The legacy of Seelisberg

The work of French-Jewish historian Jules Isaac exposed anti-Semitic teachings of the church

Historian Jules Isaac 521 (photo credit: ARIEL JEROZOLIMSKI)
Historian Jules Isaac 521
(photo credit: ARIEL JEROZOLIMSKI)
Laure and her two children were shuffled on to the cattle train to Auschwitz. It was October 1943, in Riom, Southern France. Laure scribbled a clandestine note to her husband, Jules, reading: “Save yourself for your work; the world is waiting for it.”
Heartbroken at his wife’s murder, Jules Isaac clung to those words.
Isaac (1877-1963) was a French Jewish historian. The Dreyfus Affair, in which a French Jewish officer was wrongly accused of treason, caused him to investigate the roots of anti-Semitism, finding that the standard explanation – that the Gospels are anti-Semitic – was wrong. The researcher ascertained that the commentaries on the New Testament, written by Catholic and Protestant scholars, have given an erroneous and distorted picture of Jesus’ relations with the Jews.
For centuries, those faulty interpretations have been employed in books and footnotes, in sermons and catecheses, in Sunday schools and seminars. Isaac claimed that those biased compositions were responsible, more than anything else, for Christian anti-Semitic attitudes and actions. Such writings were the source for making a caricature of the Bible. Thus it was not Christendom that Isaac rendered anti- Semitic, but the irresponsible conditioning of the Christian faith through the teaching of arrogant scholarship which brought excruciating tragedies upon the Jewish people.
Jules and Laure kept working on the unfinished manuscript while fleeing their persecutors and hiding with the work-in-progress in farms and makeshift places in Vichy France.
“I viewed my work,” said Jules Isaac, “as a fight for wounded Israel, for brotherhood against hatred. I had a task to fulfill. It was a sacred mission.”
Jules Isaac’s work Jésus et Israel was published in 1947, amid the ongoing exposure of the enormity of the Holocaust. The book’s impact on clergy and laymen was huge.
In the summer of 1947, a group of distinguished Jewish and Christian intellectuals met with Isaac, who provided them with a program of 18 points for cleansing Christian teaching regarding Jews and Judaism. In August of that year, those recommendations were submitted to the International Conference of Christians and Jews in Seelisberg, Switzerland. Having studied the origins of Christian anti-Semitism, the conference issued its final communiqué, the Ten Points of Seelisberg, an abbreviated version of Isaac’s 18 points. The simplicity and clarity of the paragraphs have guided generations of educators to this day.
The Ten Points of Seelisberg include four positions to remember, and six to avoid.
It counsels to remember that: (1) the same God speaks in the Old and New Testament; (2) Jesus was born of a Jewish mother of the seed of David, and that his love and forgiveness embraces his people Israel and the whole world; (3) the first disciples, apostles and martyrs were Jews; (4) the Christian commandment to love God and one’s neighbor derives from the Old Testament, is confirmed by Jesus, and binds Jews and Christians in all circumstances.
It also counsels to avoid the: (5) distortion of biblical and post-biblical Judaism in order to exalt Christendom; (6) use of the word Jew as if it means exclusively the enemies of Jesus; (7) presentation of the passion story as if all Jews and only Jews have killed Jesus; (8) reference to ”the scriptural curses” or “the cry of a raging mob”: his blood be upon us and our children, without remembering that this cry should not count against the infinitely more weighty words of our Lord: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”; (9) superstitious notion that the Jewish people are destined for suffering; (10) “speaking of the Jews as if the members of the Church have not been Jews.”
From the beginning, the global Jewish fraternity B’nai B’rith supported Isaac in his prophetic vision of improving relations between Christians and Jews.
B’nai B’rith was instrumental in bringing Isaac’s studies to the public and in promoting the Seelisberg approach. Even today, B’nai B’rith fosters good relations between Jews and Christians, showing interest in the Ecumenical Fraternity’s ongoing commitment to the Seelisberg teachings and their implementation in churches today.
In 1949, Pope Pius XII invited Isaac to discuss parts of the Catholic liturgy for Good Friday. A particular topic was the new English translation of the Latin words in the Good Friday prayer, pro perfidis judaeis, rendering it as “for the unfaithful Jews.”
Isaac maintained that although the new version might be milder than the original Latin form, it was still disagreeable. He suggested eliminating the phrase, because it rekindled anti- Semitic connotations in those who still used the Latin version.
In 1958, Pope John XXIII finally deleted the word “perfidis,” both in the Latin and in the vernacular, and continued to eradicate other prejudices in the liturgy and teaching of the Catholic Church.
In a private audience in 1960, Isaac mentioned to the pontiff that in spite of many Catholics’ personal reversal of attitudes towards the Jews, the head of the Church had not voiced the condemnation of the teaching of contempt, once for all.
“The Good Pope” John XXIII rallied the Catholic leadership for the Second Vatican Council, with the church’s relation with the Jewish people high on the agenda. Originally, the council envisioned a self-standing document on relations with the Jews, but in the end, largely due to Arab intervention, such a text was to be placed at the end of the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to the Non-Christians, and appeared in a diluted form as Note 4, known as Nostra Aetate, in 1965.
That structural frame relinquished the dialogue between Jews and Christians from being a sui generis matter, and placed it in the context of interreligious dialogue. Nostra Aetate opened the doors for putting Judaism in the milieu of non-Christian religions.
This move was welcomed by those who wished to modify the religious meaning of the Jewish-Christian dialogue with agendas of human rights, Liberation theology and political alternatives to Israeli policies.
The Seelisberg proponents warned about that shift, asserting the need for further exclusive studies of the relation between the Church and Israel.
For decades now, interreligious dialogue has captured public attention and sidelined the more sophisticated need for studies of Jewish-Christian relations. The outcome of that neglect was predictable. Many historic churches today provide hardly any programs for the prevention and combating of anti-Semitism. On the contrary, numerous Church leaders continue to instill forms of anti-Israel Replacement theology.
In the third millennium – again – anti-Semitism is silencing those Church voices which proclaim the Jewishness of Jesus, who is of a Jewish mother in the Jewish land. Instead, numerous Church institutions declare Jesus to be the first Palestinian, born of a Palestinian woman in a land called Palestine. As in the times before Seelisberg and Nostra Aetate, Replacement theology appears in pseudo-theological garb and iconographic depictions. One should think that such grotesque and offensive statements would be rejected by church leaders.
Not so.
It is time to revisit Seelisberg: “For brotherhood against hatred,” as Isaac said, is “a sacred mission.”
Rev. Dr. Petra Heldt is an ordained Lutheran minister and biblical scholar who serves as general secretary of the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel.