Christian Conversion of Jews?

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Jewish Week: "Conversion Diversion"

To save or not to save Jews. That is the question suddenly embroiling leading Catholic theologians.

On one side are progressive Catholic scholars who believe that in the 21st century it is no longer theologically acceptable to include Jews in the Church's global mission of conversion. That would mean accepting that Jews have their own legitimate path to salvation.

Rejecting this historic new approach are traditional Catholic leaders who insist that Jews still ultimately need to accept the divinity of Jesus to be saved, and Catholics must continue to proselytize them.

The resolution to this growing internal Catholic debate could affect the future of the complicated Jewish-Catholic dialogue.
After all, how can there be a trusting exchange if the Catholic side's ultimate goal is for Jews to convert?

The "great salvation debate" has heated up in recent weeks following the publication of two opposing articles in the Catholic weekly magazine America.

In the first article, Avery Dulles, a professor of religion at Fordham University who was promoted to cardinal last year by Pope John Paul II, defended the continued evangelizing of Jews.

Cardinal Dulles criticized a landmark document issued last summer by a group of American ecumenical bishops that rejects "campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity."

The document called "Reflections on Covenant and Mission," cosponsored by the National Council of Synagogues and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, is wrong to exclude Jews from the Church's worldwide mission of salvation, he said.

"Once we grant that there are some persons for whom it is not important to acknowledge Christ ... we raise questions about our own religious life," the theologian wrote.

Cardinal Dulles also disputed the document's statement that "Jews already dwell in a saving covenant with God," saying it "seems to imply that Jews are not obliged to take cognizance of the new covenant.

"No New Testament author could be interpreted as holding that there are two independent covenants, one for Jews and another for Christians, running on parallel tracks to the end of history," he wrote.

But three progressive Catholic thinkers strongly disagreed.

Philip Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College; Sister Mary Boys, a theology professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York; and Father John Pawlikowski of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago advocated an evolved definition of "evangelizing" that would exclude Jews as conversion candidates.

"To refrain from targeting Jews for conversion is not a rejection of the Church's evangelical mission but a recognition that this dimension of evangelization is inappropriate in the unique case of Judaism, the tradition to which we are all 'intrinsically' related," they stated.

"As theologians long engaged in dialogue, we believe that rethinking our faith in light of our changed relationship with Jews is not only a sacred obligation but a call for a more profound Christian faith."

Last week, the Vatican's top liaison to the Jewish people jumped into the debate between the fundamentalist and liberal wings of Catholicism.

During a visit to Boston College, Cardinal Walter Kasper reiterated verbally several times that "the unbroken covenant between God and Israel was part of God's plan of salvation, and so, saving for Jews despite the absence of an explicit faith in Christ." In other words, Jews who are in an unbroken covenant with God, are saved by being in that covenant: despite not accepting Jesus.

Cardinal Kasper, a German theologian and president of the Vatican's Commission on Relations with the Jews, agreed there is a "qualitative difference" between how Catholics should proclaim their faith to gentiles and to Jews because of the unbroken covenant.

The precise nature of that difference, the cardinal said, needs more theological research.

Cunningham said these are important theological advances for the Jewish-Catholic relationship.

So what is the role of Jews in this Church debate?

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the noted Talmudist, said it is essential for the Church to change its official policy of conversion toward Jews for a true dialogue to take place.

He met this month with Cardinal Kasper and other top Vatican theologians in Rome during a 37th anniversary celebration of Nostra Aetate, the 1964 Church document that renounced anti-Semitism and the charge of deicide against the Jewish people.

"The dialogue as it is now has a problem," Rabbi Steinsaltz, an Orthodox rabbi and founder of the Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications, said last week from Jerusalem.

"If they believe there is only one way to get into paradise, and have in the back of their mind the notion I have to be saved somehow, we can not yet have a real dialogue."

Jewish thinker Rabbi Irving Greenberg welcomed the debate as a positive indication that the Church is struggling with the concept of fully validating Judaism's covenant with God.

"If you do serious dialogue, in the end one must come to recognize the other side has a genuine independent connection to God in which they really experience salvation in God's presence," Rabbi Greenberg said.

But he cautioned the concept is particularly threatening to traditional groups, "who base their whole system on the invalidity of the other guy. They can no longer say their religion is the only valid one and there is multiple access to truth."

"Dulles is like the centrist Orthodox," said Rabbi Greenberg, the Orthodox president of the Jewish Life Network. "He is not from the reactionary wing ... but [like the centrists] he has not faced up to the full implications of pluralism."

As an example, Rabbi Greenberg cited the recent trouble of England's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a centrist, who agreed to amend passages in his new book after being criticized by fervently Orthodox rabbis for advocating religious pluralism.

Rabbi Greenberg said the salvation debate has to be resolved internally by Catholics, but he credited the growing Jewish-Catholic dialogue for aiding the evolution.

"That's the mistake of 'the Rav,' " he said in referring to his teacher, the noted 20th century Orthodox theologian Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who restricted interfaith dialogue.

"His rationale was that you don't have to have a dialogue to be influential, but it's not true," he said. "The final step of affirmation doesn't happen on an intellectual basis but through personal experiences of meeting wonderful people in dialogue."

Cunningham said "Orthodox Jews who are sensitive to this process of reform should not be overly distressed by the lapses of some Catholics, even prominent ones. "Such ups and downs testify to the deep issues being engaged within Catholicism," he said, "thus indicating the seriousness of the renewal."