Accidentally on purpose misreading Christian documents

A basic principle of good Jewish-Christian relations needs to be respectful acceptance of the others’ tradition and self-understanding.

Pope Francis delivers a "Urbi et Orbi" message from the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican December 25, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pope Francis delivers a "Urbi et Orbi" message from the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican December 25, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It has been a busy year in Jewish-Christian relations, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the truly ground-breaking document, Nostra Aetate, that emerged from of the Second Vatican Council.
There are many interesting developments in the most recent document of the Pontifical Commission of Relations with the Jews. There are many exciting aspects of this new, and very long (10,000+ word) statement. “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable” is a most welcome unpacking of the revolutionary Vatican II Nostra Aetate, a document whose very elegance and density allowed a multiplicity of possible readings. Now, 50 years later, many important attitudes are spelled out with great clarity (inasmuch as that’s possible in theological musings) in order to avoid such misreadings.
To my mind, the most important points that Jewish readers need to know about the new statement produced the commission are the following: • The Jewish-Christian relationship is unique and qualitatively different from dialogue with other religions.
• Christianity/the Church has not replaced the people of Israel in God’s plan.
• Judaism is to be respected not only as constituting the roots of Christianity, but also in its rabbinic development.
• The Church “gets it” that Jesus was Jewish and that the first Christians were circumcised, observed Shabbat and were part of the synagogue assembly.
• They also understand that Jews do not believe in the divinity of Jesus, and that Jews access the word and presence of God through Torah.
• It is incumbent on Christians to fight to eliminate anti-Semitism.
• The Church does not support an institutional mission specifically focused on the Jews.
Perhaps more challenging for Jewish onlookers are the following: • For the Church there is only one path to “salvation” and that is through Jesus.
• Christians should not find religious significance in the sovereign state of Israel.
• Christians are encouraged to witness to their faith in Jesus to all people – including Jews.
“But wait” – one might reasonably object – “didn’t we read all over the Internet that the Church had renounced missionizing the Jews?” Reasonable indeed, seeing as how major outlets from The New York Times to The Washington Post to The Jerusalem Post, all trumpeted clear headlines that proclaimed in one way or another that Catholics were not to engage in missionary activity to the Jews.
The document in fact does not say this. While there is a rejection of any church or church-supported office dedicated to evangelizing the Jews (“specific, institutional mission”), Christians are still enjoined to proclaim their faith in their messiah both in word and deed, to all, including Jews. And there remains, in this document, a very clear insistence that there is only one way to salvation: through Jesus.
This is by no means the first time a Christian document has been similarly wishfully misread by Jewish readers. In 1998 MK Nissim Zvili removed his support from a new anti-missionary bill in exchange for the signing of a public statement by a coalition of Christian organizations in Israel. The statement included an agreement to “not engage in activities that have as their intention to alienate them [Jews] from their tradition and community.” The Jewish press in Israel excitedly proclaimed that this marked the end of proselytizing in Israel with headlines that included “No Missionary Activity in the Holy Land.”
Yet some Christians in Israel were amazed to learn that this statement had been interpreted by the Jewish community as agreement to refrain from sharing the “gospel” with Jews in Israel. As a result, one of the main authors of the original statement rushed to present a clarification for the press that expressed his conviction that Jews who believe in the divinity of Jesus – Messianic Jews – cannot be considered alienated from Jewish community or constituting a threat to the Jewish people. The statement also clarified that proclaiming the gospel is in fact “our right and duty,” albeit one that needs to be carried out with “standards or morality, sensitivity and respect for other faiths.”
Accidental-on-purpose misreadings of Christians statements are a part of Jewish life. We so badly want it to be true, and have such a difficult time understanding why it is not, that we rush to make it so by misreading. It is understandable why Jews are concerned with the issue of Christian mission. It is impossible for us to reconcile statements that value our people and our religion with statements that permit or encourage practices that – if successful – will signal the end of our people and our religion.
Yet Christianity is a universal religion, in which mission – conceived in different ways, no doubt – is a central component. A “mitzva,” if you will. We can reasonably ask and even expect Christians to undertake mission to the Jews in certain ways, be that with sensitivity, through lifestyle example, with respect, without promise of reward, whatever. But we cannot reasonably ask or expect Christians to renounce their concept of mission to all peoples, which is intrinsic to the orthodox belief in their messiah as the savior of all. Because that would be asking Christians to be something other than who they are. We as Jews should be extremely wary of doing so, holding fast as we do to our own beliefs and practices.
A basic principle of good Jewish-Christian relations needs to be respectful acceptance of the others’ tradition and self-understanding, albeit with the freedom to articulate how that tradition might cause real or perceived harm. Jews don’t need Christians to stop being Christians. It is time for us Jews to grow up a little: to be ready to be in profound but respectful disagreement with Christians, rather than seeking to turn Christians into some image of what we want them to be. We would ask for no less for ourselves.
The writer is the director for the Galilee Center for Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations ( at The Max Stern Yezreel Valley College.