Relationships and Obligations: The Future of Jewish-Christian Dialogue

Michael A. Signer

Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought and Culture

Department of Theology

University of Notre Dame

Notre Dame, IN 46556


A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People is a healing balm one year after September became the "cruelest month." The conjunction of the destruction of the World Trade Center with the Jewish High Holy Days and the zodiac sign of Libra (the scales) reflects the liturgical images that the world hangs in the balance of judgment during this season. Any document, but particularly one written by a group of Christian scholars from many denominations, that affirms healing and reconciliation by reconsidering the darker elements of their tradition is to be praised for bringing a fragment of redemption.

These have been confusing times for Jews with respect to their relations with Christians. They read statements like Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity that assert a genuine change in Christian theology about Judaism has occurred. Yet Jews also observe many statements that reiterate the calls for their conversion or that the Jewish people have no right to establish their own state. Therefore, Jews who are not immediately involved in dialogue with Christians may legitimately ask, "What represents the authentic Christian approach to Jews and the Jewish people?"

The answer is far from clear. Many Churches in the United States have made strong statements asserting a positive attitude toward Judaism and the Jewish people. Within the past decades Lutherans in Germany and the United States have repudiated the anti-Jewish elements in Martin Luther’s teaching. The Delegates of the Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops conference have just issued a joint paper with the National Council of Synagogues titled "Reflections on Covenant and Mission" that says targeting of Jews for conversion is not acceptable. Yet other Christians Churches took the Bishops committee to task affirming that to exclude Jews from proselytizing is "discrimination" and "Antisemitism." Indeed, these "evangelizing" Christians often provide the most unwavering support for the State of Israel. In addition to these contradictory messages there has been a steady drumbeat of overt anti-Semitic public statements and increasing incidents of violence against synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.

These contradictory positions about the Jewish community both base their argument on the Christian proclamation of "love." With this kind of "love" proclaimed for the Jews, how might they understand the affirmations made in the new document, "A Sacred Obligation?" Some members of the Jewish community might dismiss them as well-meaning but hardly "representative" of the majority of Christians. Those who hold this opinion harbor deep suspicion about the entire enterprise of Jewish-Christian relations. From their perspective nearly fifty years of efforts toward interfaith understanding have produced no clear results. Therefore, the movement by Jews and Christians toward interfaith understanding that is based on serious theological explorations is deeply flawed and speaks only for a minority of both communities. Position papers and theological conversations have not produced a definitive reduction in antisemitism.

There are many Jews who understand the contradictions in current Jewish-Christian relations very differently. Their argument is formulated this way: The problems of relations between the two communities have developed over two millennia, through many cultures and forms of civilization. They cannot be solved within fifty years. A new bond of trust and confidence between Jews and Christians will take time, patience, and perseverance. The 1965 document of the II Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, takes many years to become part of the daily reality of Christian life and education. Since the time of the Council it has been the efforts of many pastors, educators and theologians all over the world that has brought progress in local Churches throughout the Americas, Europe and beyond.

Acknowledging the efforts of our colleagues in Catholics and Protestant groups was at the core of the effort by four Jewish scholars and two hundred signatories in publishing Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity in September 2000. However, our primary goal was to generate a serious discussion within the Jewish community about its own theological perspectives based upon an exploration of Christianity. By emphasizing both the similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity we hoped to develop another avenue for Jews educated in western humanistic culture to develop a deeper sense of the sacred offered by the religious language of Judaism. We wanted to speak to Jewish community first, and then to the wider community of religious Christians who had worked so diligently and courageously to confront the distortions of their traditions about Judaism.

It is clear that A Sacred Obligation is a theological response to Dabru Emet and the book, Christianity in Jewish Terms (Westview Press 2000). The primary audience is the Christian community. The authors are members of the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations. Some of them have actively been writing about a renewed vision of the Jewish-Christian relationship for many years. They represent a broad spectrum of Christian denominations and the list defies simple categorizations such as "liberal" or "conservative."

In the spirit of Teshuvah the authors "acknowledge with shame the suffering that this distorted portrayal [of the Jews as unfaithful] has caused the Jewish people." Furthermore, they "repent the teaching of contempt" and claim that this repentance moves them "to build a new teaching of respect." These scholars want to replace the "teaching of contempt," a felicitous phrase that was coined by Jules Isaac, with the "teaching of respect." In other words, an authentic Christianity is based on "revitalizing our appreciation of Jewish religious life."

The ten statements of the document provide a path for developing the "teaching of respect." Each of the ten points have been part of long-standing statements made by many Christian denominations, but the Christian Scholars Group offers them in succinct formulation that could be the foundation of a new pedagogic approach. "A Sacred Obligation" places the core of the distortion of Judaism in a positive statement, "God’s covenant with the Jewish people endures forever." This statement is a direct refutation of the classical formulation that Christianity has "superseded" or "replaced" Judaism as the True Israel. Supersessionism has led Christian theologians through the centuries to view Judaism as a relic with no purpose other than to wander throughout the world until the end of time. The frightening results of supersessionism have had dire political consequences for the Jewish people. There are serious implications for Christian theology if God is in covenant with both Jews and Christians that will need considerable effort in future reflections.

The reason that these scholars consider supersessionism to be in error is contained in their second statement that "Jesus of Nazareth lived and died as a faithful Jew." This statement appears to be grounded in what the New Testament scholar John Meier has called the "Third Search for the Historical Jesus." Earlier formulations of the historical Jesus understood him to be in opposition to his Jewish background. Only those statements in which Jesus refuted his opponents and went beyond their parochial teaching could be counted as authentically by Jesus. More recent scholarship on Jesus and his background portrays him as part of the flourishing disputations within Second Temple Judaism. Careful theological reflection on the implications of this New Testament scholarship leads the statement to its next point: "ancient rivalries must not define Christian-Jewish relations today." 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.

One of the most daring formulations of A Sacred Obligation is that "Judaism is a living faith enriched by centuries of development." Previous generations of Christian theologians as well as modern philosophers such as Hegel have denigrated rabbinic Judaism as parochial or representing a legalistic point of view. There were many pre-modern Christians who had considerable knowledge of the Talmud and Midrashim but understood them as reinforcing their prejudgment that Judaism was a relic of legalism that had been superseded by the message of Jesus Christ. The creation of a more nuanced and sympathetic attitude toward post-biblical Judaism will present a serious challenge to Christian theologians, but the authors of "A Sacred Obligation" hold out the promise that it will "enrich and enhance Christian faith."

Lest the authors of "A Sacred Obligation" be accused of "judaizing" authentic Christianity or of extreme irenics and thereby diluting the core of the Christian message, they affirm that the Bible both connects and separates Jews and Christians. Many Jews and some Christians argued that Dabru Emet was far too simplistic in its formulation that "Jews and Christians take moral authority from the "same book." A closer reading of that document demonstrates that The Christian Scholars Group has made the same point as Dabru Emet. Neither group wanted to collapse the differences between the authoritative scripture of each community, but to build a solid foundation on the centrality of diverging interpretations of the Hebrew Bible.

Statements seven through nine provide a strong affirmation of the "teachings of respect," and reveal the results of long years of dialogue that the Christian Scholars Group has had with members of the Jewish community. To target Jews for conversion would be a contradiction with respect to the repudiation of supersessionism and the claim that God does not revoke promises. Each community is required to "witness" to their respective experiences of God’s saving ways. How that witness can happen appears in the document "Reflections on Covenant and Mission" issued by the National Council of Synagogues and Delegates of the Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs in August 2002. Another task that "A Sacred Obligation" imposes on Christians is the revision of the way that Jews and Judaism are presented in liturgy and lectionary (scriptural readings) because "Christian worship that teaches contempt for Judaism dishonors God." Liturgical reform and revision is an onerous task for any religious community, but many churches have already initiated the process of examining the most difficult passages in the Gospels, presenting guidelines and suggestions for those who preach and teach. In those Christian churches that do not follow a fixed order of worship or have a set order of scriptural readings, the tasks of presenting the "teachings of respect" will be more subtle. From the perspective of "A Sacred Obligation" the foundation for honoring Judaism is theological and rests upon an interpretation of Jesus Christ who lived and died a Jew, rather than sociological with an appeal to justice and the common good. This Christological formulation of the basis for Jewish-Christian relations is particularly important at a time when many Christians harbor serious doubts about the way that the Jewish people behave in the political arena.

The logical consequence of the first eight statements is "We affirm the importance of the land of Israel for the life of the Jewish people." Although several members of the Christian Scholars Group have written in support of the significance of the land of Israel for the Jewish people there is something very moving in this statement by the entire group of signatories. In the past year there have been statements by official Church bodies that indicate a trenchant critique of the State of Israel and its current government. Despite efforts to demonstrate that their opposition to actions by Israel does not reflect a negative attitude towards Judaism, there is a strong sense by Jews that the absence of any positive statement about the meaning of Israel for the Jewish life falls within the Christian failure to understand Jews as they understand themselves. A Sacred Obligation reflects the long experience of its authors of listening carefully to Jewish self-expression and a careful reading of Jewish texts. It would be interesting to know if there were members of the CSG who did not sign the document because of this statement. When we sought signatures for Dabru Emet there were those who disagreed with our statement that "Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish People on the land of Israel." However, both Dabru Emet and A Sacred Obligation call for peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians.

This strong affirmation of the Jewish connection to the land of Israel points to what I consider the only significant lacuna in the document. There is no mention of the Shoah or Holocaust. That moment of Christian silence still reverberates in the dialogue between Jews and Christians. In the rise of public anti-Semitic discourse in Europe there have been occasions when Christian symbols such as the crucifixion of Jesus have been used signify excessive Jewish cruelties in the land of Israel. In a document that has a number of authors who have been pioneers in Christian theological reflection on the Shoah and anti-Judaism it is all the more remarkable that there is no reference to that event which Jews still understand as the culmination of Christian teaching of contempt.

The final statement of A Sacred Obligation calls upon Christians to work with Jews "for the healing of the world" and resonates with Dabru Emet’s concluding exhortation for Jews and Christians to "work together for justice and peace." Both documents then demonstrate a common hope that these two communities which have been rivals for two millennia will combine their efforts to bring about the vision of the prophets in their shared biblical text. In contrast to previous generations of Christians and Jews who did indeed find ways to share efforts at peace and justice, both "A Sacred Obligation" and Dabru Emet assert that the path to these goals is built upon a serious and sustained effort of religious reflection that emphasizes both the similarities and differences in each community.

A Sacred Obligation like Dabru Emet brings new voices into the Christian-Jewish dialogue. Christians and Jews who teach and write as well as engage in the life of synagogues and churches want to share the results of their efforts with a wider public. Neither the Christian Scholars Group nor the authors and signers of Dabru Emet would claim to represent the entirety of their communities. However, both documents reflect the collective intelligence and wisdom of men and women who live in the world of ideas and spend many hours of activity in the fragmented and unredeemed world in which we all live. The challenge offered to both the Jewish and Christian communities is whether future generations will be served better by engaging one another in serious and sustained exploration of our traditions or by drawing up defensive barriers against one another. A Sacred Obligation confronts Christians to move toward what Augustine called a "civilization based on love" by continuing to move from the teaching of contempt and constructing the teaching of respect. It provokes the Jewish communities toward encouraging and joining—within the authenticity of their traditions---with those Christians who have the courage to move toward that mutual respect.