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SIDIC Periodical XXXII - 1999/1
Toward a new millennium. A Jubilee of hope (Pages 2-5)

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The Christian Millennium in Jewish Historical Perspective : Implications for Dialogue and Joint Social Action
Signer. Michael


A New Phase in Jewish-Christian Relations

Many Jews have greeted the invitation by Pope John Paul II to join with Catholic communities to discuss the coming millennium with skepticism. They ask themselves: “Why should Jews involve themselves with a Christian discussion?” The year 2000 focuses on the birth of Jesus Christ, and after our long and very sad history with Christians it seems inappropriate for us to join in any celebration. Furthermore, there is also some residual suspicion in the Jewish community that the invitation may be a new strategy by Christians to proselytize Jews and bring them into the Church before the new millennium. Finally, there are many within the Jewish communities who worry about the problem of a lack of commitment by Jews to Judaism. All serious efforts within the Jewish community should be devoted to deliberations that promote greater commitment to Judaism.

It is perfectly natural for Jews to have some suspicions about the Pope’s invitation. In the thirty years since Vatican II there have been enormous steps forward in the relationships between our communities. Nearly all of the major issues of contention in 1965 have been resolved: the problem of Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus; not targeting Jews as objects for proselytizing; the acceptance by Catholics of Judaism as having a covenant with God which has never been revoked; the denunciation of anti-Semitism. Recently the Vatican has established diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, and its Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews has issued a statement of reflection about the Shoah. In all of these matters the Church has consulted with representatives of the Jewish community from all over the world, and taken their advice very seriously. However, it will require many years for churches throughout the world to absorb these ideas into their preaching and teaching.

With all of these wonderful accomplishments at the highest levels of discussion, both the Church and the Jewish community might say that the important task has been completed. The building blocks for a healthy relationship between Catholics and Jews are in place. Our common task in the future is to insure that negative attitudes do not develop again.

However, many Catholics and many Jews do not view our task as completed only with the elimination of negative elements within the Christian tradition about Jews. They believe that both communities have much to learn from each other when they reflect on their unique historical experiences and theological engagements. Pope John Paul II has stated that the core element in serious interreligious dialogue is that neither side “abandon principles” and that there be “no false irenicism” which means shaping one’s own theological tradition just to make the other community happy.

It is in the spirit of respectful dialogue between partners that we might investigate the Jewish experience of the Christian millennium in the past. In considering how Jews have lived with Christians we might be able to develop a vocabulary or lexicon which helps us to understand both the other community and ourselves.

When we speak about the millennium, we often confuse it with the idea of millenarianism. The millennium refers to a period of one thousand years, or a one thousandth anniversary. However, the term millenarian refers to one who believes that Jesus will reign on earth for one thousand years before the reign of God is introduced. It is the idea of millenarianism that Jews associate with Christian celebration of the coming third millennium. However, a more careful analysis of millenarianism would reveal that the Catholic tradition has rejected the notion of millenarianism since the fourth century when St. Augustine declared it to be a heresy. The great Catholic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas also rejected millenarianism in his Summa Theologica (ST 3,77). As late as 1944, Pope Pius XII condemned any notion of millenarianism (Acta Apostolica Sedis 1944). So, we Jews may enter into discussions with the Catholic community knowing that they will not be looking for the immediate reign of Jesus on earth in the year 2000. As we shall see, Pope John Paul II has written his encyclical letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente to distance his idea of the millennium from any notion of a change in the world order brought about by supernatural causes.

Jewish Experience and the Christian Millennium

Both Jews and Christians find their fundamental idea of the end of history in the Hebrew Bible. It is precisely because both of our communities have read the same books, albeit with very different understanding, that we can have fruitful discussions. In some profound sense, our notion of the end of history begins with a common story in the Hebrew Bible, the TaNaKh.

The prophets of the TaNaKh describe the “Day of God” and point toward a period of time when Israel will have suffered enough and God will bring about her restoration from exile. We can look to the later chapters in the book of Isaiah, Micah or Malachi to provide the images of fruitfulness of earth and harmony between humans and animals. They brought hope and comfort to our biblical ancestors and continue to provide members of synagogues and churches with hope for the future. In the post-biblical period the images of future hope become even more vivid. With the coming of first the Greeks and then the Romans, Jewish communities in the land of Israel experienced severe persecutions. The book of Daniel, which most biblical scholars believe was written during the second century B.C.E., describes how Israel will suffer under the oppression of many kingdoms. However, in the end God will cause them to triumph over their enemies. Many books, which were composed during this period, develop the same themes and images. They belong to a genre of literature, which we call “apocalyptic,” the revelation of the secrets of the end of days. One of the characteristics of these books is that they are not explicit about when the end will come or precisely how it will happen. The attempt to read the “signs of the times” as matching the biblical description became the preoccupation of many groups within the Jewish and Christian communities.

In the years after the founding of Christianity, the Rabbis attempted to push speculation about the messiah or the “end of days” to the periphery of their efforts. They focused on the ways that Jews should live in their exile. They should study Torah, be obedient to the commandments and obey the words of the Rabbis. Nonetheless, it appears that the Rabbis were not always successful in their efforts, and articulated their disapproval of those Jews who calculated when the end of time would arrive.

When the Muslim conquest ended the rule of the Christian emperor of the Eastern Roman empire many Jews thought that the end had arrived. The Muslims would bring about the end of the persecutions by the last Byzantine emperors and soon the Jewish messiah would lead the Jews back to their land. These hopes were transformed into a stable relationship with the Islamic caliphs, and Jewish life flourished in the Eastern Mediterranean for many years.

At the juncture of the first Christian millennium we discover a millennial spirit in northern Europe. The Pope had called for Christians to go and recapture the city of Jerusalem. Many of those who went on the first Crusade in 1096 thought they were preparing the path for the Second Coming of Jesus. In their enthusiasm to “purify” the world for the reign of God, they persecuted Jews who lived in the Rhineland communities of Germany. The nightmare memories of these persecutions produced chronicles of Jewish heroism and martyrdom. However, as we read the Hebrew chronicles of the First Crusade, we can observe that Jews themselves understood the social and religious upheaval that accompanied the Christian journey to capture Jerusalem as the beginning of Jewish redemption.

We can observe another example of the conjunction between Christian millenarianism and Jewish hopes for redemption in the mid-sixteenth century with the Protestant reformation. In the Augsburg Confession of 1530, Christians in confirming their own beliefs in the future pointed to the fact that Jews believe before the messiah would come that “saints and godly men will possess a worldly kingdom and annihilate the godless.” We also learn that Abraham b. Eliezer, who wrote a Jewish chronicle of that era, recorded that “a man will arise who will be great. He will pursue justice and loathe butchery. He will marshal vast armies, originate a religion and destroy the houses of worship and clergy.” A later hand then wrote in the manuscript: “At first we thought this man was the messiah son of Joseph, but he is none other than Luther who is exceedingly noble in all his undertakings and these forecasts are realized in him.” Clearly, this is not the standard Jewish evaluation of Luther, but it does reflect how Jews came to understand changes in Christianity, particularly internal Christian strive, as the foreshadowing of their own redemption.

As we observe the changes in the late twentieth century, we can discern the similar reciprocity of millenarian hopes. There are many non-Catholic Christians who understand the return of Jews to the Land of Israel as the beginning of the end of time. They are firm supporters of the State of Israel and the political philosophy of those in Israel who believe that God has given every inch of the land to the Jews. There are also some people in the Jewish community who discerned the redemptive action of God in Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. Some of them even want to begin rebuilding the Temple so that God will ultimately bring about the final redemption.

When we look at the broad perspective of the Jewish experience of the Christian millennium there are two trends that emerge. First, is the tendency among Christians to evangelize Jews in order to bring about the reality of the Second Coming. Second, and somewhat more surprising, is that there are usually Jewish millennial tendencies which are awakened in response to the surrounding culture. This exchange of millennial fever between Jews and Christians holds true in both the pre-modern and modern period.

Implications for Dialogue

Since both Christians and Jews share a view of history which puts God at the beginning and end of history as we know it, a discussion of our views about our hopes and dreams for the future may help us deal more clearly with each other in the present. Naturally, Christians will want to be sensitive to the christocentric focus of the papal letter, On the Coming Third Millennium. They will realize that the Jewish calendar recognizes the current year as 5759, and has a very different cycle of feasts and holidays.

On the other hand, Jews will come to understand that the Pope’s request for dialogue with Jews is not connected to millenarianism. Reading the letter, On the Coming Third Millennium, demonstrates that it provides an occasion for reflection on the past two millennia of Christianity. The first sections of the letter are a thoughtful analysis of the meaning of the Jubilee year. By turning the focus from the distant future to a series of thematic meditations on the meaning of Jubilee, the Pope removes any suspicion that he advocates a retreat from the world in order for Christians to be saved from the heavens.

However, Jews will have some difficulties with the language of the Pope’s letter, which repeatedly uses the term evangelization. In order to understand better how he uses this term, we might turn to his letter Redemptoris Missio (December 7, 1970). In that letter the Pope makes it clear that evangelization is largely an inner Christian task that deepens religious self-awareness. Interreligious dialogue is a part of the Church’s evangelical task not because it seeks proselytes from other religions, but because it helps the Church to grow. The Pope wants Christians to lead exemplary lives so that others, not necessarily Jews, will want to become part of that form of life.

No matter how sympathetic our understanding of evangelism as a Christian task might be, Jews will still need to be reassured about phrases in his letter, On the Third Millennium, which states, “Jesus offers salvation to Jews and gentiles alike.” How does this sentence respect the unique nature of the Jewish covenant? Currently, the only reassurance we have is the 1977 document written by Frederici, Study Outline on the Mission and Witness of the Church where ‘unwarranted proselytism’ is rejected.1 Perhaps in our discussions with the Catholic community about its millennium document we can gain more explicit understanding.

Perhaps the most reassuring sections of the document are to be found in section 33 and section 35, which urge penitential thought. The Pope has written that “The Church cannot cross the threshold of the new millennium without encouraging her children to purify themselves through repentance of past errors. Acknowledging the weakness of the past is an act of honesty and courage, which helps us to strengthen our faith, which alerts us to face today’s temptations and challenges.” (section 33) To strengthen this assertion about the value of contemplating errors in the past, the Pope urges Christians to repent for acquiescing in “intolerance”. Even admitting mitigating factors, “does not exonerate the Church from expressing profound regret for the weaknesses of so many of her sons and daughters.” In the past two years the Church has taken steps in this direction with the publication of the document, We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah and the opening of the archives of the Inquisition. It will be very helpful for Christians and Jews to discuss openly these painful periods in our relationship over the centuries. The concrete exchange of ideas in face to face dialogue is the best way to realize the ideas expressed in documents from Rome.

Joint Opportunities for Social Action

When Catholics and Jews look toward their future hopes and dreams, they do it best when confronting the tasks that block the path to realizing them. Both of our traditions provide us with a strong mandate for co-responsibility with God in bringing a new era of peace and harmony into actuality. Our separate traditions have found complementary ways to create forms of social organization that works to “repair” the world (Tikkun Olam).

We might begin by our joint reflection on the world as created by a divine force. As we read the creation story in Genesis together we can formulate projects which will heighten our ability to work toward improving the environment. There have already been discussions between the International Jewish Coordinating Committee and the Vatican Secretariat for Religious Relations with the Jews on the need to further our joint effort in the area of ecology and the environment.

As Catholics and Jews we share the prophetic imperative for pursuing justice for those who have no voice in world councils. There are already many collaborative efforts to help families which have been abandoned, people who lack the minimal skills of literacy, and victims of political persecution. No matter how we may calculate what the year 2000 means for us, we can understand how profoundly we all feel the impact of nations which are starving for bread or exploited by totalitarian regimes. Jews and Catholics bring different perspectives on who might need our help, and through dialogue we can both broaden our communal horizon.

Finally, we can help one another further develop a theology of hope and celebration. As we appreciate the gifts and obligations we share for the world, the way to working toward a more harmonious world becomes clearer. Through realizing past hurts and insensitivity our communities can sharpen their perspectives on the paths to hope for those who are without hope. To work toward repairing the world need not be a dour, grim obligation, but a celebration of the advancements in scientific knowledge and an awareness of how they can be used for good or evil.

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses asks the Israelites to understand that God has set before them both life and death. He urges them to choose life that they and their children might live. In their historical experience of the Christian millennium the Jewish community was often asked to choose life by abandoning their ancestral faith. The angst, anger and frustration that grew from these experiences have left many Jews with profound suspicion about a future with Christians who take their religion seriously. It would seem that the Pope’s invitation for Jews to engage in dialogue with local churches might be a risk. However, with the advances of the past thirty years and the rising tide of apathy toward any religious commitment in our contemporary world, perhaps the request to choose life is being offered once again.


* Rabbi Michael Signer is Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought and Culture, Dept. of Theology, U of Notre Dame, USA. He is co-director of the Notre Dame Holocaust Project and co-chair of the Joint Commission of Interreligious Affairs for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform Judaism, USA).He has written about Jewish and Christian Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, and on contemporary Jewish-Christian Relations.
1 In Croner, Helga, More Stepping Stones to Jewish-Christian Relations (NY: Paulist Press, 1985), pp. 37-55.


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