Jewish-Christian Relations and Orthodox Ecumenical Participation

By Dn. Michael G. Azar

(This essay was originally delivered as a public talk at the June 2015 Fordham/OTSA conference on the upcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. It was part of a panel on ecumenical relations.)

In various contemporary academic, political and religious discussions, what is often taken or presented as “the Christian” teaching or practice is not always something shared by Orthodox. In both official as well as unofficial contexts, the perspectives commonly labeled as “Christian” might sound Roman Catholic, but not Orthodox; or Baptist, but not Orthodox. Such is sometimes the case in university classrooms and in academic societies; in ecclesial and interreligious gatherings; in capitol buildings and campaign trails; in internationally respected media as well as sensational punditry.

The Orthodox Church’s active and ongoing ecumenical engagement, on all levels from patriarch to parishioner, can serve to nuance this frequent misrepresentation, or at least “other Christian traditions”-centered presentation, of Christianity.  More to the point, while ecumenical relations can bring tremendous benefits, as well as drawbacks, to the Orthodox Church (neither of which am I addressing here), the value in our ecumenical relations lies not so much in what it does for us but in what it might do for the so-called “Christian” voice presented toward or on behalf of the rest of the world.

Contemporary Jewish-Christian relations, particularly with regard to the troubled Middle East, serves as one important example of something that might benefit from consistent Orthodox ecumenical participation.  Indeed, Orthodox and Jewish representatives have had an ongoing dialogue for decades, but the far more influential of Jewish-Christian interactions, globally speaking, are those between Jews and, say, Catholics or Lutherans.  These interactions often have more of a say in what the Jewish, Christian, and secular worlds believe “the Christian” position or practice to be, and, therefore, they bear more influence in the religious and political policies that subsequently arise.

Yet, there are many unique features of the Jewish-Orthodox Christian relationship that Western political and religious discussions would do well to take into account.  After all, the many theological teachings that have affected or effected Western Christian-Jewish relations—for example, teachings on the people of God, law, and covenant—are often expressed differently in the Orthodox East, where Christianity and Judaism have had a considerably different historical relationship. What is more, early Zionism was born in Orthodox-ruled lands, and the relationship between the State of Israel and the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem is one that the State shares with no other.  Most significantly, perhaps, the majority of Christians in the Middle East—a group often overlooked in Western religious and political policies—are Orthodox.

Through ecumenical participation, the Orthodox Church can regularly articulate these distinctive contributions to Jewish-Christian relations (with all of their regional, religious and political dimensions) and thereby add a critical voice to what is often taken outside of Christianity to be representative of Christianity.  As such, the Church can have a greater influence on Western religious statements and political policies—especially those that so tremendously affect lands where Orthodox Christians have long resided.

Michael Azar is Assistant Professor of Theology/Religious Studies at the University of Scranton.