Rabbi’s Essays

Talking to Christians

Suppose you have a long-time neighbor who has, more often than not, treated you shabbily. The neighbor has occasionally insulted you, belittled you, even sometimes has caused bodily harm. These indignities highlight a long history of cordial, if distant relations, with a few instances of generous kindness thrown in. Then, one day, the neighbor comes up to you and announces that he has become acutely aware of his poor behavior. He has been giving some thought toward understanding the roots of that behavior, and he promises to be much more warm, pleasant and supporting of you in the future. Indeed, there does seem to be some indication of a change. Now, what should you do?

I believe most considerate people would say that one should acknowledge the neighbor’s change for the better. This is easy; but what do you say, and when do you say it? After all, the neighbor really hurt you, spiritually, emotionally and physically. Is the profession to change, and the actually changes you have seen enough to warrant an acknowledgment that now things are really different? Perhaps, you should wait a little longer in order to see if the new behavior is not a temporary aberration. Or, maybe you should merely nod, a bare acknowledgment of the apparent situation in order to encourage continued good behavior. Or do you simply do “the right thing” and forthrightly state your appreciation for your neighbor’s good sense and change of heart.

Sometime over the past summer, a group of Jewish leaders and scholars decided to follow the last option. In a full page spread in Sunday (Sept. 10) New York Times, a distinguished group of Rabbis and Jewish academicians organized by the Institute for Jewish & Christian Studies published a declaration they called Dabru Emet [Speak Truth]: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity (you can find the entire document and some reactions to it by putting doing a ‘Google’ search). The declaration was composed by four distinguished academicians and signed by a variety of rabbis and Jewish professors from Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist backgrounds. (A personal aside: The Director of the Institute, Rabbi David Sandmel, was a student of mine in the late 1970’s at Ohio State University.) Let me summarize the document, suggest reasons for the timing of the document, and provide a critique of it. From the onset I should note that I would have signed the Statement. A number of individuals prominent in the field of Jewish-Christian relations did not sign it, suggesting that the Statement does not have universal approval.

Summary of Dabru Emet

Dabru Emetcomprises a preamble and eight assertions regarding the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The preamble explains why the statement was composed in the first place. It notes, as alluded above, that Christianity’s historic attitude toward Judaism has been none too good: “Christians have tended to characterize Judaism as a failed religion or, at best, a religion that prepared the way for, and is completed in, Christianity.” Over the last 40 years, many Christian denominations have engaged in a formal reassessment of their theological stance regarding Judaism, and have renounced their historical positions. Most prominent among these Church projects has been the work of the Catholics, beginning with the seminal 1965 Vatican pronouncement, Nostra Aetate. Since then, Catholics have issued further statements refining and promoting their respect and acceptance of Judaism as an appropriate religious expression for Jews, and a number of Protestant authorities—Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian and others—have followed suit with declarations of their own. In the light of this background, the Statement declares: “We believe these changes merit a thoughtful Jewish response.”

The Statement goes on to assert eight points: 1) Jews and Christians worship the same God; 2) Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book (Bible); 3) Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel; 4) Jewish and Christians accept the moral principles of Torah; 5) Nazism was not a Christian Phenomenon; 6) The Humanly Irreconcilable Difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture; 7) A new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice; 8) Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace.

Why Now?

The preamble thus gives a general motivation for the creation of the Statement. I believe we can surmise why the declaration was publicly issued in September, 2000. The choice of September, I believe, most relates to the Hebrew month of Elul, a traditional Jewish time for introspection and reflection (heshbon hanefesh). 2000 is also, of course, a millennial year with some significance to Christians.

We can add one more unstated motivation for the Statement. While Christian groups, particularly the Catholic Church, have moved forthrightly and dramatically away from their historic positions of “perfidious Jews” and “Christ-killers,” a number of prominent Jews and organizations continue to fault the Churches for not doing enough. The Churches are criticized for any professed support of Palestinian national rights, or are viewed suspiciously as engaging in pro-Jewish sentiments as part of a tactic in their missionary efforts to convert Jews.

The Vatican is especially attacked. As the most formally organized of Western Christian organizations, it is viewed as giving with one hand and taking with the other. Nostra Aetate and subsequent papal pronouncements are deemed as weak and hesitant. Recent Church apologies regarding their role during the Holocaust and the Pope’s visit to Israel are attacked as not going far enough. The critics then feel that their suspicions regarding the sincerity of the Church is confirmed when it raises Edith Stein (the Jewish-born nun who died in a Nazi death camp) to sainthood, and beatifies Pope Pius IX, who at very best was insensitive to the Jews.

“Two Jews, three opinions!” The Jewish community is hardly equipped to speak with one voice, and the carping at Catholic Church and Christianity in general is not without either emotional or substantive merit. The loudest voices among Jews seem to be the skeptics and naysayers, thus those who do recognize considerable improvement in Jewish-Christian relations over the past few decades feel that something public had to be said.

Determining an Audience

Dabru Emet is written in plain and forthright language. Although a whole library can be filled with volumes on Christian-Jewish relations, the Statement avoids engaging in qualification and complex expressions that might better reflect the variety of Christian and Jewish approaches to mutual interaction and dialogue as they really exist. The strength of the document is its simple and fundamental analysis of the relationship between Christians and Jews. Its weakness can be found in the same thing; as a straightforward basic message, it necessarily leaves out much of the subtleties that must characterize Christian-Jewish dialogue.

I would guess that the authors of the Statement did indeed give careful consideration to what the document would and would not say. The principal concern was to articulate that major Christian groups have made significant steps in reworking historic and damaging theological attitudes toward Jews and Judaism, and that both Christians and Jews should be aware of the common basis for continued dialogue and cooperation. With a full page in the New York Times, the authors and the organizing group (Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies) are clearly attempting to speak to both Christians and Jews. Moreover, I believe the authors are assuming that its target audience is among the more thoughtful members of their respective faith communities.

This assumption is a critical one because it allows the Statement to communicate certain issues and challenges without actually saying them. To state them would have moved the document away from its basic purpose of what fundamentally connects Christians and Jews, to what has yet to be worked out. Assumptions are dangerous things. When they are misplaced one’s purpose is usually not only thwarted but backfires. Some very prominent Jewish leaders therefore probably chose not to sign on to this Statement because they were not prepared to accept the thoughtfulness of its readership.

Issues and Challenges

Dabru Emet is a foundation text. As much is indicated at the bottom of the NY Times ad, where readers are invited to explore an expanded discussion of the issues in a book edited by the document’s four authors and Rabbi Sandmel. We are not supposed simply to read the Statement and say “that’s that,” but rather use it as a basis for further discussion.

I will therefore conclude with a few remarks on the more salient discussion points. (I hope and expect that these comments are covered in the book mentioned above.)

1. Christian and Jewish vs. Christian and Jew. The document is entitled “A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity.” It then speaks to Christians as members of a Christian Church; that is, as human beings who profess to Christianity. In return, it purported to be on behalf of Jews, meaning those human beings who profess to Judaism. Thus, the entire document operates within the realm of theology. This leaves unsaid the intrinsic asymmetry between the terms “Christian” and “Jew.” In brief, any person, regardless of birth, nationality, culture or language can potentially be Christians if only they will profess to a certain set of beliefs, while on the other hand, there is a set of people who, regardless of nationality, culture, language or even belief (within certain limits), are deemed to be Jews.

One can only compare apples to apples, so the document must frame Jews and Christians as members of two faith communities. Yet the asymmetry is nonetheless indicated in two of the more controversial points of the Statement.

2. Christians and Israel. The Statement declares that “many Christians support the State of Israel for reasons far more profound than mere politics.” What does this mean? A number of conservative Christian denominations hold on to apocalyptic dreams of the “end of the days” being ushered in by the return of Jews to the Holy Land. In this context, Jews are just an instrument of a Christian eschatological creed, leaving open the assertion that the Jewish religion has failed, or at best been succeeded. Yet, when Christians set aside this sort of thinking, just what is their religious (as opposed to political) understanding of the relationship of Jews to Israel?

Pope John Paul II’s visit to Israel in spring 2000 highlights the ambivalence of both the Catholic and the mainline Protestant Churches toward the Jewish State. Save for Pope Paul VI’s virtual clandestine pass through the Mandelbaum Gate that divided Jerusalem in 1965, John Paul’s trip was the first formal papal visit. This visit not only came 52 years after the founding of the State, but over 20 years into the administration of the most traveled Pope in history. The Churches are clearly uncomfortable with the existence of Israel.

This difficulty is less with Jews and Judaism than with the notion of a Jewish State. In the minds of many well-meaning, liberal and humanistic Christians, Israel is a confessional State. That is, it is Jewish in the same way that the ayatollah’s Iran and the Taliban’s Afghanistan are Moslem, or the American religious Right would like the U.S. to be Christian. This is the understanding of Israel as the State of Jews as a faith community. Most Jews recognize, however, that the Zionist enterprise does not proceed from the claims of a Jewish religion, but rather from the self-understanding of the Jews as a historic People.

Thus, when the authors of the Statement assert that “Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish People upon the Land of Israel,” I believe they are actually challenging Christians to work through theologically the covenanted claim of the People Israel on a certain land, as opposed to the control by the Jewish faith community of a certain State.

3. Christianity and the Holocaust. Perhaps the most controversial assertion in the Statement is: “Nazism was not a Christian Phenomenon.” If the authors of the document are challenging Christians regarding Israel, they are challenging Jews with respect to anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. The Statement hardly hides the historic reality of Christian anti-Jewish animus, but the virulent anti-Semitism of the twentieth century was fueled more from non-Christian forces. National Socialism in Germany drew its worldview, and with it, its murderous attitude toward Jews, from a twisted reworking of pagan sources. The Catholic and other Churches can be appropriately indicted for dishonorable action during the years of the Third Reich. One can even argue that the Churches, in their apologies, still have not fully come to grips with their wrongs. But, Jews do have to distinguish between Nazis and the Church.

The Statement, however, is probably too circumspect in describing Christian culpability. It sets out that Christianity traditionally viewed Judaism as either failed or succeeded. It says nothing about Christianity’s attitude toward Jews: from the Christian point of view were Jews merely stubbornly in error, or were they congenitally sinful? There is ample historic evidence that the Church’s position occasionally strayed into the latter. And it is precisely this determination regarding the intrinsic character of the Jew that provided the roots of modern anti-Semitism.

All this being said, the Statement in distinguishing between Nazi philosophy and traditional Christianity challenges Jews to distinguish between what is contingent and what is inherent in Christian thought. Church teaching can degenerate into anti-Semitism—the theological groundwork for such an attitude does exist in Christian Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers—but it does not have to. Judaism is clearly a theological problem for Christians, in a fashion unique from Christian attitudes toward all other faith communities. It is a problem that most Churches have gone a long way to solve. The Statement notes to us that even if we believe they still have a way to go, the Jewish community ought to acknowledge the steps have been taken.

The Last Word

The eighth point in the Statement is a call for Christians and Jews to work together on behalf of justice and peace. This might strike some as platitudinous. I believe however that it has a more serious purpose. In the modern world, the greatest challenge to liberal Christians and Jews (the Statement is addressing them—us—and not the more Orthodox/Fundamentalist elements) is not their attitude toward each other, but rather how to maintain their religious convictions in a secular world.

We live in a world that tends either to demonize religion or render it irrelevant. Thus, violence and terror, such as in Northern Ireland, Kashmir, Indonesia, the former Yugoslavia or the Middle East, is connected to religious passions. This is certainly a problem, but individuals of a more liberal religious bent have the opposite concern. Consider the repeated response to Joseph Lieberman’s frequent comments about religion in public life: Not all religious people are moral, and not all moral people are religious. True enough, but then we must ask: Does being religious in modern secular society make any difference at all?

That is the final challenge of the Statement Dabru Emet to both Jews and Christians. Has religion today been reduced to personal piety, or is it the basis for redeeming an unredeemed world? You—Jews who have committed yourselves to a liberal synagogue—are invited to work this issue out.