A fascinating exchange recently took place in the pages of the Vatican’s newspaper between the chief rabbi of Rome and the Vatican’s chief representative to the Jewish people. Their conversation reflected just how far we’ve come in Christian-Jewish relations ― but also how far we have yet to go.
It started when L’Osservatore Romano published an article by Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. Writing about the upcoming interfaith gathering at Assisi, Italy, on Oct. 27, Koch noted two key changes since the first Assisi summit 25 years ago: the collapse of communism and the rise in terrorism.
After arguing that “peace is the common effort of all religions,” Koch concluded that from a Christian perspective, “the cross of Jesus erases any desire for vengeance and calls everyone to reconciliation, it rises above us as the permanent and universal Yom Kippur,” referring to the Jewish Day of Atonement.
The cross is “not an obstacle to interreligious dialogue,” he wrote, “but rather, it indicates the decisive way that especially Jews and Christians, but also Muslims and followers of other religions, should welcome with a deep inner reconciliation, becoming the leaven of peace and justice in the world.”
The reference to the holiest day on the Jewish calendar disturbed Rome’s top rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, who replied to Koch, also in the pages of the Vatican newspaper. “The Christian believer can certainly think of the cross as a permanent and universal replacement for the day of Yom Kippur,” he wrote, “but if you want to talk honestly and respectfully with the Jew, for whom Yom Kippur retains its permanent and universal value, you must not propose Christian beliefs and interpretations to the Jews as indicators of the ‘decisive way.’”
Koch, in turn, replied, saying he rejected the idea that “Jews should see the cross as Christians do in order to be able to journey together to Assisi.” The back-and-forth, Koch said, got to the core of Christian-Jewish dialogue: “how to reconcile the conviction, which is binding for Christians, that God’s covenant with the people of Israel has permanent validity with Christian faith in universal redemption in Jesus Christ.”
Here’s what's important about this discussion: First, it is a sign of the priority given to Catholic-Jewish friendship that the Vatican newspaper published Di Segni’s concerns, and that Koch immediately sought to address them.
Second, the exchange shows how easy it is to be misunderstood when using each other’s religious terminology. The same word “atonement” can have different connotations for different traditions. In dialogue, both sides must try to understand the other on its own terms while also mindful of one’s own religious perspective.
Describing the cross as the universal “Day of Atonement” might go unnoticed by Christians, but it rings very differently in Jewish ears; it smacks of old replacement theologies that saw Judaism as obsolete and superseded by Christianity.
On the other hand, this does not necessarily mean that every Christian allusion to Jewish practices is supersessionist. Clearly, both traditions are still learning how to speak to one another about their respective, interrelated self-understandings.
Finally, contemporary Christian-Jewish dialogue must seek mutual understanding about such issues. Christians must really think about what it means to accept the validity of God’s covenant with the Jews while also seeing Jesus as the savior of all mankind, the subject of a new book, Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today. Jews, for their part, need to assess Christian claims about being in covenant with the God of Israel.
For centuries, competing claims led to reciprocal antagonism, or worse. Now, we have a respectful and civilized exchange of views. The recent exchange shows that we need more interfaith dialogue, not less. And when we do it right, it benefits both sides and contributes to a more peaceful world.
Philip A. Cunningham is director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, and Rabbi Eric J. Greenberg is director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League in New York.