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Arguments for Easter: It is time to tackle the Gospel's scorn for Jews

When Passover and Passion coincide, the problems between Christians and Jews can be highlighted. But so too can the path toward solutions
THIS WEEK, unusually, two Jewish and Christian festivals coincide. The Passion of Christ and the Passover commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt are celebrated at the same time. Once this was the norm. The early Christians fixed the date of Easter by reference to the time of Passover. But in AD 325, at the Council of Nicaea, the Early Church decided no longer to rely on the Jewish calendar and changed the date of Easter to the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.

It is generally assumed that the Last Supper was a Passover meal and many churches today attempt to re-enact the Seder meal, which is the basis for the Jewish Passover celebration. It is all part of an increasing awareness among Christians of the Jewish roots of Jesus - not only was Jesus born a Jew; he lived and died a Jew and also his first followers were, of course, Jews.

Christianity developed out of Judaism and cannot be understood without an understanding of that. The serious study of Judaism as a living faith, and its relationship with Christianity are therefore an essential non-marginal part of Christian formation today. A Vatican directive states:

Christians must strive to acquire a better knowledge of the basic components of the religious tradition of Judaism; they must learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in light of their own religious experience.

Similar pronouncements have been made by the Anglican and Free Churches.

Some seminaries and theology departments are addressing these needs. But most ignore it, lack competence, or treat it as an "optional extra, time permitting". Hardly anywhere is the new theology on Jews and Judaism effectively integrated into the curriculum.

Jews also cannot escape their obligations in the new framework and this includes an examination of Jewish education concerning Christians and Christianity. In Jewish classrooms, little has been done to change negative or infantile perceptions of Christianity. To achieve this goal Jewish scholars need to examine Christianity and create their own theology of Christianity. It is understandable that some Jews look upon dialogue with an element of mistrust, perhaps viewing it as a veiled attempt at Christian conversion, but some Christians are starting to ask, "We have made many changes and offered new thinking, isn't it your turn now to respond?"

In practical terms this means that for both Jews and Christians difficult issues must be tackled. Christians should tackle the fact that the plain text of the New Testament leaves the Jews in a position of inferiority and will induce feelings, if not of genocide, then of scorn. Perhaps a commentary to the New Testament should be produced, sensitive to the Jewish- Christian relationship, which can be used for the purpose of educating the parishioner, as well as the priest.

For Jews, difficult issues that need to be tackled include the need to abandon the immediate reaction of shouting "anti-Semite" when facing criticism of Israel; the need to accept that, in the history of Jewish- Christian relations, polemic has not always been one-sided; the need to realise that the New Testament is primarily a Jewish book about the life and actions of Jews.

But this exchange must be placed in the mainstream of religious life. Many people talk about the need for dialogue but very few are involved in it. And those who are active often take solely an academic stance. Inter-faith dialogue undoubtedly has an academic content but it is far more than that. If it is limited to an anaemic interchange of ideas and historical facts it will simply serve as an instructive exercise in comparative religion rather than as an example of the practice of inter-faith dialogue.

Such a quest is not easy because it is not simply a matter of talking to the "other" or considering how the "other" differs from "us". Rather it means taking the "other" as seriously as we take ourselves. This is immensely difficult and costly and we find it all too easy either to relate to others in a casual way or to reject (or ignore) the "other's" arguments.

Perhaps we can learn from Franz Rosenzweig, a German Jewish theologian, who wrote an important book 80 years ago called The Star of Redemption. For Rosenzweig dialogue consisted of the ability to articulate and demonstrate both awareness and comprehension of another person. He called this "sprachdenken", meaning not just talking but making something happen through words.

I read the book many years ago but one story has always remained with me.

Rosenzweig was asked to comment on the statement from the Gospel of John that none could reach God except through Christ. Rosenzweig did not reject the verse out of hand because it was valid for many Christians who held it dearly. Indeed, he said that millions of people had been led to God through Christ. But he suggested that the situation was quite different for one who did not have to reach for God because he was already with Him. "Shall I be comforted, I who have been chosen? Does the alternative of conversion even exist for me?" Rosenzweig's answer is a sign of dialogue in action.

Edward Kessler is Director of the Centre for Jewish-Christian Relations in Cambridge