Created: November 12, 2008
Written by Philip A. Cunningham
October 21-22, 2007- Iona College, New Rochelle, NY
The View from Here
This meeting began with the traditional "The View from Here" panel in which members from different places report on their local experiences of a current topic. This year's theme was "How Events in the Middle-East Affect Local Jewish-Christian Relations." The panelists were Ronald Simkins from the Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Creighton University in Omaha , Nebraska; James Rudin from the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at St. Leo University in Florida; and Mary Babic of the Sisters of Sion Relation and Encounter in Toronto, Ontario.
Ron Simkins surveyed Christians and Jews in Omaha and reported on three different perspectives on the impact of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute on relations locally: those who say relations are damaged by talk of boycotts or divestment or the "Jewish lobby;" those who feel Christians are selectively critical of Israel; and others who see overseas conflict as distracting from building positive relations locally. He noted that Christians tended to distinguish between the State of Israel and the Jewish religion more than Jewish respondents, and that Christians often do not understand Jewish connectedness to history in general and to Israel in particular. He noted that there can be a temptation in local dialogues to avoid painful topics or the accusation of antisemitism, but also that the overseas conflicts can prompt a desire for more interreligious dialogue, including with Muslims. He concluded with the story of property now being shared west of Omaha among a synagogue, an Episcopal church, and a mosque, intended as a deliberate response to conflicts overseas.
Jim Rudin described a question posed in west Florida to Jews and Christians: "What does ‘ Israel ' mean to you?" Christian responses referred to perfection, the people of the Bible, the fulfillment by the church, and metaphysical concepts, whereas Jewish responses referred to the Land, the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and concrete, flesh-and-blood realities. He declared that Christians and Jews cannot authentically encounter each other without modern Israel being at the center of the conversation, especially sixty years after the foundation of the nation of Israel . He recommended the recent book by Michael B. Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present which shows that American interest in the Middle-East for religious reasons goes back to the 19th and even 18th centuries. He then outlined three Christian approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today: (1) the Niebuhr/Flannery approach: justice and morality should be the basis for Christian support of Israel, especially given the history of Christian antisemitism; (2) an anti-Zionism, antisemitic, supersessionist approach that compares Judaism to the discarded first-stage of a rocket that has sent Christianity into heavenly orbit; and (3) an Israel, My Beloved approach (the title of a novel by Kay Arthur) based on the biblical formula that those who bless Israel are blessed by God.
Mary Babic recounted three sets of Canadian experiences from Toronto, Saskatoon, and Ontario. In Toronto, Christian-Jewish relations were disrupted when the Canadian Jewish Congress pulled out of dialogues after feeling a lack of Christian support during the first Intifada. After the second Intifada, the dialogue was seen as a forum to help Christians understand Jewish perspectives. Baptists withdrew for a time during this period, but the personal ties that had been formed allowed interfaith work to continue. In Saskatoon, a multi-faith approach that includes Muslims is preferred. A TV show "Little Mosque on the Prairie" is set here. There have been repeated interruptions of interfaith social efforts, sometimes due to Middle-East conflicts, but a peace and reconciliation effort between Jews and Muslims is now proceeding. In Ontario, a resolution in an association of Catholic school teachers to divest from Israel was very disturbing. Mary concluded by describing that Catholics can often feel that they are "standing in the broken spot" among conflicting sides, with only faith being capable of holding multiple paradoxes together.
Christian-Jewish Relations and the Defining Reality of the Land of Israel for Jews
As is customary for the CCJR, a portion of the meeting is open to the general public. Thus, the CCJR, Iona College, and the Westchester county chapter of the American Jewish Committee cosponsored a pair of lectures on the centrality of the Land of Israel for Jews. The speakers were Richard Lux, professor of scripture studies at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Yehezkel Landau, faculty associate in interfaith relations at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut.
Yehezkel Landau approached the topic as an observant Jew asking the questions, "Does the covenant between God, Jews, and the Land privilege Jewish claims to territory?" and "How can the holiness of the Land be shared?" Embracing what he called a "Religious, Zionist, peace perspective," he understood the Land of Israel as the location of a divinely chosen experiment for a project of consecration to holiness, a laboratory for holy living.
He explored the contours of this experiment in four dimensions that are based on both the four pardes approaches of Jewish biblical interpretation and the four worlds of Kabalistic mysticism. First is the literal or physical aspect in which Eretz Yisrael is experienced as the "natural habitat" of Jews, who feel in exile elsewhere. On this physical level, there is a temptation for the Land to become an end in itself for Jews rather than of service to God, a sort of "territoriolatry," but there is also the reality of Jew-hatred or modern "Amalekism" that poses a real threat. Second is the "process of formation" dimension, which recognizes that Israel's stories are not the only stories and that Israel's chosenness is distinctive, but not exclusive. In terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict this perspective would recognize that both peoples belong to the Land and not the Land to the people. Landau saw a consequent obligation to share the Land as a "macro-mitzvah," and in this context recalled the kabalistic concept of tzim tzum, spiritual contraction. The third dimension, that which considers external causal forces that affect the Land, leads to a consideration of the peoples on the Land as "suffering servant peoples," both of whom have been victims. There is a thus a mystery present in their history that should lead them to share Jerusalem as the epicenter of this history. Finally, the fourth dimension is the mystical level. Here Landau discussed the implications of this four-fold schema for Christian-Jewish relations. He argued that the spiritual and political realms cannot be separated if there is to be peace and if the Land is to fulfill its destiny as a laboratory for holy living. The idolatries of nationalism and territorialism need to give way in a new era of interreligious harmony. In this regard, the prayer of John Paul II at the Western Wall was seen as "a meta-historical moment" that calls Christians to be in dual solidarity with Jews and Muslims so as to reconcile the world under the sovereignty of God.
Richard Lux discussed how the various ways in which Christians view biblical texts drive their attitudes toward Jews and the State of Israel. For Catholics, the texts of the so-called "Old Testament" have their own validity, especially with the recent recognition that the Jewish covenant with God is unrevoked. This led Lux to ask, "Is there an essential territorial dimension to Judaism, or is it accidental or peripheral?"
On the one hand, he explained, the idea of the holiness of land or space is not unique to Israel, being a concept found in many cultures. However, promises regarding the Land are so central in the Bible that they are reinterpreted in rather distinct ways over and over again in the different biblical sources. Particularly unique to Israel's self-understanding is the idea that the Land is God's possession that is leased to Israel with certain attendant duties. Lux surveyed various biblical sources, J, E, D, P, and prophetic materials to illustrate the correctness of Von Rad's claim that "land is the most important element in the redemption Israel's experiences." Noting the difference between conditional and unconditional promises about the Land made in these diverse sources, he argued that these differences are occasioned by the circumstances of the authors: texts expressing absolute promises were produced when in exile, while conditional texts arose during times of perceived invincibility.
Turning to the Christian Scriptures, Lux reviewed the Pauline writings and the four Gospels. He observed their different emphases on the subject of the Land, noting a general tendency for the increasingly Gentile churches to become less interested in the topic. After a brief description of the importance of pilgrimages to the land where Christ walked in Christian history, he observed that many pilgrims reported an especially powerful feeling of Christ's presence when they celebrated the Eucharist in Israel. He concluded that Christians might call upon the principle of sacramentality to account for this experience. For Christians, the Holy Land is a sacrament of their encounter with Christ, an encounter that in no way invalidates or supersedes Jewish experiences of the Land.
CCJR Panel Responses to Yehezkel Landau and Richard Lux
After dinner, the CCJR meeting resumed with a "members only" discussion of the public presentations on "The Defining Reality of the Land." Prepared remarks by Rosann Catalano of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore, Maryland, Gary Greenebaum of the American Jewish Committee, and Peter Petit from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania were followed by a general discussion among all those present.
Rosann Catalano felt that Lux's comments on sacramentality raised some concerns. First, in Catholic theology, sacraments participate in the transcendent realities to which they point. How would this work in regard to the Land? Second, is there a danger in a Christian "spiritualizing" of the Land? Would an emphasis on the Land's mediating Christ's presence not turn Israel into a sort of Christian museum? Finally, she asked both presenters if they were operating with different understandings of holiness. She suspected that Landau's "laboratory for holy living" was very different from Lux's " Holy Land."
Gary Greenebaum, participating in his first CCJR meeting, began by observing the great value of such "think tank" opportunities. He thanked both presenters for their remarks, but wondered how practical they were. He noted that Pope Paul VI went to the " Holy Land" but that Pope John Paul II went to " Israel." He felt more consideration of this important change was needed. Greenebaum concluded with a moving anecdote about witnessing a church group's profound response to being able to literally walk in Jesus' footsteps on the Temple Mount southern stairs. This pointed to both similarities and differences in Christian and Jewish affective spiritual engagement with the Land.
Peter Pettit first addressed some remarks to Lux. He pointed to a footnote's citation of Robert Wilken's observation that people interpret the significance of the Land in order to make predetermined points. Wilken had also argued that what made the Holy Land "holy" was the "holy people" (i.e. Christians) who live there. This supersessionist potential, Pettit feared, was present in Lux's comments about the Land as sacramentally mediating Christ's presence. What ends are Christians pursuing in applying sacramentality to the Land in this way? Pettit also asked if a Zionist orthodoxy was a thread running through Lux's presentation. Do all Jews have to go to the Land according to the biblical centrality of the Land? Pettit suggested that perhaps the language of " Land of Promise" would be more useful than " Holy Land."
Pettit asked Landau if the "subjects" have to accept their role consciously or buy into the notion of Israel as a laboratory for holiness in order for the experiment to be valid. The large proportion of "secular" Israelis would seem to make this experimental metaphor problematic. He also wondered if Landau's plea for religious considerations to be integrated into Middle Eastern political negotiations would really be desirable, especially given the separation of church and state in the USA. This perhaps pointed to the need for a new post-modern paradigm of this separation. He concluded by asking if there is a qualitative difference between Israel and the rest of the world regarding holiness. What does it mean to "share holiness"? How do Christians and Jews translate their idiomatic understandings of holiness in conversation with each other?
Petit ended his response by noting that most people for whom Christians do theology will never go to Israel. Therefore, the goal of Christian theology should be less in promoting a Christian piety toward the Land but rather to build greater respect among Christians for Jews.
These and other insights were explored in a rich and lively conversation that ensued. The exchange served to bring to light many of the complex aspects of the topic of the meaning of the Land for Jews and Christians.
CCJR Roundtable and Business Meeting
The second day of the annual meeting began with a roundtable discussion on the role of the CCJR in matters of public discourse or controversy that affect Christian-Jewish relations. During the conversation, distinctions were made between making private inquiries, offering private advice, issuing public declarations, and providing educational resources on matters of current import. It was generally agreed that the CCJR Board should establish a sub-committee to draft principles and procedures for such external activities by the Board or entire membership of the Council.
The business meeting attended to CCJR structural and financial matters, as well as future activities. Although the Council is a relatively young society, it has clearly developed to the point that its own autonomy and infrastructure must be prioritized. There was a call for papers for the CCJR's official journal, Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations, especially to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the State of Israel in 2008. Also noteworthy was the admission of four new regular member organizations to the Council: the Center for Christian-Jewish Dialogue in Colorado Springs, the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions at the University of Wisconsin, the Center for the Study of Values and Violence after Auschwitz at Florida Atlantic University, and the Holocaust Education Resource Center at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey. This brings the total number of regular members to thirty-one centers or institutes in the United States and Canada, five affiliate members overseas, and four liaison representatives from religious or civic bodies. In addition, sixteen persons joined under the new individual membership category established by the CCJR at its last annual meeting.
The CCJR's sixth annual meeting was thus a great success. All the members expressed enormous thanks to Prof. Elena Procario Foley, the Driscoll Professor in Jewish-Catholic Studies at Iona College, for her tremendous dedication and work on the Council's behalf both as chair and as host of the annual meeting.