Jews debate anti-gentile prayers with Respect to Good Friday Prayer

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By MENACHEM WECKER

March 21, 2008 – Tensions between Catholics and Jews over a Good Friday prayer in the Latin Tridentine Mass have caused some Jews to take a harder look at their own exclusive prayers and to ask whether Catholics are getting a lopsided share of blame.

For instance, after the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations petitioned the Vatican to remove the Good Friday prayer, which calls for conversion of the Jews, Jeffrey Weiss wondered on The Dallas Morning News’ Religion Blog how the Catholic church’s claim of exclusivity was any worse than “the traditional Jewish claim that the Jews (and assuredly not the Catholics) are God’s Chosen People.”

But belief in “chosenness” is tame compared to inflammatory statements about gentiles (goyim in Hebrew) in Jewish prayer and scripture. Christians are often unaware of references to members of their faith in Jewish texts, while Jews either ignore potentially offensive prayers or justify them with arguments that Christian words have led to anti-Semitic persecutions, whereas Jewish prayers have never hurt anyone.

Even if Jewish prayers have not undergirded anti-Catholic pogroms, some are derogatory. Orthodox Jews, both in Israel and throughout the world, recite the prayer Aleynu (“Upon Us”) three times a day thanking God for distinguishing them from non-Jews, including Christians, who “pray to a God who doesn’t help.” The Orthodox version of the Passover Hagaddah, which has been variously edited by Conservative and Reform Jews, petitions God to “Pour out your anger toward the gentiles who do not know you” and “chase them with rage and destroy them.”

Fr. John T. Pawlikowski, director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union, acknowledged in an interview that these prayers “have not had a public role and have not negatively impacted Christians.” Still, “for the sake of Jewish integrity they should be surfaced and removed,” he said.

Pawlikowski added that the Good Friday prayer from the 1962 Roman missal is contrary to the teaching of the Second Vatican Council and “echoes images of Jews that have been disastrous for Jewish safety throughout the centuries.” He said he is “very dissatisfied” with Pope Benedict XVI’s revision, which omits a reference to “the blindness” of the Jews, but still asks for their conversion. The pope, Pawlikowski said, “fails to understand how ‘conversion’ strikes a raw nerve in Judaism.”

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, vice president of the New York-based CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, takes another view. “Nobody should have to change their prayers for anyone else, especially those outside their prayer community,” said Hirschfield, who recently published You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism.

He added, “Communities may, however, alter their prayers because of the pain they cause others, and in so doing fall short of their own internal standards for appropriate liturgy. In other words, no community should change its prayers because of some external demand, but such external demands can provoke an internal awareness that changes how we feel about uttering certain words.”

Although Jews have suffered under Catholic anti-Semitism, Hirschfield said it is important for the Jewish community to examine itself before becoming trigger-happy with accusations. “It would be helpful if we admitted that our distress is based on past hurt more than present reality,” he said. At the same time, he said, Catholics should be aware their prayer seems to depict non-Catholics as “somehow defective or in need of salvation.”

Rabbi David Rosen, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, said his organization is merely calling for the Vatican to respect its own teachings that “affirm the unique relationship with the Jewish people,” such as the 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate.

“Of course, the church can use whatever prayers it wants,” Rosen said. “It just has to face the consequences of them. The consequence of the pope’s ‘new’ text is that we understand that the relationship is not one of true mutuality as we were led to believe by some.”

Rosen also questioned whether Jewish prayer is really anti-Christian.

The passage from Aleynu “is only inferred as relating to Christianity,” he said. “One could argue that the language of prayer should not be derogatory at all and that ‘Pour out your anger,’ for example, should be removed, but it is about those idolaters who deny God and persecute Jews, so it’s rather different.”

Rabbi Ruth Langer, academic director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College, also argued that Jewish prayers are not specifically anti-Christian — a perspective she published two years ago in “Theologies of Self and Other in American Jewish Liturgies” in the CCAR Journal: A Reform Jewish Quarterly. CCAR is the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Langer admits Jewish liturgy has “legitimately problematic prayers,” but said these prayers were removed from Jewish prayer books for good in the mid-16th century. Langer called the pope’s reinstitution of the 1962 prayer “a clear step backward from the theology of Vatican II and the esteem for Judaism’s integrity expressed in the 1970 liturgy.”

Still, the discussion and the apologetics rage on. One prominent Orthodox Jewish blog, Hirhurim Musings, which warns on every page, “Consult your rabbi before following any practices advocated here,” invited David Berger, the Rabbinical Council of America’s representative to the International Jewish Committee for International Consultations, to comment on its petition to the Vatican.

“Jewish objections should be carefully formulated and should not indicate that the Christian belief that Jews will convert at the end of days is itself objectionable or tinged with anti-Semitism,” wrote Berger. “But Jews have every right to ask the church to declare explicitly that … the purposes of interfaith dialogue exclude entirely the objective that Jewish participants come to recognize that conversion to Christianity is necessary to attain full communion with God.”

Menachem Wecker, a writer in Washington, is a frequent contributor to Jewish magazines and newspapers.

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