Jews Remain Jews, and Jesus Remains the Messiah
In the past few decades our generation has witnessed milestone events and historic gestures that have significantly transformed relations between Christians and Jews.
Thanks to these developments, today the dialogue between Christianity and Judaism seems so natural and obvious that we rarely think the mutual relations had not always been that cordial. Before the Pope could enter and pray in the Rome Synagogue and before Jewish leaders decided they can (without imputing they also believe in the Christian messiah) use the term Jesus Christ, it took several decades to make this structural change of attitudes possible. When did the Christians give up on the idea of converting Jews? Would developments in the dialogue between Jews and Christians be possible if not for the Holocaust? Professor Stanisław Krajewski – a Polish philosopher and a Jewish activist, who himself, in 2000, signed one of the most recent documents contributing to the broadening and bettering of Christian-Jewish dialogue – points to the most significant points and figures in the process of mutual recognition.
Stanisław Krajewski – professor of philosophy at the University of Warsaw, author of “Żydzi i…” (“Jews and…”), published in 2014.
KATARZYNA ANDERSZ: YOU ARGUE THAT JEWISH-CHRISTIAN RELATIONS HAVE CHANGED DRAMATICALLY OVER THE LAST FEW DECADES, AND THIS WILL BE NOTED IN HISTORY BOOKS, EVEN HUNDREDS OF YEARS FROM NOW.
Stanisław Krajewski: Yes. These changes have subtly occurred all over the world over the course of the last several decades. The most significant change is that Christian churches have shifted their attitude towards Jews and Judaism. It is now officially acknowledged that Jews can simply remain Jews, and that this is a valuable thing unto itself.
Of course this does not mean that everyone shares this point of view. There are many Christians who would certainly not agree with such a statement, but there is no doubt the official discourse regarding Jews has changed. Before, the general opinion was that Jews were definitely wrong, and that they should convert to Christianity. Now, the official perspective is much different.
This is a serious, deep change; in my opinion, it is also reflected in people’s attitudes. It has now been adopted not only by those heavily involved in this issue, but also by regular people, such as my students (who have never heard of any official statements from any Christian or Jewish leaders), and even some Christian priests.
It has also been noticed by Jews. Naturally, this is not a black and white issue, but we can see that there has been a shift, especially in Western Europe and in the United States. It is also noticeable in some other countries: in Australia, for example. Generally speaking, it appears in all the countries with similar cultural backgrounds.
HOW DID THIS DIALOGUE START AND HOW DID THE COMPLEX CHANGES COME ABOUT?
My most recent book, “Żydzi i…” (“Jews and…”), includes a long essay in which I discuss John Connelly’s book, From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews. I have my doubts about some of the ideas in this book, but Connelly did
a marvelous job explaining how difficult this process was intellectually. A relatively small group of theologists has managed to convince the whole community to change its perception of Jews as those who need to be convinced – either subtly or by force – to convert to Christianity. Instead, they persuaded the community concur that it would be valuable and beneficial to all if the Jews kept their own rules and beliefs.
THIS PROCESS HAS BEEN PARTIALLY INITIATED BY JEWS WHO CONVERTED TO CHRISTIANITY. IT WAS NOT CONCEIVED EXCLUSIVELY WITHIN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.
Yes, it has been initiated by freshly converted Catholics who were raised in either Jewish or Protestant families. Connelly pays a lot of attention to these people. This shows that certain ways of thinking and certain value systems are so deeply rooted in some groups and institutions that they need a voice from outside in order to be challenged and questioned. Only those who understand the issue deeply enough can question it. And often it is those who joined the group from the outside, because they can identify problems no longer even noticed by the people who spent their entire lives within the framework.
WHO WERE THESE PEOPLE?
One of the key figures in this process was Karl Thieme. He worked in Elbląg, which was at the time the German town of Elbing. He converted to Catholicism in the 1930’s because he was disturbed by how enthusiastic Protestants were about Hitler and his ideology. He thought that the Vatican was more likely to support the views shared by the rest of the world, and would not share the pro-German attitude favored by the Protestant community. He thought Catholics would be more resistant to Hitler’s ideas.
THE TABLES SEEM TO HAVE TURNED NOW: THE PROTESTANT COMMUNITY SEEMS TO BE MORE SENSITIVE TO THE PROBLEM OF INEQUALITY. PROTESTANTS ALSO SHOW MORE RESPECT TOWARDS JEWS – AT LEAST IN POLAND.
The situation has indeed changed dramatically in Poland, and is much different today. There are very few Protestants in Poland. Being a minority themselves, they have developed a sensitivity to the problems of other minorities. This does, without a doubt, bring them closer to Jews. They share the experience of living in the shadow of the Catholic giant – who, if not careful enough, might seriously hurt them. This is why Protestants and Jews seem alike in modern society. However, this likeness does not stem from theology, but from a stark religious disproportion in today’s society.
LET’S GO BACK TO THE BEGINNINGS OF THE CHRISTIAN-JEWISH DIALOGUE. WHO ELSE WAS INVOLVED?
Another important figure was John Osterreicher, who seems to be better remembered than Karl Thieme. Osterreicher was a Czech-born Jew who lived in Germany until the war, and who then emigrated to America. At the beginning, he also believed Jews should convert, but his opinion changed over time.
DID THE WAR AND THE HOLOCAUST PLAY A KEY ROLE IN THE CHANGE OF ATTITUDE? WAS THERE A MOMENT OF AWAKENING?
Even the most committed theologists, who are now considered leaders of the change in Christian teachings about Jews, wanted Jews to convert. This lasted for a very long time, even after the war. Only when they began to study this issue more closely did they realize they were missing the whole point. The war was an incredibly important impulse which served as the first step to a gradual change of attitude towards Jews, but it did not cause an immediate reaction. People did not find out about the Holocaust overnight nor did they suddenly decide that their previous attitude towards Jews was wrong.
It is not enough to say that the war was a turning point. In my opinion, the most glaring problem with Connelly’s book is that he did not try to analyze how the war and the Holocaust influenced the theologists, or how it changed their perception of Judaism on a personal level. I am afraid that no one has written about this convincingly. It would be fascinating to describe people’s opinions and reactions to learning the truth about the Holocaust. I mean people outside of Poland, of course. In Poland, most people behaved as if the Holocaust never happened. For a short time after the war, very few artists and intellectuals spoke about how horrifying it was. Most people remained silent, despite the sudden absence of Jews. Even the most influential people did not speak up. For example, just after the war Maria Dąbrowska wrote in her diary what a nightmare it would be if the Jews were to return and take over the economy again. This statement was made in 1945, as if there had been no Holocaust. Maria Dąbrowska, who criticized bench ghettos before the war, and who is not at all considered to be an anti-Semitic role model, quite the contrary. And still, despite what happened during the war, she feared the role of Jews in the economy. This is both extraordinary and very typical of Poland.
The changes, which were, presumably, the consequence of a shocking realization what the war had been for Jews, arrived from the West. They did not originate in Poland, even though it was in Poland that people witnessed the Holocaust first-hand.
WHAT ABOUT THE FIRST ATTEMPTS AT POST-WAR DIALOGUE?
There was the famous Seelisberg Conference held in Switzerland in 1947. Several dozen Christians and Jews gathered there and issued a document called the “Ten Points of Seelisberg”, in which they addressed the most burning issues regarding Christian teachings on Judaism. They also discussed the possible roots of anti-Semitism and its dire consequences. The document included some fundamental truths, which, from today’s perspective, seem obvious. It stated that Jesus was a Jew, that his disciples were Jews, and that the calamity that met the Jews was not a consequence of their sinfulness or of their vicious nature. Back then, it was revolutionary. At first, it was not even clear whether the participants’ superiors – both Catholic and Protestants – would allow such a document to be published at all. They feared these conclusions were too radical. The change that has taken place since then is astonishing: what was revolutionary in 1947 is considered obvious for most people fifty years later. However, and I must emphasize it once again, this transformation did not happen overnight. It was a series of small changes.
THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL TOOK PLACE 20 YEARS AFTER THE SEELISBERG CONFERENCE.
In 1965, the Council published a declaration entitled “Nostra Aetate”. It largely adopted the Seelisberg resolutions and presented them as the Vatican’s own ideas, adding that Christians should get to know Jews and Judaism in order to better understand their own religion.
“NOSTRA AETATE” STILL REMAINS THE BEST-KNOWN DECLARATION ON THIS SUBJECT.
My Catholic friends who belong to the Polish Council of Christians and Jews do not consider it a very well-known document. They claim that not many priests are familiar with “Nostra Aetate”, which was published almost 50 years ago. I am talking about priests with knowledge of the issue. It is not something that would easily be accepted by the public at large.
YOU WERE ONE OF THE SIGNATORIES OF ANOTHER DOCUMENT, “DABRU EMET,” ISSUED IN 2008. ITS BEING DRAWN UP POINTS TO A NEED FOR REPEATING THE SAME TRUTHS. PERHAPS THEY ARE STILL NOT THAT OBVIOUS?
“Dabru Emet” is the Jewish response to “Nostra Aetate” and quite a late one at that. It stems from some earlier Catholic documents, but if we look closely, we will see substantial changes were introduced. “Dabru Emet” acknowledges there has been a shift in Christian teachings about Judaism and that we no longer need to perceive Christianity as a threat. We should instead consider Christians a potential ally. Perhaps even more than just a potential one, despite all the difficult history we share that cannot be entirely forgotten.
WHAT WAS THE SOURCE OF THIS DOCUMENT?
It was created by four Jewish theologists from various American universities. They weighed each word carefully, they painstakingly prepared the document, and then they asked certain people to sign it. They published it as an advertisement in the New York Times with over 170 signatures. It was paid for by private sponsors. This is how these things should be announced to the world. It may sound strange, especially from a Polish perspective. Some may say that if this truly was an important text, the media would talk about it anyway, which is not true. Newspapers are only interested in controversial topics.
WERE YOU THE ONLY SIGNATORY FROM POLAND?
Not only was I the only signatory from Poland, but the only one from all of Eastern Europe. The document was signed by a relatively small group of people. Initially, there were only 170 of us, and then, gradually, more people joined. I think the number of signatories is not that important. What is really meaningful is the overall belief that the ideas the document conveys are right and that they are not only shared by the signatories, but also by many Jews.
WHO ELSE SIGNED “DABRU EMET”?
It was mostly signed by non-Orthodox rabbis although some Orthodox rabbis did sign it. These were rabbis who are strongly involved in building interfaith relations. It was also signed by some professors, specializing in such fields as philosophy. It is primarily an American document, although it was also signed by some Britons and Israelis. The authors wanted all the potential signatories to accept the document as it was, or not sign it at all. Some people refused to sign it because they wanted to introduce modifications. While they fundamentally agreed with it, they found it offensive that they were not invited to participate in the writing process. They refused to sign it for psychological reasons, not for ideological ones. I knew I wanted to sign the document as soon as I found out about it – and I am very glad I did.
WHAT MAKES “DABRU EMET” DIFFERENT FROM PREVIOUS DOCUMENTS TACKLING THE SAME ISSUES?
What is really important – and quite revolutionary from the Jewish perspective – is that the name Jesus Christ actually appears in this document. This may not seem particularly noteworthy for people living in Poland who interject “Jesus Christ!” all the time. However, this name has never appeared in any Jewish theological document, not before, and not after “Dabru Emet”. I must admit it was quite a shock for me to see it, too.
IT WAS ALWAYS JUST “JESUS” BEFORE?
Jesus, Yeshua, or Jesus of Nazareth, as a historical figure. However, “Dabru Emet” mentions Jesus Christ, which actually means “Jesus the Messiah”. In my opinion, this is an expression of respect towards another religion. If we are to talk to the followers of another faith, we should use the language they use themselves. It is a giant step towards expressing our appreciation of Christianity. Of course, not all Jews share this opinion, more traditional Jews believe it was taken a step too far. They do not believe we should speak of Jesus Christ, even if using this name is nothing more than a common courtesy. However, this does not mean we recognize Jesus as the messiah within our own religion, only that we recognize that Christians have a right to do so.
WHAT OTHER ISSUES DOES “DABRU EMET” CONFRONT?
Its most noteworthy point claims that Christians serve God through Jesus Christ and the Christian tradition, just as Jews do through the Torah and through Jewish tradition. It is described as an equal and parallel way of serving God. We concede that the Christian religion is no less valuable than ours. This is an extraordinary statement: acknowledging that our religion is just as valuable as another is the most difficult thing to say in interfaith discourse. This does not mean, however, that another religion’s truth has the same meaning for us as our own does.
DOES IT MEAN THAT ORTHODOX JEWS AND CONSERVATIVE CATHOLICS ARE ALSO WILLING TO ACCEPT THAT THEIR RESPECTIVE TRUTHS ARE EQUALLY VALUABLE?
There were a few Orthodox rabbis among the signatories, but not many. I cannot predict whether this viewpoint will be ever adopted by all Jews. Fifty years passed between the Seelisberg Conference and the publication of “Dabru Emet”, and we are witnessing substantial changes over time. Therefore, it is clear that change is possible though this may seem surprising. If we regard religion from a purely conceptual view, it is easy to surmise: this is one view, and this is another – what could ever change here? We are discussing religion, not science. We are asking why contemporary viewpoints should be any different from those favored 500 years ago.
RELIGIOUS DOGMAS DON’T TEND TO CHANGE EASILY.
They don’t. The Scripture remains the same as do our traditions. However, it turns out that our approach can change, but this is rarely something we can control. In my opinion, there is a great lesson in this for us all: that some things can and do change over time.
IS “DABRU EMET” THE MOST RECENT DOCUMENT IN THIS DIALOGUE?
No. In 2009, the International Council of Christians and Jews issued another document, a bit longer than “Dabru Emet”. It is known as the “Twelve Berlin Points”. This document remains mostly unknown outside of a narrow group of people who work on this subject because it has never been officially announced. It was signed by representatives of various interfaith organizations from several countries. I signed it as well, this time as representative of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews.
WERE THERE ANY ORTHODOX RABBIS AMONG THE SIGNATORIES THIS TIME?
There were some Orthodox Jews among the signatories, e.g., Rabbi David Rosen from Israel, who, back in 2009, was one of the leaders of the International Council of Christians and Jews. Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein from Jerusalem signed it as well, though he is also inclined towards more Orthodox teachings. They are both leaders in interfaith dialogue across the globe. The document does not contradict Orthodoxy, here understood as orthopraxis. The only thing it does contradict is a certain mentality. I do hope that this attitude spreads across the globe, although things may well go in the opposite direction. Right now, we are observing a worldwide turn toward more fundamentalist approaches. Communities tend to isolate themselves rather than to engage in dialogue. People who represent various religious institutions seem to be less open to cultural and intellectual exchange and they do not perceive the changes happening in the world as a positive phenomenon. We need a change on this level – a change within our religious organizations and in our perception of the world around us. I do consider it a certain threat, but also an opportunity for the development of both religious thought and religiousness as a concept. We need to face the challenges of contemporary world, instead of avoiding them.
AND WHAT CHALLENGES DOES RELIGION FACE TODAY?
One of the challenges is to give up on the outdated belief that these religious traditions are interchangeable with science. The creation of the world according to Bereshit is reminiscent of a scientific report: at the beginning light appeared, followed by earth and water. However, today’s science and cosmology describe these events very differently. The biblical description remains important for a different reason; not as a proto-scientific tract, but as an illustration that allows us to believe that our world is not devoid of meaning, and that everything happens for a reason. Therefore, we are here for a purpose as well and we have our tasks to fulfill here on Earth. And this is especially relevant for Jews. This is a concept of fate, expressed as a certain task. This kind of thinking is completely distinct from scientific thinking, which does not take such things as fate into account. Science considers phenomena which lead to other phenomena, with no higher purposes assigned to them other than chance.
In the biblical description of creation, the most important element is the statement at the end of each day: and it was good. The creation of man is thus described as being very good and this is the foundation that everything else is built upon by the rabbis of Judaism. Detaching science from faith is a necessary step we must not be afraid to take. It is vital for us to recognize the role science plays in today’s world, while still appreciating the spiritual benefits of faith. This is something science cannot – and does not need to – replace.
IN ONE OF YOUR ESSAYS, YOU ACTUALLY SUGGESTED THAT JEWS COULD REJECT MOSES AS AN HISTORICAL FIGURE WITHOUT CAUSING ANY SIGNIFICANT DAMAGE TO JUDAISM.
I wrote that it would be still possible for Judaism to function without upholding the belief that Moses was a historical figure who experienced all that is ascribed to him in the Torah. There is no historical evidence of Moses’ existence and events did not necessarily have to occur as described in the Torah. The narrative about Moses, about his crossing the desert, may be historically inaccurate, but at the end of the day, it does express something I consider true and coherent with the entire Jewish tradition. However, I am certain that my perspective is not commonly accepted, and that it may offend many people from more traditional backgrounds.
The details of the story of Moses are not as important as the message that it conveys. What we should focus on is the great process of liberation from captivity, the development of our moral compass, the receipt of the commandments, our connection with Israel, and so on. All these concepts must have been there somewhere; it is not something that could have been simply made up. This is a description of deep truths, but with the use of narrative tools which are not necessarily rooted in fact. This happens all the time, after all. If we were to describe 1981 in Poland, we could do so by saying: “When the Solidarity movement arose, the whole world held its breath, watching”. When read literally, this sentence makes no sense. The world did not hold its breath at all, and not that many people were interested. But in a way, it was also true.
I claim that it is the main message of the story of Moses that is paramount, but I also need to add that we must take into account all the details of the narrative. They are the foundation on which our tradition has been built. I am not saying that our tradition could carry on without Moses. The biblical description might not be historically accurate, but it does express truths which stem from history. I do not know if Moses really existed, but something really did happen around that time. The people who wrote the Bible would not have made up and included events that were not favorable, such as Jacob cheating Esau out of Isaac’s blessing, in order to create genealogy. Therefore, we should embrace Moses as part of our entire tradition, but not in a naïve manner.
DOES THIS STORY, TOGETHER WITH OTHER SIMILAR STORIES FROM THE TORAH, BRING US CLOSER TO CHRISTIANS? DOES IT PROMOTE DIALOGUE?
It is both a good thing and a bad thing at the same time. It is good, because it gives us a common source. It is very important that Christians recognize the authority of the Hebrew Bible, which they call the Old Testament. Maimonides said that we can even study Torah together with Christians, since they appreciate its value as a text created out of revelation, and not just a book. However, he also emphasized that from our perspective Christians are guilty of idolatrous practices. We should not forget that Maimonides lived in a Muslim world which did not allow any images or sculptures and therefore it was very easy for him to accuse Christians of idolatry.
AND WHY IS IT A BAD THING?
Common history also poses problems caused by the process of these two religions going their separate ways. At the beginning, Christians were just part of the wider Jewish community. In the second century, the differences between Christians and Jews were not obvious to anyone (for example Romans) outside their communities. It took a few generations for them to truly separate and expand their community to include non-Jews. This was a long-term evolution. This process ignited conflict. This was when Jews began perceiving themselves in opposition to Christians, and vice versa. I think this was unavoidable.
CENTURIES HAVE PASSED.
And this is why we need to look at it from a different perspective, and not from the anachronistic perspective of the beginnings of Christianity, when the separation process was still occurring. Today, we have two separate traditions, connected by a common source. Now we can regard Christians as followers of a separate religious tradition centered around Jesus. We need to accept this as their truth and respect it as such, which does not mean we need to follow it as our own. It would have been impossible to have made such statement during the period when these two religions were in the process of separation. Everything we believed in was both their and ours. My attitude toward this issue automatically reflects my attitude toward my own religion and tradition. Today’s equivalent of that conflict is the issue of the so-called Messianic Jews, who claim to be Jews, but they recognize Jesus as their Messiah, which I personally cannot accept. They claim to be Jews, but they also speak of a man named Jesus, and their message is that my faith is also, in a way, related to Jesus. Jesus is definitely not part of my faith. If they include Jesus in Judaism, they introduce a grave obstacle that inevitably leads to conflict.
In my opinion, anyone who claims that they are a Messianic Jew is not an equal partner in dialogue for us, Jews.
DIALOGUE COULD ONLY PROGRESS IF THEY ESTABLISHED A SEPARATE RELIGION?
That would have to be their choice. From my perspective, they are Christians. If this is how they choose to identify themselves, that’s fine. Their claim, however, that they are Jews poses a serious problem.
IN YOUR BOOK, YOU WRITE THAT CHRISTIANS ARE THE ONLY FRIENDS JEWS HAVE. THIS IS QUITE A STRONG STATEMENT AS HISTORY CLEARLY SHOWS OTHERWISE. DOES IT REFER TO OUR COMMON ROOTS, OR SOMETHING ELSE?
I do not claim this statement to be historically relevant and I am fully aware of all the dark moments in the history we share. But I do believe the Christian-Jewish relationship is special and it has a lot of potential. This potential is what makes Christians our friends. It is because Christians recognize Jews as the Chosen People, and they understand this concept. Even the conservative Christians, who consider this concept outdated and irrelevant, are still capable of understanding it. Of course, people from other religious backgrounds may also accept the idea of Jews being the Chosen People, but this does not follow from their own religious tradition. That Christians are the Jews’ only friends is just a figure of speech, but I think it does say a lot about our relationship. ■
» first published in January 2015
Translation: Aga Zano