A Reaction to the Document: A Sacred Obligation

Rev. Guy Massie

Chairperson for Ecumenical and Interfaith Dialogue, Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York

This document is inspiring, informative, and academically well prepared. While a response to Dabru Emet, it gives evidence of serious reflection on the historical realities of Christian/Jewish relations. The document is a sign of the growing trust between the two religious communities in the United States. The sensitive nature of this document confirms the need for ongoing Christian/Jewish dialogue.

The strength of this document lies in its condemnation of supersessionism, renunciation of missionary efforts directed at converting Jews, the discussion of covenant, the need for the reform of liturgical texts, the presentation of Jesus in the context of his Judaism, and the presentation of modem Judaism as distinct from biblical Judaism. The weakness of this text lies in the ambiguity of the audience for which this document is intended, the absence of practical suggestions for furthering dialogue on the issues raised, and the missed opportunity to elaborate on such issues as covenant, liturgy, and scripture.

For whom is the document written? While addressed to all Christians to reflect on their faith in light of the ten statements herewith presented, the reality of the issue is that the intended audience is too general to have any effect. Since these ten statements are worthy of consideration, the scholars should have addressed this document to all Christian leaders, bishops, clergy, heads of Christian education, seminaries, religious congregations, and respective liturgical commissions. Whatever the model of church to which one subscribes, to effect change, the ideas must be integrated into the official institutional model. Scholarly insights alone will not bring about the desired change in attitude.

By pointing to covenant as tied to the identity of both Christians and Jews, paragraphs 1 and 6 are important. The lack of elaboration on this issue was disappointing. This elaboration would have been an opportunity to formulate questions on the meaning of covenant in our respective communities. Covenant connotes a relationship grounded in God's faithfulness. In light of the present dialogue, how do Christians understand Romans 11:17-24, which says that the Gentiles have been grafted on to the Olive Branch of Judaism?

While the document renounces missionary activity towards the Jews, it seems to evaluate the Sinai Covenant in Christian terms. Could the scholars have inadvertently imposed a Christian understanding of covenant on the Jewish concept of covenant? What does the term "saving covenant" mean? The term "saving" is not a Jewish term. It is a Christian term. Are the writers of this document slipping into using Christian terminology to explain covenant? If the Jews are in a saving covenant, from what are they being saved? How do Christians and Jews understand the term saving? While the word salvation is not unknown in Judaism, its meaning differs from the Christian usage. How can we further explore this topic?

Even though paragraph 4 intended to enjoin Christians to distinguish between Biblical, Rabbinical, and Modern Judaism, it still leaves us with the impression that Judaism is merely surviving. The text should have clearly stated that Judaism is alive and life-giving.

Paragraph 5 addresses the reading of scripture. The document is correct that Christians read the Hebrew Bible with the lens of the New Testament. This would have been an opportune place to ask Christians to learn how to see the Hebrew Bible as having value in and of itself. Perhaps the suggestion may have been made for Christian seminaries to invite Rabbinical personnel to teach and to engage students in dialogue on the reading of sacred text from the Hebrew tradition.

In addition to Biblical texts, the contribution of the Jewish people to religious understanding is Rabbinical literature. Talmudic and Midrashic texts are generally unknown to many Christians. If there is to be a further understanding of the essence of Judaism, these texts should be explored by Christian clergy. This paragraph missed a golden opportunity to invite Christian institutions of higher learning, especially seminaries, to avail themselves of this important Jewish knowledge. Exposure to these texts will broaden the understanding of Christians of Judaism as well as of early Christianity.

Liturgy is important. It is the forum in which a community lives out its theology. Just as we have been made more aware in recent years of the importance of gender-inclusive language, so must we be made aware of certain texts that can generate negative attitudes towards Jews (e.g. Matthew 27:25, John 21:19, Acts 7, etc.). These texts need to be explained in light of Christian/Jewish dialogue.

The publication God's Mercy Endures Forever, published by the United States Catholic Bishops, November 1988, is a resource for presenting current trends in understanding Christian/Jewish sensitivities on the problematic texts. Unfortunately, few seminarians or priests in the Catholic tradition are even aware of the existence of such a resource. This underscores a lack of integration between Christian/Jewish dialogue and the actual lived experience of Church life.

I think one of the goals of Christians involved in Christian/Jewish dialogue is to understand and appreciate Judaism as Judaism understands and appreciates itself. Christians should seek not to filter or evaluate Judaism through the lens of Christianity. This document seems to be moving in this direction.