Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity, “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians”

Perhaps someday soon every Christian denomination will issue a crystal clear statement forswearing all attempts, organized, disorganized, haphazard, or even accidental, to convert Jews. But the defiant stance of conservative/fundamentalist Christians indicates clearly that no respite is in sight for Jews who will remain targets of evangelization by those who believe their own Christianity cannot be authentic unless they harangue others. Even with regard to Catholic Christianity and more liberal forms of Protestantism, mere words are not sufficient to heal the breaches between Jews and Christians.

By Charles David Isbell
Louisiana State University
April 2016

On December 3, 2015, a large group of Orthodox rabbis signed a statement[1] on the relationship between Christianity and Jews, and released it to coincide with the golden anniversary of the famous papal Nostra Aetate[2] declaration of 1965. Hailed as the most significant Jewish statement on Jewish-Christian relations in fifteen years,[3] the statement is noteworthy in three respects.

First, the Jewish statement celebrates the decision in Nostra Aetate to reject all forms of anti-Semitism, including deicide, easily the single most damaging accusation leveled by Christians against Jews for 2,000 years. Surely all Jews can rejoice in the rejection of such an odious, and factually incorrect, charge.

Second, the rabbis acknowledge Christianity as “the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations.” Such a stance by Jews, coupled with Catholic statements about the enduring covenant between God and Israel, indicates that the authors of the statement believe it is now safe to “acknowledge the ongoing constructive validity of Christianity as our partner in world redemption without any fear that this will be exploited for missionary purposes.” Here the pregnant phrase “missionary purposes” raises a note of alarm (see further below).

Third, the rabbis underscore the elements of commonality between the two faith systems, and stress the importance of Christianity’s efforts to bring ethical monotheism to the world, a fact noted first by Maimonides in the twelfth century. Here too, surely all Jews can celebrate the world wide impact of the ethical teachings of the Church, freely adopted from and shared with Judaism.

One week after the statement of the rabbis, the Vatican released its own statement in honor of Nostra Aetate, focusing on the fourth article that deals with the relationship between Catholics and Jews.[4] A cursory reading of the statement relates the Catholic perception of missiology in a manner that appears to justify the high-sounding words of the rabbis: “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.” Thus we Jews can now relax about conversion attempts aimed at us by Christians.

But the continuation of the Church statement quickly indicates a substantial impediment to the literal interpretation of this concept. “While there is a principled rejection of an institutional Jewish mission, Christians are nonetheless called to bear witness to their faith in Jesus Christ also to Jews.” In short, this “nonetheless” makes it clear that Catholics will indeed continue to evangelize Jews, but that whatever evangelization takes place should be accepted as nothing more than individual Catholics (priests? laity?) responding faithfully to their divine calling. Jews in business or personal relationships with individual Catholics will continue to be evangelization targets in order to allow their Catholic friends and acquaintances to live up to their divine “calling.”

Students of the history between Jews and the Church should be reminded that the controversy involving conversion has been around for a long time, illustrated best by the issue of forced baptism. For centuries, the official statements of the Church were in sharp contrast to the practices of individual clergymen throughout Europe. Shortly after the first known instance of mass forced baptism occurred on the island of Minorea in 418 CE,[5] Pope Gregory I (590-604) wrote to the Bishop of Naples[6] that baptism (=conversion) should not be imposed upon Jews by force and was not valid unless it was accepted willingly. That this opinion became the official stance of the Church is indicated by the fact that one of the clauses in the Constitutio pro Judaeis, issued by successive popes from the 12th to the 15th centuries, declared categorically that violence could not be used to force a Jew to convert. The connection is further confirmed by the title of the papal bull, sicut Judaeis (“To/concerning the Jews”), repeating the actual paragraph heading used by Pope Gregory in his letter to the Bishop of Naples six centuries earlier. The wording of the Constitutio is unambiguous: “For We make the law that no Christian compel them, unwilling or refusing, by violence to come to baptism.”[7]

The response of priests throughout Europe was a great debate about the correct interpretation of the term “willingly.” If a Jew chose baptism when force was not actually applied, was this a willing choice? Because no clause in the Constitutio addressed the question of the validity of a baptism administered under the threat of violence or expulsion, the common practice was to assume that the Jewish victim had agreed “willingly.” The result, as Norman Zacour notes, was predictable: “To put it bluntly, conversions to Christianity were rarely wholehearted.”[8]

Actual baptism/conversion practices were abetted by a concomitant idea in medieval Christianity, that apostasy from the true faith was considered heresy, punishable by death. Thus, in a letter of 1199, Pope Innocent III, perhaps the most influential pope of the Middle Ages, put into words what had often been true in actions, writing that any Jew who submitted to baptism under the threat of force, as long as no force had actually been applied, automatically expressed a conditional willingness to accept Christianity and could not renounce his baptism after the fact without triggering the punishment of heresy and death.[9]

This decision of Innocent confirmed the conditions that had already produced a series of tragic events. On May 14, 576, Bishop Avitus of Clermont-Ferrand had made the following speech to the Jews of his town after a Christian mob had destroyed the local synagogue: “If you are ready to believe as I do, become one flock with us and I will be your pastor. If you are not ready, depart from this place.”[10] Under this threat of expulsion, about 500 Jews chose to convert, and a Christian celebration ensued. The Jews who did not convert left for Marseilles. That this incident was considered an example of “willing” conversion was certified in 938 when Pope Leo VII told the archbishop of Mainz that he should expel local Jews if they refused to convert, and cited the earlier action in Clermont-Ferrand as his precedent.[11] Other documented instances of forced baptism were experienced in places too numerous to name.

Children were a special problem. At what age was a child deemed competent to make a “willing” decision to convert? To cite only one of numerous examples, in ca. 825, Bishop Agobard assembled the Jewish children of Lyons and baptized all who appeared to him to be agreeable.[12] Then, as late as 1747, Pope Benedict XIV ruled that once a child had been baptized, even illegally, he or she was to be considered a Christian and reared in a Christian home. The fact is that large numbers of Jewish children were taken away from their own parents and placed in another home to be reared as Christians.[13]

A new chapter in the history of forced baptism began in 1543, with the establishment of the “House of Catechumens” in Rome. Any person who was perceived to have even a slight inclination towards Christianity could be imprisoned in the House of Catechumens while his intentions were explored by Christian examiners. In popular thought, it was believed that any person who secured the baptism of an unbeliever was assured of paradise, and this belief led to innumerable instances of forced captures and imprisonment, as one might expect. Then “in 1554, Pope Julius III imposed a tax of ten gold ducats on each of the 115 synagogues in the Papal States to cover the cost of maintaining residents in the House who had converted and were not allowed to return to their Jewish homes.”[14]

The discussion to this point has focused on Catholic Christianity because it was the source from which the statements of the rabbis and the Church were generated. When attention turns to non-Catholic Christian responses, concern about proselytism is heightened. Christianity Today, the leading evangelical Christian magazine, addressed this very issue in December, 2015.[15] The article presents two very different Protestant responses. Professor Marv Wilson of Gordon College (an evangelical but not fundamentalist Christian school), has noted: “For Jews, the words ‘mission’ or ‘conversion’ are historically connected with the Crusades, the Inquisition, Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492, and the silence of many Christian churches during the Holocaust.”[16]

But other non-Catholic Christians are not at all worried about the Jewish reaction to missiology or conversion. Nor are they willing to accept the idea of abstaining from evangelization of Jews even in an overtly organized manner. Christianity Today cites Joel Hunter, co-convener of the Jewish-Evangelical Leader Dialogue:[17] “While we can certainly agree that the Jews are participants in God’s [unfolding] salvation, and we can affirm that they are complete in that role, it is more difficult for us not to want to share with them our deepest joy.”[18] Hunter goes on to affirm that it is “difficult for evangelicals to avoid” what he considers the clear New Testament commission to witness to Jews as well as everyone else in the world. Leaving little room for misunderstanding, Hunter concludes that “my desire to be personally close to [Jews] will involve my sharing Christ by word or deed.” There is little room for dialogue with such a person. And he and his group are not unique.

David Brickner is the executive director of “Jews for Jesus,” a particularly obnoxious group whose mission statement is clear: “We exist to make the messiahship of Jesus an unavoidable issue to our Jewish people worldwide.”[19] In other words, they are bent on their self-appointed task of turning every Jew into their quite peculiar kind of Christian. Thus it is not surprising that Brickner pointedly dubs the statement from the Vatican “egregious,” signaling the fact that, even among other Christians, no one except members of his small group has possession of divine truth. In his opinion, the Vatican has completely misinterpreted Paul, who, Brickner is certain, “would be horrified at this repudiation of the words with which he started his letter in Romans: ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile’.”[20]

Also cited by Christianity Today is Jim Melnick, the international coordinator of the Lausanne Consultation on Jewish Evangelism, a second group whose very name signals its refusal to accept Judaism as an authentic pathway to God with its own independent integrity. He makes his position clear to Christianity Today by noting that Jews are beloved by God, but insists that they cannot “find salvation without faith in Yeshua.”

It must be admitted that these fundamentalist followers of Paul have the better of the New Testament interpretation argument here. There is little doubt that Paul believed Jews should become Christians, and his personal method of procuring such conversions is telling: “To Jews, I acted like a Jew in order to convert Jews. To people following Torah, I acted like I too was Torah observant in order to convert those who are Torah observant. To the weak, I became weak that I might convert the weak. I have become all things to all people, in order that I might by all methods save somebody.”[21] “Jews for Jesus” adherents in particular have adopted this attitude of trying to appear Jewish, wearing kippahs, hijacking Jewish rites and rituals, and frequently insisting that they should be allowed to enter synagogues to explain to those unenlightened among us that to be a real Jew is to become a Christian.

But is Paul truly the model modern Christians wish to emulate in every regard? It is striking that following the only debate about kashrut recorded in the New Testament, both sides agreed to retain modified guidelines about meat with blood still in it.[22] But immediately thereafter, Paul simply decided unilaterally to ignore the agreement to which he had been a party. Further, in at least two other instances, Paul openly admitted that he followed his own judgment in the context of a specific situation in Corinth because he had “no command from the Lord.”[23] If Paul is the model, modern Christians might consider using their own judgment about the necessity of pressing their own personal interpretation of faith on Jews.

What is at issue is a fundamental tenet of some forms of Christianity. If the reigning concept of what constitutes a true Christian includes the idea that obedience to God places the Christian under obligation to seek the conversion of the Jew, real dialogue will remain impossible. And it is important to note that this idea is not the province of extremist Christians alone, but an integral part of the faith followed by many conservative Christians. Here, for example, is an excerpt from the Southern Baptist Convention website:

A resolution adopted by messengers to the 1996 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in New Orleans called on Southern Baptists to pray for the salvation of Jewish people and to direct energies and resources toward proclaiming to Jewish people the good news of salvation in Jesus, the Messiah. That resolution drew national attention and was denounced as intolerant by critics, some of whom said efforts to evangelize Jews amounted to “spiritual genocide.” A Southern Baptist leader at the time responded that the intent was not to convert Jews into Gentiles, but “to convert them from being Jews who do not have a relationship with the God of their fathers to Jews who do.” Christians, however, have little choice when it comes to sharing their faith with Jews, said Don Kammerdiener, executive vice president of the International Mission Board. “Many Jewish leaders reject such efforts as being wrongheaded, arrogant or even contributing to the spiritual and cultural equivalent of the Holocaust,” Kammerdiener said. “But the Bible is clear regarding the necessity of sharing the gospel with Jews.” Jesus and the apostles were Jews. Jesus stated clearly that His followers were to begin their witness to Him in Jerusalem, the heartland of the Jews. Jesus is the Messiah promised to the Jews, the Savior of all who believe in Him. He is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant promises. “The Bible is explicit in saying, in Romans 1:16, that Jews are not only included in the gospel invitation, but that the gospel is to go to the Jew first and also to the Gentile,” he added. “Obedient Christians have no choice except to invite Jews and all other peoples to come to faith in Christ.”[emphasis added]

This statement, along with those cited above from organizations whose very existence is geared towards evangelization of Jews, vividly underscores the heart of the difficulties facing all relationships between Jews and Christians. As long as Christians continue to believe that their way is the only way, and that they alone can offer to the Jew a true “relationship with the God of their fathers,” the naïve dream of a partnership with Christians “without any fear that this will be exploited for missionary purposes,” will remain unrealized.

From Catholics, the wording of the latest official statement seems directly on target until it adds the “nonetheless.” This sounds remarkably like an escape clause similar to the opening provided by the elastic concept of willingness used by individual priests of earlier times. Thus regardless of how open any particular official Catholic statement may sound, Jews must continue to insist that these official pronouncements of the Church become a reality in the lives of individual Christians. Individual Christians must come to believe that it is wrong for a teacher to witness to a Jewish student attending a Catholic (or Baptist or Episcopal!) high school. It is wrong for a priest to baptize a patient who lies suffering and perhaps dying in the hospital.[24] The visit to a Jew dying of pancreatic cancer that produces a triumphant announcement of the man’s conversion at his Jewish funeral is equally inappropriate and wrong. Such an act cannot be dismissed as the lifelong concern of a friend and business partner who wanted to be certain that the Jew did not miss heaven, a friend who was merely doing what Christians are ‘called’ to do.[25] Even if these kinds of actions were all done “in a humble and sensitive manner” (as prescribed by the official statement), both Christians and Jews must label them wrong.

Perhaps someday soon every Christian denomination will issue a crystal clear statement forswearing all attempts, organized, disorganized, haphazard, or even accidental, to convert Jews. But the defiant stance of conservative/fundamentalist Christians indicates clearly that no respite is in sight for Jews who will remain targets of evangelization by those who believe their own Christianity cannot be authentic unless they harangue others. Even with regard to Catholic Christianity and more liberal forms of Protestantism, mere words are not sufficient to heal the breaches between Jews and Christians.

But words can become the impetus for a broad attitude adjustment throughout Christendom. And if, please God, the official stances of an enlightened Church can become reality in the daily lives of average Christians, then, and only then, Jews will be able to embrace full partnership with our younger sister in the faith.


[1] http://cjcuc.com/site/2015/12/07/groundbreaking-orthodox-rabbinic-statement-

[2] www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_decl

[3] In 2002, “Dabru Emet” (“Speak the truth”), also available online by its title, was prepared by leading scholars involved in the National Jewish Scholars Project. It offered eight general statements “about how Jews and Christians may relate to one another.”

[4] “The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable,” available online by its title.

[5] Severus of Minorca was the Bishop of Minorca in the early fifth century. According to the Epistula Severi (Letter on the Conversion of the Jews written by Severus of Minorca) Severus led mass conversion campaign that resulted in most of the Jewish population on the island converting to Christianity in 418 C.E. During the eight days of the campaign, the island synago. trans. and ed. Scott Bradbury. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1996.

[6] Either Fortunatus II (593-600) or Paschasius (600-610).

[7] For a translation of the oft-repeated Bull, see “The Papal Bull Sicut Judaeis” in Studies and Essays in Honor of Abraham A. Neuman, Ben-Horin, et. al. (eds.) (Leiden and Philadelphia, 1962), 243-80.

[8] See Norman Zacour, Jews and Saracens in the Consilia of Oldradus de Ponte (Rome: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1990), p. 14.

[9] For the full text of the letter, see Thatcher and McNeal, A Source Book for Medieval History (New York, 1905). Innocent also convoked the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. One of the 72 canons issued by the council ratified his earlier letter and imposed additional restrictions on Jews.

[10] Encyclopedia Judaica, “FRANCE, History of.”

[11] Catholic Encyclopedia, Pope Leo VII.

[12] Anna Beth Langenwalter, Agobard of Lyon: An Exploration of Carolingian Jewish-Christian Relations, 2009. University of Toronto Ph.D. thesis available through University Microfilms, Michigan. Note her Chapter Two: “Agobard’s Anti-Judaism” (pp. 105-143). See also Johannes Heil, “Agobard, Amolo, das Kirchengut und die Jüden von Lyon” (Francia 25:1 (1998), especially page 48.

[13] Two well-known examples are illustrative. In 1762, the son of the rabbi in Carpentras in the Provencal region of France was captured in a rural area just outside the city and immediately baptized in ditch water. He was never allowed to see his family again. In 1858, six year old Edgardo Mortara was abducted from his family home by papal police and taken to the House of Catechumens. The boy had been baptized secretly five years earlier by a teen-aged domestic servant who feared he was about to die. Despite the fact that the boy had been only one year old at the time, the Church ruled that his baptism was valid and could not be revoked. Since canon law forbade a Christian child to be reared in a non-Christian home, Edgardo was taken away from his family and never returned. The standard treatment of the affair is by David Kertzer, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (Vintage Books: Random House, 1997).

[14] “Catechumens, House of, Encyclopedia Judaica.

[15] “Orthodox Rabbis Say Christianity Is God’s Plan, Vatican Says Stop Evangelizing Jews.” Hereafter, CT refers to the same article.

[16] CT.

[17] About which I have no information.

[18] CT.

[19] http://jewsforjesus.org/about-jews-for-jesus/categories

[20] Romans 1:16, emphasis added.

[21] First Corinthians 9:20-22.

[22] See Acts 15:20, 29.

[23] First Corinthians 7:25 and see also 7:40.

[24] Jonathan D. Sarna has shown that the earliest Jewish hospitals in America were founded “in response to attempts on the part of well-meaning Christian nurses to convert Jews on their deathbeds.” See American Judaism: A History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 222.

[25] This was the exact occurrence at a funeral conducted by the present writer for a lifelong member of our local synagogue. The man’s business partner rose at his funeral to announce that the Jew, heavily drugged and nearing the end of his life, had converted only two days before his death, thus assuring his place in heaven. Conveniently, no one else was in the room to witness the event. The outrage of the man’s family as well as all of us in attendance can scarcely be measured.

Comments (1)

I am Jewish, and I think Christianity is wrong, but I would not expect Christians to stop trying to spread their religious beliefs to Jewish people or anyone else. That is one of the most important rules of their religion, and you can't expect them to stop because you don't like it. The long list of bad things that Christians have done to Jews in the past is not a reason for them to stop.

Jewish people have to have the confidence in their own religion and not be afraid of Christians being able to talk them into their beliefs. The real reason you are upset is that you know that Judaism has had a very difficult time arguing against Christianity. You just want to stop them from going after Jews because the traditional Jewish arguments against their religion just don't work. I have many new arguments that I think could work better, but that is a different topic. In my opinion, all of your arguments are based on fear that they will win the Messianic debate, and they are because Judaism can't win with the traditional arguments. I hope you won't censor my comment because I think Judaism is right and can stand up to Christianity without the fear of their outreach to Jews.

Kenneth Greifer

#1 - Kenneth Greifer - 04/05/2016 - 23:44

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