On this page, we present essays profound or timely culled from the CLAL literary archive. Most of the articles that appear here appeared originally in the pages of Sh'ma A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, which was founded by Eugene Borowitz in 1970 and published by CLAL from 1994-1998.
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Jewish-Christian Relations in America
By Solomon S. Bernards
Is anti-Semitism really inseparable from Christianity? I think not. Even so, the tenacity with which ingrained disparagements, distortions, and hostilities have persisted in church teachings and in Christian society generally over the past 1900 years has made the task of bridge-building enormously difficult. This labor requires patience, tact, scholarship and, above all, credibility and trustworthiness. Progress has been slow, often painfully slow, but it is now possible to see improved relations between Christians and Jews in America in fundamental ways.
Judaism Was Not Taken Seriously
Twenty-one years ago, when I began my work, we were in many respects in an elementary stage. We attracted Christian ministers through midrashic tales, rabbinic homilies, chasidic stories. We described Jewish holy days in depth. We provided "kits" of Jewish religious articles (i.e., a miniature Torah scroll, a junior tallit, a Chanukah menorah, etc.) to illustrate the life of Jesus. If you brought up the subject of Christian sources of anti-Semitism to ministers and educators, they backed off, despite the fact that in the previous three decades Sunday School texts had been examined by scholars and found to contain many derogations and misrepresentations of Jews and Judaism. A few Protestant denominations, such as the Methodists, United Church (Congregationalists) and Presbyterians, took the lead in trying to cleanse their teaching materials of serious malignments of Judaism. But the majority of Protestant text publishers and virtually all Catholic text publishers wouldn't touch the subject -- it was too "controversial."
In college sociology classes, some headway could be discerned, since Gordon Alport's classic, The Nature of Prejudice, had helped remove the taboo of discussing prejudice and bigotry in general, and anti-Semitism in particular. When one attended religion courses, particularly in church- affiliated institutions, it was taken for granted that Jews and Judaism had ceased to exist after the beginning of the Christian centuries; therefore, there was no point in studying this "fossilized remnant of Syriac civilization."
Jewish Pride Promoted Dialogue
At theological schools, the situation was much worse. The anti-Jewish theological constructs of the classical Christian theologians reigned supreme. The tragic relations between the Christian churches and the Jews from the time of Constantine, when Christianity became the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire, were a "best kept secret" insofar as teachers and students were concerned. Only years later did some Christian clergy and academicians discover how much they had been short-changed in their training for the ministry by the withholding of this information from them. Doors of theological classes were closed to Jewish interfaith workers -- what could a Jew, who had rejected the Christian Saviour, tell Christian faculty, much less students, that was insightful and significant?
Closed to the perceptions of all but a few sensitive religion teachers and seminary faculty was the phenomenon of the State of Israel, and its connection with the spiritual and community life of the Jewish people. To be sure, Jewish community and defense agencies were similarly confused and conflicted on the subject of Israel in the early 1960s. It is no longer so. The 1967 war changed everything. All the indifferent and lukewarm Jewish leaders jumped on the Israel bandwagon and became 250-percenters of the "my country, right or wrong" type. Before 1967, Israel hardly reached the agenda of Jewish-Christian conversations -- after 1967, it was never kept out, whether in formal presentations or in informal exchanges of viewpoint. Moreover, the period of the 1960s saw only the modest beginnings of introducing American Christians to the Holocaust, its enormity, its all-over implications for Christians and Jews alike, and the role of the Christian "teaching of contempt" in preparing the ground for the colossal assault of the Final Solution. A decade was to elapse before the Holocaust was to gain legitimacy and acceptance in American academic circles. The contributions of a number of keenly sensitive Christian scholars accelerated this important achievement, and were crucial to its realization. There were dramatic changes in the zeitgeist -- from the mid-1960s to the 1980s -- which changed the course of Jewish-Christian relations, and propelled it with vibrant force into a new path.
(1) Vatican Council II, 1962-1965, opened the windows of the Catholic Church to the air of modernity and contemporary realities. Under the extraordinary guidance of the unforgettable Pope John XXIII, and with the energetic involvement of a number of Jewish scholars, leaders and interfaith workers, the Council produced the Declaration on the Jews -- to be sure, a watered-down, compromised version of its original forthright statement -- which constituted a watershed in Catholic-Jewish relations, and had an enormous ripple effect on Protestant attitudes toward Judaism and Jews. It exorcised, for all time to come, the infamous deicide charge. The American Conference of Catholic Bishops produced further statements and declarations which articulated with specificity the implications of the Vatican document.
(2) The statements on relations with the Jewish people, including the charge of deicide, which came from the Protestant denominations and umbrella groups, at about the time of the Vatican Council and subsequent to it, involved the other half of Christendom in a turning point in its attitudes towards Jews and Judaism. Especially moving and epochal was the Lutheran statement which labeled Christian anti-Semitism a sin both against the Jewish people and against Christianity itself, and asked the pardon of the Jewish people for the hurt it had suffered as a result.
(3) The publication of a number of controversial, against-the-grain books on Christian attitudes towards Jews, by Christians, had a mind-blowing impact on scholars, ministers and laity. The Glock-Stark volume, Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism, was a sociological study of the beliefs and perceptions of a sampling of 4,000 churchgoers which pointed to a shocking ten to forty percent of Christians in the pew who held extremely damaging perceptions about Jews, including their continuing guilt and complicity in the crucifixion of Jesus. Rosemary Ruether's study Faith and Fratricide, The Theological Roots of Anti-Semitism examined the ideological anti-Judaism venom in the New Testament and in the writings of the Church fathers (2nd 8th centuries) which, today's Christians have to understand, poisoned Christian attitudes toward Jews. In no other previous work had a Christian scholar faced this grim reality with such honesty. Its translation into German had the effect of rousing German New Testament scholars from their complacency and indifference to anti-Semitism in post-war Germany, and it moved many of them to rethink and reexamine their positions on Jews and Judaism for the first time.
There are many, many unfinished items on the Jewish-Christian agenda, including matters which have barely been touched upon in the realm of Christian ideology/theology, which only Christians can deal with. These matters will have to await explanation and examination at another time. Suffice it to say: Jewish-Christian relations in the past half-century have undergone vast and permanent improvement, but it would be foolish and untrue to say that in this short span of time we have been able totally to reshape eighteen centuries of a tragic and anguished relationship.
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