This book is written in what the Catholic Biblical Quarterly calls haute vulgarisation, which is to say that it requires solid scholarship but is written in a way that the general, educated readership can follow and appreciate it. In this case there is a breadth and depth of personal experience accompanying the scholarship. Rabbi James Rudin is a leading figure in Jewish-Christian relations nationally and internationally.
The title of the book is a gentle play on meaningful words, with faith to faith evoking face to face, in Hebrew panim al panim, which in turn evokes the most intimate of dialogical relations, whether between humans or between humans and God. Given the too often tragic history of European- Christian mistreatment and, worse, of the Jewish minority over the centuries, Rudin presents a remarkably hopeful view of the present and the future.
The rabbi covers not only the history of our two peoples of God but the ongoing theological dialogue that has been conducted over the centuries. He begins by clarifying the proper name of the people Israel and rejecting its appropriation by Christians. In this and subsequent chapters he moves from the ancient or medieval controversies to the present-day clarifications that have come through the post-Holocaust dialogue between Jews and Christians, moving, for example, from the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E. to Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome in 1986. Such an approach both illuminates history and brings the reader into the historic significance and vibrancy of more current events.
Rudin aptly summarizes that history as “the world’s longest running religious debate,” describing its beginnings in the early patristic/rabbinic period, punctuated especially by St. John Chrysostom’s vitriolic diatribes against Jews and Judaism. Through St. John, a large number of false charges became entrenched in Christian literature. Here Rudin could have gone more deeply into the role of St. Augustine, who argued that though the Jews killed Jesus, their Bible is necessary for the proclamation of the Gospel. And in giving witness to the validity of the Hebrew Bible as divinely inspired, the Jews provide a necessary witness to that of the church. Because of Augustine, Judaism became the only non-Christian religion to be considered religio licita, a legally free religion, and was the only religion of the many in the Roman Empire to survive the empire’s Christianization.
After succinctly describing the major groupings of Jews in early first-century Judea, Rudin explores “who and what killed Jesus,” noting the “lethal results” when Christians concluded, not in but after the New Testament, that all Jews and their descendants were guilty. Their conclusion was based on a flagrant misuse of Matthew’s “his blood be on us and on our children,” a phrase that, if ever uttered, was spoken by only a small group of Jews in Pilate’s courtyard and under Pilate’s control, while the majority of the Jews of Jerusalem “wept” at seeing Jesus taken to be crucified.
The author’s treatment of Paul avoids some of the major missteps made by many Jewish scholars, but it repeats others. He misses the larger context of Paul’s argument, which was that following Judaism’s own developing tradition of the universal, Noahide commandments, gentile converts to Christianity did not have to observe the whole of the Mosaic law but only the essence of it (cf. also Acts 15). Rudin mistakenly applies this to Jews, having Paul say what Paul did not say, which is that Jewish Christians need not observe the whole of the 613 biblical commandments. But Rudin quite accurately describes the controversy between Cardinal Avery Dulles and Cardinal Walter Kasper on Romans 9–11 and why the latter, who unlike the former was officially speaking for the church, had the better of the disagreement.
The “parting of the ways” between Judaism and Christianity was a gradual process that took place over centuries, with a constant interchange of theological, liturgical and ministerial ideas and practices occurring even after the formal disengagement well into the Middle Ages, such that Thomas Aquinas often cites Moses Maimonides as “the rabbi” in making his points. The development of the “teaching of contempt” against Jews and Judaism, from its beginning in the second century through Luther, and the impact it had in making European Christians vulnerable to modern racial anti-Semitism and, ultimately, genocide is treated honestly and fairly.
This is the anti-Jewish element of Christian teaching that the Second Vatican Council began to eliminate by rejecting its basic notions of collective Jewish guilt for the death of Jesus and its theological twin that God rejected his covenant with the Jewish people and replaced it with the Christian one. This latter notion, as Rudin notes, has not yet been as effectively challenged as the first.
As a Jew, Rudin presents a reaction to Christian mission, witness and evangelism that will challenge in a constructive way some of the presumptions readers of this journal may have. This is because of the long history of abuse Jews have undergone at the hands of Christians who have tried to get Jews to convert by force, creating tens of thousands of Jewish martyrs or, less onerously, to convert or be exiled from every Western European nation except for Italy. There the ancient principle of papal protection of the Jews, based upon the theology of St. Augustine, held.
Rudin combines scholarship and his personal memories in presenting what the creation of the State of Israel after the devastation of the Holocaust means for Jews. While sensitive to Christian and Muslim attachment to the Holy Land, he presents well the distinctiveness of the Jewish relationship to the Land, Eretz Israel. The book concludes with an overview of contemporary crises and flash points, careful to present all sides of these often surprisingly complex controversies that require an awareness and fuller understanding of the tragedies of the history this book so clearly explains.