Interreligious Learning: 

Christians and Jews Teaching About Each Other

June 16-17, 2002

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Sponsored by a grant for The Valparaiso Project on the Education & Formation of People in Faith, Dorothy C. Bass, Director in conjunction with the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning


The Center's June 2002 conference concerned "Interreligious Learning" and the pioneering work on this subject conducted by Mary C. Boys and Sara S. Lee.  Mary C. Boys, SNJM is the Skinner and McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York and the author of the recently published Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Self-Understanding.  Sara S. Lee is Director of the Rhea Hirsch School at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

Conference participants were Catholic and Jewish educators from the greater Boston area with many varieties and degrees of experience in educating Jews and Catholics about each other. Many leaders of the New Directions in Catholic-Jewish Dialogue project of the Archdiocese of Boston and the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League brought valuable expertise to the conference's deliberations.

Sara Lee and Mary Boys

Under the direction of Profs. Boys and Lee, the conference began with an exploration of the different ways history impacts the two communities. In separate groups the Catholic and Jewish participants recalled their personal educational and social experiences of the "other." This led to a consideration of how every meeting of Jews and Christians is potentially emotionally loaded. Such feelings as guilt or victimization, suspicion or vulnerability, anger or fear can consciously or unconsciously make meaningful exchanges very difficult. The history of the two communities creates formidable barriers to mutual understanding, even in the new era of rapprochement that began in the last third of the twentieth century.

Participants then turned their attention to two recent statements written by Christians or Jews about the other community: Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity (2000), written by four Jewish scholars and signed by over two hundred rabbis and Jewish academicians, and the forthcoming A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People, composed by the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations. In faith-alike groups participants first examined the types of challenges their own tradition's document would have for their own faith community. Then, in religiously mixed groups participants discussed the educational challenges of the "other's" statement for their own tradition. 

On the Catholic side, three main themes quickly emerged from the conversation about A Sacred Obligation. The first was that most of the document's ten statements would not be terribly controversial in the Catholic community. The statements about the need to explore how Christ saves universally and the call for no conversionary campaigns that target Jews were seen to be the most thought-provoking. Third, the statement showed that how Christians view Judaism deeply impacts all aspects of Christian self-understanding.

Jewish participants felt that Dabru Emet was most controversial in its statements about Christians worshiping the same God as Jews, the relationship of Christianity to the Shoah, and the claim that a new relationship with Christianity would not weaken Jewish practice. It was felt that different segments of the Jewish community would react to these assertions in different ways, partially motivated by the long habit of Jews and Christians defining themselves over and against each other. A large question was how to motivate the Jewish community generally to see relations with Christians as important and worthy of educational time and resources. 

In reflecting on one another's statements, Catholics welcomed Dabru Emet and felt challenged only by the need to understand better Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel, while Jews were struck by the breadth and depth of Christian self-reflection evidenced in A Sacred Obligation

The group then engaged in an exercise of trying to address fairly typical questions that arise when Christians and Jews first begin to speak to one another. The questions discussed were:

  • Why don't Jews believe Jesus was/is the messiah?
  • Do Christians really believe in the same God as Jews do? Seems like they believe in three gods!
  • If Christians worship they same God as Jews, why do they need Jesus?
  • If we worship the same God, why do we do so in such different ways?
  • If Jews don't believe in Jesus, can they be saved? 

Regardless of the diverse approaches taken to answer specific questions, this exercise provided a vivid experience of a number of challenges. These included: (A) the different frames of reference that are operative in the two communities. This sometimes involves the same or similar phrases having significantly different meanings; (B) the struggle each community faces in articulating its doctrines or core convictions in today's "post-modern" and secular Western world; (C) the persistent effect of Jews and Christians habitually defining themselves on contrast to each other; and (D) whether each community is able to educate members in the particularities of its own traditions in ways that promote a respect for the traditions of the other.

The conference concluded with a general sense that significant educational issues in Interreligious Learning had been identified. The various agencies who were present will work with Profs. Boys and Lee and the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning in developing from the conference an ongoing agenda for long-term interreligious educational research.