Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land - 06/03/2000 info:
Jewish-Christian Dialogue
towards the third millenium


To better understand the long path of reconciliation between the Church and Israel, it is necessary to look briefly at the past. History is the teacher of life, the ancients used to say. Recognizing the common past of tensions and struggles allows us to see with more serenity the importance and the future of Jewish-Christian dialogue.

Without going back to the patristic period with its treaties Adversus Judaeos, nor to the texts of the Talmud on Jesus, it is enough for us to remember some of the salient data of the twentieth century that for the Jews means death and resurrection: death in the extermination camps, resurrection of the State. The inert silence of death becomes energetic silence of hope and life. Auschwitz, "the exile of the Word," was followed by a time of reflection by the western Christian churches on the destiny of Israel. Vatican Council II marks an important stage of this needed reflection in large part due to Pope John XXIII and to Cardinal Bea. By this seizing of conscience was born an ever-increasing interest on the part of Christians concerning their relationship with the Jewish people characterized by a rediscovery of the Jewish roots of Christianity.

Methodological reflections

A sharpening of vocabulary is in order at the beginning of this reflection. One may speak of the Jews as a people, as faith and religious tradition, and one may speak of Israel as a political reality. These aspects are part of the Jewish identity and it is not always easy to separate the religious aspect from the political one. The complex reality of Israel comprises these two poles: religion and nation. For westerners used to the separation of Church and State it is not always easy to understand that the Jewish conscience vacillates between these two poles. The nature of relations between Jews and Christians depends on the accent which is put on one or the other of these dimensions. For most, Judaism like Christianity are pluralistic religions constituted by different tendencies. And so that which is valid for one group is not always so for the other. Every generalization becomes dangerous. That which is valid for the liberal or reformed Jew is not always valid for the orthodox Jew, and that which is valid for the western Christian is not always valid for the eastern Christian. When one speaks of the Church it is necessary to distinguish the western Churches very open to dialogue and the eastern Churches which have an approach a bit different from the reality of Israel. Ecumenism has different tonalities in the West than in the East. But the Church breathes with two lungs, the West and the East.

History is the teacher of life

It is necessary to begin this reflection with a few historical recollections. The beginning of the twentieth century signalled in the West the reawakening of nationalisms tied to political instability, economic crisis and the insecurity of the international situation. With nationalisms develops also xenophobia. The newspaper L'action Francaise of Charles Maurras is a good example of it in France.

The Roman authorities quickly understood the pagan inspiration of such doctrine. Pope Pius XI condemned it in 1926. Two years later the same Pontificate disapproved anti-Semitism. In 1937 the encyclical Mit brennender Sorge clearly refuted Nazi racism. Anti-Semitism is intolerable for Christians who are spiritual Semites, repeated Pius XI. The words of the Pontiff echoed around the world. The archbishop of Toulouse in France, Monsignor Saliège, and Cardinal Verdier in Paris spread the message of the Pope in their land. Not only the hierarchy reacted but also the clergy was sensitive to the sufferings and injustices undergone by the Jews. Father Chaillet organized with Abbot Glasberg and the Protestant Pastor Boegner a friendship group that greatly helped the Jews under the Vichy regime in France. In Italy Father Ruffino Niccacci succeeded in saving more than 300 Jews in the convent of Assisi. In all the European nations an elite of Christians reacted.

In England the Reverend William Simpson created in 1941 the International Council of Christians and Jews in Oxford. The Church of Holland in 1942 had the courage to clearly pronounce itself in defense of the Jews. The German church, notwithstanding that it was bound by the concordat, had its witnesses like Bishop von Gallen and his martyrs like Deacon Lichtenberg. Nazism for many presented itself as the only bastion against Soviet communism. In this climate of confusion it is necessary to evaluate the much criticized silence of Pope Pius XII.

The great turning point of the Vatican Council II was prepared by the Jewish historian Jules Isaac. Together with Edmond Fleg he founded the Jewish-Christian Friendship of France in 1948 taking up again the ten points of the declaration of Seelisberg (Switzerland) where Jews, Catholics and Protestants had examined the responsibility of Christian teaching in the tragedy of the Shoah.

It was the same Jules Isaac to visit Pope John XXIII in 1960 when he knew that the Church had accepted the idea to celebrate a council. He wanted the Church to make a pronouncement on its relations with the Jews. The distant roots of the conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate were sought out during this meeting The apostolic nuncio in Istanbul, the future Pope John XXIII, was witness of the sufferings of the Jews. It was this Pope who had the expression "Perfidi Iudei" suppressed in the liturgy of Good Friday and to ask Cardinal Bea to prepare a text on the Jews to submit to the council. The bishops of the Arab countries did not see the opportunity of such a declaration and other traditionalist bishops did not want to change the doctrine of the Church. Notwithstanding all of the difficulties, the declaration Nostra Aetate was approved by the council fathers in 1965. "The Church recognizes that the first fruits of its faith and its election are found, according to the divine mystery of salvation, in the Patriarchs, in Moses and in the Prophets." The way the Church views Israel is identical to the way it views itself. Departing from a reflection on its own mystery, the Church takes as a matter of conscience its essential bond with people of the Bible.

The visit of Pope Paul VI in the Holy Land in 1964, when the Church had not yet recognized the State of Israel, was a prophetic gesture full of hope that brought in itself a change of attitude in view of the political reality of Israel.

Many documents emanating from the bishops of many countries followed the declaration of Nostra Aetate. In 1970 an international liaison committee instituting an official dialogue between the Catholic Church and international Jewish organizations with an annual meeting was created. In 1973 the French bishops published a document remembering the Jewish roots of the Christian faith and inviting Christians to get to know the Jewish tradition.

At the same time the pontifical commission was preparing the orientation and suggestions for the application of the declaration Nostra Aetate. This required Christians to know better the fundamental components of the religious tradition of Judaism.

In 1985, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the same commission published the Notes for a correct presentation of the Jews and Judaism in the preaching and catechesis of the Catholic Church. A few of the paragraphs on Jesus, the Jews and the Pharisees are still famous today. The document however put off the problem of the relationship between the Jews and their land with international law and did not speak about the Shoah.

A pontifical commission for relations with Judaism, part of the Secretariat for the Unity of Christians was created in 1974 by Pope Paul VI together with a commission for relations with Islam. The Church knows that, even if its relationship with Israel is unique, it must enter into the context of dialogue among all the children of Abraham.

Among the important stages of the Jewish-Christian dialogue it is important to remember the visit of John Paul II to the Synagogue of Rome in 1986. The relationship with the "big brothers" will never be forgotten in the pastoral visits of the Supreme Pontiff in the different countries of the world where the Pope wanted to greet representatives of the Jewish religion.

The dialogue with Judaism has not always been easy. The difficult situation of the Carmelite convent of Auschwitz and the problem of the crosses planted not far from the extermination camp are testimony of this. The recent beatification of Edith Stein, Jewish martyr of the Christian faith provoked many protests in Israel. Why did the Church want to adapt the Shoah for herself and present herself as the fulfillment of Israel? Such questions were repeatedly asked. Other objections came from intellectuals who present Paul as the founder of Christianity and view the Gospels as anti-Semitic documents.

In 1985 the international liaison committee had expressed the desire that the Holy See publish a document on anti-Semitism and the Shoah. Pope John Paul II in the audience of the committee in 1990 on the 25th anniversary of Nostra Aetate insisted that anti-Semitism is a sin against God and humanity.

Another important stage in the dialogue between Jews and Christians was in December 1993. The Holy See decided to establish diplomatic relations with the State of Israel with the reciprocal exchange of ambassadors. The following year the Holy See decided to create a Christian center for the study of Judaism in Jerusalem. The recurrence of the 50th year of the liberation of Auschwitz was the occasion for the German and Polish bishops to write pastoral letters on the theme. In the end worth noting was the asking of forgiveness by the French bishops in 1997 in Drancy. A few weeks later the Pope called a symposium in Rome to study the roots of anti-Judaism in Christian settings. Speaking of the commission he said: "At the origin of that people there was divine election. This people is convoked and led to God. Racism is the negation of the deepest identity of the human being created in the image and likeness of God." In March of 1987 the Vatican commission published the text: "We Remember" which did not condemn Pope Pius XII but was an invitation to memory and reflection. That disappointed many.

For that which regards the eastern Churches that generally see in the problem of the Jewish State the consequences of World War II, and therefore a European problem, it is necessary to recall the mutual declaration of the Patriarchs of Jerusalem on the Holy City in 1994. The eastern Christians that daily live the dialogue with the Jews know better than the diplomats the concrete difficulties of reciprocal relations. The Patriarchs wrote: "The historical experience teaches that Jerusalem to be a city of peace, therefore no longer coveted from the outside and consequently contested, cannot belong at all to only one people or to one religion only, it must be open to all, shared by all. Those who govern the city must make her "the capital of humanity." The political dimensions of such declarations are obvious. In the East throughout the centuries Jews, Muslims and Christians have lived together in peace.

Exegetical research on Jesus on the part of the Jews

To the movement of Christians approaching their Jewish roots corresponds a parallel movement in Judaism: the rediscovery of Jesus as their brother on the part of a few Jewish exegetes. The reformed Jews decided to open the Gospels to reread the life of Jesus the Jew. Beginning with Montefiore and Friedlander this research continues until today with Vermes, Ben Chorin and Flusser. Such rereading of the Gospels has had as an indirect effect the birth of messianic Jewish groups that accept Jesus as Messiah of Israel without wanting to be brought into any church.

The reflection on the evangelical datum on the part of the Jews constrains even the Christian exegetes to a deeper understanding of Jewishness and to a scientific dialogue with the Jewish exegetes. The study of the oral traditions contained in the Midrashim and in the Mishna will become as important as the texts of Qumran or the apocalyptic texts. The Jewish liturgy cannot be ignored, even if it is studied with scientific criteria. It is necessary to abandon a few Hellenistic categories to open oneself up to the Jewish world which is the authentic vital setting of the New Testament. This means in very poor terms a thorough study of the Hebrew language. To learn the language of another is an integral part of the dialogue. The Hebrew language having become a living language cannot any longer be studied only as a dead language in the biblical centers of Rome. Why not create a serious center of biblical studies in Jerusalem? Jewish-Christian dialogue will contribute to the rebirth of biblical studies. The Word of God possesses a multiplicity of senses, resulting as inexhaustible on the part of man for the Jewish tradition, while the scientific Christian exegesis reduces it to only one sense.

Also in the field of patristics the Fathers of the Church should be studied in parallel fashion with the rabbis of the same geographical zone and period. The liturgists should review a few of their positions: why suppress the feast of the circumcision of Jesus when so much is said of Jesus the Jew? Why having eliminated all the traces of the feast of Sukkot in the Christian liturgy while the liturgy of the four temples was kept? The time has come to seriously study the liturgy of Jerusalem, mother of all the other liturgies.

Towards the third millennium

The way opened up by Vatican II cannot be blocked. First of all because it is the work of the Spirit that guides the Church toward the whole truth. Second because it gathers the needs of the modern world that aspires towards unity and does not accept lack of transparency . The hopes of a new attitude are not lacking. The modern Christian exegesis shows increasingly the importance of the eschatological gathering of Israel. Jesus wanted to bring Israel back to the observance of the covenant and to integrate the pagans also into the people of the promise. The humble were to inherite the earth. The peace makers were to have been called children of God.

The dialogue of the third millennium will have different tonalities according to the different geographic areas. In Israel such dialogue will always be more difficult than in the diaspora. This is due to various reasons among which the aggressiveness of the orthodox Jews towards the Christians on one part and the poverty of the Christian communities due to the voluntary exile of the Palestinian intelligentsia. For political reasons the eastern Christian communities forgot their biblical roots to affirm only the difference with the Jews. They suffer from a lack of missionary dynamism and seem to be given in to Muslim fatalism. Notwithstanding everything there are signs of hope among which need to be mentioned is the meeting of the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem with the head rabbis of the holy city.

Such dialogue takes place also at different levels especially in the West

A) As for the daily one, Christians and Jews can and must collaborate to resolve the important problems of the world, like hunger and injustice in the world. Collaboration in the social field remains open, seeing that the same values are taken up by Christianity. Many cases of collaboration on the humanitarian level already exist. This form of collaboration can extend itself into other sectors. The archaeological research in the Holy Land, for example, remains an open field where Christians and Jews can meet each other to dialogue about certain data.

B) At the level of theological reflection the Church will have to integrate her past, recognize her shortcomings and serenely face serious talk. This does not mean that Catholicism will have to abandon the Fathers of the Church, her tradition, in order to uniquely rediscover the Jewish tradition. A few Fathers of the Church dialogued in the past with the Jews. Just think of Justin, Origin and Jerome. Origin is witness in particular of a dialogue begun with a critical reading of the sacred text.

The Fathers of the Church, when they reflected on the mystery of Israel, loved to recover the scriptural image of the explorers sent by Moses into the land of Canaan who, reaching the valley of Escol, cut a branch with a bunch of grapes. Because of its immense dimensions, it was carried with a pole by two men who rested it on their shoulders (Numbers 13:23). In the wood from which hangs the bunch, the Fathers of the Church recognized the Cross on which hangs Christ, bunch of the new vine. In the two carriers of the pole, they saw the Church in the person who is in back and Israel in the one who precedes him. Both of them are walking toward the same goal, united by the same hope, but the first, even though leading the way sees neither the bunch nor the Church, while the Church, the second, sees the older brother in the light of Christ crucified.

The mission of the Church and of Israel is to walk together, participating in the same fatigue of bringing to the world the suffering servant who is the Savior: "By his wounds we are healed." Walking means not stopping, moving forward and progressing. A name of early Christianity was "the way." Judaism also insists on the halakah, that is on the way of walking. The faith of Israel and of the Church must ignite in the pagans the desire to take part in the heritage to be able to eat the fruit of the vine. Walking in diversity and awareness of a duality is not easy. It must be lived in reciprocal respect, in the mutual witness of the one God and in awaiting the fulfillment of the promises. The mystery of Israel speaks like this to the Church in all her richness and the testimony of the believers in Christ offers to Judaism a positive stimulus to walk in an ever-more faithful manner in the ways of the living God.

The idea of a reconciliation in the making, rather than complete, surpasses every pretense of substitution according to which the Church would have taken the place of Israel in the plan of salvation. Israel, in the measure in which it maintains the faith of its Fathers and brings the name of God to the world, remains testimony of the election and of the promises of God. God does not regret his promises. The covenant will not be revoked even if it is not fully complete. The Church, which is not the Kingdom, remains the people of God constituted in the covenant concluded in the blood of Christ, covenant open to the pagans like the Jews. There is only one salvific design, but different covenants, from the covenant established with Noah to that of Abraham until that sealed forever in the redemption of Christ. There is only one fundamental structure of the dialogue between God and his people. This last one is called to a response of love to the Lord of the covenant. Paul recalls in the letter to the Ephesians 2:14: "He is our peace, he who made of the two one people only." Christ created in himself of the two only one new man, making peace for the far and the near. The far are the pagans and the near Israel.

The Church must recognize that Israel is the root that carries and grounds her. Without the faith in the one God taught by Jesus to the Christians, the Church would not have anything original to propose to the world. To recognize the importance of the roots means opening herself up to the life that rises through the roots until giving the fruits on the tree.

The way of reconciliation to become an authentic dialogue cannot bear on the part of Christians a loss of identity. These must present to the Jews their brother Jesus that they did not recognize in his first coming, but who they will recognize when he comes in glory. The Fathers, to explain the rejection of Israel, always referred themselves to Joseph, son of Jacob, sold by his brothers. Joseph was not recognized by his brothers when they went down to Egypt for the first time. They recognized him the second time.

C) A last level of such dialogue could be the level of spirituality. The mutual prayer between members of the various religions inaugurated by Pope John Paul II in Assisi opened the way to a spirituality of dialogue that can be translated concretely. At the airport of Roissy an "espace religiuex" permits Jews, Muslims and Christians to pray in an identical geographic space. The Christian chapel, the synagogue and the mosque maintain their characteristics, but being one next to the other reminds he who prays that other brothers pray in a different mode.

The spiritual dimension of Jewish-Christian dialogue is much richer. A mutual reflection helps to understand how man becomes the maker of his own destiny. Divine silence is condition of the possibilities of human existence. And from nothing, from the night, that is from the silence of God, from his leaving space to the created life can emerge the freedom of man. In this empty space man is called by God. Promise, vocation and hope are constitutive of the dimension of the silence of man. Even today Job continues with his questions about the enigma of time and suffering. Notwithstanding the silence of God and the delayed response of man, the hope against every hope is permitted. In the search and continuous effort of man are the possibility of ransoming his own existential sense, his own exile. Heschel used to affirm: "The supreme question is not to be or not to be, but the mystery of being, therefore the surprise, the awe of man." Such awe corresponds to the capacity of listening and relating. The sensitive experience is not only the beginning of a rational process, it becomes a road which opens up towards transcendence. Jewish-Christian dialogue, being an experience of reciprocal listening, can also open this spiritual dimension.

Dialogue or negotiation?

The dialogue between Jews and Christians, that often has a political dimension, cannot reduce itself to negotiation nor to simple compromise. Negotiation situates itself in a relationship of forces and divergent interests. It does not exclude the threat and manipulation of the interlocutor. Dialogue demands an authentic relationship between adult people that respect each other as such. It demands that each one have his identity and that the other be treated on par with himself. It does not deal with seeing who is the winner or the loser, but of walking together. So for the problem of the bond between Israel and its land, it is necessary to have the courage to do a critical study of the pluralistic Judaism of the first century when the Essenes identified the land with their community, Philon with wisdom and the Pharisees with eternal life. So it is for the problem of Jerusalem that has an evident political dimension. Just recall the expression of the worn-out Isaiah: "My house will be called, a house of prayer for all peoples" (Isaiah 56:7).

In the Holy Land the initiatives intended to favor dialogue are multiplying, even if the mentality of the status quo has fossilized a few generations. The Custody of the Holy Land has been practicing a form of dialogue at the daily level of schools for centuries. Permitting young Muslims and Christians to study together means opening their minds to a reciprocal respect. All the children of Abraham must meet each other to avoid the resurgence of fundamentalism that is based on the fear of the other. The history of Spain shows that such dialogue between Muslims, Jews and Christians was possible.

Dialogue and truth

The rapid evolution of the world always renders more problematic and difficult accepting the pretense of religions in possessing all the truth. The truth must be done living in charity. He who does the truth comes to the light. The political dimension however must be detached from the religious dimension if arriving at a solution of the problems is desired. Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, had the courage to write: "The historic religions have the tendency to become an end in themselves, of substituting God. Nothing is more capable of obscuring the face of God than a religion...Everyone must renounce the pretense of being the only dwelling of God on the earth and accept being the dwelling of men animated by the same image of God, a house open towards the outside." André Neher, another Jewish philosopher, was accustomed to affirm: "Every faith interrogates the certainty of the other and helps it to be modest, to insert itself in the lines of the space of humanity." Such is the program of the dialogue between Jews and Christians for the new millennium.

A sapiential dimension present in Judaism and Christianity will help much to melt the problems of dialogue. Learning such a dimension Jews and Christians will be able to walk in unison and diversity that respects the other. A silent prayer must open any kind of dialogue. Given that the memories of many Jews are still traumatized from the memory of the Shoah, it is important to begin dialogue listening to music, seeing that music possesses a therapeutic virtue. The success of dialogue between the children of Abraham will be a criteria to verify the possibility of dialogue between the great world religions. Without a common language at this level, a dialogue on a more extended scale is unthinkable. The fundamental problem of dialogue remains the formation of youth and the manner of presenting the different religions in school manuals. The youth are the future of society and will continue the dialogue tomorrow, or they will block it according to that which the adults have planted in their minds.


The whole Bible is nothing other than the dialogue of God with man. God speaks because he wants to enter into covenant and communion with his creature. If God is the model of dialogue, the Jew and the Christian, who read the Word of God to find there light and hope, must also open themselves up to dialogue. It is not possible to dialogue only with the God that one cannot see if one refuses to dialogue with his brother that he does see.

The future of dialogue between Judaism and Christianity at the theological level should conclude with a council in which the Church places up front her past, seriously examining the scriptures and clearly defining its relations with Israel. Such a council will not be called Vatican III but Jerusalem II. But like every council it must be prepared not only by theologians. To avoid divisions in the popular mentality it is necessary to prepare the people. The leaders of the Jewish communities and the Christian communities must prepare a climate of dialogue, of respect that will permit tomorrow such a meeting without causing additional divisions. A dialogue cannot be one-way, even if one shows more conviction than the other. A visit of the Pope in Israel concluded at the foot of Sinai to remind the world of the mutual values between Jews and Christians could be an optimal preparation for such a council.

Frédéric Manns

Created / Updated Monday, March 06, 2000 at 13:23:28