e-mail us

Winter Books:

Jewish writers view Christianity

Edited by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Sandmel and Michael Signer
Westview Press, 419 pages, $30


For nearly 2,000 years Christians and Jews have frequently lived beside one another in a state of suspicious tension or, at best, uneasy co-existence. Happily, the 35 years since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 have seen the beginning of an authentic revolution that seeks to overcome the destructive past with a constructive interreligious future built upon mutual respect and understanding.

One result of the revolution in Christian-Jewish relations occurred in September when over 170 Jewish scholars, including many prominent rabbis, signed a public declaration titled “Dabru Emet, A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity.” The Hebrew words mean, speak the truth and are found in the writings of the prophet Zechariah, 8:16. The Baltimore-based Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies provided the impetus for the statement that was three years in the making.

Dabru Emet is wide-ranging in scope and addresses the extraordinarily complex issues of scripture, theology, prayer, conversion, history and eschatology that both separate and unite Jews and Christians. Like many other religious declarations, Dabru Emet had many critics, including this reviewer, who were unable to sign the document for a myriad of reasons.

In an unfortunate and unplanned bit of bad timing, Dabru Emet’s release occurred the same week that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s statement, Dominus Iesus, was published. To many observers, the two statements appeared to be moving in opposite directions: Dabru Emet’s authors sought an irenic “thoughtful response” to “the efforts of Christians to honor Judaism,” while the Vatican document, in its reaffirmation of basic Catholic beliefs and its call for spiritual obedience, employed such harsh terms as “gravely deficient” to describe non-Catholic religions.

Although I find Dabru Emet to be flawed, especially in its treatment of the Holocaust, the eight-paragraph statement is not the final word from its five Jewish authors. Happily, they have compiled Christianity in Jewish Terms, a lengthy collection of over 40 carefully written articles that focus on such critical themes as the Shoah and the legacy of anti-Semitism, God, scripture, worship, suffering, embodiment and incarnation, sin and repentance, redemption and other theological issues.

Christianity in Jewish Terms is an ambitious attempt to provide intellectual heft and gravitas to buttress the terse Dabru Emet, which introduces the volume. Indeed, Christianity in Jewish Terms marks one of the first serious and systematic attempts by Jewish scholars to grapple with the theological mystery that is Christianity.

Two Jewish authors tackle each of the main topics, and their articles are followed by responses from either a Roman Catholic or Protestant scholar. With more than 30 contributors, it is no surprise that the writing is sometimes uneven, but the book succeeds in providing the reader with carefully measured and nuanced essays. Ample footnotes, a helpful glossary of terms and a valuable bibliography enhance the book’s usefulness.

John Cavadini of the University of Notre Dame, Susan Ross of Loyola of Chicago, David Tracy of the University of Chicago, and Robert Louis Wilken of the University of Virginia are among the Catholic contributors to the volume. The Jewish writers, including the five editors, are uniformly courteous and knowledgeable about Christianity, and the same is true of the Christian respondents vis-à-vis Jews and Judaism. No minds are changed, but new avenues of exploration are opened for both faith communities.

Christianity in Jewish Terms is often a bit too polite in tone for my taste. Having been in the interreligious trenches for over 32 years, I can attest that committed Jews and Christians are passionate about their faith and beliefs, and the sometimes-abrasive exchanges I have experienced usually achieved true growth and understanding.

There are, of course, flashes of this passion throughout the book. One example is the concluding paragraph of R. Kendell Soulen’s essay on “Israel and the Church.” In a response to Irving Greenberg of the Jewish Life Network and David Sandmel of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, Soulen of Wesley Theological Seminary writes:

The relation between Jews and Christians includes an irreducible element of dispute and even rivalry. Above all, Christians and Jews will continue to disagree about whether God’s promises have been “filled up” in Jesus. ... But, from the Christian point of view, at least, the dispute will no longer be about whether the other community (Jews) enjoys a rightful and indispensable place in God’s economy, but how this is so. … Even the remaining element of rivalry between Jews and Christians can serve the faithfulness of both communities and the glory of God.

Christianity in Jewish Terms will be used in many colleges, universities and seminaries. While not primarily aimed at the proverbial layperson in the church or synagogue pew, the book can serve as a resource volume in adult education classes and other settings.

Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. His e-mail address is rudinj@ajc.org

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000