Questioning Interfaith

My goal on this blog is to look at early Christianity and its intersection with Judaism from an interfaith perspective. But what does it mean to write from an interfaith perspective? I have discussed here a handful of topics that I imagine to be of interest to Jews and Christians, but these are topics discussed by many authors belonging to different faiths, and to no faith. What makes my discussion “interfaith”?

An inter-national body like the United Nations requires multiple members; an inter-denominational religious service draws on many religious traditions. But I’m one person, with a single religious affiliation: how can I be “inter”? “Inter-“ is a prefix meaning between, among, or within something – but if I try to write from an interfaith perspective, what exactly is it that I claim to be between, among or within?

For the moment, I have only partial answers to these questions. To be certain, an interfaith perspective must in some sense be grounded in dialog with members of different faiths (in my case, between Jews and Christians). It’s my hope that some of this dialog will take place here in the comments section.  Until then, this dialog is to an extent imagined: I am writing posts to Jews interested in Christianity, Christians interested in Judaism, and others interested in participating in this dialog.

But an interfaith perspective must be something more than the perspective of those participating in dialog with persons of other faiths – otherwise, we could say that every religious missionary and anti-missionary has adopted an interfaith perspective. So perhaps an interfaith perspective must require a concern for goals that are themselves interfaith. These goals might be as simple as promoting mutual understanding and seeking better relations. Or these goals might be more ambitious, and more controversial.

In her book The Misunderstood Jew, Amy-Jill Levine writes that “church and synagogue have the same goals, the same destination, whether called olam habbah, the kingdom of heaven, or the messianic age.” Might reconciliation of Christians and Jews result in both groups working in partnership, not only for earthly goals such as world peace and alleviation of poverty, but also for goals that are other-worldly and spiritual? Do Christians and Jews share a common destiny, and if so, should we pursue this destiny together?  Is concern for this common destiny a part of what goes into an interfaith perspective?

My questions are prompted by a remarkable document presented in 2011 by Kurt Cardinal Koch, the President of the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews to the 10th Annual Meeting of the Council of Centers on Christian-Jewish Relations. Koch’s presentation was somewhat controversial and possibly not well understood, but my reading of Koch’s document is that he agrees in essence with Amy-Jill Levine: Christians and Jews share basic goals in common. Granted, much of what Koch wrote is problematic, particularly for Jews. But if I read generously, I think Koch is saying the following:

  • Interfaith Dependence. Koch writes that “Christianity is most profoundly rooted in Judaism”, “Christianity could not exist without these vital Jewish roots” and “the church is only able to survive when it draws nourishment and strength from the root of Israel.”
  • The Imperative for Christian-Jewish Dialog. It is a “duty” for Christians to enter into dialogue with Jews “in order to rightly understand the will and the word of God.”
  • One People, One Covenant. Jews and Christians “even in their difference” form “one people of God.” Both belong to the same “covenant community”, the covenant beginning with Noah and continuing through Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Ezra and Jeremiah. Christians have not replaced Jews in this covenant – Jews continue to be “God’s chosen and beloved people.”
  • No Missions to the Jews. The Catholic Church “neither has nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.”
  • Jews Participate in Salvation. There are profound differences between Jews and Christians, in particular that Christians confess the “exclusive mediation of salvation through Jesus Christ”, and Jews do not. But while Christians believe that there is “only one path to salvation”, nevertheless “Jews are participants in God’s salvation”. Exactly how this works is a “divine mystery”, which must be “the focus of Jewish-Christian conversations”.
  • Christian-Jewish Fellowship. Koch refers to a “Jewish-Christian pilgrim fellowship in reconciliation and hope”, where “Jews and Christians follow their own path through history”, and yet “Jews and Christians can each fulfill a reciprocal service toward the respective faith of the other.”
  • An Invitation. Koch concludes with what he calls a “Christian invitation to reconciliation” [my emphasis], and a “reminder of the common duty of Jews and Christians to accept one another in a profound internal reconciliation from the depths of faith itself, in order to become a sign and an instrument of reconciliation for the world.”

Put aside for the moment any concerns raised by the content of the invitation extended by Cardinal Koch. Instead, marvel at the fact of this invitation: the Catholic Church is inviting Judaism to join in a religious partnership aimed at global reconciliation and salvation.

Consider the change in thinking that is represented by this invitation. In my lifetime, Catholics taught that Jews were responsible for deicide – not just some Jews present in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, but all Jews, worldwide, throughout time. The 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia (the version of this work current on the web) states that Jews are God’s “ungrateful people”, whose “mere external compliance with ritual observance gradually superseded the higher claims of conscience”, and whose worship (after the death of Jesus and the fall of the Second Temple) “was rejected of God.”[1] Even while the Shoah was ongoing, Pope Pius XII provided the following explanation for the difference between Christians and Jews: “Jerusalem has responded to His call and to His grace with the same rigid blindness and stubborn ingratitude that has led it along the path of guilt to the murder of God.”

The Catholic view of Judaism began to change with the Church’s 1965 publication of Nostra Aetate, where the Church finally repudiated its old doctrine of Jewish deicide and condemned “hatred, persecutions [and] displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” Upon the election of Pope John Paul II, the Church built on Nostra Aetate with a rapid series of stunning pronouncements, including Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church (1985), We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah (1998) and The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (2001). These documents proclaim that:

  • “The Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one”, even though this reading differs from the Christian reading. Christians can profit “discerningly” from the traditions of Jewish reading, and the New Testament cannot be properly understood apart from the Old Testament “and the Jewish tradition which transmits it.”
  • It is “essential” that Jews and Judaism be “organically integrated” into Catholic religious teaching. This teaching need include “the faith and religious life of the Jewish people as they are professed and practiced still today.”
  • In its history after the death of Jesus and the fall of the Second Temple, Judaism carried “to the whole world a witness – often heroic – of its fidelity to the one God”.

These documents are far from perfect.  There is much more that Jews might hope to hear from the Catholic Church, and many troubling issues remain for interfaith discussion. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church has made huge progress in a short period. Most observers (including most Jewish observers) now regard the Catholic Church as a leading voice in Jewish-Christian interfaith dialog, Adam Gregerman of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies writes that “the Catholic Church, more than any other Christian group or institution, has made a dramatic break with centuries of anti-Judaism.”

But it’s not my intention here to examine Jewish-Catholic relations per se. Instead, my focus here is on what it means to adopt an interfaith perspective. I suggested earlier that an interfaith perspective carries with it a set of goals and concerns that may begin with interfaith understanding but need not end there.

Within this concept of interfaith is an idea of reciprocity: For example, in The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) expressed the hope that “Jews can profit from Christian exegetical research”, much as Christians can profit from understanding how Jews read the Bible.

This reciprocity lies at the heart of the aforementioned document from Cardinal Koch – in Koch’s words, “Jews and Christians can each fulfill a reciprocal service toward the respective faith of the other.” Koch states that “the Christian church without Israel would be in danger of losing its locus in the history of salvation”, and “by the same token” Jews could “arrive at the insight that Israel without the church would be in danger of remaining too particularist.” In a similar vein, Koch describes Judaism as calling Christians “to remember the unredeemedness of the world”, and Christianity as “bearing witness” to Jews of “the already bestowed reconciliation of God with mankind.” In my next post, I’ll discuss whether Jews might be interested in the “service” offered by Cardinal Koch, but here my purpose is simply to illustrate the depth of the reciprocity that might be included within an interfaith perspective.

So I return to my initial question, what does it mean to write from an interfaith perspective? In typical Jewish fashion, I’ve addressed this question by raising more questions! It seems that there are a multitude of possible interfaith perspectives. One person might approach interfaith dialog with a concern for the destiny of humankind; another might seek an end to religious persecution.  Interfaith dialog is a meeting place not just for different faiths, but for the different concerns we bring to the dialog.

But the place of interfaith meeting is also a place for possibility – for addressing the shared goals mentioned by Professor Levine, or performing the reciprocal services described by Cardinal Koch, or achieving some other end that (perhaps) no single faith can accomplish alone. While some of these ends can be achieved only if they are first mutually agreed upon in interfaith dialog, others may be accomplished silently and invisibly, through the transformation of the self that follows the understanding of the other.


[1] Christians should take a hard look at the material they have published online concerning Judaism. Some of this material is out-of-date and contains statements about Judaism that reflect badly on their Christian authors and publishers. For example, the cited article in the Catholic Encyclopedia attempts to “explain the apparent severity of certain measures enacted by either popes or councils concerning the Jews” – the medieval obligation for Jews to wear a “distinguishing badge” is defended as “necessary to prevent effectively moral offences between Jews and Christian women”. In a similar vein, this same article defends confining Jews to ghettos, banning Jews from practicing medicine and other professions, and prohibitions against the printing and circulation of the Talmud. The article even appears to excuse the Christian blood libel as part of the “more or less justified” Christian hatred of Jews. The Catholic Encyclopedia appears in at least two sites on the web, one of which is published by Catholic Online, which describes itself as “the largest online historical and biblical database about the Catholic Church”.

The publication of the cited article on the New Advent site contains a tiny footnote recommending “a prayerful reading of ‘Nostra Aetate’” to “complement” the article, but this note is hardly sufficient to ameliorate the hateful anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish content of the article. The publication of this article on the Catholic Online site contains no such note or other explanation.


  • AJ

    Agreed that Cardinal Koch’s “invitation” (based on what you’ve written) sounds like a positive thing. Any reaching out in a genuinely respectful way, whose purpose is not to woo or disprove the other side, is healing. As you say, the content is another matter, and (though worthy of discussion) is really secondary to the spirit of the gesture.

    Also, you’re right to point out the significant change in the Catholic Church’s attitude toward Jews, how recently this came about, and that this is something we shouldn’t take for granted. Nor should we take for granted that it will always stay that way.

    Though I’m curious – where did Church’s change in attitude (particularly exonerating Jews from the accusation of deicide) stem from? Was it a matter of research/analysis concluding that the Jews had been falsely accused, or not wanting to condemn Jews today for whatever occurred in the past, or simply political pressure/correctness, or something else entirely? How do the Talmud’s statements regarding Jesus figure into the discussion? Is that something you plan to discuss in the blog, or is it too delicate a topic, too “hot” for productive interfaith dialog? If so, might there be point in the future where enough mutual trust is established and we’re not walking around on eggshells with one another that these topics can be broached?

  • lbehrendt

    AJ, it has always been a question for the Church: if (as most Christians believed for most of Christian history) the new covenant brought by Jesus has superseded and replaced the old Jewish covenant associated with Abraham and Sinai, then what accounts for the continued survival of the Jews? Some of the theological answers to this question – for example, that the Jews survive as a people cursed by God, whose continued persecution stands as a monument to the justice of God and the truth of the Christian religion (see for example here) – possibly began to ring hollow as the Church grew to understand the extent of the Shoah.

    Possibly the change in attitude of the Catholic Church had something to do with the Church’s effort to understand its meaning and purpose in a modern and more secular world. Possibly there is a connection with the so-called third quest for the historical Jesus, which looks much harder at Jesus’ Jewishness and his Jewish context. Or just possibly, the Church came to understand that a change in attitude was just the right thing to do.

    I don’t believe that this change was caused by new research or analysis. Instead, I think that new analysis followed this change in attitude.

    The Talmud’s statements regarding Jesus do not figure into my discussion to this point. These statements may come up in future posts, but I first need to discuss more background material and establish a framework where these statements can be understood and put into a proper context. If it is the Talmud we are considering, then the most important thing to note about the Talmud is that it barely mentions Christianity. To be certain, in the first few hundred years of Christianity both Jews and Christians wrote disparaging material about the other, but the most remarkable thing about this surviving material is how little of it was written by Jews. This is part of an “asymmetry” that I need to discuss here, that Judaism is difficult to compare to Christianity because the features important to each religion don’t line up well against each other. For Christianity, it may be essential to mount a critique of Judaism – arguably, it’s Christianity that represents a change from Judaism, and this change must be explained and defended. Arguably, it’s no more necessary for Jews to explain why they’re not Christians than to explain why they’re not Buddhists.

    • AJ

      Thanks for your reply. As far as asymmetry of disparaging material, I would imagine that part had to do with the fact that any harsh words written about Christians or Christianity would potentially be fodder for pogroms and inquisitions. There was a great deal of self-censorship that Jews underwent in order to hide/soften statements which could have been used against them. So there may be other reasons why there isn’t much anti-Christian material, but fear of life and limb had to have been a strong one!