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Shalom: Jewish-Christian Dialogue at the Saint Thomas More Center

By Timothy Sommer ’13 M.Div.

On Oct. 24-25, scholars gathered on the Yale campus to navigate the difficult terrain of Christian and Jewish theological discourse.  But organizers of the gathering that featured presentation of a dozen learned papers on topics like “The Antinomian Threat of Human Flourishing” and “Covenant, Mission and Relation to the Other in Rabbinic Perspective” also made room for a presentation more accessible to the general public: “Christians and Jews in Today’s Word.”

Conference photo 1All were part of a conference entitled New Frontiers in Christian-Jewish Theology cosponsored by Yale Divinity School, the Yale Program in Judaic Studies, and the Institute for Theological Inquiry.  ITI is a division of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, an Orthodox Jewish institution based in Israel.

Leading the special presentation, explicitly aimed at the broader Yale and New Haven communities and held at The Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale, were Rabbi Eugene Korn, an Orthodox Jew and director of the Institute for Theological Inquiry, and Mary Boys, a Catholic professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Korn highlighted what he termed “three essential issues” that should be on the agenda between Jews and Christians today:  the fundamental need to better understand one another; the State of Israel; and common moral values that Jews and Christians share.

The need for better understanding is great on both sides, according to Korn.  For many Christians, he argued, Judaism is an ancient biblical and theological category divorced from the human reality of actually knowing and talking to Jews. Likewise, Korn noted that many of the average, educated Orthodox Jews he knows have never had a serious conversation about religion with a Christian—and that their understanding of Christians and Christianity derives from a medieval stereotype the same way a great deal of Christians associate Jews with the Pharisees in the Gospels.

Korn worried that both Christians and Jews tend to live in an “echo-chamber” where “our religious discourse often is only with people who agree with us.” The positive and affirming changes that the Catholic Church made towards Jews at Vatican II are largely unknown and unheard at the level of the pew. Because of the disconnect between academic theology and everyday believers, Korn insists, an enormous amount of education needs to take place to make Christians better Christians and Jews better Jews.

Conference Photo 2Conversion of Jews to Christianity is not high on the agenda of most churches, Korn believes, either theologically or as a practical matter.  Overcoming that has helped reverse the historically antagonistic relationship between Christians and Jews, Korn observed, and has opened up the opportunity for each group to have more positive, appreciative attitudes toward the another.

According to Korn, many Christians do not understand that the state of Israel is not only a political interest to Jews, but of existential import as well. When the state of Israel is threatened, “most Jews, serious Jews” personally feel threatened, he said, insisting that the State of Israel is bound to the hope and the identity of Jews.  But Korn acknowledged, “This does not mean one cannot legitimately criticize policies of the state of Israel.”  He warned against severe anti-Zionist criticism because it can easily slip into, or justify, anti-Semitism. Korn was also quick to insist that the suffering of the Palestinians is a moral imperative that Jews and Christians alike must respond to.  “Misunderstanding around the State of Israel is probably the central tinderbox for the breakdown of Jewish-Christian discussion,” he suggested.

The need to bear witness to the common moral values that Jews and Christians share is also of paramount importance, in Korn’s opinion. Neither Christianity nor Judaism is reconcilable with an ethic of absolute materialistic secularism, he said, nor is the Judeo-Christian belief that humans have an intrinsic value as children of God compatible with the conception that humans have a purely utilitarian value.

Both Jews and Christians must oppose violent, religious intolerance and provide an alternative moral conscious for today, according to Korn, who insisted that both Christians and Jews see themselves as children of Abraham who define themselves in terms of ethics and action, justice and righteousness. Seeing the world through a messianic lens, he argued, means that Jews and Christians share a “hope in the possibility of a peaceful humanity, however irrational it may seem at times.”

Mary Boys highlighted recent developments between Judaism and Christianity. In terms of the past 50 years, Boys praised Catholicism and the major Protestant traditions for repudiating Christianity’s anti-Semitic history and for refuting the accusation that Jews are responsible for killing the Son of God.

Conference Photo 3Catholics and Lutherans have been the most deliberate about reconciling their theology and practices with Judaism, Boys said, in large part because they had the worst relationship with Judaism in the past. Despite the great changes enacted at the institutional level, Boys acknowledged that it is hardly the case that a majority of Catholics and Protestants at the local level have achieved such an enlightened approach. Consequently, Boys sees her position as a sort of “mission to the Christians.” “When I think of proselytizing,” she said, “I think of proselytizing my own—that is, teaching people the very important changes in the way we understand ourselves as Catholics, in relation to Jews.”

On the question of the State of Israel, Boys pointed out that throughout North America and Europe the groups that are most pro-Zionist are the evangelical and conservative churches. More liberal Christian churches, on the other hand, tend to be more critical of the State of Israel, she observed.  And the closer one gets to the Middle East, where certain Christian traditions stand in relation to Israel is almost entirely dependent on their geographic location and personal history, Boys suggested.

Boys referenced the existential threat that Korn raised earlier, calling it “a two way street” that makes Christians living in the Middle East just as threatened existentially as Jews in the region are. “While I hope Christianity is not dying out in the Middle East,” said Boys, “it is bleeding.” She pointed to the fact that a decade ago roughly 80 percent of citizens of Bethlehem were Christian, whereas today only about 15 percent remain. Similar statistics can be seen for Christians in Iran, Boys noted.  Like Korn, Boys said that, despite setbacks, strides made over the past half century in Christian-Jewish relations offer “a real reason to have hope in a time when hope is not easily found.”

Among those partaking in the conference from Yale Divinity School were Dean Harold Attridge; Miroslav Volf, director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture; and Professor of Christian Ethics Jennifer Herdt.

Links to the complete conference schedule and the texts of scholarly papers presented can be accessed here.