A New Day for Jewish-Christian Partnership

by Simeon J. Maslin

Simeon J. Maslin is president of the Beard of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and senior rabbi of Congregational Keneseth Israel.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 7, 1990, pp. 247-248, 250 copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


There is a need to stimulate the proliferation of Jewish-Christian dialogue groups based on realistic and honest premises.

Jews have learned through bitter experience to expect the worst. We joke about the proverbial Jewish telegram: START WORRYING LETTER FOLLOWS. I am the grandson of gentle and loving Jews who lived through Polish pogroms, saw a son trampled under the hooves of horsemen whom they identified only as "Christians," and who fled to America to escape what they saw as Christian persecution. Quite understandably, those gentle people who showered me with love taught me to cross the street and spit when passing a church. That generation of immigrant Jews met Christian hate with Jewish hate, Christian contempt with Jewish contempt. They had no other choice.

But what about my generation, the generation of American liberal Jews who feel increasingly alienated from old-world Orthodoxy and increasingly wooed by Christian denominations that are publishing position papers that redefine Christian attitudes toward Jews and invite us to dialogue? These Holocaust-inspired documents begin with the frank admission that for centuries the church has been guilty of teaching that Christianity superseded Judaism. They go on to explain that Christianity and Judaism are two legitimate paths to the one God and that any Christian who is guilty of anti-Semitism is guilty also of the denial of Christ.

Protestantism, I realize, has many voices. And while most of the mainline, liberal churches are coming to a new appreciation of their Jewish roots and are condemning old anti-Semitic attitudes -- and while some right-wing evangelicals have become more Zionist than Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir -- some strident Protestants still teach that the Jews were guilty of the death of Christ and that anti-Semitic acts and attitudes are justified.

On this topic the official voice of Catholicism, Pope John Paul II, is hard to pin down. On the one hand, he refuses to recognize Israel, has granted audiences to Yasir Arafat and Kurt Waldheim, has called for Israel to withdraw from Jerusalem and has preached that Christians have superseded and replaced Jews as God’s partners in covenant. On the other hand, he has poignantly elegized Jewish martyrdom while condemning Nazism, declared at the synagogue of Rome that the Jews are the legitimate and honored older brothers of Catholics, stated on the 20th anniversary of Nostra Aetate that "anti-Semitism, in its ugly and sometimes violent manifestations, must be completely eradicated" and, after months of equivocation, indicated that he would like the Carmelite nuns to withdraw from their Auschwitz convent.

Let me be so bold as to suggest that, as we approach the 21st century, either Christians will have to concede that the Sinaitic covenant between God and Israel is an eternal covenant and that to teach, practice or even hint at anti-Semitism is to deny the teachings of Christ, or Christianity is doomed. If Christianity is to endure into its third millennium as an intellectual, moral and spiritual force, it can do so only arm-in-arm with Judaism. For as learned and committed Christians are all too aware, the Holocaust raised agonizing questions about the validity of Christianity.

As for us on the Jewish side, we must learn to accept the fact that we are living in a Christian country. As much as we might fight against prayers in public schools, churches on city property and political leaders who have the nerve to declare that this is a Christian country, we must accept the fact that we are a minority. Jews constitute only 2.5 percent of the population. Though the other 97.5 percent are not all confessing Christians -- many profess other religions, or are secularists, humanists and outright pagans -- Christianity defines the religious climate of America.

American Jews must be aware of what Christian churches are teaching and practicing -- not in order to emulate Christians and certainly not in order to convert them, but quite simply because Christianity defines religion in America. If Jews want the Jewish message to be heard and understood, if they want to participate in the marketplace of ideas, if they take seriously the sacred Jewish mission "to be a light to the nations," then they must express the Jewish message in a vocabulary comprehensible to Christians. That is one of the realities of American life. I, for one, find it a stimulating and challenging reality.

Given this climate, what options are available to Jews? One choice is to turn inward: to renounce Christianity, recalling the inquisitions, pogroms, crusades, cross-burnings and the instigations of anti-Semitism that were a part of Christianity from the days of the early Church Fathers through the Holocaust. We can opt to go it alone -- a choice Orthodox Jews have clearly made. They are more and more becoming a separatist elite, retreating to ethnic enclaves in a few big cities. It is rare today for an Orthodox rabbi to participate in interfaith dialogue.

The other choice? It is not to forgive and forget; Jews were never taught to turn the other cheek. Rather, it is to work honestly and lovingly with that growing body of righteous Christians who look to Judaism as to an older sibling, who are seeking to expiate Christian guilt for the Holocaust, and who recognize that Christianity and Judaism need each other desperately if religion in 21st-century America is to offer a compelling alternative to unbridled consumerism, self-centeredness and arid secularism.

Honesty and love are essential to the latter option. One of the great problems in interfaith relations is politeness, the fear of offending. I believe that the majority of well-meaning Christians do not understand why Jews were so upset by a Christian convent dedicated to prayer for the souls of all those who died in Auschwitz. Certainly Cardinal Jozef Glemp, the primate of Poland, does not understand why it is inappropriate for an order of Christian nuns to he praying there, in the shadow of a 23-foot cross, for the souls of Jews. His change of mind resulted from political pressure, not from having seen the light.

Yes, non-Jews perished in Auschwitz as well. But for Jews Auschwitz is a synonym for the Holocaust. A third or more of the Jews killed by the Nazis perished in that one place. To Jews, Auschwitz is the Holocaust. We Jews must honestly and pointedly ask Cardinal Glemp, Pat Buchanan and all well-meaning Christians who did not understand Jewish objections to a Christian convent in Auschwitz if they believe that those millions of innocent Jews who died so cruelly there would want a Christian house of worship to mark the place of their martyrdom, their Passion? Those murdered Jews had heard the joyous pealing of church bells from towns around Auschwitz and Birkenau every Sunday morning. The good Christians who prayed in those churches in 1943 and 1944 were not praying then for the souls of Jews. Would those murdered innocents want the Carmelite nuns to pray for them now?

One hundred Christs crucified on crosses from Calvary to Krakow to that Carmelite convent could not begin to atone for the cruel and coldly calculated criminal acts committed against our people by people raised as Christians. Many of my Christian colleagues respond by saying that the killers were really pagans, that their acts denied Christian doctrine. But almost all of the persecutors were raised as Christians and thought of themselves as Christians.

The second crucial element for dialogue is love. Having said what I just did about Christians, how can I ask Jews to work with righteous Christians lovingly? Am I being patronizing or hypocritical?

I call for love because I have come to understand that despite the tragic Christian-Jewish conflict that has darkened the history of Western civilization and shrouded the presence of God, my faith and hopes for the future of our civilization are closer to those of liberal Christians than they are to the Hassidim of Brooklyn and the black-hatted zealots of Jerusalem. I wish this were not true, but it is. Religious liberals, Christian and Jewish, need partners in a world that is hostile to rationality, morality and freedom of conscience. We need partners who share our deep concerns about homelessness, hunger, environmental pollution and basic human rights. We need partners who believe that governments should be more concerned about the care of the aged and indigent than the protection of fertilized ova, flags and nuclear stockpiles. We Jews hope to find such partners in the ranks of those people whom the ancient rabbis called hasidei umot ha-olam -- righteous gentiles.

Visitors to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, weeping at the pictures of murdered innocents and the artifacts of the most technologically efficient death industry in the history of inhumanity, can feel their hearts filling with hatred. I once actually heard a man, standing at the exit of that dark hall that houses the eternal flame, sobbing: "I wish God would send down a fire on all of them." But outside of the museum, on the way to the parking lot, stretches a tree-shaded lane called "The Path of the Righteous Gentiles." The base of each tree displays a little plaque listing the name and country of a Christian who risked his or her life in order to save the lives of Jews. There are hundreds of such trees -- one might wish that there were thousands, but there are hundreds. Every one honors a Christian hero.

We Jews must seek out with love the righteous Christians among us. I am certain that there are thousands of them, ready and waiting to enter into dialogue. They need us, and we need them. We need each other, not so that we might blend into a Jewish-Christian mishmash, but for dialogue that can stimulate, enrich and deepen our respective faiths. We need each other to prove to the world that, with honesty and love, two great and separate traditions can work together to fashion a nobler society.

It was with love that I read the open letter of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston to the Carmelite Sisters at Auschwitz. He began by telling of his lifelong admiration for their contemplative vocation. He went on to describe a pilgrimage that he had made to Auschwitz a few years ago group of Catholics and Jews. He wrote:

We walked in numbed silence through this monument to inhumanity, to sin in all its horror. The barbaric cruelty was made poignantly present by the survivors in our midst. We gathered at the memorial wall, Jews and Catholics, and raised our hearts and voices in prayerful remembrance of all who had died. . . . Our prayer concluded as, through our tears, we greeted one another with "Shalom."

He went on to plead with the Carmelite sisters "to go the extra mile," to withdraw willingly from Auschwitz for the sake of reconciliation. What would then happen to the present convent?

It could be a place to further understanding, a place where your gracious act could be studied as one way. . . to overcome barriers between peoples. In a world so painfully divided between rich and poor, black and white, Moslem, Christian and Jew, that sign of reconciling love which is within your power could have a meaning far greater than the immediate context of controversy. It could become a place which gives substance to the cry of all civilized people, "Never again" [The Pilot, August 30, 1989].

I pray that I am not revealing naïveté when I say that I resonate to the words of a prince of the church that for so many centuries despised and persecuted my people. I feel a greater spiritual kinship with Cardinal Law and many other righteous Christians than I do with Jews who are more concerned with the details of the dietary laws and the length of their side-curls than they are with their daily ethical conduct -- Jews who demonstrate more love for an acre of Gaza Strip sand than for basic human rights.

Thank God, there are many, many Jews who are deeply concerned about ethics and human rights. My own people will always be closest to my heart because I share with them both my universal human concerns and my parochial Jewish concerns. But my heart is warm enough to radiate love to people of any religion, nationality or color who live and work for the benefit of the human race. Cardinal Law remarked:

How necessary it is for men and women of differing faiths and backgrounds to meet one another in mutual respect and love. How necessary it is for us to share our personal and collective memories, and to allow the balm of genuine, mutual love to heal the wounds that for too long have divided us.

His voice is surely not a lonely one in Christian circles today.

Shall we join the ranks of those Jews and Christians who live only in the past, whose hearts are governed by hate and who live for dominance and revenge? Or shall we join the ranks of those Jews and Christians who have dedicated their lives to fashioning a new a better world, one firmly rooted in the rich soil of diverse traditions but joyously open to the possibility of "love they neighbor as thyself"?

I have made my choice. I hear my sacred Torah calling to me from Sinai: "Choose life!" I choose a world where brothers and sisters wipe away each others’ tears and greet one another with "shalom."