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Christian-jewish Center Founded to Further Theological Dialogue

July 7, 1992
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A new Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding has been established at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., to intensify theological dialogue between the two faiths and to enable cooperative work on social issues of mutual concern.

The center was founded by Jewish, Catholic and Protestant clerics, theologians and academics who work in interreligious affairs.

It is being led by Jack Bemporad, a Reform rabbi from Long Island, who said that the center was born out of frustration with an Orthodox Jewish prohibition against discussing theological topics in interreligious dialogue.

Recent developments, said Bemporad, indicate that Catholic-Jewish relations would benefit even more if the two groups could discuss theology with one another.

He cited the Vatican’s expected statements on the Holocaust and on “theology on Jews and Judaism” as two documents that should have Jewish input.

“You can’t hold a position that we can’t talk about these things and then complain when they come out with things not to our liking. We have to talk to them before, not after” they finish them, said Bemporad.

“The bottom line is that we have everything to gain and nothing to lose by having these discussions,” he said. “Their positions will affect 900 million Catholics for the next 500 years. Our study center will help.”

The prohibition against discussing theology that Bemporad called frustrating derives from the principle that underlies Orthodox involvement in two major Jewish organizations that conduct interfaith discussions.

They are the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, which is charged with officially representing the Jewish community to the non-Jewish world, and one of its member agencies, the Synagogue Council of America, a coalition of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis.


The principle, known as the Soloveitchik doctrine, is based on a 1964 essay by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a leading Orthodox interpreter of Jewish law.

It stated that since non-Jews have confronted Jews “in a mood of defiance, as if we were part of the subhuman objective order,” dialogue must be limited to social and political issues.

That position has led interreligious activists to avoid any subject deemed theological by the Orthodox participants.

“The Jewish memory of the ‘disputations’ against the Jewish people are strong,” said Rabbi Marc Angel, honorary president of the Rabbinical Council of America, a mainstream Orthodox organization.

Referring to the medieval theological debates in which Jews were forced to participate, Angel said they were “an excuse to missionize and discredit Jews. We got a lot of deep scars from (them). What we should be talking about (with Christians) are common agenda items — humanitarian things.”

Those who say that the Soloveitchik doctrine no longer reflects the reality of Catholic positions note that Soloveitchik wrote his essay before the Second Vatican Council issued a document called Nostra Aetate in 1965.

Nostra Aetate redefined the Catholic understanding of Jews and Judaism, ending the teaching of contempt and “official” Catholic anti-Semitism. The document laid the foundation for a closer working relationship between Jews and Catholics than had previously existed.


One of the center’s board members is an Orthodox rabbi who re-evaluated the Soloveitchik doctrine in light of recent changes in Catholic views.

Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz of Congregation Agudath Shalom in Stamford, Conn., said that the relationship is “on a different level today than it was in 1964.”

He pointed out, in particular, that Pope John Paul II “has made certain recent statements indicating that there are two covenants God made: one with Moses at Sinai and one with Jesus at Cavalry.

” ‘By following the Torah, you gain salvation,’ he says. So there’s no longer any reason for a Catholic to try and persuade a Jew to give up his faith.

“Both (the Jewish and Catholic) communities remain ignorant of what the pope is trying to do. It’s important for Jews to know that there is a change, and that we should capitalize on the feelings that are prevalent now.”

Bemporad emphasized that the center will not be competing with the work of IJCIC or the Synagogue Council, but rather will try to complement it.

“IJCIC has a special role representing the spectrum of the organized religious community interfacing with the organized non-Jewish world at the international level,” said Elan Steinberg, spokesman for IJCIC Chairman Edgar Bronfman.

“That’s recognized by our counterparts, and I don’t think any other group pretends to represent the entire Jewish community,” he said. “I wish all institutions that do good work the best of luck.”

Though based at the Catholic Sacred Heart University, the center is financially independent, and its first-year budget of $500,000 is being raised from individuals and foundations, according to Bemporad.


The center’s first activity will be to lead a delegation of Jews and Catholics to Poland from July 19 to 24 to hold commemorative ceremonies at Auschwitz and to meet with Polish Catholic officials and help them develop seminary materials on Judaism, according to Bemporad.

The Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding will also host its first conference, November 2-3, which will be devoted to Christian understanding of Jews and Judaism.

The new center’s board of directors and consultants include: Dr. Eugene Fisher, director of Catholic-Jewish relations for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops; Archbishop William Keeler, the conference’s vice president; Schubert Ogden of Southern Methodist University; Rev. John Pawlikowski of Catholic Theological Union; and Rabbi A. James Rudin, national director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.

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