In the play and movie “Fiddler on the Roof,” a moving scene takes place on a Friday evening as the father, Tevye, and his wife lead the family circle in a tender Sabbath prayer. Tevye desires his daughters to grow up learned in the ways of the Bible. He prays that they “may be like Ruth and Esther; that they too may be deserving of praise.” Orthodox Judaism reveres and praises the great women of ancient Israel. I was raised to honor these women. And yet, there was a time when I belittled and made fun of the greatest woman in all Scripture, Mary, Mother of God. I couldn’t see why Catholics put her on a high pedestal. They prayed to her, lighted candles at her statues, and asked her for favors. It seemed like idol worship to me. I could not comprehend it. Of course, at that time I didn’t believe in Christ, either.
The Catholic Church, along with the Orthodox Churches, has fostered great devotion to Mary from the earliest moments of its history. After receiving the gift of faith in Jesus and entering the Catholic Church on February 23, 1963, I felt it important to defend why the Church fostered devotion to Mary. If all my life I had been taught to honor and praise the great Jewish women of the Old Testament, then should I not honor and praise the Jewish woman who gave to the world the Son of God? It became evident to me that the Blessed Virgin Mary was the greatest being ever created, superior even to the angels. I have a tough time understanding why Mary is almost entirely ignored by most Protestants and many Catholics. Today, many Catholic intellectuals are uneasy about the position Mary holds in Catholic doctrine; some even ignore her because it might have an adverse effect on Christian unity. Many claim that, since little is written about Mary in Scripture, devotion to her is unwarranted and unnecessary.
As an Orthodox Jew, I was taught that God’s Word comes to us through both Scripture and Tradition. As I went through my conversion process I was happy to learn that one of the fundamental Catholic beliefs is that God reveals Himself to us in two ways: through Scripture and Tradition.
Protestants and the thousands of other Christians in denominational churches believe that it is only through Scripture that God reveals all truths to us. Yet nowhere in the Bible does it state that the specific books found there (and only those books) contain the inspired Word of God. Jesus never gave us a list. The Jewish canon at the time of Jesus had not yet been established. On whose authority, then, are these books of the Bible truly God’s word? It should not take much “brain power” for one to realize that, without a living, divinely instituted authority, there is no way of knowing, with certitude, whether the writings in the Bible were inspired by God or what those writings really mean. Therefore, the most manifest sign of true wisdom for Catholics, pertaining to matters of faith and morals, is listening to the voice of Christ as expressed through the divinely guaranteed spokesmen of Christ’s Church. For Catholics this means the bishops, who are successors of the Apostles, in union with the Pope, the successor of Peter.
It is true that the New Testament Scriptures contain only brief commentaries regarding Mary. Most of our devotion and understanding of her comes from Church Tradition. There is good reason for this. The New Testament writings essentially cover a period of about 40 years, dealing mostly with the three-year ministry of Jesus and the early Church until the deaths of Peter and Paul in Rome around ad 68. During those years, Jesus had to convince His Apostles and disciples that He was the Messiah, and also that He was God become Man Who had to suffer, die, and rise. Jesus was not the glorious Messiah they were expecting, Who would immediately restore the kingdom to Israel. Considering the immense task of the early Church to make Jesus and His Gospel known, the New Testament writings are extremely limited. It was St. John the Apostle who wrote:
“There were many other things that Jesus did; if all were written down, the world itself, I suppose, would not hold all the books that would have to be written.” (John 21:25 – Jerusalem Bible, ©1966 by Darton, Longman & Todd, Ltd. and Doubleday & Company, Inc. All Bible quotes are from the same version unless otherwise noted.)
St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, tells us the difficulty he encountered.
“And so while Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here are we preaching a crucified Christ, to Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to pagans madness.” (1 Corinthians 1:22–24)
The focus, then, in the early Church and during the formation of the New Testament writings, rightly belonged on Jesus and not on Mary. It was not until ad 431 that the Church Council of Ephesus finally declared Jesus as being true God and true Man. What we believe about Mary must always be looked at in relation to her Son and God’s plan of salvation for us. In this way, the Church’s teachings concerning Mary never cause conflict with Sacred Scripture. They even draw their strength from them, because God the Holy Spirit, Who inspired the Scriptures, also directs Tradition. Nowhere in all of Sacred Scripture does it say that we must reject all teachings and doctrines that are not explicitly mentioned in the Bible.
Having spent many years of my life as an Orthodox Jew before becoming a Catholic, I believe that if Christians had a better understanding of the Judaism of Jesus’ time (i.e., its beliefs, devotions and practices), which is similar to today’s Orthodox Judaism, they would see why devotion to Mary is warranted.
I would like to comment briefly on two things sacred and holy to Jews: the Ark of the Covenant and the Torah. What is it about these objects that make them holy and sacred to Jews? Could I apply similar logic in determining whether devotion to Mary is essential or justified?
In the original Temple of Jerusalem (Solomon’s Temple, c. 950 bc) stood an innermost sanctuary or back room, later called the Holy of Holies. This back room was the proper abode of Yahweh, housing also His throne, i.e., the Ark of the Covenant. According to Deuteronomy 10:1–5, Moses built an ark of acacia wood at Yahweh’s command, and put inside it the two stone tablets on which Yahweh had written the Ten Commandments.
At that time the LORD said to me, “Hew two tables of stone like the first, and come up to me on the mountain, and make an ark of wood. And I will write on the tables the words that were on the first tables which you broke, and you shall put them in the ark.” So I made an ark of acacia wood, and hewed two tables of stone like the first, and went up the mountain with the two tables in my hand. And he wrote on the tables, as at the first writing, the ten commandments which the LORD had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly; and the LORD gave them to me. Then I turned and came down from the mountain, and put the tables in the ark which I had made; and there they are, as the LORD commanded me. (RSV-CE)
Besides the Ark, the Holy of Holies contained two large gilded wooden figures called Cherubim. Their outstretched wings protected the Ark and were thought to afford a throne for God. God Himself, of course, was not represented by any figure. A veil separated the Holy of Holies from other sections of the Temple. It was believed Yahweh was enthroned above the Ark and the Cherubim in a thick cloud.
Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the fathers’ houses of the people of Israel, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of the city of David, which is Zion. And all the men of Israel assembled to King Solomon at the feast in the month Ethanim, which is the seventh month. And all the elders of Israel came, and the priests took up the ark. And they brought up the ark of the LORD, the tent of meeting, and all the holy vessels that were in the tent; the priests and the Levites brought them up. And King Solomon and all the congregation of Israel, who had assembled before him, were with him before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and oxen that they could not be counted or numbered. Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. For the cherubim spread out their wings over the place of the ark, so that the cherubim made a covering above the ark and its poles. And the poles were so long that the ends of the poles were seen from the holy place before the inner sanctuary; but they could not be seen from outside; and they are there to this day. There was nothing in the ark except the two tables of stone which Moses put there at Horeb, where the LORD made a covenant with the people of Israel, when they came out of the land of Egypt. And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD. Then Solomon said, “The LORD has set the sun in the heavens, but has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. I have built thee an exalted house, a place for thee to dwell in for ever.” (1 Kings 8:1–13 RSV-CE)
This belief in Yahweh’s presence in His Temple was the whole reason for the worship celebrated there and for the pious customs of the faithful. No one except the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement. Neither could people touch the Ark of the Covenant and live. In the Second Book of Samuel, we read an account of the bringing of the Ark to Jerusalem for the first time:
Uzzah walked alongside the Ark of God and Ahio went in front. David and all the House of Israel danced before Yahweh with all their might singing to the accompaniment of lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets, and cymbals. When they came to the threshing-floor of Nacon, Uzzah stretched his hand out to the Ark of God and steadied it, as the oxen were making it tilt. Then the anger of Yahweh blazed out against Uzzah, and for this crime God struck him down on the spot, and he died there beside the Ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:4–8)
After the final destruction of the Temple by Romans in 70 A.D., the synagogue became the dominant place of Jewish worship and centered on the Torah. The Torah is a scroll that contains the first five books of the Old Testament. Commentaries in the Talmud, which is the main repository of Judaic tradition (compiled between the 2nd and 6th centuries A.D.), state:
- The Torah existed before Creation and lay in the bosom of God.
- The world was created by the Torah.
- The world was created for the sake of the Torah.
- Study of Torah is the way to life.
Orthodox Jews revere the Torah as the most sacred of all objects. As a teenager attending the Sabbath morning services in the synagogue, I saw the reverence everyone expressed for the Torah. When the Torah was taken out of its receptacle, known as the Ark, it would be displayed in ceremonial procession around the synagogue before being placed on a table for the proclamation of the appropriate reading for that day. As the Torah proceeded in procession, men and boys would go over and kiss it. I will never forget an eighty-year-old blind man who, every week, would be led over to the Torah so that he could embrace and kiss it. When I saw the look on his face, I imagined the look on Moses’ face after he first encountered God in the burning bush on Mt. Horeb.
How did all this influence my devotion to Mary? It was quite simple. Since Jesus said, “I have come not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it,” I was able to apply what I was taught as a Jew regarding holy places and sacred objects to our Blessed Mother Mary. In the Holy of Holies of the original Temple, God’s presence appeared in the form of a cloud. But in Mary’s womb Jesus, our Creator and God, was conceived in His human nature and lived for nine months before His birth. Therefore, the womb of Mary is certainly more holy than the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies contained the sacred Ark of the Covenant. But in Mary’s womb resided the Covenant Maker; she is, therefore, the True Ark. This is why I believe strongly, as the Church teaches, that Mary remained a virgin all her life. I could never imagine that Mary and Joseph, being most pious Jews, would ever allow another human being to be conceived in the same womb where the Son of God was conceived in the flesh by the Holy Spirit. As for the sacred Torah, it is a scroll that contains the written word of God. Within the womb of Mary resided the Word Himself, our Lord and God. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I was able to see why I owed far greater devotion to and reverence for Mary than I had for all those people, objects and places sacred and holy to ancient Israel and Jews of today.
Up Next: Why Devotion to Mary? A Jewish Convert’s Perspective, Part II