UPDATED: Orthodox Rabbis: Christianity "neither accident nor error"

SEE BELOW FOR IMPORTANT CLARIFICATION

As Jewish-Christian relations have steadily improved over the last fifty years, the Jewish side of dialogues has consisted primarily of Reform and Conservative representatives. With few exceptions, Orthodox Jewish leaders have been skeptical or silent about improved relationships with Christians and their churches.

Thus a statement published yesterday by twenty-five Orthodox rabbis from Israel, Europe, and North America comes as a surprise, even to those who follow these developments closely. "To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership Between Jews and Christians," published on the website of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat, aims to catalyze Orthodox participation in partnership with Christians on matters of common concern. The statement begins:

After nearly two millennia of mutual hostility and alienation, we Orthodox Rabbis who lead communities, institutions and seminaries in Israel, the United States and Europe recognize the historic opportunity now before us. We seek to do the will of our Father in Heaven by accepting the hand offered to us by our Christian brothers and sisters. Jews and Christians must work together as partners to address the moral challenges of our era.

The framing of the document as a response to Christian good will--to a hand extended in friendship--is reminiscent of the 2000 statement Dabru Emet: A Statement on Christians and Christianity. That manifesto, while generative of much dialogue and scholarship in North America, was not embraced by most Orthodox leaders. The Orthodox Union called it "fraught with danger" and "uncomfortably relativistic." 

But yesterday's statement paradoxically goes further than did Dabru Emet about foundational matters, citing Maimonides and Yehuda Halevi in order to "acknowledge that Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations." It goes on to describe the goodness that Jesus brought to the world, especially "remov[ing] idols from the nations," through the spread of worship of the G-d of Israel among the gentiles. Either a lot has changed in fifteen years, or Orthodox Judaism is in the midst of a serious reckoning with the fundamental tenets of Christianity. 

[UPDATE: A previous version of this post went on to sharply contrast the recent statement with the older critique of Dabru Emet offered by the Orthodox Union. I erroneously contrasted the two statements on the topic of idolatry. Prof. David Berger of Yeshiva University, the author of the prior Orthodox Union statement, has written to correct the record, and I quote his explanation here:

[The Orthodox Union statement about Dabru Emet] conveys the position of major rabbinic authorities that, to use Jewish legal language, “associating” Jesus with the God of Israel is not avodah zarah by the standards expected of non-Jews.  Even according to the stringent position, Christianity did not “spread” avodah zarah [as the previous blog post had mistakenly claimed] because the pre-Christian world was thoroughly pagan, and even Jews who maintain the stringent position recognize that Christianity is vastly different from paganism.  Indeed, the first part of [the sentence quoted in the previous blog post], also willfully omitted, reads, “Although it is proper to emphasize that Christians ‘worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, creator of heaven and earth…’”  Moreover, there is a reason why the Orthodox Union statement translates avodah zarah as foreign worship and avoids the term “idolatry.”  As the author of that statement, I can affirm that I avoided it precisely because I regard it as an inappropriate term to characterize Christianity.

Prof. Berger also directed me to a much longer response to Dabru Emet that he delivered later in 2002 (of which I was unaware), with the transcript available here. He articulates more fully his reservations about interfaith dialogue and his viewpoint on the precise way in which Christianity is avodah zarah. Many thanks to Prof. Berger for these important corrections of my post.]

Returning to the recent statement of this week: positive comments about Christianity by rabbis from past centuries comprise a large part of it, in keeping with the Orthodox style of repeating the teachings of sages. And it is rounded out with a culminating call to partnership in ethics, "a common covenantal mission to perfect the world." Jews and Christians share "the ethical monotheism of Abraham; the relationship with the One Creator of Heaven and Earth, Who loves and cares for all of us; Jewish Sacred Scriptures; a belief in a binding tradition; and the values of life, family, compassionate righteousness, justice, inalienable freedom, universal love and ultimate world peace."

The signatories are major figures in global Judaism, including David Rosen, Alon Goshen-Gottstein, David Brodman, and Shlomo Riskin (who seems likely to have been the orchestrator for the statement, since it first appeared on the site of his organization). While some of the names may be justifiably associated with a more progressive side of Orthodox Judaism, this is by no means a list of milquetoast relativists. Featuring the chief rabbis of several European countries, leading Israeli rabbis, and the man at the Jewish center of Vatican-Israel relations for decades, this theologically compelling and provocative statement is quite a 50th anniversary present for Nostra Aetate.

Michael Peppard is associate professor of theology at Fordham University and on the staff of its Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. He is the author of The World's Oldest Church and The Son of God in the Roman World, and on Twitter @MichaelPeppard. He is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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