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Fifty years of Christian-Jewish dialogue--what has it changed?

Fifty years ago, Vatican II's groundbreaking document Nostra aetate, (1) together with its documents on ecumenical relations and religious liberty, provided the impetus for a substantial renovation of relationships among the various Christian denominations and, more broadly, perceptions within the churches of non-Christian religious traditions, Judaism in particular. While a document addressed to the global Catholic community, its influence clearly extended beyond the parameters of Catholicism.

In this essay I will focus especially on the fundamental reorientation of interreligious relations brought about by N.A. Its most far-reaching, initial accomplishment was to wipe clean the classical interreligious slate dominated by highly negative stereotypes of the religious other in the Catholic tradition, with a major effect on how most religious traditions viewed each other. The first three chapters of N.A. (the fourth deals with the Catholic-Jewish relationship) fundamentally refocused church attitudes toward non-Christians. While it neither solved some basic questions such as missionizing people of non-Christian faiths nor reflected in any significant way on possible theological links with these religious traditions, Islam in particular, it did acknowledge some truth in these religious traditions and affirmed the value of dialogue with their religious leaders. This represented a marked contrast with the longstanding outlook within the churches, often seen in their basic educational materials, which spoke of these religious communities with negative, sometimes even contemptuous, language and basically regarded them as "enemies" of the church. A substantially new template had been installed in Christian consciousness with regard to Judaism and the other major religious traditions. A new day was dawning. Even a rather conservative episcopal leader such as Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, in an address to Jewish representatives in that city, emphasized the transformative effect of N.A.: "So I believe we really are living a new and unique moment in Catholic-Jewish relations. And Catholics will never be able to go back to the kind of systemic prejudice that marked the past." (2) The question fifty years later is whether, despite the switch in the basic template for Christian-Jewish and wider interreligious relations, N.A. has lived up to its full promise.

The answer to that question within the Christian churches generally, and within the Jewish community as well, is "not quite." Chapter 4 of N.A. built its argument for a new vision of the Church's relationship with the Jewish people on three premises: (1) Jews were not collectively responsible for the murder of Jesus; (2) as a result, they cannot be seen as exiled from their original covenant with God; and (3) Jesus drew positively from the Jewish tradition of his time in his preaching. The subsequent 1985 "Notes" (3) from the Vatican on teaching and preaching about Jews and Judaism specifies that Jesus took important parts of his message from the Pharisaic movement of his day. Many Protestant communities have followed suit in terms of emphasis on these three foundational elements. Sadly, Orthodox Christians in the main have not bought into the new template on Christian-Jewish relations. The picture within the evangelical Christian community is more varied. Some have incorporated components of this new vision, while others have chosen to remain within the classical anti-Judaic framework. For some evangelicals the Jewish return to Israel is the paramount feature of their theology, a necessary first step toward eschatological fulfillment in and through Christ.

So, we can assert that N.A. and its companion Protestant statements, as well as the important scholarly declaration Dabru Emet developed by a small group of academic Jews from all the major branches of Judaism and endorsed by a large number of rabbis, have altered the playing field. But, if we ask whether the profound theological implications of N.A. that were highlighted by Gregory Baum in a 1986 address to the Catholic Theological Society of America, when he argued that N.A. represented the most radical change in the ordinary magisterium of the church to emerge from Vatican II, (4) have been integrated into Christian systematic theology during the last half century, the response has regrettably to be "not very much."

A small cadre of individual Christian scholars from the Catholic and Protestant communities, including myself, have tried to reformulate basic Christian self-understanding in the key areas of Christology and ecclesiology. The effort took on some steam in the first decade or so after the council, but it has waned somewhat in more recent years. Persons involved in this effort include the late Monika Hellwig and Paul van Buren (who produced a trilogy outlining a fundamentally new theological vision of the church's relationship with the Jewish people), Jilrgen Moltmann, Cardinal Walter Kasper, Mary Boys, Johannes Baptist Metz, and R. Kendall Soulen. (5) Each has added valuable perspectives, but no one as yet has produced an interpretation that has caught the attention of a significant section of the Christian theological community. So, with regard to theology, a new understanding of the Christian-Jewish relationship is still in its infancy. The only major change (and this is not to be underestimated) is the change in perspective from a theology of covenantal exclusion for Jews post-Easter to a theology of covenantal inclusion.

A few institutional and group attempts to grapple with Baum's central challenge have occurred since Vatican II. The Rhineland Synod of the Evangelical Church in Germany produced a major statement in 1980 that unfortunately was rejected by other synods of the Evangelical Church. (6) The Leuenberg Church Fellowship of the Reformation Churches in Europe released a comprehensive theological study on the church and Israel in 2001. (7)

In the United States, two parallel documents appeared at the beginning of the new century. One came from the ecumenical Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations. Titled Christianity's Sacred Obligation, it affirmed ten basic theses about the Christian-Jewish relationship, including Judaism's continuity as a living faith, the recognition that continued covenantal inclusion of the Jewish people impacts Christian notions of salvation, and a rejection of any targeted efforts at converting Jews to Christianity. (8)

The second statement came in the form of a study document produced for the ongoing official Catholic-Jewish dialogue. (9) Some of the same scholars involved in Christianity's Sacred Obligation were also responsible for this statement. It, too, affirmed the ongoing validity of the Jewish covenant and also rejected conversionist efforts directed toward the Jewish community. It elicited considerable controversy when it originally appeared and then again several years later. The first major critique of the document came from the prominent Catholic theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., a critique to which the major authors of the document responded. (10) Dulles subsequently published another essay that caused distress among the Jewish scholars who had been involved in the ongoing dialogue with Christians, such as Irving Greenberg. It was originally presented at a conference hosted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in Washington, DC, for the fortieth anniversary of N.A. (11) Dulles maintained that Vatican II had not, in fact, settled the question of continuing covenantal inclusion for the Jews, arguing in part from two key passages in the Letter to the Hebrews where the covenant with the Jewish people seems to have been abolished with the coming of Christ. Dulles also insisted that Jews must remain on Christianity's conversionist agenda.

Several years after its appearance, the doctrinal office of the USCCB and its office on ecumenical and interreligious relations issued a joint evaluation of the document that argued that it did not fully reflect official Catholic teaching in several areas, most especially on the matter of Jewish conversion. The original version of the critique brought an extremely negative reaction from all the major branches of Judaism because of its apparent claim that dialogue must include a conversionist aim on the part of Christians. This strong Jewish reaction led to a rather quick reexamination of the document by five leading Catholic bishops, who eventually reissued a modified text in which direct connection between dialogue and evangelization was eliminated, though the ultimate conversionist goal for Jews remained in place. (12) I shall return to the "conversion" issue subsequently, but this controversy made it clear that the issue remains largely unresolved in Catholicism and most Protestant denominations.

The most recent effort to address the major theological challenges connected with the fundamental change in the Christian theological perspective relative to Judaism and the Jewish people involved a group response with a measure of official Catholic institutional support. A group of European and American Christian scholars, mostly Catholic but including Protestants, along with a number of Jewish consultants spent several years on a project titled the "Christ and the Jewish People Consultation." Co-sponsored by a number of European and American educational institutions, this effort had strong endorsement from Kasper, then President of the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, who participated in the initial meeting of this consultation and wrote an in-depth foreword for the volume that it eventually produced. (13) This multi-year consultation focused its papers and discussions around the meta-question, "How can Christians affirm the continuing validity of the Jewish covenant, while at the same time proclaiming the universal significance of the Christ Event?" This remains a central question for Christian theology and for the Christian-Jewish dialogue. As Metz has insisted, the Jewish question is central for all of Christian theology, not merely for the theology of the Christian-Jewish dialogue.

This consultation and its book have not totally resolved the meta-question. This process must continue and cannot be confined to North America and Europe. It remains a global question for Christians despite the claim by scholars such as Wesley Ariarajah, formerly of the staff of the World Council of Churches, that, while Jesus was certainly Jewish, his Jewishness has little or no significance for the construction of Asian Christian theology, (14) a position repudiated by Peter Phan. (15)

The christological question remains the centerpiece of the theological challenge facing Christian-Jewish relations. It touches upon the very nerve center of Christian belief. Hence, the issue cannot be considered superficially. As Baum implied in his 1986 CTSA address, Chapter 4 of N.A. unleashed a theological sea change whose full implications for the churches are yet to be comprehended. At this moment, as I have argued elsewhere, an incarnational approach to Christology, rather than one rooted in prophetic fulfillment or in the cleansing of sinful humanity through the spilling of Jesus' blood, shows the most promise. Out of incarnational Christology I believe it is possible to develop a notion of distinctive, but not totally distinct, paths to salvation by Jews and Christians, which levels the redemptive ground on which they both stand. (16)

A word or two at this point needs to be stated relative to the theological challenge facing the Jewish community. Responsibility here is surely uneven in comparison with the challenge before the Christian community. Jews never defined themselves over against Christianity in the way that Christianity staked a central part of its self-understanding in terms of the replacement of Judaism, an understanding that bore not only a theological dimension but also practical social consequences for Jews when the churches had overwhelming political power in many European societies. Nonetheless, Jewish scholars and writers have either ignored Christianity or spoken about it in rather derogatory terms, such as a religion of idolatry.

In recent decades a few Jewish scholars have begun to take a positive look at Christianity and what it might offer Jewish religious reflection. Prominent names in this regard include Irving Greenberg, Michael Berenbaum, Elliot Wolfson, Alan Segal, Michael Signer, and Leon Klenicki. The boldest thinking has come from Daniel Boyarin, who in a recent volume argued that Christology is a "job description" that was already present in Judaism and applied to Jesus, not something created totally anew for Jesus. (17) A number of Jewish biblical scholars, such as Mark Nanos, have taken a new look at Paul, often regarded in Jewish circles as the person who definitely broke Christianity's links with Judaism, and have begun to like what they see. For them Paul remains very much a Jew committed to the Jewish Torah tradition. Others, including Irving Greenberg, have argued that Judaism can profit from exposure to certain aspects of the Christian tradition such as the emphasis on sacramentality. And, a growing number of Jewish scholars such as Amy-Jill Levine are beginning to take a positive look at the Jewish Jesus as well as seeing value in a study of the Second Testament, something clearly apparent in the Jewish Annotated New Testament that she co-edited. (18)

The new interest in the teachings of Jesus and even in certain aspects of Christian theology can hardly be described at this point as a groundswell. However, in comparison to a decade or so earlier when one of the early Jewish theologians interested in the dialogue with Christians, Eugene Borowitz, could say to me that he was probably one of five Jews positively interested in Jesus, there has been a definite advance. Jewish perceptions of the theological wall that exists between Judaism and Christianity remain firm, but there have been slight cracks. Generally speaking, somewhat similar to Christianity's increasing rejection of any supersessionist interpretation of its relationship with the Jewish people, the Jewish penchant for looking at Christianity as an "idolatry" has been vanishing, even though at least one ongoing participant in the dialogue, Jack Bemporad, resurrected it some years ago at a national conference at Sacred Heart University, in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Unlike the area of systematic theology, the field of biblical scholarship has witnessed substantive work by both Christian and Jewish exegetes on the early Christian-Jewish relationship. This research has not been confined to the margins but has impacted biblical scholarship as a whole, especially on the Christian side. Regrettably, while this new research on the first several centuries of Christian-Jewish relations has been widely accepted within biblical studies, its penetration into systematic theology has been negligible at best. Yet, over and above the christological implications discussed earlier, it also carries significance for another major area of Christian theology, namely, ecclesiology.

While the research may not be as central for Jewish communal identity, it still raises the question for Jews whether their religious self-identity can admit any ongoing link with Christianity. Does the Christian literature of the first several centuries of the Common Era offer some valuable insights into the nature of Judaism during this period? These remain questions implied by the new scholarship on the relationship between Jews and Christians during the first four centuries of their joint existence.

The process of taking a new look at Christian origins and how the church emerged out of Judaism is now several decades old. One of the first contributors was Robin Scroggs, who emphasized the following points: (1) The movement begun by Jesus and continued after his death in Palestine can best be described as a reform movement within the Jewish community of the time. (2) The Pauline missionary movement as Paul understood it was a Jewish mission that focused on the gentiles as the proper object of God's call to God's people. (3) Prior to the end of the Jewish war with the Romans in 70 C.E., there was no such reality as "Christianity." Followers of Jesus did not have a self-understanding of themselves as a religion over and against Judaism. A distinct Christian identity began to emerge only after the Jewish-Roman war. (4) The later portions of the Second Testament all show some signs of a movement toward separation, but they also generally retain some contact with their original Jewish matrix. (19)

Other biblical scholars have followed up on this redefinition of the initial Christian-Jewish relationship outlined by Scroggs. John Meier, in the third volume of his comprehensive study of Second Testament understandings of Jesus, argued that from a careful examination of key texts Jesus must be seen as presenting himself to the Jewish community of his time as an eschatological prophet and miracle worker in the likeness of Elijah. He was not interested in creating a separatist sect or holy remnant along the lines of the Qumran community. Instead, he envisioned the development of a special religious community within Israel. The idea that this 9 "community within Israel would slowly undergo a process of separation from Israel as it pursued a mission to the Gentiles ...--the long-term result being that [this] community would become predominantly Gentile itself--finds no place in Jesus' message or practice." (20)

Following up on the perspective of Meier, David Frankfurter added further to the notion of significant intertwining between Christians and Jews well after Jesus' death. He has insisted that, within the various "clusters" of groups that included Jews and Christians, there existed "a mutual influence persisting through Late Antiquity." There is also "evidence for a degree of overlap ... that, all things considered, threatens almost every construction of an historically distinct 'Christianity' before at least the mid-second century." (21)

Clearly, this new scholarship profoundly alters any claim within Christianity that Jesus had established a wholly new religious entity by the time he died on Calvary. Yet, on the whole, Christian theological scholarship continues to ignore the profound significance of this new perspective, which includes a fundamentally new outlook on Paul and Judaism. Contemporary Jewish scholarship has not done much better with the new understanding that the Jewish community of the first centuries of the Common Era did not appear to regard all followers of the Way as practicing idolatry or as being totally outside the wide tent that was Judaism at that time.

Apart from the theological issues of Christology and ecclesiology on the Christian side and idolatry on the Jewish side, a number of other questions still remain unresolved. The first is conversion. Despite the fact that both Kasper and his successor as President of the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, Cardinal Kurt Koch, have argued that organized proselytizing of the Jews is not required because Jews remain in the covenant and have authentic revelation, theologians such as Dulles and Gavin D'Costa (22) have argued that Jews remain targets for Christian conversionist efforts. This view seemingly is shared by the leadership of the USCCB if the text(s) they released in connection with "Reflections on Covenant and Mission" is any indication. (23) But, is proselytizing not a "soft form of genocide," as my Catholic Theological Union colleague David Sandmel has termed it, as it would in the end, if successful, involve the disappearance of Jews and Judaism. Those Christians who continue to espouse converting Jews have simply avoided this profound implication.

The question of Israel also continues to loom large in the dialogue with continuing tensions surrounding it. These tensions have been addressed in various documents from the International Council of Christians and Jews, including their 2009 Berlin document. (24) A new International Council of Christians and Jews Research Project, "Promise, Land, and Hope," finds a group of Christian and Jewish scholars from Europe, North America, Israel, and Australia grappling with the question, "What understandings might Christians and Jews develop that could serve as resources for constructive dialogue about Israeli-Palestinian issues?" For Catholic Christians at least, the Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel definitely put the final nails in the coffin of the classical perpetual wandering theology about the Jewish People.

Finally, much still needs to be done to incorporate the implications of N.A. and the new biblical scholarship into liturgical celebration, including the texts of liturgical hymns. The Irish liturgist Liam Tracey, OSM, is one of the very few liturgists to address this aspect of Christian-Jewish relations. (25)

One added note: In the development of Christianity's dialogue with other world religions, especially Islam, the new perspective on Christian self-understanding emerging from the scholarship involved with the Christian-Jewish dialogue needs to take center stage. We cannot conduct these other dialogues as if the dialogue with Judaism has not significantly altered Christianity's classical self-perception and self-expression. In that sense as well as its surfacing of the basic christological question, the Christian-Jewish dialogue remains central for all wider interreligious discussions.

(1) Available at aetate_en.html (hereafter, N.A.).

(2) Archbishop Charles Chaput, "Address to Jewish Leaders," July 11, 2013; available at 247-chaput201311.

(3) Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, "Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church"; available at jews-judaism_en.html.

(4) Gregory Baum, "The Social Context of American Catholic Theology," Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, vol. 41 (1986), p. 87.

(5) I discuss these efforts to overcome classical supersessionist theology in my Restating the Catholic Church's Relationship with the Jewish People: The Challenge of Super-Sessionary Theology, Frontiers of Scholarly Research (Lewiston, NY: Edward Mellen Press, 2013).

(6) Cf. K Hannah Holtschneider, The 1980 Statement of the Rhineland Synod: A Landmark in Christian-Jewish Relations in Germany (Cambridge, U.K.: CJCR Press, 2002).

(7) Leuenberg Church Fellowship, Church and Israel: A Contribution from the Reformation Churches in Europe to the Relationship between Christians and Jews, ed. Helmut Schwier (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Otto Lembeck, 2001).

(8) For the text of A Sacred Obligation with commentaries by the members of the Christian Scholars Group, see Mary C. Boys, ed., Seeing Judaism Anew: Christianity's Sacred Obligation (London/Boulder/New York/Toronto/Oxford: Roman & Littlefield, 2005).

(9) United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and the National Council of Synagogues, "Reflections on Covenant and Mission," Origins 32 (September 5, 2002): 218-224. A Jewish perspective on the theme was also developed but rejected by the Jewish delegation as inadequate.

(10) Cardinal Avery Dulles, "Evangelization and the Jews," with responses by Mary C. Boys, Phillip Cunningham, and John T, Pawlikowski, America 187 (October 21, 2002): 8-16.

(11) Avery Cardinal Dulles, "The Covenant with Israel," First Things, no. 157 (November, 2005), pp. 16-21.

(12) The USCCB's Critique of "Reflections on Covenant and Mission," the letter from combined Jewish leadership (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform) to the bishops expressing concern, and the bishops' response and clarification on the mission/dialogue question can be found on the Dialogika section of the website of the Council of Centers for Christian-Jewish Relations, at either, or documents-and-statements/roman-catholic/us-conference-of-catholic-bishops/585-usccb09oct2. This exchange took place in the Summer and Fall of 2009.

(13) Phillip A. Cunningham, Joseph Sievers, Mary C. Boys, Hans Hermann Hendrix, and Jesper Svartvik, eds., Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today: New Explorations of Theological Interrelationships (Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011).

(14) Wesley Ariarajah, "Towards a Fourth Phase in Jewish-Christian Relations: An Asian Perspective," unpublished paper for the Conference on Christian-Jewish Dialogue, Temple Emmanuel, New York, co-sponsored by the Center for Interreligious Understanding and the Office of Interreligious Affairs of the World Council of Churches, November, 2003.

(15) Peter Phan, "Jews and Judaism in Asian Theology: Historical and Theological Perspectives," Gregorianum, vol. 86 (1995), pp. 806-836.

(16) See John T. Pawlikowski, "Christology and the Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Personal Theological Journey," Irish Theological Quarterly 72 (May, 2007): 147-167. Also, see note 5, above.

(17) Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospel. The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York; New Press, 2012).

(18) Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew (New York: Harper Collins, 2006); and Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds., The Jewish Annotated New Testament (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2011).

(19) Robin Scroggs, "The Judaizing of the New Testament," Chicago Theological Seminary Register 75 (Winter, 1986): 36-45.

(20) John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Vol. 3: Companions and Competitors (New York: Doubleday, 2001), p. 251.

(21) David D. Frankfurter, "Beyond 'Jewish Christianity': Continuing Religious Subcultures and Their Documents," in Adam H. Becker and Annette Yoshiro Reed, eds., The Ways that Never Parted: Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), p. 132.

(22) For Dulles's view, see notes 10 and 11, above. Also see the following interchange in Theological Studies 73 (September, 2012): Gavin D'Costa, "What Does the Catholic Church Teach about Mission to the Jewish People?" pp. 590-613; Edward Kessler, "A Jewish Response to Gavin D'Costa," pp. 614-628; and John T. Pawlikowski, "A Catholic Response to Gavin D'Costa," pp. 629-640.

(23) See note 12, above.

(24) See International Council of Christians and Jews, A Time for Recommitment: Jewish-Christian Dialogue 70 Years after War and Shoah (Sankt Augustin/Berlin: Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung, 2009).

(25) Liam Tracey, "The Affirmation of Jewish Covenantal Vitality and the Church's Liturgical Life," in Cunningham et at, Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today, pp. 268-286.
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Author:Pawlikowski, John T.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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