by Peter Ochs and David Sandmel

The time has come for Jews to learn about Christianity in Jewish terms.

In September of this year 2000, an interdenominational group of Jewish scholars and rabbis made public the fruits of several years of work and two millennia of memories. They published a public statement and an academic book, "Christianity in Jewish Terms, possibly the first effort ever by a formal gathering of Jews to initiate a Jewish theology of Christianity.(1) In this essay, two of the project's editors introduce Cross Currents readers to the purposes, hopes, and struggles that lie behind this initiative.

Christianity in Jewish Terms is a theology offered both about and in response to Christian theologies that themselves arose from within, about, and in response to Judaism. It also recognizes that, since the dawn of Christianity, Jewish theologies have often been a response to Christianity. In the past, these mutual influences have been obscured by a rhetoric of rejection. It is only recently that scholars and theologians have become aware of the almost symbiotic relationship between the two traditions. This Jewish theology is offered, moreover, in response to efforts by courageous Christians who, in the years since the Shoah, have exposed those aspects of their tradition that helped create Western anti-Semitism and who offered new Christian visions that affirm the rightful place of Jews and Judaism in the cosmic order. Our theological project has therefore been dialogic in form, part of an ongoing history of responses to responses; in keeping with that theme, we introduce the project here by illustrating how our editorial group responded and to what we responded, with what effects.

* * *

Bleak images before the eyes. We editors work, still, in the shadow of the Shoah and the dominant images out of which this project grew are terrible images. We were all children born into a world of shadows as members of a traumatized people -- and children of parents and grandparents whose memories and images of Christianity were, to say the least, dark.

But there are also more recent, more positive images. We were all educated, in part, in American universities, alongside Christian students and teachers of religion and theology, some of whom became friends and colleagues. And compatriots, too: fellow students of scripture and history and philosophy and ethics. Each of us had Christian colleagues whose concerns overlapped with aspects of our own Jewish pursuits: our concerns, for example, to nurture disciplines of reason as instruments of our religion and to revitalize the role of biblically based studies as sources of ethical thinking. We knew that Jews and Christians took different approaches to Bible studies: our approach was rabbinic, theirs was based on patristic and/or contemporary Catholic or Reformation models of reading. But each of us found -- to our initial surprise and against the expectations of other Jewish colleagues and kinfolk -- that an expanding number of contemporary Jewish and Christian thinkers adopted analogous strategies for defending their biblical traditions against three common challenges.

One common challenge was the emergence of radically secular, materialist, and relativist tendencies that diminished the influence of any biblical religion in the contemporary West. As our work in the university matured, we each discovered that we shared with a circle of Christian as well as Jewish colleagues some analogous strategies for recovering and defending the status of biblically based modes of reasoning within the academy.(2) For example, we all studied and practiced biblical and post-biblical forms of interpretation as modes of reasoning rather than as some extra-rational form of confession. We held these interpretations to sophisticated standards of criticism, but we also applied the same standards to our university colleagues' studies of philosophy or literature or science. We argued that these studies held no more privileged position in the orders of being and reason and ethics than our religious studies. Even more, we argued that, in this century of terrible destruction in the West, the hegemonic traditions of modern humanism had to be called to account for their ethical and political failings. And we were no longer willing to be bullied by secular critics who preached suspicion of biblically based ethics while protecting their own vast assumptions from rational -- and moral -- inspection.

But another common challenge was the emergence of radical religious fundamentalisms as reactionary bulwarks against modern secularism. We found that our Christian colleagues also shared with us comparable criticisms of the fundamentalist movements within each of our religions. Our shared criticism was that radical secularism and radical religious fundamentalism share a comparable logic of either/or: the dichotomous reasoning that enables individuals to imagine that they each, somehow, conceive of the whole of things on heaven and earth and that, whatever they believe to be true of this whole is true, while its contrary is false. So, God is either this or that and each of us knows which; Judaism is either this or that, and each of us knows which.

Along with our circle of colleagues, we judged this logic to contradict our biblical teachings. This did not mean that we affirmed some contrary position, as if to say that if we do not individually know the whole then there is no knowledge of it and we succumb to some nihilism. We all judged, instead, that this logic of either/or simply fails accurately to represent the way that knowledge works and that we work within traditions of interpretation that represent knowledge appropriately.

There was, however, a third common challenge that gnawed at our traditions from within: the implosion of religious faith and confidence that has followed the Shoah. As Eugene Borowitz and Elie Wiesel have written, we Jews did not lose faith in God during the Shoah -- many had lost that faith already after the Enlightenment and emancipation. What we lost was faith in humanity -- faith in the humanism that for so many had replaced our traditional religion. For many Jews, this humanism had already appeared in Jewish dress as if it were our modern Judaism, so that the loss of Jewish humanistic faith after the Shoah did, after all, mean a crisis of religious faith. It is not as if, now mistrusting secularism, Jews rush back to some form of traditional Jewish practice. The crisis of Jewish confidence is that many Jews do not have any strong idea about what belief or knowledge or faith to adopt. This is the kind of crisis that leads to moral and ontological enervation. And this is a terrible problem for us.

While Jews and Christians face this same problem, it challenges us in different ways. For Jews, the Shoah remains a defining event of our collective existence. It means that humanity, Western civilization, Christianity, and God all have some explaining to do -- that our relationship with all of these begins with questions, challenges, and uncertainties. And this means that, under the surface at least, we do not assume that "existence," or maaseh breshit (the order of creation), is fully ordered, or rational, or even good. For many or perhaps most Jews, a part of the darkness of being is displayed in the questionable behavior of many Christians during the Shoah and in the troubling ways that many forms of Christianity have, for two millennia, defined themselves over against Judaism, as either critics of or substitutes for Judaism.

We know that there are Christians for whom the Shoah appears in no way to be a significant aspect of their religious identities. But we judge that, independently of individual opinions, the Shoah remains an irrepressible aspect of contemporary Christian self-identity. This fact reconnects us to the circle of Christians and Jews, mentioned earlier, within which we carry on our theological work. The Christians in this circle share our judgment that Christianity cannot define itself today without including a serious response to the Shoah and the Christian failings that are implicated in it. They have also introduced us to a broader movement of Christian scholars who appear to think about the Shoah as much as we do and who, with great courage, have worked to revise the words of Christian liturgy, teachings, and doctrine that underwrite Christian anti-Judaism and supersessionism.

Christian rescuers. We stand, perhaps, in the third generation of Jewish respondents to the Shoah. The first generation, in the numbing first decade after the Shoah, attended for the most part to collecting testimonies and recounting the horrible facts of atrocity. For the second generation, of which Elie Wiesel's work is prototypical, the time had come to compose fictional but historically realistic accounts of the victims' suffering. While extending the work of the first two generations to new media, primarily cinema, this third generation appears to turn its historical gaze to rescuers (Christian rescuers in particular), as well as to victims and oppressors. In other areas of inquiry, philosophers now ask what lessons of ethics are to be learned from these horrible years; psychologists examine the lives of the children of survivors; humanistic scholars examine the early history of Jewish memorializations of the Shoah. Theologians ask what has happened to our relationship to the one to whom we pray, what has happened to our covenant, and what do we have to say, now, about Christianity -- the religion of some of our rescuers as well as of our oppressors?

Popularly, "rescuers" refers to those Christians and others honored at Yad Vashem and elsewhere for helping save Jews during the Shoah. But it also seems appropriate for us today to apply the label "theological rescuers" to our Christian colleagues who seek and have sought to rescue Christianity itself from anti-Jewish or supersessionist tendencies and expressions. Scholars such as James Parkes, Edward Flannery, and Rosemary Radford Ruether have honestly confronted the history of Christian teachings about Jews and Judaism. More recently, A. Roy Eckardt, Norman Beck, Paul van Buren, Clark Williamson, John Pawlikowski and Mary Boys have offered theologies of Christianity, grounded in the traditional Christian sources, in which Jews and Judaism are sources of blessing. These scholars have been part of the Christian Scholars Group that has been meeting for over twenty-five years and has now become a program of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, which also provided the educational forum in which our project developed. In addition to their scholarly accomplishments, the work of the Christian Scholars Group has been effectively communicated to clergy and lay leaders on the congregational level. Finally, official church bodies, Catholic and Protestant, have publicly repudiated anti-Semitism and the teaching of contempt as inimical to authentic Christianity. The recent visit of the pope to Israel -- praying at the Kotel and offering a confession at Yad va-Shem -- symbolizes the courage of the theological rescuers and the progress that has been made in the last fifty years.

Jews have been happy to assist Christian scholars in this work and to further the efforts, as one Christian colleague puts it, "to clean up our mess." And Jews have been quick both to praise Christian efforts and to point out their weaknesses or shortcomings. To this date, however, few Jews have grappled with the question of how Judaism might respond in its own authentic voice to the profound changes that have taken place in the Christian world.

This is not an indictment of the Jewish community. The wounds of the past are still healing; it is hard to overcome centuries of distrust. Disillusioned with universalism and frightened by the inroads of assimilation, Jews are turning away from the world and into their own communities. Furthermore, the recent changes in the Christian world are not universally accepted by all Christians; missionary activity and anti-Jewish rhetoric are still integral to sectors of the Christian community. Nevertheless, while we recognize all the factors that lead to these reactions, we believe that they no longer function as an effective means of responding to today's challenges.

A New Response. We believe that, living as a minority in a still largely Christian America and Christian West, Jews need to learn the languages and beliefs of their neighbors. They need to understand the meaning of what their Christian neighbors are saying: about what modern society should become and about the place of the Jewish people itself in that society. Jews need to learn ways of judging what forms of Christianity are friendly to them and what forms are not, and what forms of Christian belief merit their public support and what forms do not. They need, as well, to acknowledge the efforts of those Christians who have sacrificed aspects of their work and of their lives to combat Christian anti-Judaism and to promote forms of Christian practice that are friendly to Jewish life and belief. They need to know enough about Christian belief that they can explain their own Jewish goals and ideals for society in terms their Christian neighbors will understand.

For the past hundreds of years, when Jews have been taught about Christian belief, it has been primarily in non-Jewish terms. During the years of their residence in Christian Europe, Jews learned about Christianity only through the untranslated terms of a Christianity that separated itself from its Jewish roots. Then, during the years that followed Emancipation, Jews learned about Christianity through the equally non-Jewish terms of secular European thought. This was often the most difficult kind of learning, since secular European thought often treated Christianity as a universal religion, as opposed to the particularity or "tribalism" of Judaism. We believe it is time for Jews to learn about Christianity in Jewish terms: to rediscover the basic categories of rabbinic Judaism and to hear what the basic categories of Christian belief sound like when they are taught in terms of this rabbinic Judaism. This is to hear Christianity in our terms and therefore understand it deeply, perhaps for the first time.

If Christianity is changing in these years after the Holocaust, Judaism is changing as well. During the past two hundred years, Judaism has suffered from an increasing inner division, separating the realms of science and reason on the hand and faith and tradition on the other. It is as if the Jewish religion itself spoke of an unbridgeable gulf between the human and the divine. The editors of Christianity in Jewish Terms, however, are animated by a different vision. The Judaism we editors encounter in the Bible, Talmud, and our other classic sources has always emphasized the partnership of humanity and God. We have therefore gathered together essays that help us rediscover the power of the classical sources of Judaism to heal the divisions from which we suffer today: between human reason and Jewish faith, as well as between Judaism and Christianity.

There are two main concerns at the heart of our book: how to renew our understanding of Judaism today from out of the sacred texts and, then, how to understand Christianity in terms of this Judaism.

Our first goal is to educate American Jews about the religion of their Christian neighbors. American Jews, proud of their knowledge of so many things, know relatively little about the actual theologies of Christianity. Too many Jews understand Christianity only in oppositional terms that grossly oversimplify or actually distort both traditions. Thus, many Jews believe that original sin and incarnation are totally alien to Judaism, just because they are emphasized by Christianity. Such misunderstanding is also displayed in the commonplace Jewish assertion that theology is a uniquely Christian endeavor. In addition, many Jews -- including those who have no fear of everyday social interaction with Christians -- fear that theological engagement with Christianity will lead to weakened Jewish commitment and intermarriage. We suggest, however, that ignorance of Christianity leaves Jews ignorant of differences between the traditions as well as of differences between either tradition and the prevailing modern culture in which both Jews and Christians participate. We hold that a sound understanding of Christianity is as essential for Jewish survival as it is for mutual understanding among Jews and Christians.

Our second goal is to explore and expand Jewish theology for its own sake (l'shma, as we say). American Jews often know relatively little about the theologies of Judaism as well! We sense, in fact, that secular Jews' resistance to learning about Christianity may, in part, reflect their resistance to their own theological traditions. Our goal is to stimulate renewed interest in the theologies of classical rabbinic Judaism and, then, to extend Jewish theology to include theologies of Christianity.

Our third goal is to contribute to the revitalization of Judaism after the Shoah and in the face of modern secularism and postmodern doubt. We turn away from the modern Jewish tendency to cultural assimilation and reaffirm the enduring voice of the scriptural and rabbinic sources in our daily lives and our intellectual disciplines. But our turn is not antimodern. We appeal to standards of reason that are irreducible to the modern/anti-modern dialectic between "reason and faith," or "universality and particularity." Our reasoning is at once hermeneutical, scientific (in the classical sense), text-based, and responsive to the historically lived context of all textual interpretation. Our scriptural and rabbinic hermeneutic is therefore irreducible, as well, to the modern/anti-modern dialectic between a wholly universalized Judaism that is supposed to be identical to some universalized Christianity and a wholly particularized Judaism that is supposed to be incommensurable with any elements of Christianity. Our Judaism is neither assimilated to the Western world nor cut off from it. Reconnected to its scriptural and rabbinic roots -- but without losing its critical edge -- it is prepared to speak to the world once again: reintroducing ancient teachings that can offer renewed wisdom for a culture that has lost its bearings. And it is prepared to enlist sympathetic Christians -- and Muslims -- as co-workers in the task of repairing a troubled Western civilization.

Our fourth goal is to acknowledge and encourage the good work of Christian theological rescuers. For Jewish scholars to take Christian theology this seriously is to complement and compliment the courageous work of the Christian scholars who have sought to remove anti-Jewish and supersessionist language from church teachings and practices. This work is two-fold: to let the Christian world know that Jews are aware of and appreciate this work and to let Jews know that this work is being done and needs to be appreciated.

In closing, here are two brief illustrations of the theological voice of Christianity in Jewish Terms.

On God.(3) The name of God refers to the ultimate reason why we would write our book like this. We write as members of a people pulled apart from the world only because of our relationship to the one we call creator of the world (bore olam), merciful father -- or "womb-like father!" (av harachamim) -- the name YHVH who cannot be spoken, our God (elohenu). While most modern Jews do not often speak openly about their God, this appears to be more a sign of unfamiliarity than of modesty or even of protest against a God who would be God in this awful century. The cross-cultural evidence is that most people in the world feel comfortable talking about and to the one(s) they call "God." It may therefore require more chutzpah for a human being to claim to have no need for such a God than to admit to participating in such an ordinary practice. As for protest against God, throughout Jewish tradition this has been a primary means of prayer.

Christians as well as Jews today may rely on the ordinariness of talking to an extra-ordinary God as a shared resource in the effort to reestablish moral and religious order after the Shoah and after modernity. What, however, about the names of God that we do not share? There is another surprising lesson to be learned from ordinariness. It is in everyday religious practice that Jews and Christians may sound most different, since everyday practice is guided by the linguistic traditions of particular communities; and since Babel we have found that social differences are framed by linguistic difference. Trinitarian formulae of prayer are decidedly not the same as rabbinic formulae. Nonetheless, it is also in everyday practice that Jews and Christians behave in most clearly analogous ways: in the general form and consequences of their turning to a creator God who hears prayer and commands moral action. The analogy that divides us on one level also unites us on another; that is one reason that analogical thinking defies the either/or logic that burdens modern culture.

Some Jews, of a more intellectual as well as religious bent, may seek a bridge to understanding what is less ordinary in Christian religious practice, such as philosophic theologies of the mysteries of Trinity. Surprisingly, such Jews may find it most helpful to begin with questions typically asked by Jewish skeptics rather than by traditionalists. Imagine, for example, the Jewish skeptic who asks the traditionalist: "How can you claim that God speaks to us through words of scripture, when you admit that you are finite and God is infinite? If God's word is finite, then there would be nothing to distinguish it per se from other finite words. Do you want to claim that God's word is infinite?" Imagine that the traditionalist says, "Yes." That answer alone, however we judge it, offers sufficient entrée for Jewish study of Trinitarian speculations. It is not odd for a Jew to conceive of asking this question nor of answering it this way, and this answer leads to the speculation that the word that God speaks and that mediates between God and us may itself be infinite: a word that is at once "of God," in this sense, and also "of us." This is not Trinitarian speculation, but a Jew who speculates this way can enter into meaningful conversation with a Trinitarian philosophical theologian. And that is what we mean by a "bridge to understanding."

On Israel.(4) Much of the tragedy of the relationship between Jews and Christians can be traced to competing claims to be Israel, God's covenant partner. Is it possible for both Jews and Christians to lay claim to this name in ways that are not exclusionist? The Jewish understanding of Israel consists of three aspects. First, Jews are Israel because they are the descendants of a common ancestor, Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel (Gen. 32). Second, Jews as Israel are covenanted to the God of Israel at Mt. Sinai. Finally, Israel is the name of the land which, according to Jewish tradition, God promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel in perpetuity.

The church also claims to be Israel, although its understanding of what that means differs from the Jewish one. Christian tradition speaks of a "new Israel" or a "true Israel" consisting of those who recognize in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the continuation of God's covenant that began with Abraham. According to this exclusionist reading, the Jews rejected Jesus, the covenant, and God -- and so, in turn, God rejected the Jews and established a new covenant with the church. Christian self-understanding of Israel is not bound to any one nation or nor does it privilege any particular geographic location.

This exclusionist Christian understanding of Israel leaves no possibility for Jews to be a people in covenant with God. In post-Holocaust Christian theology, however, a new understanding of the relationship between God and Israel, God and the church, and the church and Israel is being articulated. Finding scriptural warrant in passages such as Romans 9-11, the new theology argues that God's promises are eternal -- and that, in particular, God's covenant with the Jews continues and, more importantly, informs and enriches the Christian covenant. Does Jewish tradition contain a warrant for acknowledging Christian claims to be in covenant with the God of Israel? While one starting point is the Jewish concept of the Noahide laws, this is not completely satisfactory, since it is largely a negative formulation and does not specifically address the Christian claim to be in covenant with the same God upon whom Israel calls. If we are serious about developing a Jewish theology of Christianity, then we must admit that this move by Christian theologians challenges the Jewish community to find within its scriptural resources a way of affirming Christianity's relationship with the God of Israel that does not compromise Judaism's integrity.

PETER OCHS is Edgar Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies at the University of Virginia. He is co-author of  “Dabru Emet”: a Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity. Recent books are Reviewing the Covenant (with Eugene Borowitz), and Reasoning after Revelation (with Steven Kepnes and Robert Gibbs).

DAVID SANDMEL is the Jewish Scholar on the staff of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies. He is coordinating National Jewish Scholars Project, a major initiative to promote a new discussion within the Jewish community and between Jews and Christians, the co-editor of Christianity in Jewish Terms, to which he has also contributed an essay.


1. [Back to text]  Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Sandmel, and Michael Signer, eds., Christianity in Jewish Terms (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000).

2. [Back to text]  Often Muslims shared in this circle as well; we attend for now to the Jewish-Christian exchange that defines this particular project.

3. [Back to text]  This paragraph paraphrases chap. 5 of the book.

4. [Back to text]  This paragraph paraphrases chap. 7 of the book.

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter 2000-01, Vol. 50  Issue 4.