Jews and Christians in Dialogue
Sant Egidio, Barcelona 2010
Rabbi David Rosen
Arguably there is no ideological, let alone theological revolution in human history as dramatic as that which has taken place in Christian teaching towards Jews, Judaism and Israel. From the historical "teaching of contempt" which portrayed Jews as rejected and cursed by God; replaced by the Church, the new and true Israel; which viewed Jews as condemned to wander and suffer in testimony to these claims;
we now live an era where the phrase of the late blessed John Paul II describing the Jewish people as "the dearly beloved elder brother of the Church of the original Covenant never broken and never to be broken " is widespread and for very many people in the world today, Christian-Jewish fraternity is almost taken for granted.
Since the promulgation of Nostra Aetate, not only is it widely understood that "anti-Semitism is a sin against God and man" as the late Pope John Paul II put it, but that it is necessary for Christians to understand Judaism and Jewish understanding of Scripture in order to better understand themselves as Christians as well as the life and world of Jesus of Nazareth.
Albeit there is still much to do in ensuring that the transformation in Christian teaching in this regard is genuinely internalized both horizontally and vertically – i.e. geographically as well as from the hierarchy down to the pew – but it is still a transformation without parallel.
I have spoken and written much on this, but today I would like to look at this in terms of Jewish responsibility.
Of course while Christianity cannot fully understand itself without reference to the Jewish people, its faith and history; Jewry does not have to relate to Christianity in order to understand itself. There are those that argue that it should, but obviously it does not have to. Nevertheless there are many compelling reasons why Jews need to be engaged in this relationship.
To begin with it is our enlightened self interest to be understood and to ensure that we are not victims of bigotry and prejudice.
Moreover despite the positive changes in our world, it is still not without its perils and dangers. Specifically, anti-Semitism remains a durably resistant virus and it has also mutated in recent times into a hatred and delegitimization of the state of the Jewish people, the state of Israel. Of course I do not mean that it is illegitimate to criticize Israeli policies or actions. However, to deny to Jews that which one considers legitimate for others, is surely nothing less than anti-Semitism. In such a world, the need for allies and for interreligious partners is all the more imperative.
Beyond this however is the recognition that Judaism and Christianity share most basic ethical values and this places a mutual obligation upon them.
The medieaval sage Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri of Perpignan, acknowledges this in describing Christians and Muslims as “peoples bound by the good manners of religion”. (His position serves as the basis for the rulings of Chief Rabbis Kuk and Herzog of Israel, advocating full civil liberties for Christians and Muslims in a Jewish State, as a halachic obligation!) And indeed if we are truly committed to the ethical principles we share, such as justice and equity; the sanctity of life and family; the pursuit of peace and loving-kindness; then surely we have an obligation to work together with those that share these values, to be greater than the sum of our different parts.
However many Jewish luminaries emphasized that shared moral values for Jews and Christians derive from a shared Biblical heritage and thus certain shared beliefs, notwithstanding those that divide.
Instructive in this regard are the words of the of the seventeenth century leading European rabbi, Moshe Rivkes ( Be'er HaGolah, Shulchan Aruch, Chosen Mishpat, sect. 425) :-
“The peoples in whose shade we, the people of Israel, take refuge and amongst whom we are dispersed, do believe in the Creation and the Exodus and in the main principles of religion and their whole intent is to serve the Maker of Heaven and Earth, as the codifiers wrote and thus is brought in the Rama ( Orach Chayim Sect. 156.) Not only are we obliged to save them from danger but we are also commanded to pray for their welfare, as the author of Ma’aseh Hashem (R. Eliezer Ashkenazi) explained in his commentary on the Haggadah on the verse “pour out they wrath….”
Rabbi Jacob Emden went even further and in the words of the Ethics of the Fathers described Christianity (Seder Olam Rabba 33-35; Sefer HaShimush 15-17) as “Knessiyah leshem shamayim shesofah lehitkayem”. i.e. an assembly for the sake of Heaven that is of lasting value and purpose. (The word “knessiyah”, assembly, is also the Hebrew word for “church”!)
Contained within these views of Christianity is another – arguably even higher – imperative for advancing Christian-Jewish relations beyond those aforementioned. Any recognition of shared commitment to God’s presence revealed both in Creation and in History and to His word revealed in the Hebrew Bible, places special responsibility upon us towards those who also affirm it; making us, whether we like it or not, partners in the pursuit of the Universal Kingdom of Heaven on earth in keeping with that Biblical vision.
For many Jews this is still a difficult idea to digest, primarily for historical reasons. However, the fact that all too often so-called Christian behavior towards Jews made a mockery of the Christian gospel, should not blind us to the content of the latter that espouses what Rivkes describes as “the main principles of religion” that emanate from the belief in God as Lord of the Creation and of the Exodus.
Accordingly the very fact that Christians have often failed to be true to their métier should concern us as Jews as well. For the desecration of those values, by us or others, distances us and our world from the ultimate Messianic vision, just as their fulfillment brings us closer to it.
If Christianity is acknowledged to espouse beliefs and values for which the Children of Israel were elected; and as Judaism aspires for their recognition and fulfillment in the whole world; then their desecration, especially by those claiming to represent these beliefs and values among the nations of the world, must be our Jewish concern. Such a “chilul HaShem”, desecration of the Divine name, demands our attention too ! Thus the positive image of Christianity as a bearer of such values, is relevant to our own holy task of Kiddush HaShem, sanctifying God’s Name in the world! Moreover, not only did our people suffer from that past tragic desecration, but the image of our own testimony and purpose was perverted as well! By correcting this distortion; by restoring and promoting the image and glory of our Torah through dialogue and joint co-operation, we rectify the desecration of God’s Name and sanctify it instead. This sanctification of the Divine name amongst the nations is a pre-eminent religious responsibility, fundamental to Israel’s purpose and destiny.
Thus through working together towards goals that we share, not only are stronger than the sum of our different parts in advancing the vision for the establishment of a world that lives in accordance with God’s “moral ways”, but we are also partners in the principle biblical charge itself “to sanctify God’s Name” in the world.