From Disputation to Dialogue - Conflict to Co-Operation
Dec 3rd 2015

25 November 2015 ~ 14 Kislev 5776

“This is the day that the Eternal has made.” What a privilege and blessing for our two communities to witness Canadian Rabbis and Bishops sharing wine and sitting together for dinner. This would have been unimaginable 100 years ago, when Albert Einstein presented his famous General Theory of Relativity. Just as his theory and equation changed forever the way scientists understood the physics of space-time, so the vatican declaration, Nostra Aetate, changed forever the relationship of Catholics and Jews.

We are grateful to our host, The Most Reverend Terrence Thomas Prendergast,  Bishop of Ottawa, for hosting us for what may be the first kosher meal ever served in the Cathedral, to The Most Reverend John A. Boissonneau, Auxiliary Bishop of Toronto, who co-chairs the dialogue initiated today between the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops and the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus, and to all of you, for your hospitality. You are truly the children of Abraham and Sarah, who promised a morsel of bread and a bit of water to their divine visitors, but provided a feast. We also appreciate and thank those who prepared and presented our meal.

In Paris, the birthplace of modern concepts of personal liberty and democratic equality, a series of recent terrorist aktions killed almost 130 people. Terrorists murdered and maimed innocent civilians in restaurants, a soccer stadium and a rock concert, all signs of an open Western lifestyle. In Israel, over the past two months, there have been 96 attacks, leaving 21 killed and 189 wounded, people, ranging in age from 13 to 80, who have been assaulted while walking on the street, riding a bicycle, waiting for a bus, or standing in prayer. These horrific actions, and others in Mali and Beirut, were intentional and symbolic.

As we well know, symbolic conflict that escalated into physical violence characterized the relationship of Christianity to Judaism for over 1,500 years. David Niremberg (Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, Norton, 2014) has persuasively argued that anti-Judaism is built into the genetic code of western civilization, before the advent of Christianity and well into contemporary secular life. But we know that from the time that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the relationship between our faith traditions was characterized by Christian might and Jewish fright, Christian authority and Jewish subjugation, Christian mobs and Jewish martyrdom.

An iconographic example may be found at the entrance to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Statues of two young women, Ecclesia and Synagoga, graphically symbolized the perspective of the Church toward the Jewish people. Ecclesia is adorned with a crown, chalice and cross-topped staff, looking forward in confidence. Synagoga is blindfolded, stooped, looking down, carrying a broken lance with the Tablets of the Covenant slipping from her hand. One was the victor, the other the vanquished.

Jews and Christians also used their interpretation of Biblical texts to portray each other in negative ways. The characters of Jacob and Esau were central to those expositions. “The older will serve the younger” became the watchword of Christianity which saw itself as the religion that had supplanted the older sibling. Judaism, represented by Esau, had sold its birthright to Jacob, spurning the covenant for material benefit, a bowl of lentils.

Jews also had a negative image of the Church. Rather than a religion of love, we experienced Christianity as full of hate. While the Bible identified Esau with Edom, the Rabbis saw Herod, who came from Idumea/Edom, as representative of Rome. Medieval Jews took this one step further. Since Christianity had taken on the mantle of Rome, the figure of Esau became, in turn, Edom, Rome and Christianity. “Esau was a hunter” who demanded “that red, red stuff”, the blood of the Jews. And the rivers of Europe flowed with our blood.

We recognize that the neutral framework of modern secular society—born in France—created the possibility of better interfaith relations. Cultural changes in the aftermath of World War II spelled a need to reconsider church practices.

Fifty years ago, the Catholic Church courageously took responsibility for its own failings and articulated a new vision for its future. Nostra Aetate profoundly changed Catholic-Jewish relations by reaffirming the teaching of Paul that the divine covenant with the Jewish people is eternal, that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah—the living God whose great Name the people of Israel is commanded to sanctify—has faithfully maintained a covenantal relationship with the first-chosen people, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah.

During the past five decades, the Church has condemned anti-Semitism and stated that the “spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews” should lead to “mutual understanding and respect.” It has recognized the existence of the State of Israel as a manifestation of divine blessing for the Jewish people.

Our newly established bi-lateral dialogue, exploring Jewish-Catholic relations and what our faith traditions might offer Canada, is long overdue. While differences between our two faith communities still exist, we have moved from disputation to dialogue, persecution to partnership, confrontation to cooperation and conflict to conciliation.

The past 50 years of dialogue have resulted in some profound changes.

While Nazism was profoundly anti-Christian, it drew upon previous Christian demonization of Jews. Anti-Jewish theology focusing on the charges of deicide and perfidy pervaded Western thought to such an extent that slaughtering Jews en-masse could be imagined and take place. This denigration and demonization of Jews has been eliminated from Catholic teaching.

The creation of the State of Israel is a statement of the ongoing vitality of the Jewish people. It is impossible to understand Jews and Judaism without a recognition that this political state is a theological affirmation of life and the possibility of national resurrection for our people.

The Roman Catholic Church of today is very different from the Church prior to Vatican II. Christians have become increasingly interested in exploring the life of Jesus and have come to a more heartfelt respect for Judaism as the religion of Jesus. The centuries-old belief that Christianity was verus, true Israel, with the Christian Jacob having replaced the Jewish Esau, has been significantly modified or completely rejected by Catholic theologians.

Many rabbinic leaders have acknowledged efforts of Catholics to improve relations with the Jewish people. They have called upon Jews to learn about these significant changes and to recognize that our distinctive religious traditions also share common areas of belief. I follow Rabbi Irving Greenberg in stating that while we may differ on details, we share beliefs in creation, covenant and the culmination of history.

Creation is the story of the triumph of life over death. Contemporary scientific discoveries show that the world is moving from non-life to life and religious insights declare that humanity is moving from being less to being more like God. Creation theology recognizes the dignity of all humans created in the image of God. As Pope Francis recently indicated, our mutual belief in creation calls us to expand our capacity to live in harmony with the created world and to recreate earth as Eden. In a shared effort with all humanity, we are invited to be partners (shutaf) with God in enhancing life in this world. The move from chaos to cosmos calls us to overcome anti-semitism, racism, hatred and death, to fulfil the vision of Isaiah: “the Eternal God will destroy death forever and wipe away tears from every face.”

Covenant tells the story of a non-apocalyptic pathway, a process to a better world. Covenantal activity takes place in this world. While God is with us, we affirm that human action is needed. The goal of the brit is the triumph of life, so the primary mitzvah is “choose life that you and your descendants shall live.” In that choice, human emotions, history, and traditions define us and should be respected. People are not only individuals; they grow in families and communities. Particularity and attachment are essential for real relationships. A paradigm people has been chosen, declared beloved of God, to advance the path to perfection, but election and Jewish survival is not an end in-itself. 

Christians and Jews differ on weight and risks given to particularism and universal mission. Jews emphasize family and nation, but face a real danger of tribalism. Christians sought to impact all humanity, but brought to that goal the danger of imperialism. Since the pace of covenant is a human one, with a multi-generational partnership needed to transmit values, we must not lose patience as we seek to share our vision. Jews are called in specific ways to sanctify God, but we are co-workers with other human beings in this process. Covenantal love is not exhausted with any one people, so we must make space for others to give witness to their particular path

Our understanding of the culmination of history, also termed redemption or salvation, has divided us. Christianity, inspired by the charisma and life of Jesus became convinced that the Messiah had appeared and believed that God had become incarnate to achieve goals of covenant. Faith in Jesus, rather than the study of Torah and practice of mitzvah, opened the covenant to all humanity.

However, Judaism said no to that messianic claim, pointing to continued evil and unredeemed existence in this world. In response, the Church identified Jews as carnal and made Jews pay for what was taken as recalcitrance. Jews also rejected belief in incarnation, asserting that the divide between God and humanity could be overcome in other ways. In turn, Christians labeled Jews as spiritually blind, obdurate, a fossil, superseded, and developed a theology that resulted in the degradation, conversion, and killing of Jews. Jews, maintaining our continued closeness with God, became convinced that Christianity was idolatrous and/or heretical, with false beliefs and a murderous ethic. As a result of Christian contempt and Jewish rejection, our two traditions went down the path toward hatred, killing our capacity for love.

My teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, made a number of secret flights to Rome to meet with Saint John XXIII. He believed that the moral and cultural credibility of Judaism and Christianity depended on overcoming the stain of this hatred. For our own religious integrity, we had to develop a standard of respect equal to that found in contemporary culture. He believed that we had to work together to avoid being swamped by secular modernity and to provide the spiritual strength that our world desperately needs.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written about two covenants, but not one that is old and another that is new. He argues that after the Holocaust and facing the threats of environmental devastation, nuclear destruction and religiously inspired terrorism, we need to affirm our common fate, symbolized by the universal covenant with Noah. At the same time, we must affirm our distinct, particular vision, represented by the covenant of Abraham, leading us on different paths toward the common culmination of time.

Vatican II was a sign of the possibility of healing and hope. Rather than replacement or repudiation, it represented the possibility of religious renewal with a recognition that the signals that Christians understand as resurrection and incarnation were not intended for Jews. We shall continue our classical covenantal mission as originally intended, instructed and commanded.

In the Jewish liturgical year, we are currently reading the narratives of Genesis. They include triumphalism, rejection, cruelty and defamation. These all arose from a human need to feel favoured. Subsequent fratricide reflects a failure to imagine that the infinite love of the Divine parent is not exhausted by the redemption of one people. God has enough love to choose many times and in many different ways (Greenberg).

The hate that Christianity taught weakened its redemptive capacity. The defensiveness reaction of Jews led to a focus on survival. But the time has come for the restoration of a shared vision.

For that, let me return to the statues of Ecclesia and Synagoga. When Napoleon occupied Milan in 1805, he ordered that the facade of Milan Cathedral include new representations of Synagoga and Ecclesia, symbolizing the legal equality of all religions under the French regime. Synagoga stands upright, holding the Ten Commandments, and Ecclesia is portrayed as the Lady of Liberty, with crown and torch.

Recently, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Nostra Aetate, a large sculpture of the two figures was dedicated at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. In a surprise visit, accompanied by his friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka, this statue was blessed by the Holy Father in his September visit to the United States. It portrays the two women in harmony, each wearing crowns, holding their respective Holy Scriptures, even learning one from another.

Last May, I was with a group of Cardinals, Bishops, Priests and Rabbis who gathered in the Galilee to discuss contemporary Catholic-Jewish relations. On the eve of the minor festival of Lag b’Omer, a day marking a respite from Roman persecution, we assembled to dance and sing around a celebratory bonfire. Before us was a statue of the late Pope John Paul II. An aged rabbi, a survivor of the Holocaust, wept and said to me that he could never have imagined this. It was not a fire of hatred, but a fire of love. Age-old animosity need not continue.

Being together is so important. Sharing food and conversation fosters a theology of engagement and relationship. A few years ago, Cardinal Collins enjoyed a holiday dinner in my sukkah, the hut that represents the temporary shelter in the Wilderness trek to the Land of Promise, and that challenges us to provide sustainable and affordable housing for our world. As Conrad Aiken wrote, “bread I broke with you was more than bread.”

On two occasions, I have joined with an imam, a priest, and a minister to bring Jews, Muslims and Christians to the Holy Land. We travelled the Path of Abraham because Israel is the Biblical and national homeland of the Jewish people, the spiritual birthplace of Christianity and the location of Muslim sacred sites. Our faiths are inextricably linked by ties of history, geography and theology.

The pilgrimage of Pope Francis to the Holy Land, to the land of the people into which Jesus was born, demonstrated his personal humility, modesty and a commitment to social justice. It would be an important gesture of solidarity for Canadian Catholic and Jewish religious leaders to emulate the Holy Father, travelling in pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem with significant lay leaders from the two communities. This would advance the mutual understanding and respect that already exists between our faiths.

Another worthy act would be to speak up together on behalf of the endangered and historic Christian communities of the Middle East. Their welfare is an important statement about the history and continuity of Christianity from the time of Jesus.

It is time to reconfigure our relationship, to reaffirm the power of divine and human love, and the possibility of spiritual and ethical purity. This will give new credibility to our witness to God. Our mutual respect will contribute to the restoration of respect for religious leadership as we face the complex issues of our culture, our country and our world. We must stand as witnesses that religion need not breed intolerance and hatred.

A few years ago, when my cousin was preparing to step down from the United States Senate, he invited me to deliver the invocation before the opening session. I spoke of rock climbing. When ascending a crevice, climbers push off one side then another to gain the lift needed to advance higher. This is called chimneying up. We can also chimney up, using the teachings of the other to boost us up closer to God.

In our dialogue, we dare not filter out the difference. We must witness to our own distinctiveness and make room for the uniqueness of others. My truth cannot cover all others, all possibilities, all times. Our dialogue can demonstrate that religion can avoid triumphalism and terror. Our dialogue can show that we are servants, not the singular bearers of Divine love, truth, or the culminating redemption that is coming.

Rather than argue whether it is the second or first coming, let us work together to bring the Messiah. Let there be mutual love and respect, working together for higher social and spiritual purposes. What a privilege we have to live in this moment and in this country. Let us overcome the terror and death we see elsewhere with our witness to love and life. 

Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl
Senior Rabbi, Beth Tzedec Congregation
Vice-Chair, Canadian Rabbinic Caucus