A Jewish perspective


Jonathan Gorsky who is educational officer at the Council of Christians and Jews, notes that Christian-Jewish dialogue is still in its infancy and comments upon the fact that we find it difficult to understand the religious constructs of a faith with which we are unfamiliar, for instance Jewish law. 'Achieving normality in Christian-Jewish relations will take time and demands immense patience.'

Christian-Jewish relations have been stormy and troubled for nearly two millennia. In the pre-modern Christian world, Jewish communities were marginalised and some Christian societies blamed Jews indiscriminately for the crucifixion, implying a collective guilt that could have devastating impact in times of social conflict. Judaism was identified with the legalistic 'Pharisee' of the Gospel narratives. It was seen as an outmoded religion of purely historical interest and used as a foil for Christian spirituality.

Historic suffering is engraved in Jewish remembrance and frequently recalled in the liturgy of the synagogue. The massacre of the Rhineland communities by the crusaders, expulsions, blood libels and pogroms shaped the Jewish collective memory. In the twentieth century European Jewry was devastated by the Holocaust and many Jews pointed to the impact of Christian anti-Judaism on European culture, seeing the Holocaust as a culmination of age-old prejudice.

Given this background the progress made in Christian-Jewish relations in the past thirty years is quite extraordinary.

The Holocaust gave rise to profound reflection in Christian churches on the fate of the Jews and the place of the Jewish people in God's purpose for the world. Christian thinkers who had suffered under Nazi occupation were particularly engaged by these questions.

The impact of scholarship

The impact of scholarship has been of great significance. Major discoveries, of which the Dead Sea Scrolls are the best known, have shed new light on the Jewish matrix of Christianity in the first century. The study of first century-Judaism has likewise illuminated the history of Christian origins, setting the Gospel narratives in a broader cultural context. Books such as Geza Vermes' Jesus the Jew, which draws heavily on classical Jewish sources, have been widely discussed. E.P. Sanders, a major historian of Christian beginnings, has made a profound study of Jewish texts that even a generation ago would have been quite unusual.

This scholarship has highlighted the diversity of Judaism in the first century. The New Testament 'Pharisees' are now seen as one strand of a rabbinic culture that was multi-faceted and capable of great spiritual attainment. Many classical Christian texts turn out to have striking Jewish parallels. Beyond rabbinic boundaries the sectarians at Qumran - the culture of the Dead Sea Scrolls - produced religious poetry that retains its power for the modern reader. Scholarship has uncovered a spiritual ferment that is radically different from the old Christian image of unfeeling Jewish legalism. A generation before Jesus one of Judaism's greatest teachers had already taught that to 'love one's neighbour' was the great commandment and all else was commentary.

A modern narrative of the crucifixion would emphasise the impact of the Roman occupation upon the Jews of that time. The High Priest was a political nominee who collaborated with the government in putting down potential rebellion before it took hold and became serious. Religious leaders who attracted crowds, particularly at Passover, were instantly suspect. John the Baptist and in a later generation James the brother of the Lord were examples of wholly spiritual figures executed by fearful politicians or High Priests who know the bloody consequences of unrest and disturbance. Crucifixion was all too well known among the Jews of the Holy Land, particularly in times of unrest. It was a particularly grim Roman device for instilling fear into the population and deterring anyone who contemplated resistance.

Such scholarly investigation does not question the integrity of the Christian narrative. Rather it restores its proper context. In so doing, it challenges ancient stereotypes and provides the basis for a new and fruitful relationship between Christians and Jews. Christian and Jewish scholars collaborate and both faiths are greatly enriched by their findings.

Reassessing views

Christian-Jewish dialogue is still in its infancy. The breakthrough is usually taken to be the Second Vatican Council's statement of October 1965 - Nostra aetate - which, like subsequent reflection in other Churches, drew heavily on Romans 9 - 11. It absolved Jews from collective responsibility for the crucifixion, which 'cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living . . . nor upon the Jews of today'. More positively, in the midst of highly traditional sentiments it expressed a view that was strikingly novel: 'Since the spiritual patrimony common to Christian and Jews is thus so great, this sacred synod wishes to foster and recommend that mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit above all of biblical and theological studies. and of brotherly dialogues.'

For many Jews, Nostra aetate did not go far enough. It was a deeply traditional document that offered no reflection on either the Holocaust or the State of Israel. But in the context of history it remains a striking achievement. Subsequent documents reveal a growing personal warmth and today Catholic-Jewish relations are deeply heartening.

The major Churches have followed a similar path to that traced in Nostra aetate , and are very supportive of the work of the Council of Christians and Jews, which pursues reconciliation between the two faiths at all levels.

Christian-Jewish dialogue is little more than thirty years old. Many Christians and Jews are unfamiliar with it and medieval views of the relationship still abound on both sides. After nearly two millennia of estrangement the burden of history weighs heavily on all of us. Jewish self-perception has been profoundly shaped by the unparalleled suffering of the twentieth century and many Jews are not moved to go beyond communal boundaries.

Despite considerable progress very few Jews have been prepared to reassess their views of Christianity: some leading Christian participants in dialogue have expressed frustration at this apparent lack of reciprocity from their Jewish colleagues. Apart from the defining influence of' Jewish memory, spiritual and practical considerations, notably the question of mission and evangelism, continue to weigh heavily. The 1974 Vatican guidelines for implementing Nostra aetate display a sensitive awareness of these problems. The relevant passage argues in favour of the benefits of' dialogue and mutual respect. It proceeds as follows:

In virtue of her divine mission, and her very nature, the Church must preach Jesus Christ to the world (Ad gentes 2). Lest the witness of Catholics for Jesus Christ should give offence to Jews, they must take care to live and spread their Christian faith while maintaining the strictest respect for religious liberty in line with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council (Declaration Dignitatis humanae ). They will likewise strive to understand the difficulties which arise for the Jewish soul - rightly imbued with an extremely high, pure notion of the Divine transcendence - when faced with the mystery of the incarnate Word.

It is a most striking insight derived from an acceptance that Jewish spirituality is manifest in an innate longing for the transcendent God, and that the mystery of the Incarnation is therefore beset with difficulties for the Jewish people.

A common meeting

Dialogue can no longer be confined to verbal exchange, and the document seeks to encourage 'a common meeting in the presence of God, in prayer and silent meditation - a highly efficacious way of finding that humility, that openness of heart and mind, necessary prerequisites for a deep knowledge of oneself and others'. We have taken leave of the realm of textual theology and discovered that religious perception is rooted in the affinity of the soul with the Divine.

In offering a Jewish commentary to the text, I argued that while its insight was profound and correct, it was not the whole truth: for traditional Jews pure transcendence co-exists with an equally powerful sense of the intimacy of God with his people Israel, a sense that reflects a knowledge of the divine love. 1

Nevertheless, the guidelines achieved a level of understanding that is vital for Christian-Jewish relations. Evangelists have argued for nearly two millennia from dogmatic sources, believing, even today, that only ignorance or recalcitrance can account for Jewish obduracy. In consequence they have not listened to the world that they have so passionately addressed and they have not understood that Judaism is a spiritual reality. Most Jews who have encountered them, particularly in the aftermath of the Holocaust, have heard only insensitivity and dogged incomprehension of a precious way of living faith.

Radically different perceptions

Jewish communal leaders entered into Christian-Jewish relations primarily to dispel age-old stereotypes and misunderstandings and achieve a more tolerant environment. History weighed heavily upon them and they were moved to talk with those noble and eminent Christian figures who sought reparation for the horrors of the past. Theological or inter-faith dialogue, as it is understood now, was not their primary objective. Even today, Jewish and Christian perceptions of dialogue are often radically different and Christians are perplexed by Jewish dismay when theology appears on the agenda. Outright evangelism by Christians is seen as a hostile act to be repelled rather than debated and missionaries evoke spectres of the past that are ever present in Jewish remembrance.

Christians have painstakingly reconstructed their images of Judaism over the last thirty years but obstacles still remain. Courses on modern Judaism are rare even on university campuses and one often encounters an underlying assumption that Judaism today is much the same as it was in Bible times; when rabbis visit schools children are still surprised to see them wearing normal everyday clothing, rather than garments appropriate for a journey in the wilderness. So many R.E. textbooks fail to move past external observance to the realm of the spiritual life beyond the practicalities. Teachers still make little use of prayer and liturgy, which can convey a most profound understanding of the life of the faithful, so Judaism - and other faith traditions - becomes unwittingly one-dimensional in comparison with Christianity.

It can be immensely difficult to grasp the religious constructs of a faith with which one is unfamiliar. Jewish law is a classic example. The Pauline vision of the Old Law infuses the relevant passages of the new Catechism. That law shows what must be done, but does not of itself give the strength, the grace of the Spirit, to fulfil it. Because of sin, which it cannot remove, it remains a law of bondage. Unlike its predecessor, the New Law works through charity. Acts of religion are no longer motivated by 'the desire to be seen by men'.

The New Law

The New Law is called a law of love because it makes us act out of the love infused by the Holy Spirit, rather than from fear; a law of grace because it confers the strength of grace to act by means of faith and sacraments; a law of freedom because it sets us free from the ritual and juridical obser- vances of the Old Law, inclines us to act spontaneously by the promptings of charity and, finally, lets us pass from the condition of a servant who does not know what his master is doing' to that of a friend of Christ . . . or even to the status of son and heir.

We learn that 'the Sabbath is the heart of Israel's law' whereas the entire law of the gospel is contained in the 'new commandment of Jesus to love one another as he has loved us'. The Old Law indeed prescribed charity, but it did not give the Holy Spirit 'through whom God's charity has been poured into our hearts'. The Old Law is not only powerless but it actually imparts sin, so enkindling a desire for the Holy Spirit to which the lamenta- tions of the Psalmists bear witness. 2

The 'Old Law' remains central to traditional Judaism, but no faithful Jew would recognise the Pauline portrayal that the catechists have adopted without question. It might well have been that Paul encountered Jews who fell short of the aspirations of their faith or misunderstood their own tradition. It is possible that in all of the complex diversity of first-century Judaism there were groups whose interpretation of the law was radically different from that of the classical rabbinic teachers, particularly in the communities of the Diaspora or among more extreme circles in the Holy Land. But whatever the background of Pauline thought, it does not reflect the vision that has inspired the Jewish people down the ages.

Every evening, observant Jews recite a brief blessing which encapsulates traditional responses to the Old Law, which is termed Torah, or teaching:

With everlasting love have you loved your people, the House of Israel. You have taught us Torah and commandments, laws and judgements. Therefore O Lord our God, we will speak of your laws, when we lie down and when we rise up, rejoicing for ever in your Torah and your commandments. For they are our life and the length of our days: we will meditate on them day and night. May your love be with us for all eternity. Blessed are you O Lord, who loves his people Israel.

This prayer, which might well have been known in some form by the first Christians, is largely derived from passages in Hebrew scripture. Deuteronomy, the Psalmists, King Solomon at the dedication of the first Temple, all inspired the liturgists to write a distillation that would guide ordinary worshippers for nearly two millennia, evoking a sense of the divine love as daylight faded away at the onset of evening.

One of the greatest modern rabbis, Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, has described the passion for Torah in these terms:

Halakha (Jewish Law) reversed the spiritual direction of homo religiosus. Instead of yearning to rise from below to above, from earth to heaven, from the images and shadows of reality to the plenitude of a lofty existence . . . Halakha occupied itself with the lower realms. When Halakhic man longs for God he does not venture to rise to Him, but rather strives to bring the Divine Presence into the midst of our concrete world . . . The idea of holiness . . . does not signify a transcendent realm completely and separately removed from reality . . . Holiness denotes the appearance of a mysterious transcendence in the midst of our concrete world, the 'descent' of God, whom no thought can grasp, onto Mount Sinai, the bending down of a hidden and concealed world and lowering it onto the face of reality.

R. Soloveitchik sees Halakha as humanity's task in the process of creation: the divine work is incomplete and it is left to humanity to bring holiness into every aspect of life, restoring the cosmos to its primeval sanctity. Such is the ultimate meaning of the mundane concerns of Jewish law. 3

I have addressed this matter at some length, as it is so fundamental to a clear understanding of traditional Judaism, and illustrates an immense lacuna in current Christian perceptions. But despite the many obstacles, Christian readers will rightly continue to seek reciprocity from their Jewish friends and ask with good reason whether Jewish thinkers will try to understand Christian tradition in similar depth.

Time and patience

Achieving normality in Christian-Jewish relations will take time and demands immense patience. Despite our having celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of Nostra aetate last year, serious dialogue is little more than two decades old, and has yet to engage the majority of our respective communities. Many Catholics and Jews are unfamiliar with Nostra aetate , let alone subsequent developments, and we continue to plead with clergy of both faiths to educate their people in the progress that has been made, and familiarise themselves with the documentation that has appeared. Several relevant sections of the new Catechism are helpful, and the recently published volume of the Pope's speeches on Jews and Judaism, appropriately entitled Spiritual Pilgrimage , must become a primary source for Christian and Jewish students. 4

From the Jewish point of view, the majority of our young people arc educated in the state secondary school system, and their knowledge of Christianity will be as good as the R.E. that those schools provide for them. Non-confessional religious education means that withdrawals from these classes are quite unusual, and progress can be reasonably expected. A small number of Jewish students have opted to study theology at university level, which is a quite radical departure, and Jewish leadership training projects are taking a clear interest in dialogue with other faith communities. The young men and women who attend CCJ conferences study Christian and Jewish sources in considerable depth, and have set aside the inhibitions of previous generations. They are often well educated in their own traditions and sometimes of very conservative outlook.

On the international front, two recent Jewish statements are relevant. In 1991, Rabbi Leon Klenicki published an essay entitled Towards a process of Healing: understanding the other as a person of God . Rabbi Klenicki, a noted participant in Christian-Jewish dialogue in the United States, spoke of the difficult historical resonances evoked by the cross of a nearby church. But when he saw a young woman reading her New Testament he observed that:

She studies it prayerfully as I do my own tradition every morning. I empathise with her spirituality, I feel that we share something mysterious, though committed in different ways. Perhaps she might not understand my spirituality, even deny it, but we are together in God. I feel the need to understand the other as a person of God. Can it be done? Can I really be a religious person putting aside a fellow community that is rooted in my own allegiance to God . . . Can I look into the First Century and neglect to see God's call to Jesus and the early Christians? Can the pain of history alienate me as it did Christians for centuries? 5

Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a well-known American Jewish teacher, writing in 1994, visited Sri Lanka and was moved by a group of Scandinavian Christians who had Ieft affluent lives behind to set up a little village for brain-damaged children. He had previously contrasted Judaism with the demands of an unreasonable and unworldly Christianity, using celibacy as a countermodel to the Jewish family ethic. Having encountered the Scandinavians he began to ask himself whether he had been 'too reasonable' in his expectations of himself and his community. He remained doubtful about the monastic life, but noted that 'it strikes me that my own Jewishness could grow so much more by taking seriously the sacrificial models offered by Christianity instead of trying to score points at Christian expense'. 6

Moving beyond history

Both of these admittedly personal observations are very new in Jewish discourse. Klenicki, a veteran of Christian-Jewish dialogue, spoke in powerful terms of the images of contempt for his people evoked by the cross. But he is gradually moving beyond history in his encounters with the Christianity of the present. Greenberg's essay also notes how historical experience governed Jewish perspectives; recognising the passing of that experience enables him to make a new theological assessment of Christianity seen 'without the filters of stereotypes and defensiveness', albeit in terms that are markedly different from the Christian self-perception.

One should not make too much of these statements, but, as Christian-Jewish relations normalise, they might well become more representative than is currently the case. In the meantime, those involved in Christian-Jewish dialogue should be patient and understanding: the shadows of the past still fall heavily upon us, and the process of healing will take several generations.

1. J. Gorski, 'A Jewish Response to the Decade of Evangelism', in The Way. October I994, pp.283-292.
2. Catechism of the Catholic Church Geoffrey Chapman. 1994. Especially paragraphs 577-582, 708-70, 1963-1972 on law, paragraph 348 on the centrality of Sabbath.
3. J.B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man JPS, Philadelphia, 1983, pp.44-46, 101-105.
4. E.J. Fisher and L. Klenicki (eds.). Pope John Paul II: Spiritual Pilgrimage: texts on Jews and Judaism 1979-1995 Crossroad, New York, 1995.
5. L. Klenicki (ed.), Towards Theological Encounter: Jewish Understandings of Christianity Paulist Press, 1991, pp 1-2
6. E.J. Fisher (ed. ), Visions of the Other: Jewish and Christian theologians assess the dialogue Paulist Press, 1994, pp.24-25.

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