Quite a lot of Jewish ink has been spilled over the last few weeks analyzing the pontificate of the now retired Benedict XVI, prognosticating on who might be his successor, and, once announced, reporting every detail of Francis’ history with the Jewish community. This Jewish interest with the papacy must be seen in light of the history of Jewish-Christian relations over the centuries, and, more recently, both ongoing changes in Roman Catholic Church and the specific actions and statements of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
I am currently leading a trip to Israel, not an unusual thing for a rabbi to do. This trip, however, is a little different. Of the 29 people in the group, only one other is Jewish. We are here as part of a graduate course called Abraham’s Children offered by the Catholic Theological Union, on whose faculty I serve. My co-leaders are a Roman Catholic priest, a Muslim imam and Catholic scholar of Islam. The participants include one Jew, two Muslims, two Protestants and 20 Catholics and come from four continents. The course serves as an introduction to Judaism, Christianity and Islam and to interfaith relations.
It was not so long ago that Jews assiduously avoided reading the New Testament or even saying the name of Jesus. The publication last year of the Jewish Annotated New Testament (available through Oxford and Amazon), described recently by one scholar as a “paradigm shift,” testifies that we have entered a new era in Jewish engagement with the New Testament. Not only has it become a legitimate subject of Jewish study, providing both insights into the history of Judaism during its formative era and an effective vehicle for promoting Jewish-Christian relations, but also there now exists a cadre of Jewish New Testament scholars with the abilities to tackle the task.
Late in October, Cardinal Kurt Koch, president on the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews delivered a comprehensive overview of the state of Jewish-Catholic relations to the Commission’s conference with its consultors and delegates of individual Episcopal Conferences for Catholic-Jewish dialogue held in Rome on October 29. In his talk, which can be found in its entirety here, Koch sought to allay fears within the Jewish community and among Catholics committed to positive relations with the Jewish community regarding what some had perceived as a retreat from Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council Declaration that has been hailed as the most significant change in Christian teaching about the Jews since the beginning of the Church.
Earlier this month, a group of Christian leaders (thirteen Protestants and two Roman Catholic) sent a letter to Congress calling for “an immediate investigation into possible violations by Israel of the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act and the U.S. Arms Export Control Act, which respectively prohibits assistance to any country that engages in a consistent pattern of human rights violations and limits the use of U.S. weapons to ‘internal security’ or ‘legitimate self-defense.’” The letter elicited an immediate and angry response from the Jewish community. A coalition of national Jewish organizations, including the URJ and CCAR, as well as the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism pulled out of a meeting of the Jewish-Christian Roundtable that had been scheduled to take place a week after the Christian letter was released.
Father John William Crossin, executive director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has posted a brief video on the USCCB website in which he discusses the importance of Jesus’ Jewishness both for Christian self-understanding and for promoting Jewish-Christian relations. Father Crossin mentions (at 1:10) two formal dialogues between the USCCB and the Jewish community. One of these is the long-standing relationship with the National Council of Synagogues, a coalition of the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements. Father Crossin’s remarks would be a wonderful addition to the URJ’s “Open Doors, Open Minds: Synagogues and Churches Studying Together.”