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December 28, 2002

Its about time

Catholicism is beginning to embrace Judaism

YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI says "generations of persecution have conditioned Jews to see the Vatican as an enemy. It is time for Jews to recognize how much the Church has changed and to take yes for an answer."

He recounts on entering a monastery in Poland filled with young men,
Their eager smiles tried to reassure me: We are desperate to learn about the missing Jewish piece of our being. For two hours they asked me all those questions forbidden under communism and now not just possible but urgent - about Hassidism and Zionism and the Jewish contemplative tradition. And with the concern of those who themselves lived in a difficult geography, they wanted to know how Israel could survive surrounded by enemies.

When I asked them about Jozef Cardinal Glemp, the head of the Polish church who was inciting anti-Semitism in his defense of the Auschwitz convent, one monk replied delicately: "We think he doesn't always know what he's saying."

Since that transformative encounter, my connection with Christian communities, especially in Israel, has intensified. I discovered remarkable groups living among us and working to deepen the Christian world's relationship with the Jewish people. And as Christians this week celebrate the birth of their faith in this land, Israeli Jews have an opportunity to learn about that largely invisible Christian presence.

Few Israelis, for example, know about the Beatitudes, an international community of monks and nuns who pray in Hebrew and celebrate Jewish holidays. They even fast on Yom Kippur, embodying the New Testament's insistence that Christians are a branch grafted onto the olive tree of Israel. Few Israelis know about the Sisters of Sion, which began as an order praying for the conversion of Jews to Christianity and which has now in effect reversed its "mission" and is helping bring Judaic teachings to the Church. Or the Urfeld Circle, which links German Catholics and Israeli kibbutzniks in ongoing dialogue. Or "Bat Kol," a Catholic group whose name is taken from the talmudic expression for a heavenly voice, and which brings theology students from around the world to Jerusalem to study the weekly Torah cycle, complete with rabbinic commentaries.

These groups are only the most prominent expression of the theological transformation occurring within much of Christianity, especially the Catholic Church. In recent decades, the Church has not only neutralized its traditional teaching of contempt toward Judaism and the Jewish people, but effectively reversed it, no longer seeing the Jews as cursed but blessed.

When the pope made his pilgrimage to the Western Wall in March 2000, the media focused on the apology for anti-Semitism contained in the note he placed between the stones. But the real story was the wording of that message: The pope referred to the Jews as "the people of the covenant," repudiating 2,000 years of supersessionism, Christianity's insistence that the blessings of the covenant were no longer valid for the "old Israel" and had been usurped by the Church. Now, though, the Church was reversing one of its seminal doctrines and insisting that two parallel covenants could coexist, one for Christians, one for Jews.

The shift is hardly confined to obscure doctrine. Its message is regularly preached in Catholic churches and taught in Catholic schools and seminaries, creating the potential, as one monk in Jerusalem said to me, for the transformation of the Church from the central point of hatred for the Jews to the central point of love for them.

One concrete result is the repudiation of Catholic missionizing toward Jews.

Though the process began after the Holocaust, the suspension of missionary activity was at first unspoken: The Church understood the vulgarity of missionizing among a survivor people, but lacked a coherent theological justification for its restraint. Now, though, increasing voices within the Church are making the non-missionizing policy theologically explicit. For if God's covenant with the Jews has never been revoked, then the survival of the Jewish people as an independent entity must be part of His plan.

And a remarkable document on Christian-Jewish relations recently issued by an American group of interdenominational Christian scholars states: "In view of our conviction that Jews are in an eternal covenant with God, we renounce missionary efforts directed at converting Jews. If Jews, who do not share our faith in Christ, are in a saving covenant with God, then Christians need new ways of understanding the universal significance of Christ."

Together, these revolutionary changes form the most extraordinary religious story of our time: the process of healing humanity's deepest religious wound. No religion has ever challenged its own negative theology toward another faith as profoundly as have Catholicism and parts of Protestantism.

Surely no religion has had a greater need to atone. But the capacity of Christianity for teshuva - the Hebrew word invoked by the Catholic Church in describing its process of reconciliation with the Jews - says much for its spiritual integrity and vitality. .

After decades of relentless Christian self-examination of their theology of contempt, it's time for Jewish soul-searching as well. The rabbinic ban on even stepping inside a church may have made sense at a time when Jews were a vulnerable minority resisting a voracious and triumphalist Christianity; it is offensive when Jews are once again a sovereign people living in its own land - and responsible for the first time for a Christian minority.

That is only the most glaring example of an embedded Jewish hostility to Christianity. Of course there is no comparison between the historical consequences of Christian and Jewish contempt for each other's faiths; and Jewish anti-Christianity was an expression of psychological self-defense. But no longer. Creating a healthy Israeli Judaism freed from ghettoization depends in part on creating a new Jewish relationship with Christianity. More.
This is great news. We must come together in brotherly love rather than sibling rivalry. We have much in common and little to divide us.