Dialogika

Jewish Documents & Statements

Christianity in Jewish Theology

In 1968, three years after the issuance of Nostra Aetate by the Second Vatican Council., the Catholic bishops of France asked the Chief Rabbi of France, Jacob Kaplan, for a description of Jewish opinions on Christianity. A committee composed of the renowned philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, Eastern Studies specialist Georges Vajda, and Charles Touati, president of the French rabbinate's doctrinal commission assembled the pertinent rabbinic commentaries from over the centuries.

The committee was instructed that the project was to become an official statement of the French rabbinate and that they should draw upon only the works of universally recognized authoritative Jewish sages. The committee later stated that they selected texts that represented the best spirit of Judaism. They rejected polemical texts, noting that one could find similarly hostile texts about Judaism in the Christian tradition. Those texts that judged Christianity as idolatrous tended to come from pre-1000 C.E. materials. Later in the Middle Ages more positive assessments of Christianity began appearing among Jewish thinkers.

The committee produced an outline making six assertions supported by the rabbinic commentaries they collected. Their conclusions applied equally to Christianity and Islam.

The outline was not formally debated by the French rabbinical assembly until 1978, five years after the French Catholic bishops had released their own pastoral letter on Catholic-Jewish relations. A significant minority of the assembled rabbis had grave reservations about the proposed statement, and seeing that consensus would be impossible, Chief Rabbi Kaplan withdrew the proposal from consideration.

After the publication in 2000 of the American text, "Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity," Touati, the only surviving member of the drafting committee, seeing the historical value of the outline, suggested its release to the general public. Accordingly, it was published in the Revue des Études Juives in 2001. In an article in the February 12, 2001 issue of Le Monde, the chief rabbi of Paris, David Messas emphasized that the 1968 text should not be understood as expressing the current views of the French rabbinate. He did not rule out the possibility of the rabbinical assembly taking up the subject again. In the same article, René-Samuel Sirat, the former chief rabbi of France, observed that other ideas could be drawn upon were the topic to be taken up again.

The following English translation by Katherine E. Wolff, NDS is made available courtesy of SIDIC.

 

Christianity in Jewish Theology

Revue des Études Juives, 160 (2001), pp. 495-497

Report of the Commission of experts named by the Chief Rabbi of France
and including Mr. Lévinas, Mr. Touati and Mr. Vaida.

 

1. The rejection of Christianity could have been avoided

In the famous anecdote in Talmud Babli Sanhedrin 107b and Sota 47a (texts which were censured by the Christian censorship, but which can be found again in Hesronot Ha-shas and in the Adin Steinsalz edition of Sanhedrin), a certain regret comes through, when a barayta says the following : « May the left hand always push away, but may the right hand bring closer, contrary to what Elisha did when pushing away Gehazi with both hands or Joshua b. Perahya when pushing away Jesus with both hands. »

2. The Christians are not idolaters; they adore the God who created the world and they have a certain number of beliefs in common with the Jews

There are many texts. Let us quote first of all Tosafot, Bekhorot 2b, shemma :  «‘The Christians’ all swear by the name of saints whom they do not take to be divinities. Even though they mention the divine name in thinking of Jesus, they never call upon idols : in addition, their thought is turned toward God, the creator of heaven and earth. Even though they associate the name of God and other things when they have to take an oath, this is no transgression of the prohibition : lifney ‘iwwer lo titten mikhshol, since the Noahides were not prohibited ‘association’ (shittuf). » Cf. also Tosafot, Sanhedrin 63b, asur and Tosafot ‘Aboda Zara 2a, asur : « the non-Jews among us, we are sure that they are not idolaters. » (The Tosafot texts were also censured ; we are basing what we are saying on the manuscripts and old editions ; cf. Urbach, Ba’aley ha-tosafot, pp. 59-60.) In his commentaries on the Talmud, Rabbenu Menahem ha-Meiri always emphasizes the fact that the Talmudic laws concerning the pagans have neither the Christians nor the Muslims in mind, whom he qualifies as ummot ha-gedurot be darkhey ha-dator (nations that are ruled by religious norms) ; cf. among others his commentary on ‘Aboda Zara, Schreiber edition, 1944, pp. 28, 48, 53, etc. and his commentary on Baba qamma, Shlesinger edition, Jerusalem 1973, p. 330 : « Whoever belongs to the nations ruled by religious norms and who serves the divinity in whatever way, even though their belief might be far from our belief, they are like a perfect Israelite (Yisrael gamur) where these things are concerned (for example, where the restitution of lost objects is concerned). » Cf. also Rosh, Sanhedrin, VII, 3 ; Shulhan ‘arukh, Orah Hayyim, 156, §1 ; Hoshen Mishpaf, 425, §5 ; Moshe Rivkes, Be’er ha-gola on this last text, the long footnote shin ; Abraham Sebi Eisenstadt, Pithey teshuba, on Yore De’a, 147 and 152, footnote 2, where numerous references to modern decisions are to be found. On abedat ‘akum [an object lost by an idolater], which is not to be returned, cf. Be’er ha-gola on Hoshen Mishpaf 266, footnote aleph : this rule does not apply to the Gentiles of today who acknowledge the creator of the world, etc. (cf. Joseph Karo, Beit Yosef on Fur, the same paragraph).

3. «Eternal Salvation for Christians »

Juda Hallevi, the most exclusivist among our thinkers, wrote : « We deny to no one, no matter to which faith community that person might belong, a reward from God for his/her good deeds (Kuzari I, §111, Arabic text p. 62), and farther on (111, §21, Arabic text p. 174) : « The reward for your glorification of God will not be lost to you. » Isaac Arama, writing in 15th century Spain on the eve of the Expulsion, goes much further when he believes that the term « Israel » in the sentence, « All Israel has a part in the ‘olam ha-ba’ means the righteous from all the nations », unless they impute iniquity to God (‘Aqedat Yitshaq, Shemini, gateway 60).

4. Israel must be inspired by Christians and by Muslims, etc.

Bahya Ibn Paquda justified what he took from the non-Jewish philosphers and other ascetics from the Talmudic saying : « You have not acted like the most righteous ‘among the non-Jews’, but you have acted like the most depraved, » (Babli, Sanhedrin 39b) ; he could do so all the more because the rabbis declared : « Whoever says a wise word, even among the nations of the world, is called Hakham (Babli, Megilla 16a) (Hobot ha-lebabot, Preface, Arabic text p. 26, Hebrew translation, Zifroni edition, p. 20).

5. Christianity and Islam contributed towards the improvement of humanity

Cf. Maimonides, Guide III, chapter 39, Munk translation (into French) p. 221 : « Today, we see most of the inhabitants of the earth glorifying ‘God’ in common accord and blessing themselves through the memory ‘that of Abraham’… » ; Nahmanides, Torat ha-Shem temima, in Kitbey ha-Ramban, Chavel edition, vol. I, pp. 142-144 : the peoples of today have a better moral and religious conduct ; Commentary on the Song of Songs (attributed to Ramban), same edition, vol. II, pp. 502-503 : all the nations acknowledge the words of the Torah ; Ralbag, Milhamot, Leipzig edition, p. 356, and Commentary on the Torah, Venice edition, p. 2 ; today, the Torah is spread throughout all the nations of the world.

6. Christianity and Islam clear the way for the Messiah

Cf. Juda Hallevi, Kuzari, IV, §23, Arabic text pp. 264-266 : « God also has a secret plan where we are concerned, which is like the plan he has for the seed. The latter falls to the ground and is transformed ; in appearance, it changes into earth, water, manure ; the observer imagines that no visible trace remains of it. But in reality, it is the seed which transforms the earth and the water by giving them its own nature : gradually, it transforms the elements which it makes subtle and in a sense like itself… The shape of the first seed causes fruit to grow on the tree, which is like the fruit from which the seed was extracted. It is like this with the religion of Moses. Although on the outside they push it away, all the religions which appeared after it are in reality transformations of that religion. They do nothing but clear the way and prepare the ground for the Messiah, who is the object of our hope, who is the fruit. » (French translation by Touati) Cf. also Maimonides, Mishne Tora, Hilkhot Melakhim, XI § (this text was also censured and was reconstituted according to the manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale), which is quoted with some variants in Nahmanides, Torat ha-Shem temima, Chavel edition I, p. 144 : Christianity and Islam « do nothing but clear the way for the King-Messiah and for the improvement (taqqen) of the whole world so that it might serve God in common accord… »

For the Commission

Chief Rabbi Charles Touati
Paris, May 23, 1973