Press Conference: "The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable"

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Reflections from a European Jewish Theologian

Nostra Aetate, No 4 marked the beginnings of a fresh approach to Catholic-Jewish relations and the end of the millennial teaching of contempt (lenseignement du mepris, a term employed by the Holocaust survivor Jules Isaac who met Pope John XXIII) of Jews and Judaism. It unequivocally asserted the Church’s debt to its Jewish heritage and ushered in a new era, fresh attitudes, a new language of discourse never previously heard in the Catholic Church concerning Jews. The concept of a dialogue now entered the relationship.

Now 50 years later, under the leadership of Cardinal Koch, a new document been issued by the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, which considers some key theological questions that lie at the heart of an intimate, intricate and unique relationship. Its theological premis is based on the fact that, as Nostra Aetate stated, ‘from the Jewish people sprang the apostles’, the foundation stones and pillars of the Church who ‘draw sustenance from the root of that good olive tree onto which have been grafted the wild olive branches of the Gentiles’. Christians are therefore rightly reminded in this document of the Jewish origins of Christianity and especially that Jesus was a faithful Jew.

As a result of a soul change, epitomised by Nostra Aetate, the Roman Catholic Church shifted from what was, for the most part, a need to condemn Judaism to one of a condemnation of anti-Judaism. This led not to a separation from all things Jewish but in fact, to a closer relationship with ‘the elder brother’. The new document, which I welcome and commend, reminds Christians of this sibling relationship as it sets out a theological agenda for future discussions.

Rabbi Rosen has touched on relations between the Holy See and the State of Israel and the challenges, theological and political, therein. My remarks will therefore focus on topics other than the Holy Land.

In particular, I wish to address a concept which has been deeply troubling to Jewish-Christian relations and one which the new document, commendably, does not avoid: the Christian claim to be the successor covenant people, elected by God to replace Israel because of the latter’s faithlessness, which led to the substitution theory, also known as replacement theology. This is the teaching that, since the time of Jesus, Jews have been replaced by Christians in God’s favour, and that all God’s promises to the Jewish people have been inherited by Christianity.

The new document tackles a dilemma at the heart of today’s Christian understanding of Judaism, demonstrated even by Nostra Aetate. On the one hand, the document states that “the church is the new people of God” while, on the other, “the Jews remain most dear to God because of their fathers, for He does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues (cf. Romans 11:28-29)”.

Discussion of covenantal theology is witnessing a resurgence in contemporary conversations between Christian and Jewish scholars and I welcome the new document’s assertion that “the New Covenant for Christians is therefore neither the annulment nor the replacement, but the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Covenant“. However, please allow me to express a warning: fulfillment easily slides into replacement and substitution theory is alive and well in the pews. As a Jewish partner in the dialogue, I welcome further reflection on what fulfillment means in terms of relations with Judaism and how we can ensure the transformation in relations is not limited to the elite, but extends from the citidals of the Vatican to the pews of the Church as well as from the Offices of the Chief Rabbis to the floors of our synagogues.

Related to this is the need, from a Christian perspective, for reflection on the survival of the Jewish People and of the vitality of Judaism over 2000 years – this is the ‘mystery of Israel’, upon which Paul reflected in his Epistle to the Romans. One of the reasons why Nostra Aetate is rightly seen as a milestone in Christian-Jewish relations is that it began an immensely difficult and costly process - namely, to take the ‘Other’ as seriously as one demands to be taken oneself. In other words, as expressed by the 1975 Guidelines, Judaism and Christianity must be understood on their own terms. The new document still has some way to go before I recognise myself in its portrayal of Judaism. For example, there is little discussion about contemporary Judaism – the focus is biblical and rabbinic Judaism.

Just over a century ago, in 1913, the Jewish philosopher-theologian Franz Rosenzweig wrote about the saying of Jesus in John that 'No-one can reach the Father except through Me'. Rosenzweig does not get round this saying by criticism, indeed he asserts that it is true, particularly when one remembers the millions who have been led to God through Jesus Christ. However he continues, “the situation is quite different for one who does not have to reach the Father because he is already with him. Shall I, he asks, become converted, I who have been chosen? Does the alternative of conversion even exist for me?“

Rosenzweig introduces us to a crucial question in today’s relationship – a question we Jews and Christians need to ponder. To what extent can Christians view Judaism as valid in its own terms (and vice versa). The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s statement (extolled in this new document) may point out the way forward when it states “Christians can and must admit that ‚the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Scriptures...’“

Of course, questions also need to be considered from the Jewish perspective. What was the divine purpose behind the creation of Christianity? What are the implications for Jews that as a result of the Jew Jesus, 2 billion Christians now read the Jewish Bible? Martin Buber for instance, considered Jesus as “my elder brother”.

For Jews, the covenant promised to Abraham and revealed to Moses, demonstrates not only the unique and irrevocable relationship between the Jewish people and God but perhaps also allows the theological space for Christians to possess their own special relationship with God and also to see their reflection in a Jewish mirror, which may serve both to deepen Christian faith in Christ and Christian respect for their elder siblings.

These are some of my theological reflections upon reading this new document which I welcome and look forward to further discussions. Indeed, I am very pleased to announce that, in partnership with the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, the Woolf Institute is convening a meeting of a small number of leading Jewish and Catholic theologians in Cambridge next year to explore these and other theological issues. Perhaps we should begin with the contemporary meaning of the election of Israel and the election of the Church? As Pope Francis said in June, ’In seeking a right attitude towards God, Christians turn to Christ as the fount of new life and Jews to the teaching of the Torah’.

Further reflection on what this all means, for Christians and Jews – indeed, for all men and women of faith – is urgently required.

The last 50 years have seen a demonstrable shift from a pre Nostra Aetate monologue about Jews to an instructive (and sometimes difficult) dialogue with Jews. A monologue generally fails to understand the reality of the Other, while a dialogue requires a respect for the Other as it understands itself. The challenge of making the transition from monologue to dialogue remains immense.

It is clear today that many of the main divisive issues have been either eliminated or taken to the furthest point at which agreement is possible. The efforts of Catholics towards respect of Judaism project attitudes that would have been unthinkable half-a-century ago. During the last 5 decades, Jews and Christians have witnessed a massive change and, as the new document demonstrates, giant strides have been made but we are talking of a dynamic and relentless process. We will never be able to sit back and say, “The work is done. The agenda is completed.”

However, on many major issues, Jews and Catholics find themselves on the same side of the theological fence, faced with the same challenges, and we are in the unusual position of seeking to tackle them together.

May our joint endeavour be blessed by the Almighty and in turn may we learn to be a blessing to one another.