The surprise and disappointment voiced by Jewish leaders at Pope Benedict XVI’s revision of a Good Friday prayer calling for the conversion of the Jews says absolutely nothing about the Vatican, and everything about our own stupidity.
A plea to “remove the veil” from Jewish hearts and a reference to “the blindness of that people” have been dropped, but the revised prayer for the Jews asks God to “enlighten their hearts so that they recognise Jesus”.
Jewish leaders across the world have predictably claimed that this constitutes a step back in interfaith relations, and that they had come to expect something quite different from the church. The Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, went as far as threatening a motion declaring itself “dismayed and deeply disturbed”.
But do they have the right to be?
The fact is that the desire to convert the Jews is basic to Christianity, and it is only the Church’s efforts to reach out to the Jews in recent years to make up for centuries of persecution that has somehow convinced us otherwise. That, and that fact the Jews, en masse, have come to accept in recent decades to a fiction called the “shared Judeo-Christian heritage”.
This idea will have you believe that Judaism and Christianity are variations of the same moral code, happily-coexisting paths to the same truth, and more similar than they are different.
By signing up to it, we have set ourselves up for inevitable disappointment when the Church — shock, horror — refers to its founding belief that Jesus is the sole path to God. Because however well-meaning the cosy picture of Judaism and Christianity as theological bedfellows may be, it is absurd.
To understand why, you do not need a degree in theology; you need to pay a visit to the high street.
A few decades ago, if you wanted to play music, you would have bought a record player. Then came cassettes, then CDs. By the turn of the millennium, lots of people had all three formats happily sharing shelf space.
But today, you go for Third Generation (3G) technology, the iPod. Why is it Third Generation? Because it does not sit alongside what came before, but rather replaces it. The whole point about an iPod is that you load on all your music, hold your entire collection in the palm of your hand, and never need your records, cassettes or CDs again.
But the first to come up with the 3G concept was not Apple, but early Christians. As the Preaching of Peter puts it, “The ways of the Greeks and Jews are old, but we are they that worship Him in a new way, in a third generation.”
Just as your records, cassettes and CDs have no place in the world of the iPod, the old practices — Judaism, Greek worship — have no place in the world of the Church.
3G religion was about doing God’s will as Jesus had revealed He wanted it done, as opposed to the way the Jews practised it. It was not a new variety of Judaism, but the single religion that replaced all earlier ones. Its “New” Bible did not supplement the existing “Old Testament” but used Jesus’s wisdom to reveal the truths contained within, and presented a reading irreconcilable with rabbinic interpretation.
While Judaism had always accepted the validity of other paths to God, Christianity would not. Next time you are out in Hyde Park and hear the preachers shouting about the Way, the Truth and the Life — Jesus’ words from the Gospel of John — listen to the end of the verse. “Nobody comes to the father except through me.”
The papal prayer causing all the fuss does nothing more than allude to this position, that a relationship with God is only possible for followers of Jesus. It simply shows that however friendly the Church professes to be towards the Jews in recent decades, the continued existence of Jews, people who have not signed up to 3G religion, is a complete anathema to Christianity.
It is simply disingenuous to claim — or expect — otherwise. As recently as the last century, it was second nature for the most influential Christian thinker, the protestant Karl Barth — by no means an extremist and incidentally an opponent of Nazism — to call a spade a spade. He pointed out that the “existence of the synagogue side by side with the church is an... impossibility, a wound, a gaping hole in the body of Christ”.
While statements like this, and the Pope’s prayer, are hardly music to the ears of us Jews, they provide a much needed warning against putting our faith in the “shared Judeo-Christian heritage”.
This notion does not only fly in the face of truth. It is also disastrous for Jewish education, as it leads to generations of Jews failing to appreciate their religion’s uniqueness from Christianity, and getting the impression it is little more than Christianity minus Jesus and plus a plethora of restrictions.
Nathan Jeffay, a regular writer for the JC, has a masters in Christian theology from Cambridge