Rabbi sets framework for new relationship
JERUSALEM - The conference on "Religious Leadership in Secular Society," held in Jerusalem Feb. 1-4, was more than an event, it was a "sign of the times" in which both Jews and Christians could detect the presence of the Spirit of the Lord.
Peace is breaking out in the Middle East, fitfully and cautiously. The Fundamental Agreement signed by the Holy See and the state of Israel Dec. 30 was another crucial item in the peace jigsaw.
The Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Michel Sabbah, was the only Palestinian voice heard at the conference. He rejoiced that "new hope has been born in the last six months," but warned that "if that hope be shattered, multiple frustrations will increase and catastrophe will loom."
Hope is not the same as optimism. Hope is the response, the amen to God's promises. Christians and Jews (and Muslims) are all children of Abraham. The promise to Abraham was that he would be father of many nations. Sarah too was blessed, "and she shall be the mother of nations" (Gn 17:16).
Thus was set up by the covenant between God and his people, which Rabbi Irving Greenberg from New York called, under legitimate feminist influence, the covenant of Abraham and Sarah. Greenberg's paper was far and away the most important at the conference. It set the conceptual framework and theological underpinning not only for the conference but for the future relationship of Christians and Jews.
In the early stages of the relationship - after the Sho'ah (Holocaust) and Vatican II - the task was to remove false accusations of "deicide" and age-old recriminations and misunderstandings.
The next stage is to establish the mutual bonding that follows when the two traditions recognize that they are telling the same story to a secular post-religious world.
"You are to be my witnesses, says the Lord" (Is 43:10). In Greenberg's usage, "the people of Israel refers not to Israelis alone, nor to Jews only, but to all who affirm that God has made a valid covenant with Abraham and his descendants and who take up the task of world redemption so that covenant can be fulfilled."
Jews and Christians tell the same overlapping stories. They tell the story of creation, of covenant, and of the last things. The master story, which runs through all these, is that "God and all living things will fill the world with life and reshape empirical reality to sustain that life at the highest level." The over-arching story is of "the triumph of life." God is "pro-life" in the broadest and richest meaning one can give to that term.
Greenberg's language echoed that of the Jesuit visionary Pierre Teilhard de Chardin when he said that "life is growing more and more to resemble the divine ground." The world God created is good, and the human task is to make it better, to "perfect" it, to bring it to completion.
That this task belongs to the whole human race was signified by the covenant with Noah, sealed by the rainbow in the sky. The covenant with Abraham and Sarah is particular while the covenant with Noah is general. The covenant people are the pacesetters, the avant-garde, the paradigm people. This does not mean they are more virtuous or holier than others. But they are on the way. "Seven times the righteous fall and rise again."
Remember that in Greenberg's usage "the people of Israel" means both Jews and Christian. They have in common the fact that their stories are communicated through the generation chain. They also have sin in common: "Judaism sought to uphold family, but this ideal often sank into tribalism. Christianity sought to break through to all humanity, but this ideal often ended up as the imperialist agenda of its own practitioners' interests." So another thing they have in common is repentance.
This brings us to the central question. Christians have tended to speak as though …