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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(from Sh'ma 13/260, October 28, 1983)
Interfaith: An Israeli Perspective
By Geoffrey Wigoder
Profound changes have occurred in the Jewish-Christian relationship over the past fifty
years. Before the War, the National Conference of Christians and Jews was founded in
America, essentially to take joint action against prejudice rather than engage in any form
of dialogue. In the 1930's, James Parkes began to publish his studies on the roots of
Christian anti-Semitism but his was a lone voice. The revision in Christian thinking is
essentially a post-war phenomenon which began to develop in the 1950's under the rather
delayed impact of the Holocaust. The realization of the role of Christian teaching in
creating the atmosophere in which a Holocaust was possible has led to a fundamental
revision in the attitude of Christians -- Protestants and Catholics -- to Jews and
Judaism. The Vatican II Statement on the Jews (1965) and the subsequent Guidelines (1975)
on the one hand and declarations of the World Council of Churches and its constituent
bodies on the other, have paved the way for more sophisticated interfaith relations and
dialogue. Interfaith in the Western world is now not only a common fight against negative
manifestations but a positive search for mutual understanding and appreciation of the
traditions and faith of the other.
A Tremendous Recent Growth
A post-war retrospective will reveal more positive steps in Jewish-Christian relations
in the past twenty years than in the previous twenty centuries. Compare the situation
prevailing in most American communities today with that before the war; there are
exceptions, but by and large there is a new warmth and fellowship in the relationship
between priest, minister and rabbi and between their respective congregants. Prayers have
been changed, catechisms altered, textbooks revised so as to get rid of negative
stereotypes which were still being perpetuated until only recently. Much of this is a
result of Jewish-Christian dialogue and is one of its main achievements. Moreover, such
developments have spread to parts of the world where the problem was most acuteSpain,
Latin America and, yes, Germany. Of course, so many centuries of hatred have left scars
and legacies that will take long to eradicate. But the start that has been made in this
direction has been much more effective than might have been anticipated.
Three Major Areas of Contention
Much of the encounter is a learning experience with either side studying the faith and
practices of the other, but there are also issues that remain matters of contention, of
which the main ones are: anti-Semitism/ anti-Christianism, mission and the State of
Changing Attitudes About Proselytization
Mission is another point of potential friction. The traditional position of
Christianity was that the Jew was allowed to continue to exist as an object of mission;
the non-Christianization of the Jews delayed the Second Coming and therefore mission to
the Jew was integral to the Christian plan. Here, too, the post-War world has seen major
changes. The Catholic Church, source of so much suffering among Jews down the ages as a
result of its missionary activities, has virtually eliminated direct missions to Jews.
Official Protestant statements are ambivalent, reflecting the pluralistic nature of
Protestantism. The Anglican Church has completely reordered its traditional "Mission
to the Jews" into service channels. The Lutheran World Federation has declared
"it is a misconception that Jews be isolated into a class by themselves and then
singled out for exclusive missonary attention" but there are still segments of the
Lutheran Church which insist that Christians must continue "their authentic endeavor
to render account according to the Gospels. Faith must not remain silent." The
Rhineland Protestant Synod of 1980 declared: "The Church has the testimony to bring
its mission to other peoplebut not to the Jews," a statement which spurred a
counter-document from a group of theology scholars at the University of Bonn, stressing
the importance of mission. However, those mission activities which are under the auspices
of the mainland churches are conducted in a much more restrained manner than previously.
High-power missionaries are now to be found only among certain evangelical sects who are
in any case outside, and even opposed to dialogue. On the other hand, there is a small but
growing body of Christians who reject the concept of proselytization and who acknowledge
the theological validity of the Jewish way to God. The encouragement of these circles and
the increase of their influence is another achievement of dialogue.
Continuing Hostility Towards Israel
The third major issue is the State of Israel. Here the most congenial Christian
elements are the Evangelicals, although obviously they are motivated by a theology which
in its long-term implications is completely objectionable to Jews (the Return of the Jews
to their land heralds the Second Coming and the Jews' Conversion). However, the
short-range implications have brought about a certain Jewish?Fundamentalist alliance based
on a similar commitment to the immediate security and survival of the Jewish State. With
the other Christian groups, Israel is often a dividing point. The Vatican has still not
recognized the State of Israel and specific issues -- ranging from its advocacy of the
internationalization of Jerusalem in 1949 to the Pope's recent meeting with Yasir Arafat
-- have constituted serious obstacles in Jewish-Catholic relations. However, even here
progress has been made: witness the many protests from Catholics, at both the clerical and
grass-root levels, over the Pope-Arafat meeting. Even more difficult on this issue are the
relations with the World Council of Churches (similarly reflected in the American National
Council of Churches). The W.C.C. is Third World oriented and has granted funds to various
resistance movements. It has been consistently critical of Israel on the Palestinian issue
and last summer issued a booklet collating anti-Israel statements from all parts of the
world about the war in Lebanon. Included in the W.C.C. are Middle East churches which work
to strengthen anti-Israel trends. But there are also constituents and individuals in the
mainline churches -- many of them in the United States -- who evince profound
understanding for the State of Israel and its significance for Jewish?Christian relations;
in many cases, the influence of such elements is strengthened by interfaith activities.
"Pre-Reformation" Churches in Israel
Finally, a note on interfaith inside the State of Israel. Ideally here we should be
aiming for a "trialogue" -- Jew, Christian and Moslem. The involvement of
Moslems, however, is very problematic: partly because of the absence of leading Moslem
theologians in Israel; partly because of the general problem of religious dialogue with
Islam; and partly because in Israel any such exchange immediately becomes politicized. The
latter reason also affects dialogue with Christian Arabs as it is rapidly dominated by the
political and social dimensions. With the Orthodox churches too, dialogue is almost
impossible. Like Islam, they are pre-Reformation. Most Orthodox Jewish circles in Israel
can also be characterized as "pre-Reformation" and look unfavorably on
interfaith activities. Jews of Ashkenazi origin are often still suffering from the
missionary trauma; those of Sephardi origin are indifferent to the Christian world.
Despite these severe limitations, fruitful work is being done and its special quality
compensates for its comparatively limited compass. It is of unique meaning for the
Christian participants: firstly as representing for the first time in history, a Christian
minority experience among a Jewish majority, and secondly, as enriching the roots of their
Christianity by contact with the living Jewish people in their own land. The Jews
involved, for their part, project the understanding that involvement with the Land of
Israel is a fundamental and inalienable aspect of Judaism, whose national dimensions must
be comprehended and respected in any dialogue situation.
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