Despite two millennia of Jewish persecution and suffering, in recent years there has been a major effort on the part of the Church to overcome Christian antipathy toward Judaism and the Jewish people. In the last few decades, for example, the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches have issued numerous decrees denouncing antisemitism and encouraging positive Jewish-Christian encounter. In addition, pioneering Christian scholars have attempted to understand the Jewishness of Jesus modern Christology, they believe, must be purged of any anti-Jewish bias. God’s enduring covenant with the Jewish nation has also repeatedly been emphasized, and various theories have been propounded to illustrate that Jesus’ death and resurrection do not replace God’s revelation on Mount Sinai. In this context the traditional idea of Christian mission has been replaced by the notion of Christian witness. No longer do most Christians feel compelled to convert the Jewish picion and misunderstanding. people to the one, true faith; rather Judaism is affirmed as a valid religious tradition with its own spiritual integrity. Christians have also been increasingly preoccupied with the religious implications of the Holocaust. Along with Jewish thinkers, Christian theologians have struggled to make sense of God’s nature and activity in the light of the destruction of six million innocent victims. There are thus positive signs of hope after over twenty centuries of sus
In recent years the Churches have been anxious to overcome centuries of hostility towards the Jewish nation by issuing official pronouncements concerning Judaism. Thus in the Roman Catholic Church the decree Nostra Aetate was promulgated by the Second Vatican Council in October 1965. Its section on the Jewish religion begins by recognizing the spiritual bond that links the people of the new covenant to Abraham’s descendents and affirms God’s continuing covenant with the Jews: “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; he does not repent of the gifts he makes or of the calls he issues.”1 In the light of such an understanding, Jewish-Christian dialogue is recommended: “This Sacred Synod wants to foster and recommend that mutual understanding 2 3 4and respect which is the fruit, above all, of biblical and theological studies as well as fraternal dialogues.”In addition, Nostra Aetate repudiates the ancient charge of deicide: “True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in his passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”In subsequent years various national and provincial synods have attempted to apply the teaching of this statement. In 1974 Pope Paul established a Commission for Religious Relations with the Jewish People which produced guidelines and suggestions for implementing its conclusions. This document insists that Christians should condemn antisemitism and views Jews as they define themselves in the light of their own religious experience. In addition, the document encourages Christians to pray together with Jews: “In whatever circumstances as shall prove possible and mutually acceptable, one might encourage a common meeting in the presence of God, in prayer and silent meditation, a highly efficacious way of finding that humility, that openness of heart and mind, necessary prerequisites for a deep knowledge of oneself and others. In particular that will be done in connection with great causes, such as the struggle for peace and justice."
To celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Commission published Notes on the Correct Way to present Jews and Judaism in preaching and catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church. In this document the Church and Judaism are conceived as parallel ways of salvation; the permanent value of the Hebrew Scriptures as a source of Christian revelation is stressed: and Jews are depicted as faithful Jews. Further, it recognized that the “Gospels are the outcome of long and complicated editorial work. Hence it cannot be ruled out that some references hostile or less than favourable to the Jews have their historical context in conflicts between the nascent Church and the Jewish community. Certain controversies reflect Christian-Jewish relations long after the time of Jesus.”5 Finally, the permanence of Israel and its continuous spiritual significance for the Jewish people is assumed.
Similar views about Judaism and the Jewish people have been expressed by the World Council of Churches (WCC). At its first Assembly in Amsterdam in 1948, the WCC declared: “We cannot forget that we meet in a land from which 110,000 Jews were taken to be murdered. Nor can we forget that we meet only five years after the extermination of six million Jews.” At the Evanston Assembly in 1954 the Jewishness of Jesus was emphasized as well as God’s concern for the Jews. In 1961 at the New Delhi Assembly, the WCC condemned antisemitism and stressed that the Jewish nation should not be blamed for Christ’s crucifixion: “In Christian teaching the historic events which led to the Crucifixion should not be presented as to fasten upon the Jewish people of today responsibilities which belong to our corporate humanity and not to one race or community.6
In 1967 the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission, and its sub-unit the Consultation of the Church and the Jewish People (CCJP) agreed on a joint report. This document affirmed that although God’s revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, God did not abandon the Jewish nation. In 1977 the British Working Group of the CCJP highlighted the theological significance of the Holy Land for the Jewish people:
Judaism believes that there is a positive spiritual purpose in fulfilling as many of God’s commandments as possible; the opportunity for this is at its highest in the Holy Land, where the commandments concerning the Holy Land and its produce may be observed, and where the sanctity to Judaism of worship in previous times is keenly felt. In modern times, many Jews have therefore seen a strong, religious purpose in the strengthening of Jewish settlement in Israel.7
In 1982 the WCC statement Ecumenical Considerations on Jewish-Christian Dialogue was produced, which pointed out the need for Christians to abandon stereotypes. Judaism, it asserted, is not a fossilized religion of legalism, but a living tradition. Further, Christian responsibility for Jewish suffering was acknowledged: “Teachings of contempt for Jews and Judaism in certain Christian traditions proved a spawning ground for the evil of the Nazi Holocaust.”8 More recently the WCC has summa-rized the convictions which now guide most Churches in their dealings with the Jewish people:
l. The covenant of God with the Jewish people remains valid.
2. Antisemitism and all forms of the teaching of contempt for Judaism, especially teaching about deicide, are to be repudiated.
3. The living tradition of Judaism is a gift of God.
4. Coercive proselytism directed towards Jews is incompatible with Christian faith.
5. Jews and Christians bear a common responsibility as witnesses to God’s righteousness and peace in the world.9
Such pronouncements have repudiated misconceptions about Judaism and have paved the way for positive Jewish-Christian encounter after centuries of persecution, the Churches have at last come to accept responsibility for the plight of the Jews.
JESUS THE JEW
Through the centuries the Jewishness of Jesus was eclipsed by the Church’s desire to differentiate between Judaism and Christianity. In recent years, however, a number of Christian as well as Jewish scholars have emphasized Jesus’ connections with his ancestral faith. In this quest these writers have stressed the importance of dispelling the stereotyped pictures of first-century Judaism as portrayed in the Gospels. Rather, the Jewish tradition should be understood in terms of God’s covenant with Abraham. In this light the Law should be seen as a gift, with Pharisaic Judaism as the logical continuation of God’s relationship with his Chosen People.
As a product of the early Church, the Gospels reflect the disputes between the followers of Jesus and the Jewish community. Nonetheless, it is evident that Jesus had strong affinities with the Pharisees. His emphasis on reinterpreting the oral law is reminiscent of rabbinic teaching. Like the Pharisees, he stressed the importance of love, adhered to belief in the resurrection, and rigorously observed Jewish festivals. Although Jesus did not follow all the Pharisaic prescriptions (such as those concerning washing before meals, ritual purity and table fellowship), his departure from strict Pharisaism may have simply been a reflection of internal disputes among the Pharisees themselves.
Like other Jews of this period Jesus was convinced that a new age was dawning. In declaring that the Kingdom of God is at hand, he was acting in line with Jewish eschatological expectations. The coming of this new epoch in human history would bring about a new Temple, the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel, and an ingathering of the multitudes. For Jesus and traditional Jews alike the new age would not be an overturning of God’s covenant with the Jewish people, but instead the outpouring of God’s love to all. The advent of the Messiah would bring bout a transformation of the world in which evil would be overcome. Jesus was thus a faithful son of the covenant, a Jewish messianic figure standing firmly within the Jewish heritage. Understanding Jesus in this way should enable Christians to revise their perception of Jewish life as well as of the Jews of Jesus’ time.
As far as Jesus’ titles are concerned, these too should be viewed within a Jewish context. Those who witnessed Jesus’ resurrection believed that the Messianic age had dawned. According to contemporary biblical scholarship, the titles given to Jesus originated in the early Christian community to express their belief in Christ. Such expressions as “Messiah”, “Son of Man”, “Son of God”, and “Lord” were drawn from the Jewish heritage to convey the significance of Jesus’ life and teaching. Yet as the Church became increasingly gentile, such terms came to emphasize his divine status. The Christological declarations of Church Councils were intended to affirm the presence of God in Christ.
Unfortunately for the Jewish community, this development led to the Church’s denigration of Jews and Judaism. However, in the light of a modern understanding of early Christology, it is possible to transcend such a negative perception of the Jewish faith. Given that the thought forms of the early Church were culturally conditioned, it is no longer necessary to portray credal formulations as metaphysical claims. Thus a number of modern Christian theologians have attempted to develop a systematic Christology devoid of anti-Judaism. Such a reconstructed theology is not tied to traditional Christocentrism and exclusivity; instead emphasis is placed on Christ’s redemption of the entire world. In this light Jesus’ resurrection should be perceived as validating the Jewish tradition. In the words of Jacobus Schoneveld, who served as General Secretary of the International Council of Christians and Jews:
The resurrection means the vindication of Jesus as a Jew, as a person who was faithful to the Torah, as a martyr who participated in Jewish martyrdom for the sanctification of God’s name. What else can this mean than the validation of the Torah, and vindication of the Jewish people as God’s beloved people? 10
Such a modern understanding of Jesus’ ministry is far removed from Christian hostility of previous centuries: rather than placing the Jewish community outside of God’s providential care, many Christian theologians today are seeking to affirm the continuing covenant between God and Israel.
GOD'S COVENANT WITHTHE JEWISH PEOPLE
In the past Christianity maintained that God’s covenant with the Jews had been superseded by his covenant with the New Israel: through the centuries Christians believed that with Jesus’ resurrection the Christian community had becomeheir to promises made to Abraham and the patriarchs. By rejecting Jesus, Israel had shown itself unfaithful and had abandoned its covenantal obligations. As a punishment God destroyed Jerusalem, and banished the Jewish nation from its ancestral home.
Today, however, many Church bodies have rejected this view, affirming instead the continuing validity of God’s covenant with his Chosen People. The Second Vatican Council, for example, implied such a view in Nostra Aetate:
God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; he does not repent of the gifts he makes or of the call he issues such is the witness of the Apostle.
In 1979 the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio, quoting this passage, preceded it with an affirmation of respect for the Jewish faith: “Our respect and regard for Judaism, therefore, is not for an ancient relic of the distant past. It is God himself who made the Jewish people his own and gave them a divine and irrevocable vocation.”11
Again, the Churches in the Netherlands stated in l98l:
The promises which the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has made to the Jewish people have never been revoked by their God, who is our God, too. Nor did God ever recall the covenant which he, through Moses, had made with them. We Christians call this covenant by a term which has occasioned much misunderstanding the “old covenant”. This covenant was not abolished or replaced by the "new covenant" in and through the coming of Jesus Christ.12
Likewise the l982 statement of the Texas Conference of Christians decreed:
We acknowledge with both respect and reverence that Judaism is a living faith and that Israel’s call and covenant are valid and operative today. We reject the position that the covenant between the Jews and God was dissolved with the coming of Christ.13
According to some modern Christian scholars, there is only one covenant into which gentiles are admitted through Jesus Christ. Such writers assert that Judaism and Christianity are complementary aspects of the same divine purpose. Thus the eschatological significance of Jesus’ salvific work must be understood as a future event even for Christians Jesus is not yet the Messiah. Messianic fulfilment is not a present reality, but rather a mission. God’s single covenant is new after the Christ event only in that it embraces both Jews and Gentiles. In this light, the Church can be seen as a community of Gentiles who have been drawn to worship God and bring knowledge of him to the nations.
Such writers as Paul van Buren stress that this does not imply any dilution of the Christian conviction that Jesus is the Christ and Song of God. According to van Buren, for those committed to Jesus, what took place in Christ “marked a genuinely new beginning, a step out and beyond the circles of God’s covenant with his people, the Jews. But it surely cannot and does not detract from, much less annul, that covenant.”14 Other writers point out that Christianity has not replaced Israel in the divine drama of salvation Israel’s vocation still continues in the contemporary world. Thus the Church and Synagogue are bound together within one covenant. As Jacobus Schoneveld explains:
When we look at the Church’s life and teaching, has anything been added to the Torah? I have searched for a long time for anything new. In fact nothing new is there, which goes beyond a certain change of emphasis or a certain different nuance in comparison with Jewish teachings of the first century, except that through Jesus the Gentiles have been admitted and the range of the teaching of the Torah has become much wider.15
An alternative approach to this issue has been proposed by Christian writers who have formulated a two-covenant theory. James Parkes, for example, has written regarding the Sinaitic revelation and Calvary:
The highest purpose of God which Sinai reveals to man as community, Calvary reveals to man as an end in himself. The difference between the two events, both of which from the metaphysical standpoint arise as identical expressions of the infinite in time, lies in the fact that the first could not be fulfilled but by a brief demonstration of a divine community in action; but the second could not be fulfilled except by a life lived under human conditions from birth to death. Thus Jesus’ death on the cross did not replace Sinai: Judaism and Christianity are different but equally valid responses to the Divine initiative.16
These single and double covenant theories thus offer a means of reconciliation between Jews and Christians no longer is the Jewish community being condemned for refusing to accept Jesus as God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God.
In the past Christians were intent on converting Jews to the true faith: such mission was the avowed purpose of Jewish-Christian encounter and still continues in the modern world. However, today there has been an attempt on the part of many Christians to reinterpret the concept of mission. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, for example, declared:
Whilst in the past the goal of Christian mission has mainly been the awakening of the faith, the founding of churches, the growth and maintenance of Christian life, we now perceive more clearly...another goal as that of giving witness to the spirit of love and hope, of promoting justice and peace, sharing responsibility with others for the development of a caring society, especially where people are in need...This will mean some claims about the exclusiveness of the Church have to be renounced, but also that past and present prejudices about other religions have to be overcome, and ignorance and contempt actively resisted.17
Another approach to Christian outreach focuses on the distinc-tion between proselytism as opposed to witness. The quest to win coverts from another faith characterized previ-ous Christian attitudes, whereas Christian witness is currently understood as a sharing of religious experience. In this pro-cess there is no desire to pressurize others. In the words of Lord Coggan, formerly Archbishop of Canterbury and Chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews: “The tragedy takes place when mission or evangelism is interpreted in terms of proselytization. That last word speaks of pressure, if not of force, of (at least) would-be compul-sion Believe this, or else!”18
Such a reorientation of Christian mission is based on the recognition of God’s presence in the world’s religious faiths a view which is increasingly being accepted by many Christians. This shift in perspective is grounded in the conviction that a God of love could not allow the mass of humanity to wallow in ignorance and darkness: as the providential Lord of history, God must provide a means of salva-tion for all people. Thus according to the Catholic priest, Bede Griffiths whose ashram in South India attract-ed both Hindu and Christian visitors God’s cosmic covenant with human-ity implicitly contains the revelation of God’s presence in Christ. A similar inclusivist view has been expressed by the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who maintained that “Christianity does not simply confront the member of an extra-Christian reli-gion as a mere non-Christian but as someone who can and must be regarded in this or that respect as an anonymous Christian.”19
Other Christian theologians have proposed an even more radical reorientation of Christology. For example, the Protestant theologian, John Hick, in various writings spoke of a Copernican revolution in theology which involves a major transformation of the Christian view of religious pluralism. It demands, he wrote, “a paradigm shift from a Christianity-centred or Jesus-centred to a God-centred model of the universe of faiths. One then sees the great world religions as different human responses to the one Divine reality, embodying different perceptions which have been formed in different historical and cultural circumstances.”20 Similarly, the Roman Catholic priest, Raimundo Panikkar, endorsed a new map of world religions. For Panikkar, the mystery within all religions is both more than and yet has its being within the diverse experiences and beliefs of the world’s religions. Such a vision of the universe of faiths implies that no religion can claim final or absolute authority.
A similar position was advanced by Stanley Samartha of the World Council of Churches. God, he believed, is the Mysterious Other: “This Other relativizes everything else. In fact, the willingness to accept such relativization is probably the only real guarantee that one has encountered the Other as ultimately real.”21 By relatizing all religious figures and revelations, Samartha does not intend to deny their necessity or reduce them to a common denominator. The Mysterious Other must confront humanity through various mediations, yet no particular manifestation is universally valid. A particular religion such as Christianity can claim to be decisive for some people, but no religion is justified in claiming that it is decisive for all.
Again, the Catholic theologian, Paul Knitter, argued that the theocentric model is a valid reinterpretation of Christian tradition and experience. Jesus should not be understood as God’s complete revelation exclusivist language in the New Testament should be seen as essentially confessional in nature. Such Christological language, he asserted, is much like the language a husband would use of his wife: “You are the most wonderful woman in the world”, and so on. In the context of a marital relationship these claims are true, but only as an expression of love. Similarly it is possible for Christians to express their dedication to Jesus without adopting an absolutist position. Utilizing the analogy of marriage, Knitter wrote: “The deeper the commitment to one’s spouse and the more secure the marriage relationship, the more one will be able to appreciate the truth and beauty of others. Therefore, not only does commitment to Jesus include openness to others, but the greater the commitment to him, the greater will be one’s openness to others.”22 Such redefinitions of Christology provide a new basis for viewing the Jewish heritage. With God at the centre of the universe of faiths, Judaism can be seen as an authentic religious expression, and such a paradigm shift calls for a critical reassessment of the Church’s attitude to the Jews.
For Jews as well as Christians, the Holocaust or Shoah is of overwhelming significance. According to a number of Jewish thinkers the destruction of six million Jews by the Nazis was a unique event the Final Solution was the first systematic genocidal assault in human history. Likewise a number of Christian writers have stressed the centrality of this tragedy. According to Alice and Roy Eckardt, for example, the Holocaust was a truly transcending or metahistorical event, an event that twists our journey through space-time by 180 degrees.
How can one make sense of this modern calamity? From both the Christian and Jewish sides there have been a variety of theological responses. The British Jewish theologian Ignaz Maybaum, for example, contended in The Face of God after Auschwitz that the Jews died in the concentration camps for the sins of humanity, as God’s willing servant and sacrificial lamb. For Maybaum, Auschwitz is the analogue of Golgotha, and he sees the Nazis as instruments of God’s will. On the analogy of Nebuchadnezzar, who in Jeremiah 27:6 is described as God’s servant, Maybaum maintained that Hitler played a divinely instrumental role in the purification of a sinful world. God is pictured at Auschwitz in the role of a surgeon performing a necessary operation, cutting out a part of Israel for the renewal of the body of humankind. Jews therefore suffer in order to bring about the rule of God over the world and its peoples; their God-appointed mission is to serve the course of historical progress and bring humanity into a new era.
A second Jewish approach to the Holocaust is to see in the death camps a manifestation of God’s will that his chosen people survive. Such a paradoxical view is most representatively expressed by the Jewish theologian Emil Fackenheim, who asserted in various writings that God revealed himself to Israel out of the furnaces of Auschwitz. Through the Holocaust, he believed, God issued the 6l4th commandment: Jews are forbidden to grant a posthumous victory to Hitler. According to Fackenheim, the commitment of faith is not called into question by any event of history including the Holocaust. Thus Fackenheim urged Jews to hold fast to the traditional covenant with the God who is Lord of history.
Another Jewish response to the Holocaust is to reject any kind of explanation instead, the events of the Holocaust are seen as part of God’s inscrutable plan. The Orthodox Jewish theologian Eliezer Berkovits, for example, in Faith After the Holocaust argued that the modern Jewish response to the destruction of six million Jews should be modelled on Job’s example. We must believe in God, he maintained, because Job believed. If there is no answer to the question of understanding God’s silence in the face of the Nazi genocide, it is better to be without it than with the sham of the humbug of a disbelief encouraged by people who have eaten their fill at the tables of a satiated society. At Auschwitz God was hidden, yet according to Berkovits, in his hiddenness he was actually present. As Hidden God, God is Saviour; in the apparent void he is the Redeemer of Israel.
Paralleling such Jewish speculation, a number of Christian thinkers have formulated theories grounded in Christian theology. Among Christian writers, one of the most important developments has been the desire to reinterpret the doctrine of divine impassibility and triumphalistic Christology. While Jews might have difficulties with some Christological interpretations, these moves illustrate the current Christian sensitivity to the religious perplexities of the Holocaust. No longer is the Church prepared to stand by silently as the Jewish people endure persecution and death. Instead, many Christian theologians are acutely aware of the horrors of the death camps and the Church’s share of responsibility for these atrocities. Profound questions are being raised about human nature and religious belief, and in their common quest to understand God’s ways Jews and Christians are reaching out to one another. In the shadow of the Holocaust, this is perhaps the most important cause of hope for the future.
For twenty centuries, Jews have suffered at the hands of anti-semites. The injustices and pogroms inflicted on the Jewish communi-ty have been to a large degree the result of Christian contempt. Today, however, ways are being sought to transcend this legacy of Christian hatred. Both the Roman Catholic and the Protestant Churches have issued decrees condemning antisemitism, and Christians have been encouraged to understand Jesus in his Jewish context. God’s continuing covenant with the Jewish people has also been recognized, and Christian mission has been largely curtailed. Further, Judaism has been affirmed as a valid religious tradition, and many Christians have come to accept responsibility for the Holocaust. This transformation of attitudes is to be encouraged. It is for both the Christian and Jewish communities to liberate themselves from their destructive past. By working together the long habit of Christian antisemitism may at last be overcome. Only then will Christians and Jews fully appreciate the promise in the Psalmist’s words: “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethern (sic) to dwell together in unity.”
Dan Cohn-Sherbok is Professor of Judaism in the Research Institute for Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and a Member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Peer Review College. His interests include: Holocaust Studies; Interfaith Dialogue; Jewish Mysticism; Liberation Theology; and Messianic Judaism.
1 Compiled by Helga Croner, Stepping Stones to Further Jewish-Christian Relations: An Unabridged Collection of Christian Documents, Mahwah, N.J.: Stimulus Books, Paulist Press, l977, p. 1.
2 Ibid., p. 1.
3 Ibid., p. 2.
4 Ibid., p. 12.
5 Ibid., p. 16.
6 The Theology of the Churches and the Jewish People: Statements by the World Council of Churches and its Member Churches, with a commentary by Allan Brockway, Paul van Buren, Rolf Rendtorff, and Simon Schoon, Geneva: World Council of Churches, l988, p. 12.
7 Compiled by Helga Croner, More Stepping Stones to Further Jewish-Christian Relations: An Unabridged Collection of Christian Documents 1975-1983, Mahwah, N.J.: Stimulus Books, Paulist Press, 1985, p. 163.
8 Ibid., p. 40.
9 Marcus Braybrooke, Time to Meet, London: SCM, 1990, pp. 27-28.
10 Jacobus Schoenveld, “The Jewish ‘No’ to Jesus and the Christian ‘Yes’ to Jews”, Quarterly Review, 4, 1984, p. 60.
11 Helga Croner, More Stepping Stones, pp. 85f.
12 Ibid., p. 211.
13 Ibid., p. 186.
14 Paul van Buren, "Christ of the church", paper presented to the American Academy of Religion Convention, San Francisco, December 1977, quoted by John Pawlikowski, Christ in the Light of the Christian-Jewish Dialogue, Mahwah, N.J.: Stimulus Books, Paulist Press, 1982, p. 13.
15 J. Coos Schoneveld, "Israel and the Church in the Face of God: A Protestant Point of View", Immanuel 3, Winter l973/74, pp. 80-3.
16 James Parkes, Judaism and Christianity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948, p. 30.
17 Robert Runcie, "Christianity and World Religions", World Faiths Encounter, No. 14, Oct. l986, p. l3.
18 Donald Coggan, "When Christian meets Jew", St Paul’s Lecture, London Diocesan Council for Christian-Jewish Understanding, 1985, pp. 6f.
19 Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Vol. 5, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1966, p. 131.
20 John Hick, God and the Universe of Faiths, London: Macmillan Press, l973, p. 131.
21 Stanley Samartha, Courage for Dialogue, Geneva: WCC, l982, pp. l51f.
22 Paul F. Knitter, No Other Name?, London: SCM Press, 1985, pp. 201-2.