There cannot be two other religious traditions whose historical relations have been as awful as those between Judaism and Christianity. For centuries Jews suffered discrimination and persecution in countries that defined themselves as Christian, culminating in the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust (while the Nazi ideology which legitimated the latter was anything but Christian, it could build on a long history of church-supported anti-Semitism). In view of this record, any theological or practical rapprochement is to be welcomed. It has indeed occurred in recent decades, especially in America.
In its spring 2012 issue, BTI Magazine has the text of a lecture by Alan Brill, an Orthodox rabbi who is on the faculty of Seton Hall University (a Catholic institution in New Jersey). The periodical is published by the Boston Theological Institute, a consortium of theological schools in the Greater Boston area whose members include institutions of every major Christian church (including the largest Greek Orthodox seminary in America). Brill’s lecture was given at an event to celebrate the entrance into BTI membership of Hebrew College, the first non-Christian institution to do so. Hebrew College (located in Newton, Massachusetts) is a center for Jewish studies, which offers curricula in Judaica but recently inaugurated a seminary training rabbis for the various branches of American Judaism (a very innovative move).
Brill describes in some detail the recently increasing openness by Jewish scholars to the Christian “other”. Prominent individuals in this group are Irving Greenberg, David Novak, Jon Levenson (who, of all places, is on the faculty of Harvard Divinity School) and Jacob Neusner (whose views are discussed at length in a book by Benedict XVI). Brill’s own approach is nuanced, taking seriously both the differences and the commonalities between Judaism and Christianity, and going beyond the ideas of intellectuals who write books to the “lived religion” of the many more people who have not read these books. He makes the important point that the differences between Judaism and Christianity are not greater than the differences present within each. He rejects abstract “essentialism”, which looks at every tradition as an inert construct remaining unchanged from generation to generation.
It is my impression that Brill is correct in his view on the growing openness on the Jewish side. A significant case in point is a book reviewed in the same issue of BTI Magazine: The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. The book is a collection of scholarly Jewish commentaries on the New Testament. What importantly characterizes the new Jewish engagement with Christianity is the abandonment of the vilification of the person of Jesus, who was long called “accursed” by both rabbis and ordinary Jews. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that Jews were routinely persecuted in his name. But such a curse is not conducive to any sober assessment of Jesus’ place in history. Instead there now is a readiness to interpret Jesus and his movement as an important phenomenon within the development of Judaism.
A similar openness can be found on the Christian side, occurring on several levels since World War II. Very probably this is related to the collective recoil from the Holocaust and the concomitant decline of anti-Semitism (still operating despite the revival of anti-Semitism under the veneer of anti-Zionism, especially in Europe and on the Christian Left). On the institutional level, there has been the essential abandonment, in principle or de facto, of programs to convert Jews both by mainline Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church, leaving this enterprise to Evangelicals—the Southern Baptist Convention recently reaffirmed its commitment to evangelism aimed at Jews. (The historical memory of coercive conversions makes for deep suspicion of such missionary activity, which is understandable, and for perceiving this activity as anti-Semitic, which is less understandable: If, as many Evangelicals believe, people are headed for hell unless they “accept Jesus as personal lord and savior”, then refusing to evangelize Jews would be the ultimate anti-Semitism.) Just about all Christian churches have condemned anti-Semitism and expressed remorse for their past collusion with it. The Vatican has acknowledged the special status of Judaism by instituting a special agency for Catholic relations with Jews, separate from the agencies dealing with non-Catholic Christians, non-Christian religions and “unbelievers”.
On the level of Biblical scholarship by Christian scholars, there has been a strong tendency to understand Jesus in his Jewish context, indeed as a Jew. On the level of Christian theology, there has been widespread abandonment or at least de-emphasis of “supercessionism”—that is, the doctrine that the church is the new Israel and the inheritor of God’s covenant with the Jewish people, thus “superceding” the latter. There is even a group of Protestant theologians in Germany proposing that Christianity is simply the vehicle by which Gentiles (sort of in the role of stepchildren or second-class citizens) can share in the blessings of God’s revelation to Israel. This may be taking German penitence too far, but less radical versions of this can be found outside Germany. Thus the American Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson proposes that God intends the continuation of Judaism as separate from Christianity until the Second Coming.
The American situation is particularly interesting here. There are three centers of Jewish demography in the world today—Israel, the United States and Europe. The challenge to Judaism in the three cases is very different. Jews have flourished in America as nowhere else for the last two millennia (including the much-vaunted, and over-rated, convivienca of the three monotheistic religions in Muslim-ruled Andalusia). Not only has the acceptance of Jews as taken-for-granted fellow-citizens reached unprecedented levels, but since the 1950s the term “Judaeo-Christian civilization” has become a staple phrase in American political rhetoric. (The more recent term “Abrahamic” is intended to include Muslims, but definitely not to exclude Jews.) The main challenge here has come from pluralism.
A simple definition of pluralism (or, if one prefers, plurality) is a situation of peaceful co-existence and interaction between different worldviews, value systems and lifestyles. For well-known historical reasons, America has been in the vanguard of modern pluralism. The combination of religious plurality (an almost inevitable consequence of modernity) and religious freedom (which can exist without democracy but is strongly reinforced by it) has led to a situation in which no faith can be taken for granted and in which, therefore, the individual must make choices. This is the situation in which the distinctively American institution of the denomination was created—a voluntary association, which an individual is free to join or to leave. Every religious tradition that used to enjoy a monopoly status is challenged by this transition of faith as destiny to faith as decision. Judaism is especially challenged. It has always been associated with a people, into which one is born and does not choose (except by way of some sort of “naturalization”, as in the story told in the Book of Ruth). Judaism as destiny was close to being unchallenged in the old shtetl, from which most Jewish immigrants came. The challenge emerged with Jewish emancipation in western and central Europe—as a rabbi put it in the early nineteenth century: Napoleon is good for the Jews, bad for Judaism.
In America the challenge became massive. American Judaism itself became “denominationalized”—depending on how one counts, into at least four denominations (even not counting the traditional plurality of Hasidic schools). And for individuals, Jewish identity has become (in another deeply American phrase) a religious preference. The huge incidence of intermarriage is one significant consequence of this. As Irving Kristol once remarked: We used to worry that Gentiles might want to kill our children; now we worry that they want to marry them. And of course conversion to a faith other than Judaism is no longer a catastrophic event. Some years ago I visited a Buddhist summer school in western Massachusetts; I was intrigued that the teacher representing Theravada Buddhism was called Shapiro.
Back to Judaism and Christianity: If their dialogue is defined as an embrace of the “other”, just who is that “other”? If you are an American Jew, it may still be the Gentile neighbor, with whom you share amicable backyard barbecues. But it may also be your spouse, who still attends Catholic mass, or your children, who do not understand why they must not eat ham sandwiches at a school picnic. Most important, the “other” may lurk in your own mind, as a temptation and a practical option. It is easy to look upon some religious choices as foolish (as with some brainwashing cults) or shallow (as with what has been called “airport religion”). There are many foolish and shallow human beings and, if they are free to choose, they are prone to make foolish or shallow choices. Other choices are deeply reflected upon, personally costly, even desparate. In the turbulent supermarket of American religion one may well wish for an earlier situation in which faith was a matter of tranquil certitude.
Unless one values the freedom of the individual.