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Rabbi Offers Hopeful Insights on Christian-Jewish Relations

Rabbi James Rudin spent his professional career as the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee and he brings nuanced insights from decades of participation in interreligious dialogue to his new book, “Christians and Jews — Faith to Faith: Tragic History, Promising Present, Fragile Future.”

Rabbi Rudin’s major focus in this important book is the relationship between Jews and Catholics (appropriately so, because that is the most mature conversation) but he also writes about Muslim-Jewish relations and discusses theological differences in Protestant attitudes toward Judaism and Israel.

“Christians and Jews” can be used as a practical guide to organizing interreligious programs, but it can also be read for its concise introduction to Western religious history and theology, supplemented by a comprehensive, nine-page bibliography that could be the basis of an academic or personal course of study.

Rabbi Rudin provides a straightforward and intelligent guide to the theological developments that led to the “tragic history” between Christians and Jews. He clarifies the differences between Jewish sects during the Roman occupation (Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots and Essenes) and shows how those groups impacted Judaism and Christianity. He carefully addresses the “painful flashpoint” of “who and what forces” brought about Jesus’ crucifixion, including an extended analysis of the deicide charge and Christian portrayals of Pontius Pilate.

“Christianity, the faith that grew up after the death of Jesus, began almost unnoticed in the last chaotic days of the Second Temple,” he writes. “Eventually, metaphysical interpretations and extraordinary cosmic claims about Jesus, some made centuries later, created a permanent theological separation, a rupture between Judaism and Christianity that has existed to our own day. But that clear division came only after Jesus’ life and death.”

Rabbi Rudin’s chapter on “Saul, Call Me Paul” introduces the reader to the theological roots of supersessionism, or displacement theology. He quotes Father John T. Pawlikowski that “the early church’s anti-Jewish writings and teachings were more than a bitter tirade. Rather, they represent a basic component of Christian teaching: the church has replaced the Holy Temple and the synagogue, and the Gospels have supplanted the Torah.”

Supersessionism was strengthened by the way that Christians appropriated and misused Hebrew Scriptures. “Christianity could not stand alone without strong reference to its taproots within Judaism, the religion of Jesus. But at the same time, it was also necessary to transfer the divine promises and the spiritual legitimacy of the older faith to the new one.” Rabbi Rudin’s discussion of the suffering servant passages from Isaiah provide a casebook study of typology, a way of reading Scripture so that “many of the Old Testament events, institutions, rituals and personalities become … predictions of what was to come following the birth of Jesus.”

The book outlines the “tragic history” between Jews and Christians in chapters that cover the depressing and vicious history of Christian conversionary activity (from medieval disputations to the deceptions of Hebrew Christians) to the rise of anti-Semitism and the Shoah. His frank discussion of the meaning of modern Israel captures his frustration that there are “people who are either unwilling or unable to accept Israel among the family of nations.” The very existence of Israel is a “sharp rebuttal” to the Christian theological teaching that “that Jews are eternally punished by God for ‘rejecting’ Jesus.”

Rabbi Rudin’s respect for Pope John Paul II is evident in his discussion of post-Vatican II Catholic-Jewish relations. “When he died in 2005, he had earned an imperishable place in Jewish history, because his leadership had strengthened Christianity’s reconciliation with its Jewish ‘elder brother.’”

He outlines some of the difficult issues that face interreligious dialogue today but concludes that Christians and Jews are “prisoners of hope.” “Today, thanks to the recent gains in interreligious relations, there is an opportunity to do what few other generations have achieved: reverse an old and negative history and build something new and positive.”

“Christians & Jews” suggests that Rabbi Rudin’s professional life was not a career as much as it was a calling, one that required fortitude and faith but was repaid with friendship, fraternal regard and the blessed name of peacemaker.

Linner, a freelance writer, lives in Medford, Mass.

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