BALTIMORE, Sept. 13 (JTA) — Finalizing the text of what is being billed as the first document on the Jewish view of Christianity was, not surprisingly, filled with tension and controversy.
“This is the first major statement by a group of Jewish scholars, congregational rabbis, leaders of national organizations, which acknowledges the changes that have come about in Christian theology of Jews and the Jewish people,” said Rabbi Michael Signer, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and one of four drafters of the statement.
“There’s never been a kind of overarching statement saying that it’s not the same Christianity that existed in the 19th century. It’s not even the same Christianity of the Eisenhower era,” Signer said of the document that took five years to create and was published over the weekend.
The statement, printed in The New York Times, the Baltimore Sun and other publications, is titled “Dabru Emet ,” Hebrew for “Speak Truth” — a reference to Zachariah, chapter 8, verse 16, that reads, in part, “Speak each person the truth to his neighbors.”
More than 150 Jewish thinkers affixed their name to the text.
Rabbi David Novak of the University of Toronto, another “Dabru Emet”drafter, put it this way: “I want Jewish readers to clearly realize that Christians are not necessarily our enemies. Quite the contrary, they can be very good friends to Jews and Judaism. Some of them have demonstrated this not just out of good will, but out of Christian belief.
“That being the case, a Jewish response is called for. We respond to significant threats, why not positive developments?”
“Dabru Emet” is the work of independent scholars speaking for themselves, say its backers.
“It’s a Jewish statement. It’s not called the Jewish statement,” said Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, a scholar at the Baltimore-based Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies.
“It’s the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.”
Not surprisingly, who signed and who didn’t is creating a buzz. Many leading Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative thinkers endorsed it, as did a handful of Orthodox rabbis.
But there are noticeable absences, including Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Theological Seminary, and veteran interfaith activist Rabbi A. James Rudin, recently retired as head of the American Jewish Committee’s interfaith office.
For Rudin, a section on Nazism was problematic — a sentiment shared privately by some signers who felt nonetheless that the project should not be stalled.
In one section, “Dabru Emet” declares: “Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon.” It goes on to say, “Too many Christians participated in, or were sympathetic to Nazi atrocities against Jews. But Nazism itself was not an inevitable outcome of Christianity.”
Rudin said such wording is a problem.
“There’s a direct correlation between modern anti-Semitism and what I call the seedbed that created the poisonous weeds of anti-Semitism,” he said.
“To say there’s the pagan church and anti-Semitism that was acknowledged, and then a dichotomy of the 20th century of Nazism and fascism, is too sharp a division.”
But he added of the statement in general: “It’s a pioneering effort and I give praise to it.”
Countered Novak, “We’re not whitewashing. We’re saying that when Christians used Nazism, it was not authentic Christianity. That has to be the case because if Nazism was an inevitable outcome of Christianity, then we cannot have anything to do with Christians.”
In another section, the document states, “Christians know and serve God through Jesus Christ and the Christian tradition.” By not writing Jesus of Nazareth, some Jews are likely to be offended because Christ literally means messiah.
The phrasing was chosen, Novak said, because the section addressed the belief of Christians.
“We’re not describing our attitudes here,” he said. “The difference is that for Jews the Torah is the way to the God of Israel, and for Christians it’s what they call Jesus Christ, and you cannot do both. What makes it interesting is there’s both a commonality and difference.”
Those Orthodox rabbis endorsing the document are well-known for interfaith work, such as Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz.
Most Orthodox rabbis have generally avoided interfaith theological discourse since the mid-1960s dictum of the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, whose writings remain an authoritative voice. He permitted joint work on social problems, but not theological exploration.
The authors of “Dabru Emet” are experienced with internal Jewish differences, thus they had to deal creatively with their own divergent beliefs.
“There were some rough and tumble moments,” said Novak. “When you’re trying to agree on what you think about someone else, you find that you have some pretty big disagreements amongst yourselves.”
Some examples, he said, were sexism and homophobia — and the role of authority in Judaism.
Signer, a Reform rabbi, put it this way: “The truth of the matter is that David Novak and I can disagree about what gets said in the public square, but we certainly agree that Jewish-Christian dialogue is an important part of what needs to be said and that Jews need a more nuanced understanding of the Christian world.”
THE NEW JEWISH TAKE ON CHRISTIANITY
The following excerpts are from the eight-section, 1,100-word “Dabru Emet” (Speak Truth) statement that was issued this week by a group of Jewish thinkers:
• “Jews and Christians worship the same God. While Christian worship is not a viable religious choice for Jews, as Jewish theologians we rejoice that, through Christianity, hundreds of millions of people have entered into a relationship with the God of Israel.”
• “The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture. Christians know and serve God through Jesus Christ and the Christian tradition. Jews know and serve God through Torah and the Jewish tradition. Jews can respect Christians’ faithfulness to their revelations just as we expect Christians to respect our faithfulness to our revelation.
• “A new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice. It will not change traditional Jewish forms of worship, nor increase intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, nor persuade more Jews to convert to Christianity, nor create a false blending of Judaism and Christianity.”
The full text of “Dabru Emet” is available on the Web sites www.icjs.org and www.jewishtimes.com.