The Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding (CCJU) of Sacred Heart University convened its annual program for Seminarians and Rabbinical Students on May 24-26, 2010, at the university campus in Fairfield, CT. The conference welcomed 35 students from Christian and Jewish seminaries and theological schools from across the country. The program marked 11 years of the CCJU vision inspired by the Second Vatican Council declaration, Nostra Aetate (1965), to foster dialogue and education in ways that stimulate a deep understanding of one’s own tradition and simultaneously encourage a more learned understanding of the other. The purpose of the Institute is to introduce tomorrow's religious leaders to the growing interreligious dialogue between Judaism and Christianity. By coming together for joint study and the sharing of religious traditions, participants are furnished with key experiences to pursue an active participation in Christian-Jewish understanding. Participants in this program are invited to continue their study and dialogue for improving Christian-Jewish relations through the Center’s annual Colleagues in Dialogue program.
As in previous years, the CCJU provided the students with lodging at Sacred Heart University's Angelo Roncalli Hall, named for the Italian bishop who would become Pope John XXIII in 1959, and with kosher meals throughout the Institute. The three-day program included presentations from leading scholars in Christian-Jewish relations, joint scripture study, a visit to a synagogue and a Christian church, in addition to opportunities for frequent conversations throughout the program.
The participants began the Institute as guests of the Leir Foundation house in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Welcome remarks were offered by CCJU Executive Director, Dr. David Coppola, and the President of the Leir Charitable foundations, New York, Arthur S. Hoffman, Esq. Mr. Hoffman reflected on the long and productive relationship between Sacred Heart University and Mr. and Mrs. Henry Leir. Mr. Hoffman described the Leir’s legacy as “an innovative global entrepreneur whose bold vision in the first half of the 20th century was to imagine a truly pluralistic business model that transcended cultural and national boundaries.” The work of the Center is one that “actively and successfully promotes Mr. Leir’s vision,” Mr. Hoffman said.
Dr. Philip Cunningham, Director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, spoke about “A Time for Recommitment: The Twelve Points of Berlin” initiated by the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) and their member organizations. The “Recommitment” is an effort to renew the engagement and relationship between Christians and Jews that began with the 1947 “Ten Points of Seelisberg,” when 65 Jews and Christians from 19 countries gathered in Seelisberg, Switzerland, to foster stronger relationships between Jews and Christians, to express their profound grief over the Holocaust and their determination to combat anti-Semitism, which was denounced as both a sin against God and humanity and as a danger to modern civilization. Now more than 60 years later the ICCJ proposed these “Twelve Points” as a way to review the journey since the Seelisberg document and to renew the serious commitment to dialogue, self-critical examination of each tradition’s texts and joint study and action for justice.
After dinner, the evening session introduced the participants to a joint scripture study led by Dr. Michael Peppard, Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University, NY, and Yehezkel Laundau, Faculty Associate in Interfaith Relations at Hartford Seminary, CT. Working in small study groups, Jewish and Christian seminarians discovered both the differences and the commonalities in how each tradition interprets sacred texts and the process or methodologies that inform each tradition. “A critical question for dialogue and studying the Scriptures with Jews,” noted Dr. Peppard, “is a reading of the Hebrew Bible that avoids a supersessionist interpretation” (a term used to describe Christianity as a religion that replaces or supercedes Judaism). The conversation was animated and enlightening and the dialogue continued well into the evening.
The agenda for the second day of the Institute began with a presentation by Dr. Eugene Fisher, the former associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), on the history between Jews and Christians. “The progress in the relationship of the church to the Jewish people over the last 45 years on biblical, theological and liturgical fronts has been significant, but it must be placed in the context of the first 2,000 years for Christians to fully appreciate the roots of their tradition in Judaism, and for Jews to appreciate that its identity has been formed in its historical relationship with Christianity,” said Dr. Fisher.
Dr. Fisher's presentation, “Interreligious Relations and Dialogue,” recounted in broad fashion the changing dynamics in the often strained and sometimes violent history of Christian-Jewish relations. Six “eras” were discussed, beginning with the first 50 years after the death of Jesus, and ending in our post-Holocaust era. In the first period, Dr. Fisher explained, there was very little consensus on the status of the Nazarene or early Christian movement within Judaism. Matters of law and the conversion of Gentiles were only very slowly and meticulously worked out, and it took decades before there was in fact a “Christian community” that was in any way distinct from the other sects and traditions within Judaism. “These were Jews living in the face of what they considered to be a very new experience,” Dr. Fisher said.
Even well into the second era, the relationship to Judaism that Christians maintained was often ambiguous, with some stressing continuity between the two faiths, and others, such as Marcion, unsuccessfully agitating for the removal of the Hebrew Bible from the canon of Christian Scriptures. Dr. Fisher maintained that, “Over the centuries, Jews and Christians have rarely been separated by a tremendous wall, but rather, the boundaries have been very permeable and we have often learned from each other.”
The period from Constantine to the 11th century saw an explosion of Christian influence in the cultural and political arenas, but during which there was no consistent pattern of persecution against Jews. The Jewish people were, by and large, ignored or even accepted in this period. “This period, a whole millennium, leads me to question those who think Auschwitz was inevitable from John's Gospel. One can see how anti-Semitism developed, but it is not an inevitable logic of the New Testament, or even the majority of the early fathers of the Church, that we see persecutions, massacres, and certainly not racial genocide against the Jews.”
The fourth stage, from the beginning of the Crusades in 1096 to the eve of the Enlightenment, saw the vast majority of religious persecutions by Christians against Jews. One group of Crusaders invented the idea that Jews were “infidels in their midst. Forced conversion began, against the norms of canon law and the right of Jews to exist as Jews.” In the 12th century, the infamous blood libel charges first surfaced in England, resulting in the expulsion of Jews in Western Europe. Up to the 15th century, the situation worsened, with the emergence of ghettos, violent reactions to passion plays, and many other violent manifestations of Christian anti-Judaism.
The Enlightenment, by negating the common ancestry of humanity in Adam and Eve, paved the way for racialism to develop. Dr. Fisher said, “The significant European ‘other,' to whom the new racial theories could be applied, was the Jewish people. Out of the pseudo-scientific racial theories of the Enlightenment comes modern racial anti-Semitism. If it had not been for the teachings of contempt over the previous centuries of Christianity, there is no way the Jews could have been pinpointed in this modern racist way by the mid-19th century.” After discussing the Holocaust and its perpetrators, Dr. Fisher spoke on the sixth era, an age of renewal of which we are in the midst.
Addressing the participants on the historic turning points (“landmarks and landmines”) in the modern relations of Christians and Jews, Dr. Judith Banki, director of special programs at the Tanenbaum Center in New York, spoke about the past 45 years and especially on the drafting of Nostra Aetate (the 1965 Second Vatican Council document that repudiated historic Christian teachings of contempt towards Jews and asserted the ongoing validity and common spiritual heritage that Christians and Jews share). “It is easy to take the achievements of Nostra Aetate for granted but in actuality the development of the document was a cliffhanger, passing only in the final days of the four-year-long Council,” said Dr. Banki. She described the final draft of Nostra Aetate as a compromise document but taken together with the Decree on Religious Liberty (another of the 16 conciliar documents of Vatican II), “these documents revolutionized relations among Christians and Jews.” Despite the remarkable progress, she added, “we must be alert to the potential landmines for Christians and Jews which are found wherever there is evidence of demonization, denigration or a double standard in the treatment of the other.”
Later the second day of the program, the group visited Christian and Jewish houses of worship. This part of the program introduced the participants to the sacred space of the other to deepen their understanding of the tradition’s liturgical history, architecture, symbols, worship and communal life. The visits were hosted by Monsignor Kevin Wallin, pastor of St. Augustine’s Cathedral, Bridgeport, CT, and Rabbi James Prosnit, spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel in Fairfield, CT. The dinner conversation that followed was animated and full of exchanges related to liturgy and symbols.
Later in the evening, Dr. Richard Lux of the Lux Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Sacred Heart School of Theology, Milwaukee, WI, spoke on “The Jewish People, the Holy Land, & the State of Israel.” Dr. Lux proposed several ways in which Jews and Christians can work together to understand each other’s perspectives and commitments to the Holy Land and the State of Israel. In particular, he proposed that Christians perceive and appreciate Israel as the place and space where the historical Jesus preached, taught, healed and lived his life of loving ministry—and not merely as a means to an end; viz., the apocalypse. He asserted that Christians may not manipulate or impose their beliefs of the end times on to modern Jews because God has never taken back God’s covenant with the Jewish People.
The third day began with Dr. David Coppola of the CCJU leading a discussion on “Prayer and Liturgy: Implications for Interreligious Dialogue.” Discussion focused on the place of prayer and liturgy and remaining faithful to one's tradition, while also working together for social justice. Materials from the CCJU conference, “What Do We Want the Other to Teach About Our Prayer and Liturgy” (Rome, March 13-15, 2002) were distributed and proved to be helpful starting points for discussion. Tensions such as praying together versus coming together to pray, appropriate times for interreligious prayer and worship, problematic texts or prayers, naming G-d without sacrificing one's beliefs, powerful symbols such as the cross or other sanctuary features, the integrity of forms versus syncretism, and the place of those in leadership were discussed as were the principal holidays and festivals for each religious tradition.
Arrangements for continuing conversation on the issues discussed at the Institute were made, and the students departed for their homes and seminaries in the afternoon. One Christian participant said that he was surprised that the program offered such authentic dialogue. He said, “This was really well done. The speakers in general focused on Christian-Jewish similarities and I think that similarities are both easier and safer than differences, but the participants bravely spoke their differences which was a great gift.”
Another Jewish participant agreed, “I learned a lot and it has made me want to learn more. What a wonderful conference in which to meet the best and brightest future leaders of the various communities.” A Jewish seminarian summed the conference up by saying, “I honestly cannot adequately express my gratitude – I felt valued, heard, appreciated. I had the opportunity to value, hear, appreciate the Center’s warmth, hospitality and skillful creation of a space in which to authentically encounter and experience Christians and my Jewish colleagues.” Another student concurred, “I believe it is a blessing for God to bring all of us here, and thankful for what you have given. Through the sharing of stories and experiences, and the unexpected discovery of friendship my faith has been challenged and expanded.”