All branches of theology require accuracy regarding Judaism past and present. This is true if only for the self-serving reason that a distorted picture of Jewish traditions will surely produce distorted ideas about Christianity. The 1974 Vatican document “Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, 4,” declared the following crucial axiom:
[The] links and relationships [binding the Church to Judaism] render obligatory a better mutual understanding and renewed mutual esteem. On the practical level in particular, Christians must therefore strive to acquire a better knowledge of the basic components of the religious tradition of Judaism; they must strive to learn by what essential traits Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience.
Among other things, this principle affects Christology, liturgy, ecclesiology, soteriology, ethics, and religious history. It obviously does not mean that Christian theology must always cohere or agree with Jewish perspectives. It does mean that caricatures of Judaism should be excluded from Christian theology. As the US Catholic bishops observed in 1975, “Most essential concepts in the Christian creed grew at first in Judaic soil. Uprooted from that soil, these basic concepts cannot be perfectly understood.”
Indeed, history suggests that the church lacks integrity, becomes less whole—a defining aspect of shalom—when it misrepresents or demeans Judaism. Of course, the most extreme form of repudiating Judaism is the ancient heresy of Marcionism, which among other things rejected the canonical value of Israel's Scriptures. But a related “de-Judaizing process,” as the US bishops called it, has distorted Christian self-understanding whenever it “has surfaced from time to time in devious ways throughout Christian history.”
Or as Cardinal Kasper vividly expressed it, “Cutting itself off from its Jewish roots for centuries weakened the church, a weakness that became evident in the altogether too feeble resistance against the [Nazi] persecution of Jews.”
To turn to an especially thorny practical matter, if a theology of shalom respects Jewish self-understanding and seeks to defang animosity-producing stereotypes and caricatures of Judaism, the same principle must logically and necessarily apply in the setting of worship and preaching. Perhaps the most vexing challenges arise with regard to the practice of proclaiming the entirety of the Johannine passion narrative on Good Friday. That Gospel's recurrent use of hoi Ioudaioi as the characters who incite Jesus' execution has become highly problematic in post-Shoah Christianity. Thus, for instance, “Guidelines and Suggestions” was concerned to avoid appearing “to arraign the Jewish people as such.”
The problem is exacerbated by the real possibility that the evangelist used the term hoi Ioudaioi with the deliberate intention “to implicate both the authorities and the people.”
The leading American Catholic Johannine specialist in the late twentieth century, Raymond E. Brown, grappled with the impact of the liturgical proclamation of what he came to call “the anti-Jewish sections” of John and consistently argued as follows:
An initial response … is to omit the anti-Jewish sections from the public reading of the passion narrative. In my opinion, a truer response is to continue to read the whole passion, not subjecting it to excisions that seem wise to us; but once having read it, then to preach forcefully that such hostility between Christian and Jew cannot be continued today and is against our fundamental understanding of Christianity. Sooner or later Christian believers must wrestle with the limitations imposed on the Scriptures by the circumstances in which they were written. They must be brought to see that some attitudes found in the Scriptures, however explicable in the times in which they originated, may be wrong attitudes if repeated today.… To excise dubious attitudes from the readings of Scripture is to perpetuate the fallacy that what one hears in the Bible is always to be imitated because it is “revealed” by God.
Brown's suggestion that the Johannine passion narrative be read in its entirety with hoi Ioudaioi rendered as “the Jews” means that each year homilists need to exegete the Sitz im Leben of the Gospel to avoid perpetuating late first-century Johannine polemic and hostility. Preachers on Good Friday would then have little time to reflect on the profound religious meaning that the crucifixion of Jesus has for Christians. It would seem that other measures are needed, including some of the strategies that Brown resisted.
There are further unresolved issues concerning the liturgical implications of a theology of shalom. These include how “Old Testament” and Gospel readings are juxtaposed in the lectionary and the inimical lyrics or translations of certain traditional hymns (such as “even as the Old Law ends” or “let all former rites surrender” in the Melvin L. Farrell translation of the traditional Pange Lingua Gloriosi).
Thus, the practical question of how Christian worship can reflect wholeness in relation to Judaism is part of the unfinished agenda for the future.
Another difficult topic involving respect for Jewish self-understanding is the status of so-called messianic Jews. This phrase includes several different groups, most of which self-identify as Jews who have embraced faith in Jesus Christ and wish to assert their continuing identity as Jews. Some claim to be halakically observant as Christ-believers.
Messianic Jews generally see themselves as the spiritual descendants of the first Jewish believers in the Raised Christ.
Although Westerners are inclined to respect personal religious freedom, these various movements raise several disturbing questions for the Christian-Jewish relationship, not least of which is, who defines whether individuals or groups are authentically Jewish? The obvious response is that the Jewish community must have the right to define its own members. Despite the enormously wide variety of Jewish practice and observance that exists today, from secular atheists to the most insular ḥaredim, there is overwhelming unanimity in the judgment that Jews who embrace Christian faith can no longer be considered authentically Jewish. While this unanimity likely taps into painful collective memories of the history of forceful Christian conversions of Jews, surely it is the prerogative of every religious community to determine its membership standards.
Gentile Christians who are positively inclined to recognize the “Jewishness” of “messianic Jews” could be asked by what authority they are competent to adjudicate people's status as Jews. Appeals to the New Testament witness of the originally Jewish churches falter in the face of the fact that so much history has transpired since the first century, and so what is at stake today concerning “messianic Jews” is actually the “relationship of post-biblical rabbinic and Talmudic Judaism—which arose only after the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE—with the church.… Therefore the New Testament can give us no clear answer to the question just posed.”
For churches that after the Shoah have committed themselves to learning and respecting Jewish self-understanding, the question of “messianic Jews” will be an ongoing issue.
The Jewish and Christian traditions are in dialogue. Virtually every ecclesiastical document issued by a Christian church body since the Second World War encourages interreligious dialogue with Jews. This is a total reversal from previous Christian resistance to “the spiritual dangers to which contact with Jews can expose souls” and of the church's vigilance “to safeguard her children against spiritual contagion,” as a 1938 draft text on racism opined.
Learning how to converse openly after centuries of avoidance and disdain, let alone after the Shoah, was not an easy task. Not only did Jews and Christians bring different histories, concerns, and agendas to the table, but they often used the very same words, such as “messiah,” with quite different meanings and connotations.
It also quickly became clear that substantive interreligious dialogue was impossible if participants harbored a desire to persuade rather than to learn from each other. This realization has led many Christian communities, including the Catholic Church, to concern themselves no longer with the conversion of Jews, to paraphrase Pope Benedict XVI.
Over the decades several Catholic prelates have argued that the ultimate destiny of Jews is in the hands of the God with whom they covenant and is therefore not a project for the church.
The deepening of dialogue has occurred simultaneously with an increasing sophistication in the use of scriptural texts by the Jewish and Christian traditions. Recent Catholic ecclesial statements on biblical hermeneutics explain that normative texts are continuously read afresh through new lenses. In particular, Jews and Christians constantly “reread” their sacred texts in the context of their ever-changing experiences and histories.
Striking examples of this dynamic are evident from the earliest centuries of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. Those Jews who became convinced that the Crucified One had been transcendently “raised” began to reread the Scriptures of ancient Israel with Christ as their primary “lens.” Similarly, after the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE, certain Jews reread and reinterpreted the Torah and the Commandments in creatively different ways, leading eventually to the rise of rabbinic Judaism.
Commenting on the custom that Jews and Christians share of retrospectively “rereading” the Scriptures, a 2001 Pontifical Biblical Commission study observed:
Christians can and ought to admit that the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Sacred Scriptures from the Second Temple period, a reading analogous to the Christian reading which developed in parallel fashion. Each of these two readings is part of the vision of each respective faith of which it is a product and an expression. Consequently, they cannot be reduced one into the other. On the practical level of exegesis, Christians can, nonetheless, learn much from Jewish exegesis practiced for more than two thousand years, and, in fact, they have learned much in the course of history. For their part, it is to be hoped that Jews themselves can derive profit from Christian exegetical research.
These words offer a dramatic contrast to the perennial debates between Christians and Jews over who interpreted the Scriptures correctly. Not only are Christological readings of the “Old Testament” perceived to be retrospective, but the Jewish traditions of the rabbis, especially as contained in the Talmud, are themselves seen as retrospective interpretations of the Tanakh. Most significantly, since Jewish rereadings are “analogous” to Christian retrospective processes of interpretation, they have legitimacy and value. Pope Benedict made this point powerfully when he wrote in 2011: “After centuries of antagonism, we now see it as our task to bring these two ways of rereading the biblical texts—the Christian way and the Jewish way—into dialogue with one another, if we are to understand God's will and his word aright.”
Most provocative is Benedict's intimation that if Jews and Christians do not bring their distinctive traditions of interpretation into conversation with one another, they run the risk of not understanding “God's will and his word aright.” Pope Francis has echoed the unique possibilities of Jews and Christians being study partners together in exploring their sacred texts: “There exists as well a rich complementarity which allows us to read the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures together and to help one another to mine the riches of God's word” (EG §249).
This prospect inspired Saint Joseph's University to commission an original sculpture to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate. Entitled “Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time,” it depicts the church and synagogue not as foes but as friends learning from each other about God (see appendix 2).
From this hopeful vision for the future relationship, about which more will be said below, there remains one particular aspect of Jewish self-understanding that is especially difficult for Christians to grasp: the centrality for Jews of the Land of Israel (Eretz Yisrael). This is because the Land of Israel is not inextricably connected to Christian theology, it has no central place in the Christian effort to live as Christ, and Christians around the world have no deeply felt liturgical yearning for the Land or for Jerusalem, except perhaps in the sense of the heavenly or eschatological Jerusalem. It is true that for many Christians the region has a historical or even a sacramental aspect
as the place where Jesus lived and died, and so there is also a history of pilgrimages there.
Palestinian Christians uniquely see themselves as heirs in the Land itself to the Christian faith passed down from the Apostles and their successors: “The generations of the faithful have kept it throughout the course of many centuries, through the various periods of history and the successive civilizations.”
If Christians elsewhere do not often need to think religiously about the Land of Israel, that is not the case for Palestinian Christians.
Often applying to themselves Jesus' words in Luke 12:32, “Do not be afraid, little flock,” they are a tiny and vulnerable minority among much larger populations of Jews and Muslims, and their seemingly interminable situation of statelessness creates serious hardships for the practice of their faith.
But perhaps this singular context provides some Palestinian Christians with a vision for a particular mission of interreligious reconciliation that could inspire many others: “Moved by a genuine spirituality, all believers of the three monotheistic religions could work together to make this city [Jerusalem] really become what God wants it to be: a place of encounter with God, and consequently a place to inspire peace and reconciliation in hearts and minds.”
To return to the summary of Christian attitudes about the Land of Israel more generally, Christianity strongly emphasizes that God can be encountered anywhere, that holiness may be found in any land or place. Indeed, far from resonating with the centrality of Eretz Yisrael for Judaism, there is what might be called “a counter-history” of Christian denial of a Jewish covenantal bond with the Land. Supersessionist Christianity claimed that Jews had forfeited any religious tie to the Land because of their alleged collective guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus. Those who polemicized against Judaism argued that God had cursed all Jews, proven by the destruction of the Temple and the supposed condition of Jews as homeless wanderers.
All these factors make it very difficult for most Christians to resonate with the spiritual significance of the Land of Israel for Jews. They have no cognate covenantal connection, they stress the universality of the Christian gospel, and they have long precedents of rejecting any ongoing Jewish spiritual ties to the Land.
The Vatican has attempted to balance these various factors, and its efforts illustrate the conundrum faced by a Christian tradition that rejects biblical fundamentalism, is committed to rapprochement and understanding with Jews, believes that God's presence can be seen in human history, and upholds the human rights of all people. Its basic outlook can be outlined in three points from a 1985 Vatican document, as follows.
a. Christians cannot think of Jews as punished and so divinely detached from Eretz Yisrael.
b. The continued existence of the Jewish people, B'nai Yisrael or ‘
Am Yisrael, is God's will.
c. Christians should respect and seek to understand Jewish attachment to Eretz Yisrael, without necessarily adopting it themselves, while the existence of the modern State of Israel (Medinat Yisrael) should not be interpreted primarily in religious or biblical categories, but according to current international law.
With respect to the third point (c), the State of Israel is a nation-state that is not coextensive with the covenanting community of B'nai Yisrael (i.e., the Jewish people), even though Eretz Yisrael is a defining reality for the Jewish people as a whole. But there is an unresolved tension here: methodologically, how do Christians go about respecting the religious centrality of the Land of Israel for Jews while considering the modern State of Israel only in terms of distinct, nonreligious international legal norms? Moreover, since both Judaism and Christianity are premised on the idea that God is involved in human history, a radical disjuncture between the “secular” and “religious” realms cannot be rigidly maintained in either tradition without undermining their respective truth claims.
Clearly, developing a Christian theological appreciation of the centrality of Eretz Yisrael for Jews is a priority in the years ahead. I strongly suspect that intense dialogue with sympathetic Jewish colleagues, who face their own variations on these challenges, is essential for any progress to be made.
Mutuality in theologizing is preferable to binary or oppositional thinking. Both the Jewish and Christian communities became habituated over the centuries to defining their respective identities in zero-sum opposition to one another. This “oppositional self-definition” is a cause of stereotyping. It promotes the reflexive impulse that if Christians believe such and such then Jews must not, and vice versa. Therefore, until fairly recently it has been difficult for both Christians and Jews to engage the core religious truth claims of the other with anything other than rejection because their respective self-understandings are viscerally implicated. The borders between their communities that for centuries helped define their respective identities could become uncomfortably blurred and altered as they learn they have misconstrued the other's positions. Christians who affirm Jewish perspectives can be accused of “watering down the faith” or even of “apostasy.” Jews who affirm Christian perspectives can be accused of abandoning their Jewish heritage and assimilating into the wider culture.
One manifestation of oppositional, binary thinking is the widely shared assumption among both most Christians and Jews that “something went wrong” with the origins of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism as discrete communities. This separation is thought to have been contrary to God's will. Christians can consciously or unconsciously imagine that most Jews did not accept the Good News about Jesus because God “blinded” them (following Paul in Romans 11:25), or because Jews were innocently mistaken because of a misplaced myopic focus on the Torah, or less benignly, because of their obstinacy.
Jews may consciously or unconsciously assume that if not Jesus, then Paul distorted the essence of Judaism and so created the fundamentally misguided Gentile church.
I suggest an alternative presupposition to “something went wrong” in retelling the Christian story today. Why can we not suppose that the origins of our two traditions unfolded according to God's will? Is it not possible that the Holy One, whom Christians experience as intensely relational even within God's own being, would desire two related covenanting communities in the world, perhaps to serve as enablers and correctors of one another?
Moving beyond binary categories is also helpful in considering the major Christological and soteriological question that has arisen with the recent Christian affirmation of the Jewish people's ongoing covenantal life with God: How can Christians reaffirm their faith-conviction that Christ is the savior of all humanity even while affirming that Jews covenant with God despite the fact that they reject that Christian claim?
Instead of conceiving of the question in either/or terms—either people “believe in” Christ Jesus or they do not—Christian theologians can, for example, delve more deeply into the church's experience of God's inviting Word incarnated in Christ and resonate with that Word's obvious presence in the ongoing covenanting community of the Jewish people.
This line of thinking was evident in the most recent Vatican document on Christian-Jewish relations:
God revealed himself in his Word, so that it may be understood by humanity in actual historical situations. This Word invites all people to respond. If their responses are in accord with the Word of God they stand in right relationship with him. For Jews this Word can be learned through the Torah and the traditions based on it. The Torah is the instruction for a successful life in right relationship with God. Whoever observes the Torah has life in its fullness (cf. Pirqe Avot II, 7). By observing the Torah the Jew receives a share in communion with God.
This passage has unmistakable soteriological cadences. Jews are able to stand in “right relationship” or share “in communion with God” or have “life in its fullness” (evoking John 10:10) because of the positive assertion that “for Jews the Word of God is present above all in the Torah.” Much more could obviously be said about this “Logos-Christology” in terms of a theology of revelation, pneumatology, and Christian Trinitarianism. The point here is that theological progress concerning Christian-Jewish relations often depends on overcoming binary habits of thinking that both Christians and Jews have inherited from our long history of opposition. Thinking in terms of mutuality is therefore one of the foundations of a theology of shalom.