The optimists win &mdash pope is reaching out to Jews

When Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, optimists said the choice showed a commitment to continue the important work of bridge building to the Jewish people.

Pessimists fretted about his German background, tough line on other religions and desire for a more dogmatic, conservative church.

The pope’s new book, “Jesus of Nazareth,” shows the optimists were right.

“Jesus of Nazareth” offers an interpretation of the New Testament — and thereby of Christianity — that is surprisingly favorable to Judaism, one in which “the Jewish people and its faith are the very roots of Christianity.”

In unequivocal terms, Jesus is presented as a Jew, a follower of true biblical and rabbinical traditions. Jesus’ teachings are presented as an outgrowth and fulfillment of Sinai and Jewish ritual law.

Traditional Christian approaches treated Jewish interpretation of the Bible as false, rabbinic traditions as perversions of the Bible and painted Jews as blind to the truth and not doing God’s will.

How does Pope Benedict accomplish this feat of reconciliation? What does he do with the rejection of Judaism in the New Testament and the Church Fathers?

Benedict’s starting point for his vision of Jesus is Deuteronomy and the importance of Moses, the lawgiver, as a prophet. Deuteronomy teaches that the purpose of the law is to proclaim God’s kingship.

For example, Benedict states that the Jewish recitation of the Sh’ma is a means of affirming God’s kingship. Jewish ritual in its legal forms is for Benedict the biblical path to knowing God, rather than the common Christian portrayal of the prophets rejecting legalism.

Judaism is not excluded, revoked or abrogated as traditionally explained by Christian thinkers. Jesus took Moses’ message and brought it to the world — not just the ethical message of the prophets, but also the kingship, ritual, obedience and devotion of Deuteronomy. Benedict accepts, almost relishes, the influence of Jewish practice on Christian liturgy because it shows continuity between the faiths.

Hence, Benedict says confidently that all pious Jews who recite the Sh’ma daily are affirming God’s kingship. Without saying so explicitly, he seems to imply that Jews know God and his kingship because they know Moses, the prophets, the Torah and its rabbinic interpretation.

What about the critiques of the Pharisees? He presents the Pharisees as “endeavoring to live with the greatest possible exactness according to the instructions of the Torah.” At other points, the Pharisees are only those self-serving Jews who did not hear the message of God’s kingship.

Pope Benedict takes literally Jesus’ statements that “I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them” and promises to show that this does not contradict Paul. In this book, the promise is only partially kept. He does not explain the difficult passages.

In Pope Benedict’s reading of the New Testament, all the negative statements about people too blinded, moved by the devil or obstinate to see the truth are reserved for scoffers, unbelievers and relativists — anyone but the Jews.

Benedict presents a few examples of seemingly anti-Jewish parables. The story of the treacherous tenants in Matthew 21:33-46 is usually taken as proof that Jews

were punished and superseded. Benedict offers his personal observations, creatively limiting the parable to those who deny God then and now. From his perspective, he openly rejects the Church Fathers who condemn the Jews based on these parables and says the New Testament does not support them.

Pope Benedict quotes rabbinic literature favorably at several points, itself an important act of reconciliation. The Talmud is no longer a pernicious source of misreading of the Bible, but a continuity of the Bible’s true message. The pope respects and accepts the American historian of Judaism Jacob Neusner’s explanation of why Jews reject Christianity.

The religions are not debating whether Jesus was the messiah — Jews think he is not — but whether Jesus can be seen as divine.

According to Benedict, Judaism and Christianity share visions of God’s kingship described in the Bible from Deuteronomy to Daniel. Christians assume Jesus is the way to the biblical God’s kingship and Jews do not, but they share a vision of kingship.

Pope Benedict totally rejects Protestant Jesus scholarship that saw Jesus as rejecting Judaic ritual and legalism.

Much remains to be argued about in these new positions.

And as expected from a book written by a pope, the book still has many subtle statements implying the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. Nevertheless, this book is historically important for its sea change in the church’s attitude toward Jews.

Jews usually ask, how does this change real life? How does it fight anti-Semitism? In this case, the book follows on the heels of Pope Benedict’s call for a synod of bishops in 2008. The pope wants to know: Are biblical texts used to foment attitudes of anti-Semitism? How is Judaism presented in Catholic teaching materials?

Benedict wants to make sure that Judaism is presented positively and in accordance with Nostra Aetate, to the world’s billion Catholics.

Jews concerned with the Christian-Jewish relationship should take this book as proof of continued positive developments during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI.

Rabbi Alan Brill holds the Cooperman-Ross Professorship in Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University. This article previously appeared in the National Catholic Reporter.