Judaism Today: A Protestant Comments on a Jewish-Catholic Exchange By Isaac C. Rottenberg

A recent issue of Interfaith Focus, a publication of the Anti-Defamation League, is devoted to a discussion of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church. In a mildly critical evaluation of the Catechism, Rabbi Leon Klenicki mentions two New Testament writings as worthy candidates for a joint study between Christians and Jews: Paul’s letter to the Romans and the epistle to the Hebrews. Such a study, he believes, could “enrich both spiritualities despite past history.”

What a superb choice that is: two writings, very diverse in a number of ways and yet posing a common challenge for Jewish-Christian dialogue! Furthermore, both letters have often played an important role in Catholic-Protestant encounters as well. But are we really prepared for the rough and tumble discussion these controversial epistles invite? After participating in numerous dialogue sessions, I am not so sure, and reading the aforementioned issue of Interfaith Focus hasn’t helped. I pose four questions:

I. Why are Romans and Hebrews such excellent choices?

Precisely because they take such a radical approach to the issues. Both authors hold passionately to the central perspective of faith. Their words don’t lend themselves very well to an exchange of waffling niceties. In describing redemptive realities pre and post Christum their language takes on a radical tone.

To be precise, both Paul and the author of Hebrews believe that the God of Israel has done a new, unique, and decisive thing in Jesus. The Lord of history, the Holy One who is truly free and sovereign, who does new things all the time, even though we may not perceive it (Isaiah 43:19), has invaded existence with saving power in the life and ministry, death and resurrection, of this son of Israel named Jesus. The radical break, the miraculous rupture, the new beginning have always been fundamental notions in the faith of Israel. But in the New Testament in general, and in Romans and Hebrews in particular, we find the claim that the divine invasion in and through the Incarnation has become not just a stage, but the central chapter in the drama that leads from creation to the new creation and the promised Kingdom of God. This is truly a “new age” faith.

For Paul it means that the righteousness of God has been revealed (Romans 1:17). To speak about the righteousness of God in biblical context means that one comes face to face with the Torah, the revealed will of God in the midst of Israel. Something very radical has happened in Jesus and it involves the law. In short, Jesus has done what humans have not been able to do: fulfill the law in holy love. According to the Christian kerygma the implications of this are immense, affecting the human heart, world history, and even the cosmos.

The author of Hebrews describes the new thing the God of Israel has done in cultic terms, using the imagery of the Day of Atonement. The One who has spoken (and acted) in many and various ways in the covenant history of Israel, has “in these last days” spoken through the Son (Hebrews 1:1 ff.). Thus the sovereign Lord has created a new order — from Aaron to Melchizedek. But note that the only way to describe the new order is in terms of the old one, which continues to have an impact. The old order may be in the process of disappearing (Hebrews 8:13), but then, from the perspective of the promised “new thing” in the eschaton, that is true of the church as well. In the meantime, far from declaring the old order passé, the author of Hebrews portrays both the land of Israel and the Sabbath as signs of future glory and eternal life.

When the Lord Almighty acts, history moves in leaps. There are radical “shifts” (Jeremiah 31) and “turns,” rather than a smooth ascending line as in some philosophies of progress. How to express a faith like that, and particularly, how to talk about the “once-for-all” dimension of the new while maintaining the dialectical tie-in with the old, a connection rooted in nothing less than the eternal covenant faithfulness of God? After all, the law is still “holy, just, and good” (Romans 7:12) and is still being fulfilled in us through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:4). “All Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:1,25), and living in hope remains an essential element of the Jewish and Christian experience. Christian realities, just like Jewish realities, become like signs and shadows of the “good things to come” (Hebrews 10:1).

This problem with language, which in Christian history has all too often been “resolved” in a boastful and sinful triumphalism, remains very much part of an honest dialogue. The language of Romans and Hebrews, as well as the principles of faith expressed therein, are bound to pose some obstacles at times, but also to offer opportunities for a joint study that is searching and unafraid of sharply conflicting views. This leads to the next question:

II. What kind of a dialogue are we looking for?

People who are involved in interfaith work almost full-time tend to develop a fuzzy vocabulary, a smooth “I’m O.K., you’re O.K.” language, which is non-confrontational to such a degree that it appears designed to avoid healthy debate about real differences. For instance, we earlier quoted Rabbi Klenicki who referred to Judaism and Christianity as two “spiritualities.” That sounds so benign and so un-Hebraic. The Word of the Lord is like a two-edged sword, but in dialogue we talk about “spiritualities.” That’s not a key well suited to unlock the message within writings like Romans and Hebrews.

We don’t dialogue as representatives of “spiritualities,” but as adherents to faiths that believe in historical revelation, as witnesses to the presence of the God of Israel, and as people who find their inspirations in the prophets who addressed kings and nations, societies and cultures. Klenicki defines dialogue as “a respectful interchange of equals sharing God’s faith and recognizing the uniqueness of the faith commitment of the other person in dialogue.” Again, I sense the coziness here of an inner circle of people who have found a high level of comfort with each other. Klenicki claims that he wants to move beyond the niceties of the “tea and sympathy” days to in- depth discussions, but this kind of language just won’t do it.

Take the phrase “sharing God’s faith.” I thought that in a more modest vein dialogue had to do with our common struggle to understand and interpret divine revelation and to do so together, despite our often mutually conflicting views. But when do those respectful interchanges of equals end up in what some Jewish and Christian critics have called a “theology of equality,” which will challenge the other party’s position only if it is seen as failing to recognize the equal validity of both faiths? On those assumptions a joint study of Romans and Hebrews can only be successful if Christians end up renouncing most of what those writers have to say. There is no “theology of equality” there — nor “tea and sympathy.” And there are numerous believers today, both Jewish and Christian (and Muslim), who seek a dialogue in which each party presents its core beliefs with conviction and without pressure to adapt to someone else’s preferences. So, who should dialogue with whom?

III. Dialogue with whom?

The issue of Interfaith Focus under consideration presents the contributions of three Catholic respondents: Dr. Eugene Fisher, who represents the Catholic Bishops on matters of Christian-Jewish relations, and professors Padraic O’Hare and Mary Boys. The latter two display a definitely critical mind-set, but mostly vis-a-vis their own church.

O’Hare leaves little doubt about his theological agenda which, it seems to this reader, is quite different from that of the new Catholic Catechism. As an educator he seeks “the formation of noble human beings,” or, in the words of Zen Buddhist Suzuki, lives that are “inimitable masterpieces.” “There must be a way,” he writes, “to form a religious people who confess the S’hema, proclaim the lordship of Jesus, affirm no God but Allah, practice Buddha mind.” As he sees it, one major obstacle standing in the way of this goal is “the prevailing christology of popular Christianity.” A christology that allows for such universal synchretism is not the faith of historic Christianity and can certainly not be found in the new Catechism.

Among the affirmations rejected by Mary Boys is the following: “The New Testament fulfills the Old Testament,” but she approves of this one: “Both the Jews and the Church are faithful witnesses to the one God.” What is meant by such statements, and what did Jesus mean when he said that he had come specifically not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them? (Matthew 5:17) There is such a hopeless confusion in dialogue circles about the biblical notion of fulfillment! The concept comes much closer to saying that what went before has been validated (confirmed) and newly empowered, than that it has been done away with. Let me just say about the presumed faithful witness of the Jews and the Church that such a view reflects a romantic reading of history quite contrary to the prophetic and apostolic witness. A key idea in the Bible is that the Kingdom will come despite the failures and repeated unfaithfulness of Jews and Christians alike.

It seems to me that there is little real dialogue left between Rabbi Klenicki and Professors O’Hare and Boys. They have become like a mutual affirmation society. They still can meet for mutually enlightening and respectful interchanges, which obviously have their value, but it will little reflect a conversation between communities of faith that have deep differences.

My argument is not that Interfaith Focus has failed to raise important issues, but rather that the approach taken does not seem conducive to confront our differences in a way that challenges both Judaism and Christianity to share, not “God’s faith,” but devoutly held theological truths that sometimes are in conflict with each other. So, we conclude with the final question:

IV. Dialogue about what?

Mary Boys and Leon Klenicki both raise questions about the use of typology in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The former judges it to be “unimaginative, supersessionist, and a problem to relations between Catholics and Jews in our time,” while the latter fears that the repeated emphasis on the preparatory nature of the “Old Testament” and the implied denial that Jews and Judaism still play a role in God’s design will lead to the “teaching of contempt.” I agree with Eugene Fisher that “the document in general is successful in avoiding ‘supersessionist’ language,” and I find the overall tone of the Catechism so respectful toward Jews and Judaism and so different from anti-Judaic documents in the past, that the danger of conveying a spirit of contemptuousness strikes me as remote.

Yet, the issue at stake is crucial, not only in interfaith dialogue, but also in Christian ecumenical theology. Typological interpretation, an approach not unknown in Judaism, seeks to establish a correlation between historical realities: past, present, and future. What is the relationship between the “new thing” God is constantly doing and what has gone before or what is yet to come? Specifically, what is the relevance of the “Old Testament” for the Church today?

In Discerning the Way, theologian Paul Van Buren sees a danger in texts like Hebrews 8:13, because it “could support a theology of displacement,” and hence, he states, “we dare not repeat the answer we thought we heard [there].” Many biblical texts didn’t say what we made them say. So, let us talk about interpretation.

In A Guest in the House of Israel, Clark Williamson, who finds “bizarre” arguments in the Letter to the Hebrews, goes much further than Van Buren. To him not only is misinterpretation dangerous, but the text itself represents a displacement theology which has “to have a long and tragic history.”

I personally see a danger in the eagerness with which some scholars raise the specter of the Holocaust because it can too easily be used as a technique to silence the arguments of others. Harold Attridge has made what seems to me the correct observation that “it might be fair to characterize [Hebrews], not as the first adversus Judaeos tract but as the first exhortation to martyrdom” (The Anchor Bible Dictionary). In short, the author uses strong language in an urgent attempt to help believers endure and to “hold on” to their “confession of hope,” not to engage in a polemics against Judaism.

The issues of biblical interpretation and the continued significance of the so-called “Old Testament” for the Church are too fundamental and far-reaching to be dealt with in a put-off fashion. As Arnold van Ruler observed in his small but thought-provoking book, The Christian Church and the Old Testament: “In the course of the centuries the Christian Church has treated the Old Testament just as uncertainly and unsuitably as it has treated the Jews.”

The new Catechism of the Catholic Church might offer us a wonderful opportunity to deal with these issues in depth. The document draws heavily on the writings of the Church Fathers, many of whom had a tendency to slip from the typological method into a Philo-like allegorizing of the text, detaching the message from its historical roots as well as the mundane realities (politics, culture, economy, etc.). Martin Buber used to say that throughout the centuries the Church has never really been faithful to the “Old Testament” vision concerning the sanctification of the earth — how could we, with a Christomonistic (against a Christocentric) view of the Bible? And how can we today, when so many preachers rarely deal meaningfully with the writings of Moses and the prophets from the pulpits?

In the midst of so much encouraging language in the Catechism we find the following quote: “All sacred scripture is but one book, and that one book is Christ, because all divine scripture speaks of Christ, and all divine scripture is fulfilled in Christ.” Is Christ, the center of the Christian kerygma, also to be made the end of all things? Or worse yet, as the new Catechism quotes certain Church Fathers as saying: “The world was created for the sake of the Church. . . . The Church is the goal of all things.” Was the world created for the sake of Christ, or did Christ come to save the world for the sake of the Kingdom of God? Will the Kingdom really mean the ecclesialization of all of life? Can the Church engage in a meaningful “ministry of the Word” in the world today without a “Jewish reading” of the book of Israel which later was also adopted as the canonical Word of God for the Church?

It seems to me that Rabbi Klenicki and Professor Boys have raised some very valid and pressing questions. I have my doubts about some of the answers they suggest and the direction in which they seem to move the dialogue. The new Catechism shows that the Catholic Church has come a long way, as have many Protestant communions. However, the journey goes on. Dialogue must be an important part of that journey. But so must the moments when people of faith say: “Here we stand; we can do no else.” Rather than being the end of dialogue, such moments of truth can become a point of renewal, the beginning of truly in-depth discussions.


  • Isaac C. Rottenberg

    Isaac C. Rottenberg was a Reformed Church in America pastor who wrote extensively on ecumenical/interfaith issues. He passed away in 2010.

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