THESE ARE the Days of Awe, the week which culminates in the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, during which time Jews consider their failings during the past year, fast for 24 hours and pray to God for forgiveness. It is, therefore, a suitable time to reflect on relations between Jews and Christians, the theme of a conference organised recently by the Centre for Jewish- Christian Relations in Cambridge.
Two immense events of the 20th century combine to provide a dual focus to relations between the two religions today: the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. Both sparked an intense desire among many Christians and Jews to learn about Jewish-Christian relations. However, as has been pointed out by Remi Hoekman, Secretary of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, there are dangers when the agenda becomes dominated by either one of these subjects.
Focusing solely on the Holocaust produces a distorted view for both sides. Jews can construct out of it a negative Jewish identity which, without the positive side of Judaism, will not be a value to be handed down over the generations. Christians can come away with an exclusive picture of the Jew as victim, without an awareness of the positive aspects of Jewish culture.
Focusing solely on the State of Israel, by contrast, reduces Jewish-Christian relations to the Zionist issue with the danger that those Christians, and secular Jews, who are unsympathetic to Israeli political stances risk dismissing the richness of the Jewish cultural and religious inheritance.
In any case there are, increasingly, other issues arising prompted by the growth of a New Europe and the collapse of Communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe. On the positive side no one can doubt that the Catholic Church today has a far more constructive attitude to Judaism than ever before. Numerous recent Vatican documents now speak of the need for Christians to understand Jews as Jews rather than seeing them merely as potential converts. There is also a new sense of the importance to Catholics of understanding that their religion grows out of Judaism and that, without an understanding of it, they cannot properly understand their own faith.
On the downside it is evident that many of the new teachings are still not percolating down from the Vatican to the pew. In Poland, for example semi-ignorant clergy continue to teach Catholicism with attitudes towards Jews and Judaism which differ little from the traditional teaching of contempt. Some promising work is being done, particularly by the Jesuits in Cracow, but there is still an uphill task fighting anti-Semitism as the controversy over the crosses erected at Auschwitz makes clear - it took an act of parliament eventually to get them …