Teaching About Judaism within the Roman Catholic Tradition

By Susan Murphy


Near the end of 1961 an elderly man of eighty years, known to the world as Pope John XXIII, announced the convocation of the Second Vatican Council. Against a global backdrop of civil rights rioting in the United States, bloodshed in the Middle East, and the specter of nuclear devastation in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, Roman Catholic Bishops assembled in the Vatican City to grapple with the task of clarifying Catholic doctrine and practice in a modern world.

One outcome of the Second Vatican Council was Nostra Aetate, “The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non Christian Religions.” This document reminds Catholics, in part, that Jesus was Jewish, as were all his family members, his Apostles and most of his disciples. Jesus Christ was born a Jew and died a Jew. Christians and Jews share a heritage, “the spiritual ties which link the people of the New Covenant to the stock of Abraham.”

Pope John XXIII, in a prayer for Unity, decried the fact that, in allowing good, Christian people to believe that “Jews killed Jesus,” an atmosphere of anti-Semitism may have unwittingly been created, one that may have allowed the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Holocaust to proliferate. The challenge becomes then, how to undo the teaching of contempt that fed 2,000 years of abominable injustice.

Today in the Archdiocese of Boston, people who volunteer to teach a Catholic religion class in a parish can only be certified if they attend a workshop called “The Jewishness of Jesus.” This program, which was borne out of collaboration between Bernard Cardinal Law and the late Lenny Zakim of the Anti-Defamation League, was designed and is currently implemented by two gifted educators, Celia Sirois of the Archdiocese of Boston, and Naomi Towvim of the Jewish Education Bureau. Accompanied by a team of trained Catholic and Jewish facilitators, Celia and Naomi bring this workshop to many Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston, in order to educate their educators.

The thrust of this workshop is to help Catholics understand that the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were written at separate times in Hebrew history, from 66 CE, around the time of the Jewish revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem, to 95 CE. Each was written for a very particular audience. Negative references about the “Pharisees” and “the Jews,” are more reflective of the perspectives of the Gospel writers, and the political climate of the time, than of any historic actuality. The Gospels were never biographies of the life of Jesus, but are rather a collection of stories about Jesus intended to convey the significance of Jesus’ life and death for their followers. Each writer chose events in Jesus’ life and recounted them in a way that delivered a very specific message to a particular group of disciples. With this enlightened understanding of the Gospels and the special relationship between Jews and Christians, how then do Catholics teach about Judaism?

In our classes, we try to teach children that Jews and Christians share a history, dating back to Abraham, and that it was the Jewish people who gave the world an understanding that there is one Almighty Creator. The biblical stories, which reveal God’s loving relationship with God’s chosen people, also tell of the struggles of those people to live in response to God’s unconditional love. Jesus drew from these scriptures for all of his teachings. The two Great Commandments, which are commonly ascribed to Jesus, actually originated in the Torah. “You shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” is Deuteronomy 6:5, and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” is Leviticus 19:18.

Catholic liturgy and ritual is certainly situated in Jewish tradition. The Passover meal, which was most likely the occasion for the Last Supper, became the framework for Catholic Mass. Both rituals begin by telling stories–stories of pain and stories of joy, but always stories of God’s redemptive love for God’s Holy People. The Passover meal and Catholic Mass both glorify God, as with the Jewish recital of Dayenu, “For that alone we would have been grateful.” Following the blessing of the unleavened bread and the wine comes the sharing of the meal, which closes with a prayer of thanksgiving. The strong parallels between Passover and Catholic Mass include a lighting of candles that begin both rituals and a sacrificial lamb–the Exodus lamb, slain to free the Israelites from Egypt’s enslavement, and Jesus, the Lamb of God, who died to free the world from the bondage of its sinfulness. In our classes we emphasize that our religions have a common origin but developed in some different directions.

A year ago, on the first Sunday of Lent, Pope John Paul II, in his desire to support and continue the process begun by Pope John XXIII, publicly apologized to the Jewish people for the injustices inflicted on them for over two millennia. We want our schools and churches to reflect that attitude.

In Sudbury, Massachusetts, three leaders from Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant congregations have collaborated to create an interfaith initiative called STOP (Students Together Opposing Prejudice). STOP is a six-week program for Junior High-age students which seeks to educate participants about prejudice and stereotyping, while equipping them with strategies for confronting all forms of discrimination. So many students choose to return to the group each year that the program is now entirely facilitated by high school students who have been involved for several years.

Jews and Catholics alike share the belief that atonement begins with the naming of the sin. In striving to achieve strands of connection, with respectful appreciation for the points of departure and a willingness to continue in dialogue, true reconciliation can begin.

About Susan Murphy

Susan Murphy is Director of Religious Education at Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Sudbury, Mass. She is also one of the architects of the Sudbury STOP program, an interfaith program to help Junior High students identify and confront prejudice and discrimination.