We should all feel a debt to Steven Englund for his profound, searching, and brutally honest reflection on the current state of the Catholic-Jewish dialogue. He is especially to be commended for showing the deficiencies of the various strategies of evasion and deflection to which many, including some in high ecclesiastical offices, have resorted in recent years.

[See all the essays included in "Getting Past Supersessionism: An Exchange on Catholic-Jewish Dialogue."]

Instead, Englund proposes that the Roman Catholic Church supersede its traditional supersessionism, putting Catholic-Jewish relations on a more secure footing than Nostra Aetate and kindred Vatican documents have provided. Theoretically, he might, of course, have gone in the opposite direction and affirmed that the traditional supersessionist theology remains valid but should not be interpreted to authorize any social or other prejudice against the Jews. That is, he might have said that gospel and church fulfill and thus replace Torah and the people Israel, but without implying that the failure of the Jews to see the matter this way is culpable in the least. Likewise, he might have argued that Judaism may be a manifestation of God’s grace, as all religions may be, even though it is not the ultimate manifestation of it. Against the likelihood that such a logical option could work (in the sense of removing the traditional Christian contempt for Jews and Judaism) stands the long Christian tradition, beginning in the New Testament itself, of faulting the Jews for their failure to credit the claims made for Jesus by his Christian followers. Efforts, however well intentioned, to claim that the Jews of the past were bad but those of today are not are just too forced to succeed. That the New Testament texts in question meant to address more than just the immediate situations they describe—which were already in the past when the texts were written—is quite clear.

If I understand correctly the new footing that Englund proposes, it is one that goes in the opposite direction and wishes each community to see the other, or at least Catholicism to see Judaism, in the other’s own terms. It would thus be characterized by full equality, for each community would treat the other as equally legitimate. This would entail, in the words of the former chief rabbi of France, that the Catholic Church “teach in a positive way the full respect and full legitimacy of a religion and a faith in which she herself finds her roots: Judaism.”

Such an approach sounds very attractive, since it seems to clear away all the old baggage, but I suspect it is vulnerable to the same weakness as the alternative I mentioned above. If Judaism is fully legitimate—indeed as legitimate as Christianity itself—why did the authors of the New Testament and virtually all authoritative Catholic literature until recent decades not see that? The rabbi’s appeal to the church’s own “roots” misses the key fact that early Christian writers, partaking of the apocalyptic thinking prominent (but not universal) among the Jews of the time, relegated Judaism to a past dispensation. (Englund seriously underestimates this point when he writes, “But in declaring Marcionism a heresy, the Church Fathers resolutely accepted the ineradicability of their religion’s ties to Judaism.”) Englund critiques Pope Benedict XVI’s claim that the origins of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism are nearly coeval by correctly noting that “Christianity is a complete re-reading and repossession” rather than “a direct descendant and continuation” of Second Temple Judaism (515 BCE–70 CE) and, more distantly, the Hebrew Bible. But that very point militates against efforts to interpret the church’s Jewish roots as speaking only for a positive view of Judaism and invalidating any Christian critique of the parent religion or of the latter’s Rabbinic successor.

What exactly would be discussed in a dialogue for which the former French chief rabbi’s advice serves as the framework? Would the Catholics speak as Catholics or simply channel the views the Jews have of themselves and their own tradition? An interreligious dialogue in which the parties ignore, water down, or explain away their distinctive truth claims can help to improve the relations among the participants as individuals, but it does so at a great cost: it requires them to ignore the theological core of their own tradition or to take so critical a view of it that it is no longer a meaningful and productive aspect of their identities. In my experience, that cost usually does not seem very great to my fellow Jews. They tend to go into Jewish-Christian dialogue out of a concern to correct prejudices and prevent persecutions—both without question worthy and necessary goals. But such a dialogue, while it is intercommunal, is not truly interreligious so long as it brackets the distinctive truth claims of each tradition or imagines that those truths speak to no reality outside the respective communities themselves. When the pursuit of good human relations and social justice is the controlling factor in the dialogue, mutual affirmation becomes the goal, and religious relativism soon takes over. The future of any religious community that accepts such a model is not bright.


I DO NOT WANT TO be misunderstood here. There is much that Catholics (and everybody else) can learn about Jesus and about the New Testament and other early Christian literature by studying the Jewish background and parallels, and the perspectives that emerge will surely change Catholic thinking for the better, as they already have. The same inquiry will also change the thinking of Jews about early Christianity, especially if they take into account, as indeed they must, Second Temple (and later) Jewish literature that the rabbis of the Talmud did not know or rejected. One key effect of so doing is to make basic christological assertions in the New Testament sound strikingly less foreign to Jewish ears. The imperative to come to terms with the other and to divest oneself of one’s prejudices applies to both communities, not just to Christians.

My doubts, rather, center on the implication that Catholics can authentically view Judaism as fully legitimate if that means as legitimate as Catholicism itself. It is one thing to affirm, with Pope John Paul II, “that the Jewish Covenant suffices for Jewish salvation, and need not be understood by Jews in a Christian sense” (Englund’s words). It is quite another thing to affirm that Judaism is as true a religion as Christianity. Were the latter the case, then the traditional Jewish critique of Christian worship of Jesus as God (“true God from true God,” in the words of the Nicene Creed) would have to be as valid as the theology it critiques—a complete contradiction in terms. It is one thing for Christians to move towards a dual-covenant theology, as the late pope seems to have been doing with that claim. It is very different matter to propound a dual-truth theory. In the case at hand, such a move can only descend into incoherence.

For Englund, “a true dialogue” must be one in which, as Jacob Neusner puts it, “each party remains open to the possibility of conceding the legitimacy of the other’s viewpoint.” If the alternative is one in which the parties simply preach at each other or are otherwise deaf to the other party’s point of view, he is surely right. But I wonder what the framework for such an open-ended dialogue would be: Against what standard would one be able to pronounce “the other’s viewpoint” legitimate? In the Jewish-Christian dialogue, the standard surely cannot be the plain sense of the Hebrew Bible. For both Judaism and Christianity have historically based themselves on readings that violate the plain sense. The common view that the Jews read their Bible literally and contextually is quite false and fails to reckon with the key rabbinic mode of reading known as “midrash.” In a sense, both early Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism—and here Pope Benedict XVI was on to something important—were midrashic systems that emerged in the Roman Empire; neither interpreted the Old Testament/Tanakh according to the mode of plain-sense exegesis that flowered in the Middle Ages in both traditions or according to the canons of historical criticism that have emerged over the past three centuries or so. Each system makes sense in terms of its own assumptions. How either could ever pronounce the other’s specific claims to be equally legitimate is a very large question indeed.

If so, then there are problems with Englund’s rhetorical question, “Should not Christians have to concede that their bid to ‘read anew’ the so-called Old Testament might be invalid—despite the fervor with which they do it—and that the Jewish ‘take’ on Jesus might be correct?” Rabbinic midrash also reads the Jewish Bible anew, though, again like early Christian interpretation, it also has ancient Jewish antecedents. And according to what standard could Christians assert that the Jewish view of Jesus might be correct? For one thing, most and perhaps all of the Rabbinic texts about Jesus come from long after he had died, and most of them are in the genre of anti-Christian polemic, not objective historical reportage or dispassionate analysis. If, to give another possibility, appeal be made to modern critical efforts to reconstruct the historical Jesus, the results now usually yield a figure very different from, and much more Jewish than, the Christ of Christian faith. But just how Jewish and nonsupersessionist can Jesus become before the christological construals of him collapse under their own weight? How much control can the historical Jesus exert on the Christ of faith before the latter vanishes altogether? Not surprisingly, what Christians should do with the historical Jesus is a point that has bedeviled their theologians from the onset of historical criticism to this very day.

Significantly, an analogous problem affects Judaism, for historical critical investigation has cast into substantial doubt such foundational events as the Exodus, the revelation at Sinai, and the conquest of Canaan. For both religions, it is the midrashic system itself rather than the putative underlying history that carries the theological message. The faithful must not shrink from exposure to rigorous historical inquiry and the chastening that the latter administers, but the historical inquiry alone does not authorize them to say that either midrashic system might or might not be “correct.” There is good reason to doubt that tradition-neutral criteria for making that judgment exist.


ONE POINT THAT Englund makes surprised me. “What if an honest and searching probe by both sides,” he asks, “were to uncover that the Jewish ‘no’ to Jesus is less based on traditional Jewish messianic expectations, freely and creatively arrived at over time, than on the Jews’ profound resentment of Christian mistreatment of them?” At least for the ancient period, this is extremely unlikely. Remember, for the first three centuries of the common era, the Christians were not in much of a position to mistreat Jews, except verbally (which they did, over and over again). The Romans viciously persecuted the church almost until Constantine’s conversion early in the fourth century. Here Englund may be forgetting Ralph Keen’s point about Judaism as “a positive religious choice regarding redemption.” If Judaism is a positive religion in its own right, then to ask why more Jews haven’t converted to Christianity makes no more sense than asking why more Christians haven’t converted to Buddhism or Islam.

If, instead, Englund is referring only to contemporary secular Jews, then his question is somewhat more to the point. But even so, it presupposes more of a gap between ethnic and religious identity than I think is warranted in the Jewish case. In any event, the answer to Englund’s question surely lies at least as much in the secularity of those Jews as in their resentment of Christian mistreatment over the centuries. As for Jews who are indeed stirred to make “a positive religious choice,” Christianity, even one shorn of its anti-Semitism and its supersessionism, need not be the first option to come to their minds. Buddhism, Islam, and a host of other spiritual orientations on offer in contemporary America have their own appeal for people who have no familial roots in Christianity and for disaffected Christians as well. But, most of all, for Jews seeking a religious identity, Judaism itself is still very much available. The once secular Jew who now strives to live a life of Torah is no longer an oddity.

Finally, I must mention one key contemporary manifestation of traditional Christian anti-Semitism that is altogether missing in Englund’s sensitive and learned essay—the transposition of anti-Semitism into anti-Zionism. Here, I am referring not to those who disagree, even strongly, with this or that Israeli policy, as many Christians and Jews (including Israeli Jews) do. Such dissent is not ipso facto anti-Semitic. I am referring, rather, to the demonization of the State of Israel, the presentation of it as a moral malefactor tout court and the subjection of it to standards and expectations that are not applied, or applied to the same degree, to any other country. As others have pointed out, this demonization draws heavily on the historical teaching of contempt that the Roman Catholic and other churches have bravely sought to correct over the past half-century. Unfortunately, many of those who resort to the latest version of the teaching of contempt are unaware of the pernicious template into which they so instinctively and uncritically place Israel. That this demonization has emerged only a generation or so after the Holocaust is shocking; that it is now sweeping through the liberal Protestant churches (and making itself felt in some Catholic circles as well) is even more so. No discussion of Christian supersessionism in the contemporary world can be complete without reckoning with this troubling development and holding it to account.

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School and the author, most recently, of Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton University Press).

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