HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Teaching the History of Jewish-Christian Relations
We live in a world whose culture is deeply influenced by Christianity and whose populations still perceive themselves, by and large, as religiously Christian. The Jewish people has had a long, complicated and often troubled relationship with Christianity. As various forms of Christianity have wrestled with their attitudes towards Jews and have attempted to proffer hands in friendship, it is important for us to know all aspects of this relationship and the meaning it has had and continues to have for our people.
Following is a description of a course I have taught for over twenty years in Jewish day schools that represents an effort to equip Jewish students with a background that will enable them to better understand their own history and that of their Christian neighbors.
This history has all too often been written in blood. Crusade massacres, expulsions, blood libels and other accusations are all part of our past. In WWII, a third of the Jewish people died in countries that were heavily Christian. At times the Church required Jews to live in ghettos and wear distinctive clothing including yellow stars. The Talmud has been censored by Church authorities and burned for being blasphemous. Even America has not been free from anti-Jewish legislation, persecution and ancient stereotypes; one lesser-known example was a blood libel accusation that took place in 1928 in Massena, New York.
Since the Second Vatican Council, however, the Catholic Church has rejected the charge of deicide against all Jews forever. Evangelical groups now form the backbone of Christian support against anti-Semitic and anti-Israel deeds. The last three presidents have had seders at the White House for family members or staff. Other groups, however, still see in Israel a Jewish recrucifixion of Jesus through the Occupation, and not all Christian denominations have modified their theological bias against the Jews.
This course must start with the foundational story of Christianity: the Passion. For historical and theological reasons, most Jewish teachers are understandably reluctant to broach this topic, especially with students below college age; but we cannot avoid it if we want our students to have a mature grasp of the history. Just as it is inconceivable to teach American social studies without the Declaration of Independence or to teach Judaism without the Exodus and Sinai, one cannot teach Christianity without knowing the story of the trial, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus—and how Christians understand our role in that story.
Here are some important points to discuss:
- As the story has been understood over millennia, either Jewish leadership of the time, the Jewish people of the time, or the Jewish people forever is responsible for the death of Jesus.
- Pontius Pilate is essentially exonerated for his decree to kill Jesus. (Ever wonder where the English phrase “to wash one’s hands” of a decision comes from?)
- Jesus’s suffering is considered a divine act of love for Christians.
- The story takes place in the first century CE in Judea and the Galilee, and Jewish customs and ideas are woven throughout the texts.
- The first Christians were born Jewish and thought of themselves as Jews; only later did the religion officially separate.
Students need to understand the role of Jewish tradition and ideas in Christianity, as well as how Christianity adapted these Jewish symbols and thoughts into a new religion. It is important to understand the different versions of the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish Bibles, including the role of Apocrypha (Jewish writings after the time of the Tanakh) and the New Testament. It is eye-opening for students to learn that many of the books embraced by Christianity were written by Jews, and to learn why there is a “Book of Hebrews” in the New Testament.
Our students should understand how our Bible becomes Christianized in Church literature. From the Middle Ages, an extreme example is found in an early version of the Passion at Oberammergau. A tableau from this drama draws upon a scene from the book of Esther. Which character was chosen to symbolize the Jewish people? Vashti, who rejects the king and is replaced by Esther. Esther was portrayed as the Church and New Israel; this exemplifies the idea of supercessionism, i.e., the Church as the new Israel replacing the old Israel, the Jewish people.
This Christianizing of the biblical text bears a resemblance to our midrashic literature, as many scholars have explored. Each of our stories becomes a paradigm of some Christian ideal or belief. One obvious example in Genesis is Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son Isaac. Less obvious would be Jacob’s accompanying angels representing Christ. Similarly, any covenant in the Bible is interpreted as a forerunner of the Christian story.
To understand why we as Jews have such a wary relationship with Christians, students need to have a basic understanding of the medieval worldview including notions of religion and blasphemy. A balanced portrayal requires covering the topics of Christian protection of the Jews as well as anti-Jewish decrees, blood libels, accusations of host desecration and forced public disputations, alongside Jewish responses, including mass suicide.
The course should discuss the state of the relationship between Christians and Jews today. After studying Christian writings and some of the history of Jewish persecution at Christian hands, students can appreciate the radical change represented by Nostra Aetate, the declaration of Jewish innocence of the charge of deicide, proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. This declaration has ushered in a completely new era of respectful dialogue between Jews and the Catholic Church, at every level.
Students also have to comprehend the very different Evangelical approach of standing with the Jewish people against physical harm while still attempting to bring the Jewish people to God through Jesus. They should also learn of other attempts at disavowal of horribly anti-Jewish writings, such as the Lutherans’ distancing from Martin Luther’s vicious anti-Jewish tirades.
Here is a lesson regarding the state of the relationship between Christian and Jews today, as an example of what a classroom discussion could and should reveal.
In 2000, the Catholic Church underwent a massive self-examination and had a Day of Pardon for various offences against parts of humanity. A special section was reserved for the Jews and a papal apology was part of the prayers on that day:
A representative of the Curia [Church leadership]: Let us pray that, in recalling the sufferings endured by the people of Israel throughout history, Christians will acknowledge the sins committed by not a few of their number against the people of the Covenant and the blessings, in this way, will purify their hearts.
The Pope: God of our fathers, you have chosen Abraham and his descendants to bring your Name to the Nations: we are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused these children of yours to suffer, and asking your forgiveness, we wish to commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.
In the parsing of this document, questions to ask are whether this is an apology from the Church or not. What is the meaning of the phrase “Christians will acknowledge the sins committed by not a few of their number”? Is there significance to “have chosen” as opposed to “chosen”? Are Jews still the people of the Covenant? Has supercessionism been rescinded? How does this fit in with Nostra Aetate? Is this apology acceptable to you as a Jew? Why or why not? When would it be?
One of the main roles of Jewish day schools is to empower students to serve as ambassadors of the Jewish people to the larger world. Day school graduates will be Jewish leaders both within communal organizations and without, as we navigate our course among other peoples, religions, cultures and governments. To prepare our students to fulfill that role, day schools should take seriously our responsibility not only to train our students to know our own history and culture, but also to educate them in the history and cultures of others and the ways that our history has interwoven with other peoples. Learning about Christianity and the history of Jewish-Christian relations is critical to empowering our students to fulfill this important role.
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