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SIDIC Periodical XXXIII - 2000/3
Ecclesia and Synagoga. A New Future (Pages 2-5)

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

Setting the Agenda for the Twenty-first Century
Cunningham, Philip A.


On June 18-19, 2000 The Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College gathered thirty scholars and religious leaders at an invitational conference to map the current state of Christian-Jewish relations. Entitled Setting the Agenda for the Twenty-first Century: The Next Stage of Jewish and Christian Dialogue, the conference enabled participants to examine issues needing joint exploration in the years ahead. A series of six conversations focused on Theology, Religious Education, Biblical Studies, Liturgy, Ethics, and History. For most topics, one participant from each faith tradition circulated a paper in advance. At the session itself, a participant from the other faith tradition responded to these reflections and opened a general conversation on the issues raised. These six consultation sessions provided comprehensive snapshots of the present state of Jewish-Christian interreligious dialogue. They clarified ongoing concerns and helped chart the course for the future.


Rosann Catalano of the Institute for Christian Jewish Studies in Baltimore, Philip A. Cunningham of Boston College, Michael Kogan of Montclair State University, and Edith Wyschogrod of Rice University sparked a discussion on many theological matters. While acknowledging the tremendous changes in many Christian denominations’ official teaching about Jews and Judaism, several speakers stressed the need for further educational initiatives, especially in places without a Jewish presence. The liturgy in particular was seen as most important in the formation of Christian attitudes about Jews.
Many agreed that ongoing scholarly research is needed on the unfolding theological implications of recent official Christian teachings that Jews live in eternal covenant with God. These implications include: 1. how Christians are to speak of universal salvation brought by Jesus Christ if they also maintain that Jews abide in a saving but non-christocentric relationship with God; 2. how Christian self-definition as People of God is affected by the acknowledgment of the people of Israel as perpetually God’s own; and 3. how Christians are now to understand the Matthean Great Commission to spread the gospel. A number of participants felt that recent work in trinitarian theology could help resolve some of the christological and soteriological questions raised by the recent repudiation of supersessionism by many Christian churches.
There was also dialogue about the challenges facing Jewish theology. There seemed to be a general feeling that Jewish thinkers need to respond to the ongoing reform in Christian teaching. This would require a theological engagement with Christian self-understanding on its own terms and not by means of a generic encounter with Christians as Gentiles, as, for example, through the use of Noahide or Noachic law traditions. One Jewish approach would be to consider Christianity as part of a realization of the blessings of Abraham being extended to the nations. However, concerns were raised about thereby reducing Christianity to a “Judaism for the Gentiles.” The place of Islam among the Abrahamic religions also demands serious consideration.

Religious Education

Steven Copeland of Hebrew College, Aryeh Davidson of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and Fayette Veverka of Villanova University launched the discussion on this subject. A key point raised was the need to educate in the particularity of one’s own religious tradition so as to be open to the religious insights of other traditions. This requires approaches that are neither religiously relativist nor religiously exclusivist. This was seen as particularly true for Christianity and Judaism because of their intertwined histories and spiritual connections. Encountering the other not only enriches a tradition’s self-understanding, but is in some sense constitutive of its identity, especially in the case of Christianity, because of its historical interactions with Judaism. It was also noted that openness to encountering the other in their distinctive “otherness” was demanded by the Jewish understanding of all people as subject to the Transcendent Other. Studying common or distinctive sacred texts in the presence of the other related tradition was described as an especially profound technique for promoting interreligious respect, and the work of Mary Boys and Sara Lee was noted in this regard.
Some areas of concern were also mentioned. In Christian teaching materials about Jews enormous improvements have been made in some denominations, but not in others. Some lingering issues, such as the portrayal of the Pharisees, persist even in generally good curricula. There is also a troublesome tendency in Jewish materials to depict Christianity only as an oppressive majority culture and not as a religious tradition with which Jews have interacted spiritually for centuries. Nor is the current Christian self-examination and reform of its teachings about Judaism typically discussed.
Finally, the ability of technology and infoculture to disseminate stereotype as well as accurate information was seen as important for religious educators to consider. Because a sound bite culture shapes the way in which people learn and absorb information, different pedagogical strategies are needed. Moreover, some participants stressed that religious educators would do well to take advantage of some of the opportunities presented by new technologies for communicating accurate knowledge about Jewish and Christian issues.

Biblical Studies

John Clabeaux of St. John’s Seminary College, Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University, Claudia Setzer of Manhattan College, and Krister Stendahl of Brandeis and Harvard Universities opened a wide-ranging conversation on biblical matters. A major topic was the impact on congregations of the proclamation of polemical New Testament texts in worship settings. Christians need to learn how such rhetoric sounds to Jewish ears. Sermons that perpetuate a Law vs. Gospel understanding of Paul or restrict the spiritual richness of the “Old” Testament only to Christian applications were also singled out as troublesome concerns. A number of speakers stated that Jews need to study New Testament texts not only for an awareness of their polemical aspects, but also because of their important witness to first-century Judaism.
The reading of texts together by Jews and Christians was highlighted as an especially fruitful undertaking. Such common study, it was suggested, could help clarify distinguishing features of each tradition. The centrality of the christological proclamation of the New Testament would thereby be made clear, for example. A goal of such study would be to learn to respect the particularities of Judaism and of Christianity. This would encourage people to go beyond simply admiring those aspects of the other tradition that recall one’s own heritage in some way.
There was also a conversation about the relationship of the Tanakh to the Christian “Old Testament.” Some felt they should be viewed as completely separate texts because of their diverse traditions of interpretation in Judaism and Christianity. Others argued that they should be seen as a shared legacy from the biblical Hebrew tradition that has been adapted in different ways.
Many participants deemed the need for the education of the general public about biblical matters to be a high priority. Recent television programs and magazine publications that draw upon current biblical scholarship were viewed as positive steps that ought to continue. Such initiatives could do much to enhance Jewish-Christian relations in society at large.


Audrey Doetzel, NDS, Sister of Sion and Director of Christian Jewish Relation & Encounter, and Ruth Langer of Boston College provided the focus for this dialogue. Most of the Christian participants felt that the diverse Christian churches still had some way to go to “walk the talk” liturgically in regard to the reforms in their teaching about Jews and Judaism. In addition to polemical New Testament materials, the use of the “Reproaches” on Good Friday, the “O Antiphons” during Advent, prayers that convey a simplistic prediction/fulfillment approach to salvation history, and hymns whose lyrics communicate supersessionist theology were named as persistent areas of difficulty. The lectionary’s methods for juxtaposing “Old” and “New” Testament passages were also seen to merit review. Christian participants indicated that, in addition to these corrective and reformative efforts, Nostra Aetate calls us to celebrate our intrinsic bond with the people and faith of Judaism. “Sounding the depths of the mystery” which is rooted in these “spiritual ties” (NA, 4) also requires the creation of new and positive liturgical expressions.
Jewish speakers tended to stress the need for continuity with a faith community’s liturgical heritage even when it is being challenged to respond creatively to new situations and understandings. The avoidance of syncretism or the Christian appropriation of Jewish rituals, seen for example in the oxymoron of Christian Seders was emphasized.


David Novak of the University of Toronto and Ingrid Shafer of the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma started a conversation that centered on the role of law in the Christian and Jewish communities. It was stressed that for too long Christians and Jews have made wrong assumptions about the place of Torah or Law in the other tradition. Christians accused Jews of seeking to earn salvation through doing works of the law, while Jews charged Christians with an antinomian abandonment of God’s commands. The task for Christians is to overcome the false charge against Judaism as legalistic. The task for Jews is to understand how Christian lawfulness can be seen as consistent with Jewish normativeness without being made subordinate to it.
Philosophical differences that did not break down along simple religious lines were apparent in the exchange. Some dialogists were inclined to conceive of ethics through transcendent natural law approaches, while others tended to root ethics in relationships of love and reciprocity. For a time participants discussed whether the respective truth claims of Judaism and Christianity were mutually exclusive. Some speakers felt that both religions’ truth claims were mutually exclusive. Others felt it was possible for one religion to articulate its truth claims so as to maintain its own characteristic spiritual insights and validity without delegitimizing the other religion in the process.


David Efroymson of LaSalle University, Stephen Haynes of Rhodes College, Michael Signer of the University of Notre Dame, and Michael Wyschogrod of the University of Houston initiated the final dialogue. Two principle topics were discussed: the historiography of Jewish-Christian relations and the place of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Christian-Jewish dialogue.
The role of the historian as a witness for those who have been victimized was noted. In this regard, it was clear that ongoing research into the “official” nature of the Christian “teaching of contempt” for Jews is still needed. However, it was stressed that histories of the reciprocal enrichment and positive interactions between Jews and Christians over the centuries are also required. A major challenge in writing histories of Jewish-Christian relations is to avoid simplistically locking Jews into the role of perpetual victims and Christians into the role of inveterate oppressors. Not only are such sweeping categorizations historically questionable, but they also produce unhealthy attitudes in Christians and Jews of today. There is also a need to produce histories that are less western oriented and to explore the interactions between Jews and Muslims and Jews and Eastern Christians.
On the subject of current Palestinian-Israeli conflicts, everyone agreed that this extremely important issue must not be excluded from Jewish-Christian dialogue. However, the multi-faceted complexities that confront all the relevant parties must be respected. The relationship of religious to secular approaches to the dispute was seen as a particularly thorny question. On the other hand, some speakers asked: Where better to model conversations that integrate religious, political, and ethnic concerns than in an interreligious dialogical setting?

Some Concluding Observations

Setting the Agenda for the Twenty-first Century marked an important initial step for the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. The speakers named above, together with Judith Banki of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, James Bernauer, SJ of Boston College, David Gordis, president of Hebrew College, Mark Heim and Robin Jensen of Andover-Newton Theological School, David Sandmel of the Institute for Christian Jewish Studies, as well as representatives of Boston area programs and churches gave most generously of their time and expertise.
Many of the participants expressed the opinion that Jewish-Christian interreligious dialogue is entering a new phase of its existence. This is not to say that all Jews and Christians around the world, or even all Christian-Jewish dialogues, are simultaneously undergoing the same developments. However, many Jewish and Christian dialogists have recently expressed the subjective impression that a new page is being turned.
The following developments seem increasingly common. Foundational theological issues are being discussed more intensely, not just to identify commonalities, but more importantly to comprehend differences within their own frames of reference. This valuing of distinctiveness opens the possibility for the mutual enrichment of one another’s religious heritages, not in syncretistic ways, but in ways that remain identifiably Christian and Jewish. While particular debates about past events continue to produce controversy, some dialogue partners are asking questions that are focused on the future. How much penitence is enough? How do we move beyond roles of victim or oppressor? Where do we go next in moving our relationship forward? How do we live out our faith traditions with God in the twenty-first century world?
What factors might be producing the feeling that a new moment is at hand? Although forty to fifty years is not a long time in a two millennia history, it is perhaps of sufficient duration for the Christian repudiation of its anti-Jewish heritage to begin having readily observable consequences. The religion textbooks of major Christian denominations have been radically revised. Prayers for blessings on the Jewish people as they celebrate their religious feasts are becoming increasingly common in Christian churches. Church leaders have publicly repented for the deeds of Christians against Jews over the centuries and have publicly condemned acts of antisemitism. Perhaps most importantly, over the past few decades more Jews and Christians than ever before have been able to talk with one another in non-proselytizing venues and have discerned in their conversation partners a profound relationship with God. Those who have had such encounters are eager for their co-religionists to have similar experiences.
Developments in the academic world have also played a part. Jewish and Christian scholars collaborate regularly in research and teaching. Jewish scholars of the New Testament and Christian scholars of the Talmud are not so unusual as in the past. Historical studies conducted by Jews and Christians have shed much light on the origins of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism with the result that assertions that once seemed impossibly divisive are now perceived as different responses to common historical crises.
Another contributing factor is the psychological impact of the beginning of a new millennium according to the Western calendar. This effect has been magnified by the actions of Pope John Paul II during the Great Jubilee Year of 2000, especially during his visit to Israel. There was unanimous agreement at the Setting the Agenda for the Twenty-first Century conference that the Pope’s placing of a signed prayer in the Western Wall, solemnly committing the Roman Catholic Church “to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant,” was an enormously significant religious deed. Its profound seriousness and powerful invitation to enter into a collaborative future were unmistakable.
The unfamiliar intensity of such Jewish-Christian encounters naturally triggers conflicting reactions. Some Jews fear a loss of identity in a too friendly Christian world. Some Christians fear that a seeming preoccupation with Judaism is ‘watering down’ their faith. Perhaps such feelings can unconsciously motivate even those who have a long personal history in interreligious dialogue to feel a need to reinforce the boundary lines between the two traditions. The perception that new and uncharted territory is being entered only adds to such concerns.
That is one reason why sustained scholarly theological and educational work is so necessary at this crucial juncture in the Christian and Jewish relationship. The challenges of this historically unique moment will best be met through ongoing dialogue supported by the fullest possible awareness of the educational, theological, historical, social, and psychological forces involved. Therefore, academic centers devoted to the study of Jewish-Christian relations, working in partnership with one another, have an invaluable contribution to make at this important time.


* Philip A. Cunningham, Ph.D. is Executive Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College. His publications include: Education for Shalom: Religion Textbooks and the Enhancement of the Catholic and Jewish Relationship (Liturgical Press, 1995); Proclaiming Shalom: Lectionary Introductions to Foster the Catholic and Jewish Relationship (Liturgical Press, 1995); A Story of Shalom: The Calling of Christians and Jews by a Covenanting God (Paulist Press, Forthcoming from the Stimulus Foundation, 2001); The Hebrew Scriptures in the Lectionary: Interpreting the “Old Testament” as a “Shared Testament” (A forthcoming volume in the Stimulus Foundation series Setting the Word Free: Preaching and Teaching the Lectionary Without Anti-Judaism, Paulist Press, 2001). (See the NEWS


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