The Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding (CCJU) of Sacred Heart University convened its annual program for Seminarians and Rabbinical Students on May 21-23, 2012, at the University campus in Fairfield, CT. The conference welcomed 24 students from Christian and Jewish seminaries and theological schools from across the country. The program marked 13 years of the program 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 from this program are invited to continue their study and dialogue for improving Christian-Jewish relations through the Center’s annual Colleagues in Dialogue program, an annual professional and spiritual development program held in New York City.
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 convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962, 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.
Rabbi Irving (“Yitz”) Greenberg has been a participant since the program began in 1998 and spoke at the CCJU Institute for Seminarians and Rabbinical Students on a “Theology of Interreligious Dialogue.” Rabbi Greenberg acknowledged that the forces of the new encounter between Judaism and Christianity have come often from outside religious traditions. Calling it the “universalization of culture,” the rabbi described it as “the extraordinary capacity of modern culture to communicate” and its effect on a genuine encounter with the other person leading to the “discovery of the other’s culture, values and religion.” An ordained Orthodox rabbi and Harvard Ph.D., Rabbi Greenberg has written extensively on post-Shoah theology, on the relationship of Judaism and Christianity, and on the religious/cultural issues of pluralism after the Holocaust. His talk challenged the conference participants to overcome the history of hostility between the traditions in order that both sides could work together in an evolving partnership with God. Rabbi Greenburg explained that pluralism is at the root of both the Christian and Jewish traditions in the shared core conviction that human beings are created in the image of God. “If I encounter the other human being as he or she really is (an image of God), then I am struck by his or her infinite value, equality and uniqueness,” he said. He continued, “Religion’s task in the third millennium is protecting the dignity of the other without eroding legitimate claims and teachings of all religions.” When we are open to the image of God in the other, he continued, we discover this brings with it three intrinsic dignities that all persons participate in – infinite value, equality and uniqueness. Rabbi Greenburg argued it is from this insight of religious pluralism that we discover “our deepest calling is to move beyond pluralism to partnership between the faiths to perfect the world.”
After dinner on the first evening, the next 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,” said 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 supersedes 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 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 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.”
The second afternoon session at the Institute was led by Dr. Mary C. Boys, Skinner and McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York. Dr. Boys said that she has seen a “gradual widening” of respect and understanding between Christians and Jews. She said, “Nostra Aetate is a watershed document because it has allowed us to talk across the table of our differences as colleagues, not adversaries. . . and the challenge is to make this task central to parish life.” She discussed several important ideas in her book, Has God Only One Blessing? Judaism and a Source of Christian Self-Understanding (Stimulus, 2000), such as the parables as doors to self- understanding for both religions and supported Dr. Fisher’s synopsis that the origins of Christianity were complex and took centuries to work through the theology of Jesus in his Jewish context.
Dr. Boys said that there remains an inadequate theology of Judaism by Christianity and by delving into difficult reflections, both communities will be strengthened. History will always be on the table for discussion and will always influence the ways that each tradition sees theology, but it is always better to hear what you are teaching by having the other in the room for clarification.
When asked how to begin a dialogue, Dr. Boys suggested to first build bonds of trust by creating space for friendship and appreciating the beauty of each tradition. She said, “Dialogue is not a method or strategy but is a way of life that is shared between people of faith who have made important commitments. Each tradition has something valuable to contribute to the world.” For example, Dr. Boys pointed to the 2001 document published by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible,” which says that the Jewish Scriptures can and should be read on their own terms. She said, “Teachers and preachers have to really think about what this document means. It is a remarkable step forward in Biblical theology, and by extension, homiletics. The Jewish Scriptures stand on their own for the Jewish people today.”
After trust is built, Dr. Boys recommended a second step in dialogue as awakening people to the issues for collaboration and inviting joint participation in social justice and study whenever appropriate. She cautioned that there is a built-in asymmetry between Jews and Christians in size, history and even self-identification. For example, Jews are a people, culture and a religion, and Christians are identified by baptism into a religion. Therefore, issues connected to the role of Israel, the land, or the peace of Jerusalem take on enormous significance to Jewish identity. Similarly, mission, salvation, forgiveness, or atheism are issues of great interest for Christianity. It is a special challenge for scholars and religious leaders to help people hold complex ideas together without seeking to artificially separate them into binary oppositions or water down the depth of each tradition.
Dr. Boys also discussed the importance of liturgy and hearing the prayers and seeing the signs—such as the cross—through the eyes of the religious other. She concluded by pointed out to the participants a publication by Kessler and Wenborn, A Dictionary of Jewish-Christian Relations (Cambridge University Press, 2005) as an excellent resource and also marks a coming of age for Jewish-Christian understanding, as well as Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler’s, The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation (Oxford University Press, 2011).
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 guided by Dr. Coppola at St. Augustine’s Cathedral, Bridgeport, CT, and by 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, initiation, youth outreach, 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 in the same general city versus coming together to pray in the same place, 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, “My life has been enriched through the vast experiences of the participants.” Another Jewish participant agreed, “The topics, speakers and format were excellent. The readings were excellent – loved the materials.”
A Jewish seminarian summed the conference up by saying, “