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Doing justice to Judaism: the challenge to Christianity.

The invitation from the editors to contribute my perceptions about the changes in ecumenical and interreligious relations on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies in 2014 evokes a personal response. Thus, in the initial section of this essay, I will situate my own journey in the broader theological and ecclesial context. In the second part, I will reflect on challenges in the U.S. Catholic Church in its relationship with the Jewish people.

My family life and Seattle, Washington, upbringing were the genesis of my involvement across religious borders. From my early childhood I was skeptical of the teachings of my elementary school religion classes and the formulations of the Baltimore Catechism about who could be saved. Child of a lifelong practicing Catholic--my mother--and of a religiously nonaffiliated father, I rejected the notion that my father would be excluded from heaven simply because of his lack of religious belonging. At some level, I also rejected the notion of a God who consigned people to hell because they belonged to the wrong religion or none at all.

My secondary education overlapped with Vatican 11. While I do not recall learning much in detail about the council, I have a distinct memory of reading Pope John XXIII's encyclical addressed to all persons of good will, Pacem in terris, and of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Those formative texts had a profound influence; they stand out more than anything else I read in those years (except the dreadful monograph, Modern Youth and Chastity, foisted upon us in our junior year). Although I know now how fiercely the conciliar participants debated the issues about relations with Jews, I was less aware of the deliberations in St. Peter's Basilica than I was of what was happening on the local front. (1) The priest who was chaplain at the high school I attended, the Rev. William Treacy, had become friends with Rabbi Raphael Levine; joined by a Protestant minister, they had a weekly television show, "Challenge," which first aired in 1960 and continued for fifteen seasons. And, when Treacy was named pastor of a parish--my grandmother's parish, as it happened--that was in the process of building a new church, he commissioned Levine's wife, Reeva Miller, an artist, to design the altar. Levine and Treacy founded an interfaith camp together, Camp Brotherhood, and in 1974 wrote a book together, Wild Branch on the Olive Tree. (2)

Only in recent years have I realized how much their work, in tandem with the growing sense of aggiornamento in the church, influenced me. In the spring of 1965, for example, I organized an afternoon of exchange with the youth group of Levine's synagogue, Temple de Hirsch, and students at the high school I attended. That was six months before the promulgation of Nostra aetate, on October 28, 1965.

A church coming at long last to acknowledge the "rays of truth" in other religious traditions and the modeling of persons who collaborated across religious borders exerted a powerful pull on me, but it was not until I began graduate study in New York City in the fall of 1974 that I began to grapple with the ways in which supersessionist theology had denigrated Judaism and distorted Christian origins. Writing a dissertation that traced the evolution of salvation history and analyzed its theological foundations was the beginning of my interest in what I now identify as Christian theologies of Judaism--that is, doing Christian theology in conversation with Jewish thought and in light of the history of the Jewish-Christian encounter. (3) It is the latter conversation that particularly shapes my theological thinking. Christians have an ethical obligation to confront our tradition's disparagement of Judaism and its consequent contribution to the rise of Antisemitism.

In retrospect, that sense of ethical obligation has been a major influence in my writing and teaching. In my Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism as a Source of Christian Self Understanding, (4) I argued that the conventional narrative about Christianity is supersessionist insofar as it presents Judaism as the mere "promise" to which our tradition is the "fulfillment." Supersessionism does not merely oversimplify the Scriptures; it provides a theological rationale for vilification of Jews. Despite its theological inadequacy and naivete, supersessionism is still alive and well in many Christian circles, not the least among preachers. (5) It needs to be addressed by a deeper understanding of the complexity of Christian origins and by a more extensive involvement in the churches' new posture toward Judaism.

Facing history plays a central role in my Redeeming Our Sacred Story: The Death of Jesus and Relations between Jews and Christians, (6) I trace the evolution of the "Christ killer" charge, reveal its consequences, propose an alternative interpretation of the biblical texts about the passion and death of Jesus, and offer ways in which such interpretations might be integrated into Christian spiritualities. Particularly in this more recent book, I am addressing the question of what we should do with biblical texts that are both vital to the life of the church and harmful to another religious tradition (in this case, Judaism). How do we unleash the power in the story of the passion and death of Jesus, while also acknowledging that this story has also served as raw material for harsh depictions of Jews as enemies of Christ and, thus, of Christianity? How do we teach sacred texts that have been used sacrilegiously? How do we expose the shadow side without blocking the light?

If a sense of ethical obligation has been a formative influence on me, so, too, have historical-critical tools that enable us to situate biblical texts in their diverse cultural, literary, and religious contexts. Contemporary biblical scholarship provides numerous resource tools for locating the Jewish Jesus in the first century of the Common Era. It impels us to position his Jewish world in the larger realm of the Roman Empire so that we come to understand crucifixion, for example, as state-regulated terrorism that functioned to intimidate peasants and slaves into passivity. It offers significant new perspectives on the Apostle Paul. It also challenges us to articulate hermeneutical principles that have pastoral relevance. The insights generated by historical criticism are too significant to be limited to scholars; the people of our churches deserve to be enriched by the work of biblical scholars.

As important as is the development of an extensive body of scholarly literature, the opportunities to collaborate with Jews in various projects, to teach together, to sit at the table of a Shabbat dinner or lunch, and to enjoy friendships are even more influential. For the interreligious to take root in one's life--in one's very soul--requires nurturing the interpersonal dimension. It necessitates involvement in the life of the other.

Yet, in recent years in my own Catholic tradition, I sense among the episcopacy and clergy a diminished lack of enthusiasm for, and commitment to, biblical study and to the fostering of real relationships across religious borders. On the one hand, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (PBC) has issued a number of significant documents about interpreting texts, and Catholic biblical scholars continue to publish excellent work at both the popular and the academic levels. (7) On the other hand, supersessionist views are regularly propounded--and not only in homilies but even in documents from the hierarchy, particularly regarding Catholic-Jewish relations. The divide between scholars and church officials has widened.

How the conceptual framework of promise and fulfillment is presented provides a case in point. (8) In its 2001 monograph, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, the PBC spoke of fulfillment as an "extremely complex" notion that is distorted by overemphasis on either continuity or discontinuity. While Christianity recognizes Christ as fulfilling the Scriptures and Israel's hopes, it does not "understand this fulfillment as a literal one." "Jesus is not confined to playing an already fixed role--that of Messiah--but he confers, on the notions of Messiah and salvation, a fullness which could not have been imagined in advance." To read the Hebrew Scriptures as a Christian involves what the PBC terms "[r]etrospective re-readings," for it contains neither direct reference to Christ nor to Christian realities. The Christian reading is a theological interpretation that must be complemented by historical-critical tools. The PBC draws an important implication:
   Christians can and ought to admit that the Jewish reading of the
   Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Sacred
   Scriptures from the Second Temple period, a reading analogous to
   the Christian reading which developed in parallel fashion. Each of
   these two readings is part of the vision of each respective faith
   of which it is a product and an expression. Consequently, they
   cannot be reduced one into the other. (9)

In contrast, the bishops of the United States voted in 2008 to remove from The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults the statement that spoke of the "enduring covenants" that God made with the Jewish people. Instead, they substituted direct citation of Rom. 9:4-5. (10) According to the spokesperson for the bishops, the rationale for this change was the Catholic understanding that "all previous covenants that God made with the Jewish people have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ through the new covenant established through his sacrificial death on the cross." (11) In a 2009 statement formulated by bishops on the Committee on Doctrine and the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, a similar assertion is made. "[I]t is incomplete and potentially misleading ... to refer to the enduring quality of the covenant without adding that for Catholics Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God fulfills both in history and at the end of time the special relationship God established with Israel." (12) In such claims, the bishops and their spokespersons leave no theological space for Judaism. The nuance of the PBC is not only lost; it is ignored, as are other postconciliar texts that have advanced thinking about Catholic-Jewish relations. In their anxiety to insure that Catholics follow traditional doctrinal formulations, the bishops appear to give little credence to Johann Baptist Metz's provocative question: "Ask yourselves if the theology you are learning is such that it could remain unchanged before and after Auschwitz. If this be the case, be on guard." (13)

"We stand only at the beginning of a new beginning," Cardinal Walter Kasper has said. (14)

(1) For a comprehensive and insightful history of the developments that eventuated in Nostra aetate, see John Connelly, From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933-1965 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).

(2) With Sr. Patricia Jacobsen (Portland, OR: Binford & Mort, 1974).

(3) My revised dissertation was published as Biblical Interpretation in Religious Education (Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1980).

(4) (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2000).

(5) Useful in countering this is Marilyn J. Salmon, Preaching without Contempt: Overcoming Unintended Anti-Judaism (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006).

(6) (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2013)

(7) Formally established in 1902, the Pontifical Biblical Commission has taken on different configurations over the years. Since Vatican II, it has functioned as an international group of eminent Catholic biblical scholars (alas, still all men) who function under the umbrella of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. An important document in making the case for historical-critical readings is the Commission's 1993 "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church"; delivered to John Paul II on April 23, 1993; available at (as published in Origins 23 [January 6, 1994]: 497, 499-524).

(8) I have written at greater length about this and related debates in Catholic biblical interpretation in my "What Nostra Aelate Inaugurated: A Conversion to the 'Providential Mystery of Otherness,'" Theological Studies 74 (March, 2013): 73-104, especially 90ff. See also my "Does the Catholic Church Have a Mission 'to' Jews or 'with' Jews?" Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations, vol. 3, no. 1 (2008), pp. 1-19; available at

(9) References cited from The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible are from sections IIA.5, 6, and 7. The text is available online at statements/roman-catholic/vatican-curia/282-pbc-2001. For a similar understanding, see Ralph W. Klein, "Promise and Fulfillment," in Darrell Jodock, ed., Covenantal Conversations: Christians in Dialogue with Jews and Judaism (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008), pp. 61-75.

(10) "... to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen" (NRSV).

(11) Citation from Catholic World News story, "Vatican Approves change to U.S. Catechism on Covenant with Jews," August 28, 2008; available at cfm?storyid=3889.

(12) United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, "A Note on Ambiguities Contained in 'Reflections on Covenant and Mission,"' available at usccb-09june18.

(13) Johannes Baptist Metz, The Emergent Church: The Future of Christianity in a Post-Bourgeois World, tr. Peter Mann (New York: Crossroad, 1981 [orig.: Jenseits burgerlicher Religion: Reden uber die Zukunft des Christentums (Mainz and Munich: Matthias-Grunewald-Verlag, 1980)]), p. 29.

(14) Cardinal Walter Kasper, foreword to Philip A. Cunningham et al., Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), p. xiv.
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Author:Boys, Mary C.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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