Strange Companions: Jews, Christians, and Jacques Maritain

In combatting anti-Semitism, Jews and Christians need to remember that they are both sworn to acknowledge what Maritain calls “the fundamental and primordial ethical value of brotherly love.”

French philosopher and writer Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) in a 1930 photo (Wikipedia)

“Catholic thought must be raised up with Jesus between heaven and earth and it has been asked to work at the reconciliation of the world to the truth by living out the painful paradox of an absolute fidelity to the eternal joined to the most diligent understanding of the anguishes of time.” — Jacques Maritain, “Religion and Culture”, April 23, 1930

The other day I was sent a piece that caught my attention, written by the journalist Bari Weiss. In the piece entitled “Why France Refuses to Prosecute an Anti-Semitic Murderer” (4/15/21), Ms. Weiss writes:

Sarah Halimi was a retired French physician and schoolteacher. She was also an Orthodox Jew. On April 4, 2017, Halimi was in her Paris apartment where she lived alone. In the middle of the night, a 27-year-old Muslim man of Malian origin named Kobili Traoré, who lived in the building, broke into her apartment. Traoré tortured Ms. Halimi, who was in her 60s, beating her and kicking her. According to neighbors, who called the police after hearing Halimi’s cries, Traoré called her a “shaitan” (satan) and a dirty Jew. Ultimately, he threw Ms. Halimi’s battered body out of her third-story apartment window shouting “Allahu akbar.”

There are other gruesome details, but that is the basic story. It’s hard to imagine a set of facts more damning and more clear.

So in December 2019, when I read that French prosecutors had decided to drop murder charges against Traoré, a man with nearly two dozen prior conviction on the grounds that he had smoked pot, I felt sick.

This reminded me of another anti-Semitic outrage in the City of Lights. On January 21, 2006, a band of North African anti-Semites calling themselves “the Barbarians” abducted a young telephone salesman named Ilan Halimi and tortured him for three weeks before leaving him naked, handcuffed and bleeding beside a railway line at Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois, fifteen kilometers from Bagneux, one of the Muslim no-go zones surrounding Paris. When police found him they reported that 80 percent of his body had been mutilated. He died of his wounds on the way to the hospital. When one of his Muslim captors was caught and questioned by police, he explained that he put cigarettes out on Halimi’s face “because he didn’t like Jews.”

Maritain’s experience of anti-Semitism

Had Jacques Maritain (1882-1973) been around to witness these atrocities, it is doubtful he would have found it surprising. Speaking of the roots of European anti-Semitism, he pointed out that it took “the whole of the miseries of the High Middle Ages…and the furious need of a scapegoat to give birth, by means of the rhetoric of the lower clergy, to a sordid religious hate in a Christian people composed henceforth almost entirely of the descendants of baptized pagans still half barbarian.” (Maritain singled out the “lower clergy” to make the necessary point that the popes had no hand in fomenting anti-Semitism.) The murder of Halimi shows what we can expect from Muslim barbarians, whose history has likewise steeped them in misery, not to mention the rhetoric of hate-mad mullahs and “the furious need of a scapegoat.”

To understand Maritain’s experience of anti-Semitism one has to revisit his formative years. His father was an indolent lawyer, a roué, a flâneur who spent most of his days looking at antiques. His mother was a rabid anti-clerical liberal. After they divorced, the father killed himself. The only faith that sustained the youthful Maritain was the faith of the Dreyfusards, who believed that the military and the Church were to blame for Captain Alfred Dreyfus (1880-1918) being wrongly sent off to Devil’s Island for spying. (The real culprit was Major Count Walsin-Esterhazy, commander of the 74th Infantry, whose concierge discovered him trying to interest the Germans in secret papers to pay off his gambling debts.)

French anti-Semitism will always be entangled in the politics of the Dreyfus Affair. In his engaging A History of the Jews (1987), Paul Johnson explains that when Dreyfus was offered and accepted a pardon rather than full exoneration “The men who were profiting from the Dreyfus campaign, the radical politicians like Clemenceau, the new intellectuals, Jewish and gentile, were furious. ‘We were ready to die for Dreyfus,’ wrote Charles Péguy angrily, ‘but Dreyfus is not.’” Still, the tide had turned. The Dreyfusards were in the saddle and not only vindicated but avenged. They threw the Augustinian Assumptionists out of the country, won a huge victory at the polls in 1906, rehabilitated Dreyfus by making him a general, and intensified their campaign against the Church—a campaign the French left still wages.

So, as Johnson wrote, “the extremists won, both in creating the affair and in winning it. But there was a price to pay, and in the end it was the Jews who paid it. Anti-Semitism was institutionalized.” Maritain’s own flirtation with anti-Semitism can only be understood in light of the antipathy between the liberal state and the embattled Church.

Along with his allegiance to Dreyfus, young Maritain espoused the revolutionary program of Jean Jaurès (1859-1914), the socialist orator and journalist who was killed by an assassin’s bullet on the eve of the First World War for trying to organize pacifists. In 1897, the fifteen-year-old Maritain wrote a friend: “What about those articles of Jaurès! Aren’t you dumbfounded, flabbergasted, blown away, amazed?” Under the tutelage of Jaurès, Maritain would become convinced that “Man is the only God that he needs”—an illusion from which the left still suffers.

This phase ended in 1905 when Maritain was converted to Catholicism by Léon Bloy (1846-1917), the impoverished novelist whose dedication to Christ and the devout life would be a lifelong inspiration for Maritain. As he recalled later,

In a world where man occupied all the room available, and where self-admiration, decorum, accepted conventions, and the anxiety to be in conformity with the present century seemed to have been the principal preoccupation of so many luminaries, the principal mission of Bloy was to awaken the echoes of the Gospel’s improprieties, of the vengeful exaltation of the Magnificat, to bear witness to God and to take account of nothing but God.

Never one for half measures, Maritain no sooner converted than he put himself under the spiritual direction of the rigorous Dominican, Father Humbert Clérissac, who urged him to join Action Francaise, the anti-Dreyfusard, anti-Semite royalist movement. (When Proust was asked why he read the movement’s paper, he said it was the only readable one in France.) Maritain remained with the movement for fifteen years, only repudiating it in 1926 after Pius XI condemned it by putting its paper, which had a circulation of 100,000, on the Index. In Maritain’s membership in the movement most commentators see guilt by association. Is this just?

Maritain defended himself on two grounds. First, he felt bound to obey Clérissac as his spiritual director. Keen to give proof of the thoroughness of his conversion, he was happy to join a movement that was the antithesis of his earlier anti-clerical Dreyfusard socialism. The previous year he had written to another spiritual guide, Dom Delatte: “We thank you for having pointed out so clearly to us the venom of liberalism and for having provided an irrefutable historical justification for the disdain that every Catholic should feel instinctively…for all the diminutions, concessions and vilenesses of modern times.” This was docility taken to an extreme but for Maritain conversion by its very nature was extreme. Later, in 1925 he wrote his tempestuous friend Jean Cocteau: “What am I? A convert, a man whom God has turned inside out like a glove. All the seams are on the outside, the leather shell is on the inside…”

Secondly, he claimed that the interest Clérissac took in the movement was theological. For Clérissac, “the monarchy alone could reestablish the Church in the fullness of her rights.” In the Revolution, Clérissac saw “the source of all the blows struck against hierarchy and order, which are essential to the life of the Church… this is why he detested democracy as evil itself… He knew what dangers during those times of ‘modernism’ lay in wait for dogmatic pronouncements of the faith.”

In his sprawling history of modern France, Theodore Zeldin paints a useful portrait of Charles Maurras (1868-1952), the brains behind Action Francaise:

He saw enemies… on every side: Jews, Protestants, foreigners, politicians, intellectuals (there was plenty of self hate in him…) He was deeply attracted by the ‘order’ and stability he imagined to have existed in the medieval world and urged a reconstruction of many of its institutions. But he was using monarchy as a tool: though he attracted many aristocratic supporters, the Pretender was always ill at ease in his relations with Action Francaise and ultimately condemned it. Likewise, his alliance with the Catholic Church was essentially too cynical and compromising to be successful [he was a non-believer]. Maurras undoubtedly made himself into a political figure… But his power remained essentially verbal. He could not pass from polemic to action…

One of his more flamboyant claims was that “The necessity of monarchy is demonstrated like a theorem. Once the wish to defend our French homeland is admitted as a postulate, everything unfolds, everything follows ineluctably.” Only a revival of the ancien régime would solve the country’s manifold woes. However, when the Germans threatened the Third Republic, Maurras did nothing to oppose them. After France fell in 1940, he threw in his lot with Pétain. So much for paper patriots.

Maritain looked back at the cowardly betrayals of the 1930s with shame. “There has been within our people a kind of moral weakening. The loss of the Rhine in ’36, the abandonment of the Austrians in ’37, of the Czechs in ’39, the incoherence of our politics, and the mediocrity of our strategy were all effects before becoming causes. Our nation has been faltering for years.” The incoherence of Action Francaise exacerbated this “moral weakening” by immuring its adherents in a never-never land of royalist fantasy. It is not surprising that after Pius XI condemned the movement, most of its adherents became extremists, either of the right or left. Maritain himself would begin his unfortunate flirtation with the left once he repudiated it.

In joining Action Francaise, Maritain gave his support to an organization that treated Jews as upstarts, unreliable foreigners, political adventurers with no stake in stable society. Between the first two world wars this was a view adopted by many intellectuals. No one gave it more infamous expression than T.S. Eliot when he wrote in After Strange Gods (1934): “Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.”

For the love of Raissa

In Jacques Maritain and the Jews (1994), a lively collection of essays by, among others, Robert Royal, James V. Schall, Rabbi Leon Klenicki, Michael Novak, Astrid O’Brien, John Hellman, and Bernard Doering, Hellman argues that “There was little that was liberal or pluralistic about Maritain’s approach to the Jews until he encountered the savagery visited on them by World War II.” This is overstated. Well before World War II Maritain exposed the prejudices, he found in Action Francaise. In “The Mystery of Israel” (1937) where anti-Semites might see Jews consumed with money-making, revolutionary intrigue or what Maritain nicely called “the harsh cult of the letter,” Maritain saw “asceticism and piety, love for the word of God and for its sensitive interpretation, uprightness of heart and subtle innocence, and that burning spirituality exemplified especially by the Hassidic mystics, which shows us the true visage of Israel, ‘when Israel loves God.’”

If Maritain flirted with anti-Semitism as a young man, he more than made up for it in his later tributes to a people who, as he said, “have an innate love for independence and liberty, the abiding flame of the ancient prophetic instinct, the intellectual fire, the quickness of intuition and abstraction, the faculty of passionate dedication and devotion to ideas. If it is true… that God prefers sin to stupidity, then his liking for the Jews… becomes understandable. One is never bored with a Jew.”

Missing from this précis of Maritain’s development is the considerable influence his wife had on him. More than any papal condemnation or even St. Paul, it was Raissa who first convinced him of the flagitious vulgarity of anti-Semitism. In one of many moving passages he gave voice to his great love for her:

In her passion for concrete certitude, in her respect for wisdom and her love for justice, in her unshakeable good humor and her readiness to question, as in the ardor of her blood and the precision of her instinct, everywhere she carries about with her the nobility and privilege of the race from whom she comes, of that Elder Race, to whom God entrusted Himself and who contemplated his angels, who alone is at home in heaven, alone the depository of promise, is at home everywhere on the earth, will perish only when the world does, and who has the right to consider all other peoples as guests, but later-comers, in its patrimony, as uncultured and without a past, heirs of the Lord by adoption, not by birth. Puella hebraeorum! Her native pride marches before her; I have heard Jews declaim on the purity of her type. Ecce vera Israelita, in qua dolus non est.

Raissa had spent her childhood in Russia in Rostov-on-the-Don in a world of fiddlers and beggars and Hassidic piety. But by the time she met Maritain at the Sorbonne in 1900 when they were students together, she had entirely lost her Jewish faith. Her parents, like many Jews in Europe at the time, felt too uprooted to adhere to the old orthodox faith and settled instead for the nostalgia of assimilation. French Jews as a whole, as Johnson points out, “did everything in their power to blend into the local religious landscape.” Rabbis, for example, dressed like Catholic priests; they adopted ceremonies for children very much like baptism and first communion; they even entertained holding Sabbath services on Sunday. If Raissa came to personify Jewishness for Maritain, it was the Jewishness of his own heart’s desire, a Jewishness reintegrated into St. Paul’s wild olive tree, a Jewishness fulfilled in Christ.

This must naturally offend Jews. As must Maritain’s insistence that what motivated anti-Semitism was anti-Christianity. Apropos the Holocaust, he wrote:

Israel has been persecuted by the same hatred that also persecuted (and first) Jesus Christ. Her Messiah conformed her to himself in sorrow and abjection before conforming her to himself, some day, in light. Bloody first-fruits of Israel’s plenitude in which Christians, if they look in their hearts, can decipher the advance signs in the following course of abominable events, whose memory will burn us always… Like strange companions, Jews and Christians have traveled the way of Calvary together… The great mysterious fact is that the sufferings of Israel have taken on, more and more, the form of the cross.”

Regarding this Rabbi Leon Klenicki does not pull his punches: Maritain may have “denounced and condemned anti-Semitism at times of ecclesiastical silence or indifference… [but] he did not recognize the ongoing meaning and validity of the Jewish commitment. He accepted the Jewish citizens and their social rights. He denied the Jewish person, the covenantal partner of God.”

Truth and charity

It is perhaps only fitting in the case of these “strange companions” that the man who gave Maritain the idea for the anti-Christian character of anti-Semitism was a Jew, Maurice Samuel (1895-1972), who wrote in The Great Hatred (1940) that “It is of Christ that the Nazi fascists are afraid… it is He that they have foolishly decided to annihilate… They have to spit on the Jews in as much as they have put Christ to death (as Christ killers), because they are obsessed by a desire to spit on the Jews insofar as they gave Christ to the world (as Christ givers.)” After adopting this insight for his own purposes, Maritain would prevail upon the Second Vatican Council to drop the appellation formerly used of Jews as ‘deicide people’ and to affirm that “The Church ever keeps in mind the word of the Apostle about his kinsmen, ‘who have the adoption as sons, and the glory and the covenant and the legislation and the worship and the promises; who have the fathers, and from whom is Christ according to the flesh’ (Rom. 9:4-5), the son of the Virgin Mary…”

Jews and Christians will not learn to understand the differences that separate them by behaving as though the differences do not exist. Inter-religious dialogue imagines that these differences can be done away with if only people of different faiths talk long and agreeably enough. Multiculturalism holds that the only way to treat different beliefs is to treat them as though they were all untrue. For Maritain, truth is the lifeblood of human fellowship. Those who would make “relativism, ignorance, and doubt a necessary condition for mutual toleration… shift their right feelings about the human subject—who must be respected even if he is in error—from the subject to the object; and thus they deprive man and the human intellect of the very act–the adherence to the truth—in which consists both man’s dignity and reason for living.” Truth will make for unpleasantness at times but that is why we must be willing to exercise charity.

The conviction each of us has, rightly or wrongly, regarding the limitations, deficiencies, errors of others,” he says, “does not prevent friendship between minds. In such a fraternal dialogue, there must be a kind of forgiveness and remission, not with regard to ideas—ideas deserve no forgiveness if they are false—but regard to the condition of him who travels the road at our side… We can render judgment concerning ideas, truths, or errors; good or bad actions; character, temperament… But we are utterly forbidden to judge the innermost heart, that inaccessible center where the person day after day weaves his own fate and ties the bonds binding him to God. When it comes to that, there is only one thing to do and that is to trust in God. And that is precisely what love for our neighbor prompts us to do.

This echoes Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, in which he remonstrates with those who enter public life to save the world. “There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love.” Charity must “not be a means of changing the world ideologically, and it is not at the service of worldly stratagems… It is a way of making present here and now the love which man always needs.”

Speaking of how “the Jewish people ardently, intelligently, actively give witness, at the very heart of man’s history, to the supernatural,” Maritain went so far as to suggest that the conflicts and tensions that exist between Christians and Jews are unavoidable—even perhaps designedly so. As such, they are a summons to charity. They force us to exercise “that concrete intelligence which love requires of each of us, so that we may agree with our companion—with our ‘adversary’ as the gospel says—quickly while we are with him on the way; and in the awareness that ‘all have sinned and have need of the glory of God’—omnes quidem peccaverunt, et egent Gloria Dei. ‘The history of the Jews,’ said Leon Bloy, ‘dams the history of the human race as a dike dams a river, in order to raise its level.’”

This is a boldly mystical reading of an historical conflict that historians usually treat in much more sublunary terms. Robert Royal is right to stress how fully prepared Maritain was to see God taking an active, if mystifying hand in events. Yet even secular historians must occasionally recognize that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their archives. In his superb history, France: The Dark Years 1940-1944 (2001), Julian Jackson points out that even though 75,000 French Jews were killed in the Holocaust, a greater proportion of Jews were saved in France than anywhere else in occupied Europe. Why? Geography was a factor—as many as 44,000 Jews escaped across the mountainous frontiers adjoining Spain and Switzerland, 24,000 legally and 20,000 illegally. Chronology was also a factor: until September 1943 Jews could take advantage of the safe haven of Italy. “But in the end,” as Professor Jackson shows, “the effectiveness of the rescue organizations required the solidarity, passive or active, formal or informal, of the French population. For 150 years the Jews of France had looked to the State to protect them, if necessary, from the sudden anti-Semitic outbursts of civil society; in the Occupation, it was civil society that helped protect the Jews from the State.” In other words, the charity, the love, the caritas of individuals helped save these Jews.

Benedict XVI reminded us of how central the concept of love of neighbor is to the inheritance of eternity. He cited the parable in Luke (16:19-31) where the rich man who left Lazarus to die pleads from Hell that his five brothers recognize how vital it is to give alms to the poor. Before, the word ‘neighbor’ had been used to refer to someone of one’s own country, a kinsman; now it means anyone in need of help. “The concept of ‘neighbor’ is universalized,” Benedict says, yet it remains concrete. Despite being extended to all mankind… [it] calls for practical commitment here and now… Lastly, we should especially mention the great parable of the Last Judgment (Mt 25:31-46) in which love becomes the criterion for the definitive decision about a human life’s worth or lack thereof. Jesus identifies himself with those in need, with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison. ‘As you did it to one of these my brethren, you did it to me’ (Mt 25:40). Love of God and love of neighbor have become one…”

Jews and Christians now confront a common adversary in Muslim anti-Semitism. They have a common interest in disarming this adversary and making Muslims cooperative allies in the good work of civilization. In this, Jews and Christians will need to remember that they are both sworn to acknowledge what Maritain calls “the fundamental and primordial ethical value of brotherly love.” They will need to love their neighbors as themselves. As Jesus told the scholar of the law in Luke (10:25-28): “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” They will need to exemplify good will. “Real authentic good will,” Maritain says, “indicates the sacred mystery which spells salvation for men and which makes it possible to say of a man that he is purely and simply good. It enables men to go out of themselves to meet their neighbors halfway.” They will need to recognize and honor the dignity of the human person.

Maritain was never more eloquent than on the indispensability of this profound recognition:

The mysterious words of Christ on this matter mean that it is up to us really to become the neighbor of any man, by loving him and having pity on him. It is not community of race, of class, or of nation; it is the love of charity that makes us what we ought to be, members of the family of God, of the only community where each person, drawn out from his fundamental loneliness, truly communicates with others and truly makes them his brothers, by giving himself to them, in a certain sense dying for them… Who is my neighbor? The man of my blood? The man who does me good? No. It is the man to whom I show mercy, the man to whom is transmitted through me the universal gift and love of God, who makes the rain from heaven fall upon both the good and the wicked.

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About Edward Short 38 Articles
Edward Short is the author of Newman and his Contemporaries, Newman and his Family, and Newman and History, as well as Adventure in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews. His latest book, What the Bells Sang, includes essays on poets, moralists, novelists, historians, and Saint John Henry Cardinal Newman. He lives in New York with his wife and two young children.


  1. Very enlightening, but I would also like to know more about maritains role in the united nations and how that fits with the rights of the family.

  2. The problem of modern life is not anti-Jewish activity but anti-Catholicism, much of which comes from Jewish people.

    • Mr. Kocan,
      I think anti-Catholic behavior comes from both Jews and non-Jews alike. Based on my experience, I wish to add that seriously practicing Jews (Orthodox and Conservative), don’t tend to be anti-Catholic.

      In other words, the Jews that are anti-Catholic are just like the non-Jews that are anti-Catholic – Neither type is religious.

    • Perhaps you mean secular, non observant Jews?
      Surely Jews who are observant are in the same boat as we are and seeking religious freedoms?

  3. I always enjoy and learn a lot from Mr. Short’s work here and this piece is no exception.

    A couple of random observations on this one:

    It seems doubtful that there is really any legitimate insight contained in Maritain’s crack that “God prefers sin to stupidity”.

    It is strange that an essay explaining Maritain’s views on Jews is completely silent in regard to his troubling friendship with Saul Alinsky.

    While a Jewish/Christian alliance to combat Islamic extremism is desirable, it appears that we are nowhere close to forming one. In fact, the great majority of Catholic, Protestant and Jewish religious leaders and organizations are among the most zealous proponents of mass Islamic immigration to the West (but not Israel). They seem united in thinking that white supremacy, Islamophobia and the rest of the sins of the West, as defined by the Left, are the main, and maybe only, threats to a decent moral universe. It is also not clear why Islamic anti-Semitism, rather than Islamic hostility to Christianity, should be of greater concern to Christians.

    Finally, the one-sided version of the history of Jewish – Christian relations that dominates the public discussion of the issue today needs to be challenged.

    • Thank you for this incisive response to my musings, a response with which I have to say I largely agree. In my perhaps feeble defense all I can say is that while I might have extended the scope of the piece to include a discussion of Islamic anti-Christianity (an admittedly grave & urgent problem) I chose to concentrate on Islamic anti-Semitism following the quote from Bari Weiss that begins the piece . As to my not bringing Maritain’s relationship with Saul Alinsky into the festivities, I do not know whether that would have been altogether germane. Yes, as Christopher Blosser pointed out in First Things (12-2-9), Maritain’s attitude to the subversive Alinsky was naive and wrongheaded but I wished to focus the essay on the Frenchman’s extricating himself from Anti-Semitism. Taking Maritain to task for flirting with American socialists would have carried me too far afield. Nevertheless, I am grateful to you for your fair-minded response and I agree with you that the topics I treat should be seen in a larger context. Many thanks again.

  4. The neighbor in the parable of the Samaritan is “the one who does you a good deed ” (not “anyone in need”). In the parable of Dives and Lazarus, there is no evidence whatsoever that Dives is being punished for anything he did to Lazarus or failed to do for Lazarus (that’s just an assumption that people read into the text). And in Matthew 25, Judge Jesus is not identifying with poor and needy people in general, he is identifying with his poor, needy disciples (his “brethren”). Benedict, like many Catholics I’m sorry to say, doesn’t take the time and trouble to understand the texts he quotes. He just assumes that he understands them and immediately starts theologizing. We need to get better at this; Catholics should be the best in the world at Bible study, instead of consistently the worst. Popes included.

    • It doesn’t require study as much as a heart to understand some of Our Lord’s words in scripture. Granted, there are other difficult passages but His words on charity
      should speak to our hearts first.

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