The traditions that separate Christians and Jews

From a speech by Cambridge theologian Nicholas de Lange to the Remembering for the Future conference about the Holocaust, in Oxford
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The Independent Online

The remarkably rapid growth of understanding and trust between Jews and Christians of the Latin tradition, particularly since the 1960s, has thrown into relief the very slow rate of progress in dialogue between Jews and Christians of the Greek tradition. To some extent the uneasy relationship of the Orthodox churches with the Jewish people echoes the state of their involvement in the ecumenical movement too, and it would no doubt be unreasonable to expect Orthodox Christians to be more forward in seeking reconciliation with the Jews than with their own Christian brethren.

The remarkably rapid growth of understanding and trust between Jews and Christians of the Latin tradition, particularly since the 1960s, has thrown into relief the very slow rate of progress in dialogue between Jews and Christians of the Greek tradition. To some extent the uneasy relationship of the Orthodox churches with the Jewish people echoes the state of their involvement in the ecumenical movement too, and it would no doubt be unreasonable to expect Orthodox Christians to be more forward in seeking reconciliation with the Jews than with their own Christian brethren.

But this ground must be covered, however arduous the work. After all, we are not dealing with a minor or marginal component in the Christian family of churches. Not only numerically, but historically, theologically and in every other respect the Orthodox churches occupy a major position at the heart of Christendom. Without wishing to reactivate old wars, in the Orthodox Church, we are brought face to face with authentic Christian traditions going back without interruption to the early Church (indeed in some ways this is a real problem in dialogue with Judaism).

Supersessionism is the name that has come into use for the belief, which can be traced back to the early Church, that the coming of Christ and the establishment of Christianity renders Judaism obsolete and redundant. I have called it a belief, and it is indeed a belief, which is expressed with great power and rhetorical skill by the Fathers of the Church and by later writers. But it is also an attitude of mind, and as such it is perhaps just as dangerous and even harder to dislodge.

However venerable its pedigree, supersessionism must be dislodged if there is to be any true meeting between Christians and Jews. Otherwise there is not enough common ground for a discussion to take place. This has been widely recognised by Catholics and Protestants involved in dialogue, even if it has yet to take root in the minds of a wider Christian public, and it needs to be understood clearly by all Orthodox participants in the encounter with Judaism. Moreover, the basic conditions for inter-religious dialogue are lacking when one side is of the belief, rightly or wrongly, that the aim of the other in engaging in dialogue is evangelical. This has been one of the gravest obstacles to dialogue between Christians and Jews in the past.

"Murderers of the Lord" or "God-killers" is an epithet for Jews in general in the writings of the Church Fathers and in the Orthodox liturgy for Holy Week. The historical as well as the theological justification for such an expression is dubious in the extreme, but more importantly it has been used as the excuse for violent acts perpetrated by Christians against Jews down the ages to our own time, and it is a serious barrier to encounter between Christians and Jews. It is not alone. Many other adjectives which would not be admitted in polite conversation and are deliberately calculated to provoke hatred are applied to "the Jews" by the Fathers and by subsequent Orthodox preachers. The Western churches have finally recognised the need to avoid such language and where necessary to excise it from liturgies, but nothing of the sort has been done on the Orthodox side.

When one begins to discuss these issues with Orthodox theologians, it immediately becomes apparent that the fundamental problem is not so much that of ingrained prejudice as the place of tradition within Orthodoxy. Tradition is one of the fundamental pillars of Orthodoxy, and I believe that Jews, particularly Orthodox Jews, must be sensitive to the problems that this raises. These problems are far from being confined to the relations between Jews and Christians, but stand in the way of all change.

In Orthodox Christianity, as in Orthodox Judaism, tradition has come to be venerated for its own sake, and there is consequently felt to be licence to reject all reform or change. I do not know how this extreme attitude can be overcome, either in Christians or in Jews, but unless it is overcome I do not see how any real dialogue or rapprochement can take place.

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