Joanne Chafe

Canadian National Office of Religious Education


This article is about reconceptualizing the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The turning point in my own rethinking occurred as a result of a brief informal conversation at one of the early sessions of the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium. Having reflected on the relationship between the First and Second Testaments in the sessions, I mentioned to a Jewish participant that I also read "her" scriptures weekly. Thinking that this would be a positive contribution I was taken aback at her gentle rebuke, "But how do you interpret them?" Following that providential encounter I began to listen, hear, read and relate differently, now aware that there was a question which I had not considered before.

As a result of the Colloquium’s subsequent sessions, I have radically rethought my own understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. When I was invited to write an article on this theme, I wondered if others had had similar experiences. Remembering how much I had learned from the dialogue, especially the informal conversations, I decided to approach the article as a series of reflections on how participants in the Colloquium had reconceptualized the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

What follows is a summary and interpretation of the kind of rethinking participants are engaged in, based on interviews with the majority of them. The reflections are organized according to (1) how participants saw the relationship between Judaism and Christianity before and after the Colloquium sessions; (2) the factors that influenced changes in their thinking; (3) the rationale for their changed understanding; (4) the elements involved in a reconceptualization; and (5) the personal impact of the change in perception. The interviews attest to the transformational learning participants experienced.

What was your concept of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity as you began the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium?

Family life, religious formation and formal study had shaped how participants conceived the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Most, however, lacked significant background in scholarship that would have provided them with the opportunity for rethinking the relationship.

Prior to the Colloquium, participants tended to view Judaism and Christianity through one of two lenses. One group viewed the two traditions of faith from the point of view of their differences. For example, one participant said, "I thought there were some areas of similarity, but that our differences were most important." Another reported, "I thought that Judaism and Christianity were very different and had very little in common." One participant described the difference in the following manner: "One is to the other as apples are to oranges. . . the relationship has no relevance." Yet another said, "For me, Jews and Christians had little connection." Others described it this way: "I was Jewish, they were the ‘other.’" "I had done a lot of reading in early Christianity particularly around Paul and how the early Christian followers set up a new religion, a different religion."

A second group understood Judaism and Christianity as more intimately connected historically, seeing one as the foundation or the extension of the other. A participant remarked, "I saw Christianity as an extension of Judaism — of course, as a ‘correct’ extension. I appreciated the Jewish roots of Christianity, especially the Hebrew Scriptures. However, I had the idea that Judaism lacked completeness, that the Jews were still searching." Similarly, another said, "I viewed Judaism as the roots of Catholicism. It was the religious root that we could trace ourselves to. It was our history. We could look back, but Christianity was the fulfillment of Judaism." A third voice echoes: "I came with years of ‘frozen images.’ I had a sense that early Judaism was frozen in legalism and that Jesus came to change this. . . my impression was that Jesus came to emphasize a change away from the letter of the law to the spirit of the law."

Those who had had the benefit of advanced study in this area prior to the Colloquium used a third set of analogies. They saw the two traditions as partners in faith. Nor did they see Judaism simply as a precursor to Christianity. Yet they were concerned about "not knowing the full implications of this."

In sum, Jewish and Catholic participants saw the relationship between Judaism and Christianity quite differently. The Jews typically stressed their distinction from Christianity, whereas the Catholics viewed Judaism as a root or foundation of their tradition, and their own as an extension or fulfillment of Judaism.

Q. In what ways has your concept of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity changed (or not changed) as a result of the Colloquium? What factors contributed to this?

The overwhelming majority of participants expressed a change in their understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Jews who had emphasized ‘difference’ as the predominant motif now expressed an awareness of a closer relationship, a more intimate connection. One participant wrote, "Although I am aware of the differences between Judaism and Christianity, I believe the two religions are intricately connected." Another used a metaphor of family life: ". . . I previously saw the relationship as one of a mother to daughter or a parent to child, rather than children of the same parent. My concept is now that they grew up together [as] two siblings of the same parent." The family image surfaced in another’s declaration: "I see the relationship differently now. There has been an extraordinary shift in my self-consciousness. The concept is now a very relational one. . . ." Another Jewish participant voiced a similar view: "The dichotomy is not as great for me now as it was before. I’ve had a period of enlightenment and would express it this way: out of the same root we branched in different directions."

While their appreciation of the Jewish tradition as integral to Catholicism became more profound during the Colloquium, Catholic participants altered their perception of Judaism as the mere root or foundation of Christianity. They also moved beyond seeing Christianity as an extension of Judaism. Catholics came to appreciate Judaism as a distinct tradition to be valued in and of itself. The following comments are indicative:

One Jewish participant summarized the shift in a way that reflected all participants’ experience: "My concept of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity has changed a lot . . . . I have come to see it not just from a historical perspective . . . but rather from the perspective of what we can do better together now. For example, what is there in Judaism that helps us to understand God better? And what is it in Christianity that helps us to understand God better?"

Q. What factors facilitated the shift in consciousness?

Participants universally credited the process of the Colloquium itself as the major factor facilitating their shift in consciousness. They identified a number of key elements in their transformation. The personal relationships that formed through the structured discussions were of major importance, as were the informal conversations that took place as interpersonal relationships developed. The background readings (particularly those revisiting history) were an invaluable source of learning. Also critical was the necessity of setting aside time for the Colloquium, as well as finding time for reflection and integration that the space between sessions provided.

The importance of forming relationships can scarcely be emphasized enough as a key element in the shift in understanding. Participants reported that "the personal interactions were very powerful." They highlighted the significance of "the conversations after the conversation," and the "openness" they found in the other. The "face-to-face encounter made all the difference." A Jewish participant responded that "the most significant part of the Colloquium for me were the relationships that developed throughout the Colloquium. These relationships enabled me to see through the eyes of deeply committed Christians. They provided a glimpse through the eyes of Christians who really know and feel, and enabled me to share in a part of that."

The learning opportunities created in the Colloquium sessions, complemented by the background readings and the preparation also contributed to the shift in consciousness. "Evocative questions that led to the rich discussion — that is, the questioning that led to the dialogue" – were also key. As one participant summarized it,

The most emotional experiential activity for me was the Scripture study in the first Colloquium, where we were asked to comment on the relationship between the two Testaments. Learning that Christians and Jews looked at this relationship in radically different ways was an eye-opener to me. The other session which was core to me was the session on the first century. Revisiting the turmoil, revisiting the history out of which came Christianity and contemporary Judaism, was a turning point for me, a time of understanding based on the insights of discussing scripture and revisiting history.

Q. Why might it be necessary to reconceptualize the relationship between Judaism and Christianity?

Respondents identified five pivotal reasons for the necessity of reconceptualizing the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

First, such a rethinking results in the realization that the two traditions are tied to each other in many ways, thereby facilitating intergroup communication and understanding. A deeper comprehension of the relationship provides both a starting point for community building and the fertile ground for strengthening community.

Second, the mutual respect and sense of connection flowing from a more adequate understanding of the other does much to eradicate prejudice in the world. As one participant put it, "I have a great commitment to the advancement of peace on this planet. It is my belief that most conflict of whatever level — family, national, international — arises out of fear, and fear comes from ignorance. It is easy to hate someone or something about which you know nothing." Another remarked that it is necessary to reconceptualize the relationship "out of fairness to a whole group of people. It is not fair to say they (the Jews) do not have an existence now. It is a question of justice and integrity . . .they have a different identity."

Third, this new understanding not only gives us hope and encouragement for our world, but also provides the basis for common action to transform the world:

There is a lot of building to be done in the world. There are so many opportunities to work together, taking a positive stance, lessening the negatives. Our goals are very similar in many ways. Roman Catholics and those in Reform Judaism, with its emphasis on social responsibility arising from an interest in prophetic Judaism, could work collaboratively in many ways for a vision of a more just and equitable society.

Fourth, participants generally agreed that although there is little recognition among Jews and Christians about the need to reconceptualize their relationship, it is, nevertheless, crucial to attempt such a task. "It is important to reconceptualize the relationship so that in our teaching antisemitism is not aroused." Rethinking the relationship fosters more authentic education, that is, education which is more integrated, holistic, unbiased and open, in which we are able to "reconsider what we teach about ourselves and about the other." At the same time, it opens up the possibility for the great personal satisfaction of learning. "In religious education circles we experience a void in terms of religious thinking, [but] people are looking for opportunities for collaboration and for shared learning." For one participant this opportunity to deepen their knowledge was, in and of itself, a "good reason for Jews and Christians to deepen their relationships."

Finally, a fifth reason given by participants puts an unusual spin on the subject: the process of reconceptualizing enabled participants to know their own tradition in a more intimate and authentic way.

For Jews, we need to see our majority host culture and our partners in God’s call in ways that enable us to continue to speak to Jews where they are. If we can’t reconceptualize our history and identity as other than victim, we will not be able to confront our own evil and our current power, nor will we be able to inspire positive senses of what being Jewish means.

A Catholic also highlighted how a new perspective on the relationship enabled her

[T]o know my own tradition in more intimate ways. For example, through Judaism I have begun to know Jesus and Mary more intimately as real people of real faith . . . . Through committed Jews sharing their experiences, I have been able to have a spiritual sense of ‘faith embodied’ in a more tangible way than before, therefore I know Jesus and Mary better. I have come into touch with the enfleshed life of Mary (and with the women) and Jesus. I now know them. . . like members of my family. I knew Jesus and Mary before, but now I have met their family and friends, and I see ‘stuff’ I’d never seen before.

This individual’s reflections indicate that we are richer for the experience, and have a deeper faith commitment to our own community because of the experience of explaining who we are to someone who is not of our tradition of faith. By so doing, we deepen our commitment to, and understanding of, our own tradition.

Q. What’s involved in doing so? What are the elements of the reconceptualization?

In order for us to reformulate the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, it is first and foremost essential to set aside the time and space indicative of our desire for, and commitment to, a deeper relationship with each other. This time and space are primarily for the purpose of building personal relationships with each other. "Individual relationships, the coming closer, the becoming friends, are very important elements in facilitating the reconceptualization of the relationship." The primary process which enables these relationships to grow is engaging in dialogue. Dialogue requires openness on the part of each person to the uniqueness of the other’s tradition, as well as an understanding of, and respect for, the distinctiveness of one’s own. In sharing the stories of one another’s tradition, for example, in our rituals and family celebrations, we build understanding, empathy, and appreciation for each other.

Another factor conducive to dialogue is an environment of trust and mutual respect. One participant spoke about the Colloquium as providing a safe place that provided "a human transformative experience." She felt that the "trust and acceptance level, and the fact that there were equal numbers of Catholics and Jews, enabled the reconceptualization to happen."

Knowledgeable facilitators with a gift for enabling dialogue are essential to the process. Effective educational leadership is requisite if Jews and Christians are to engage in, as one participant put it, "joint study." Well-planned educational programs stimulate and nurture the difficult process of coming to a new understanding of the bond between the two traditions.

Most participants felt that a study of history was essential. History offered "a common ground that you can move on. Also entering through history is not as threatening, it’s more objective, therefore you are freer to explore." As another said,

We needed access to information about how the relationship developed and was conceptualized through the centuries, and we needed to study these processes in order to become aware of what the issues and tensions were. In this we began to see ourselves anew, and through questioning and sharing could begin to let go of, for example, "being a victim" or our "superiority complexes." Through human interaction with Catholics I discovered that they did not look at me as "victim," and in generously sharing the story of our two traditions we began to see that there was a respect for each other’s tradition. In this we began to reconceptualize the relationship in different ways. . . . [thus] the learning and the human interactions provided the environment for the reconceptualization to take place.

This exposure to history provided new information and new ways of looking at reality that led us to question old self-understandings. We began to let go of preconceived notions about ourselves and others. At the same time, we developed a new respect for the profound aspects of our own traditions. As one participant put it, "What’s involved in conceptualizing the relationship between Catholicism and Judaism? You need to rearrange everything in your head and in your heart. . . . You need to realize that the relationship between Jews and Catholics was a God-awful mess in the past. There is a shame about our history, and this shame gives us the hope that it can be different." Education that focuses on our intellect and our emotions, that appeals to our head and to our heart, enables us to reconsider and reevaluate carefully our past so that our future can be quite different. One participant summed it up this way: "Education is the key to everything."

Q. What is the personal impact of this for you?

Most participants readily agreed that reconceptualizing the relationship between Judaism and Christianity had a significant personal impact on them, most profoundly on their spirituality and on their attitudes toward the other tradition. Here is a sampling of participant responses:

In addition to nurturing their own faith and spirituality and identifying changes in attitude, participants highlighted three additional effects of the Colloquium: a motivation to action, broader relationships, and intellectual growth. One participant reported that the Colloquium "has greatly increased my commitment to teaching about the Holocaust. Because of my greater awareness, I am increasingly vigilant about antisemitism." Another responded: "I live in a Jewish world almost completely. I feel so isolated. I don’t feel it’s healthy. Having an understanding will help me reach out more." Others spoke about the ability to engage in valuable dialogue with new Catholic friends. "Through asking different questions of the other, I have gained a religious insight from them, and yet kept my own."


As a result of the Colloquium, participants unanimously agreed to the importance of reconceptualizing the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The reason for this, I believe, is embedded in "Conviction #1," in the essay by Boys and Lee. The key in the educational process is commitment to "study in the presence of the other," characterized by "dialogue for which there was preparation and support."

The transformation in understanding that the participants experienced was important because it led to deepened respect for one another and fostered the possibility of collaborative work toward a more humane world for all. Participants also experienced, as Boys and Lee hypothesized, that this care for the other somehow simultaneously evoked a deepened appreciation for their own tradition.

On the basis of my interviews, I believe that Jewish and Catholic participants began to think like each other with respect to the way they articulated the relationship between the two traditions. Jews who had previously stressed difference now began to talk of connection. Roman Catholics who had stressed links now spoke of the distinctiveness of Judaism. One almost became a mirror image of the other’s original viewpoint.

Participants hope that the development of this type of understanding and empathy will be replicated in other settings beyond the Colloquium. As religious educators who have undergone a profound transformation through reconceptualizing the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, they are committed to creating educational settings in which others, too, might experience such a transformation.

Joanne Chafe works in adult religious education at the national level in Canada. She is the chairperson of the International Forum on Adult Religious Education in the Roman Catholic Church, and a Past President of the Religious Education Association of the United States and Canada.