Not Conversion, but Communion

An Exchange on Catholic-Jewish Dialogue
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Steven Englund’s essay on Catholic anti-Judaism is as passionate and eloquent as it is challenging. He writes with respect and honesty about a complex and painful subject, and as one who shares his desire to decry any form of anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism, and to advance relations between the church and Judaism, I am grateful for his work.

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

Englund details the history of the church’s “physical and material atrocities against the Jews,” arguing that the primary reason for the church’s antipathy to Judaism is its underlying “supersessionist” conviction. That conviction is paradoxical: the church depends on Judaism as the root of its own religious tradition, yet claims that Christianity is Judaism’s God-ordained successor and replacement; it has appropriated Jewish Scriptures, practices and dogmas, while delegitimizing Judaism itself for failing to recognize its own longed-for Messiah. Fundamentally, Englund argues, quoting the words of the Jewish theologian Ben Zion Bokser, supersessionism entails the bludgeoning conviction that “authentic Judaism is really Christianity.”

Historically this has been the case, but things have changed. Official Catholic teaching, as Englund gladly relates, now renounces the crude claim that the advent of Jesus as Messiah and the emergence of the church—along with its rejection by Jews—invalidated Judaism as a religion and an authentic path to God. Recent papal teaching, particularly since John Paul II, portrays God’s covenant with the Jews as valid and irrevocable. Paul’s reflections on this issue in Romans 9–11 have become a key biblical warrant for this perspective: “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew…for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:2, 29). The Pontifical Biblical Commission’s 2002 text, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, went a step further, asserting that because Judaism is a valid and enduring religion, its reading of its own sacred texts cannot be condemned simply because it differs from the Christian reading. The commission’s text is far more emphatic about God’s ongoing relationship to the Jews than either Vatican II’s Nostra Aetate or We Remember, John Paul II’s apologetic statement on the church and the Holocaust.

One aspect of Englund’s analysis makes me uneasy. He depicts the early Christian relationship to Judaism as a kind of rip-off—Christianity carrying out a “morally dubious” appropriation of the Jewish Scriptures, Jewish practice, and Jewish beliefs. In this view, the church was a playground bully snatching the ball from a weaker opponent. Englund seems to suggest that it would have been better—certainly for Jews but also for Christians—if the church had accepted the stance of Marcion and renounced all ties with Judaism. Such a move might have preempted this sad history of strife and oppression.

But does this portrayal really describe what happened? Is it the full picture? Look at the Gospel of Matthew, a gospel often used to justify the supersessionist theology Englund rightly condemns. Traditionally, many Christian interpreters saw in Matthew—with its sharp critique of Jewish leaders, its favorable view of Gentiles, and the chilling words of the crowds in the Passion narrative (“Let his blood be on us and our children”)—a repudiation of Judaism. Indeed, the gospel seems to end with Jesus abandoning the mission to Israel and turning instead to the Gentiles. For centuries Matthew was used to justify the condemnation of the Jews as a people.

Yet in the wake of Vatican II, Matthew has been understood in a very different way. The gospel is now seen to underscore Jesus’ Jewish roots and sensitivities. It begins by tracing the “Son of David’s” genealogy back to the origins of Israel. In the infancy narrative, the travails that afflict Jesus and his family evoke the sufferings of Israel; at the Jordan, God’s own voice in the words of Psalm 2:7 declares Jesus to be his beloved son; in the desert, Jesus cites the words of Deuteronomy and the Jewish Shema to affirm his obedience to God’s word (a supreme Jewish virtue); and in the Sermon on the Mount, he declares that he has come “not to destroy the law and the prophets but to fulfill them.” Throughout his ministry, as Matthew chronicles it, Jesus draws Jewish crowds and heals them; he defends the unique privilege of Israel as the object of God’s care; he does not despise the law but interprets it with his messianic authority; and he dies on the cross with the words of Psalm 22:1 on his lips.

There remains, of course, the gospel’s sharp critique of Jewish leaders. Modern biblical scholarship, however, sees this addressing not a conflict between Christians and Jews but rather an intra-Jewish one. Matthew’s community truly believed themselves to be faithful Jews; Jesus’ mission to the Gentiles, which comes into full bloom in the final scene of the gospel, is not a rejection of his prior mission to his own people Israel, but rather a fulfillment of God’s plan for the salvation of the world—a plan that developed organically in the history of Israel itself and in Jesus, Israel’s messiah. The object of Matthew’s critique is not Judaism itself but some Jewish religious leaders who opposed the Christian view of Jesus. This point, as Englund illustrates, while tragically lost in later Christian interpretation, was firmly in place in the New Testament.

 

SO ALL IN ALL, is it accurate to call this “supersessionism”? Or are we dealing with something else? Key to Matthew’s understanding of the relationship between Jesus and his Jewish heritage is not the conflict with the Jewish leaders, but rather the profound Christology of the Christian community that underlay that conflict. It is Matthew’s conviction—and that of the Christian community of which he was a part—about the identity of Jesus that is the real issue. Long ago, the Jewish theologian Eugene Borowitz insisted that however difficult and tortured the history of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, the real problem is the question of Christian claims about Jesus. That conviction about the unique identity and religious authority of Jesus the Christ led those Jews who became Christians—Matthew and Paul among them—to change their understanding of God and of Israel’s vocation in history.

The reading of Matthew I have outlined—one embraced today by many Catholic and other Christian exegetes—became possible only once the eyes of the modern church were opened to its sinful past, and a new willingness to take Judaism on its own terms developed. The shock of the Shoah helped make this happen; but so, too, did innumerable subsequent dialogues between Jews and Christians all over the world. Though Englund applauds these efforts, he worries that many of them avoid “the sensitive and divisive issues” and settle instead for “tea and sympathy.” This is not my experience. Very often it is in precisely such tea-and-sympathy sessions that bonds of friendship are forged; only then—among friends—can the deeper issues be discussed and concerted action for the common good planned.

Furthermore—to respond to a more profound point Englund makes—is such dialogue really valid only when, as Englund quotes the eminent Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner, “each party remains open to the possibility of conceding the legitimacy of the other’s viewpoint”? I think not. One should enter dialogue ready to learn from the other, to develop deeper understanding and respect for the other’s deepest convictions, even to forge friendship with the other. But must a Christian enter such a dialogue with a readiness to concede that Jesus was not the Son of God? And must a Jew be willing to renounce the moral authority of the Torah and the status of Israel as God’s people? I hope not. The purpose of authentic interreligious dialogue, in my view, is not persuasion and conversion, but rather communion of mind, spirit, and heart, even amid profound differences.

Christianity cannot undo, and should not forget, those aspects of its history that have been so harmful to Jews. Thanks to courageous writers such as Steven Englund, the church will not be allowed to forget. Jewish unease about Christian appropriation of Jewish Scriptures and symbols and teachings will continue, and self-aware Christians will still discover in themselves hidden prejudices and false assumptions about Judaism. The only way forward is to continue the relationship between our two traditions, fostered through mutually respectful and honest dialogue. Englund worries that Roman Catholic commitment to this dialogue is wavering, but I am more optimistic. Too much has been accomplished; too many friendships around the world have been forged; exceptionally strong if still imperfect statements have been made at the highest levels of the church’s teaching authority. Paul’s conviction, too long forgotten, still holds: “God’s gifts and God’s promises are irrevocable.”

Published in the February 21, 2014 issue: 

Donald Senior, CP, is president of the Catholic Theological Union at Chicago. He was appointed by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

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