A Sacred Obligation That Engenders New Hope

Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal

Executive Director of the National Council of Synagogues


Just when our hearts sink and our spirits flag over the atrocious rise of religious radicalism, much of it tinged with a new antisemitism, a document is issued engendering hope. A Sacred Obligation is the document to which I refer. Since it is the fruit of the labor of both Catholic and Protestant scholars and theologians, it takes on a more ecumenical hue that is also cause for rejoicing. The introduction to this statement pulls no punches. It opens by reminding the Christian world that, for 2000 years, Christians have erroneously portrayed Jews as unfaithful, holding them collectively responsible for the death of Jesus and, therefore, cursed by God. The document's authors reject this as historically false and theologically invalid, and they repent of this teaching of contempt. But they go further: they insist that their repentance requires them to build a new teaching of respect; that this is not just a matter of justice for Jews but also for the integrity of the Christian faith. Because there is a unique bond between the two faiths, the scholars welcome efforts at dialogue, such as the recent Dabru Emet signed by Jewish scholars and rabbis who have urged a rethinking by Jews of their relationship to Christianity, and they view such a process as a "sacred obligation."

Much of the document challenges the Christian teaching of "supersessionism"--the notion that the teachings of Jesus and Christianity superseded those of Judaism; that the "Old Testament" has been replaced by the "New Testament"; that the Church is the New Israel that has displaced the chosen people. The authors "renounce this claim," affirming that God "is in covenant with both Jews and Christians." Contrary to what many insisted over the centuries, Jesus was not an opponent of Judaism, for he lived and died a faithful Jew. Recognizing that the land of Israel "has always been central to the Jewish people," the text recalls that the doctrine of supersessionism taught that the Jews condemned themselves to homelessness by rejecting Jesus as the messiah. This view must be discarded, insist the authors.

I wonder why supersessionism is still an issue in Christian circles 37 years after Nostra Aetate? Perhaps it is because Nostra Aetate itself did not discard it. Indeed, that historic pronouncement, which was crafted at Ecumenical Council Vatican II, noted: "It is true that the church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed...." At any event, Nostra Aetate, revolutionary as it was, served merely as the foundation of a new era in Christian-Jewish relations; Catholics and Protestants were challenged in it to rebuild those relations based on an entirely new understanding of what Jews and Judaism are all about, and a series of important papers, documents, and pronouncements has followed in both Catholic and Protestant circles. That they have not yet fulfilled the challenge makes it all the more urgent for Christian teachers, preachers, and theologians to incorporate the thinking of this new document as it reformulates the Christian-Jewish relationship. Most important, they must inculcate priests and ministers and theological students with this new appreciation of Judaism, if the sins of the past are to be expunged once and for all.

On the basis of this rejection of the philosophy of supersession, the authors renounce any efforts of Christians to "target Jews for conversion." Indeed, it is heartening to note that Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's secretary for Jewish affairs, has stated publicly on several occasions that the Roman Catholic Church does not maintain a department for the conversion of Jews. Now this represents a 360 degree turn from the days when all means, fair and foul, were invoked in order to gain a Jewish soul. Many of us are old enough to remember when Bishop Fulton J. Sheen was busily adding Jewish (and Protestant) converts to his quiver like so many arrows. But this has all changed now, and we might hope that certain Protestant denominations -- notably Southern Baptists --will take a hint.

In evaluating the crisis of the year 70 CE and the destruction of the Temple, the authors of the document note that competing groups sought leadership by claiming that "they were the true heirs of Biblical Israel." The gospels reflect that rivalry and are suffused with harsh attacks on Jewish "hypocrisy and legalism." Such vituperations "misrepresent Judaism and constitute an unworthy foundation for Christian self-understanding." They have also polluted relations and made of Judaism a "fossil of Syriac civilization," to quote Arnold Toynbee. But this "fossil" has proved remarkably creative and vibrant, as the document notes. It has blossomed into so many varieties: aggadah and halacha; cabbala and rationalism; philosophy and theology. But how does one deal with Matthew 23 and 27, to take just two examples? A believing Christian can't just expunge sections from a book deemed sacred, any more than a believing Jew would delete less edifying passages from the Torah or Prophets. The answer is: selective winnowing of the material used in the liturgy or lectionary or homilies. I know of no rabbi who would preach on texts describing Israel's bloody conquest of Canaan. Similarly, Christian preachers must simply ignore and downplay New Testament passages that demean Judaism and purge them from their liturgies, a process called for on several occasions by Father John Pawlikowski.

The summons to Christians and Jews to work together for tikkun ha-olam, healing and mending a sick world, resonates, especially these days. We have worked together on issues such as civil rights and the rights of workers for almost a century, note the authors; as violence and terrorism intensify in our time, "we must strengthen our common efforts in the work of justice and peace." Who can reject such a call?

Nostra Aetate had urged us to "encourage and further mutual understanding and appreciation" by way of Biblical and theological inquiry and friendly discussions. This is the true meaning of dialogue: conversation, not conversion; consultation, not confrontation. It is disturbing that, 37 years later, Christian theologians feel compelled to urge a rethinking of old theological norms and the purification of Christian texts and teachings. Clearly, the message has not gotten through to enough priests and educators and parishes indicating the need for renewed and reinvigorated efforts. A Sacred Obligation must be studied by every theological student, priest, and minister. It must become part and parcel of Christian thinking and acting. Above all, it must be spread to the grass roots- and not just in America -- so that the people will know and appreciate that a new era has been born, a new day in Christian-Jewish understanding.