‘Jesus was a Jew’
Blake Ziegler | Monday, May 1, 2023
“Jesus was a Jew.”
That sentence convinced me not to transfer after one semester at Notre Dame. Being a Jewish student was initially a culture shock, even if I had already been in Catholic education for seven years. Our university’s Catholic identity seemed inaccessible to me, as if I was missing an essential part of the Notre Dame experience. I felt like I wasn’t truly a part of our community, and it pained me to consider leaving.
When I shared my concerns with a priest on campus, his reminder of Jesus’s religious identity showed me that I was wrong. Being Jewish doesn’t mean I’m excluded from the Notre Dame family. In fact, Jesus being Jewish means that Judaism and Christianity share a special relationship. The latter stemmed from the former, and we can see remnants of Christianity’s Jewish roots in liturgy, especially the Catholic mass. Regardless of our differences, Judaism and Christianity (as well as Islam) have even more similarities. Even if I wasn’t Catholic, my Jewish identity still shows I have some connection to our university’s Catholic mission. I’m glad to say that after four years, that sentiment rings true.
In my final column, I want to reiterate my call for Jewish-Christian dialogue and, more broadly, interfaith solidarity at Notre Dame. Over my time here, I’ve worked to advance the interests of Jewish students and promote interfaith dialogue. I’ve written on this topic a lot since then. I’ve coordinated with campus groups and many Jewish organizations to show that religious life can thrive on a Catholic campus through interfaith dialogue.
I speak from experience to the transformative opportunity interfaith work can have on an individual and the community. I’ve witnessed firsthand on this campus the strong bonds, deepening of faith and bridges that are built through interfaith interactions. We have a unique opportunity as a top-tier university with a religious mission to hold these kinds of conversations. We can have sincere, thoughtful dialogue that strengthens faith while breaking down prejudices against each other. If we are truly a university committed to the spiritual development of its students, then that opportunity must be available to all students. That’s how we meet Blessed Basil Moreau’s call that “while we prepare useful citizens for society, we shall likewise do our utmost to prepare citizens for heaven.”
I don’t merely speak on the grounds of religious pluralism or democratic values to justify interfaith cooperation at Notre Dame. I can also point to Church doctrine. A key document from the Second Vatican Council was “Nostra Aetate” which formalized the Catholic Church’s stance towards non-Christian religions. It states that the Church “rejects nothing that is true and holy” in other faiths and calls for sincere dialogue between Catholics and non-Catholics. It particularly emphasizes this cooperation between the Catholic and Jewish communities to cultivate the “mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as of fraternal dialogues.” Later Church documents call for Catholic educational institutions (e.g., Notre Dame) to integrate “Nostra Aetate” and related statements on interfaith dialogue into their curricula. The Vatican has also released guidelines for implementing its teachings on cultivating interfaith relations, including dialogue, liturgy and education. Per Church teaching, part of Catholicism is engagement with other faiths. Notre Dame’s Catholic mission necessitates a similar mandate, especially with Judaism. My advocacy for interfaith relations isn’t anti-Catholic. It’s central to the University’s Catholic identity.
This call for interreligious dialogue between Jews and Catholics isn’t new at Notre Dame. Our community has a rich tradition of Jewish life despite what one may suspect about a Catholic university. Notre Dame’s archives show Jewish students contributed significantly to campus life, including being members of the football team. The late Rabbi Michael A. Signer, former Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought and Culture, was a notable scholar and key advocate for Jewish-Christian relations.
Our history also features a staunch defense of Jews in the face of bigotry. While president of the University, Fr. Hesburgh scolded two students who had bullied a student for his Jewish identity enough for him to leave Notre Dame. Fr. Hesburgh threatened the students with expulsion if they didn’t convince him to return. Thankfully, all three graduated. After his presidency, Fr. Hesburgh was also an original signatory to a statement denouncing acts of anti-Semitism towards Jewish students on college campuses. In recent years, the Jewish Club and other groups have worked diligently to continue this tradition by holding its annual Antisemitism Awareness Week for the last three years.
My hope is that this column contributes to the encouraging interfaith dialogue on campus. Although I’ve focused on Jews, my plea extends to people of all faiths so that any student may participate in the benefits of interreligious cooperation. Every student deserves the opportunity to express their religious identity and explore their spirituality.
Now, this column shouldn’t be taken as a complete endorsement for the current state of interreligious dialogue on campus. There are certainly obstacles to overcome. There should be more resources and opportunities for Jewish and other non-Catholic students, especially in developing policies to promote all faiths on campus. While fostering interfaith dialogue is the beginning to solving those problems, we must act on the initiatives born from those conversations. Again, interreligious cooperation doesn’t mean compromising Notre Dame’s Catholic identity. It is how we uphold that Catholic mission.
Thank you, Notre Dame, for allowing me to explore my Jewish identity. I’m grateful to groups like Campus Ministry, the Ansari Institute, Jewish Club and more for promoting interfaith dialogue on campus. In particular, I’m appreciative to the faculty, staff and fellow students I’ve conversed with over the years on these issues. Judaism and Christianity may disagree on the question of the Messiah, but there’s little doubt as to the potential benefits of the dialogue between the two faiths. I’ve witnessed this beauty at Notre Dame and hope that it continues for all faiths represented in our community.
Blake Ziegler is a senior at Notre Dame studying political science, philosophy and constitutional studies. He enjoys writing about Judaism, the good life, pressing political issues and more. Outside of The Observer, Blake serves as president of the Jewish Club and a teaching assistant for God and the Good Life. He can be reached at @NewsWithZig on Twitter or [email protected].
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.