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WASHINGTON—The National Council of Synagogues and the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) discussed “Sources of Authority in Catholicism and Judaism” at their semi-annual consultation in New York City on May 17. Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, Chairman of the Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, and Rabbi Alvin Berkun of Pittsburgh, Chairman of the National Council of Synagogues, presided.
Father James Massa, executive director of the USCCB Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, spoke on the “sources of authority” in the Catholic theological tradition. He noted both similarities and differences between Catholic and Jewish ways to interpret sacred texts and pass on religious beliefs and practices.
“One of the obvious differences between our two faith communities is that while no one rabbi or religious body can speak for all Jews, the Church has a ‘Magisterium’ made of bishops in communion with the pope, whose interpretation and application of the word of God can be binding on all Catholic believers,” Father Massa said.
His presentation highlighted the levels of authoritative teaching in the Church, to which are owed corresponding degrees of assent. Father Massa noted that some teachings on Jews and Judaism found in Nostra aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, reaches the level of dogma or defined doctrine. “One cannot hold to the charge that the Jewish people, either in the first century or at any other time, are responsible for the death of Jesus (the so-called charge of deicide) without falling out of communion with the Catholic Church. It contradicts both Vatican II (1962-1965) and the Council of Trent (1548-1563), not to mention a proper reading of the New Testament,” Father Massa stated.
Father Massa suggested that when Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI affirmed that for Catholics the Jewish covenant remains a living and positive reality today, they were not speaking on the same level as an ecumenical council like Vatican II. “However, their teaching reflects the deeper impulses of the council, which were directed at laying to rest the teaching of contempt (that God had rejected the Jewish people) and at putting Jewish-Catholic relations on a new course of friendship and shared commitment to healing the world. Such authentic teaching could achieve—God willing—an even more authoritative and solemn expression by some future pope or council,” he noted.
Rabbi Avram Reisner, professor of ethics at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, presented on sources of religious authority in Judaism. “Everything begins with the Torah, viewed as the revealed word of God,” Reisner said. When it comes to normative religious practice, the interpretations of prophets, sages, and rabbis whose judgments gave rise to the Mishnah (2nd century C.E.), and later the Talmud (completed in the 7th century C.E.), would be decisive in mediating the word to subsequent generations, he said.
At only one point in Jewish history did Judaism ever have a body of authoritative teachers that approximates what Catholics mean by a Magisterium. Reisner pointed out that this was the period of the Sanhedrin (200 B.C.E.—70 C.E), the Pharisaical council that ruled on matters of the Torah from Jerusalem. “Is it any coincidence that the Christian community emerges from Judaism precisely at the time when such a body of authoritative teachers is in place for the parent religion?” Reisner asked.
Throughout the medieval period and into the modern age, authority in Judaism resides in majority practice and in the judiciary. Reisner spoke about the importance of the responsa in forming schools of interpretation. Local rabbis would make a ruling on a particular religious ritual or obligation, and then solicit a confirmation of the ruling or a better opinion from other legal scholars. Over time the “responses” to these inquires were collected and formed the great legal codes of Maimonides (d. 1204) and Joseph ben Ephraim Caro (d. 1575), which remain classic sources of religious rulings till this day.
Reisner also examined different contemporary approaches to religious law and ethics within the various denominations of Jewry. The Orthodox view the first five books of Moses as “God’s literal word” having divine authority, he noted; whereas the Conservatives place the Torah within a tradition of unfolding interpretation that includes modern historical perspectives. For the Reform and Reconstructionists, Jewish history and law inform religious practice but in a manner that allows for a wide degree of interpretation based on contemporary needs.
The group also discussed recent uprisings in the Middle East. Members expressed concern for the large Christian minorities in Egypt and Syria, where the situation is volatile. Regime change in many of these countries poses particular challenges for Israeli security and peace efforts with Palestinians, they noted.
The beatification of the late Pope John Paul II on May 1 was acknowledged as a cause for celebration for both Catholics and Jews. The late pope made extraordinary gestures of friendship, culminating in the historic visit to the Wall in Jerusalem where he asked pardon of God for past sins committed by Catholics against Jews.
Catholic participants at the consultation also included Bishop Basil H. Losten, former bishop of Stamford for Ukrainians; Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden of Baltimore; Christian Brother David Carroll, former associate director at Catholic Near East Welfare Association; Atonement Father James Loughran, Graymoor Ecumenical Institute; Msgr. Guy Massie, Ecumenical Office of the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York; Father Dennis McManus, special assistant to Archbishop Dolan; Father Robert Robbins, Ecumenical Office of the Archdiocese of New York; and Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, America Magazine.
Jewish participants included Rabbi Jerome Davidson, Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth El, Great Neck, New York; Rabbi Lewis Eron, Cherry Hill, New Jersey; Judith Hertz, NCS Advisor; Rabbi Richard Marker, chairman of the International Committee for Jewish-Christian Consultation; Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice-president emeritus of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly; Mark Pelavin of the Reform Action Center, Washington; Rabbi Jonathan Waxman, Temple Beth Sholom, Smithtown, New York; Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg, past president of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly; Rabbi David Straus, Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, National Council of Synagogues; Jack Fein, United Synagogue ofConservative Judaism; Rabbi Richard Hirsh, Reconstrucionist Rabbinical Association; Rabbi Moshe Birnbaum, Rabbinical Assembly.
Keywords: National Council of Synagogues, Commission on Relations with the Jewish People, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB, “Sources of Authority in Catholicism and Judaismm,” dialogue, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Rabbi Alvin Berkun, Father James Massa, Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Rabbi Avram Reisner
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