In praise of Christian-Jewish interfaith dialogue

Christian theology has changed, and so must Jewish attitudes.

cross magen david 88 (photo credit: )
cross magen david 88
(photo credit: )
Back in May, the Chief Rabbinate criticized Jewish participation in a Christian women's conference organized in Jerusalem by the Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus. The issue generated controversy in the pages of The Jerusalem Post. Isi Leibler wrote an op-ed which argued that the Chief Rabbinate was wrong in its approach to the Evangelicals (June 12), while Ellen Horowitz's warned that participation in such events, where some of the organizations involved may be active in missionary work, was crossing theological red lines (June 20). As a rabbi who entered the rabbinate in June 1963 with a strong bias against any inter-faith dialogue and cooperation, and who is now so passionate about the importance of inter-religious communication and study that I have established an Institute for the furtherance of Jewish - Christian Understanding in Efrat (where many Christians have been studying the Jewish roots of their faith), I want to state clearly the reasons for the sea-change in my outlook. TO PARAPHRASE Charles Dickens in the beginning of his Tale of Two Cities: These are the best of times, and the worst of times. On the one hand, after almost 2,000 years of exile and persecution, culminating in the Holocaust, we have returned to our homeland, to Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem, to a Jewish army and a Jewish police force, and to the miracle of the ingathering of exiles, from the Ethiopian Beta Yisrael to the Indian Bnei Menashe. But, on the other hand, we face the existential threat of Iran's Ahmadinejad soon to be in control of atomic weaponry; we are threatened by Hamas in the South, and by Hizbullah in the North. Moreover, our staunchest ally, the United States of America, is being neutralized by what appears to be a hopeless imbroglio in Iraq. Europe is quickly becoming transformed into a pro-Muslim bastion, and Islam itself seems poised for world domination following a line of jihad-inspired Wahhabi fanaticism. Yes, I truly have faith that to be alone with God is to be with a majority of One; but from a practical perspective, how can roughly 5.5 million Israelis plus another seven million Jews world-wide stand up to more than a billion Muslims? NOW IT seems that thankfully God had provided the cure even before we diagnosed the disease. For the first time since the advent of Christianity, mainstream Christian leaders - Catholic, Evangelical and Protestant - have extended a hand to us Jews in friendship, a friendship with far-reaching theological and political ramifications. And there are more than a billion Christians in the world. What is now happening on the worldwide geopolitical scene is much more than "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." In this case, the enemy (Christianity) of my enemy (radical Islam) is my cousin, if not my brother. After all, Christianity emerged from the matrix of Judaism, and the founder of Christianity was a Jewish teacher who - it would certainly appear from the Gospels - lived a Jewish life-style, replete with the Sabbath, festivals and kashrut. Hence there is every logical, historical and religious reason for there to be a rapprochement between us. I cannot blame many of my co-religionists for being skeptical. Often those who are closest to each other - and yet differ in many fundamental areas of theology and belief - become the most implacable of enemies. (Witness the Catholic-Protestant bloodshed in Ireland until a very short time ago, and the often petty infighting between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews). And the past 2,000 years of Christian-Jewish relations have been characterized by inquisitions, forced conversions and deicide-inspired pogroms, which set the stage for the European Holocaust (See Malcolm Hay's The Foot of Pride). Perhaps the present-day Christian outpouring of friendship is merely a more sophisticated, Laban-like attempt at missionary activity to coopt the Jews for Christianity, and therefore we must respond with "thanks, but no thanks"? I think not. My reasoning is based on the fact that the very time-honored theological positions of Christianity that made immediate conversion of the Jews so necessary for the Church have been publicly and officially contravened and nullified by leading Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical spokesmen and institutions. HISTORICALLY, virtually all Christian denominations believed in "supersessionism," that the ancient covenant between God and Israel had been superseded, taken over, by the Christians, and that therefore non salus extra ecclesiam - there can be no salvation outside of the Church." Hence, for Jews to be "saved" eternally, they must convert (or be converted) to Christianity. Moreover, Christianity maintained that Jews deserve to be hated, reviled, persecuted, homeless and stateless as long as they reject Jesus the Messiah; indeed, that Jews bear collective and historic guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus because the Gospels record that the Jewish "rabble" cried out to Pontius Pilate that Jesus must be crucified, declaring that Jesus' "blood will be on us and on our children" (Matthew 27:25). These past fundamental Christian beliefs are no longer held to be true by much of the mainstream Christian establishment leadership. Largely in the aftermath of the horrors of the Holocaust, which many responsible Christian leaders understood to have been fueled by Christian anti-Semitism throughout the ages, as well as the emergence of the State of Israel, which rendered meaningless the Christian charge that Jews were doomed to exile and wandering so long as they rejected Jesus, the Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical Churches profoundly revised their earlier doctrines regarding the Jews. THAT CHANGE began on October 28, 1965, when Pope John XXIII delivered his historic encyclical, Nostra Aetate, which dealt frontally with these very issues: "The church cannot forget that she received the Revelation of the Old Testament through the people with whom God in His inexpressible mercy concluded the Ancient Covenant. Nor can she forget that she draws sustenance from the root of that well-cultivated olive tree unto which have been grafted the wild-shoots, the Gentiles… God does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues… "What happened in (Jesus') passion cannot be charged against all the Jews without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today… The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accused by God …. The Church… decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone." Pope John Paul II, in "Notes," added, "The permanence of Israel is a historic fact to be interpreted within God's design. It remains a chosen people." And Cardinal Walter Kasper, today the highest Vatican authority in charge of Catholic-Jewish relations, has stated that there is "no mission to the Jews. There is dialogue… and dialogue respects the difference of the other and brings mutual enrichment." IN 1994 the Vatican recognized the State of Israel, and, in March 2000, Pope John Paul II visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum, and declared: "We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who, in the course of history, have caused these children of Yours to suffer. Asking forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant" (see Eugene Korn, The Man of Faith and Inter-Faith Dialogue: Revisiting Confrontation and his forthcoming Rethinking Christianity). A Protestant group in Damstadt, Germany, the Orders of the Sisters of Miriam, have established a veritable kibbutz in Darmstadt, called New Canaan, all the profits of which are sent to Israel. These magnanimous and magnificent women have divided their village into areas of Jerusalem, Bet El, Ofra, Efrat etc., speak a flawless Hebrew, and declared publicly in response to a talk I gave them that "the 'suffering servant' chapter of Isaiah (53) can also be interpreted to apply to the children of Israel" in their perspective. THE FRIENDSHIP shown to Israel by many Evangelicals has no peer in all of Jewish history. Prominent theologians and humanists - such as Pastor Robert Stearns of Eagles' Wings and Dr. Malcolm Hedding of International Christian Embassy Jerusalem - are constantly bringing inspired groups to Israel to learn about Christianity's Jewish roots and to give moral and financial support to our heroic but embattled State of Israel. Pastor Jack Hayford, the head of the Pentecostal church, moved me to tears when he repeated twice that were Israel to be in need of soldiers, he and his people (the pastor preaches every Sunday to 9,000 congregants) would fight side by side with us. Pastor John Hagee of San Antonio Texas and international TV fame has established a "Christian AIPAC" to politically support Israel throughout America. And both of these charismatic theologians have said that they subscribe to a single covenant theory: God entered into a covenant with Israel, upon which the Christians grafted themselves. Pastor Hagee mesmerized thousands of Jewish AIPAC supporters when he told them that his love and commitment to Israel emanates from Genesis 12:3, where God promises Abraham: "I will bless those who bless you; and those who curse you, shall be cursed." Would that more Jews had such faith in our people. Certainly we must remain vigilant against Christian groups whose raison d'etre is missionizing Jews. However, those many Christian denominations who wish to learn from us and strengthen our common beliefs in a God of love, morality and peace ought to be encouraged in their friendship. MY OWN theological perspective regarding our true partnership with the Christian world emanates from the biblical "Double Covenant" position: God entered into a first covenant with Noah, a covenant with humanity, comprising the seven Noahide universal laws of morality, based upon the premise "He who sheds the blood of another will have his blood shed, since the human being was created in God's image." He entered into a second covenant with Abraham, eventually comprising the 613 commandments of the Bible. We were initially charged with communicating the seven laws of morality to the world; after all, every human being emanated from the same Divine womb (Job 31:15), we are all siblings, and especially in a global village with nuclear weaponry we are each of us human, responsible co-signers for each other. Hence God charged Abraham: "All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you" (Genesis 12:3) Probably during the Roman period of Hadrianic persecutions (circa 136-140 CE ), we dropped the ball and ceased to attempt to fulfill this aspect of our mission (despite Maimonides' Laws of Kings, where he rules that just as we bear responsibility to teach our fellow Jews 613 commandments, we are likewise responsible even to coerce, if necessary, the Gentiles of the world to accept the 7 Noahide laws of morality). Thankfully, this function was provided by the Christians, who brought to all the Gentiles of the globe the seven Noahide laws of morality, the Ten Commandments and the belief in a God of love, compassion and peace. From this perspective, Jews and Christians are truly partners, and in a world threatened by jihad terrorism, our partnership is the only hope for a world of peace and freedom, of religious moderation which encompasses Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. This is the understanding of Maimonides, who writes toward the end of his Mishna Torah (11:11-13, Yemenite uncensored Manuscript, Kapah edition): "There is no human power to comprehend the designs of the Creator of the Universe since our ways are not His ways and our thoughts are not His thoughts. Hence all of the words of Jesus the Nazarene and of the Ishmaelite who came after him (Muhammad) served to pave the way for the King Messiah and to repair the whole world to serve the Lord in unison, for it is written, (Zephania 9:3), 'I shall make all the people pure of speech, so that they all call upon the name of the Lord and serve Him with one heart.' "How so? The entire world has been filled with the words of the Messiah and the words of the Torah and the words of the commandments, and these words have been disseminated even to faraway islands, and to many nations of uncircumcised hearts, who are now dealing with these concepts and with Biblical commandments…" The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.