Two People Ministering the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob

Contemporary Jewish-Orthodox Relations

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Source: Public Orthodoxy
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Rabbi David Fox Sandmel
Chair, International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Relations

Contemporary Jewish-Christian dialogue has been defined, by and large, by the post-Holocaust, Western, American/European setting in which it emerged and by the predominance of Catholics and (liberal) Protestants, who have been the primary Christian interlocutors.

And Orthodox Christians? According to Sandrine Caneri:

the Orthodox at this time were simply not in any condition to participate. The churches of Eastern Europe did not yet have any real presence in the West. For the most part, they either were under communist rule or had arrived only very recently in the West. They could not simultaneously establish their own communities and structures and also undertake serious interfaith dialogue. Today, by contrast, the Orthodox in the East are free from communism and have established decades-old communities all over the world. But have they entered into Jewish–Christian dialogue? (The Wheel 17/18, Spring/Summer 2019, p. 34)

I’m not sure what the criteria are for judging whether Orthodox Christians have “entered” the dialogue, but there is a long history of Orthodox Christian-Jewish relations. In fact, since 1977, there have been eleven consultations between IJCIC and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, of which I have participated in the last three. Admittedly, these have taken place at the highest institutional level and among a small group of scholars and therefore are not well-known. I’m sure there are other efforts of which I am unaware—cataloging those is a desideratum.

Previously, these consultations tended to be formal and “academic,” consisting mainly of the presentation of papers, some of which have been published. These consultations did not result in sustained contact or action, but in the last few years there is a new energy and a shared commitment to strengthen and expand the relationship between our two groups, including efforts to broaden, deepen, and publicize the dialogue.

Some of this is attributable to the leadership of His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew and Elder Metropolitan Emmanuel of Chalcedon, who have supported and encouraged Orthodox Christian-Jewish dialogue. IJCIC and the Ecumenical Patriarchate established a joint working group in 2019. When the Ecumenical Patriarch visited New York in 2021 to dedicate the rebuilt Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and National Shrine which had been destroyed in the September 11, 2001, attacks, he graciously made time in his schedule to meet with an IJCIC delegation. IJCIC has meet with His All Holiness on several times over the years; on this occasion, the working group presented its plan for the next consultation and its goals for an enhanced and more engaged relationship.

The 11th Academic Consultation between Judaism and Orthodox Christianity was held this past December in Vienna, bringing together Jewish and Christian Orthodox participants from four continents and a dozen nations. We intentionally structured this meeting to be less formal and more interactive than earlier iterations. While there were substantive presentations, we also had the opportunity to learn about each other on a personal level. Both sides agreed that it was the best consultation in recent memory. We concluded with a firm commitment to keep the momentum going, for example, by developing programs and materials for seminarians and encouraging congregations to get to know one another. We also want to find ways to get the word out about these new and exciting developments in Jewish-Orthodox Christian relations, like this blog and a workshop on the topic at the upcoming conference of the ICCJ.

For Jews engaging with Orthodox Christians, it is important to remember that the first rule of interreligious dialogue is allowing “others” to define themselves. That means being especially attentive to the ways in Orthodox Christians differ from the Western churches with which Jews are most familiar. It requires understanding, inter alia, not only theological differences, but also the “ecosystem” of the Orthodox Church, autocephaly and how decisions are made, and the role of the patriarchs. While Pope John XXIII could order a change in the Good Friday liturgy, that is simply not how it works in Orthodoxy. Expecting Orthodox Christians to behave like Roman Catholics would not be a constructive strategy.

In this regard, I have heard more than once that “the Orthodox Church needs its own Nostra Aetate” or that “the Orthodox liturgy must be revised” or that “the Orthodox have to cease venerating the Fathers” because of their anti-Jewish content. Comments like these are predicated on a lack of understanding of Orthodox Christianity. Jews can legitimately challenge Orthodox Christians on how Jews and the Jewish tradition are presented in their teaching, preaching, and worship. Yet, Jews should also understand how the Orthodox polity operates, and more specifically, the place of the Fathers and the role of liturgy in Orthodox theology. Jews can fairly expect the Orthodox Church to confront and respond to these challenges, but those responses must emerge organically and authentically from the Church as it understands itself.

A core dynamic of Jewish-Christian relations in the West is the history of anti-Judaism/antisemitism in the Catholic Church and later among Protestants as well, culminating the Shoah. While Eastern Christianity has its own history of anti-Judaism and relationship to world events that demand fuller study, they are different than those of the West. Jews and Orthodox Christians will need to explore this history together on its own terms and in its own context. There are additional aspects of the Orthodox Christian-Jewish relationship that do not fit the dominant narrative, including both points of contact and difference. For example, Orthodox Christians and Jews in the West constitute distinct minorities; exploring together how each community experiences that is an important component of mutual understanding.

Fortunately, we don’t have to start at square one! In the last few years, several important studies have appeared that delve into the unique nature of Orthodox Christian-Jewish relations. These include, but are certainly not limited to, a conference on Byzantine Liturgy and the Jews held at the Sibiu Centre for Ecumenical Studies in July 2019; a volume of the Review of Ecumenical Studies dedicated to the Jewish-Orthodox Christian relations (Volume 11: Issue 2, August 2019); and a two-volume collection of essays, Elonei Mamre: The Encounter of Judaism and Orthodox Christianity (Fortress Academic, 2022) and [Tois Pasin ho Kairos: Judaism and Orthodox Christianity Facing the Future](Tois Pasin ho Kairos: Judaism and Orthodox Christianity Facing the Future){.target_blank} (Fortress Academic, 2023), both edited by Nicholas de Lange, Elena Narinskaya, and Sybil Sheridan. Also worth noting are a section of the Greek Orthodox Church Archdiocese of America’s website “Responding to Anti-Semitism” and a recent webinar hosted by the Orthodox Theological Society in America, “Anti-Judaism in Orthodox Hymnography: Beginning a Conversation before Holy Week.”

As His All Holiness said when we meet in 2021, “Throughout history, our two communities have shared many commonalities. We are two people who have been steadfast in the face of adversity. We are two people who have resisted oppression. We are two people who are ministering the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We are two people that believe in the intrinsic dignity of the human being, fashioned in the image and likeness of God.” This is the strong foundation on which our revitalized and expanded relationship will be built.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

Rabbi David Fox Sandmel
Rabbi David Fox Sandmel, Ph.D. is chair of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Relations, the consortium of Jewish organizations that is the official Jewish dialogue partner of the Vatican, the World ...

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