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Ochs urges Jews to take a fresh look at Christianity
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Peter Ochs
Tom Cogill
Peter Ochs

Ochs urges Jews to take a fresh look at Christianity

By Charlotte Crystal

Speak the truth. Peter Ochs, the Edgar M. Bronfman Professor of Modern Judaic Studies, has tried to do just that as he encourages skeptical Jews to take a new look at Christianity and how it has changed since the Holocaust when Christianity and individual Christians failed to stand up to Hitler and the Nazis.

Over the past 25 years, a group of leading Christian theologians has removed language from Christian prayer books and Sunday school materials that questions or downplays God's enduring covenant with the Jewish people. And increasing numbers of Christian theologians -- including U.Va.'s Robert Wilken, Harry Gamble, Esther Menn and Eugene Rogers -- have written about the indispensable role of Judaism and Jewish teachings in the development of Christianity.

The Catholic Church has taken several significant steps to signal a break from the past. Last year, Pope John Paul II met with Israel's chief rabbis and made a pilgrimage to Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall of the old Temple in Jerusalem.

Also in recent years, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Lutheran World Federation, the United Methodist Church and many other church bodies have officially denounced the evil of anti-Semitism and called on their churches to establish new, constructive engagements with the Jewish people.

Until recently, however, Jews have not responded publicly to these Christian overtures. But in September, Ochs and three other Jewish scholars -- former U.Va. colleague David Novak who is now at the University of Toronto, Michael A. Signer of the University of Notre Dame and Tikva Frymer-Kensky of the University of Chicago Divinity School -- released a document that was five years in the making and signed by more than 150 Jewish leaders nationwide.

The document, "Dabru Emet," which means speak the truth, calls on the Jewish community to take a fresh look at Christianity. The document burst upon the scene Sept. 10, when it ran as a full-page ad in The New York Times and The (Baltimore) Sun. Since then it has been translated into five other languages -- French, German, Italian, Polish and Portuguese.

"Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity" is a relatively short document. It states that there has been a change in Christian thinking about Judaism since the Holocaust and suggests that such change merits "a thoughtful Jewish response." The response consists of eight points that are elaborated within the document.

Jews and Christians worship the same God.

Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book -- the Bible.

Christians can respect the Jewish people's claim on the land of Israel.

Jews and Christians accept the moral principles of Torah [... .regarding] the inalienable sanctity and dignity of every human being.

Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon [...although] without the long history of Christian anti-Judaism and Christian violence against Jews, Nazi ideology could not have taken hold.

The irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture.

A new relationship [...with Christians] will not weaken Jewish practice.

Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace.

Sponsored by the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, the statement has been received with great interest in the Christian community, while its reception in the Jewish community has been mixed, Ochs said. Signed by rabbis, Jewish theologians and leaders from the four main denominations of Judaism -- Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Orthodox -- its support is weakest among Orthodox Jews, who tend to be wary of interfaith dialogue.

Ochs said organizers knew they would never win everyone's agreement. Instead, their goal was to start a conversation. And in this they have succeeded.

"Still, we want to go beyond mere dialogue between Christians and Jews," Ochs said, "to arrive at a point where we recognize our religious obligations to work together for peace and justice in the world."


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