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SIDIC Periodical IX - 1976/3
Women in Jewish and Christian Tradition (Pages 19 - 22)

Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French

Perspectives: Christian teaching and Judaism
Eugene Fisher


Two decades ago, the American Jewish Committee initiated a series of projects aimed at evaluating textbooks used in the religious education of Catholics, Protestants and Jews. Educational specialists of each faith were to direct the study of their own materials to answer the question of whether or not these texts could in any way be said to promote inter-group prejudice.

Dr. Bernard D. Weinryb of Dropsie College (Philadelphia) concluded from his study 1 of 200 works that while the Jewish material tended to make very little mention of non-Jewish groups (only 14 per cent as opposed to 50-80 per cent for Christian materials), almost no negative views were expressed.

Dr. Bernhard Olson of Yale supervised the Protestant self-study of some 120,000 texts and lesson plans, concluding to a dismayingly high percentage of anti-Jewish and even anti-Semitic material.

Fr. Trafford Maher, S.J. of St. Louis University directed the Catholic study, which eventually produced three excellent but unpublished doctoral dissertations.' These studies too revealed rather strong anti-Semitic sentiments in literature, social studies and religion texts used in Catholic schools, in almost all ways parallel to those discovered by Olson.

Significantly, the first major published report of these Catholic studies appeared only in the spring of 1973.3 Fr. Pawlikowski, who authored the thirteen-year tardy publication, gives an indication of the reason for the delay when he points out that the decision to leave the study of the religion texts to the last was deliberately made: « The project directors were concerned at the time that criticism of religious texts, which in Sister Thering's words had achieved a kind of 'sanctity by association', might outrage many Catholics .... Here we have a reflection of the mind-set of the pre-Vatican II Church ... »4

* * *

Bernhard Olson's classic study 5 of the treatment of Jews and Judaism in American/Protestant textbooks is now thirteen years old. That study produced some disquieting reports on the level of anti-Jewishness which then prevailed. The findings pointed to theological as well as social castigation of the Jews. Judaism was portrayed in the texts studied as a dead religion and a fossilized way of life. Judaism at the time of Jesus was seen as a degeneration of the vitality of the « Hebrew religion » of the patriarchs and prophets. An empty legalism, attributed to the Pharisees, was seen as having replaced the covenant-response in the hearts of the people. Jesus and his disciples were treated as if they were « somehow not Jews ». And the blood guilt and collective guilt theories had not, by the late 1950's, been totally abandoned as a bastion of Christian orthodoxy.


Olson's report came out at a time when the ecumenical movement was reaching its peak in the consciousness of American Christians, and just two years before Vatican II's formal (if weakened) rejection of anti-Semitism « at any time and from any source » gave impetus to Catholic/ Jewish dialogue .° The emotions of the moment thus gave rise to quite reasonable hopes of improvement in religion texts in this country. The question is: did this in fact occur?

In 1968 the American Jewish Committee sponsored a project by the Presbyterian scholar, Gerald S. Strober, to answer this question. Strober studied approximately 3000 lessons put out by twelve denominations. The resultant document was issued in the fall of 1972. Designed principally as a follow-up to the Olson study, the Strober Report' gives the disheartening news that a whole decade of effort by numerous people has resulted in little, if any, change in the basic tenor of Christian teaching about the Jews and Judaism.

The findings indicate that the treatment of these ° themes is likely to be negative although there are lessons which modify this general tendency. These findings, while based on American Protestant publications, are consistent with recent analysis of texts used in Roman Catholic schools in French, Italian and Spanish speaking countries .9

The Churches, it would seem, have done almost nothing to implement even those sporadic statements which have emanated from their respective high places. (It may not be coincidental, in view of this, to point out that Isaac's classic challenge to Christian education, Jesus et Israel [1948] was not translated into English until 1971, almost a quarter of a century later!) 10

While many of the more blatantly anti-Semitic formulations of Christian doctrine have been re-phrased, Strober points out, the essence of the anti-Judaic polemic which was begun by the early Fathers of the Church is still intact in Christian teaching materials and therefore presumably in the teachers. Strober concludes that:

the weight of lessons continues a negative portrait of Jewish religion and life, perpetuates distortion and stereotypes, inhibits progress in the development of a relationship of respect between Christians and Jews and provides a theological under-girding which can act to legitimatize racial, sociological, political and economic manifestations of anti-Jewish prejudice."

This statement is a frightening one, for it shows that despite Auschwitz and Dachau, the Christian Churches have failed to come to grips with their own traditions and histories. Indeed, one could say that Christianity has yet to encounter its own mystery and self-definition in terms of the Holocaust, which it must do if it is to maintain any resemblance to what could reasonably be called an assembly (ecclesia) of the followers of Christ. The anti-Judaic polemic is intricately bound up with the deepest of Christian thinking. This means that we as Christians are not so much faced with a « Jewish problem » in our catechesis as a result of the Holocaust. Rather, we are faced with a « Christian problem » the resolution of which will entail a re-working of our own self-definition. Honest Jewish/Christian dialogue today will, I believe, necessitate the formulation of a whole new ecclesiology on the part of the Churches. We Christians have traditionally defined ourselves negatively (i.e. by stressing how we are not like the Jews). The Holocaust, and our failure to react to it in a Christian manner, have shown the bankruptcy of that negative self-definition. Ultimately, we will need not so much a « theology of Judaism )02 as a new theology of Christianity in the light of a mature and honest theology of Judaism.

The statistics given by Strober on the treatment of modern Jewish history in Christian texts bear out the view that Christianity has yet to deal with the implications of these events. Only six of the 3000 lessons even mention the Holocaust, Hitler's genocidal attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Only four attempt a description of the Jewish areas of the concentration camps. Strober comments: « There is no evidence so far that these painful yet essential issues are being confronted in Protestant teaching. » 13 What this means, in effect, is that Protestant Christian teaching is striving assiduously to ignore its own implication in the Nazi phenomenon. From my own readings of Catholic catechetical materials, it appears evident to me that the Roman Church is working just as hard to avoid confrontation with this admittedly disturbing reality. How are the Christian churches reacting to Auschwitz a quarter of a century later? Basically the same way they did then — with a deafening silence.

How are the Churches reacting to the existence of the State of Israel today — a reality with many biblical ramifications and one which totally confounds the Christian theological polemic that the Jews are dispersed throughout the earth by reason of the « guilt » they incurred for « rejecting » Jesus? Has this tradition, which has imbedded itself so deeply in Christian doctrine and teaching concerning the meaning of the Paschal event, been modified or rejected in the light of present reality? Do the teaching materials even seek to deal with the theologically-laden event of the Jews' successful return to Jerusalem? No. A mere fifteen lessons (0.5 per cent) do so much as mention modern Israel.

Studies of American Catholic materials are available, but generally smaller in scope than those of Olson and Strober. One such was reported by Christopher G. Laing," who summarizes the research done by a group of Jewish and Christian parents convinced of the validity of the statement by Glock and Stark. that « far from being trivial, religious outlooks and religious images of the modern Jew seem to lie at the root of American anti-Semitism »." Laing's group, like Strober, utilized the categories of Olson. While the number of texts studied was small, the choice is significant, for they chose some of the more advanced and progressive of those which had come out by that time (1967)." They concluded:

Nevertheless, our study shows that even these curricula which have an over-all positive orientation toward Jews and other out-groups contain many, though often subtle, negative images of the Jews.17

The major theme in the treatment of the Jews in the Catholic texts studied by Laing coincides with that discovered by Olson and Strober in the Protestant texts: « Jewish existence is justified solely as the vehicle for bringing in the Christian era of universal salvation through Jesus Christ. »18 The sub-themes supporting this run parallel to those of the Protestant materials, discussed above, including the various pseudo-theological means employed « to illustrate the Jews' general unworthiness of God's promises » and the view of the Hebrew Scriptures as incomplete and valid only to the extent of pointing to Jesus as the Messiah. Direct charges of deicide and of the diaspora as divine retribution, however, were « much less prominent ... than we thought they would be ».

Exceptions are rare. On the Catholic side, the most positive approach comes from the publishers of the same texts studied by Laing." While neither the text nor the teachers' Guidebook specifically deal with the implications of the Christian polemic, or the State of Israel and Judaism today, the approach does serve to bring out forcefully the travesty that is anti-Semitism and, if followed scrupulously, will lead to an understanding of Christianity's role in it.

The only large scale denominational effort to purge lesson materials of anti-Semitism and replace it with a sounder catechesis of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism seems to be that of the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. Much of this seems due to the influence of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, as Karl Barth mentions in a letter to Bethge, Bonhoeffer's editor, « viewed the Jewish problem as the first and decisive question, even as the only one ».20

Christian religious education is, of course, not alone in America in the negative treatment of Jewish culture and life. In fact, recent studies of history and social studies texts in this country point to conclusions remarkably similar to those reached for the Christian teaching materials.

In 1949, a study conducted by the American Council on Education concluded that « the textbook portrayal of the Jews in history and in American life is woefully inadequate as measured by either quality or quantity of reference ».21 This report found that treatment of the Jews tended to stop with the destruction of the Temple in the first century. Thus, while much credit is often given to the ancient Hebrews for religious and moral vision, « students received the impression that little had happened to Jews and Judaism since then and that today's Jews were, in fact, a remnant of a past civilisation ». The treatment of the crucifixion in many of the texts tended to follow the pattern of the patristic polemic. In other texts, the crucifixion was either not treated at all or « presented so sketchily that anti-Jewish feelings of pupils could well be reinforced ». Finally, treatment of Jews in medieval and modern times either is lacking or deals mainly with their persecution, « not with their contributions or their constructive relationships with other people ».22

According to more recent follow-up studies," this grim picture remains essentially the same today. In only two areas was there found a sign of progress. First, the emphasis on Jews as a « race » discerned in the 1949 study has basically disappeared. Second, at least some of the world history texts treat modern Israel with fairness and in some depth.

In terms of the treatment of Nazism's attempt at genocide, Michael Kane in 1970 found only « four of the forty-five texts (studied) to be fully satisfactory and seven that treat one or two of the aspects with reasonable adequacy N.24 In short, there has been no improvement of the treatment of this crucial period of history in the most popular American texts. Whether there is a link between the treatment of Jews and Judaism in religious education and public school texts cannot be ascertained on the basis of current evidence. But that the failure of both presents Christian educators and theologians with a crisis of responsibility is clearly evident. Kane closes his report on the treatment of Jews and of Nazism with the trenchant warning: « Their failure may be tragic indeed, for those who withhold the lessons of history may be dooming other generations to repeat its mistakes. )) 25

Numerous studies have more than adequately shown the anti-Semitism latent within Western culture and history. America is no exception to this. And to the extent that Christian teaching has played and is playing a role in rationalizing and validating this tendency, to that extent does Christian teaching have the responsibility for redressing the wrongs that it has done. The reason for this does not lie in any sort of vague sentimentalism or paternalistic good-heartedness. We, as Christians, are the cause and the problem. We are the ones in need of a « solution ». Franklin H. Littell, in a review of the Strober Report for the Journal of Ecumenical Studies sums it all up this way:

No wonder that the very credibility of Christianity is questioned ... churches in America have not only not faced the key issues of our recent history; they are still cranking out the old and despicable anti-Semitic calumnies.26

Dr. Fisher has a doctorate in Hebrew Culture from New York University. He teaches biblical Hebrew at St. John's Seminary, Plymouth, Michigan, and is a Consultant for Teacher-Training for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

1. Bernard D. Weinryb and Daniel Garnick, « Summary of Findings: The Dropsie College Study of Jewish Textbooks » (New York: The American Jewish Committee).
2. The unpublished dissertations for St. Louis University are: Sr. M. Rita Mudd, FSCP, Intergroup Relations in Social Studies Curriculum, 1961; Sr. M. Linus Gleason, CSJ, Intergroup Relations as Revealed by Content Analysis of Literature Textbooks Used in Catholic Secondary Schools, 1958; Sr. Rose Thering, OP, Potential in Religious Textbooks for Developing a Realistic Self-Concept, 1961.
3. John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, Catechetics and Prejudice: How Catholic Teaching Materials View Jews, Protestants and Racial Minorities (New York: Paulist Press, 1973).
4. Ibid., pp. 9-10.
5. Bernhard E. Olson, Faith and Prejudice (Yale University Press: New Haven, 1963).
6. Nostra Aetate, No. 4. English translation, see: W.H. Abbot, ed., The Documents of Vatican II (New York: America Press, 1966), p. 667. The phrase originally read « deplores and condemns », but the latter (and stronger) term, usually reserved for matters of formal heresy, was dropped on the grounds that John XXIII had asked the Council to avoid any formal heresy charges.
7. Gerald S. Strober, Portrait of the Elder Brother: Jews and Judaism in Protestant Teaching Materials (New York: American Jewish Committee/National Council of Christians and Jews, 1972).
8. These themes include « Judaism, Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries, the Pharisees, Jewish rejection of Jesus as Messiah, the crucifixion, and the first century relationship between Jews and Christians », according to Strober in a paper presented at the National Congress of Religious Education, « Current Themes in Christian Education and Judaism » (Miami, October 29, 1971),
P. 3.
9. Ibid., pp. 3-4. The French and Italian studies referred to are: Houtart and Giblet, Les Juifs dans la catechese (Louvain: Centre de Recherches Socio-religieuses, 1969) and Klineberg, Tentori and others, Religiose e pregiudizio (Rome: Pro Deo Free International University, Sperry Center, 1968). The former concluded that French catechetical materials tend to use Jews to « serve as foils for contrast with a Christian attitude ». The latter reveals « a high incidence of hostility toward Jews ». Both point out a tendency toward viewing Catholicism as « the only faith depository of divine revelation ».
10. Jules Isaac, Jesus and Israel (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971). For review and commentary on the significance of the work, see E.H. Flannery, « Jesus, Israel and Christian Renewal », Journal of Ecumenical Studies, IX: 1 (Winter 1972), pp. 74-93.
11. Strober, « Current Themes », op. cit., p. 5.
12. See SIDIC, V: 1.
13. Strober, Portrait, p. 39.
14. Christopher G. Laing, « Christian Instruction and the Image of the Jews », Religious Education, LXV:5 (1970), pp. 422-430.
15. Charles Glock and Rodney Stark, Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), p. 205.
16. Texts were for grades four to six; all from Allyn and Bacon, Boston. Children of the Kingdom (1966): text and guidebook; Let Us Give Thanks (1967): student text and guidebook; Growing as Christians (1967): student text and guidebook.
17. Laing, op. cit., p. 424. A study done in the archdiocese of Atlanta came to conclusions similar to those of Laing. Though improvement was discerned in relation to pre-Vatican II texts, a number of anti-Jewish slurs were still present. See Sr. M. Alice Muir, SND, « Catholic-Jewish Team Reviews Textbooks », The Christian Century (Jan. 15, 1969), p. 99. And a study done of a group of teachers at an institute on Judaism revealed that, even though some texts have improved, the teachers still tend to have a pre-conciliar mentality with regard to Jews and Judaism. See Pawlikowski and Thering, « Summary and Interpretation of Questionnaires Given to Catholic Teachers on Judaism » (Chicago: Catholic Adult Education Center, 1968).
18. Ibid., p. 423.
19. Alfred McBride, 0. Praem, The Pearl and the Seed 4 (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1971), Episode 1 (text and guidebook).
20. Evangelische Theologie, XXVIII: 10 (1968), p. 555. See Franklin H. Littell, « The Strober Report », Journal of Ecumenical Studies, IX:4 (Fall 1972), p. 861.
21. Intergroup Relations in Teaching Materials (Washington, D.C.: American Council on Education, 1947). Quote in Michael Kane, Minorities in Textbooks (Chicago: Anti-Defamation League, Quadrangle, 1970), p. 14.
22 Ibid., p. 13.
23 i.e. Lloyd Marcus, The Treatment of Minorities in Secondary School Textbooks (New York: Anti-Defamation League, 1969) and Michael Kane, op. cit.
24•Kane, op. cit., p. 53.
25 Ibid., p. 76.
26 Franklin H. Littell, op. cit., p. 862.


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