Response to Commentaries on "A Sacred Obligation"

John C. Merkle

Professor of Theology

College of Saint Benedict, Saint Joseph, Minnesota


Along with the other members of the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations, I am grateful to the publishers and editors of Midstream for this symposium on A Sacred Obligation and to the four scholars who have offered their responses to it in this forum.

The members of our group hope that A Sacred Obligation will help to promote, in Rabbi Rosenthal’s words, a "new appreciation of Judaism" that will "become part and parcel of Christian thinking and acting." Obviously, we do not expect all Christians to agree with everything stated in our document, but we do hope that all Christians will come to respect Judaism as a noble and vital religious tradition. The anti-Judaism that has been so much a part of traditional Christianity has had disastrous effects on both Jews and Christians. It has caused untold suffering for Jews and it has impeded the development of mature Christian faith. Our encounters with Jews and Judaism, as also our scholarly research, have convinced us that, as we say in the introduction to our document, "revitalizing our appreciation of Jewish religious life will deepen our Christian faith."

Given this assertion, the spirit of which pervades A Sacred Obligation, and given the title and content of statement number four, I am bewildered, to say the least, by Father Massie’s claim that this statement "leaves us with the impression that Judaism is merely surviving." According to Massie, "the text should have clearly stated that Judaism is alive and life-giving." But the text does state this, and it does so emphatically: "Judaism is a living faith, enriched by centuries of development," and "Christians cannot fully understand Judaism apart from its post-biblical development, which can also enrich and enhance Christian faith." While Massie misses this affirmation of living and life-giving Judaism in our text, Rabbi Signer calls it "one of the most daring formulations" of our document. "Previous generations of Christian theologians as well as modern philosophers such as Hegel have denigrated rabbinic Judaism," explains Signer, "but the authors of ‘A Sacred Obligation’ hold out the promise that it will ‘enrich and enhance Christian faith.’" Precisely, this is our hope—that a newfound appreciation of living Judaism will provide Christians with a new lease on the life of Christian faith.

Massie also complains that our document "seems to evaluate the Sinai Covenant in Christian terms." He suggests that we should not have used the term "saving covenant" in speaking about God’s covenant with the Jewish people because "the term ‘saving’ is not a Jewish term" but rather "a Christian term." Massie admits "the word salvation is not unknown in Judaism" but he says "its meaning differs from Christian usage." I am sure all the members of our group are well aware that, traditionally, Christians and Jews have emphasized different meanings of the term "salvation," and that Jews prefer to use the word "redemption" instead of "salvation" (perhaps because "salvation" is so often used by Christians as short-hand for "salvation through Christ"). When Jews speak of redemption (or salvation) they usually mean tikkun ha-olam, "the healing of the world" (see statement number ten), while Christians, in speaking of salvation, tend to have the afterlife in mind. Nevertheless, the doctrine of olam ha-ba, "the world to come," is a traditional Jewish belief, and many Christians speak, like Jews, of salvation as redemption of this world. There are, to be sure, different meanings and different emphases given to the same words used by both Jews and Christians, but the differences do not constitute the sharp contrast that Massie suggests.

Moreover, because we, the authors of A Sacred Obligation are Christians, we have a right to articulate an understanding of Judaism in Christian terms (just as the authors of Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity had the right to produce a book called Christianity in Jewish Terms (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000). We all can agree with Massie that "one of the goals of Christians involved in Christian/Jewish dialogue is to understand and appreciate Judaism as Judaism understands and appreciates itself." But does this necessarily mean, as Massie asserts, that "Christians should seek not to filter or evaluate Judaism through the lens of Christianity"? Can’t we do both: attempt to perceive Judaism as Jews do, and attempt to translate that perception of Judaism into terms understandable to Christians? Contrary to what Massie suggests, Signer acknowledges that our document "reflects the long experience of its authors of listening carefully to Jewish self-expression and a careful reading of Jewish texts." It also reflects our long experience of attempting to foster an appreciation of Judaism among Christians who were taught that Christianity replaced Judaism as the way to salvation.

It is precisely because of this traditional supersessionist teaching—that "the new covenant in Christ" replaced and abrogated "the old covenant" between God and the Jewish people as a means of salvation—that we now have an obligation as Christian theologians to assert the opposite: the Jews are in "a saving covenant with God." Jews do not have to express it this way. And had Christians not spoken of the "the old covenant" as devoid of salvific value, we would not now have to speak of the Jewish covenant as a saving one, by which we mean that the Jewish covenant enables Jews to be in a right relationship with God and that they do not, contrary to traditional Christian teaching, need to convert to Christianity in order to have such a relationship.

While Massie is disturbed by our speaking of the Jews being in "a saving covenant," Rev. Dr. Rock points out that this "makes clear, and radical, the consequences for Christian self-understanding of affirming God’s eternal covenant with the Jews." Rock shows that he understands our purpose when he writes: "What is remarkable here is that the writers not only affirm, along with a great many Christians, that God is present and at work in Jewish life, but also go beyond the usual reluctance in the Christian community to describe this presence and power as complete and sufficient for salvation. . . . This use of the language of ‘salvation’ dissolves the tension found in Nostra Aetate and most other statements, which affirm the eternal covenant and presence of God and God’s Spirit in the lives of the Jews (and people of other faiths) while seeing the fulfillment of this presence only in God’s saving activity in and through Jesus, the Christ." We of the Christian Scholars Group now acknowledge "God’s saving activity" in and through the abiding covenant between God and the Jewish people, and this leads us to admit that now "Christians need new ways of understanding the universal significance of Christ." This, I might add, must be done not by denigrating Judaism, but by defending Judaism’s universal significance as well.

Signer is therefore correct to point out that "there are serious implications for Christian theology if God is [acknowledged by Christians to be] in covenant with both Jews and Christians." A number of these implications have been explored and will continue to be explored by members of the Christian Scholars Group. Signer is right: "If Jesus lived within the broad horizons of Second Temple Judaism, then Christian theologians must develop a way of transmitting his message that is neither anti-Jewish nor a-Jewish, but pro-Jewish." We also must develop pro-Jewish ways of transmitting the Christian message about Jesus. What we are advocating in A Sacred Obligation is a pro-Jewish expression of Christian faith, one that affirms Christianity as valid because, like Judaism, rather than in place of Judaism, it fosters covenantal life with God.