Welcome to a new TOI blog series devoted to Jewish-Christian relations, and issues of concern to Jews and Christians in Israel and around the world.
Before we can even begin to address the very important topic of why Jews should learn something about Christianity and Jewish-Christian relations, we should first address one of the perennial “elephants in the room”. Because I’m often asked by well-meaning Christians why it seems that there are so many more Christians interested in Judaism and in building better Jewish-Christian relations than there are Jews. People often want to know why Jews seem less interested in Christianity, and even in Jewish-Christian relations. There are a number of elements consider as we try to answer this question, one we might say is “where are the Jews?!”
First – at the risk of stating the obvious – there are simply more Christians than there are Jews in the world. A lot more. For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that 1% of each religion’s adherents might be interested in building deeper Jewish-Christian engagement. If we were to apply this 1% to the world’s Jews and Christians, using the numbers provided by the 2015 Pew Research Center data, we would end up with a pool of 23 million Christians and about 140,000 Jews. This reminds us that a significant part of the apparent imbalance is simply the result of numbers. Christians often have little sense of just how few Jews there are in the world. Sheer numeric difference means that while it might at times look like there’s a huge imbalance in Jewish and Christian interest in Jewish-Christian relations, some of that is not so much a substantive issue as it is a demographic one.
Second – and of great importance – is the fact that at some level, Christians must engage the issue of Jewishness and even Judaism. The basic reality that the earliest Church was Jewish, that Jesus himself was a Jew, and a belief that the incarnation of God took place in Jewish flesh and among the people of Israel means that Jewishness can never be just accidental to Christianity. Nostra Aetate paragraph 4 reminds us that the Christian bond with the Jewish people is an essential part of the mystery of the Church. However, we need to remember that the reverse is not true: Jews can and do lead completely faithful, robust and authentic Jewish lives without ever having to engage Christianity as a theological category. Christianity does not necessarily occupy any special theological category for Judaism. So it’s not immediately obvious to Jews why the topic of Christianity should be of any particular special interest.
Third – our difficult history: Jews are extremely well aware of the painful history that stands between us. It’s a shame, but it’s often the case that the most we Jews know about Christianity is where it tragically intersects with the history of our own people – in places like the Crusades, the Inquisition, charges of deicide, blood libel and host desecration. And while that’s undoubtedly only a partial view, it means that many Jews are at the very least uncomfortable with Christianity. That discomfort that exists among some Jews due to a long history of Christian anti-Judaism can even express itself as negativity and suspicion. And let’s face it: discomfort, negativity and suspicion are hardly a strong platform for developing mutual engagement. Most Jews tend not to know much about the deep, careful, respectful kind of Christian re-thinking about Jews and Judaism that has characterized Western Christianity following the Shoah.
Fourth – At least in Israel, Christianity comprises an extremely small minority. Forming only about 2% of the Israeli population, it is possible for Jews in Israel to go through their entire lives never having knowingly met a Christian. And while that’s impossible to imagine in Western countries where Christians form the dominant religion and Jews are a tiny minority, it very much impacts the plausibility for Israeli Jews to participate in Jewish-Christian relations.
And so, as we see, we simply cannot expect any kind of parity when it comes to Jews and Christians engaging with each other. Some of this is simply because the numbers are so imbalanced. But also, investigating Christianity and Jewish-Christian relations is simply not as obviously necessary for Jews, not as essential to our own being, as it is for Christians to engage with Judaism. Jews must face the challenge of our difficult history, and managing the bitter feelings that can still be active. The question that remains then is to wonder “Why should we?” Can we articulate reasons why perhaps Jews actually should learn something about Christians, Christianity and Jewish-Christian relations?
(stay tuned for part 2)