A turning point in Jewish-Christian relations?


This past Dec. 3, 25 prominent Orthodox rabbis from Israel, the United States, Finland, France, Germany, Serbia and Switzerland signed a document composed by the Israel-based Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding & Cooperation (CJCUC) titled, “To Do the Will of our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians.” Since then, dozens of other Orthodox rabbis – including representatives from Jewish communities in Armenia, Canada, Chile, Norway/Estonia, Peru, South Africa and the United Kingdom – have added their names.

The statement’s preamble reads: “After nearly two millennia of mutual hostility and alienation, we Orthodox Rabbis who lead communities, institutions and seminaries in Israel, the United States and Europe recognize the historic opportunity now before us. We seek to do the will of our Father in Heaven by accepting the hand offered to us by our Christian brothers and sisters. Jews and Christians must work together as partners to address the moral challenges of our era.”

Given the fact the CJCUC statement reflects an Orthodox Jewish perspective, it seems fitting that the authors have turned to such revered Medieval authorities as Yehudah Halevi (c1075-1141) and Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) to offer traditional support for their position: “As did Maimonides and Yehudah Halevi (sources are footnoted), we acknowledge that Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations. In separating Judaism and Christianity, G-d willed a separation between partners with significant theological differences, not a separation between enemies.”

What is potentially significant about this document is that all of its signatories are Orthodox rabbis. By way of contrast, non-Orthodox rabbis have been engaged for several decades in the Jewish-Christian dialogue on local, national and international levels. It is no accident, for example, that Dr. Michael J. Cook, a Reform rabbi, has spent almost all of his long career at the Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the seminary that trains Reform rabbis, teaching his students about Jesus and early Christianity. Here in Rhode Island most of my colleagues and I have been involved in interfaith activities throughout our careers, and even in retirement.

Jewish college professors are also fostering the ongoing conversation between Christians and Jews through their courses on the relationship between Judaism and early Christianity. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, author of “The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus” (2006) and co-editor of the “Jewish Annotated New Testament” (Oxford University Press, 2011), is one such world-class scholar who has focused her career on demonstrating to Jews and Christians alike the profoundly Jewish aspects of Jesus’ identity.

It is too early to tell whether the Dec. 3 statement by Orthodox rabbis will be a historic turning point in Jewish-Christian relations or a mere blip on the calendar. To begin with, these rabbis appear to represent a liberal minority; how much influence they might have on their more conservative colleagues is yet to be determined.

Moreover, it is difficult to discern what prompted the CJCUC to publicize its position when it did. Perhaps – though I have no way of proving this – the rabbis went public in response to such viciously anti-Christian Israeli fringe groups as Lehava (Flame) – an acronym for the four Hebrew words which translate as “Prevention of Assimilation in the Holy Land.” The current leader of Lehava, Benzi Gopstein, has been widely condemned for his views regarding Israeli Christians: “The mission of those vampires and bloodsuckers remains....We must remove the vampires before they drink our blood once again.” In the face of such irresponsible and dangerous hate-mongering, the words of Orthodox rabbis who seek to deepen their relationship with Christians offer a welcome counterpoint.

Not surprisingly, the Orthodox rabbis’ statement on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity takes a literalist view of our Torah. Thus, in the same section that draws support from both Halevi and Maimonides, the authors quote with approval the words of Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776):

“Jesus brought a double goodness to the world. On the one hand he strengthened the Torah of Moses majestically ... and not one of our Sages spoke out more emphatically concerning the immutability of the Torah. On the other hand he removed idols from the nations ... Christians are congregations that work for the sake of heaven who are destined to endure, whose intent is for the sake of heaven and whose reward will not be denied.”

As a religious liberal, I do not accept the notion of an immutable Torah. Furthermore, I question how Emden comes to the conclusion that Jesus “emphatically” affirms the immutability of the Torah. Nevertheless, I applaud Rabbi Emden’s insistence that Christian men and women “work for the sake of heaven” and are people “whose intent is for the sake of heaven.” And I applaud all those Orthodox rabbis who have signed “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians.” Reaching out to our Christian brothers and sisters is most definitely for the sake of heaven.

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.