International Council of Christians and Jews

Jews and Christians in Search of a Common Religious Basis for Contributing Towards a Better World

1 March, 1993


The following document has been produced by the Theology Committee of the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ). It contains both separate Jewish perspectives and Christian perspectives concerning mutual communication and cooperation as well as a joint view of a common religious basis for Jews and Christians to work together for a better world.

This committee was established to assist those who work in the framework of ICCJ and its affiliated organisations furthering Jewish-Christian dialogue and cooperation to reflect on basic principles that underlie our engagement in this work.

These considerations are not "the" official theological, philosophical nor ideological underpinnings of the ICCJ and its member organisations, but are an invitation to consider what our work is all about. They have no authority other than their intrinsic world. An earlier draft of these considerations was submitted to representatives of the ICCJ member organisations who participated in a theological consultation organized by the ICCJ in Eisenach, on the territory of the former German Democratic Republic, from 12-15 July 1992, and had been changed in the light of discussions at that consultation. The member organisations were subsequently invited to offer their comments. Many of them responded directly to our invitation or requested theological experts in their country to examine our considerations. In preparing the final text of this statement we carefully weighed the responses we had received. But what does "final" mean in this context? Obviously, the discussion about the issues examined will continue. We only hope that our statement may be helpful to all who are engaged in our work and may inspire them to persevere with even greater strength and courage in their efforts. We would welcome further suggestions and comments, as we go on with our work as Theology Committee of the ICCJ.

A Traumatic Past

In our time, Christians and Jews are increasingly involved in a process of encounter, dialogue and cooperation. They come to it from different experiences and perspectives. This process intensified and accelerated in the wake of the Shoah, the almost entire destruction of European Jewry.

Christians have begun to realize that the Shoah which took place in a culture deeply influenced by Christianity, was not an accident of history but, to a large extent, rose out of and was fostered by age-old anti-Jewish perceptions and attitudes. For the sake of its moral and religious integrity and out of responsibility for the Jews and the world at large, Christianity has to be purged of these. In fact, Christians have become aware that Christianity alienated from its Jewish roots, is deprived of a fundamental dimension of its identity. Convinced that it is not possible for Christians to embark on a process of reappraisal and reconstruction without gaining deeper understanding of Jewish religion, culture and history, they have sought encounter and dialogue with Jews. Jews have entered this process with the realisation that such encounter and dialogue can help counteract prejudice, discrimination and persecution, as well as with the desire to respond positively to efforts made by those Christians who sought to create a climate of mutual respect and co-operation.

Because the relationship between Jews and Christians has been burdened by tragic conflict, trauma and guilt, there are Jews and Christians who are unable or unwilling to enter into any real dialogue. Nevertheless a considerable number of both Christians and Jews have persisted and reached a level of understanding and trust that has enabled them to address and, to some extent, redress past distortions and look beyond the past in order to exercise a joint responsibility for the world of today and tomorrow.

Towards a Better World

Jewish-Christian dialogue may have a number of objectives but its ultimate aim is to contribute towards a better world ­ a world in which the will of God is done; a world of justice and peace. We in the ICCJ are profoundly aware that Europe, where so much friction and tragedy has marked the relations between Jews and Christians, serves as a warning example. We believe that, as Jews and Christians, we together have a contribution to make to the new Europe which is faced with the challenge of rebuilding its moral and spiritual structure in a situation of disorientation brought about by the breakdown of communist systems and by the acute crisis of values in the West. Recent manifestations of intolerance, xenophobia, extreme nationalism and antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere have reminded us how fragile civilisation is even today.

We are also disquieted by those who seek to counter such negative tendencies by calling for a restoration of a "Christian Europe". In response to the latter we must emphasize that European culture cannot and should not be reduced to its Christian component. Many other factors, among them Jewish religion and culture, have played a major role in the development of European civilization, a fact that must not be denied.

This document was first presented at our consultation in 1992, five hundred years after the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from Spain and the beginning of the "Christianisation" of Latin America which included the oppression of indigenous peoples.

Acknowledgement of this past abuse of religion must also serve as a warning example. Responsibility for the building of a better world devolves upon all. lt may be accomplished only through discussion at all levels. Moreover it must be pursued without threat either to the traditions or to the systems of beliefs and values of those who participate. Yet all are called to search their own traditions in order to give adequate responses to the challenging problems of the modern world, while at the same time recognizing and respecting insights which come from other faith traditions and value systems. 

Within this multifaceted and multilateral conversation there is room and need for a variety of bilateral dialogues. One of them is the Christian-Jewish dialogue. For many centuries this had hardly been possible but now, looking beyond past tragic divisions, Christians and Jews ­ each from their particular perspectives ­ may find the bases in their own traditions for engaging in religious communication and cooperation. In so doing they also acknowledge a common religious foundation from which they may make a joint religious contribution to the wide-ranging discussion among all who seek for values by which Europe and the world as a whole may be guided and directed. 

It has to be noted that in the relationship between Judaism and Christianity there is an obvious asymmetry, which of course does not imply inequality. This finds expression in the differing perspectives from which Jews and Christians consider communication and co-operation with each other. Whereas Christianity recognizes that its roots are primarily within Judaism, there is obviously no such relationship on the part of Judaism to Christianity. While recognizing this fact we affirm a common agenda taking into account the needs of each one. 

Jewish Religious Perspectives Concerning Communication and Cooperation with Christians

Attitudes in Judaism towards Non-Jews and Christians

1. According to God's covenant concluded with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and ratified at Sinai, Israel is called to sanctify God's name in the whole world by testifying to the Divine Presence through its very existence as a particular people and by serving as a light to the nations. The Jewish people is called to be a blessing for all peoples with the goal that all men and women will live in accordance with the Divine Will, not by converting to Judaism, but within the context of their particular historical and cultural identity.

2. All humankind is encompassed in God's covenant with Noah and commanded to live according to seven commandments which are seen to be the quintessence of universal morality: the prohibitions of murder, idolatry, theft, incest, blasphemy, cruelty to animals, and the injunction to establish courts of justice. Those who live according to this covenant are called "the righteous from among the nations who have a portion in the World to Come".

3. Rabbinical attitudes to Christianity have varied considerably, from a perception of it as idolatrous or at least as "flawed monotheism", to a view of it as a means to help humanity to come closer to universal redemption (Maimonides); to seeing Christians as "people bound by the ways of religion" (Rabbi Menahem Ha-Meiri) and as those who believe in the Creation and the Exodus and in the main principles of religion whose whole intent is to serve the Maker of Heaven and Earth" (Rabbi Moshe Rivkes/the Be'er Ha-Golah).

There is in this latter understanding of Christianity, the implicit acknowledgement of a special relationship between it and Judaism. This is expressed not only in terms of a religio-ethical partnership, but is also based on the common religious patrimony of the Hebrew Scriptures. 

Bases for Jews to enter into relationship with Christians

1. the need to take a common stand against ignorance, prejudice, bigotry and their violent manifestations on the basis of the affirmation ­ shared with Christians and other people of faith ­ of the Divine Presence in our world;

2. the existence of a common agenda indicated by those tenets and values (e.g. the belief in God as Creator, the commitment to the Noachide commandments, the Ten Commandments, as well as the expectation of God's rule over the whole earth) which Jews and Christians hold in common due to their shared biblical and historical roots;

3. the sanctification of God's name in cooperation with all people who live in accordance with God's ways; and the possibility of partnership with Christians in sanctifying God's Name before society at large.

4. the opportunity to know and love God more deeply by seeking God in every place, especially where the knowledge of God is experienced in the lives and spirituality of people of other faiths. In religious encounters with the righteous from among the nations, Jews are exposed to other perspectives of the Omnipresent that are not encapsulated totally in one Tradition; thus they gain a deeper experience of the Divine.

Christian Religious Perspectives Concerning Communication and Cooperation with Jews

Overcoming obstacles stemming from shared roots

Since Christianity is rooted in Judaism, many of the images, symbols, ideas and much of the vocabulary of both religions are derived from a common source. Paradoxically this common religious basis is in fact the greatest stumbling block for communication and cooperation since Christianity, insofar as it has adopted a supersessionist attitude towards Judaism, has seen itself as the sole and true heir and exponent of this religious basis, regarding the Jewish interpretation of it as antiquated, misguided and characterized by obstinate rejection of the truth. It is that which Christianity has in common with Judaism that has traditionally militated against respecting the Jewish interpretation of those common roots. Major theological obstacles for acknowledging a common religious basis for communication and cooperation with Jews are the following:

1. the teaching that the Torah has been replaced by Jesus Christ as God's ultimate revelation; 

2. the proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah promised to Israel;

3. the denigration of the national character of God's Covenant with Israel by considering the latter replaced by a divine covenant with all who "are in Christ";

4. the rejection of the Land promised to Israel as a meaningful theological category for the Jewish people.

Current Christian theological thinking that seeks to deal with these obstacles clarifies that:

1. The Torah, as the expression of the covenant of Sinai, remains valid for Jews as a gift to them that was never revoked. (Romans 9:4; 11:29). Nor has the Torah been abolished for Christians, but remains part of God's revelation, albeit with a new interpretation through the person of Christ. (Matthew 5:17, John 10:35). The two main commandments Jesus described as the greatest (Mark 12:28-31) are commandments of the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18), and the Ten Commandments given to the people of Israel at Sinai (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 6) are central to Christian ethics.

2. One of the main aspects of the promise of Messiah to Israel includes ­ also in the New Testament ­ the deliverance of Israel from foreign oppression. Such deliverance, however, did not take place through Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, designating him as the "Messiah promised to Israel" would not be an adequate description of his person. In the course of Christian tradition, the Church has enriched the name "Christ" (derived from the Greek rendering of "Messiah") which the early Christian community had given to its Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, with many associations and attributes to describe the fullness of his being. These express mysteries of the Christian faith (such as contained in the concepts of the Incarnation and the Trinity) which do not find adequate expression in the word "Messiah". Accordingly, Christians should be circumspect in their use of this term as it is not an appropriate one to describe the person of Jesus Christ, although it does strongly point to the Jewish roots of Christianity. 

3. God's covenant with Israel as a people has not been abrogated with the coming of Christ. The Church as the body of Christ is not the successor or heir of God's covenant with Israel, but is a new way for men and women to enter into communion with the God of Israel alongside the people of Israel. Accordingly proselytisation of Jews, often referred to as missionary activity among Jews, is theologically untenable. The coming of Christ did not change the Torah's purpose of giving shape to the life of Israel as a particular people with a particular vocation.

4. There is an intrinsic relationship between the Jewish People and the Land of Israel, which is linked to God's covenant with them, a reality which is often not well understood by Christians. They should strive to understand this link as well as the strong attachment of the great majority of Jews to the Land of Israel and therefore to the State of Israel. 

It is not incumbent upon Christians to observe the whole way of life of the Torah because the Christian Church is distinct from the Jewish people. What they can and should do as disciples of Jesus Christ who was faithful to the Torah ­ the expression of God's will ­ and added to its interpretation, is to derive inspiration from its values and paradigms shaping the many different elements of their national, social, economic, cultural and political life in the light of Torah.

For example, a nation or an oppressed group may see its own liberation struggle in the light of the Exodus of Israel. Also one may take the biblical commandments to Israel about the use of its Land (e.g. injunctions about the sabbatical year which claim the ultimate divine ownership of land, the release of slaves and the cancellation of debts) as paradigms for one's own attitude towards land and people. Or one may use the commandments concerning the rights and dignity of non-Jews who live among the people of Israel, as orientation for the way foreigners are to be treated in one's own society. But in doing so one must be aware that such application of biblical commandments can only be made in a paradigmatic or analogous sense, without exhausting, changing or superseding their original meaning and context as commandments given to the people of Israel.

The Common Religious Basis of Judaism and Christianity

Based upon shared scriptural patrimony out of which common beliefs and values emerge, Jews and Christians share:

a particular view of humanity, the world and God, including:

a particular ethos or set of values deriving from this view of God, the world and humanity, including:

a rich literature ­ the Hebrew Scriptures ­ comprising narratives, poetry, hymns, prophetic literature, wisdom teaching and historiography, which reflect the understanding of God, humanity and the world as well as the ethos and values set out above. These have great spiritual, moral, social and cultural significance for the present.

Of particular importance is the message contained in the Sabbath which teaches that human life should alternate between the holy and the profane; between activity and passivity; between dominance and dependence; between creativity and being creature amongst other creatures. Christianity has applied some elements of the Sabbath to its celebration of the Sunday, but the full implications of this aspect of Torah teaching for human life in society and for the relation between humanity and the non-human world are seldom realized.

Limits of Pluralism

Because the expression of the human encounter with the Divine is limited by its very nature, there is always need for reflection and scrutiny, for purification and renewal. In short, there is need for theological humility of which religious self-criticism is an essential part.

It is inappropriate and offensive for outsiders to a particular religious community to pass judgment on what is true religion within it and what is false. Outsiders to the religious symbolic language by which a community expresses its encounter with the Divine do not have adequate access to the inner sanctuaries of that religion. The right of self-definition rests within that community's own membership.

Notwithstanding, we contend that the limits of pluralism for Christians and Jews have been reached when:  

1. the consequences of beliefs threaten the well-being of human beings and their societies;

2. beliefs bring about injustice, oppression, persecution or murder;

3. beliefs do not respect the dignity and integrity of each human being created in the image of God;

4. beliefs do not respect the dignity and integrity of Creation. 

In contributing to the building of a better world, Jews and Christians together should draw the practical consequences from those teachings of the Torah which are their common basis. They ought at the same time to be open to the insights and experiences which other religious traditions and communities have to offer out of their encounter with the Divine.

Jews and Christians and Pluralism

From their common basis, Jews and Christians make their contribution to the discussion on the future moral and spiritual shape of our world. Essential in this context is theological humility.

Members of each religious community should concede that God may have other ways to relate to human persons and communities, than those in which God has been revealed to their own community. They should be aware that there are valid expressions of the encounter with the Divine other than their own. When encounter with the Divine takes place in another religious community, there too, men and women tread on holy ground.

Martin Buber House, Heppenheim, Germany, 1 March 1993.