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Jews Urged to Recognize and Appreciate the Changing Christian View of Judaism

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
January - February 2006

Many in the Jewish community have failed to note and appreciate the major change taking place in the Christian view of Judaism, writes Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the Sydney M. Irmas Chair of Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.  

In an article entitled “Change Is Not Easy, Appreciate It,” in the International Jerusalem Post (Dec. 9-15, 2005), Rabbi Adlerstein notes that, “Most Jews did not look up to notice the recent passing of the 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate. This is a pity. Even the most cautious and cynical among us should recognize that this Vatican II document might have been the most significant development in our relationship with a long-standing adversary. Whether it fulfills its promise may depend, in no small measure, on our reaction to it.”  

Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) “changed notions about the Jewish people that had held sway for almost 2,000 years,” writes Adlerstein, “For almost all of that time, two attitudes of the Catholic Church guaranteed contempt and persecution of Jews, as a matter of quasi-religious principle. The first was the charge of deicide, that all Jews were responsible for the Crucifixion ... The second notion was replacement, or changes in the special relationship between God and Israel that is so clearly expressed in the Bible. According to this doctrine, the Israel of the Bible was ‘replaced’ by the New Israel — namely practicing Christians. Jews had no further place in history ... Nostre Aetate upended both of these notions. It taught that Jews do not bear any more collective responsibility for the death of the Christian savior than any other people. It affirmed that God’s covenant with the Jewish people is unbroken and eternal.”  

A third element of Nostre Aetate, Adlerstein points out, “concerned how people should act towards Jews. Anti-Semitism is now officially noted as a sin. For me, this alone is significant. To all skeptics; would you rather live in a world in which a hundred million Catholics see you as a collaborator of the Devil, or one in which they are instructed not to hate you?”  

Concerning the Jewish response to these changes, Adlerstein notes that, “The Jewish community, bruised and bloodied in two millennia of interaction with Rome, cannot be faulted for wanting to see hard evidence of change before it can trust the voices of reconciliation. Yet we cannot, I think, be deaf to them either. What ought we to do? We ought to take tentative steps towards changing some of our attitudes. The Orthodox community is unequivocally opposed to the old kind of ecumenical dialogue, aimed at interpenetration of religious ideas. We too, however, should recognize that some kinds of discussion have nothing to do, with impressing religious teachings. There are areas in which our moral and ethical values coincide, especially in the Kulturkampf against the hedonistic and material alternatives of our shared host culture. ... Minimally, we ought to remember that those who are trying to find new interpretations of old texts are, well, people. They are priests and laypeople, but they are human beings with the usual complement of feelings and sensitivities. They would like to know that Jews are taking notice of their work, and that it is appreciated. Those of us who encounter such people should find ways to show it.”  

In an article entitled ‘A Jewish Theology of Interfaith Relations” in Sh’ma (Dec. 2005), Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, Rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Judaism, argues that, “We must ... revise our own Jewish theology for interacting with people of other faiths who are revising their own views of Judaism. A Jewish statement must go beyond denigrating non-Jews as idolaters or pagans who have no sense of truth or morality. ... All religions have developed over time, so no form of any religion is hard and fast. This allows for new efforts to reshape the classical disdain that Judaism has had for non-Jews and that non-Jews have had for us. ... As human beings, we cannot possibly know the absolute truth. Only God can, and it is downright idolatrous to pretend that we are God or know what God knows. An appropriate degree of epistemological humility should prompt us to reexamine the bases of our faith and be open to sharing with, and learning from, others. The same applies to Christians and Muslims too.”  

Rabbi Dorff, who has been part of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue sponsored by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California since 1973, declares: ”The rabbinic doctrine of the covenant with the children of Noah already establishes a Jewish ground for respectful relationships with non-Jews. In that, we are far ahead of the Christians and Muslims who are trying to reshape their own theologies to do the same thing. Moreover, the Jewish doctrines that God created every human being (Genesis 1:27), that God wants people to think differently (Tanhuma, Korah, 19, on Numbers 16:22), and that, according to Micah (4:5), even in the Messianic future ‘all the peoples will walk each in the names of their gods (while) we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever’ should lead us to appreciate people of other faiths as following their own route to God and fulfilling God’s will for them.”  

Jews need to “be willing to apply those sources to the new realities of the modern world, including, especially, the fact that through modern communications we regularly encounter people of many religions and cultures and that many of those people want to live in a mutually respectful and learning relationship with us. May arguments like these help us respond in kind to those non-Jews reassessing their own theologies to reach out in respect and love to us,” Rabbi Dorff concludes.

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