. She focused on the Jewish Portuguese community in Amsterdam, consisting of former Catholics who migrated from their homeland and became part of the Jewish community for economic reasons (according to professor Yossi Kaplan). They built their own Jewish theology based on their Catholic past, combining the written and oral law and used Christian scholastic epistemology to settle their theological disputes.

David Ruderman, who encouraged IJS and UCSIA to create the Chair when he participated in the conference which they organized, together with the museum Plantin-Moretus in 2008, on the Jewish Book in a Christian World, was three times holder of the chair (in 2009, the first year of its inception and in ‘13 and ’17). His interest in the Jesuits stems from his early research on Jews and science in the age of the expansion of the Society. He talked about Jesuit influences on Jews in 16th and 17th century Italy; from the creation of a Jewish school fashioned on the Jesuit educational model, over the Lurianic kabbalah being tribute to Loyolan piety, the translation of the catechism of Canisius SJ in Hebrew, to the preference of the Jews for Catholicism over Protestantism (Jews do not dwell in lands which have broken with Church and tradition), their admiration for the Jesuit monastic life dedicated to study (while Jews on the move risk losing their tradition) and their missionary endeavours into unknown parts of the world. This shows how Jews recognized the cultural environment they lived in and were willing to embrace it.

Claude Stuczynski, who teaches at a Catholic university to students from different religious and cultural backgrounds, is himself the son of a Bolivian mother who converted to Judaism through marriage. He zoomed in on the Portuguese Jesuit Antonio Vieira (1608-1697), a missionary among Brazil’s Amerindians, whose mother was a mulatto. He was a radical and progressive activist for multiculturalism and lobbied against the inquisition. He founded a trade company to Brazil and considered the conversos a commercial asset.

Emanuele Colombo presented the life and works of Antonio Possevino SJ (1533 – 1611), who was the Secretary of the Society between 1573 and 1576. Only one biography is dedicated to him and Colombo hopes to supplement it by his own. He is an understudied figure who fought against discrimination by arguing that the Society of Jesus is like the early Church for which all persons were welcome to be baptized and become full member. He compiled the Biblioteca Selecta, including Jewish sources, as an instrument of learning. He as in personal contact with Jews during his later proselytizing mission.

Paul Begheyn SJ investigated the Jewish roots of seven Jesuit companions who entered the Society after Vatican II by analyzing their writings for references to Jewish tradition (one of them, Ed Rediker, being present in the audience). Peter Gumpel from Hamburg, for instance, studied at Heythrop College in London, became assistant to the Father General and a teacher to Hans Kung. He participated in the international committee of the Vatican investigating the role of the Church at the time of the holocaust. While most of them do not refer to their Jewish backgrounds, Ed Rediker stated that he feels more Jewish thanks to the Society who took him to his roots.