Ecumenical Academic

Petra Heldt has the same qualities possessed by many Christian ministers in Jerusalem. Like most, she is polite, unassuming and eager to help whenever I need information. But a few things do set her apart. One is that she has a doctorate in early church history from the Hebrew University, where she also lectures. Also, she has been honored both by her native Germany and the Hebrew University for her interfaith work. And finally, she was a victim of a suicide bomber. Shopping in the Mahaneh Yehuda market in 1997, Heldt was just yards from a terrorist who blew himself up, killing 16 and wounding 177. Heldt spent six weeks in a burn suit, underwent skin graphs, was bedridden for two years and limited for another three. The Lutheran minister doesn't focus on the injury, its trauma or the recovery, but is quick to go to the core of the problem. "The past 10 years have seen many attempts to come to terms with the universal threat of Islamicists. While academics negotiate morality and identity, modernists put historic Judeo-Christian culture in jeopardy, and spin doctors spread fantasy webs over the eyes of many, there is a growing demand for the study of facts regarding history, identity and religion." Responding to that demand, Heldt has chaired the Ecumenical Theological Research Fraternity in Israel since 1987. The group lectures, writes articles, and conducts Jewish-Christian dialogues to facilitate interdenominational understanding while stressing the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. As executive secretary she works closely with the government through the Knesset Christian Allies Caucus. Heldt is impatient with Palestinian theologians who proclaim a definition of Judaism that "echoes almost word for word paragraph 18:1-2 of the Covenant adopted by the PLO in 1965. It says, 'Judaism, because it is a divine religion, is not a nationality with independent existence. Furthermore, the Jews are not a people with an independent personality because they are citizens of the countries to which they belong.' "That statement, furthermore, echoes the old teaching of contempt in the church, which said Jews were condemned to remain a wandering people without land. It also reverberates the Muslim teaching about dhimmis (Christians and Jews in Muslim territory) who are not entitled to independence in areas claimed to be Islamic." Heldt says that these "self-styled theologians" might affect Christian relations with Israel. A resident of Israel for the past 28 years, Heldt says she has most enjoyed "studying and teaching the writings of the church in the East, side by side with the writings of the Jewish sages. This study is meaningful in view of the history and thought of the church, and of the relations Christianity had with the religious, cultural and political environment in antiquity." Heldt stresses: "This is by no means a historical exercise only. It is also more than an academic ministry, since the translation of the Bible into real life is concerned."