Orthodox rabbis okay with Christianity since Catholic Church says God's covenant with Jews is eternal

by Gregory Tomlin, |
Pope Francis touches the stones of the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem on May 26, 2014. Pope Francis has said God's covenant with the Jews is eternal and a group of British priests has called on the Vatican to alter Good Friday prayers calling for the conversion of the Jews. In response, the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation has issued a statement recognizing Christianity as a fraternal faith with "religious value." | REUTERS/Andrew Medichini/Pool

EFRAT, Israel (Christian Examiner) – A group of Orthodox rabbis has issued a lengthy statement calling for partnerships between Jews and Christians because of the "positive theological status of the Christian faith" – a finding based generally on the Catholic Church's ongoing retreat from its efforts to convert Jews to Christianity.

The statement from the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) in Efrat, Israel, claims rabbis issued the statement because of their appreciation for the "religious value of Christianity." It was published on the group's website.

"To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians" is signed by more than 25 prominent Orthodox rabbis in Israel, the United States and Europe. It calls on the two faiths to work together to promote the system of ethics inherent in both Judaism and Christianity to meet the challenges of modern life.

"The real importance of this Orthodox statement is that it calls for fraternal partnership between Jewish and Christian religious leaders, while also acknowledging the positive theological status of the Christian faith. Jews and Christians must be in the forefront of teaching basic moral values to the world," Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, one of the statement's authors, said. Riskin is founder of CJCUC, a member of the Israeli Rabbinate and the chief rabbi of Efrat.

Now that the Catholic Church has acknowledged the eternal Covenant between G-d and Israel, we Jews can acknowledge the ongoing constructive validity of Christianity as our partner in world redemption, without any fear that this will be exploited for missionary purposes.

The statement, according to a press release accompanying it, is not a direct response to Roman Catholic "Nostra Aetate," or "In Our Time," which was issued during the Second Vatican Council in 1965 and absolved the Jews of guilt in the death of Jesus Christ. It also decried anti-Semitism.

Instead, the press release said the statement was motivated by "Christianity's new affirmation of the eternity of the Jewish covenant and the respect Christian leaders have demonstrated toward Judaism and the Jews in contemporary dialogue and religious encounters."

Last week, a group of British priests asked Pope Francis to revise the prayer for Jews prayed annually on Good Friday. The priests said the public prayer should no longer include a request for God to aid in the conversion of the Jews to faith in Christ. On January 17, Pope Francis will also visit Rome's Great Synagogue. He will be the third pontiff to do so.

In 2013, Pope Francis also wrote in an article that the Jews should be remembered fondly "as the root that produced Jesus."

"God never abandoned his covenant with Israel, and notwithstanding their terrible suffering over the centuries, the Jewish People have kept their faith," Francis wrote. "For this, we will never be sufficiently grateful to them as a Church, but also as human beings. In the persistence of their faith in the God of the Covenant, they summon all, including us as Christians, to recall the fact that we are awaiting the return of the Lord as pilgrims, and must therefore always remain open to Him and never retreat from what we have already achieved."

According to Rabbi Eugene Korn, who serves as the academic director of CJCUC in Israel, the proclamation issued by the collection of rabbis represents a recognition of the changing face of relations between Jews and Christians. Korn said rabbinical leaders "have finally acknowledged that Christianity and Judaism are no longer engaged in a theological duel to the death and that Christianity and Judaism have much in common spiritually and practically. Given our toxic history, this is unprecedented in Orthodoxy."

U.S. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, whom the group described as its most active Orthodox theologian in the area of Jewish-Christian relations, said the rabbis have come to understand there is "room in traditional Judaism to see Christianity as part of God's covenantal plan for humanity, as a development out of Judaism that was willed by God."

Another rabbi, David Rosen, who serves as international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, added, "We need to work together to meet our common challenges: the assault of radical secularism, religious extremism and moral relativism on the heritage and dignity of humankind."

According to the full statement issued by CJCUC, hostility and division between Jews and Christians has allowed the current climate of anti-Semitism and religious extremism to develop. It calls on the two groups to work together to teach the ethnical monotheism inherent to both.

Most significantly, the statement claims "Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations. In separating Judaism and Christianity, G-d willed a separation between partners with significant theological differences, not a separation between enemies."

"Now that the Catholic Church has acknowledged the eternal Covenant between G-d and Israel, we Jews can acknowledge the ongoing constructive validity of Christianity as our partner in world redemption, without any fear that this will be exploited for missionary purposes," the statement also said. 

The statement also describes Jesus as a teacher who "majestically" defended the Torah, but it came no closer to recognizing Jesus as "Savior" or "Messiah," even for Christians. In fact, the statement said the partnership between Jews and Christians "in no way minimizes the ongoing differences between the two communities and two religions."

Still, the statement said Jews and Christians could work together in "redeeming the world."