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Hadley Arkes

Hadley Arkes: The right stuff

A Jewish Catholic ponders life, death, and conversion

Hadley Arkes: The right stuff

Hadley Arkes (Lee Love/Genesis)

Hadley Arkes, a long-time political science professor at Amherst College, is the most prominent Jewish pro-life advocate. He was the architect of the bill that became known as the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act.

I first met Hadley in 1981, when he was 41. He is both brilliant and funny. Long ago he told me he thought the gospel story is wonderful and beautiful, but he just could not believe it. In 2010, though, Hadley joined the Roman Catholic Church.

Judy Arkes, Hadley’s wife for 52 years, died last November. Here are edited excerpts from our Jan. 23 discussion at my home in Austin.

You’ve said that embracing Christ does not mean rejecting Jewishness. Right.

I suspect some of your relatives disagree. My dear cousin Helen said, “Can you tell me why you’ve overthrown the religion of our people?” I said, “_______ scoffs at religion. He doesn’t go to synagogue. Have you asked him why he treats so contemptuously the religion of our people?” Why is it that the Jewish atheist remains a Jew? If you can have a Jewish atheist, you must have a Jewish Catholic. Is it a matter of, “Do you have all the cultural reflexes? Do you eat more Danish and drink less whiskey?”

Edith Schaeffer titled her book, Christianity Is Jewish. I still feel quite Jewish. The whole notion of the presentation of the Eucharist, the sacrificial lamb, is very Jewish. The Jewish emphasis is so clear: The Messiah is coming. A virgin is going to give birth. This is where the Magnificat is so ingenious, it keeps drawing out the Old Testament antecedents. God said, I gave you bread in the desert. I’ll give you a different kind of bread. We are using terms that are quite familiar.

When I was a teenager, one reason I rejected Judaism was its sacrificial system. With so much of Leviticus and other books emphasizing that, I thought: Since this is so central, how can it go away in A.D. 70 with no replacement? I remember you remarking on that a long while ago: That Christ was the sacrifice to end sacrifices made a large impression on you. 

Later on it did. At 14 and declaring myself an atheist, I thought something should replace sacrifices, but I knew nothing of Christianity. I never had that interest at that age. I was more concerned about the White Sox.

‘Why is it that the Jewish atheist remains a Jew? If you can have a Jewish atheist, you must have a Jewish Catholic.’

The Red Sox lost most of their games, so I wanted to think about other things. Later, I saw how so many parts of the Old Testament make sense in terms of the New. For example, Abraham and his almost-sacrifice of Isaac seems bizarre until you see it’s anticipating Jesus.  Emil Fackenheim [a noted Jewish philosopher] said God said, “Hold back your hand forever more”—no more killing of the young.

Was Judy supportive of your conversion? Yes.

But she would not do it? No, but she was very moved when I came into the church. We were living in a Catholic circle and were enveloped by it. I had the sense that if I looked at the people living around me who cared for me, they were Catholic.

On that Thursday in November, she was in Washington and you were teaching in Massachusetts. How did you get the news? I was in the classroom I’ve taught in for 35 years. Beautiful red carpeting, ascending stairs. Wonderful acoustics. I was called out and told something had happened to Judy. I grabbed my papers and said to the class, “Someone is in the hospital. We are going to have to stop and we’ll have to resume.” It’s a Tuesday/Thursday class. I didn’t know whether she was alive or dead.

You arrived at the hospital in D.C. and learned she had died. How does your Christian understanding help you to deal with all that? My friends are convinced, “Don’t worry, you will be with her.” I would love to believe that. I realize I am not as certain as they are. The old Jewish side of me is still there. I have to be convinced of this. It sounds like a lovely story, but are you sure? I’ve seen lots of evidence about life after death and I have reason to believe it and I want to believe it.

She’s still very much with you. About a year or so ago I found myself praying that I could be the husband Judy deserves. We had all kinds of tensions over the years and we loved each other. Now I find myself living my life in such a way that I will be fit to be with her when the time comes. I get these flashes, as I had just this morning.

Flashbacks? You see the whole arc. Judy as a young mother, the strains on the marriage. She struggled with depression in the early ’80s. You remember her saying it when you and I got to know each other. Things were hard for her. She went through a lot without complaining. 

Do you think, “I need to tell Judy about this?” It’s been 11 Thursdays since she died, and it’s like the calendar is calibrated for me in that way. There is that scene in Brideshead Revisited where Julia is coming apart and she says, “But Christ died every night over my bed on the cross in the nursery.” I think Judy is dying for me every Thursday at 11 o’clock.

How soon did you start teaching again? I was back in action Tuesday, the same class. I got a note from Alex the quarterback saying, “That you came to class taught a lesson that may run beyond books. You taught a lesson beyond fortitude.” I said it may not be fortitude. It may be vanity. I can’t let the course go in the end. A musician doesn’t start a piece on the cello and then stop. You’ve got to do it.

Those letters from students are sweet. Kate Conway. I taught her father and her father’s twin brother. I taught her three brothers. She is the last of that great group and in the same room. I could show where her grandfather used to sit when he came to that class. Kate was always looking worried that she wasn’t doing well enough. On that Tuesday for the first time she looked serene. My only surmise is that she was deeply worried about me. When she saw I was all right, she settled down. It was moving to see the students and the lessons they drew from this.

Did you ever see the movie, The Right Stuff? Yes.

Remember the hero, Chuck Yeager? At the very end he is trying to set an altitude record, but the plane plummets. He ejects, but his helmet is on fire and he falls to earth with half his face burned. A rescue jeep heads off and in the distance the driver sees Yeager, walking upright, carrying his parachute. That’s the right stuff, and you had it.

For more from this interview, see “Growing up Hadley and “Hadley Arkes and abortion.”


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  • Fani's picture
    Posted: Sat, 09/10/2016 11:39 am

    I just read this article for the third time. Wow. My nephew is at Amherst and I can only hope he has crossed paths with this great man. Thank you, Marvin.