The Other in Israel: Orthodox Rabbis Reckon with Christianity

By Beck, Mordechai | The Christian Century, June 11, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Other in Israel: Orthodox Rabbis Reckon with Christianity


Beck, Mordechai, The Christian Century


CHRISTIAN-JEWISH RELATIONS may be a topic familiar to many American Christians, but it is not often taken up by Orthodox rabbis within Israel. The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, a secular think tank, recently hosted a discussion on the topic to mark the publication in Hebrew of a booklet by an American rabbi titled "Christianity in the Eyes of Judaism." The author, Eugene Korn, was among the Orthodox rabbis invited to address the topic. The discussion and the Hebrew publication were both sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

Korn, who is North American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, offered a historical overview of the relationship. He noted that in the first two or three centuries of the common era, when Christianity was taking root and Jews had to contend with its rising popularity, the rabbis were highly critical of what they viewed as Christians' worship of an idol. The medieval period gave rise to a more positive view. A number of rabbis of that era observed that at least Christians believed in a divine creator, biblical morality, and the coming of the messianic age.

Amnon Ramon of the Jerusalem institute turned the discussion to current issues in Israel. He pointed to acts of discrimination against Christians, and especially to the actions of radical Jewish settlers who are part of the Tag Mehir (or "price tag") movement. This group responds to perceived threats to Israeli settlers in the occupied territories by punishing Palestinian or Christian groups by defacing or vandalizing their property. He reported that when members of the Tag Mehir group were taken to court, "the lawyer for the defense stated that freedom of expression allows you to spit at your adversary." (The court was not impressed by that argument.)

Ramon said the institute had surveyed the attitudes of Israeli Jews toward Christians in Israel and found that as the age of the interviewees went down, the level of intolerance went up.

"Local-born Israelis have little firsthand knowledge of Christians, and they receive little or no study of other religions in school. This is true of religious and secular schools alike. When schoolchildren visit Jerusalem, for example, very few enter churches. So there is a minimum awareness of 'the other' given to them in schools. Thus they are not given any direction in terms of the complex situation, particularly in Jerusalem. We have a lot of work to do to improve this situation."

Rabbi David Rosen, founder of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel and one of the conveners of the meeting, said that this situation is precisely what made the conference so important. "The rabbis assembled here are pioneers in the Torah world in that they are dealing with this issue."

Rosen noted that Korn's booklet would be distributed among educational institutions, yeshivot (rabbinical seminaries), and synagogues in Israel, "where hopefully it will be read and studied." He added: "There is generally a lack of knowledge or interest in the subject matter among rabbis. Nevertheless I think the situation has improved over what it was ten or 20 years ago."

Korn said his work grew out of two major events. One was the creation of the state of Israel. "That transformed us. We were no longer a weak people. We are a strong people, with a place in the world. We are no longer subordinate to others. This is a major change in our identity and in the history of our people."

The second event was the transformation in the Christian view of Judaism that occurred in the shadow of the Holocaust. …

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