- Historical context of the source
- Discussion of the source
- Questions for discussion
- Selected bibliography
- Further reading
- Useful web resources
1. Historical context of the source
Since 1945 Christian-Jewish dialogue has often been driven by the needs of Christians to re-evaluate their history and their theological positions in relation to Jews. These range from admissions of guilt, for complicity or lack of resistance, to the persecution and genocide of Jews in Europe during the Holocaust, to a desire to re-think Christian doctrines, in particular Christology. Christian churches, mainly across Europe and the United States, have issued a series of statements and initiated conversations with Jews in order to ascertain greater clarity about their own history and learn about Jewish history and contemporary Jewish life. Outside Europe and North America regional, Christian churches have been less active in Christian-Jewish dialogue, not perceiving it as a necessity in the predominant absence of large indigenous Jewish communities in Africa and Asia. However, churches with a more centralized institutional structure, such as the Roman Catholic Church, churches joined to the Anglican Communion, and all member churches of the World Council of Churches (WCC), as well as national Orthodox churches, disseminate statements devised centrally throughout their regional and local communities.
The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), issued by the Second Vatican Council as one of the last conciliar documents in 1965, deserves particular mention . The fourth section of this declaration is dedicated to the relationship with Jews and Judaism. In it, the Roman Catholic Church revoked the teaching that ‘the Jews’ as a nation were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ on the cross (deicide charge).
True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; (13) still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.
Furthermore, the statement makes clear that all forms of antisemitism are unacceptable and incompatible with Catholic teaching. Nostra Aetate was hailed as a milestone in Christian-Jewish relations, signalling a tidal change in the attitudes towards the Jewish people in the largest Christian denomination. Nostra Aetate was followed by two Vatican documents containing instructions on how to implement these teachings in local communities (‘Guidelines’ 1975 ; and‘Notes’ 1985).
While Protestant churches were quick to acknowledge their failings during World War II in confessions of guilt and condemnations of antisemitism in the 1940s (First Assembly of the WCC 1945 ‘The Christian Approach to the Jews‘; the Council of the Protestant Church of Germany 1945, ‘Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt‘), doctrinal changes are difficult to achieve in the predominantly democratic and non-centralized organisation of Protestant churches. Specifically, in the WCC a sticking point in discussions remains the issue of ‘mission’ on which there is no consensus. Whereas the Roman Catholic Church was able to diminish the significance of mission to Jews with the intent of conversion in one stroke in 1965, this is not the case for the member churches of the WCC. However, most of the German churches and Protestant churches in the North Atlantic region have spoken out against the desirability of converting Jews, stressing the continuity of the covenant of the Jewish people with God which has not been superseded by the new covenant in Christ. One of the widest-ranging changes to Christian doctrine has been adopted by the Evangelical Church of the Rhineland, one of the member churches of the Protestant Churches of Germany. In 1980 it adopted the statement ‘Towards a Renewal of the Relationship of Christians and Jews‘. This statement adopts a ‘single covenant theology’, seeing the church as being brought into the covenant God has with the Jewish people:
4) We believe the permanent election of the Jewish people as the people of God and realize that through Jesus Christ the church is taken into the covenant of God with his people (cf. Thesis IV).
With this and a joining of Christian to Jewish eschatological expectations, the Rhenish Church declares mission to Jews an impossibility:
We both confess and witness the common hope in a new heaven and a new earth and the spiritual power of this messianic hope for the witness and work of Christians and Jews for justice and peace in the world.
In 1996 these statements were adopted as part of the constitution of the Church of the Rhineland, thereby enshrining them in the foundation of this church and making them a theological presupposition.
The significant changes in Christian doctrine towards Jews and Judaism in some Christian churches can also be cited as contributing to wider-ranging academic interest in the history of Jewish-Christian relations. Scholarship in this area is beginning to enable a more nuanced picture of the complexity of Jewish-Christian interaction throughout the centuries.
Since the end of World War II, Jews have been asked to be part of Christian self-reflection on the history of the church and the development of Christian doctrine. Jews have done so for various reasons (more of this in the discussion of the source). By default Jews are always in the minority (worldwide and in most localities, except Israel), and it is hardly possible to speak of Jews and Christians as equal partners in dialogue. Too many asymmetries govern the relationship, not least Jews being outnumbered by Christians, Jews having a history of victimhood and persecution at the hands of Christians, but also a perceived theological, if not ontological, dependence of Christianity on Judaism. In particular this latter aspect is alien to Jewish thinking about Christians and Christianity.
Dabru Emet (‘Speak [the] Truth’), the source text subject of this contribution, not only acknowledges this changed religious and academic climate, but also proposes that Jews are called to respond to this by re-evaluating their own religious positions and history vis-à-vis Christianity.
Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity
The full text of the document can be found at https://www.ccjr.us/dialogika-resources/documents-and-statements/jewish/dabru-emet
The site includes a link to the list of people who have signed Dabru Emet.
3. Discussion of the source
The publication of Dabru Emet in the New York Times and the Baltimore Sun for the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, in 2000, caused a stir in the Jewish community. The origin of the statement was the ‘National Jewish Scholars Project’, which was founded by Jewish scholars whose academic work was mainly concerned with aspects of Christianity. Over the years, the membership changed and the authors of the statement, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, and Michael Signer, all happen to associate with non-Orthodox Jewish movements. However, the original study group also numbered Orthodox scholars among its members (e.g. M. Wyschogrod).
Dabru Emet is a response to Christian teshuva/metanoia and Christian recognition of Judaism as a religion in its own right with salvific attributes. The statement was signed by more than 170 representatives of Jewish groups; about 5% of the signatories were Orthodox. Dabru Emet has created a controversy in the Jewish world. A basic point of contention is the notion of theological recognition of Christianity in a framework different from the Noahide Laws. While the Noahide Laws afford Christians a place in Jewish society and thought, they do so on Jewish terms, and they do not necessitate an appraisal of Christian life, faith, and theology on Christian terms, but only in relation to Jewish understandings of idolatry and other criteria specified by the Noahide Laws. Dabru Emet pushes for such an appraisal.
The controversy splits along Orthodox/non-Orthodox lines, with some exceptions, and concerns disagreement about the rationale for Jewish participation in dialogue with Christians. Here, Rav Soloveitchik’s statements about the social value of co-operation of Jews and Christians, and his caution against a religiously based dialogue (see George Wilkes’ contribution to this site), are cited by Orthodox participants in the controversy as the rationale for their opposition to the statement. Another way of characterising the lines of argument would be citing self-defence, as the reason for engagement in dialogue with Christians, versus the idea of being able to derive theological and spiritual enrichment from such an encounter.
Self-defence does not require reciprocity, and hence any Christian theological recognition of Judaism does not call for Jewish self-examination about Jewish understandings of Christianity. However, deriving theological and spiritual enrichment from encounters with other faiths, notably with Christianity, has been part of Reform/non-Orthodox Jewish attitudes to interfaith dialogue for more than a century (while another aspect has been negative critiques of Christianity, which mirror traditional Christian polemics against Judaism). Reform Judaism does not see a need to ‘preserve’ its community in opposition and defence against Christianity, and hence it does not feel itself under ‘attack’. However, for parts of the Orthodox community, as well as for many Reform and Conservative Jews since the Holocaust, Jewish life is under threat from secularism as well as other, missionary, religions and any contact with such forces needs to be limited. Hence, a statement encouraging the appreciation of another religion in its own right, and as a welcome dialogue partner, smacks of danger.
Where Orthodoxy is construed as a countermovement to Reform, it is seen as mainly having a ‘preserving’ impulse and places some limitations on the development of theology. Hence, for the Orthodox, breaking with or modifying established patterns of assessing non-Jews/Christians is more difficult. Theology is not commonly welcomed in Orthodox Jewish thought. Reform promotes the idea that Jewish thought can and should be directly influenced and enriched by intellectual developments outside of it. That is, after all, how Reform came about. Hence one can read Dabru Emet as an indicator that Jewish self-understanding in the context of Christian-Jewish relations is challenged and needs to be rethought.
The controversy concerning Dabru Emet shows that a theological renewal of Jewish interpretations of Christianity throws up questions about Jewish self-understanding. A re-orientation of Jewish identity, which responds to the challenges of conversations with Christians, is the aim the authors and signatories had in mind. In these terms, Jews would need to think about their role in Christian-Jewish dialogue and, possibly, revise their stance. Withdrawal to the ‘safe space’ of a merely practical engagement with Christians may then not be enough.
At issue is also the method of Jewish self-definition in Dabru Emet. A number of Orthodox commentators on the statement bemoan the lack of specifically Jewish terminology. The Hebrew title and the designation of the Bible as Tanakh are the only signs of Jewish vocabulary. Orthodox commentators missed Jewish concepts such as Torah, Halakhah, and mitzvot, which would have positioned Dabru Emet in a decidedly Jewish context. To interpret Jewish identity without Jewish terminology appears paradoxical and reinforces the fear of a ‘watering down’ of Judaism. It is also in danger of looking like a Jewish desire to please Christians.
Dabru Emet ‘implies that Jews should reassess their view of Christianity in light of Christian reassessment of Judaism.’ (Berger). David Berger argues that ‘this inclination toward theological reciprocity is fraught with danger.’ The discussion about Dabru Emet shows how much this danger is recognized. However, many participants in the discussion lose sight of historical Jewish interpretations of Christianity which were not always arguing for a complete and fearful distancing from contact with Christians, but do include positive theological assessments.
The debate about Dabru Emet has ground to a halt on the issues of Jewish identity and integrity.Dabru Emet has here publicly shot ahead without waiting for appraisals from all parts of the Jewish community. On the one hand it may be helpful to present such a challenging public statement on a controversial topic, because it focuses inner-Jewish discussion and can help place a difficult topic at the centre of community concerns. On the other hand such a document can also create the opposite response, and silence discussion, as a possible response would be simply to ignore the statement. That a few representatives of Orthodox Judaism have signed Dabru Emet has not only fuelled the debate, but may also be a guarantee for the future of inner-Jewish discussion of the statement and therefore about the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.
4. Questions for discussion
- Is reciprocity in Jewish-Christian dialogue a necessity?
- In your opinion, who is the intended readership of Dabru Emet? Is it written for laity, intellectuals, community representatives?
- Discuss Dabru Emet‘s approach to Israel.
- For some commentators this is phrased in ‘fundamentalist terms’ drawing a straight line between the Bible and the State of Israel. This may be seen as ironic, given that the statement is written by scholars situated at the liberal end of the Jewish intellectual spectrum.
- Has Dabru Emet responded adequately to the transformation in the churches’ attitudes to the Jewish people?
- Should Jews and Christians aim at a ‘pluralistic’ account of the relationship between their religious traditions?
5. Selected bibliography
- Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Sandmel, David Fox, Michael A. Signer. (eds) (2000) Christianity in Jewish Terms. Boulder, Colorado/Oxford, UK: Westview Press.
- Levenson, Jon D., ‘How not to conduct Jewish-Christian dialogue’, Commentary (December 2001), http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/how-not-to-conduct-jewish-christian-dialogue/ (accessed 5.7.2011)
6. Further Reading
- Berger, David. (2010) Persecution, Polemic and Dialogue: Essays in Jewish-Christian Relations. Boston: Academic Studies Press.
- Cohn-Sherbok, Dan. (ed.) (1999) The future of Jewish-Christian dialogue. E. Mellen: Lewiston.
- Greenberg, Irving. (2004) For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity. Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, PA.
- Kessler, Edward. (2010) An Introduction to Jewish-Christian Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Langton, Daniel R. (2006) ‘Relations between Christians ands Jews, 1914-2000’, World Christianities c. 1914-c. 2000, pp.483-493.
- Novak, David. (1983) The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism: An Historical and Constructive Study of the Noahide Laws, Toronto Studies in Theology 14. Lewiston/Queenston/Lampeter: The Edwin Mellen Press.
- Novak, David (1989) Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Shermis, Michael & Arthur E. Zanonni (eds) (1991) Introduction to Jewish-Christian Relations. New York: Paulist Press.
- Soloveitchik, Joseph B. (1964) ‘Confrontation’, Tradition 6:2 , pp. 5-29.
- Soloveitchik, Joseph B. (1965) The Lonely Man of Faith New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc.
- Wigoder, Geoffrey. (1988) Jewish-Christian relations since the Second World War, Sherman studies of Judaism in modern times. Manchester University Press, Manchester.
- Wyschogrod, Michael. (2006) Abraham’s promise: Judaism and Jewish-Christian relations. SCM: London.
7. Useful web resources
- http://www.jcrelations.net/ (website dedicated to Jewish-Christian relations; the most relevant statements of various denominations and movements are assembled here)
- http://www.ccjr.us/dialogika-resources (website of the Council of Centres on Jewish-Christian Relations; contains a useful selection of statements and other scholarly resources)
- Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations (online journal)