Repairing the Jewish-Christian breach

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18th-century portrait of Maimonides

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18th-century portrait of Maimonides

18th-century portrait of Maimonides

18th-century portrait of Maimonides

Fifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council effected the most important repair of Jewish-Christian relations since the two sides parted ways in antiquity. Pope John XXIII had laid the groundwork by getting rid of the Good Friday prayer for the “perfidious (faithless) Jews,” but in the fourth section of Nostra Aetate — the Declaration of the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions — Roman Catholicism went where it had never gone before, repudiating the charge of Jewish deicide and abjuring all expressions of anti-Semitism.

Marking the anniversary of Nostra Aetate last week, the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews — which  for 40 years years has fostered increasingly amicable ones — issued “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable,” a theological essay that takes its title from chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Romans, where the Apostle Paul informs his Gentile audience that “all Israel will be saved.” Embracing something like this Pauline position, the essay declares that the Church must therefore refrain from conducting or supporting missions to the Jews.

Not that the economy of Jewish salvation is clear. “That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery,” it asserts.

Taking this mystical via negativa represents a significant if not (yet?) official departure for a tradition that much prefers scholastic positivism. Catholic theology may, however, have no better approach.

Meanwhile, on the Jewish side, 25 Orthodox rabbis from Israel, Europe, and the U.S. also marked the anniversary of Nostra Aetate by issuing a statement recognizing the role of Christianity in God’s plan: “Now that the Catholic Church has acknowledged the eternal Covenant between G-d and Israel,” they write, “we Jews can acknowledge the ongoing constructive validity of Christianity as our partner in world redemption, without any fear that this will be exploited for missionary purposes.”

That’s pretty good for a bunch of Orthodox rabbis, to be sure from the liberal end of the spectrum. And give them credit for working hard to find statements from Jewish tradition to support their position, including by the two greatest Jewish writers of the Middle Ages: “As did Maimonides and Yehudah Halevi,[1] we acknowledge that Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations.”

OK, that’s a bit of a stretch. Halevi’s alleged acknowledgement comes from the Kuzari, a dialogue among representatives of the three Abrahamic religions and the king of the Central Asian Khazars who is trying to figure out which religion to embrace. in Book 4, section 22, the king praises the Christians and Muslims (as opposed to the Jews) for valuing humility and martyrdom over power and material prosperity.

As for Maimonides, the rabbis cite a passage from his codification of Jewish law (the Mishneh Torah) that Jewish authorities in 17th-century Europe censored because of its hostile view of Christianity. After noting that Jesus “aspired to be the Messiah,” the sage writes:

Can there be a greater stumbling block than [Christianity]? All the prophets spoke of the Messiah as the Redeemer of Israel and its Savior, who would gather their dispersed and strengthen [their observation of ] the Mitzvot [the commandments]. By contrast, [Christianity] caused the Jews to be slain by the sword, their remnant to be scattered and humbled, the Torah to be altered and the majority of the world to err and serve a god other than the Lord. Nevertheless, the intent of the Creator is not within the power of man to comprehend, for His ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts, our thoughts. [Ultimately,] all the deeds of Yeshua of Nazareth and that Ishmaelite [Muhammad] who arose after him will only serve to prepare the way for the Messiah’s coming and the improvement of the entire world [motivating the nations] to serve God together, as [Zephanaiah 3.9] states: I will make the peoples pure of speech that they will all call upon the Name of God and serve him with one purpose.”

You’d have to say that, as unfathomable mysteries go, that’s about as unfathomable as it gets for Jews. But as with “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable,” the via negativa is often the theological way forward.

  • drwho13

    That’s very generous of religious leaders.

    They’re slowly catching up with us layman who believe that God has a place for all people of goodwill.

  • samuel johnston

    “It all boils down to bad chemicals, and bad ideas.” Kurt Vonnegut
    Bad Ideas:
    1. Man is a special creation, in which the god(s) have a unique regard
    2. Your tribe is special to the god(s)
    3. Your prophet can speak to, and for, the god(s)
    4. Earthly disasters, and the rescues therefrom, are the results of human actions
    being judged by the god(s)
    5. Unlike the rest of living things, humans have a spirit that will never die
    6. The god(s) made the men, instead of the other way around, despite all the suppporting evidence to the contrary
    So Mark, why do you take all this nonsense seriously? Tradition?Family? Do you dare speak the truths of which you are convinced?

  • drwho13

    There’s hope! “The Second Coming” (genetic engineering).

  • Interesting that the first controversy in the church wAs over whether it was right to “proselytize” Gentiles. I don’t believe hat the Jews are eternally guilty of “killing Christ” most Protestants don’t. At the same time, Christ did not say, “I am the way the truth and the life; no Gentile comes to the Father but through me.” The Church is under no obligation to confine its Gospel sharing to Gentiles.

  • Most of Christ’s claims concerning Himself were addressed to Jews.

  • For the record, the Commission statement makes clear that Catholics should feel free to witness to their faith to Jews, but carefully.

  • samuel johnston

    “…Christ did not say, “I am the way the truth and the life;…”
    No, and Jesus did not say it either, according to most current scholarly opinion.
    Fundies and literalists, scorn any opinion that does not conform to their sect’s
    speculations. It is particularly odd that historically, Protestants accused the Catholic Church of every ruse. crime, and fraud, yet cling to the book that they created to confor to their worldview as if IT, was the Gospel, rather that the teachings of the historical Jesus. Oh well, once you drink the Kool Aid……

  • How are we to know then what He did or did not say? Is He God the Son, or just a prophet? Does He endors the rest of the Scriptures? Historical Christians believe that what the Bible teaches, Jesus s teaches.

  • samuel johnston

    Funny, if the written word is so important, why did Jesus never write anything down for his followers?
    Sorry, but I get the impression that guys like you never think at all.
    Historical Christians thought all sorts of things. The Church sorted the information, and edited it. The organization supressed whatever they did not like. They persucuted those who were guilty of merely having a different opinion. Your preacher just glosses the whole history over, and pretends he knows it all. Get thee to a library and READ!

  • charles hoffman

    Breaches could have been repaired 1800 years ago. Now, all that’s necessary is mutual respect.
    The world of Christianity encompasses over 1.5 billion people; that is more than 125 times the world Jewish population. Jews will never exert influence over world Christianity, but Judaism could easily be subsumed into Christendom

    Leave us alone to practice our faith; don’t force conversion on us or prevent us from living in peace; we’ll do the same for you

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