Jacob’s Younger Broth­er: Chris­t­ian-Jew­ish Rela­tions after Vat­i­can II

January 5, 2022

A reveal­ing account of con­tem­po­rary ten­sions between Jews and Chris­tians, play­ing out beneath the sur­face of con­cil­ia­to­ry inter­faith dialogue.

A new chap­ter in Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian rela­tions opened in the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry when the Sec­ond Vat­i­can Coun­cil exon­er­at­ed Jews from the accu­sa­tion of dei­cide and declared that the Jew­ish peo­ple had nev­er been reject­ed by God. In a few care­ful­ly phrased state­ments, two mil­len­nia of deep hos­til­i­ty were swept into the trash heap of history.

But old ani­mosi­ties die hard. While Catholic and Jew­ish lead­ers pub­licly pro­mot­ed inter­faith dia­logue, doubts remained behind closed doors. Catholic offi­cials and the­olo­gians soon found that chang­ing their atti­tude toward Jews could threat­en the foun­da­tions of Chris­t­ian tra­di­tion. For their part, many Jews per­ceived the new Catholic line as a Church effort to shore up sup­port amid athe­ist and sec­u­lar advances. Draw­ing on exten­sive research in con­tem­po­rary rab­bini­cal lit­er­a­ture, Kar­ma Ben-Johanan shows that Jew­ish lead­ers wel­comed the Catholic con­dem­na­tion of anti­semitism but were less enthu­si­as­tic about the Church’s sud­den urge to claim their friend­ship. Catholic the­olo­gians hoped Vat­i­can II would turn the page on an embar­rass­ing his­to­ry, hence the asser­tion that the Church had not reformed but rather had always loved Jews, or at least should have. Ortho­dox rab­bis, in con­trast, believed they were final­ly free to say what they thought of Christianity.

Jacob’s Younger Broth­er pulls back the veil of inter­faith dia­logue to reveal how Ortho­dox rab­bis and Catholic lead­ers spoke about each oth­er when out­siders were not in the room. There Ben-Johanan finds Jews reluc­tant to accept the lat­est whims of a Church that had uni­lat­er­al­ly dic­tat­ed the terms of Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian rela­tions for centuries.

Discussion Questions

In this ground­break­ing and metic­u­lous­ly researched study, Ben-Johanan brings to life an unex­plored chap­ter in Chris­t­ian-Jew­ish rela­tions in the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, fol­low­ing the Sec­ond Vat­i­can Coun­cil. By exon­er­at­ing Jews from the accu­sa­tion of dei­cide and from the idea that God reject­ed the Jew­ish peo­ple, Vat­i­can II rep­re­sent­ed a turn­ing point in the his­to­ry of the Catholic Church and its rela­tions with the Jew­ish peo­ple. But the process of rap­proche­ment and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion was fraught with ten­sions. By draw­ing on exten­sive research in con­tem­po­rary rab­binic lit­er­a­ture and Chris­t­ian the­ol­o­gy, the author superbly cap­tures the para­dox­es and the dis­crep­an­cies that emerged in the Chris­t­ian-Jew­ish rela­tion­ship, and shows how hid­den hos­til­i­ties between Catholic thinkers and Ortho­dox rab­bis came to the fore and often seemed to be unresolvable.