Ecumenical Christian

Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations

Midstream Symposium on "A Sacred Obligation"



Symposium: A New Christian Document on Christian-Jewish Relations


Introduction: Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal (executive director of the National Council of Synagogues)

Remarkable progress has been made in Christian-Jewish relations over these past 50 years or so. Indeed, more progress than in the preceding 19 centuries. Doubtlessly, the Holocaust raised the painfully appropriate questions: How in Christian Europe, bastion of culture and enlightenment, tolerance and multiculturalism, could this have happened? What were the factors that led to the tragedy? Were Christian teachings responsible for the Final Solution? Roman Catholicism reevaluated its teachings and theological positions at Vatican II under the impetus of Pope John XXIII, culminating in the issuance of Nostra Aetate in 1965. The principles enumerated there represent a Copernican revolution in Catholic thinking about Jews and Judaism. Many --but not all-- Protestant denominations have been similarly engaged in reassessing their attitudes towards Judaism. However, those were but beginnings: both individuals and groups have carried on the process.

A unique group of Catholic and Protestant scholars, men and women, professors and clergy, currently located at Boston College, has been laboring since 1969 to undo the harm of centuries and flesh out the principles laid down in that historic document, which has proved to be the jumping-off point rather than the culmination of Christian efforts to atone for its role in preparing the soil for the "harvest of hate." Its goals are significant: eliminate the erroneous portrayal of Jews as unfaithful deicides, accursed by God; expunge the teaching of contempt; revise Christian teachings about Jews and Judaism. The result is a remarkable document, A Sacred Obligation. Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People. The document was released on September 1, 2002. It is signed by 22 of the leading theologians and ecumenists in the Catholic and Protestant world. The headings of its ten, brief paragraphs say it all: "God's covenant with the Jewish people endures forever"; "Jesus of Nazareth lived and died as a faithful Jew"; "Ancient rivalries must not define Christian-Jewish relations today"; "Judaism is a living faith, enriched by many centuries of development"; "The Bible both connects and separates Jews and Christians"; "Affirming God's enduring covenant with the Jewish people has consequences for Christian understanding of salvation"; "Christians should not target Jews for conversion"; "Christian worship that teaches contempt for Judaism dishonors God"; "We affirm the importance of the land of Israel for the life of the Jewish people"; "Christians should work with Jews for the healing of the world."

Midstream magazine has invited a panel of four eminent Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish thinkers who work in the field of interreligious relations to react to the document, which appears first in the following pages, and two signatories to the document, who have been asked to respond to the critiques. It is our hope that we will stimulate our readers to a deeper consideration of the implications of this and other such documents for the future of Jewish-Christian relations. 


"A Reaction to the Document: 'A Sacred Obligation'": Rev. Guy Massie (Chairperson for Ecumenical and Interfaith Dialogue, Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York) 

This document is inspiring, informative, and academically well prepared. While a response to Dabru Emet, it gives evidence of serious reflection on the historical realities of Christian/Jewish relations. The document is a sign of the growing trust between the two religious communities in the United States. The sensitive nature of this document confirms the need for ongoing Christian/Jewish dialogue.

The strength of this document lies in its condemnation of supersessionism, renunciation of missionary efforts directed at converting Jews, the discussion of covenant, the need for the reform of liturgical texts, the presentation of Jesus in the context of his Judaism, and the presentation of modem Judaism as distinct from biblical Judaism. The weakness of this text lies in the ambiguity of the audience for which this document is intended, the absence of practical suggestions for furthering dialogue on the issues raised, and the missed opportunity to elaborate on such issues as covenant, liturgy, and scripture.

For whom is the document written? While addressed to all Christians to reflect on their faith in light of the ten statements herewith presented, the reality of the issue is that the intended audience is too general to have any effect. Since these ten statements are worthy of consideration, the scholars should have addressed this document to all Christian leaders, bishops, clergy, heads of Christian education, seminaries, religious congregations, and respective liturgical commissions. Whatever the model of church to which one subscribes, to effect change, the ideas must be integrated into the official institutional model. Scholarly insights alone will not bring about the desired change in attitude.

By pointing to covenant as tied to the identity of both Christians and Jews, paragraphs 1 and 6 are important. The lack of elaboration on this issue was disappointing. This elaboration would have been an opportunity to formulate questions on the meaning of covenant in our respective communities. Covenant connotes a relationship grounded in God's faithfulness. In light of the present dialogue, how do Christians understand Romans 11:17-24, which says that the Gentiles have been grafted on to the Olive Branch of Judaism?

While the document renounces missionary activity towards the Jews, it seems to evaluate the Sinai Covenant in Christian terms. Could the scholars have inadvertently imposed a Christian understanding of covenant on the Jewish concept of covenant? What does the term "saving covenant" mean? The term "saving" is not a Jewish term. It is a Christian term. Are the writers of this document slipping into using Christian terminology to explain covenant? If the Jews are in a saving covenant, from what are they being saved? How do Christians and Jews understand the term saving? While the word salvation is not unknown in Judaism, its meaning differs from the Christian usage. How can we further explore this topic?

Even though paragraph 4 intended to enjoin Christians to distinguish between Biblical, Rabbinical, and Modern Judaism, it still leaves us with the impression that Judaism is merely surviving. The text should have clearly stated that Judaism is alive and life-giving.

Paragraph 5 addresses the reading of scripture. The document is correct that Christians read the Hebrew Bible with the lens of the New Testament. This would have been an opportune place to ask Christians to learn how to see the Hebrew Bible as having value in and of itself. Perhaps the suggestion may have been made for Christian seminaries to invite Rabbinical personnel to teach and to engage students in dialogue on the reading of sacred text from the Hebrew tradition.

In addition to Biblical texts, the contribution of the Jewish people to religious understanding is Rabbinical literature. Talmudic and Midrashic texts are generally unknown to many Christians. If there is to be a further understanding of the essence of Judaism, these texts should be explored by Christian clergy. This paragraph missed a golden opportunity to invite Christian institutions of higher learning, especially seminaries, to avail themselves of this important Jewish knowledge. Exposure to these texts will broaden the understanding of Christians of Judaism as well as of early Christianity.

Liturgy is important. It is the forum in which a community lives out its theology. Just as we have been made more aware in recent years of the importance of gender-inclusive language, so must we be made aware of certain texts that can generate negative attitudes towards Jews (e.g. Matthew 27:25, John 21:19, Acts 7, etc.). These texts need to be explained in light of Christian/Jewish dialogue.

The publication God's Mercy Endures Forever, published by the United States Catholic Bishops, November 1988, is a resource for presenting current trends in understanding Christian/Jewish sensitivities on the problematic texts. Unfortunately, few seminarians or priests in the Catholic tradition are even aware of the existence of such a resource. This underscores a lack of integration between Christian/Jewish dialogue and the actual lived experience of Church life.

I think one of the goals of Christians involved in Christian/Jewish dialogue is to understand and appreciate Judaism as Judaism understands and appreciates itself. Christians should seek not to filter or evaluate Judaism through the lens of Christianity. This document seems to be moving in this direction.


"Relationships and Obligations: The Future of Jewish-Christian Dialogue": Rabbi Dr. Michael A. Signer (University of Notre Dame) 

A Sacred Obligation: Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People is a healing balm one year after September became the "cruelest month." The conjunction of the destruction of the World Trade Center with the Jewish High Holy Days and the zodiac sign of Libra (the scales) reflects the liturgical images that the world hangs in the balance of judgment during this season. Any document, but particularly one written by a group of Christian scholars from many denominations, that affirms healing and reconciliation by reconsidering the darker elements of their tradition is to be praised for bringing a fragment of redemption.

These have been confusing times for Jews with respect to their relations with Christians. They read statements like Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity that assert a genuine change in Christian theology about Judaism has occurred. Yet Jews also observe many statements that reiterate the calls for their conversion or that the Jewish people have no right to establish their own state. Therefore, Jews who are not immediately involved in dialogue with Christians may legitimately ask, "What represents the authentic Christian approach to Jews and the Jewish people?"

The answer is far from clear. Many Churches in the United States have made strong statements asserting a positive attitude toward Judaism and the Jewish people. Within the past decades Lutherans in Germany and the United States have repudiated the anti-Jewish elements in Martin Luther’s teaching. The Delegates of the Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops conference have just issued a joint paper with the National Council of Synagogues titled "Reflections on Covenant and Mission" that says targeting of Jews for conversion is not acceptable. Yet other Christians Churches took the Bishops committee to task affirming that to exclude Jews from proselytizing is "discrimination" and "Antisemitism." Indeed, these "evangelizing" Christians often provide the most unwavering support for the State of Israel. In addition to these contradictory messages there has been a steady drumbeat of overt anti-Semitic public statements and increasing incidents of violence against synagogues and Jewish cemeteries.

These contradictory positions about the Jewish community both base their argument on the Christian proclamation of "love." With this kind of "love" proclaimed for the Jews, how might they understand the affirmations made in the new document, "A Sacred Obligation?" Some members of the Jewish community might dismiss them as well-meaning but hardly "representative" of the majority of Christians. Those who hold this opinion harbor deep suspicion about the entire enterprise of Jewish-Christian relations. From their perspective nearly fifty years of efforts toward interfaith understanding have produced no clear results. Therefore, the movement by Jews and Christians toward interfaith understanding that is based on serious theological explorations is deeply flawed and speaks only for a minority of both communities. Position papers and theological conversations have not produced a definitive reduction in antisemitism.

There are many Jews who understand the contradictions in current Jewish-Christian relations very differently. Their argument is formulated this way: The problems of relations between the two communities have developed over two millennia, through many cultures and forms of civilization. They cannot be solved within fifty years. A new bond of trust and confidence between Jews and Christians will take time, patience, and perseverance. The 1965 document of the II Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, takes many years to become part of the daily reality of Christian life and education. Since the time of the Council it has been the efforts of many pastors, educators and theologians all over the world that has brought progress in local Churches throughout the Americas, Europe and beyond.

Acknowledging the efforts of our colleagues in Catholics and Protestant groups was at the core of the effort by four Jewish scholars and two hundred signatories in publishing Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity in September 2000. However, our primary goal was to generate a serious discussion within the Jewish community about its own theological perspectives based upon an exploration of Christianity. By emphasizing both the similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity we hoped to develop another avenue for Jews educated in western humanistic culture to develop a deeper sense of the sacred offered by the religious language of Judaism. We wanted to speak to Jewish community first, and then to the wider community of religious Christians who had worked so diligently and courageously to confront the distortions of their traditions about Judaism.

It is clear that A Sacred Obligation is a theological response to Dabru Emet and the book, Christianity in Jewish Terms (Westview Press 2000). The primary audience is the Christian community. The authors are members of the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations. Some of them have actively been writing about a renewed vision of the Jewish-Christian relationship for many years. They represent a broad spectrum of Christian denominations and the list defies simple categorizations such as "liberal" or "conservative."

In the spirit of Teshuvah the authors "acknowledge with shame the suffering that this distorted portrayal [of the Jews as unfaithful] has caused the Jewish people." Furthermore, they "repent the teaching of contempt" and claim that this repentance moves them "to build a new teaching of respect." These scholars want to replace the "teaching of contempt," a felicitous phrase that was coined by Jules Isaac, with the "teaching of respect." In other words, an authentic Christianity is based on "revitalizing our appreciation of Jewish religious life."

The ten statements of the document provide a path for developing the "teaching of respect." Each of the ten points have been part of long-standing statements made by many Christian denominations, but the Christian Scholars Group offers them in succinct formulation that could be the foundation of a new pedagogic approach. "A Sacred Obligation" places the core of the distortion of Judaism in a positive statement, "God’s covenant with the Jewish people endures forever." This statement is a direct refutation of the classical formulation that Christianity has "superseded" or "replaced" Judaism as the True Israel. Supersessionism has led Christian theologians through the centuries to view Judaism as a relic with no purpose other than to wander throughout the world until the end of time. The frightening results of supersessionism have had dire political consequences for the Jewish people. There are serious implications for Christian theology if God is in covenant with both Jews and Christians that will need considerable effort in future reflections.

The reason that these scholars consider supersessionism to be in error is contained in their second statement that "Jesus of Nazareth lived and died as a faithful Jew." This statement appears to be grounded in what the New Testament scholar John Meier has called the "Third Search for the Historical Jesus." Earlier formulations of the historical Jesus understood him to be in opposition to his Jewish background. Only those statements in which Jesus refuted his opponents and went beyond their parochial teaching could be counted as authentically by Jesus. More recent scholarship on Jesus and his background portrays him as part of the flourishing disputations within Second Temple Judaism. Careful theological reflection on the implications of this New Testament scholarship leads the statement to its next point: "ancient rivalries must not define Christian-Jewish relations today." If Jesus lived within the broad horizons of Second Temple Judaism, then Christian theologians must develop a way of transmitting his message that is neither anti-Jewish nor a-Jewish, but pro-Jewish.

One of the most daring formulations of A Sacred Obligation is that "Judaism is a living faith enriched by centuries of development." Previous generations of Christian theologians as well as modern philosophers such as Hegel have denigrated rabbinic Judaism as parochial or representing a legalistic point of view. There were many pre-modern Christians who had considerable knowledge of the Talmud and Midrashim but understood them as reinforcing their prejudgment that Judaism was a relic of legalism that had been superseded by the message of Jesus Christ. The creation of a more nuanced and sympathetic attitude toward post-biblical Judaism will present a serious challenge to Christian theologians, but the authors of "A Sacred Obligation" hold out the promise that it will "enrich and enhance Christian faith."

Lest the authors of A Sacred Obligation be accused of "judaizing" authentic Christianity or of extreme irenics and thereby diluting the core of the Christian message, they affirm that the Bible both connects and separates Jews and Christians. Many Jews and some Christians argued that Dabru Emet was far too simplistic in its formulation that "Jews and Christians take moral authority from the "same book." A closer reading of that document demonstrates that The Christian Scholars Group has made the same point as Dabru Emet. Neither group wanted to collapse the differences between the authoritative scripture of each community, but to build a solid foundation on the centrality of diverging interpretations of the Hebrew Bible.

Statements seven through nine provide a strong affirmation of the "teachings of respect," and reveal the results of long years of dialogue that the Christian Scholars Group has had with members of the Jewish community. To target Jews for conversion would be a contradiction with respect to the repudiation of supersessionism and the claim that God does not revoke promises. Each community is required to "witness" to their respective experiences of God’s saving ways. How that witness can happen appears in the document "Reflections on Covenant and Mission" issued by the National Council of Synagogues and Delegates of the Bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs in August 2002. Another task that "A Sacred Obligation" imposes on Christians is the revision of the way that Jews and Judaism are presented in liturgy and lectionary (scriptural readings) because "Christian worship that teaches contempt for Judaism dishonors God." Liturgical reform and revision is an onerous task for any religious community, but many churches have already initiated the process of examining the most difficult passages in the Gospels, presenting guidelines and suggestions for those who preach and teach. In those Christian churches that do not follow a fixed order of worship or have a set order of scriptural readings, the tasks of presenting the "teachings of respect" will be more subtle. From the perspective of "A Sacred Obligation" the foundation for honoring Judaism is theological and rests upon an interpretation of Jesus Christ who lived and died a Jew, rather than sociological with an appeal to justice and the common good. This Christological formulation of the basis for Jewish-Christian relations is particularly important at a time when many Christians harbor serious doubts about the way that the Jewish people behave in the political arena.

The logical consequence of the first eight statements is "We affirm the importance of the land of Israel for the life of the Jewish people." Although several members of the Christian Scholars Group have written in support of the significance of the land of Israel for the Jewish people there is something very moving in this statement by the entire group of signatories. In the past year there have been statements by official Church bodies that indicate a trenchant critique of the State of Israel and its current government. Despite efforts to demonstrate that their opposition to actions by Israel does not reflect a negative attitude towards Judaism, there is a strong sense by Jews that the absence of any positive statement about the meaning of Israel for the Jewish life falls within the Christian failure to understand Jews as they understand themselves. A Sacred Obligation reflects the long experience of its authors of listening carefully to Jewish self-expression and a careful reading of Jewish texts. It would be interesting to know if there were members of the CSG who did not sign the document because of this statement. When we sought signatures for Dabru Emet there were those who disagreed with our statement that "Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish People on the land of Israel." However, both Dabru Emet and A Sacred Obligation call for peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians.

This strong affirmation of the Jewish connection to the land of Israel points to what I consider the only significant lacuna in the document. There is no mention of the Shoah or Holocaust. That moment of Christian silence still reverberates in the dialogue between Jews and Christians. In the rise of public anti-Semitic discourse in Europe there have been occasions when Christian symbols such as the crucifixion of Jesus have been used signify excessive Jewish cruelties in the land of Israel. In a document that has a number of authors who have been pioneers in Christian theological reflection on the Shoah and anti-Judaism it is all the more remarkable that there is no reference to that event which Jews still understand as the culmination of Christian teaching of contempt.

The final statement of A Sacred Obligation calls upon Christians to work with Jews "for the healing of the world" and resonates with Dabru Emet’s concluding exhortation for Jews and Christians to "work together for justice and peace." Both documents then demonstrate a common hope that these two communities which have been rivals for two millennia will combine their efforts to bring about the vision of the prophets in their shared biblical text. In contrast to previous generations of Christians and Jews who did indeed find ways to share efforts at peace and justice, both "A Sacred Obligation" and Dabru Emet assert that the path to these goals is built upon a serious and sustained effort of religious reflection that emphasizes both the similarities and differences in each community.

A Sacred Obligation like Dabru Emet brings new voices into the Christian-Jewish dialogue. Christians and Jews who teach and write as well as engage in the life of synagogues and churches want to share the results of their efforts with a wider public. Neither the Christian Scholars Group nor the authors and signers of Dabru Emet would claim to represent the entirety of their communities. However, both documents reflect the collective intelligence and wisdom of men and women who live in the world of ideas and spend many hours of activity in the fragmented and unredeemed world in which we all live. The challenge offered to both the Jewish and Christian communities is whether future generations will be served better by engaging one another in serious and sustained exploration of our traditions or by drawing up defensive barriers against one another. A Sacred Obligation confronts Christians to move toward what Augustine called a "civilization based on love" by continuing to move from the teaching of contempt and constructing the teaching of respect. It provokes the Jewish communities toward encouraging and joining—within the authenticity of their traditions---with those Christians who have the courage to move toward that mutual respect.


"A Document for This Season: Response to A Sacred Obligation": Rev. Dr. Jay T. Rock (Interfaith Relations Director, National Council of Churches of Christ USA)

Baseball fans know that a game played in September is not at all like a game in May. But to those who don't follow the game, any nine innings of play seem much the same. Both are right: every baseball game has the same structure and possibilities, and the significance of any particular game depends on when it is played and its relationship to the unfolding dramas of the teams and players. So it is with a document like A Sacred Obligation: it is not much different than the many documents on Jewish-Christian relations that have preceded it, yet it is important because of its timing and place in the story of Christian-Jewish relations in the United States.

Since 1948, when the World Council of Churches condemned anti-Semitism as sin, and especially after the groundbreaking 1965 affirmation by the Roman Catholic Church of God's unbroken covenant with the Jewish people in Nostra Aetate, churches and ecumenical groups of Christians have produced a stream of documents. In the United States, these have included statements and study documents by state Councils of Churches, and by at least nine national communions (The American Baptist Churches, the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ], the Episcopal Church in the USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Mennonite Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops). Some of these churches also have issued statements or study documents regarding other inter-religious relationships, and/or less specific documents about interfaith relations more broadly considered.

A Sacred Obligation adds very little to these documents; it basically summarizes and brings together the main points made in them. This is helpful in itself. What is added is some additional sharpness in articulating several of the central affirmations already current in Jewish-Christian relations circles, and some more challenging restatement of others.

Helpful clarity is found, for example, in point #5, which brings our attention to "new ways of reading [the Bible] that provide a deeper appreciation of both traditions," and clearly states the important point that Jews and Christians "have developed different traditions of interpretation." Likewise, point #9 reaffirms a tenet found in a number of other documents: the central significance of Israel to the Jewish people. It adds a typical sentence about seeking a just peace, but insists crisply that "Christian theologians can no longer avoid" the issue of developing a "Christian understanding of Jewish attachment to the land of Israel."

The game begins to get a bit more exciting in two notable re-workings of standard "plays." Point #6 makes clear, and radical, the consequences for Christian self-understanding of affirming God's eternal covenant with the Jews: "Christians can now recognize in the Jewish tradition the redemptive power of God at work. If Jews, who do not share our faith in Christ, are in a saving covenant with God, then Christians need new ways of understanding the universal significance of Christ." Point #7 goes on to welcome "opportunities for Jews and Christians to bear witness to their respective experiences of God's saving ways." What is remarkable here is that the writers not only affirm, along with a great many Christians, that God is present and at work in Jewish life, but also go beyond the usual reluctance in the Christian community to describe this presence and power as complete and sufficient for salvation.

For most Christians, these are quite challenging statements. This use of the language of "salvation" dissolves the tension found in Nostra Aetate and most other statements, which affirm the eternal covenant and presence of God and God's Spirit in the lives of Jews (and people of other faiths) while seeing the fulfillment of this presence only in God's saving activity in and through Jesus, the Christ. Many Christians would not accept the formulation found in A Sacred Obligation, even though it seems difficult to think of an eternal covenant between God and a people that is not somehow redemptive. But at the same time, many, though certainly not all, are ready to explore "new ways of understanding the universal significance of Christ."

Another re-statement of a common theme is problematic in a different way. In their final point, the writers rehearse the work for social healing that Jews and Christians have done together in the U.S., and call for strengthening such efforts. They conclude, "These common efforts by Jews and Christians offer a vision of human solidarity and provide models of collaboration with people of other faith traditions." This picture is too rosy, I fear. It must also be said that other aspects of the Christian-Jewish relationship in the U.S. provide, rather than such a vision, examples of human dividedness, of willingness to pursue too often a dialogue little connected to pressing life issues, of genuinely bad behavior over policy on the Middle East or other matters. The picture as presented is also incomplete: useful models for inter-religious collaboration do come from the rich experience of Christian-Jewish interaction, but such models also are available out of Christian-Muslim, Hindu-Christian, and multi-religious efforts. The Christian-Jewish relationship and its models are not always the best starting point for entering into interfaith cooperation and community building.

In A Sacred Obligation we have, then, a handy restatement of the content of many documents, with a few provocative highlights. In baseball terms, it's a well-played, but not terribly exciting game. But we are now at a point late in the "season" of Jewish-Christian relationships, both internationally and here in the United States. Much work has already been done, and the attitudes and, more importantly, the teaching, in our churches regarding Jews and Judaism have changed markedly. Yet it is still very possible to hear supersessionist sermons in many of our churches, and to find inaccurate or denigrating portrayals of Jews and Judaism in Sunday school materials. At the same time, we have seen how the crisis in Israel-Palestine has stirred up a resurgence of anti-Semitism, acts that have gone far beyond the expression of opposition to Israeli military actions or government policy, to vandalism, harassment and violence directed at Jews because they are Jews.

It is the timing of A Sacred Obligation which makes it most important. It comes at a time when we need to be reminded of what we have already affirmed regarding Christian-Jewish relationships. Revitalizing our efforts to build "a new teaching of respect" in place of the distorted "teaching of contempt" is needed now. The work is far from complete.

In addition, continuing and intensifying our work to undo falsehoods about each other is essential in order to begin to dismantle the ways our people dehumanize and demonize, and then inflict suffering on each other. We need to be sparked to embrace once again our commitment to be true to who we are without being false to each other.

This impulse is indeed one that, from a Christian perspective, applies to all of our inter-religious relationships, and to our own integrity. In the words of another statement, the NCCC Policy Statement on Interfaith Relations and the Churches: Being made in God’s image we are created to live a life of relationship and called to claim the unity in our human diversity…. We confess that as human beings we have a propensity for taking the gift of diversity and turning it into a cause of disunity, antagonism and hatred…. We sin against God and each other…. We must struggle to reject or reform all those human actions and systems that destroy or deny the image of God in human beings or that tear down the structures of human community. On the other hand, we must seek to affirm all human impulses which build up true community…. As we wait for the fulfillment of God’s promise, we commit ourselves to work for fuller and deeper community in our own time and place. (pages 5-6, #21-29) We should give our thanks to the authors of A Sacred Obligation and use it to keep ourselves and our churches on course, so that we do our part in moving toward the pennant, the healing of human violence and brokenness in this world.


"A Sacred Obligation That Engenders New Hope": Rabbi Gilbert S. Rosenthal (Executive Director of the National Council of Synagogues)

Just when our hearts sink and our spirits flag over the atrocious rise of religious radicalism, much of it tinged with a new antisemitism, a document is issued engendering hope. A Sacred Obligation is the document to which I refer. Since it is the fruit of the labor of both Catholic and Protestant scholars and theologians, it takes on a more ecumenical hue that is also cause for rejoicing. The introduction to this statement pulls no punches. It opens by reminding the Christian world that, for 2000 years, Christians have erroneously portrayed Jews as unfaithful, holding them collectively responsible for the death of Jesus and, therefore, cursed by God. The document's authors reject this as historically false and theologically invalid, and they repent of this teaching of contempt. But they go further: they insist that their repentance requires them to build a new teaching of respect; that this is not just a matter of justice for Jews but also for the integrity of the Christian faith. Because there is a unique bond between the two faiths, the scholars welcome efforts at dialogue, such as the recent Dabru Emet signed by Jewish scholars and rabbis who have urged a rethinking by Jews of their relationship to Christianity, and they view such a process as a "sacred obligation."

Much of the document challenges the Christian teaching of "supersessionism"--the notion that the teachings of Jesus and Christianity superseded those of Judaism; that the "Old Testament" has been replaced by the "New Testament"; that the Church is the New Israel that has displaced the chosen people. The authors "renounce this claim," affirming that God "is in covenant with both Jews and Christians." Contrary to what many insisted over the centuries, Jesus was not an opponent of Judaism, for he lived and died a faithful Jew. Recognizing that the land of Israel "has always been central to the Jewish people," the text recalls that the doctrine of supersessionism taught that the Jews condemned themselves to homelessness by rejecting Jesus as the messiah. This view must be discarded, insist the authors.

I wonder why supersessionism is still an issue in Christian circles 37 years after Nostra Aetate? Perhaps it is because Nostra Aetate itself did not discard it. Indeed, that historic pronouncement, which was crafted at Ecumenical Council Vatican II, noted: "It is true that the church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed...." At any event, Nostra Aetate, revolutionary as it was, served merely as the foundation of a new era in Christian-Jewish relations; Catholics and Protestants were challenged in it to rebuild those relations based on an entirely new understanding of what Jews and Judaism are all about, and a series of important papers, documents, and pronouncements has followed in both Catholic and Protestant circles. That they have not yet fulfilled the challenge makes it all the more urgent for Christian teachers, preachers, and theologians to incorporate the thinking of this new document as it reformulates the Christian-Jewish relationship. Most important, they must inculcate priests and ministers and theological students with this new appreciation of Judaism, if the sins of the past are to be expunged once and for all.

On the basis of this rejection of the philosophy of supersession, the authors renounce any efforts of Christians to "target Jews for conversion." Indeed, it is heartening to note that Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican's secretary for Jewish affairs, has stated publicly on several occasions that the Roman Catholic Church does not maintain a department for the conversion of Jews. Now this represents a 360 degree turn from the days when all means, fair and foul, were invoked in order to gain a Jewish soul. Many of us are old enough to remember when Bishop Fulton J. Sheen was busily adding Jewish (and Protestant) converts to his quiver like so many arrows. But this has all changed now, and we might hope that certain Protestant denominations -- notably Southern Baptists --will take a hint.

In evaluating the crisis of the year 70 CE and the destruction of the Temple, the authors of the document note that competing groups sought leadership by claiming that "they were the true heirs of Biblical Israel." The gospels reflect that rivalry and are suffused with harsh attacks on Jewish "hypocrisy and legalism." Such vituperations "misrepresent Judaism and constitute an unworthy foundation for Christian self-understanding." They have also polluted relations and made of Judaism a "fossil of Syriac civilization," to quote Arnold Toynbee. But this "fossil" has proved remarkably creative and vibrant, as the document notes. It has blossomed into so many varieties: aggadah and halacha; cabbala and rationalism; philosophy and theology. But how does one deal with Matthew 23 and 27, to take just two examples? A believing Christian can't just expunge sections from a book deemed sacred, any more than a believing Jew would delete less edifying passages from the Torah or Prophets. The answer is: selective winnowing of the material used in the liturgy or lectionary or homilies. I know of no rabbi who would preach on texts describing Israel's bloody conquest of Canaan. Similarly, Christian preachers must simply ignore and downplay New Testament passages that demean Judaism and purge them from their liturgies, a process called for on several occasions by Father John Pawlikowski.

The summons to Christians and Jews to work together for tikkun ha-olam, healing and mending a sick world, resonates, especially these days. We have worked together on issues such as civil rights and the rights of workers for almost a century, note the authors; as violence and terrorism intensify in our time, "we must strengthen our common efforts in the work of justice and peace." Who can reject such a call?

Nostra Aetate had urged us to "encourage and further mutual understanding and appreciation" by way of Biblical and theological inquiry and friendly discussions. This is the true meaning of dialogue: conversation, not conversion; consultation, not confrontation. It is disturbing that, 37 years later, Christian theologians feel compelled to urge a rethinking of old theological norms and the purification of Christian texts and teachings. Clearly, the message has not gotten through to enough priests and educators and parishes indicating the need for renewed and reinvigorated efforts. A Sacred Obligation must be studied by every theological student, priest, and minister. It must become part and parcel of Christian thinking and acting. Above all, it must be spread to the grass roots- and not just in America -- so that the people will know and appreciate that a new era has been born, a new day in Christian-Jewish understanding.


Responses from Two Signatories of A Sacred Obligation

Dr. John C. Merkle (Professor of Theology College of Saint Benedict, Saint Joseph, Minnesota) 

Along with the other members of the Christian Scholars Group on Christian-Jewish Relations, I am grateful to the publishers and editors of Midstream for this symposium on A Sacred Obligation and to the four scholars who have offered their responses to it in this forum.

The members of our group hope that A Sacred Obligation will help to promote, in Rabbi Rosenthal’s words, a "new appreciation of Judaism" that will "become part and parcel of Christian thinking and acting." Obviously, we do not expect all Christians to agree with everything stated in our document, but we do hope that all Christians will come to respect Judaism as a noble and vital religious tradition. The anti-Judaism that has been so much a part of traditional Christianity has had disastrous effects on both Jews and Christians. It has caused untold suffering for Jews and it has impeded the development of mature Christian faith. Our encounters with Jews and Judaism, as also our scholarly research, have convinced us that, as we say in the introduction to our document, "revitalizing our appreciation of Jewish religious life will deepen our Christian faith."

Given this assertion, the spirit of which pervades A Sacred Obligation, and given the title and content of statement number four, I am bewildered, to say the least, by Father Massie’s claim that this statement "leaves us with the impression that Judaism is merely surviving." According to Massie, "the text should have clearly stated that Judaism is alive and life-giving." But the text does state this, and it does so emphatically: "Judaism is a living faith, enriched by centuries of development," and "Christians cannot fully understand Judaism apart from its post-biblical development, which can also enrich and enhance Christian faith." While Massie misses this affirmation of living and life-giving Judaism in our text, Rabbi Signer calls it "one of the most daring formulations" of our document. "Previous generations of Christian theologians as well as modern philosophers such as Hegel have denigrated rabbinic Judaism," explains Signer, "but the authors of A Sacred Obligation hold out the promise that it will ‘enrich and enhance Christian faith.’" Precisely, this is our hope—that a newfound appreciation of living Judaism will provide Christians with a new lease on the life of Christian faith.

Massie also complains that our document "seems to evaluate the Sinai Covenant in Christian terms." He suggests that we should not have used the term "saving covenant" in speaking about God’s covenant with the Jewish people because "the term ‘saving’ is not a Jewish term" but rather "a Christian term." Massie admits "the word salvation is not unknown in Judaism" but he says "its meaning differs from Christian usage." I am sure all the members of our group are well aware that, traditionally, Christians and Jews have emphasized different meanings of the term "salvation," and that Jews prefer to use the word "redemption" instead of "salvation" (perhaps because "salvation" is so often used by Christians as short-hand for "salvation through Christ"). When Jews speak of redemption (or salvation) they usually mean tikkun ha-olam, "the healing of the world" (see statement number ten), while Christians, in speaking of salvation, tend to have the afterlife in mind. Nevertheless, the doctrine of olam ha-ba, "the world to come," is a traditional Jewish belief, and many Christians speak, like Jews, of salvation as redemption of this world. There are, to be sure, different meanings and different emphases given to the same words used by both Jews and Christians, but the differences do not constitute the sharp contrast that Massie suggests.

Moreover, because we, the authors of A Sacred Obligation are Christians, we have a right to articulate an understanding of Judaism in Christian terms (just as the authors of Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity had the right to produce a book called Christianity in Jewish Terms (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000). We all can agree with Massie that "one of the goals of Christians involved in Christian/Jewish dialogue is to understand and appreciate Judaism as Judaism understands and appreciates itself." But does this necessarily mean, as Massie asserts, that "Christians should seek not to filter or evaluate Judaism through the lens of Christianity"? Can’t we do both: attempt to perceive Judaism as Jews do, and attempt to translate that perception of Judaism into terms understandable to Christians? Contrary to what Massie suggests, Signer acknowledges that our document "reflects the long experience of its authors of listening carefully to Jewish self-expression and a careful reading of Jewish texts." It also reflects our long experience of attempting to foster an appreciation of Judaism among Christians who were taught that Christianity replaced Judaism as the way to salvation.

It is precisely because of this traditional supersessionist teaching—that "the new covenant in Christ" replaced and abrogated "the old covenant" between God and the Jewish people as a means of salvation—that we now have an obligation as Christian theologians to assert the opposite: the Jews are in "a saving covenant with God." Jews do not have to express it this way. And had Christians not spoken of the "the old covenant" as devoid of salvific value, we would not now have to speak of the Jewish covenant as a saving one, by which we mean that the Jewish covenant enables Jews to be in a right relationship with God and that they do not, contrary to traditional Christian teaching, need to convert to Christianity in order to have such a relationship.

While Massie is disturbed by our speaking of the Jews being in "a saving covenant," Rev. Dr. Rock points out that this "makes clear, and radical, the consequences for Christian self-understanding of affirming God’s eternal covenant with the Jews." Rock shows that he understands our purpose when he writes: "What is remarkable here is that the writers not only affirm, along with a great many Christians, that God is present and at work in Jewish life, but also go beyond the usual reluctance in the Christian community to describe this presence and power as complete and sufficient for salvation. . . . This use of the language of ‘salvation’ dissolves the tension found in Nostra Aetate and most other statements, which affirm the eternal covenant and presence of God and God’s Spirit in the lives of the Jews (and people of other faiths) while seeing the fulfillment of this presence only in God’s saving activity in and through Jesus, the Christ." We of the Christian Scholars Group now acknowledge "God’s saving activity" in and through the abiding covenant between God and the Jewish people, and this leads us to admit that now "Christians need new ways of understanding the universal significance of Christ." This, I might add, must be done not by denigrating Judaism, but by defending Judaism’s universal significance as well.

Signer is therefore correct to point out that "there are serious implications for Christian theology if God is [acknowledged by Christians to be] in covenant with both Jews and Christians." A number of these implications have been explored and will continue to be explored by members of the Christian Scholars Group. Signer is right: "If Jesus lived within the broad horizons of Second Temple Judaism, then Christian theologians must develop a way of transmitting his message that is neither anti-Jewish nor a-Jewish, but pro-Jewish." We also must develop pro-Jewish ways of transmitting the Christian message about Jesus. What we are advocating in A Sacred Obligation is a pro-Jewish expression of Christian faith, one that affirms Christianity as valid because, like Judaism, rather than in place of Judaism, it fosters covenantal life with God.


Dr. Joseph B. Tyson (Professor emeritus of Religious Studies, Southern Methodist University, Texas)

It is exceedingly gratifying to find that the dialogue anticipated by our document, A Sacred Obligation, has already begun. Words of appreciation as well as criticism by eminent scholars and religious leaders—such as Guy Massie, Jay T. Rock, Gilbert S. Rosenthal, and Michael A. Signer—are always welcome. We hope there will be more such comments.

I intend to take this opportunity to do three things: (1) to share my view on the significance of our document; (2) to explore what this document is intended to do; and (3) to address some major criticisms raised by the commentators.

(1) What is the significance of A Sacred Obligation?

Jay Rock suggests that the major significance of our document lies in its timeliness, and there is much that can be said in support of this suggestion. He and the other commentators are painfully aware that supersessionist sermons are still being preached, that Jews are being specifically targeted for conversion, and that world-wide anti-Judaism, linked with distrust and hostility toward Israel, is on the rise. I share Rosenthal’s concern that, thirty-seven years after Nostra Aetate, Christian teachings that embody ideas of supersession are still heard. The durability of these sentiments underscores the need for statements such as ours. Although Roman Catholics have officially moved far beyond the efforts of a Bishop Fulton Sheen (not to mention a Father Charles Coughlin) and many Protestants have also disavowed such extremism, we cannot yet be comfortable that anti-Judaism has finally been laid to rest. Indeed, as Signer points out, Jews have found the last few years confusing "with respect to their relations with Christians."

While the timeliness of our document adds to its significance, it does not exhaust it. Curiously, Rock finds the document unexciting and consisting of "a handy restatement of the content of many documents." On the one hand, Rock assures us that we are in good company and in basic agreement with scores of similar statements made over the past half-century by denominational bodies and councils of churches. On the other hand, he suggests that ours is little more than a restatement. I have a deep respect for the pioneers who led the way in writing the statements Rock mentions. Their importance cannot be too highly stressed. It should not be forgotten, however, that A Sacred Obligation is the product not only of religious concern but also of scholarly research. It is a document that attempts to work out a consistent theology based on sound biblical and historical scholarship. Moreover, it is a document that was hammered out over an extended period of time by Roman Catholic and Protestant scholars of diverse traditions. As Signer points out, "A Sacred Obligation like Dabru Emet brings new voices into the Christian-Jewish dialogue."

(2) What is A Sacred Obligation intended to do?

Massie accurately points out that our document is lacking in specificity and detail, especially failing to include instruction on how to bring about the goals that we envision. Already, members of our group are considering the preparation of a study guide that will be intended to fill this need. We did not intend our document to provide specific and detailed "how to" instruction, but rather to contribute to an ongoing dialogue, in much the way that Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity has done. Indeed, we wanted to show that, as the authors of this landmark Jewish document claimed, Christians have changed in their attitudes toward Jews. We do not expect to have the final word, but we hope to encourage a great deal of scholarly and religious exploration, especially in the areas of biblical interpretation, theological reflection, and liturgical reformulation.

Massie is also concerned that we were ambiguous in defining our audience. He points out that we should direct our attention to the church leaders in the various denominations, and we certainly mean to include them. But we are aware that not every change begins at the top. In this respect we followed the lead of the authors of Dabru Emet, who addressed the widest possible audience by way of a full page ad in a Sunday edition of The New York Times. We believe our document is so important that we do not want to exclude anyone who might read it and take it seriously.

(3) Major criticisms

In my judgment, the most serious criticism that Massie makes is that we understand Judaism through a Christian lens. He is quite right to maintain that we should attempt to understand Jews on their own terms, as he is right to insist that we approach the Hebrew Bible as having value in and of itself. I believe that all members of the Christian Scholars Group would agree with these comments. It should, however, be kept in mind that A Sacred Obligation is addressed to Christians and is intended to speak about Judaism in terms that Christians are expected to understand. I agree that "saving covenant" is not a term that many Jews would deem to be an appropriate designation of Torah. In the context of our statement six, however, it is a way of saying to our fellow Christians that, in their covenant, Jews have a relationship with the divine that is valid and analogous to what Christians mean by "salvation." This is an exercise in the use of analogous terms to promote understanding, not an attempt to impose Christian theological concepts on Jews.

Signer calls attention to a significant and regrettable omission in our document, namely that there is no mention of the Shoah. I can assure him that awareness of the Holocaust was never far from our minds as we deliberated this document. While there is no explicit mention of it in the text, we know the Holocaust to be the "culmination of Christian teaching of contempt." Indeed, reflection on the Shoah makes the task of "Rethinking Christian Faith in Relation to Judaism and the Jewish People" a "central and indispensable obligation of theology in our time." Although we would not equate Christian anti-Judaism with Nazi antisemitism, we know that there was an intimate relationship. Professor Signer’s comments give me the opportunity to make it clear that it is the Shoah that we have primarily in mind when we say, "We acknowledge with shame the suffering this distorted portrayal has brought upon the Jewish people. We repent this teaching of contempt." I would add that we repent the silence of so many Christians who, in 1933-45, saw their Jewish brothers and sisters being persecuted and taken away to face certain death.

Behind A Sacred Obligation is a group of scholars who have no authority except that provided by their conscientious scholarship. Although composed of Protestants from several denominations and Roman Catholics, the group represents no ecclesiastical body. We wish to share our convictions with fellow Christians, not to tell them what to believe, but to call attention to very important ideas that we hope will be discussed widely and considered carefully. We wish our document to be what Signer calls "a healing balm," and we hope that it will contribute to what Rosenthal calls "a new day in Christian-Jewish understanding."