The latter half of the 20th century saw a wholesale re-evaluation of the Christian attitude toward Jews and Judaism, revolutionizing relations between the two religions. Brought on by the horrors of the Holocaust and the embrace of pluralism and diversity as positive values, Christian theologians have repudiated or reinterpreted age-old beliefs that led to anti-Jewish violence throughout the centuries.
While differences between the two faith communities still exist, for the first time in history Jews today have a reasonable expectation that these differences will be addressed through interfaith dialogue rather than the violence of the past.
The state of Jewish-Christian relations varies from group to group, but some general trends do emerge from examining the ways that Jews and Christians interact today:
– The Holocaust profoundly affected the ways that Christians from across the theological spectrum think about and interact with Jews. After World War II, Christians were forced to confront their religion’s role in helping make possible the demonization of Jews to such a great degree that slaughtering Jews en-masse could take place. Anti-Jewish theology, which had for two millennia pervaded Christian thought, has been largely eliminated, such as the belief that Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus (known as deicide). In addition, the role of Christian rescuers–people whose faith led them to risk their lives by hiding or otherwise saving Jews–provides a meaningful link between Jews and Christians. However, the role of Christians and Christianity in perpetuating the Holocaust remains a point of contention between the two religions.
– Israel — specifically, different Christian groups’ stances toward the Jewish state and its policies — is a major factor in interfaith relations. This is straining old friendships between Jews and liberal Christians while drawing Jews closer to conservative Christians with whom they have historically been at odds.
– As Jews and Christians intermarry with increasing frequency, especially in the United States, families are becoming more familiar with the religions to which their relatives adhere. Although intermarriage produces tensions and conflicts, anecdotal evidence suggests it also produces learning opportunities: When Christians join Jewish families, they get to know Jewish people and Judaism in a more personal way that often helps shatter stereotypes or anti-Jewish feelings they may have had. Jews, of course, have the same experience vis-à-vis their new Christian families.
– Christians in recent years have become increasingly interested in exploring the life of Jesus, which has led many Christians to a more profound and heartfelt respect for the religion of Jesus, Judaism. Learning about Jesus, for many Christians, inherently involves learning about Judaism, for Jesus was a practicing Jew. Christian theologians today tend to emphasize the close relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The centuries-old belief in supercessionism–that Christianity superceded, or replaced, Judaism–has been rejected by theologians from across the Christian spectrum .
Jews, for their part, have not ignored the changes in Christianity. In 2000, a transdenominational group of Jewish rabbinic and academic leaders issued a statement called Dabru Emet, “Speak the Truth.” In it, they acknowledged the efforts of Christians to improve interfaith relations and called on Jews to learn about and likewise affirm the positive changes. The statement listed eight points on which Jews and Christians could base dialogue, including “Jews and Christians worship the same God,” and “a new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice.” Tellingly, though, it was a statement about the Holocaust that generated the most controversy from the Jewish community: “Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon.”
Among the many changes instituted in Catholicism as part of the monumental Second Vatican Council in the 1960s was the declaration Nostra Aetate (“In Our Time”), which formally rejects the charge of deicide, “decries hatred, persecution, displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by any one,” and calls for “mutual respect and knowledge” between Catholics and Jews.
It was, however, John Paul II’s papacy that redefined the relationship between Catholics and Jews. John Paul II (who was elected pontiff in 1978) became the first pope since ancient times to visit a synagogue; established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel; visited Israel in 2000; and issued a sweeping apology for past Church “sins.” He has spoken often of the kinship he sees between the two religions, saying that without Judaism, Christianity could not have come into being.
Many lingering Catholic-Jewish tensions revolve around the Holocaust. In his apology, many Jews were upset that the pope failed to mention the Holocaust specifically. The pope also has taken steps to make the wartime Pope Pius XII into a saint; many Jewish leaders and scholars believe Pius XII could have–but chose not to–do much more to save Jews and stop the genocide.
Sainthood has also been a point of tension in other cases. In one instance the pope named as saint Edith Stein, a Jewish convert who died in the Holocaust, angering Jews who felt that Stein died because she was a Jew, not a Catholic Tension also centers around the limited access Jewish leaders and scholars have had to Vatican archives which may contain records shedding light on the Church’s role in the Holocaust. Jewish leaders and scholars are seeking permission to delve into the vast Vatican archives to shed light on the Church’s role in the Holocaust and more generally in Jewish-Catholic relations throughout the centuries. The Vatican has resisted such broad access to its historical records, but negotiations are continuing.
Mainline Protestants and Jews
For much of the 20th century, Jewish-Christian relations in the United States were defined mostly as the growing affinity between Reform Jews and liberal “mainline” Protestants, which includes, among others, Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Mainline Protestants and liberal Jews alike adhered to liberal religious, social, and political values and embraced modernist belief in human progress. Closer relations with Jews were part of mainline Protestants’ growing acceptance of what would later be known as “multiculturalism” and their redefinition of America as a more than just a Christian nation. The relationship between mainline Protestants and liberal Jews remains strong today, especially when it comes to domestic political lobbying and social action issues.
But in recent years, the ties have been strained over the issue of Israel. Liberal Protestants tend to condemn Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians; though they also condemn terrorism, many Jews feel that Protestant critics of Israel do not understand or sympathize with the big-picture political issues or the suffering of Israeli civilians. Protestant opposition to Israeli policies has been especially sharp in Europe, where there is greater support for movements seen as anti-colonial, including the Palestinian cause.
Over the last two decades of the 20th century, conservative Protestants became the culturally and politically dominant force in American Protestantism. It is with these evangelicals that today’s Jews have the most complicated and surprising relationship.
There are sharp points of disagreement between Jews and conservative Christians. Though evangelical theologians have rejected deicide and supercessionism charges, long-held beliefs die hard, and the writings of theologians don’t always trickle down to the pews, leading to occasional conflicts. In one period of 2001, the issue was repeatedly in the news when various public personalities were denounced by Jewish leaders for anti-Jewish statements; among those in the midst of the furor were a basketball player and a comic-strip creator, neither of them, of course, theologians or spokespeople for Christianity.
Evangelicals’ belief that Christ provides the only way to salvation leads to what is perhaps the sharpest and most emotional wedge between them and Jews: proselytism.
In the 1990s, tensions flared between Jews and Southern Baptists–the largest Protestant denomination in the United States–when the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) announced plans for renewed evangelism of Jews. The SBC later issued a booklet with advice on proselytizing to Jews during the High Holiday period. Organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League denounced the booklet and the idea that any religion can have a monopoly on truth and salvation
More troublesome to many Jews is the growth of so-called Messianic Jewish communities. Messianic Jews observe Jewish customs and rituals but believe in “Yeshua” (Jesus) as the Messiah, a belief anathema to mainstream Judaism. Most Jews do not consider Messianic Jews to be Jewish, while the evangelical world embraces them, often referring to them as Jewish Christians. The establishment of Messianic synagogues/churches in heavily Jewish cities and neighborhoods, such as Brooklyn, N.Y., and those groups’ proselytism directly to Jews has inflamed tensions.
However, despite strains like these, evangelicals and Jews have forged an alliance over the issue of Israel. Because of their theological beliefs and conservative political leanings, evangelicals are strongly and vocally supportive of Israel, and are in many cases more hawkish than American Jewish Zionists. In evangelical eschatological theology, Jews are to establish a Jewish state in Israel as a precursor to the end-times; those Jews will then convert to Christianity, though that eventuality is less remarked upon publicly by Jews or Christians.
Given evangelicals’ power within the Republican party and flagging support for Israel among political and religious liberals, conservative Christians’ support for the Jewish state has proven valuable to the American-Israeli alliance. In addition, as Orthodox Jewish institutions increasingly emphasize political lobbying and other public roles, they often find themselves in synch with evangelical Christians on other political and social issues as well.
None of the issues that have separated Jews and Christians have disappeared entirely; change is evolutionary, especially when dealing with age-old religious beliefs. But the changes in the Jewish-Christian relationship since the postwar years bode well for a future in which these religious “cousins” can live together peacefully, with a level of mutual respect unknown until now.