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Küng Fu

A leading Catholic theologian offers Judaism some backhanded praise

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Don’t be fooled by the title and cover design of How to Do Good and Avoid Evil, which conspire to make it look like a run-of-the-mill spirituality or self-help book. The first clue that it is something much more substantial, and provocative, than that is the names of the authors. It is not surprising that a rabbi would be one of them—the subtitle of the book, after all, is “A Global Ethic from the Sources of Judaism.” But Walter Homolka is not just any rabbi—he is the head of Abraham Geiger College, which in 1999 became the first Jewish seminary to open in Germany since the Holocaust. And his co-author is Hans Küng, who is possibly the foremost, and certainly the most controversial, Roman Catholic theologian alive today.

Küng, a Swiss German priest who is now in his 80s, was once a colleague of Joseph Ratzinger on the faculty of a Catholic university in Germany. But while Ratzinger was a doctrinal arch-conservative, and rose to become Pope Benedict XVI, Küng was an outspoken liberal who served as adviser to the reformist Second Vatican Council. Eventually, Küng’s criticism of the doctrine of Papal infallibility led the Vatican to strip him of his license to teach—which did not stop him from making vocal criticisms of Pope John Paul II, and becoming an important advocate for ecumenical dialogue.

How to Do Good and Avoid Evil is, in fact, the fruit of one of Küng’s major ecumenical projects, the “Declaration toward a Global Ethic” produced by the Parliament of the World’s Religions, a conference held in Chicago in 1993. Küng drafted the declaration, which lays out four “irrevocable directives,” ethical principles upon which people of all religions can supposedly agree. They are “Commitment to a Culture of Nonviolence and Respect for Life”; “Commitment to a Culture of Solidarity and a Just Economic Order”; “Commitment to a Culture of Tolerance and a Life in Truthfulness”; and “Commitment to a Culture of Equal Rights and a Partnership between Men and Women.”

The subtitle of Küng and Homolka’s book, then, does not refer to just any “global ethic,” but specifically to this official declaration; and its purpose is to show how Judaism, in its scripture and traditions, offers support for the common principles. In fact, while Küng and Homolka are listed as the book’s authors, they would be more accurately described as editors, since “How to Do Good and Avoid Evil” is actually an anthology (another fact totally obscured by the book’s presentation). After the editors’ introductions, we find a series of quotations from Jewish sources, from the Torah through the Talmud down to modern theologians like Martin Buber and Leo Baeck. These are arranged in six sections—one corresponding to each “commitment” of the global ethic, plus two other “core ethics,” “The Value of the Human” and “The Golden Rule.”

Nothing could sound more anodyne, and the book offers sentiments “from the sources of Judaism” to which no sane person, of any religion or none, could possibly object. We learn, if we didn’t know before, that the Torah commands “Love your fellow as yourself,” and “You shall not steal,” and “You shall not kill.” The prophets and Psalms add, “Guard your tongue from evil, your lips from deceitful speech,” and “Render true and perfect justice in your gates.” The Talmud confirms it: “On three things the world stands: justice, truth, and peace.”

So unsurprising are these sentiments, in fact, that one begins to wonder what purpose is being served by collecting them. And here the ambiguous nature of ecumenicism comes into view. If Küng’s “Global Ethic” is simply a minimum creed to which all religions can subscribe, then this book can be read as a demonstration of how Judaism conforms to that minimum. Similar books could be written, and maybe have been, using Hindu or Islamic or Christian sources. But there is an obvious objection to this procedure: by watering down every particular faith to a lowest common denominator, the global ethic turns religion into a kind of abstract humanitarianism, thus erasing the particularity of any given religion, and denying the beliefs and feelings that motivate its adherents.

At the same time, it conceals the very real disagreements between faiths, which in practice would make it impossible for even well-meaning people to interpret the global ethic in the same way. Take, for instance, the “Commitment to a Culture of Equal Rights and a Partnership between Men and Women.” The status of the “and” in that sentence is strange: equal rights is one thing, a partnership another, and the second does not necessarily entail the first. The problem becomes clear in the relevant section of How to Do Good and Avoid Evil, where the first thing the reader encounters is a selection from Judith Plaskow’s well-known book Standing Again at Sinai. Plaskow writes that “equality cannot be the central feminist aim, for equality assumes as given the system in which women are to be equal. Women joining egalitarian minyanim often take for granted the content of weekly worship…. Women striving for halakhic change generally assume the legitimacy and authority of halakhah.”

Many Jews, male and female, will be happy to agree to this; but others, including all Orthodox Jews, would refuse to accept a vision of “partnership” between the sexes that denies the legitimacy of halakhah and the traditional liturgy. Nor would a similar vision be accepted by the Catholic Church, many Protestant sects, or virtually any Muslims, since all these faith see “partnership” as entailing the divine subordination of women to men. Indeed, when you turn from Plaskow’s text to the book’s selections from the Tanakh, you find that gender equality is a concept alien to Scripture: “He who finds a wife has found happiness and won the favor of the Lord” (Proverbs 18:22) is not exactly a feminist statement.

In this way, the promise of the global ethic starts to dissolve, like a desert mirage, the closer you approach it. But there is another, more specifically Jewish ambiguity in How to Do Good and Avoid Evil, as well. Küng and Homolka’s subtitle pays homage to the famous book by Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, which appeared in 1919. Cohen, a leading German Jewish philosopher and interpreter of Kant, sought to show that Judaism was really a religion based on rational Kantian ethics—not a national creed but a universal “ethical monotheism.” In this sense, he was the apotheosis of the liberal or Reform tendency in German Judaism; and the subsequent catastrophe of the German Jews makes it easy, in retrospect, to see that tendency as a delusion, a philosophical attempt at assimilation that was doomed to failure.

It is odd, then, in this book by a German rabbi and priest, originally published in German, to find Cohen and many kindred figures quoted as authorities on the true nature of Judaism. This is especially the case when the goal of “How to Do Good and Avoid Evil,” by definition, is to make Judaism seem more universal—which is to say, more acceptable to non-Jews. So in these pages we find Kaufmann Kohler saying that “Judaism … has no self-contained truth and does not address a self-contained part of humankind”; and Samson Hochfeld saying that “in its demands and precepts [Judaism] knows no difference between Jews and non-Jews”; and Abraham Geiger saying that “Judaism … did not enter into this world to present it with a new idea concerning God, but to purify all human relations.”

It is hard to see how these descriptions of Judaism can be taken at face value, or even in good faith. It is one thing to say, on secular and rationalist grounds, that there is no real difference between men and nations; but to say that this idea is the essence of Judaism, the religion of the covenant, is nonsensical, and sounds far too much like special pleading.

Yet the same interpretation of Judaism can be found in Hans Küng’s introduction, when, after listing the debts of Christianity to Judaism, he names three things that Judaism owes to Christianity. First is “universality of belief in God”: Christianity, we learn, rescued Judaism from “Pharisaism” and its “anxious and zealous fixation on the letter of the Torah,” thus making monotheism palatable to the whole Roman world. Then comes “the Jewish Enlightenment”: one might have thought that the Enlightenment was a secular movement, opposed to traditional Christianity as well as traditional Judaism, but Küng implies that somehow Christianity is responsible for “leading Jews out of their medieval ghetto … and into modern culture.” Finally comes “the Jewish Reform”: here the gift of Christianity was that “Judaism was now understood as a prophetic-ethical religion—a religion of justice, mercy, and unconditional love of humankind.”

Without Christianity, in other words, Judaism would be a pharisaical, provincial, benighted, and unmerciful faith; and classical German Reform Judaism represents the best form of Judaism because it is the least unregenerate, the least stiff-necked. In this way, it becomes clear how even well-meant ecumenicism can end up reinforcing the oldest stereotypes—and how the invitation to sign up for a global ethic can turn into pressure to disavow everything that separates a minority faith from the majority. There must be better ways to do good and avoid evil than this.

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Indeed, one may hope that there is a better way to do good and avoid evil than to water down, annul, all differences. Things do get pretty bland at that level. But Mr Kirsch’s suggestion that the Shoah somehow delegitimizes “the liberal or Reform tendency in German Judaism,” of previous generations, I think is an unfair leap in thought. And though I know from having read other excellent work by Mr Kirsch that he wouldn’t engage in “blaming the victim,” I find that leap highly problematic.

Ruth Gutmann says:

Mr. Kirsch is correct: German-Jewish reform, whatever its motive may have been, was in the German context, tragically and completely in vain.
As for Mr. Kueng, he has managed to reverse the historical time line of Judaism and Christianity. It leaves one asking anxiously: if people as well-meaning and well informed as Mr. Kueng can get it so wrong, what can we expect from less sophisticated folk?

Katja Vehlow says:

This is a book written in the German context that takes German Jewish thought as its norm, pre 1933 Jewish thought. Walter Homolka sees himself explicitly as a successor of the great liberal thinkers such as Hermann Cohen and Leo Baeck and it shows in his interpretation of what Judaism is or rather, should be in his eyes. No big surprises here. Küng, however, shows himself as someone caught up in out-of-date scholarship, and it seems that neither he nor Homolka read recent works that would show them differently.

Sam Schulman says:

Why does Mme. Gutmann call Kueng “well-meaning?” I doubt such a description could survive a reading the good father’s book on Judaism, which is full of ill-concealed malice.

VHJM van Neerven says:

Dear author and readers,

This is painful.

Being from Jewish descent (“Polack” was a family name), but raised Catholic, I always try to see Judaism in Christianity. I’ve lead Jewish and Catholic services, but I really fall in between, so I need to search and search. This much I do know: Christianity is the small child of a great Father and his People. In my search, I held Küng in esteem. But after reading this, no more esteem for Mr. Küng from me. Christianity “saving” Judaism is a gotspe and, indeed, a malicious one.

I cannot speak of Mr. Homolka but I tend to believe what Katja Vehlow wrote: It is all so stuck in the thirties-to-fifties. Here in the Netherlands we have similar problem with Protestant theologians, calling new what is in fact more than a generation old. So, they’re Johhny-come-latelies, I can live with that.
But Mr. Küng’s RC arrogance is of a different class. “(L)eading Jews out of their medieval ghetto … and into modern culture : That’s precisely the argument leveled against Islam these days. To me at least it has all the echoes of the thirties and its gruesome ending, HaShoa. I never forget, I remember; a burden, but a need. My family lives because, as our father said, “The ‘Ahnenamt’ did make mistakes.”

Adam Kirsch, thank you very much for this review. Thanks to you, I can forget about Küng. You have lightened my burden. I can quietly forget about Küng and concentrate on what the Covenenant entails.

Thank you.

Nick Nussbaum says:

You say the reform tendency in German Judaism was an attempt at assimilation that ended in catastrophic failure. The Orthodox tendency to self segregation in German Judaism ended in catastrophic failure as well. Clearly the only not futile strategy was to not be a German.

Tom Morrissey says:

Absorbing review, but Kung the “foremost” Roman Catholic theologian alive today? Sorry, that would be Il Papa, baby.

Kate Mathews says:

I was raised in a non-religious family and was strongly attracted to Judaism in my teens after reading a book by Huston Smith which at that time was titled “The Religions of Man”. For many years I continued to read alot about Judaism and other religions, too, and always felt closest to Judaism. Christianity seemed,ethically,pretty much like Judaism to me but with a different set of stories, and I found the importance placed on the theme of crucifixion rather puzzling.

However, many years later I was baptized Catholic, seeing Jesus as a Jew who reflected a Jewish ethical and spiritual sense that, for whatever reasons, was transmitted to many non-Jewish peoples in the form of a somewhat different faith. It was easier,ultimately, for me to become Catholic than Jewish because I happened to know many Catholics who I admired but unfortunately knew few to no Jews personally.

I’m sure I was far,far too naive, but, though as a Catholic I’m surrounded by many,many wonderful, sincere and open-hearted Christians and have been involved in various interfaith efforts and activities, I’m still surprised and discomfitted, 15 years after my baptism, by the frequent, many times off-hand references to Jews, in the Gospels,in homilies, and in personal comments, as the ones who just didn’t/don’t “get it”, spiritually, a viewpoint which I think is completely incorrect.

Judaism often seems to assume,in Christian thought, the role of the “old clunker” flumping along in the slow lane on the freeway, destined to be passed up by the shiny new luxury sedan of Christianity. This is silly and it’s pretty close to becoming a deal-breaker for me, at this point.

I recently read Rosemary Radford Ruether’s book, “Faith and Fratricide”, which deals with the history of the Jewish-Christian split; a horribly tragic history. Christianity has yet to come to terms with its own sins in this regard.

manny says:

I have not read what said about this but i can well imaging what this is all about. Of course i intend to read it.
Those persons, Catholic, have long acted and spoken with great superiority as though their way was the only way and for the others, take the highway. This has always grated. Anybody should just remind them that the biggest ongoing racketeering enterprise is the VATICAN and the HOLY MOTHER CHURCH. Step right up suckers, empty your pockets and we’ll guarantee your soul. The right thing would be to try this organization under the corrupt enterprise laws, better known as lRICO.

I’ve said that least 2732883 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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Küng Fu

A leading Catholic theologian offers Judaism some backhanded praise

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