Monday, December 28, 2015


In the post below, I called the Catholic Church’s 1974 “Guidelines on Religious Relations with the Jews” the best document it has ever produced on this subject. It is so good that it is most often ignored. But there is one thing missing from it. It implies this at certain points but it never comes straight out and says what has needed to be said for a long time: Jews have a different, and more original, relationship to Hebrew scripture than we do, and this must be respected.

It does say, “Dialogue demands respect for the other as he is; above all, respect for his faith and his religious convictions.” As a general statement, that is certainly fine. But this would have been an opportune moment to comment on the fact that for Christians, both the people at large and leading theologians and intellectuals, this has been difficult to do in their understanding of Jews precisely because Jews read the Hebrew scriptures differently than Christians do. The document should have entreated Catholics to specifically respect the Jewish relationship with scripture.

Further on, “Guidelines” refers to the Old Testament as retaining something of “its own perpetual value” but then implies that some parts of the old scripture have been “cancelled by the later interpretation of the New Testament.” It tries not to stress this, but it clearly cannot let go of proclaiming that the New Testament fulfills promises made in the previous scripture. It does go on to correct the false idea that Hebrew scripture and the Jewish tradition founded on it have been wrongly accused of being “a religion of only justice, fear and legalism, with no appeal to the love of God and neighbor.”

On the other hand, “Guidelines” tries to straddle two positions by proclaiming that Jesus’ teaching had “a profoundly new character” and yet he “took his stand on the teaching of the Old Testament.” The best thing about “Guidelines” is that it teaches that Jews have a valid religion in its own right; their traditions and values must not be mocked. It overthrows old Church teaching that Judaism ended with the destruction of the Temple. It just never confronts the conflict between the ideas that Jews will always have their own relationship to Hebrew scripture and that Christians believe Hebrew scripture has been superseded. Perhaps the conflict can never be resolved. What is needed is a clear statement that the conflict is there and has been used in the past to promote disrespect for Jews.

This reminds me of the problems that would come with later European imperialism. At first, meeting new peoples meant that imperial powers like Britain had to respect the laws and customs of indigenous people. But when Britain realized it had the power to impose itself, it abandoned the idea of two jurisdictions existing side by side. It declared that there would be one jurisdiction for Aborigines and white colonists alike. Even in the case of disputes between Aborigines, only British law would be followed. The Other and his ways had to be erased, not respected. In practice, this almost always meant that Aborigines would be subjected to the punishments meted out by British law, but they would never get the benefits of the law.

I point this out so that we don’t forget that ancient problems never go away. The relationship that the Catholic Church long ago established between Jews and Christians would have repercussions in the colonial era. We are still struggling to recognize it and get over it.

© 2105 Leon Zitzer

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