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What dialogue looks like: Jewish-Christian relations


Leading up to the October anniversary of the historic document Nostra Aetate, the Prairie Messenger is featuring “capsule biographies,” which are also posted on the “Catholic-Jewish Relations” section of the Scarboro Interfaith website ( By October there will have been featured material on numerous individuals — Jews and Christians, men and women — who have played key roles in drafting the conciliar declaration, or who have led local, national or international efforts to put Nostra Aetate’s vision into practice, through various forms of dialogue, action and scholarship. This is the 10th in the series.

Rabbi Dr. Ruth Langer (1960 — )

One of the important insights that has emerged from more than a half-century of Jewish-Christian dialogue has been how deeply rooted significant elements of traditional Christian liturgy are in their Jewish origins. Whereas Christianity has often tended to try and distance itself from its Jewish pedigree, and stress its newness and distinctiveness, the less triumphalistic tone of Christianity since the Second World War has allowed for a new appreciation of how much Christian prayer-forms owe to their Jewish ancestry — and how both Judaism and Christianity have developed from that ancestry since then, although in differing ways. In 1985, a set of official Vatican guidelines on Jewish-Christian relations noted (speaking primarily about Catholic liturgy):

The Liturgy of the Word in its own structure originates in Judaism. The prayer of the Hours and other liturgical texts and formularies have their parallels in Judaism, as do the very formulas of our most venerable prayers, among them the Our Father. The eucharistic prayers also draw inspiration from models in the Jewish tradition. As John Paul II said (Allocution of March 6, 1982): “The faith and religious life of the Jewish people as they are professed and practised still today, can greatly help us to understand better certain aspects of the life of the church. Such is the case of liturgy” (Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church, V.1).

One of the most prominent leaders in the field of Jewish-Christian relations today, Rabbi Dr. Ruth Langer is also an expert in the many intersections between Jewish and Christian liturgy. A native of Pittsburgh, Langer did her undergraduate studies at Bryn Mawr College, and then pursued graduate work at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, receiving a master of arts in Hebrew Literature in 1985, and being ordained to the rabbinate there the following year for the Reform movement. In 1994, she received her PhD, for her thesis The Impact of Custom, History, and Mysticism on the Shaping of Jewish Liturgical Law. Today, she is professor of Jewish Studies in the Theology Department at Boston College, associate director of the college’s centre for Christian-Jewish Learning, and chair of the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations (CCJR), which unites several dozen centres of scholarly study across North America and around the world.

Langer’s scholarly work often weaves together her two areas of specialty — the history of Jewish liturgy, and Jewish-Christian relations — such as in her 2012 book Cursing the Christians? A History of the Birkat HaMinim, in which she explored in depth the origins, historical context and meaning of a longstanding prayer in the synagogue liturgy that has been at the heart of considerable controversy, in terms of its implications for Jewish perceptions of Christianity. Her many published articles and lectures examine a broad range of related topics, including how Jewish liturgy incorporates the Bible; the place of memory in liturgy; the relationship of dialogue to theology; and how Jewish liturgy speaks of God’s presence (a more comprehensive list of her publications can be found at: She has just recently published a new book, an annotated bibliography written to provide an entry point, especially for Christians, into the field of Jewish liturgy (Jewish Liturgy: A Guide to Research, 2015). This volume describes more than 1,000 published sources for those who wish to delve into this fascinating and important area for themselves.

In a 2009 interview, Langer reflected on the tremendous progress that has been made in many Christian communities since the Second World War, but she also warned of the temptation today to what she called “superficial reconciliation,” in which Christians say, “I know that I’m not supposed to say nasty things about Jews,” but don’t really understand anything of the bitter history of Jewish suffering at the hands of Christians in many places. Today it is possible to have positive relations with Jews, but without any awareness of some of the negative aspects of the Christian tradition, which can remain problematic if they’re aren’t addressed honestly and sensitively. In order to build a solid and lasting foundation for the relationship, respect and friendship need to go hand-in-hand with historical awareness, and a commitment to thinking and acting differently.

Both on a scholarly level, and in a more popular vein, Dr. Ruth Langer combines brilliant intellectual analysis with a sensitivity to the realities of Jewish-Christian relations as they are being lived out today. She helps us to better understand aspects of our shared history, while looking to the future with hope and creativity — drawing upon our respective traditions of liturgy and prayer in ways which can foster dialogue and co-operation, and honour the God we pray to.

Pope John Paul II (1920-2005)

The man who was arguably the greatest champion of modern Jewish-Christian dialogue was known to the world as John Paul II (or “JP2” to many), but when he was born, on May 18, 1920, in Wadowice, Poland, his birth name was Karol Wojtyla. Wojtyla’s mother died when he was only eight, and he was raised by his devoutly Catholic father. During his youth in Wadowice, the athletic Wojtyla had many friends among the town’s Jewish children, and often played soccer against (or with) them; some of those friendships would be lifelong, and would play an important role in the man he would become.

By the time the Second World War broke out in 1939, Wojtyla and his father had moved to Kraków, where the younger Wojtyla was enrolled in the Jagiellonian University, studying philosophy and languages. The Nazi invasion of Poland closed the university and, from 1940 to 1944, Wojtyla worked as a labourer; he also began clandestine studies for the Catholic priesthood in an underground seminary.

A number of eyewitnesses have spoken of the ways in which Wojtyla actively supported and cared for persecuted Jews during and after the war, including a 14-year-old Jewish girl named Edith Zierer who escaped from a Nazi concentration camp, weakened and unable to walk, who later credited the young Wojtyla with saving her life. On Nov. 1, 1946, Wojtyla was ordained a priest and, after graduate studies in Rome, he returned to Poland, where he combined parish pastoral work and university teaching. In July 1958, he was named auxiliary bishop of Kraków and, in 1964, became its archbishop. In June of 1967, Pope Paul VI named him a cardinal.

In October 1978, following the death of Pope Paul VI, and the sudden, unexpected death of Pope John Paul I, the world was surprised when Cardinal Wojtyla (whose name was unknown to many) was elected, taking the name John Paul II. From the beginning of his papacy, the new pope signalled that Jewish-Catholic relations would be a priority for him: his first private audience was with 5a Jewish childhood friend, Jerzy Kluger, and Kluger’s family. In 1979, during his first official visit to his homeland, John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he prayed and called for remembrance of all those murdered by the Nazis.

In 1980, during a speech to West Germany’s Jewish community, he spoke of Jews as “the People of God of the ancient covenant, never revoked by God” — a dramatic statement which continues to inspire theological reflection today.

During his dozens of international journeys, John Paul II regularly sought to meet with local Jewish communities, and he welcomed numerous Jewish groups and leaders to the Vatican. In the spring of 1986, he became the first pope since St. Peter to visit a synagogue, when he was welcomed to Rome’s Tempio Maggiore by its Chief Rabbi and community, and he spoke there of the unique and unshakeable bonds which unite Jews and Christians, affectionately calling Jews the specially beloved “elder brothers” of Christianity. It was with Pope John Paul’s active encouragement that diplomatic relations were established between the State of Israel and the Holy See in 1993, after years of delicate negotiations — a major breakthrough, both politically and religiously. In 1997, he oversaw the publication of the first official Vatican document on the Holocaust (We Remember) — acknowledged as an important step forward (although not without its own controversies at the time).

The jubilee year 2000 was also a landmark year for Catholic-Jewish relations under John Paul II: in March, he led a “liturgy of repentance” in St. Peter’s Basilica, in which he asked forgiveness of God for sins committed by Christians against the Jewish people, and committed the church to a pathway of respect and co-operation. A few weeks later, he made history by becoming only the second modern pope to visit Israel, meeting with its religious and political leaders, and solemnly recalling the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, where he laid a wreath to honour its victims, and met with a number of Polish survivors. In one of the most memorable images of his papacy, the 80-year-old pope prayed at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, inserting a copy of his earlier prayer from the Rome liturgy between its stones, a gesture that many Jews and Christians have performed throughout the centuries.

Under the pontificate of John Paul II, a number of major Vatican documents were issued which expanded and built upon Vatican II’s 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate, and Pope John Paul himself modelled for many Christians an attitude of respect, love and esteem for Jewish people, who had always been an important part of his life, his priesthood and his papacy.

After several years of declining health, he died in April 2005, widely mourned by Jews, both in Israel and around the world, and remembered fondly for his many revolutionary actions to improve Jewish-Christian relations. In 2014, Pope Francis declared him a saint of the Catholic Church. Ten years after his death, his legacy continues to inspire and guide modern Jewish-Christian relations, and his considerable writings on this topic provide a rich source for study, and a springboard for further progress in this 21st century.