A strange moment in the Christian-Jewish dialogue

Prof. Jon D. Levenson of Harvard University tells us not to view Christian-Jewish dialogue in terms of conflict resolution. The two religious traditions have genuine disagreements that each must understand and respect. They can learn from each other and work together for the good of the countries in which their adherents live without seeking to compromise with their own commitments or expect “concessions” from the other.

Levenson, a committed Jew and the author of important books about the Hebrew Bible, reminds us that the relationship isn’t symmetrical. Judaism is an integral part of Christianity: Jesus was a Jew and lived as a Jew. But, though Jews have lived in Christian societies, Jewish theology has no room for Christianity.

Until our time Christians were taught that God had abrogated the covenant with the People of Israel, as described in the Hebrew Bible (that Christians call the Old Testament, i.e., the old covenant), and made a new covenant exclusively with Christians.

They argued that Judaism had thus been rendered obsolete. The Church would now convert Jews to save them from eternal damnation. If that proved impossible, Jews were to lead restricted lives, usually as pariahs on the margins of Christian society, to illustrate what happens to a people that has known Christ and rejected him.

Mercifully, things have changed. More than half-a-century ago, the Vatican issued its celebrated document Nostra Aetate that stressed the affinity between Christianity and Judaism and demanded respect for Jews. By abandoning the doctrine that Christianity had superseded Judaism, the Catholic Church had radically amended the religion about Jesus (Christianity) in relation to the religion of Jesus (Judaism). Instead of seeking to resolve the conflict with power, Christians would now live with Jews in peace and mutual respect.

In December 2015, the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews formally announced that the Roman Catholic Church would now also stop all missionary activities that targeted Jews. Pope Francis has thus continued on the path of reconciliation embarked upon by his predecessors.

But current Catholic theology hasn’t penetrated Vatican politics. It seems that many Catholics still find it difficult to accept that God’s covenant with the People of Israel, as articulated in Scripture, includes the Land of Israel. Instead, they often accept the Muslim version that claims that the Jews have no rights to a state of their own in the region. The many anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly and its offshoots reflect the distortion.

Not having one central authority like the Vatican, the situation in the Protestant Churches is more varied. Cooperation between local synagogues, especially those that belong to the Conservative and Reform movements in Judaism, and liberal Protestant churches exists in many countries, including Canada. And evangelical Protestants often describe themselves as Christian Zionists and declare their enthusiastic support for the land that, according to the Hebrew Bible, God promised to the Jewish people. Thus the State of Israel.

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