Response to Commentaries on "A Sacred Obligation"

Joseph B. Tyson

Professor emeritus of Religious Studies

Southern Methodist University, Texas

Chair, Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations


It is exceedingly gratifying to find that the dialogue anticipated by our document, A Sacred Obligation, has already begun. Words of appreciation as well as criticism by eminent scholars and religious leaders—such as Guy Massie, Jay T. Rock, Gilbert S. Rosenthal, and Michael A. Signer—are always welcome. We hope there will be more such comments.

I intend to take this opportunity to do three things: (1) to share my view on the significance of our document; (2) to explore what this document is intended to do; and (3) to address some major criticisms raised by the commentators.

(1) What is the significance of A Sacred Obligation?

Jay Rock suggests that the major significance of our document lies in its timeliness, and there is much that can be said in support of this suggestion. He and the other commentators are painfully aware that supersessionist sermons are still being preached, that Jews are being specifically targeted for conversion, and that world-wide anti-Judaism, linked with distrust and hostility toward Israel, is on the rise. I share Rosenthal’s concern that, thirty-seven years after Nostra Aetate, Christian teachings that embody ideas of supersession are still heard. The durability of these sentiments underscores the need for statements such as ours. Although Roman Catholics have officially moved far beyond the efforts of a Bishop Fulton Sheen (not to mention a Father Charles Coughlin) and many Protestants have also disavowed such extremism, we cannot yet be comfortable that anti-Judaism has finally been laid to rest. Indeed, as Signer points out, Jews have found the last few years confusing "with respect to their relations with Christians."

While the timeliness of our document adds to its significance, it does not exhaust it. Curiously, Rock finds the document unexciting and consisting of "a handy restatement of the content of many documents." On the one hand, Rock assures us that we are in good company and in basic agreement with scores of similar statements made over the past half-century by denominational bodies and councils of churches. On the other hand, he suggests that ours is little more than a restatement. I have a deep respect for the pioneers who led the way in writing the statements Rock mentions. Their importance cannot be too highly stressed. It should not be forgotten, however, that "A Sacred Obligation" is the product not only of religious concern but also of scholarly research. It is a document that attempts to work out a consistent theology based on sound biblical and historical scholarship. Moreover, it is a document that was hammered out over an extended period of time by Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars of diverse traditions. As Signer points out, "A Sacred Obligation like Dabru Emet brings new voices into the Christian-Jewish dialogue."

(2) What is A Sacred Obligation intended to do?

Massie accurately points out that our document is lacking in specificity and detail, especially failing to include instruction on how to bring about the goals that we envision. Already, members of our group are considering the preparation of a study guide that will be intended to fill this need. We did not intend our document to provide specific and detailed "how to" instruction, but rather to contribute to an ongoing dialogue, in much the way that Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity has done. Indeed, we wanted to show that, as the authors of this landmark Jewish document claimed, Christians have changed in their attitudes toward Jews. We do not expect to have the final word, but we hope to encourage a great deal of scholarly and religious exploration, especially in the areas of biblical interpretation, theological reflection, and liturgical reformulation.

Massie is also concerned that we were ambiguous in defining our audience. He points out that we should direct our attention to the church leaders in the various denominations, and we certainly mean to include them. But we are aware that not every change begins at the top. In this respect we followed the lead of the authors of Dabru Emet, who addressed the widest possible audience by way of a full page ad in a Sunday edition of The New York Times. We believe our document is so important that we do not want to exclude anyone who might read it and take it seriously.

(3) Major criticisms

In my judgment, the most serious criticism that Massie makes is that we understand Judaism through a Christian lens. He is quite right to maintain that we should attempt to understand Jews on their own terms, as he is right to insist that we approach the Hebrew Bible as having value in and of itself. I believe that all members of the Christian Scholars Group would agree with these comments. It should, however, be kept in mind that A Sacred Obligation is addressed to Christians and is intended to speak about Judaism in terms that Christians are expected to understand. I agree that "saving covenant" is not a term that many Jews would deem to be an appropriate designation of Torah. In the context of our statement six, however, it is a way of saying to our fellow Christians that, in their covenant, Jews have a relationship with the divine that is valid and analogous to what Christians mean by "salvation." This is an exercise in the use of analogous terms to promote understanding, not an attempt to impose Christian theological concepts on Jews.

Signer calls attention to a significant and regrettable omission in our document, namely that there is no mention of the Shoah. I can assure him that awareness of the Holocaust was never far from our minds as we deliberated this document. While there is no explicit mention of it in the text, we know the Holocaust to be the "culmination of Christian teaching of contempt." Indeed, reflection on the Shoah makes the task of "Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People" a "central and indispensable obligation of theology in our time." Although we would not equate Christian anti-Judaism with Nazi antisemitism, we know that there was an intimate relationship. Professor Signer’s comments give me the opportunity to make it clear that it is the Shoah that we have primarily in mind when we say, "We acknowledge with shame the suffering this distorted portrayal has brought upon the Jewish people. We repent this teaching of contempt." I would add that we repent the silence of so many Christians who, in 1933-45, saw their Jewish brothers and sisters being persecuted and taken away to face certain death.

Behind A Sacred Obligation is a group of scholars who have no authority except that provided by their conscientious scholarship. Although composed of Protestants from several denominations and Roman Catholics, the group represents no ecclesiastical body. We wish to share our convictions with fellow Christians, not to tell them what to believe, but to call attention to very important ideas that we hope will be discussed widely and considered carefully. We wish our document to be what Signer calls "a healing balm," and we hope that it will contribute to what Rosenthal calls "a new day in Christian-Jewish understanding."