This past semester, I was a visiting student at a local Catholic Jesuit university and took a course entitled “Jews and Christians: Entwined Histories.” This wouldn’t seem all that interesting, except for the fact that I’m an Orthodox Jew. Though my particular variety of orthodoxy generally embraces much of secular modern life, Christians and Christianity are treated with some degree of skepticism, or even suspicion. The blessing for the czar invoked by the rabbi from Fiddler on the Roof is a decent approximation of most Orthodox Jewish approaches to Christianity:
“May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!”
And for good reason. By way of example, when I told my grandmother I was taking this course, she responded by recalling the time when, growing up in the 1940s, her next door neighbor came home from Sunday School and accused her—my grandmother—of “killing our Lord.” Given that sordid history, I understand why many Orthodox Jews aren’t running to join interfaith groups and exchange latkes and Christmas cookies.
But I’m an irrational optimist. I grew up in the 21st century, and no Christians have (yet) accused me of deicide. Thus, I grew up maintaining the illusion that maybe our two faiths could actually be a lot closer than they currently are, and maybe we’d both be better off for it.
So filled with a somewhat naive amount of hope, I joined the class. Alas, my kumbaya vision of interfaith relations took a major beating in our very second session, when we read the following passage:
“When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’ All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!’”(Matthew 27:24-25).”
If ever there was a time for a trigger warning, this would’ve been it. Of course though, this being a college class, I wasn’t made to feel uncomfortable for too long. We glided past this “problematic” passage on our way to read the scholars who dismiss the reliability of that text, and all the others that highlight Jewish involvement in Jesus’s trial/crucifixion. They explain why the Gospel writers would’ve wanted to make the Jews look bad, how unlikely it is that mass murderer Pontius Pilate was a pious pacifist, and how crucifixion as a punishment was only used by the Romans for rebellion against the state.
Later, we trekked through 1,900 years of history and read Nostra Aetate, the 1965 Vatican document that finally rejected collective Jews responsibility for Jesus’s death.
But I wasn’t entirely satisfied. For one, the difficult Gospel texts remain. For another, Nostra Aetate still insists that “the Jewish authorities…pressed for the death of Christ.”
So where do we go from here? How do we share this sort of difficult text with others, if scholarly hand waving can’t help us?
One common approach is to just ignore them, and instead focus on what Jews and Christians agree on.
No, we are not “all just saying the same thing.” That claim actually shuts down dialogue, because there’s not much to talk about if we agree on everything!
Applied to our example of the Trial Narrative, Christians should share what they truly believe about Jewish guilt for the death of Christ, and how that affects their relationship to Jews and Judaism—the people that should have been first to accept Jesus, but rejected him instead.
For their part, Jews have to accept that this claim as made today by peaceful Christians isn’t anti-semitic. At least with Catholics and liberal Protestants, they simply do not believe in the idea of collective guilt/punishment for Jews anymore.
So where does that leave us? Maybe there is a half decent case to be made that some Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, worried about Jesus declaring himself king and instigating a popular uprising to usher in the Kingdom of God, might have tried to prevent Roman violence by handing Jesus over to Pilate.
Maybe you think that theory is total bonkers, and that’s fine. My point is simply that we should talk about these issues. As President Josiah Bartlet put it so eloquently, “friends are honest with each other (West Wing Season 2 Episode 12).”
If we are indeed true friends, we must present ourselves to each other warts and all. If we photoshop the warts out, then we aren’t true friends. If many Christians do believe that some Jews brought about the death of Jesus 2,000 years ago, how should that affect our relationship today? How can rejecting the savior of all mankind not have serious consequences for subsequent generations?
But how can the Jews, a people that has an eternal saving covenant with God, not remain loved and chosen? These are good, tough questions. In our zeal to avoid conflict and being offensive, I think we end up avoiding the difficult conversations that would ultimately bring us closer together. Our faiths probably do have “irreconcilable differences.” But ignoring those is worse for the state of our relationship than acknowledging them, and thus understanding each other better.
I’ll leave you with one final issue: do Jews and Christians worship the same God? Well, if we actually talked about it, some Jews would have a problem with the trinity and the idea of Mary as God’s mother. Others might come to agree with Christians who say that trinitarianism is mysterious and confusing, but falls short of actual polytheism. That debate would teach us a lot about each other and ourselves, but it isn’t being had and that’s a shame. After all, friends are honest with each other. So how about we give difficult, honest conversations a try and see what happens?