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Jewish-Christian Dialogue Today

Medieval Christian-Jewish disputation.

How do today's Jews and Christians encounter one another? The most obvious way is in the countless interactions of Jewish and Christian colleagues and acquaintances in a host of daily settings, including exchanges on their respective religious attitudes and experiences. More specifically, there are the ties of many evangelical and other Christian groups with the state of Israel. Then there are the formal and by-now common meetings between clergy of the two religious traditions, as well as higher-level institutional ties that resemble a kind of ongoing ecclesiastical diplomacy. There are also collaborations and/or friendly debates among communal representatives on issues of shared concern.

Relevant Links
Dabru Emet  Jewish-Christian Relations. “It is time for Jews to learn about the efforts of Christians to honor Judaism . . . [and] to reflect on what Judaism may now say about Christianity.”
How Not to Conduct Jewish-Christian Dialogue  Jon D. Levenson, Commentary. A much-hailed statement about Christianity, signed by dozens of rabbis and scholars, evades the profound differences between the two faiths. (2001)
“Confrontation” Then and Now  Boston College. A website offering Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s original 1964 essay and the proceedings of a conference that revisited it 40 years later.

Not to be neglected are discussions among well-informed scholars and thinkers navigating the middle ground between the normative claims of revealed truths and the open-ended texture of secular reasoning. One such meeting took place last week at Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute, where, for two days, Jewish and Christian philosophers and theologians discussed the topic of "Covenant, Conversion, and Hope in the Human Future." The meeting was the third in a series in the U.S. and Israel under the auspices of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, an organization created by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a leading figure of modern Orthodoxy.  Like most conclaves of this kind in Western countries, the tone throughout was friendly and engaging—though the furies swirling in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the region and beyond were never far out of mind.

No such meeting would be conceivable without the modern sea-change in Christian attitudes toward Jews. True, the 19th and early-20th centuries saw burgeoning forms of Jewish-Christian amity and even philo-Semitism, aided on the Jewish side by the ground-breaking ideas of Franz Rosenzweig, for whom Judaism and Christianity constituted distinct but also complementary revelations. But it was the Holocaust that compelled many Christians fundamentally to rethink historical attitudes and teachings.

The major turning point was the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), where, after much deliberation and negotiation, the Catholic Church formally renounced the millennial charge that "the Jews" were responsible for the crucifixion; condemned anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish discrimination generally; and affirmed "the community of all peoples" as God's creatures. While the declaration did not go as far as many Jews had hoped, it triggered waves of what came to be known as Jewish-Christian dialogue. 

Not all Jewish thinkers took up the offer. In "Confrontation," a seminal 1964 essay, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik asserted that while dialogue on social and ethical concerns was to be welcomed, theological discussions were a different matter altogether; the ends of good will and mutual respect, he argued, were best served when each faith community pursued the divine-human encounter on its own intimate terms rather than trying to reformulate its doctrines in terms set by external faiths or the majority culture.

In the ensuing decades, Protestant and Catholic theologians have offered new readings of their traditions that make room for Jews as partners and teachers in the religious life. Similarly, Jewish thinkers, including some leading traditionalists, have looked for ways to forge common philosophical and theological understandings with Christians while maintaining the integrity of their differences. One particularly notable outcome was the publication in 2000 of Dabru Emet ("Speak Truth"), a declaration by a number of well-respected Jewish scholars urging a Jewish reassessment: Christianity, it said, while remaining out of bounds for believing Jews, ought to be seen by them as offering a genuine and compelling interpretation of the Bible for non-Jews. Interestingly, some of the most trenchant critics of Dabru Emet were Jewish scholars of Christianity who contended that such ecumenicism undermined the integrity not only of historical Jewish belief but of Christianity itself. 

All this was background to the Van Leer conference. There, the eminent theologian Robert Jensen forthrightly acknowledged belief in the resurrection of Jesus as an impassable divide between Judaism and Christianity; yet that divide, he argued, need not preclude the conviction that an eternal God can enter as He chooses into covenants with more than one human community, each in its own way. Gerald McDermott of Roanoke College, parsing the differences between, on the one hand, public dialogue and witness and, on the other hand, the more private matter of conversion, defined the former as a common search for truth in the light of God's word, with each party conveying ("witnessing to") the truth as it sees it. The latter, suggested Jensen, positioning himself against the practice by many contemporary Christians of actively proselytizing for Jewish converts, is a matter of God's own work in the individual soul. As for Jewish proselytizing, David Novak, a leading figure in Jewish-Christian dialogue and one of the authors of Dabru Emet, argued that Jews are meant to be a light for, and not to, the nations; proselytizing, besides doing unto Gentiles what Jews do not appreciate being done unto themselves, can tempt Jews into too-easy a proclamation of their own righteousness. 

Of course, conversion to Judaism is also one of the most internally contentious issues of our time—and, in Israel, far from a private affair, pitting the chief rabbinate and ultra-Orthodox officialdom against the authorities of religious Zionism and non-Orthodox movements. Although the conference touched upon this subject, a different intramural debate among Orthodox rabbis was in some ways at its heart.

To Riskin and his colleague Eugene Korn, Jews and Christians share a covenant: a joint mission of witness to the world, inherited from Abraham, whose walking with God long before the revelation at Sinai lit the way to Christianity. By contrast, Naftali Rotenberg argued that the Jewish covenant does not join Jews to Christians but rather marks their respective boundaries. If, he said, there is a shared biblical patriarch to whom one can look for shared patrimony, it is not Abraham but Noah. For, in rabbinic tradition, the covenant received by Noah after the Flood entailed fundamental principles of natural law that can indeed serve as the basis for a universal morality, binding on Jews and Gentiles in all their diversities.

Too easy an erasure of differences for the sake of comity, Rotenberg warned, leaves both Jews and Christians adrift in a faceless universal sea. To which one might add another temptation: drawing too much satisfaction from Christian romanticizations of Judaism can have the effect of turning Jews, in Gershom Scholem's phrase, into mere symbols in somebody else's myth.   

We are back to Soloveitchik, for whom the shared exploration of ethical issues opens ample enough room for dialogue—and, incidentally, offers its own invitation to theology, since morality as we understand it may be untenable without a religious foundation. At the conference, Russell Reno of First Things powerfully depicted the way in which the widespread abandonment of both the moral law and religious values has yielded what he termes "the Empire of Desire": a desolate, post-modern kingdom in which practically all human activity is subsumed under the rubric of the individual's wants, reinforced in different ways by the market and the culture. In this respect, as Darlene Weaver of Villanova suggested, religion may offer a way forward by recasting the Empire of Desire as a form of human frailty ("social sin"), and holding out the faith, that God, working His will through human fellow feeling, can indeed teach us, perhaps not how to perfect the world, but how to share it with one another.

The Van Leer conference proceeded explicitly in the shadow of a different faith, Islam, many of whose members today are, to say the least, uninterested in sharing the world, and are both afflicted and infected with hatred of Jews. It also proceeded, mostly but not entirely implicitly, in the shadow of a less well-known but again virulent dispensation, one that, in both religious and non-religious circles, has gained increasing traction among Western intellectuals. This has been dubbed "neo-Paulinism," after the apostle Paul's proclamation that through Jesus all are united in a universal communion in which "there is neither Jew nor Greek." To today's neo-Paulines, of whom the most influential are Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, Jewish collective existence—especially when wedded to statehood—is the great stumbling block to the reign of universal ethics, and Jews can only justify their existence by receding to the vanishing point. No mere faculty-lounge prattle, this malignant idea fuels the charge that Israel and the Jews are, among all of humanity, uniquely immoral and illegitimate. 

Contemplating the grim specters of radical Islam and today's mutating forms of Western anti-Semitism, conference participants were all the readier to turn to its third theme: hope. As one such participant, I suggested that, for Jews, hope begins with the recognition of the Jewish people's irreducibly dual nature as at once particular and universal: one very specific family, whose insistence on its own integrity is of the essence of its moral message to all humanity. Judaism shares with others much of the substance of its ethics, in which both love and justice have their place. While it may not share the substance of its ritual life—that is, the commandments "between man and God"—it does, in a subtle but crucial sense, share their form.

For it is universally the case that, if one is to have a relationship with God that is truly one's own, one must root oneself in a body of practices layered in a given language, history, mythology, people, place, and culture. If, in ethics, we limn the face of others, in ritual we limn the specific contours of our own faces, and of God's face as He appears to us. In the perpetuation of that dual countenance lies the hope of Israel, and its hope for the world.

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Ellen on February 21, 2011 at 9:48 am (Reply)
Jewish-Christian dialogue of this sort is very important, increasingly important in fact, as the collapse of competing secular ideologies becomes near total. The attitude of secular and liberal Jews for most of the last 200 years has been that no dialogue with believing Christians is possible, and therefore the only hope for Jewish-Christian reconciliation is through promoting secularism and in fact, atheism, as the cure for religious differences.

Needless to say, this turns out to be a pyrrhic victory for the Jewish community, as secularism did not succeed in ridding the world of antisemitism (the worst antisemites were antiChristian Nazis and Marxists) but it did serve to undermine Jewish faith and commitment to their own community and purpose. Without religious belief, Jewish communities of the diaspora and ultimately Israel would have no reason for their own existence. That this dead-end approach never seemed to occur to liberal Jews tells us something of their intellectual honesty and understanding of their own cultural tradition.

American Christianity is very different from European Christianity and the hope for fruitful dialogue between Christians and Jews can only take place because of the rise in dominance of America as a power, and as a society where multitudes still take Christianity seriously. In Europe they don't, but they still hate Jews anyway. This rules out most Europeans from such a dialogue, but does emphasize that American leadership in these matters is essential in confronting the twin antagonist of both Christianity and Judaism today - which is atheism and secular materialism.
Ron Broxted on February 21, 2011 at 11:42 am (Reply)
You are better off with the Protestants! At best there is less "Judenhetze", though Luther's quotes on synagogues are very C16th. I attended a Calvinist church in Northern Ireland, Jews are either looked on as Christians who have yet to be converted or as the kin of Jesus.
Penza on February 21, 2011 at 11:47 am (Reply)
This is a lost cause. A billion Christians worship a Jew but despise the Jews. A billion Muslims also despise the Jews. And a tiny number of Jews, about 13 million.. Two billion against 13 million. These are not good odds for survival no matter how many conferences and seas of change there are. The odds for survival of the Muslims and Christians are very high even with future jihad and crusades. But for the Jew, a tiny tiny minority in the world, things are not looking up.This is very depressing but these are the facts. No conference, no discussions are going to change things. The Jews need to understand this and come up with something better than conferences to deal with survival.
Gershon Ron on February 21, 2011 at 6:44 pm (Reply)
Because the instinct to survive is a comon concern of all,{all other concerns can be deduced back to the instinct of survival} including animals and vegetation. One commandment {DO NOT KILL and DO NOT THREATEN PHYSICALLY OR EMOTIONALLY} would be sufficient. To quote Irvin E. Yarom "The life is a spark between to voids, the darkness before one was born and the darkness after ones death" Because the spark ends in void of darkness, the spark itself is void. The problem to solve is how to SURVIVE and not to eat each other.
Arthur NYC on February 21, 2011 at 7:06 pm (Reply)
Jews and Christians can talk, but the Soloveitchik quote was most apt - as long as the discussion is about ethics, history, social relations and so on, there is a world of agreement, but when it comes to the differences in religious beliefs, since Jews don't agree among themselves about what is Judaism and what is the right way to practice, and Christians disagree among themselves about the nature of their religion and practice, how can we expect Jews and Christians to discuss religion and theology. It is more likely we can teach each other what we believe, but not much more.
This web site is devoted to the subject and has much material worth reading:
mattis kantor on February 22, 2011 at 8:36 am (Reply)
Allow me, please, to give an abstracted "scientific" analysis of "Dialogue".

Having researched the total of Jewish History (see it appears to me that repeatedly, the energies of Jewish survival lie, sociologically, in the center. Meaning:

Let's portray and view every sociological group as a circle, which seems appropriate, for it is certainly not a line. A line is the shortest distance between two points, which is an exclusionary configuration to the extreme. A circle can be said to be the longest distance between two points. (Not in a measurable formula, but as a theoretical paradigm.) Hence a circle can encompass all that is desired by the creator of the circle. By definition it is as inclusive as you choose or you wish. On the other hand, it is also exclusionary. Either you are in, or you are out.

The center of the sociological circle is occupied by those who are most active in the “purposes” of the group. The outer circumference is the domain of those who have less involvement or a waning involvement. Those at the circumference border, because of their “location”, are conscious and even concerned, about those outside the border. There are three basic manifestations of this. To attempt to blur the line of distinction by seeking the common ground with the exterior (or by easing the entry into the circle); to veer across the line of distinction; to battle and/or decry any outside implication that is negative to the “circle-dwellers”.

The absolute release of/from social boundaries, which the U.S. Constitution enabled (if not fully delivered) has the “fence dwellers” at the circumference of the Jewish circle, depressed at what they see. The circumference is barely a “virtual” boundary (inter-marriage statistics, anyone?) There are attempts to restructure and/or redefine the Jewish boundary by many who have crossed it and embraced an “intellectual” expression of universalism, which, is merely a different circle with a larger circumference. (Illustration: What happens when someone decides they want a marriage certificate with their dog? It may be an unbalanced person who attempts this, but the challenge will be in full gear, and the circumference will be begging redefinition outwards. [Anyone hugged a tree lately?])

Those at the center of the circle, are often oblivious of the battles, the dialogues, or the border crossings. They are focused inwards. In Judaism that implies “Yiddishkeit” – as it is called at the center. (Post-Zionism is established; the kibbutz is dead. Among the 377 new IDF officers who received their ranks in Mitzpeh Ramon last week are 18 females (4.8%) and 83 religious officers (22%).)

Watching the border crossings can be depressing for someone who chooses to be active -but not “inner-circle” active. The future of survival appears bleak. (One wonders whether the “Elders of the Hellenists” were similarly depressed.)

Question: What sub-group in the Jewish circle has the highest birth rate?

At the center of the sociological circle genus Jewish, the problem is how to accommodate the exponential growth. Dialogue with Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Bhuddism? Huh? Why? For what purpose?

My history (Codex Judaica) documentation was an attempt to convey a highly accurate historical view from the center (where “History” as a subject of study, did not not compete with "Torah", in fact did not even get a seat at the back of the bus. “History” became a project of the Jewish Enlightenment, intelligentsia populating the regions of the border.) Fortunately, acclamations (and sales) have been extremely complimentary.

mattis kantor, Editor in Chief at Zichron Press
Ian Thal on February 22, 2011 at 12:39 pm (Reply)
"[S]ecularism did not succeed in ridding the world of antisemitism (the worst antisemites were anti[-]Christian Nazis and Marxists) but it did serve to undermine Jewish faith and commitment to their own community and purpose."

According to census data from 1940, 95% of Germans were still church- going Christians. While there may have disagreements between church and government leaders, for the vast majority of Germans there was little conflict between the two. In fact, many notable theologians and clergymen gave support to Germany's anti-Semitic policies- at least in the early years.

So typifying Nazism as "anti-Christian" is historically inaccurate.
Ellen on February 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm (Reply)
No European country had a 95% church-going population in 1940, and that piece of data would never be recorded in a census. 95% probably refers to the population that considered itself nominally Christian.

If we look at contemporary Europe where church attendance is in the 2-20% range, we see that antiSemitic attitudes are far more prevalent than belief in Christianity. This means that antiSemitism has clearly outlived Christianity for most Europeans. This doesn't surprise me, given the nature of European culture, so heavily weighted towards hatred, not tolerance. It matches very accurately with the attitudes of Middle Eastern Muslims, where religion is mostly about hatred of others, rather than love or a sense of community with one's own.

This is the difference between America and Europe and why the two are drifting apart at a very rapid rate. Americans used to define themselves by ethnicity or race, but now it is mostly by attitudes toward religion. That's the one principal of communal life that has survived the age of consumerism and assimilation. This is the common ground upon which serious Jews and Christians must meet, but as I said, I do not see a European role in this endeavor at all.

The great Christian communities in the world in the 21st century will be America, Africa, Latin America, and possibly China. Europe will be a museum piece. The centers of Jewish life will be mainly Israel and America, and the liberal strands of Judaism themselves will largely become museum pieces, as well. Such is the odd path that history takes, 200 years after the Enlightenment.
Ian Thal on February 22, 2011 at 3:26 pm (Reply)

These Germans, circa 1940, identified with mainline Christian churches: Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist. The point being that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not anti-Christian as you suppose, but predominantly Christian and while the sort of antisemitism promoted by the Nazi party was not traditional Christian Jew-hatred, much of this Jew-hatred was learned from the pulpit.

The linkage between neo-paganism or secularism with Nazism has been greatly exaggerated by those who prefer to cover-up rather than address the history that makes Jewish-Christian dialogue so essential.
Paul on February 27, 2011 at 7:05 am (Reply)
I, along with 2 friends/colleagues, travelled all the way from Australia to attend this conference because we see the goal of such dialogue as vitally important. There were some great presentations and great scholarship evident, but in many ways the conference was disappointing. It appeared there was no real desire to arrive at some consensus on how to move forward, but that it was mostly an opportunity for theologians from both sides just to talk to or at each other.

In suggesting the commonality of the Noahide Laws, Rabbi Rotenberg, may think he has suggested a way forward but few Christians would see this as satisfactory, especially as the Noahide Laws (as commonly understood), do not even prescribe belief in the One God. I personally was most impressed with Rabbi Korn, who seemed to me to get closet to the real issues that separate.

A common misconception amongst the Rabbis was that Christians could not possibly be part of the Abrahamic Covenant because of the issue of circumcision. Many Christians would not see this as an impediment. Rabbi Korn, on the other-hand, saw the doctrine of the Trinity and the failure to honour the 4th Commandment (of the 10 Words) as the major differences and obstacles.

As the doctrine of the Trinity and the move of the Sabbath to the first day of the week are both inventions of the Church, which only began to be promulgated after around 70-100 CE, these issues should not prove insurmountable if followers of Yeshua were to return to their 1st century faith, rather than accept the traditions of the churches.

It would seem to us, that the way forward needs to start with an acceptance of the TaNaK (OT) as the foundational declaration/Scriptures for both Judaism and Christianity. Clearly, significant hurdles still remain such as the resurrection of Yeshua, but in removing the false belief in his deity, this need not be as insurmountable as perhaps thought. The brilliant Prof David Flusser has led the way in this regard.

I have written more on this conference at
Rosey on March 3, 2011 at 3:00 pm (Reply)
I have thought about what sort of Jewish-Christian conversation would satisfy both communities for years, having come from a Christian culture and studying Torah with an Orthodox (Chabad) Rabbi, generally weekly, for over twenty three years.

Historically, the Christian Gospel texts present an account of a Jewish rabbi's life and teachings who lived and died one generation before the destruction of the second temple. The beginning of Christianity was Judaism as it was in the early first century (common era), if one gives Christian textural accuracy generous benefit of the doubt. These texts should be approached with a second temple period lexicon, and that dictionary is best estimated from the Talmuds and Midrashim that refer to thoughts and events that would have been known to the Christian Gospel participants.

We know from history, Christians separated from Judaism during period the Mishnah was redacted, and fully separated by the time the Talmuds were completed, some four-plus centuries after the Gospel period.

If the headwaters of Christianity is the late second temple period, the two faith narratives are like two streams, now rivers, that are quite far apart in the important things (agreeing with Rov Soloveitchik).

The Nazarene spoke of himself as a prophet like Jonah, as one who understood Israel would be destroyed if it didn't turn from what the Talmud records as intra-Jewish hatreds. He affirmed that the Jews were given the Torah's mandate to be a light to the nations, and his generation (of Jews) was failing miserably and would be scattered as a result. Christianity, it seems, attempted to fulfill the commission but left the authentic lexicon of life (the Written and Oral Torahs) behind.

I'm convinced the Jews should simply model and teach the Torah as they were originally commissioned, starting with the Laws of Noah, up to and including the mystical explanations that help the modern mind understand some of the "why's" of it all. Sincere, open-minded Christians will let go of mistaken notions as a result. That has been my experience.
Parker on April 16, 2011 at 12:41 am (Reply)
I don't know... unless it's about basic like social values what's the point of discourse? From what I understand of the Torah (what little I've read), Christianity's root premise violates an essential tenet of Judaism. And I think it would be a basic moral issue. That is to say, it's repeated in the Torah many times that no one else can pay for YOUR sins, or needs to. I thought to myself... I'll bet people tried this one before. (Note the Torah & New Testament are different books. Paul who the Ebionites claimed was actually a Greek convert, must have willfully and perhaps also unknowingly mistranslated horribly.)

I was right. In fact there is a current phenomena I discovered where people are taking a cold hard look at these things as well as how the NT was pieced together. What seems certain is that variations on the crucifixion and resurrection of "Sun/Son" Gods theme, where many are saved as a result, was very common in Pagan Mythology in that era. It's heavily based on zodiac and astronomy. That's also where hades (or hell) comes from.

Theses cults existed centuries before Christianity gospels were cobbled together by Rome & presented to the world. In fact the Vatican apparently trampled on a Roman religious movement which had gained followers up north whose God was called Mithras. It bears a lot of resemblance to Christianity as did many others. There are also quite a few things in Torah that are taken out of context that either don't mean what the gospels tell us at all, or have the opposite meaning- like the curse and the hanged man.

I can't speak for Europe, which seems to have more deep rooted bigotry than the US, which I imagine is heightened bc their empire is currently striking back – but most Christians I talk to in the US – that actually consider themselves Christians – have adapted a more Eastern style belief. Many have dropped their Christian roots entirely.

Jews – even agnostic ones – have also adopted an eastern spin but it fits in better with Judaism (with no image of God and more flexibility in interpretation) and they still consider themselves Jews. I think bc Judaism is more a process of interpretation– the freedom may appeal to them more. Plus they don't believe in hell or that everyone else has to be Jewish to be pious etc... so they can be more unconditional socially without lying.

I don't know where it's going to go. But the Christian numbers are dropping at least as fast as the Jewish ones. And with this new information (I admit I didn't know about the similarities with surrounding cults) surely people who are on-the-fence will be lost.
Jewish Judaica on August 25, 2011 at 2:00 pm (Reply)
Excellent post, one of the few articles I’ve read today that said something unique! One new subscriber here :)

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