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Christian-Jewish Relations: History & Overview

by Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein

What is the Most Important Thing Christians Should Know About Jews and Jews About Christians?

I am frequently asked, "What are some of the common stereotypes and misconceptions Jews have of Christians and Christians have of Jews?" At times the question is posed differently such as, "What is the single most important item Christians should know about Jews and Jews should know about Christians?" In either case, my response is the same.

For the most prevalent misconception Christians and Jews have of one another, and the single most important thing they should learn is how members of the other community define themselves. The fact is that Jews tend to define the term "Christian" in an entirely different manner than Christians themselves do. Likewise, the Christian conception of who is a Jew is often at variance with the way Jews, themselves, characterize their identities.

Christians and Jews are so far apart in their understanding of one another that they misjudge the very core of each other's identities. It is only reasonable, therefore, to suggest that the starting point for both communities is to learn the other's self definition. For if we skip this initial step, Christians and Jews will continue to talk past each other without ever understanding where the other is coming from.

Incidents in which they will accuse one another of intolerance and insensitivity will, no doubt, increase when, in fact, the root of the problem may not have been a deliberate provocation or intentional slight, but a distorted view of who is a Christian and what is a Jew. Instead of stopping and learning how the other group defines itself, we tend to transpose our definitions of ourselves and the categories of experience we are most familiar with, unto others. We assume that what is true of ourselves, Particularly the way we define our identities, must be true of others, as well.

It may come as a surprise for Christians to learn, for example, that Jews tend to view most non-Jews as Christians (except, of course, those who are Moslems, Buddhists, or members of another specific religion). Jews are by and large unaware that Christianity is not something you are born into but a faith one personally and consciously accepts. Moreover, they are not familiar with the differences among the various Protestant denominations and, to a lesser extent, those between Catholics and Protestants. It is much easier for them and, indeed, for all outsiders, to simply lump American gentiles together as "Christians", without distinguishing among them.

How Do Jews Define Themselves? — Part I

We saw that Christians and Jews are largely ignorant of each other's true identities and that they can, as a result, be led to distortions and stereotypes. In the process of generalizing due to ignorance, they transpose their own categories of belief and view of their identity, unto others. While Christianity is a faith a person accepts, being Jewish is something we are born into.

Every child born of a Jewish mother is, willy nilly, Jewish, a member of the Jewish community. There are black Jews and white Jews, Orthodox and Reform, Hassidic and even secular and agnostic Jews. There are good Jews and bad Jews, indeed, all types of Jews; all sharing a common history, peoplehood, and even destiny. And so, when a person is born into this Jewish community, even if he strays from it, he remains a member of that group. Being Jewish, therefore, is not so much accepting a faith system as is true with Christians, but being part of a covenanted community and peoplehood that one enters into at birth.

To be sure, being Jewish hopefully includes a commitment to the Jewish faith which is at the core of our system and community. But, much like people born in America, who are American citizens, even though they may not profess strong nationalist fervor, so, too, Jews born into this covenantal community, whatever their beliefs and despite their differences, they remain part of the Jewish peoplehood.

Of course, it is possible for a person to not only turn his back on his faith and community, but to actively work against its best interests, much like the American who commits treason against his nation. In such circumstances, we might say of such people that they are renegades or "bad Jews" but they remain Jews nonetheless. I should point out that there are Rabbinic and secular Jewish authorities who make one exception to this view, that is in the case of a Jew who not only abandons Judaism but actually accepts another religion upon himself. In such a situation, these authorities maintain, the individual forfeits his Jewish identity and membership in the community in favor of his having joined another faith and community.

How Do Jews Define Themselves? — Part II

We learned that Jews define themselves as such by being born to a Jewish mother. Despite this concept, however, Jews are not a race. For anyone who accepts the Jewish faith and goes through a conversion process can become Jewish, part of the Jewish peoplehood. However, as we will see, this is not something Judaism strives for, and we, therefore, do not have any missionary outreaches toward non-Jews. For Judaism affirms that one need not adopt the Jewish faith or become Jewish to achieve salvation.

The Christian can achieve salvation or, as we Jews prefer to call it, redemption, through their Christian faith itself. For Judaism, unlike classical Christianity, is what is called a non-exclusivist religion, meaning that it is the redemptive faith system for Jews. However, Judaism maintains that ethical monotheistic systems like Christianity and Islam can also bring salvation for gentiles.

Be this as it may, I should point out that the liberal Jewish Reform movement, representing approximately 25% of the Jewish community, and which we will share more about in the future, recently adopted the novel concept of "patrilineal descent," meaning that if either the mother or the father is Jewish, the child is Jewish, as well. Furthermore, the conversion process under Reform auspices is a much more lenient one than that required by the Orthodox or Conservative denominations and which, in most instances, would not be viewed as acceptable by them.

We have also seen that Jews view themselves not only as members of a faith system, but as part of a peoplehood, culture, civilization, nation and more. This self definition, however, is quite different from the way Christians define themselves—namely, as individuals who accepted a faith system for their lives. It should come as no surprise, therefore, to learn that Jews will likely transpose their definitions of themselves unto Christians, and the reverse, so that when Christians search out the Jew, they seek the Jew of faith only, and when Jews look for the Christian, they see him as every non-Jew who is not a member of another faith.

What Are Some Of The Distorted Views Jews and Christians Have Of Each Other's Identities?

I have often heard Christians remark about Jews who may be secular or agnostic, that such people are not "really Jews." Such comments reflect their own transposed Christian definitions unto Jews and a great ignorance as to how we Jews define ourselves, as well. For in our system, these people may not be religiously faithful or observant, and I am not condoning that, but they remain members of the Jewish community. They may not represent the "ideal", but they are full-fledged Jews, nonetheless.

Similar kinds of distortions arise in the reverse, namely, in the Jewish misconceptions of Christians. Jews will often accuse Christians of anti-Semitism, when perhaps only one group or denomination may have been guilty. Indeed, given that Jews regard all non-Jews as Christians, even atheists and "cultural Christians" similar to the way they regard all Jews as Jews, they may even accuse "Christians" of anti-Semitism because of the deeds or views of people who are actually non-Christians.

Jews are totally unaware that some conservative Christians define the term "Christian" so narrowly as to actually exclude their Catholic and liberal Protestant coreligionists. Jews would have a difficult time accepting this—it would come as a real shock that they might not easily or readily grasp. For in the Jewish system, those whom we feel do not correctly represent our views we might call bad Jews or irreligious Jews. But they are Jews nonetheless, because we are all part of the same peoplehood.

So, too, when the Jew views the Pentecostal, the Baptist and the Roman Catholic, he sees them all calling out and praying to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ. The cross, for them all, is the central symbol of faith and Jesus' death and resurrection is their shared cardinal belief. To the Jew, who certainly is an outsider, all Christians are part of what we Jews call a peoplehood and what Christians refer to as, "The body of Christ."

Sources: International Fellowship of Christians and Jews