Faith & Reason: Time for Jews to look beyond the Holocaust

The interplay between Judaism and Christianity is more subtle than modern politics often allows - as a revisiting of the common sources will show
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The Independent Culture
THESE ARE the Days of Awe, the week which culminates in the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, during which time Jews consider their failings during the past year, fast for 24 hours and pray to God for forgiveness. It is, therefore, a suitable time to reflect on relations between Jews and Christians, the theme of a conference organised recently by the Centre for Jewish- Christian Relations in Cambridge.

Two immense events of the 20th century combine to provide a dual focus to relations between the two religions today: the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. Both sparked an intense desire among many Christians and Jews to learn about Jewish-Christian relations. However, as has been pointed out by Remi Hoekman, Secretary of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, there are dangers when the agenda becomes dominated by either one of these subjects.

Focusing solely on the Holocaust produces a distorted view for both sides. Jews can construct out of it a negative Jewish identity which, without the positive side of Judaism, will not be a value to be handed down over the generations. Christians can come away with an exclusive picture of the Jew as victim, without an awareness of the positive aspects of Jewish culture.

Focusing solely on the State of Israel, by contrast, reduces Jewish-Christian relations to the Zionist issue with the danger that those Christians, and secular Jews, who are unsympathetic to Israeli political stances risk dismissing the richness of the Jewish cultural and religious inheritance.

In any case there are, increasingly, other issues arising prompted by the growth of a New Europe and the collapse of Communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe. On the positive side no one can doubt that the Catholic Church today has a far more constructive attitude to Judaism than ever before. Numerous recent Vatican documents now speak of the need for Christians to understand Jews as Jews rather than seeing them merely as potential converts. There is also a new sense of the importance to Catholics of understanding that their religion grows out of Judaism and that, without an understanding of it, they cannot properly understand their own faith.

On the downside it is evident that many of the new teachings are still not percolating down from the Vatican to the pew. In Poland, for example semi-ignorant clergy continue to teach Catholicism with attitudes towards Jews and Judaism which differ little from the traditional teaching of contempt. Some promising work is being done, particularly by the Jesuits in Cracow, but there is still an uphill task fighting anti-Semitism as the controversy over the crosses erected at Auschwitz makes clear - it took an act of parliament eventually to get them removed.

In interesting contrast to all this are the relations between Jews and the Orthodox Church. In the West, the Holocaust forced a reassessment of Christian attitudes towards Jews and Judaism, but that has not been the case among the Orthodox. The Orthodox liturgy, in particular, is problematic, particularly at Easter time; references to "the perfidious Jew" have not been deleted as they have in Protestant and Catholic liturgies and the Orthodox Prayer for the Jews remains predatory in tone. On the other hand Orthodox Christianity retains a sense of the unity of the Old and New Testaments which Western Christianity has lost with its creation of false dichotomies between the Law and the Gospel, or the God of Justice versus the God of Love. This perhaps offers a more fruitful basis for the reassessment of Jewish-Christian relations in the East and is something which Western Christians could attend to.

Dialogue between the faiths is not an optional add-on. Rather it sits within the mainstream of both religions. From a Christian perspective the conundrum which the apostle Paul "the mystery of Israel" remains: the paradox that God cannot have given up on his covenant with the chosen people and yet Jews cannot see Christ as the Messiah.

From a Jewish perspective, however, the situation is more complicated. At first glance, there is no reason to view the relationship with Christianity as more special than the relationship with any other faith group. This view is reinforced by the popular assumption that the influence was wholly one way: Christianity did not influence Judaism; rather, Judaism influenced the development of Christianity.

Yet, in fact, the influence was not one way; Jewish scholars increasingly are coming to appreciate the influence of Christianity on Rabbinic Judaism. This is particularly important because Orthodox and Progressive Jews view Rabbinic Judaism as the cornerstone of Judaism today. Recent research has shown that in ancient times on the basis of a shared textual tradition - the Bible - Jews and Christians took part in a sort of dialogue, which could only occur because dialogue stood in the mainstream of Jewish life.

This points to the way forward. Jews should be willing to examine the writings of the Church in this new light. Christians for their part must learn about Rabbinic Judaism and the continuing history of Judaism. Seminaries should not only offer courses in Judaism but should consider rabbinic interpretations of scripture. Some seminaries and theology departments are addressing these needs. But hardly anywhere is this effectively integrated into the curriculum. Only when that happens will real progress have been made.

Dr Edward Kessler is Executive Director at the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations, Cambridge