Analyses of Documents and Statements
- Created: October 28, 2002
- Written by Michael A. Signer
Michael A. Signer, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, is one of the four Jewish authors of Dabru Emet, A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity, published in 2000. He presented this paper at the first annual meeting of the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations in Baltimore.
It is my purpose, according to my original intention to gather together various sayings of the holy Fathers which have occurred to me as being surrounded by some degree of uncertainty because of their seeming incompatibility. These may encourage inexperienced readers to engage in that most important exercise, enquiry into truth and as a result of that enquiry give an edge to their critical faculty. For consistent or frequent questioning is defined as the first key to wisdom….For by doubting we come to enquiry, and by enquiry we perceive the truth.
The authors of Dabru Emet wanted to present to their colleagues and the larger world of interested Jews and Christians a synthesis of their collective thinking and experience. Any attempt to formulate a positive Jewish response to the changes that we believe have occurred in Christian theology during the past decades surely must take into account the paradox that lies at the foundation of this enterprise: These two traditions have defined themselves over against one another for two millennia. How is it possible to avoid the irenicism that would collapse these two traditions into a new amalgam on the one hand or, on the other hand, to be satisfied with an engagement with Christians that repeats the same bromides requiring Christians to clear up their anti-Judaic theology while making no inquiry at all into Judaism?
It seems to me that Abelard’s title provides the most apt point of entry. In Dabru Emet we have maintained a position of Sic et Non---of "yes" and "no"---with respect to both of our communities. We want to affirm the significant theological thinking that SOME Christian communities have achieved. At the same time we negate the notion that Jews can enjoy the richness of their own tradition without theological inquiry. By teaching Jews about Christianity in Jewish terms, the title of the book we edited to appear with the statement, we wanted to promote deeper engagement with Judaism from a new and interesting perspective.
In the paper that follows, I will honor Abelard’s memory by adopting the scholastic form of the Quaestio Disputata (the disputed question) to examine Dabru Emet:
Dabru Emet is written in the rhetorical form of paranesis. That means that the language of Dabru Emet offers its readers both "yes" and "no" about the Christian-Jewish relationship. A paranetic oration offers praise and blame and hope. The authors believe that Dabru Emet are expressed with some element of affirmation and some element of negation. Its concluding statement, "Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace" is not a platitude, but an offer of hope and a path forward from the two millennia of violence and mutual recriminations. offers more than a condemnation of Christian practice, and surely a greater horizon for Jewish self-exploration than a simple praise of Jewish resistance to any single moment wherein Christians open up their tradition to a positive assessment of Judaism. Almost all of the propositions in Dabru Emet are expressed with some element of affirmation and some element of negation. Its concluding statement, "Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace" is not a platitude, but an offer of hope and a path forward from the two millennia of violence and mutual recriminations.
Dabru Emet presents an example of analogical assertion rather than analytical propositions. This sentence is not designed to distance the non-technical reader, but to invite her or him into two distinctive ways of framing an argument. An analogical argument offers the possibilities of "similarities in difference." The analytical proposition argues from a particular premise and moves through a series of logical analyses. That is why some readers miss the point of the assertion, "Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book—the Bible (what Jews call "Tanakh" and Christians call the "Old Testament.") The use of the word "same" is designed to provoke the reader into further inquiry and actually learn about the difference between the sacred books that are carried by each community. It is indeed possible to punctuate every one of the rubric statements of Dabru Emet (as opposed to the explanatory paragraphs) with a period or a question mark. The aim of Dabru Emet is to urge readers to seek out differences between the two communities and then discern the similarities.
- Dabru Emet is an initial statement. The authors of Dabru Emet never meant it to be a pesaq din (a legal decision), a Teshuvah (a rabbinical authoritative response to a query into Jewish practice), or a Fatwa. We hope that there will be other statements made by other Jewish groups about Christians and Christianity. Rabbis in France have been formulating a statement. Jews in Poland have written commentaries on Dabru Emet and promoted further discussion. Under the joint sponsorship of the Center for the Study of Christianity at Hebrew University, Hebrew Union College and the ICCI there was a conference on Dabru Emet with the explicit purpose of articulating a statement that would be appropriate to the situation in Israel.
Non: (Negative criticism—the scholastic "sed contra")
Dabru Emet is part of an interfaith initiative that leads to most pernicious threat facing the Jewish community: marriage between Christians and Jews. Those who hold this position assert that interfaith dialogue promotes mixed marriage. This is surely at the heart of the most sustained article criticizing Dabru Emet by Jon Levenson.
Dabru Emet is a document of political expediency that minimizes the difference between Christianity and Judaism. It hides or obscures the very serious differences which are at the foundation of both communities.
Dabru Emet privileges the Jewish-Christian dialogue above the interreligious dialogue with other traditions such as Buddhism or Hinduism. Those who hold this position would argue that all interreligious dialogues are equal for Jews. They are external to the Jewish tradition, and therefore no tradition should receive priority. Positively put, Jews should be open to all discussions and not pursue the Christian-Jewish dialogue with above any others.
Dabru Emet’s first statement about God is insufficiently clear. It does not articulate how Jews should approach Jesus, nor the Trinity, nor the Incarnation. Prof. David Berger has addressed this issue in the statement he wrote on behalf of the Orthodox Union, and in his paper.
Dabru Emet has articulated the problem of the Holocaust as part of the Jewish-Christian dialogue in an infelicitous or even erroneous formulation. The assertion that "Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon" opens up the possibility that Christians bear no responsibility for the Shoah. In a less elegant formula, many Jews claim that Dabru Emet’s formulation lets "Christians off the hook."
In the tradition of the Quaestio Disputata, I will leave my responses to the end of the paper.
The criticisms of Dabru Emet are all grounded on the premise that nothing has occurred within Christian theological thinking or Churches that would justify the analogical framework of the document. Behind the objections to Dabru Emet is an unarticulated argument that both Judaism and Christianity at their very core are not restricted by temporality. Their articulations of religious truth are not affected by time and place. Each tradition speaks its own unique language, and these two languages defy any possibility of translation. In fact, any act of translation betrays the purity of the tradition. The only acceptable proposition for the relationship between the two communities is," Jacob hates Esau." That sentence states the reality of Christians and Jews for all times.
The authors of Dabru Emet and those who signed it assert that history matters; that there has been a historical change within some Christian communities (not all of them); and that these changes open up new possibilities for dialogue. These changes have been articulated by Church leaders such as Pope John Paul II who has taught both by word and example about the filial relationship between Jews and Christians. There have been statements made by various Churches that indicate a metanoia (a radical change of mind and heart) leading them to make Teshuvah (repent) their deeds of the past and act differently. Anyone who reads the statements by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or the Leuenberg Church Fellowship of Reformation Churches in Europe has solid evidence that a fundamental shift has occurred in theological thinking that will take generations to come toward full formulation. To read the statements of the Jewish-Christian discussion group of the Central Committee of German Catholics is to acknowledge that a profound new possibility for dialogue has occurred in the very land where Cardinal Bertram once spoke about the Jewish community as one "with whom we have nothing in common." Is the fact that a scholar from Catholic University of Lublin in Poland has come to America to study Dabru Emet with the endorsement of his archbishop not evidence that a new spirit is possible even in the land that many Jews consider the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe. I would not deny that the murders took place in Poland, nor would I minimize the continuing problem of anti-Semitism in that country. However, there are some of us who see in that country a new spirit awakening that is open to a sympathetic presentation of Judaism.
Let me conclude my Responsio in the spirit of Isaiah as understood by the first section of the Babylonian Talmud tractate Avodah Zarah, "Let them give their testimony and be justified." The final evidence that a shift in Christian theology is in process comes from the Christian Scholars Group, an ecumenical and voluntary organization of Christians. They have recently issued a statement, A Sacred Obligation that was composed as a response to Dabru Emet. Some of their propositions speak directly to the themes that have been most vexing to Jews. Let me present them as further testimony.
"God’s covenant with the Jews endures forever" This proposition moves to the heart of the issues that arise from Christian supersessionism. For generations the Christian community has asserted that the coming of Jesus Christ offered a new covenant to the world that cancelled the covenant God had made with the Jews. The problem for Christians has not been so much that" Christ lived and died a faithful Jew," but what are the implications of that reality after Christ died? What happened to the Jewish covenant? What happened to the Jewish people? Affirming the eternal reality of the Jewish covenant will have implications for Christian theologians as they continue to think about their eschatology and soteriology.
"Ancient rivalries must not define Jewish-Christian relations today." This sentence appears in the document as a plea for the opposition between Jesus and the Jews in the New Testament. It urges Christians to think of their Scriptures as reflecting not only the realities of the earthly life of Jesus but also the earliest years of the Church. Nostra Aetate in 1965 articulated that "some Jews" participated in the crucifixion of Jesus but that this action did not relate to the Jewish people for all time. A Sacred Obligation restates that theological proposition in less equivocal terms. It is surely necessary for both Jews and Christians to understand ancient rivalries, but to remain locked into those rivalries as essential to the core values of each tradition would be an error. Persecution and ghettoes are part of our past. We carry them with us into the present reality---but many courageous Christian theologians and some Christian Churches are in the long process of Teshuvah. Dabru Emet speaks to that new process and the document of the Christian Scholars group confirms our insights.
"Judaism is enriched by centuries of tradition." While this sentence may seem obvious to Jews, it is a new insight for many Christians. Until recently many Christians thought of Judaism as a static legalistic religion which had not changed since the days of Jesus. Some medieval Christian theologians stated explicitly that "Jews do not change over time" [Judaei cum temporibus non mutantur] Other Christians thought that Judaism was dangerous to Christians because it encouraged heresy. A Sacred Obligation urges Christians to move into new territory and discover that Christianity can be enriched by engagement with Judaism.
"The Bible both separates and connects Jews and Christians." I must admit that this formulation will be more helpful to Christians than the Dabru Emet statement that both communities read the same book. Without offering a defense of Dabru Emet we can observe that the Christian Scholars Group wanted to emphasize the dynamic relationship between the two testaments of the Christian Bible. Previous generations of Christians tended to discern the relationship between the two sets of books as one of promise and fulfillment. Since Christians had the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible, why should they look "backwards?" Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger also has endorsed the idea that the Bible both separates and connects Jews and Christians in his recent writings.The Bible both separates and connects Jews and Christians."
"We affirm the importance of the land of Israel for the life of the Jewish People." In the contemporary climate of rising anti-Semitic rhetoric and concomitant utilization of Christian iconography to depict the relationship between the State of Israel and the Muslim world, this statement is an important affirmation. Surely, there will be continuing disagreement about the direction that a particular Israeli government might take. However, a new theological relationship between Christians and Jews must grapple with the reality of the State of Israel. The Christian Scholars Group does not make an obsequious or apologetic statement. It opens the door to the reality of the importance of the land of Israel for the Jewish people
From the "responsio" it should be clear that the objections to Dabru Emet do not refute the deep reality of the historic change in Christian theology. Nor have Jewish theologians properly considered how the shift from the "teaching of contempt" to the "teaching of respect" will shape their own creative efforts to develop our own tradition. My reading in the literature on intermarriage indicates that most empirical research does not ask whether or not mixed married couples have engaged in sustained interreligious dialogue of a theological nature. In fact, one could make the very opposite argument: Intermarriage occurs where both parties do NOT have a profound sense of their own tradition or the tradition of the other. Dabru Emet may indeed provide the very agenda that couples from different religious traditions should consider prior to their marriage.