Jacob and Esau embrace: an orthodox rabbinic declaration on Christianity

By Drew Christiansen SJ, 6 June 2021
A file image of Pope Francis during a visit to the Rome Synagogue in 2016. Image: Vatican News


One of the profoundest achievements of the Second Vatican Council was the positive shift in Catholic relations with Judaism, and, in the decades following, the flourishing of those relationships with a steady flow of documents, encounters and exchanges.[1] In October 1960, Saint John XXIII anticipated this epochal reconciliation with his greeting to an American Jewish delegation, “I am Joseph, your brother” (Gen 45:4). Just a month before, Saint John had received Augustin, Cardinal Bea’s suggestion to incorporate relations with Jews in the work of the newly founded Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity in the preparations for the Council. Eventually that initiative resulted in the conciliar document we know today as Nostra Aetate, the text that initiated the new era of Jewish-Catholic encounter.[2]

For its part, rabbinic literature has memorialised the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in another biblical story of two brothers, that of the reconciliation of Esau and Jacob. Genesis recounts, “Jacob bowed to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. Esau, however, ran to him and embraced him, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. And they both wept” (Gen 33:3-4). That moment still lives in the mind of world Jewry, including the minds of several commentators on an innovative statement by Orthodox rabbis on the divinely-inspired relationship of the two traditions, “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven” (2015).[3]

In the commentators’ re-telling, however, the story of Esau and Jacob is particularly poignant because in one Midrash, relying on an ambiguity in Hebrew vocalisation, Rabbi Yannai asserted that rather than kissing Jacob, Esau bit him. The ambivalence of the word captures the hesitancy of many Jews, and Orthodox Jews in particular, to accept the conciliar declaration Nostra Aetate and other expressions of Christian good will at face value and instead to maintain, as Jehoschua Ahrens writes, a “distrust in Christianity generally and in the Churches in particular.”[4] While the declaration “To Do the Will” was eventually signed by dozens of Orthodox rabbis on three continents, many of them eminent authorities, none of the three major rabbinical councils endorsed it. Many Orthodox communities still remain fearful of entering a new “relationship of trust and respect” with Christians.

Not wariness of Christianity, however, but news of Orthodox Judaism’s embrace of Christianity is the hallmark of the declaration. Words like appreciation, esteem and partnership abound. Rabbi Ahrens captures that spirit with a citation from an even more recent rabbinic statement, “From Jerusalem to Rome” (2017). “Despite irreconcilable theological differences, we Jews view Catholics as our partners, close allies, friends and brothers in our mutual quest for a better world.” It is precisely because Orthodox Judaism has been slow to accept Christianity, that “To Do the Will,” published in 2015 on the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, appears in its own way to be a watershed document in Jewish-Christian relations. It is time it was better known. One hopes this book (see footnote 1) will give it greater prominence.

A Jewish Theology of Christianity

The declaration is startling for its articulation of a Jewish theological understanding of Christianity. This is so because theology is not a characteristically Jewish way of thinking. Rabbinic Judaism developed a different intellectual style from Patristic (Hellenistic) Christianity; and, as both traditions confronted modernity in the late 19th Century, it reaffirmed its commitment to a halakhic-style of religious interpretation and commentary rather than the systematic style of reasoning associated with European universities. Nonetheless, in its brief compass the declaration offers a theological articulation of the meaning of Christianity as the work of God’s providential will to bring knowledge of the one God and of his moral will to the ends of the earth.

In this view, the Jewish people glorify God and heal the world (Tikkun Olam) by living their lives in accord with the Law of Moses. Christians do so, according to Jewish tradition, by living under the Noachian moral covenant (Gen 9:4-6) and carrying knowledge of the one God and of the moral law to “the nations.”[5] Unlike other Noachic traditions, such as Buddhism for example, Christianity shares with Judaism a set of faith convictions (revelation, tradition or oral Talmud, creation and the image of God in humanity), biblical narratives (Exodus, Sinai, the Covenant) and moral values of “life, family, compassionate righteousness, justice, inalienable freedom, universal love and ultimate world peace.”[6] The declaration recognises “the ongoing constructive validity of Christianity as our partner in world redemption,” and concludes, “Neither of us can achieve God’s mission in this world alone.”[7]

Witnessing to the Holy One

In one of three introductions to Confrontation, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, suggests the kind of change in attitude that “To Do the Will” implies. We must learn, he writes, “how people actually, concretely read Scripture, what certain devotional disciplines actually mean for practitioners, and, not least, how each community inherits images and narratives of the other that need to be brought to light and thought through afresh.”[8]

In the view of this reader, a veteran of a quarter century of dialogue with rabbis belonging to several streams of Judaism, the single most important religious aspect of Orthodox belief and devotion for 21st Century Catholics to explore is the holiness of God. Moral witness is not enough. The moral life and its role in the public square are matters that Jews of all types and Christians have discussed for decades now and to which they have regularly given common witness. But in addition to the moral witness, Orthodox Judaism reminds Christians of our shared vocation to witness to the Holy One in a secular world.

The call, as the declaration states, is not just to teach the moral law but also to spread among the nation’s knowledge of the One God. According to Philip A. Cunningham and Adam Gregerman, the declaration affirms that Christians, like Jews, possess a “relationship with the One Creator of Heaven and Earth,” an engagement with the divine that is of “inherent value.” [9] Rabbi Irving ‘Yitz’ Greenberg reminds us that witness to the Holy One of Israel is all the more necessary “in an era when God is totally hidden.”[10] In Judaism and Christianity, moreover, God’s eminent virtues (justice, mercy and love) are necessarily integrated with the divine holiness.[11] In humanity’s intimate encounter with God, as the late Abraham Joshua Heschel argued, we experience the profound depth of the divine pathos[12] for justice and love in a way that at once quickens our own drive to do what is just but without crushing us under a limitless burden of duty.[13]

The redemption of the world, as the declaration insists, consists in the works of justice and love. Indeed, our witness will not be credible without them. But when the covenantal mission becomes reduced to moral causes and the living relation to God is neglected, then the witness becomes hollow. The moral urgency of Jews and Christians springs from our experience of the depths of divine compassion.[14] As Jehoschua Ahrens writes, the divine holiness calls us to “more than just social-political cooperation … it challenges us to mutually take responsibility for the whole world and to recognise God as the one God.”[15] The necessary connection between our moral concern and our experience of the divine is an area where, to follow Archbishop Williams’ recommendation, Jews and Christians need to learn “what certain devotional disciplines actually mean for practitioners,” to learn how they inform and purify our virtues, and how prayer fires our thirst for justice.

It is in the lived holiness of Jews and Christians that unbelievers will begin to grasp the holiness of the God we proclaim. Think of Mother Teresa ministering to Calcutta’s dying poor or Oscar Romero pleading with the Salvadoran military to lay down their arms in the midst of a civil war. Equally, consider Simone Weil’s self-denial in solidarity with persecuted Jews across Europe. The depth and breadth of our moral concern reflects the boundless horizons we meet in God.

The question of the land

There is one Jewish narrative in particular where the patient, sympathetic hearing of both sides, prescribed by Archbishop Williams, will surely be necessary. I refer to the promise of the Land.

Williams notes that “the land is the lasting sign” of the covenant. Rabbi David Rosen, a long-time Vatican interlocutor, writes unambiguously in the conclusion to his essay of “the strategic importance of the [Jewish-Catholic] relationship for the Jewish People and the Jewish state in building a new relationship between Christians and Jews.”[16] Orthodox rabbis, like others before them, regard the Vatican’s recognition of the State of Israel as a key contribution to the reconciliation of the two religious’ traditions. Following Emile Fackenheim, a philosopher of post-Holocaust Judaism, Rosen posits that Christianity, now reconciled to Judaism, has “a fundamental stake” in “the security and flourishing of the State of Israel.”[17]

Rabbi Abraham Skorka, Pope Francis’ good friend, puts the purpose of the State of Israel in the life of the Jewish People more modestly. “The modern state established as one of its most important aims,” he writes, “is to be the nation of the Jews among, and together with, the other nations.”[18] That formula quite closely mirrors the position of the Holy See, which views the modern state of Israel within the framework of international law. For many Jews that is not enough.

For a large number of Jews and Evangelical Christians, the establishment of the State of Israel and its expansion are the divinely ordained fulfilment of biblical promise. In his introductory essay, for example, Rabbi Shlomo Rivkin finds a warrant for political Zionism in Deuteronomy. “The Lord your God will bring you into the land your fathers possessed and you will take possession of it” (Deut 30:5). For decades after the founding of modern-day Israel, many Orthodox Jews refused to join the Zionist project on the grounds that only God will re-establish Eretz Israel in the last days. Today among ultra-Orthodox Jews, there are still small pockets of resistance to the Zionist project, but in recent decades many more have drifted into the Zionist and even the ultra-Zionist camps as they have become enmeshed in the settler movement.

For its part, the Holy See distinguishes between its “Religious Relations with the Jews,” handled by a special commission dedicated to that sacred relationship, and diplomatic relations with the State of Israel, that are part of the international political order.[19] According to the Vatican’s “Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism” (1974), “The existence of the State of Israel and its political options should be envisaged not in a perspective which is in itself religious, but in their reference to the common principles of international law.”[20]  Insofar as they have become aligned with contemporary religious nationalism in Israel, Orthodox Jews will be less inclined to accept this distinction and are more critical of judgments proceeding from it that question policies of the modern state that many so reflexively and officially label as anti-Semitic.[21]

When it comes to religious interpretation of the Land of Israel, Catholics hold a more universalistic view. They draw on the vision of Isaiah of all the nations flowing to Jerusalem (Isa 2:2-3) and of Psalm 87 where God declares that the nations – Babylon, Philistia, Tyre and Ethiopia – “were born” in Zion. As the Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah has written, “The Land is no longer … an earthly heritage, it is, in a special way, the spiritual heritage of humankind in need of salvation.”[22] He adds, “The three religions are the descendants, physical or spiritual, of Abraham. To whom then does it belong in the name of religion?”[23]

Saint John Paul II gave his own theological interpretation of the Land and especially of the holy city of Jerusalem, not as the focus of eschatological hope, but rather as a goal of the human pursuit of peace in history. Writing in 1984, John Paul was thinking ahead to the Great Jubilee of 2000: “It is my conviction that the religious identity of the city [Jerusalem] and the common tradition of the monotheistic faith can pave the way to promote harmony among all those who in different ways consider the holy city as their own.”[24]

This Christian vision of Jerusalem and the shared heritage of the wider Holy Land stands in sharp contrast to the exclusivist vision of Israel as “the state of the Jewish people,” as proclaimed in Israeli Basic Law of 2018. We can expect, then, in the years to come that the Land, Eretz Israel, will be a topic that will require patient, attentive dialogue between Jews and Catholics.

Prizing the Other

While reading Confrontation, I was reminded of the old saying, “Two rabbis, three opinions.” It is inevitable that in a collection of commentaries on a short, four-page-long declaration, there is some degree of repetition. What is remarkable, though, is how different the accounts are. Several relate the story of Esau and Jacob with which I began this review, but each treats the story differently. Others rehearse the history of Jewish attitudes toward Christianity; a few survey rabbinic arguments for the acceptance of Christians down the ages, and still others review the documentary history of the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, but each treatment is distinctive, so that the book offers several perspectives on the same topic with none being superfluous. For the basic stages of that history, however, I would recommend to newcomers to the dialogue Rabbi Eugene Korn’s essay “From Confrontation to Covenant” as being clear and straightforward.

One article deserves special attention, Rabbi Irving ‘Yitz’ Greenberg’s “The Next Steps” for its projection of the possible long-term future of the dialogue. Greenberg, a well-respected, long-time member of the dialogue and one of the original drafters of the declaration, is esteemed for the freshness of his thought, and his article does not disappoint. In time, he hopes, the common witness will lead to appreciation of “a distinctive revelation and unique relationship and interactions with God in the other community.” This mutual prizing of the covenantal partners will come naturally because, he writes, “God’s infinite love overflows any and all human receptacles.”[25] In that day, the covenantal partnership will have come to maturity.

Drew Christiansen, SJ, is former editor of America, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Human Development at Georgetown University and a senior scholar with the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. He is an international correspondent for La Civiltà Cattolica.

Reproduced with permission from La Civiltà Cattolica.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no. 6 art. 5, 0621: 10.32009/22072446.0621.5

[1] This essay reviews the volume J. Ahrens – I. Greenberg – E. Korn (eds), From Confrontation to Covenantal Partnership: Jews and Christians Reflect on the Orthodox Rabbinic Statement “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven”, Jerusalem, Urim, 2021 (henceforth, Confrontation). The declaration To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven. Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians is available online at the link www.ccjr.us/dialogika-resources/documents-and-statements/jewish/orthodox-2015dec4.

[2] Cf. J. Borelli, “Correcting the Nostra Aetate Legend”, in K. C. Ellis (ed), Nostra Aetate, Non-Christian Religions, and Interfaith Relation, Cham (Switzerland), Palgrave MacMillan, 2021, 12f; J. Borelli, “Nostra Aetate: Origin, History, and Vatican II Context”, in C. L. Cohen – P. F. Knitter – U. Rosenhagen (eds), The Future of Interreligious DialogueA Multi-religious Conversation on Nostra Aetate, Maryknoll (NY), Orbis Books, 2017, 24f.

[3] The statement is posted in Confrontation, 11-16.

[4] Cf. J. Ahrens, “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: The Emergence of the Orthodox Rabbinic Statement to Christianity from a European Perspective”, in Confrontation, 51.

[5] Implicit in this position is the self-understanding that Judaism is a particularist tradition of a singular people.

[6] “To Do the Will”, No. 5.

[7] “To Do the Will”, No. 3.

[8] R. Williams, “Introduction”, in Confrontation, 35.

[9] P. Cunningham – A. Gregerman, “The Import of To Do the Will: A Catholic and a Jewish Perspective”, in Confrontation, 137.

[10] I. Greenberg, “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: The Necessary Next Steps”, in Confrontation, 68.

[11] On the relation of morality and the divine nature in the Christian tradition, see E. D’Arcy, “Worthy of Worship: A Catholic Contribution”, in G. Outka – J. P. Reeder (eds), Religion and Morality. A Collection of Essays, Garden City, Anchor, 1973, 192-203.

[12] On the prophetic experience of the divine pathos for justice, see A. J. Heschel, The Prophets, New York, Harper, 1962, 3-26. Heschel employs a unique use of the word pathos, which includes God’s response to suffering humanity and the divine longing that good be done. Different religious traditions accent different aspects of the same divine experience. I prefer to employ “the divine appeal,” relying more on the Catholic tradition of the love of the good with a hint of Whitehead’s notion of “the Divine Persuasion.” Protestants, especially in the Lutheran tradition, speak of a radical demand. Heschel’s pathos, demand and love are all part of the religious person’s experience of the influence of the divine on human agency in life and history.

[13] “In a way that quickens …” is an effort to capture the paradoxical impact of the divine experience on the human moral agent.

[14] In the New Testament, images of abundance as in Luke 6:38 reflect this sense of the depths of God’s compassion and the lavishness of divine love. In the Hebrew Scriptures, geographic expanse images the divine goodness, as in Psalm 103:11-12.

[15] J. Ahrens, “To do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: The Emergence of the Orthodox Rabbinic Statement to Christianity from a European Perspective”, in Confrontation, 48.

[16] D. Rosen, “Reflections on the Recent Orthodox Jewish-Statements on Jewish-Catholic Relations”, in Confrontation, 92. Italics mine.

[17] Ibid., 87.

[18] A. Skorka, “Reflections on the Orthodox Jewish Statement on Christianity”, in Confrontation, 120.

[19] Cf. Commission for the Religious Relations with the Jews, “Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church”, 1985 (www.christianunity.va/content/unitacristiani/en/commissione-per-i-rapporti-religiosi-con-l-ebraismo/commissione-per-i-rapporti-religiosi-con-l-ebraismo-crre/documenti-della-commissione/en2.html).

[20] Ibid., I.

[21] For critiques of Israeli religious nationalism, see M. Walzer, The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions, New Yale, Yale University Press, 2016; P. Beinart, The Crisis of Zionism, New York, Picador, 2012. For a contemporary history of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle over the land, see J. Roberts, Contested Land, Contested Memories: Israel’s Jews and Arabs and the Ghosts of Catastrophe, Toronto, Dundurn, 2013.

[22] M. Sabbah, pastoral letter “Reading the Bible in the Land of the Bible”, November 1, 1993, No. 52, in M. Sabbah – D. Christiansen – S. Sarsar (eds), Faithful Witness: On Reconciliation and Peace in the Holy Land, New York, New City Press, 2009, 52. For a fuller treatment of the Christian perspective on Jerusalem, see M. Sabbah, “Jerusalem”, in Faithful Witnessop. cit., 100-108.

[23] M. Sabbah, “Reading the Bible…”, op. cit., No. 54.

[24] John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Redemptionis anno, April 20, 1984, No. 2.

[25] I. Greenberg, “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: The Necessary Next Steps”, op. cit., 69.


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