Even with the major advances of the last five decades, Christian-Jewish dialogue is only just getting started, according to Dr. Philip Cunningham, professor of theology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where he is also director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations.
“We are blessed to be living in an era in which Jews and Christians are able to talk together and learn from each other in ways that have literally not been possible for centuries and centuries,” he said. Having worked out “rules of the road” for dialogue, and having made “certain fundamental theological changes” in the initial decades, Jews and Christians can look forward to “a rich and substantive theological dialogue.”
But, he added, “In 50 years, you cannot change 1,500 years of history.”
Cunningham will discuss those changes and the possibilities ahead in a series of five lectures at Caldwell-area houses of worship Jan. 8-11
The talks are part of the fifth annual weekend of Christian-Jewish dialogue sponsored by the West Essex Ministerial Association. Participating congregations include Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex, First Presbyterian Church, Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church, and Roman Catholic Notre Dame Church.
The lectures are free and open to the public; each talk is designed to stand alone. The series will be based, at least in part, on Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today: New Explorations of Theological Interrelationships (2011), for which Cunningham served as co-editor, and his forthcoming book, Seeking Shalom: The Journey to Right Relationship between Catholics and Jews, slated for publication in 2015.
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, religious leader at Agudath Israel and cochair of the West Essex Ministerial Association, and Cunningham spoke with NJJN in advance of the weekend of dialogue.
Silverstein acknowledged the collegiality among clergy of different faiths today and the rising comfort levels of congregants visiting each other’s houses of worship. He also sees the need for continuing dialogue based on world events and shifting attitudes toward Israel.
“Given the alarming renewal of anti-Semitism in Christian Europe and Christian Latin America, and given the parallel intensification of anti-Israel sentiments, and given the positive opportunity provided by the installation of Pope Francis, the time for increased dialogue and partnership is more important than even a few years ago,” Silverstein said.
Cunningham also serves as president of the International Council of Christians and Jews and is an officer of the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations. He acknowledged that few young Christians today have even heard doctrines like the charge of deicide — that the Jews should be cursed for crucifying Christ. The Vatican overturned such teachings in its famed 1965 declaration “Nostra Aetate.”
However, more subtle animus toward the Jews still gets conveyed unconsciously, he said.
“If the conversation shifts to a less gross topic, ideas like ‘Jews are interested in money’ will pop out,” Cunningham said. “It’s not anti-Semitic or anti-Judaism, exactly. It’s just a culturally conveyed attitude.
“And for Jews, there’s a lingering fear that when Christians want to talk to us, it’s with a conversionary interest.”
“For Christians and Jews to work through all of these [issues] takes time,” he said. “And each community needs to realize that how they understand each other affects how they understand themselves.”
Misunderstandings still occur across the religious divide, according to Cunningham. When describing Judaism as “legalistic,” he said, “Christians might use the word with an overtone of Jews being cold and not caring people, not being creative. That’s a path most Jews would not go down when they use the word.”
When the Second Vatican Council radically transformed its attitude to Judaism with the issuance of “Nostra Aetate,” it was in the wake of the Holocaust.
“Historically, Christians were also usually the oppressive majority that denigrated the tolerated Jewish minority,” said Cunningham. “Tragically — and this is too mild a word — it was the Shoa that finally caused Christians to be self-critical and begin a process of internal reform that led to overtures to respectful conversation with Jews.”
But that’s not the end of the story, he said: Jews have their own role to play in learning to interact.
“Jews, of course, having no precedents to how to respond to Christian leaders officially saying very positive things about Judaism, had to struggle with how to respond,” he said. Ultimately, he added, “as time passes, both communities are challenged by the positive, new relationship in terms of long-standing caricatures about each other.”
Despite the sustained dialogue, he said, it’s taken decades of intensive effort to reach a point where there’s a general feeling that the basics have been dealt with.
“We can all agree that anti-Semitism is bad, and that Jews are not Christ killers,” he said, as an example of one of those basic issues. “For congregations, it’s at least getting started.”
Cunningham concluded, “If Christians and Jews are able to transform their (roughly) two millennia of a hostile relationship into one of friendship, then this would be highly significant for other instances of interreligious conflict in our world.”