Jews and Christians seek to move from 'contention to cooperation'

April 4, 2003

'We are living in the midst of a historic transformation in Jewish-Christian relations,' said Rabbi Eugene Korn, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League, in his introduction to an April 3 panel discussion on 'Jewish-Christian Relations in the New Millennium: From Contention to Cooperation' at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. The panel, linked by satellite with six other sites, was part of a series presented by the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life.

'We have progressed quite a bit' since the theological debate between the two religions was described in the 13th century as a 'religious duel to the death,' Korn said. Today there is growing recognition that both Christians and Jews are 'sincere believers, faithful to their traditions. And now we realize the power of religion for good and bad,' especially in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Introducing the panelists--Cardinal Avery Dulles, Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold of the Episcopal Church and Rabbi Norman Lamm, president of Yeshiva University--Korn said that the panel would explore 'how to honestly confront our past, what we have in common, what divides us and how to make the future better and more hopeful…moving beyond a painful and tortured past.'

Virus of anti-Semitism

In response to a question on what has influenced relations between Judaism and Christianity, Griswold said, 'The Holocaust has obliged Christians to look very seriously at their own, possibly unacknowledged, anti-Semitism, present in a quiet but real way in some of our liturgical texts and in the ways we have deported ourselves in relation to the Jewish experience as in some way superseding the Jewish experience.'

Griswold said that 'the Holocaust created in Christians a self-scrutiny that has lead to repentance in the ways we have been complicit in patterns of anti-Semitism…. The establishment of the State of Israel has given Jews a sense of place and sense of identity and out of that renewed sense of confidence a level of conversation is possible because, in many places, the Jewish community no longer feels threatened by the Christian community…so our conversation can be deeper and truer and more explicit.'

Lamm said that the 'pope gets a great deal of credit--for Vatican II's bringing the Catholic world to a recognition of Judaism as legitimate in its own way, his recognition of Israel, his visit to the Wailing Wall and a Roman synagogue. These are all gestures heavy with symbolism.' Yet he quickly added that he fears that despite all the improvement of relations 'what's happening now in Europe and the Christian West--the virulent anti-Zionism, anti-Israel attitudes, which to a large measure is a cover-up for anti-Semitism--is like a virus that has been dormant a long time.'

Korn also expressed gratitude that the pope 'has spoken of Israel not only as a political entity but recognizes the spiritual meaning of the Jews returning to the homeland for the Christian community.' In light of enormous controversy and debate over extremely complex Israeli-Palestinian relations, he believes that 'sometimes legitimate criticism of Israel crosses the line into anti-Semitism, particularly apparent in Europe. What can we do to increase understanding and reduce the disease or the cancer?'

Offspring of Abraham

Dulles said that attempts by the Vatican to improve relations with Judaism is part of a larger effort to improve relationships with many groups. Recognizing that the 'polemics of the past have been harmful,' Vatican II sought a more positive relationship despite the differences. 'We must realize more fully that diversity is not a bad thing,' he said.

Griswold quoted the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel who said that 'pluralism is the will of God,' adding that he 'sometimes wonders about God's imagination creating three siblings--Jews, Christians and Muslims. Do we in some way exist to remind one another that none of us has the absolute corner on God's self-disclosure? God's own desire is that we be not just tolerant, but recognize each other as offspring of Abraham.'

Lamm said that he hesitates to use the term pluralism. 'If pluralism means that everyone is right and no one is wrong it reduces itself to a kind of relativism that misses the grandeur of each religion and its own tradition. Pluralism means being human, civilized, loving,' he said.

Korn warned that 'notions of pluralism and tolerance are sometimes masks for apathy and indifference. The great challenge is to have absolute conviction and fidelity to our traditions and yet still find space for the other, with respect and dignity--seeing each other as human beings created in the image of God.'

Korn said that religious appreciation of pluralism is a radical and rather new concept. 'How do we see the other as somehow a catalyst or agent for affirming our own faith? How do we see the other as a representative of God's world that deepens our own faith tradition?' he asked.

Challenge of secularism

'Exposure to the authenticity and integrity of one another's worship traditions can do a tremendous amount,' said Griswold. During a Jewish service in Jerusalem he realized that Torah represents God's loving disclosure. 'I could see a passion and love that transformed it from words into relationship,' he said. 'That's who Christ is for me. By experiencing this Jewish reality my own reality is expanded.'

'Hostility among religions is the principal cause of secularism,' said Dulles. 'People think of religion as divisive. It doesn't have to be, it can be unitive.' Griswold added that 'one of the sadnesses in our own day is how religion is used to reinforce division and hatreds, perpetuating cycles of mistrust and violence.'

'Because religion is so very important, touching the destiny of man, therefore it can be corrupted and hostilities can result that are not necessary,' said Lamm. 'The patterns that shape us can also become idols that we worship, quite apart from where they are meant to lead us,' said Griswold.

The issue of conversion

Announcing that he was ready to 'throw a monkey wrench into the happy conversation,' Korn said, 'One of the most difficult issues between Jews and Christians over the ages has been the issue of conversion…. The traditional doctrine in Christianity says that prior to the birth of Jesus the Jewish people had a living covenant with God and Christianity came to replace Judaism and render it obsolete.'

Dulles agreed that it was 'a sensitive question. We have a desire that people more and more come to recognize Jesus as the son of God--but that does not mean an effort to force people into belief through moral or physical coercion. That doesn't work. That's why Vatican II's Decree on Religious Freedom said that faith had to be something voluntary and free.'

'When Paul says that the call of Israel is irrevocable, I take that very seriously,' said Griswold. 'He says clearly that the promises of God are irrevocable. That says to me that Judaism is a living faith and Christians make a mistake in seeing Israel solely in a New Testament context and ignoring the rabbinic tradition which is so rich and full.'

Living covenant

'Everyone agrees that Judaism is not superceded because that would mean there is no Judaism,' said Lamm. 'That would be committing spiritual suicide.' The issue of conversion becomes important when 'the consequences of those beliefs affect our lives.' He noted that history shows that ' most conversions have been fraught with violence and deception. That goes beyond dialogue. We believe we have a covenant with God.'

Dulles agreed that 'the covenant with Judaism is a living thing and God's love for Israel is a very special one. He has not retracted it…. Yet Christ meant to say that everything in Judaism points to him and he is the fulfillment of the law, not the abolition.'

Griswold said that 'through the person of Jesus I can call the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob my God, instead of seeing it as a movement from Judaism toward Christianity, a door has been opened to a whole tradition, a whole experience of God that would otherwise be inaccessible to me through the person of Jesus who was a Jew. I can read the story of Exodus as somehow my story too. '

Poison memories

Korn said that there is a paradox at work in the relation between Jews and Christians. Roman Catholics have no mission to Jews 'and that doesn't undermine the cardinal's conviction about the universality of Jesus.' The great 12th century rabbi, Maimonides, was a harsh critic yet somehow regarded Christianity as 'a positive agent in history for the recognition of God. This is a marvelous spiritual paradox we all must live with.'

Korn read Micah's beautiful vision of the Messianic era and asked, 'What can we do as religious leaders to somehow bring history closer to this vision? To what extent do we do it separately and in cooperation?'

Griswold said that in all our traditions the three siblings of Abraham speak of 'the God of compassion and justice--God's own view of how things ought to be. There is an incredible opportunity to make common cause in repair of the world…supporting and strengthening one another out of the integrity of our traditions.'

Dulles said that the pope talks about 'the healing of memories. The memories of the past poison our relationships with one another. We must confront the past honestly and express repentance and sorrow for what has gone wrong and … confess that until we begin to acquire a common history. We must go through that painful process.'

Common threads

Looking for some specific and concrete ways to move toward a vision of peace and tolerance, it helps to take a look at what is happening on the local level, Griswold suggested. In marriage between Christians and Jews, for example, 'both become clearer about their tradition but also common threads that could be shared.' Lamm said that his experience with intermarried couples was that 'rarely does it result in a deepening of religious experience or observance. It tends toward syncretism, watering down differences' and a loss of identity, damaging to both religions.

Does the Muslim call for jihad bring Jews and Christians together in any way, came the question. 'Yes, out of shared anxiety and fear,' said Griswold. 'Our experience after 9-11 creates a climate of anxiety that draws us together--not out of our best emotions. It's important to be careful not to blanket all of Islam with an epithet like terrorist.'

But we must avoid acting aggressive out of fear, warned Dulles. 'If we could get rid of our fears we could build peace more successfully.'

Lamm said that the situation opens the potential for what he called 'a shared victimhood' in facing the potential violence. 'It's terribly sad that whatever voices of moderation in the Islamic world, very few are heard. Islam is a great religious tradition but where do we hear a voice from an imam speaking to his own people, saying this idea of violence and hatred of others may be a strand in Islam but it's not an important one?'

'It's very easy for someone with few principles to be tolerant of others who have no principles,' said Lamm. 'But to have a vision of what you consider the truth and terribly important, that is sacred and forms your life, your whole essence, and yet not to be intolerant of those who have different points of view--that's an achievement, a spiritual achievement.'