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A Smothering Embrace? Hermeneutical Issues in Catholic Discourse about Jews and Judaism

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 September 2023

Emma O’Donnell Polyakov*
Merrimack College;


This article examines how Jews and Judaism are envisioned in the Catholic imagination, through a critical reading of contemporary Catholic discourse on Judaism. It identifies three problematic areas. The first concerns the tendency of Catholic discourse to project a specifically Christian vision of salvation history onto the Jewish people, which reflects Christian rather than Jewish self-understanding. Second, this article analyzes patterns in language and imagery in Vatican documents about Judaism, alert to troubling allusions implicit in the texts. The third area concerns a hermeneutical obstacle to deep interreligious understanding, one which may be ultimately insurmountable: namely, the challenges of understanding the religious other according to its own self-understanding. This article reaches an ambivalent conclusion, conceding that the goal of recognizing the self-understanding of another religious tradition may ultimately be impossible.

© The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the President and Fellows of Harvard College

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1 This article draws a distinction between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism, whereby the former refers to opposition or discrimination against Judaism as a religion and the latter to discrimination against Jews as a racial or ethnic group.

2 Cardinal Walter Kasper, “Paths Taken and Enduring Questions in Jewish-Christian Relations Today: Thirty Years of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews,” in The Catholic Church and the Jewish People: Recent Reflections from Rome (ed. Philip A. Cunningham, Norbert Hofmann, and Joseph Sievers; New York: Fordham University Press, 2007) 3.

3 E.g., Conference of European Rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America, and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, “Between Jerusalem and Rome: Reflections on 50 Years of Nostra Aetate,” August 31, 2017,; Tivka Frymer-Kensky et al., “Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity,” New York Times, September 10, 2000; International Group of Orthodox Rabbis, “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians,” December 3, 2015,

4 Acts 7:51; John 8:44; Catholic Church, Nostra Aetate, no. 4 (Second Vatican Council, October 28, 1965).

5 For the sake of clarity, it may be helpful to draw attention to the distinction between the terms “Jews” and “the Jewish people,” as the terms are used in this article. The first refers to Jewish individuals, and the second to a collective, sometimes referred to as the Jewish peoplehood, which spans historical and contemporary contexts.

6 The importance of reflecting on the religious imagination is also noted by Susannah Heschel: “Jews and Christians might examine the many ways we exist within each other’s theological imagination, in both positive and polemical fashion” (Susannah Heschel, “Interfaith Begins with Faith,” American Religion, 13 September 2022,

7 Catherine Cornille, “Types of Misunderstanding in Interreligious Hermeneutics,” in Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and Interreligious Hermeneutics: Ways of Seeing the Religious Other (ed. Emma O’Donnell Polyakov; Leiden: Brill-Rodopi, 2018) 11–28, at 12.

8 Marianne Moyaert, “Recent Developments in the Theology of Interreligious Dialogue: From Soteriological Openness to Hermeneutical Openness,” Modern Theology 28 (2012) 25–52, at 26.

9 Ibid., 34.

10 Volumes that explore the new field of interreligious hermeneutics include Interreligious Hermeneutics in Pluralistic Europe: Between Texts and People (ed. David Cheetham et al.; Amsterdam: Brill, 2011); Interreligious Hermeneutics (ed. Catherine Cornille and Christopher Conway; Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2010); J. R. Hustwit, Interreligious Hermeneutics and the Pursuit of Truth (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2014); Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and Interreligious Hermeneutics (ed. Polyakov).

11 In the biblical narrative, this Jewish encounter with the messiah is portrayed as collective; i.e., Jesus came first to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). From the perspective of Christian history, with this encounter the Jewish people were faced with the choice of accepting or rejecting the messiah. To be clear, however, nearly all of the people featured in the New Testament were Jews, and when its authors identified people as Jews, they were referring primarily to the Jewish majority who did not follow Jesus, as opposed to the Jewish followers of Jesus, the latter of whom comprised the earliest Christian community. In this way, the New Testament usage of the term “Jew” became an accusatory label; although the majority of characters in the New Testament were Jews, the identification of Jewishness was often reserved for those who did not believe in Jesus.

12 For more detailed discussions of the treatment of supersessionism in “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable,” see Philip A. Cunningham, “The Sources behind ‘The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable’ (Rom 11:29): A Reflection on Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate (No. 4),” Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations 12 (2017) 1–39; Gavin D’Costa, “Supersessionism: Harsh, Mild, or Gone for Good?” European Judaism 50.1 (Spring 2017) 99–107; Adam Gregerman, “Superiority without Supersessionism: Walter Kasper, The Gifts and the Calling of God Are Irrevocable, and God’s Covenant with the Jews,” Theological Studies 79 (2018) 36–59; Matthew Tapie, “Christ, Torah, and the Faithfulness of God: The Concept of Supersessionism in ‘The Gifts and the Calling,’ ” Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations 12 (2017) 1–18.

13 Catholic Church, Nostra Aetate #4.

14 Edward Said acknowledges the connection between Orientalism and anti-Semitism in his introduction to Orientalism, referring to the former as “the strange, secret sharer of Western anti-Semitism.” However, he immediately qualifies this connection with irony, alluding to his own very critical views of Zionism: “That this anti-Semitism and, as I have discussed it in its Islamic branch, Orientalism resemble each other very closely is a historical, cultural, and political truth that needs only to be mentioned to an Arab Palestinian for its irony to be perfectly understood” (Edward Said, Orientalism [New York: Pantheon, 1978] 27). Elsewhere in the book, he turns the focus away from the similarity, instead casting anti-Semitism and Orientalism as polarized, one distorted portrayal antagonizing the other (ibid., 286, 337). Therefore, Said’s theories are utilized ambivalently in this article, and only as an introductory framework.

15 E.g., Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2005) 7–8.

16 Gavin D’Costa suggests that the documents of the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews “are not doctrinal teaching documents but come from the main dicastery devoted to the area, thus reflecting the universal church’s thinking about matters” (Gavin D’Costa, Catholic Doctrines on the Jewish People after Vatican II [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019] 12).

17 A traditional theological analysis of these documents would require that their varying levels of ecclesial authority be taken into consideration. This is particularly important to D’Costa, who makes the impassioned claim that “[scholarship cannot] be forgiven for overlooking such ‘fine points’ ” regarding differing levels of authority (ibid., 9). However, this current analysis is linguistic and cultural rather than theological, and therefore, such distinctions are far less relevant to this study.

18 John Connelly’s critique, while very valid, is complicated by the fact that Judaism is a peoplehood as well as a religion (John Connelly, From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews, 1933–1965 [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012] 259).

19 Historically, the term “Jew” or “Yehud” became widely used only in exilic and postexilic contexts. In the strictest historical sense, then, the term is appropriate at this point in the document but not earlier. However, in a document that claims to discuss the Jewish people from history to the present, this distinction becomes cumbersome, if not irrelevant.

20 Connelly observes that in drafts of De Judaeis, which was eventually adapted into Nostra Aetate, the passages that portrayed Jews as having a role in salvation history—that is, the Christian vision of salvation history—“referred either to the Jewish people of the past (‘Israel of the Patriarchs’, ‘people of the Old Covenant’) or beyond the end of history (‘the Church believes in the union of the Jewish people with herself as an integral part of Christian hope …’).” These drafts evidenced a struggle to express the elements of both religion and peoplehood with Judaism, but the result was language that suggested that “after Christ the Jewish people had been erased from history” (Connelly, From Enemy to Brother, 259).

21 Catholic Church, Lumen Gentium (Second Vatican Council, November 21, 1964) 16.

22 Arguing for a new vision of Jewish identity, Ze’ev Jabotinsky wrote, “Our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite…. Because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty. The Yid is trodden upon … the Hebrew ought to be proud and independent…. The Yid wants to conceal his identity from strangers and, therefore, the Hebrew should look the world straight in the eye and declare: ‘I am a Hebrew’ ” (quoted in Cynthia M. Baker, Jew [Key Words in Jewish Studies; New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017] 63).

23 Ibid., 2.

24 Ibid., 12–13.

25 Zvi Gitelman, “Introduction: Jewish Religion, Jewish Ethnicity—The Evolution of Jewish Identities,” in Religion or Ethnicity? Jewish Identities in Evolution (ed. Zvi Gitelman; New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009) 1.

26 Adin Steinsaltz claimed in an interview: “Jewish peoplehood is always central. It comes before the Jewish nation or the Jewish state. We live in modern times, but our peoplehood is still essential, primitive. We never ceased to be a clan or tribe” (“Is There Such a Thing as the Jewish People?” Moment 37.4 (2012) 46–49, at 46).

27 In English, this commission is also referred to as the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jewish People, although the Vatican uses the English name given here. The alternate name may reflect a discomfort with the word “Jew,” as discussed above.

28 Catholic Church, “Guidelines and Suggestions for Implementing the Conciliar Declaration Nostra Aetate, 4” (Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, December 1, 1974, preamble).

29 Philip A. Cunningham, “God Holds the Jews Most Dear,” in A Jubilee for All Time: The Copernican Revolution in Jewish-Christian Relations (ed. Gilbert S. Rosenthal; Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2014) 52.

30 Catholic Church, “Guidelines and Suggestions,” III.

31 Catholic Church, “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church” (Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, June 24, 1985) VI.1.

32 D’Costa writes: “Taking the step from biblical Judaism to Rabbinic Judaism involved more than the Council could deliver. Its aim was to remove the deicide charge. Even in Guidelines (1974) there is no mention of contemporary Jews being the inheritors of the gifts and promises. In the Preamble, instead, it refers to the ‘spiritual bonds and historical links binding the Church to Judaism’. Only in Notes (1985) does this new step appear. The justification for taking the step is Pope John Paul II’s speeches of 1980 and 1982” (Catholic Doctrines, 16).

33 John T. Pawlikowski sees this tendency as a major obstacle to interreligious dialogue: “To my mind there is little question that the greatest challenge posed to Christians in dialogue with Judaism is coming to grips with the history of antisemitism” (John T. Pawlikowski, “Historical Memory and Christian-Jewish Relations,” in Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today: New Explorations of Theological Interrelationships [ed. Philip A. Cunningham et al.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011] 14–30, at 24).

34 The title “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable” is drawn from Rom 11:28–29. Critiquing the use of this biblical passage in Christian-Jewish dialogue, Jon D. Levenson observes that the passage is “pro-Jewish without being pro-Judaism. Its point is that God bears with the Jews despite the failure of so many of them to become Christians” (Jon D. Levenson, “How Not to Conduct Jewish-Christian Dialogue” Commentary 112.5 [2001] 31–37).

35 Catholic Church, “The Gifts and Calling of God Are Irrevocable: A Reflection on Theological Questions Pertaining to Catholic-Jewish Relations on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of ‘Nostra Aetate’ (No. 4)” (Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, December 10, 2015) 15, 40.

36 Ruth Langer, “ ‘Gifts and Calling’: The Fruits of Coming to Know Living Jews,” Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations 12.1 (2017) 1–10,; David Rosen, “Reflections from Israel” (Vatican press conference, December 10, 2015),

37 Riccardo Di Segni, “Progress and Issues of the Dialogue from a Jewish Viewpoint,” in The Catholic Church and the Jewish People: Recent Reflections from Rome (ed. Philip A. Cunningham, Norbert Hofmann, and Joseph Sievers; New York: Fordham University Press, 2007) 12–22, at 13.

38 Catholic Church, “The Gifts and Calling,” 20.

39 Ibid., 40.

40 Adam Gregerman, “The Desirability of Jewish Conversion to Christianity in Contemporary Catholic Thought,” Horizons 45 (2018) 1–38, at 1.

41 Ibid., 2.

42 As Gregerman explains: “Kasper and the authors of Gifts often present their arguments for the desirability of converting Jews to Christianity indirectly and elliptically. They cite but do not quote verses and statements endorsing or illustrating the conversion of Jews. They elaborate complex eschatological scenarios for which there is no need to convert Jews, before more succinctly presenting arguments in favor of converting Jews” (ibid., 36).

43 D’Costa, Catholic Doctrines, 189. In an earlier discussion of the Church’s mission to Jews, Gavin D’Costa argues that although the Church’s mission is not directed to any one particular group of people, mission is as necessary to Jews as it is to all people. Enumerating his points, he argues: “(1) The magisterium teaches that mission to the Jewish people and individuals is required if Catholics are to be faithful to the truth of the gospel. (2) There is also recognition that Jews may adhere to their ancient religion in good faith … which contains true revelation, but that this revelation is completed in historical and eschatological time, in Jesus Christ.” He concludes, “But there should be no misunderstanding of the basic principle: mission to the Jews is theologically legitimate. Learning how best to implement that principle is the complex task that still awaits the careful attention of the contemporary Catholic Church in honest dialogue with Jewish groups and individuals in their great diversity” (Gavin D’Costa, “What Does the Catholic Church Teach about Mission to the Jewish People?” Theological Studies 73 [2012] 590–613, at 613).

44 Catherine Cornille, The Im-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue (New York: Crossroad, 2008) 130.

45 Catholic Church, “Dominus Iesus: Declaration on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, August 6, 2000) 22.

46 Cornille, The Im-possibility of Interreligious Dialogue, 89.

47 Although rabbinic literature assumes certain fundamental beliefs, such as the existence of God and the authority of the Torah, in general, theological truth claims are far less definitive for Judaism than they are for Christianity. In The Mind of the Talmud, David Kraemer argues that the Babylonian Talmud, and by extension much Jewish thought, “embodies a recognition that truth, divine in origin, is on the human level indeterminable,” and that humans “have only human approaches to truth and they are all, of necessity, merely relative” (David Kraemer, The Mind of the Talmud: An Intellectual History of the Bavli [New York: Oxford University Press, 1990] 7). See also Ruth Langer’s discussion of the lack of a singular or determinate understanding of salvation in Judaism (Ruth Langer, “Jewish Understandings of the Religious Other,” Theological Studies 64 [2003] 255–77, at 271–72).

48 In a related issue, Michael J. Cook notes the shortcomings of the Christian tendency to focus on issues of religious truth in dialogue, rather than on issues that may be of more relevance or interest to many Jews, such as historical-critical analyses of the New Testament. He argues, “Catholic understanding of how lay Jews self-identify may remain elusive unless we rebalance dialogue on [Nostra Aetate] matters by welcoming historical-critical dimensions on par with those doctrinal” (Michael J. Cook, “Nostra Aetate’s Processing of Gospel Texts,” in A Jubilee for All Time [ed. Rosenthal] 248–61, at 253).

49 This is asserted throughout Dominus Iesus, which argues firmly against relativistic theologies that suggest otherwise (Catholic Church, “Dominus Iesus”).

50 Dominus Iesus states this unequivocally: “The Church’s constant missionary proclamation is endangered today by relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism, not only de facto but also de iure (or in principle)…. The roots of these problems are to be found in certain presuppositions of both a philosophical and theological nature, which hinder the understanding and acceptance of the revealed truth” (Catholic Church, Dominus Iesus, 4).

51 Jon D. Levenson, “Must We Accept the Other’s Self-Understanding?,” JR 71 (1991) 558–67, at 563.