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Book Discussion: Christians and Jews

Book Discussion: Christians and Jews

by Peter Shapiro
Read the review of this book in Reform Judaism magazine
See other Significant Jewish Books

Faith to Faith

Christians and Jews by Rabbi James Rudin is a scholarly analysis of interfaith relations that portrays a tragic history, a promising present and a fragile future. The central theme of the book is: why has "the other" hated us so much and what, if anything, we can do to change that culture. The problem began after the death of Jesus when his disciples referred to themselves and their followers as "New Israel" and the other Jews as "Old Israel". Years later when their sacred text was canonized it was referred to as the "New Testament"; thus the Tanakh was the "Old Testament". The clear intent was that old implied lesser value and/or obsolete, while new implied greater value and/or superseding. This created a culture where Jews were compelled to defend their theology. They had difficulty functioning in society, and their property and their lives were at risk.

The author has been a leading figure in interreligious affairs since 1968 when he joined the staff of the American Jewish Committee. Rabbi Rudin frequently employed the following exercise whenever Christians and Jews encounter one another in a dialogue setting in order to spark a serious discussion as to who is the true and indisputable Israel: each participant is given a three by five inch card and asked to print ISRAEL on one side, and on the other their definition of the word. Even though there are no names on the card the author easily identified the Jews and the Christians since each reflected their own religious identities.

The Jewish responses were linked to people, land and state. The Christian responses were couched in theological terms such as "the people of God", devoid of ethnic, geographic, or political meaning.  Rabbi Rudin, at the onset, asks the reader to consider the following three questions:

  1. Why after two thousand years, do the synagogue and church each still claim the name "Israel" for itself?
  2. Can the gap be closed?
  3. Should we even try to bridge the difference?

The problem was greater than who claimed the name Israel. It began with the relationship of God and Abraham. The Jews refer to him as Abraham avinu, our father and are linked to him by blood. The Christians think of him only as the first monotheist. We see God's promise to Abraham as being to all the Jewish people, whereas the Christians believe it is for one Jew, Jesus. See Galatians 3:16 NASB.

From the time the Jews were expelled from Jerusalem in 70 C.E. until the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 there was little if any occasion for them to live in peace. They were always fearful of expulsion, pogroms, confiscation of property and restrictions on their religious observances. Unfortunately most of those fears became facts. Rabbi Rudin cites Michael J. Cook's ten themes that have created tension and have been a source of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism.

  1. The Jews are culpable for crucifying Jesus; as such, they are guilty of deicide.
  2. The tribulations of the Jewish people throughout history constitute God's punishment of them for killing Jesus.
  3. Jesus originally came to preach only to the Jews, but when they rejected him, he abandoned them for Gentiles instead.
  4. The children of Israel were God's chosen people by virtue of an ancient covenant, but by rejecting Jesus they forfeited their closeness-and now, by virtue of a new covenant (or "testament"), Christians have replaced the Jews as God's chosen people, the Church having become "the People of God ".
  5. The Jewish Bible ("Old Testament") repeatedly portrays the opaqueness and stubbornness of the Jewish people and their disloyalty to God.
  6. The Jewish Bible ("Old Testament") contains many predictions of the coming of Jesus as the Messiah (or "Christ"), yet the Jews are blind to the meaning of their own Bible.
  7. By the time of Jesus' ministry Judaism had ceased to be a living faith.
  8. Judaism's essence is a restrictive and burdensome legalism.
  9. Christianity emphasizes love, while Judaism stands for justice and a God of wrath.
  10. Judaism's oppressiveness reflects the disposition of Jesus' opponents called "Pharisees" (predecessors of the "rabbis"), who in their teachings and behavior were hypocrites.

A significant aspect of the book is the factual background and the well-reasoned responses that can be used to counter the ten aforementioned themes. The tragedy was that those themes were perpetuated by the church and rulers/governments and were impressed on their members and subjects/citizens. There was no one willing to meet with the Jewish people to engage in dialogue in order to bridge their differences. Their attitude was, "don't confuse me with the facts, our minds are made up."

The first major breakthrough came through the efforts of Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI who guaranteed the adoption of Nostra Aetate at the Second Vatican Council in 1964. This declaration absolved the Jews of deicide, affirmed the legitimacy of Judaism and the Jewish people, and emphasized that their relationship must be based on mutual respect and knowledge. Over the next two decades almost all of the other major denominations adopted the principles of Nostra Aetate.  Pope Paul VII intervened and caused a Carmelite Monastery to be relocated from the shadow of Auschwitz. He made an unprecedented visit in 1986 to Rome's Great Synagogue as did Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.  In 1993 the Vatican established full and formal diplomatic relations with Israel.  Pope Paul VII then visited Israel and left a prayer at the "Wall".  The present is promising but progress is slow in changing the long established culture of the laity and a few conservative clergy in all of the major denominations.  Rick Warren, pastor of the Evangelical Saddleback Church, one of the largest Christian congregations in American and Ingrid Mattson, President of the Islamic Society of North American further opened the door to friendship and understanding among and between the three Abrahamic Religious Communities by delivering key note addresses at URJ Biennials.

A series of events changed the promising landscape of Jewish Christian relationships, the most prominent being the September 11, 2001 attack by Muslim terrorists.  Now there were three principal players in the dialogue: Christians, Jews and Muslims. The Israel/Palestinian conflict complicated the issues to be discussed and the ability to openly engage each other in meaningful dialogue. The Christian churches were having their own financial problems and loss of members which caused them to look inward. The Catholic Church was having similar problems in addition to a shift of greater numbers of members to South America and Africa where the clergy were much more conservative on theological matters. It was still embroiled in the pedophile priest scandals. All things considered, the state of interreligious relations was very fragile and the advancements made since 1964 could easily be severely eroded.

Two significant aspects of this book are "eight brief statements" on how Jews and Christians may relate (see pp. 104,105), and Chapter 14 "A User's Guide to Christian-Jewish Relations".

This brings us full circle as to the questions originally posed:

  1. Can we bridge the gap between Christianity and Judaism?
  2. Can we bridge the gaps between Christianity, Judaism and Islam?
  3. Should we even try?

What are your thoughts and how have you and your synagogue engaged in interfaith activities? Please join the conversation.

Published: 6/17/2011

Categories: Reform Judaism, Literature
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