A Jubliee for All Time

The Copernican Revolution in Jewish-Christian Relations

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Editor(s): 
Gilbert S. Rosenthal
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Lutterworth Press
    , March
     2017.
     360 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780718894894.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Nostra Aetate (henceforth NA) turned fifty in 2015, and this important and wide-ranging collection of essays on NA (originally published by Wipf and Stock in 2014 and now by The Lutterworth Press in 2017) deserves a second-round of review and commentary. NA inevitably arrived with flaws in 1965, and the journey to its final version was Exodus-like, both in its wanderings and setbacks, and more importantly, in its miraculous (pro-Jewish, almost pluralist) ending. After centuries of moral and theological slavery in Christianity’s pervasive adversus Judaeos tradition and a Church that enslaved itself by really believing in extra Ecclesiam nulla salus, Roman Catholics have lived through another Red Sea moment, the drowning of their previously anti-Jewish and supersessionist ways.

Gilbert S. Rosenthal, the editor of A Jubilee for All Time, aptly subtitles the book The Copernican Revolution in Jewish-Christian Relations. Like any true revolution, the repercussions are wide-ranging, spiralling, and inspiring of other revolutions. In the case of the Catholic Church, such a revolution is best summed up by the Catholic Sisters of Sion, whose original charism sought to convert Jews, but who, post-Shoah, boldly and courageously transformed their charism into dialoguing, partnering, and learning with Jews. Since the book’s publication in 2014, two further landmark documents, building on the legacy of NA, have further extended the fruits of the revolution. In December 2015, a group of leading Orthodox Rabbis published “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians” which proclaimed—seventy years after Auschwitz—that Christianity, too, has been part of God’s plan for this world. Meanwhile, the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews unequivocally rejected any systemic, institutional attempt to convert the Jewish people (“The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable”).

A Jubilee for All Time is divided into five parts: “Retrospective Reflections”; Nostra Aetate and other Christian Faith Groups”; “Nostra Aetate and its Communal and Pastoral Impact”; “Unresolved Issues”; and “Symposium: How Nostra Aetate Affected Me.” Bookended by an incisive introduction and afterword by Rosenthal, the volume contains twenty-five essays by acknowledged experts, leading lights, and foundational thinkers and practitioners in Jewish-Christian studies and relations. All essays are recommended and no obvious voice, relevant theme, or controversy are missing. The work succeeds in being diverse in the authors’ religious identities, yet focused with the right balance of honesty and praise. There is, however, a gender imbalance, as only three of the twenty-five contributors are female, reflecting a similar gender imbalance in the upper tiers of interfaith dialogue. That revolution still has many miles to go.

I will highlight three essays which stand out for me in a consistently excellent work. Two are by previous presidents of the International Council of Christians and Jews—Philip A. Cunningham and Deborah Weissman—and the other by Rabbi David Berger. Cunningham provides essential historical background and helps anticipate the aforementioned December 2015 Vatican document which clearly curtailed Catholic systemic attempts to convert Jews. Writing in 2014, Cunningham noted that this view was becoming a “settled teaching” (57). Illuminating for me was his focus on Karl Thieme, a Catholic convert from Lutheranism who worked to denounce and challenge Christian anti-Semitism and whose writing and influence helped contribute to the pro-Jewish elements within NA. Thieme speaks of Jews as “elder brothers,” and stresses the ongoing validity of the Jewish covenant without annulling Christian identity and purpose. Too often we forget many of the individuals who helped pave the way for where we now stand. This is especially relevant for me as a Catholic born eleven years after NA.  

Deborah Weissman’s essay examines how NA impacted (or did not impact) Israeli life. Catholics of a certain bent (prone to interfaith dialogue, pluralism, liberation theology, and feminism) can stretch the impact of NA a bit too optimistically and grandly. In some quarters, as Weissman points out in Israel—and as Alan F. Johnson notes among many Evangelical Christians (108)—NA was met with some general indifference, or a wait-and-see approach, the latter more common in Jewish circles. Weissman contends that Israeli officialdom viewed NA as galuti, foreign. Importantly, she notes that the unique and diverse mix of Christians in Israel, especially Arab Christians, feel alienated and disconnected from the message many North Atlantic Christians want their fellow Christians to support. Combatting supersessionism or anti-Semitism and highlighting the persecution of Jews by a Christian majority before and during the Holocaust seem less pressing, or even “irrelevant,” as Weissman writes, for those living and being treated as minorities in Israel and Palestine. Weissman, a devout Jew, courageously writes: “I really think that the least helpful thing people can do…is to portray the situation in terms of a zero-sum game, in which, if you’re pro-Palestinian, you must be anti-Israeli and vice versa” (227).

Finally, in Berger’s contribution, he explores what it could mean for Christians to say (and really believe) that the Jewish covenant is not revoked, leading to questions like:  Which covenant? Abrahamic or Mosaic? And what about Reform Jews who have challenged or opposed elements of the Talmudic law? Are they included in the Christian disavowal of systemic conversion? What about Orthodox Jews who live and promote their faith through biblical and Talmudic guidance? What about Jews who do not follow halakhah? In other words, for the Roman Catholic Church to say the Jewish covenant is not revoked still needs more cogent, nuanced discussion and application within Vatican circles (especially). Sadly, the anemic, but still beating threat of supersessionism, whether marketed as fulfilment or as soft or benign, also needs more acute analysis and rebuke. As Edward Kessler cogently asks, “What replaces replacement theology?” (39).

As can be seen, this Copernican revolution in Christian-Jewish relations is not only ongoing, but should, and will, continue to ripple out towards other groups which NA highlights, notably Muslims, but also Hindus and Buddhists, and those of all peaceful faiths and none. There is no going back to a Copernican worldview, nor to a pre-NA one.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Admirand is lecturer in theology in the school of theology, philosophy, and music and the coordinator of the Centre for Interreligious Dialogue, Dublin City.

Date of Review: 
November 22, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gilbert S. Rosenthal is the director of the National Council of Synagogues, a partnership of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements in Judaism dealing with interfaith matters. He has written articles and essays in English and Hebrew, as well as more than twelve books, including What Can a Modern Jew Believe? (2007) and The Many Faces of Judaism (1978).

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