“Accusation of anti-semitism not justified”

A rabbi accuses pope em. Benedict XVI. from promoting a new anti-Semitism on a Christian basis. Is there something to it? The Viennese dogmatist Prof. Jan-Heiner Tuck gets to the bottom of the matter.

Interviewer: The latest text from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity meets with criticism. Berlin rabbi Walter Homolka accuses Benedict of having "formulated Christian identity at the expense of Jewish identity". You are the editor of COMMUNIO, the international Catholic journal in which the text by the pope emeritus appeared. The article deals with questions of Jewish-Christian dialogue. In the first pages of his text, Benedict repeatedly emphasizes that Christians and Jews share a holy book, the Old Testament, as a foundation of their faith, and that the faith of Abraham is also the faith of Christians. Surely this is a clear commitment to Judaism?

Univ.-Prof. Dr. Jan-Heiner Tuck (Vice Dean of the Faculty of Catholic Theology at the University of Vienna, Institute for Systematic Theology and Ethics, Dogmatics and History of Dogma): Yes, I would agree with that. In the first section of the text, Benedikt explains how the separation between Judaism and Christianity came about in the first place. And he distances himself from the long-held thesis that Judaism is, as it were, the mother and Christianity the runaway daughter, and says: It is first of all a people of God who, after the destruction of the second temple in 70 n. Chr. differentiated into two communities. On the one hand, rabbinic Judaism, on the other hand, Christianity, both of which are now developing readings of how the Old Testament is to be understood. And these readings are known to be competing. So siblings who have grown apart become rivals, even enemies in part – and only after Nostra Aetate, So after Vatican II, friendly relations are being re-established.

Interviewer: But when they talk about siblings, both religions, Christianity and Judaism, have common parents.

Tuck: Yes, Benedict strongly emphasizes that both preserve the Old Testament scriptures as a sacred heritage. He also clearly marks here once again the rejection of Markion, that "arch-heretic" who in the early Church tried to eliminate the Old Testament from the canon. It is also interesting to note that Benedict XVI. has, in my opinion, given the most profound theological interpretation of anti-Semitism. The attempt to destroy the Jews is ultimately an attempt to eradicate the biblical God from memory. Why? Because the Jews are THE bearers of the memory of God, because they preserve the Mosaic ethic, which is offensive to all egoism. And here he refers back to the words of the prophet Zechariah: "He who touches you touches the apple of my eye."

Interviewer: Now Rabbi Homolka from Berlin says that whoever describes the role of Judaism as Benedict does in this text is helping to build the foundation for a new anti-Semitism on a Christian basis. How does he come to this strong criticism? What you have just told and described sounds rather as if there are many similarities between Judaism and Christianity.

Tuck: I appreciate Walter Homolka and can understand that he, as an actor in the Jewish-Christian dialogue after the document Dominus Iesus – but also after the revised Good Friday intercession – looks with special attention at what Benedict says about the Jews. But the accusation of anti-Semitism seems to me too steep and, frankly, not justified in the matter either. The very title of the text, "Grace and Vocation without Repentance," clearly shows that Benedict wants to programmatically emphasize God's faithfulness to his promises to Israel. Moreover, Joseph Ratzinger says that Judaism has a special position for Christians and should not be classified like other religions – if only because it is the owner of the Holy Scriptures. And finally, he emphasizes with Paul that all Israel is saved (cf. Rom 11,26). Of course, Ratzinger, as a Christian, theologian and, it must be said, Bishop Emeritus of Rome, maintains that the dynamic of salvation history finds its culmination in Jesus Christ. At one point he recommends the Emmaus pericope as a model for conversation between Jews and Christians. So, just as the Risen Lord taught the disciples to read the Scriptures anew, Christians today should also try to bring their hermeneutics to their Jewish interlocutors. And here, I think, the neuralgic point is touched, the Christology that separates Jews and Christians until today. And this raises the question of how, despite the difference in Christology, one can represent as a Christian theologian a positive relationship to Judaism that does not, as it were, reduce Judaism to a precursor role. And this suspicion is, I believe, behind Rabbi Homolka's sharp remark.

Interviewer: Does Benedict's text then give suggestions on the question of how Christians and Jews can talk about their understanding of Christ?

Tuck: I would say that this is where the theologically differentiated discussion must begin. Benedict problematizes two basic consensuses of today's Jewish-Christian conversation: on the one hand, the no to the doctrine of substitution – the doctrine of substitution says that Israel has forfeited its position in the history of salvation because it has rejected the Messiah, and that the Church is the new Israel or the new people of God, which has replaced or substituted for the old one, i.e. replaced it. Conversely, the "no" to the substitution theory is then positively connected with the "yes" to the uncancelled covenant. This means that Israel is and remains the bearer of the divine promises.

Benedict now problematizes this double consensus, not to question it, but to deepen it theologically. On the one hand, he says that the question of substitution "yes or no" must be treated in a more differentiated way with regard to basic biblical elements such as the temple cult, the moral instructions, the question of the Messiah or the promise of the land. And this is just where people come to different conclusions. The cult laws, for example – circumcision, dietary rules, etc. – are known not to have been taken over. The moral directives found in the Ten Commandments, however, were very much affirmed and affirmed in the Jesuit ethic.

I would also say, however, that with all the exegetical differentiation of the examination of these basic elements, in the end it remains somewhat unclear what the lasting salvation-historical position of Judaism after Christ consists of. And in my opinion, this should have been expressed more clearly, in order not to bring the problematization of the basic consensus into the skewed position that now, in a sense, a role backwards is being sought here in the dialogue between Jews and Christians. So to be clear: that is not what is being sought. But there is perhaps a certain blank space in the description of the positive salvation-historical significance of Judaism. In the title and also at the end, this is clearly expressed, but in the text itself, there are at best traces.

Interviewer: From Benedict's text one can also read a message on the political situation in the State of Israel. These are significant statements Benedict makes there about political messianism, or?

Tuck: Theodor Herzl and Zionism wanted to give the suffering Jews a new home. The Shoah made this concern even more urgent. Secular and religious currents go together in Zionism. The Catholic Church, however, has always rejected a theologically understood land-grabbing in the sense of a political messianism. The State of Israel, Benedict emphasizes, is to be considered in terms of international law. Like any other people, the Jews also have a claim to a country under natural law. One can personally see in the establishment of the state of Israel a sign of God's faithfulness to his people, but Benedict rejects a political theology of the state of Israel. In this way, he clearly sets himself apart from forms of Christian Zionism, which connect the repatriation of the scattered Jews with a historical-theological agenda and thereby want to accelerate the parousia of Christ, so to speak.


The apple of God's eye. Fragments on a theology after Auschwitz. With a foreword by Rabbi Walter Homolka, Herder: Freiburg i. Br. 2. Aufl. 2016.

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