Rabbis, scholars publish Jewish view of Christianity

More than 160 rabbis and Jewish scholars, saying that "Christianity has changed dramatically," have issued a broad treatise on Christianity and interfaith relations.

The statement, published as a full-page ad in the New York Times on Sunday, is titled "Dabru Emet," which means "speak truth" in Hebrew.

The text — billed as the first document on the Jewish view of Christianity — was, not surprisingly, filled with tension and controversy.

"This is the first major statement by a group of Jewish scholars, congregational rabbis, leaders of national organizations, which acknowledges the changes that have come about in Christian theology of Jews and the Jewish people," said Rabbi Michael Signer, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and one of four drafters of the statement.

"There's never been a kind of over-arching statement saying that it's not the same Christianity that existed in the 19th century. It's not even the same Christianity of the Eisenhower era," Signer said of the document that took five years to create.

Three Bay Area rabbis affixed their names to the text: Martin Weiner of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, who serves as the vice president of the mostly Reform Central Conference of American Rabbis; Ted Alexander of Conservative Congregation B'nai Emunah in San Francisco; and Zari Weiss, an independent rabbi who co-chairs the East Bay Council of Rabbis.

"I believe they've very carefully set forth a quite beautiful and inspiring statement on the values that are shared by Jews and Christians, as well as the issues that divide us," Weiner said Tuesday.

"These scholars felt it was important for modern Judaism to express itself on Christianity," he added.

Rabbi David Novak of the University of Toronto, another Dabru Emet drafter, put it this way: "I want Jewish readers to clearly realize that Christians are not necessarily our enemies. Quite the contrary, they can be very good friends to Jews and Judaism."

Dabru Emet is the work of independent scholars speaking for themselves, say its backers.

"It's a Jewish statement. It's not called the Jewish statement," said Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, a scholar at the Baltimore-based Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, which issued the statement.

Not surprisingly, who signed and who didn't is creating a buzz. Many leading Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative thinkers endorsed it, as did a handful of Orthodox rabbis.

But there are noticeable absences, including Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, and veteran interfaith activist Rabbi A. James Rudin, recently retired as head of the American Jewish Committee's interfaith office.

For Rudin, a section on Nazism was problematic — a sentiment shared off-the-record by some signers who felt nonetheless that the project should not be stalled.

In one section, Dabru Emet declares: "Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon."

It goes on to say, "Without the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and Christian violence against Jews, Nazi ideology could not have taken hold nor could it have been carried out. Too many Christians participated in, or were sympathetic to Nazi atrocities against Jews. But Nazism itself was not an inevitable outcome of Christianity."

Rudin said such wording is a problematic.

"There's a direct correlation between modern anti-Semitism and what I call the seedbed that created the poisonous weeds of anti-Semitism," he said.

But he added that on the whole, the statement "is a pioneering effort and I give praise to it."

Countered Novak, "We're not whitewashing. We're saying that when Christians used Nazism, it was not authentic Christianity. That has to be the case because if Nazism was an inevitable outcome of Christianity, then we cannot have anything to do with Christians."

Weiner said that the section on Nazism "was a very challenging commentary to write," but added, "I believe the authors have worked out a beautiful balance."

Other sections of the statement cover overlapping layers of theological, historical and political ground. "Jews and Christians worship the same God," the document states as its first point.

"While Christian worship is not a viable religious choice for Jews, as Jewish theologians we rejoice that, through Christianity, hundreds of millions of people have entered into a relationship with the God of Israel," the statement said.

Other sections have headings such as "Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book — the Bible;" "Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel;" and "Jews and Christians accept the moral principals of the Torah."

One reason behind the creation of the document, said Alexander, is that "interest in Judaism has risen to a tremendous height in the past couple of years. "This statement does a very good job of explaining Judaism to the Christian community."

The document states, "Christians know and serve God through Jesus Christ and the Christian tradition." By using the term "Jesus Christ," rather than the name "Jesus of Nazareth," some Jews might be offended, as "Christ" literally means "messiah."

The phrasing was chosen, Novak said, because the section addressed the belief of Christians.

"We're not describing our attitudes here," he said. "The difference is that for Jews the Torah is the way to the God of Israel, and for Christians it's what they call Jesus Christ, and you cannot do both. What makes it interesting is there's both a commonality and difference."

Those Orthodox rabbis endorsing the document are well known for interfaith work, such as Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein and Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz. Most Orthodox rabbis generally avoid interfaith theological discourse.

Notre Dame's Signer, a Reform rabbi, said the authors had to deal with their own divergent beliefs creatively.

"The truth of the matter is that David Novak and I can disagree about what gets said in the public square, but we certainly agree that Jewish-Christian dialogue is an important part of what needs to be said and that Jews need a more nuanced understanding of the Christian world."