Remember Jesus’ Jewishness, Bernardin speaker says

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Remember Jesus’ Jewishness, Bernardin speaker says

Professor Mary C. Boys, SNJM, of Union Theological Seminary in New York, was the keynote speaker at the 27th Annual Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Jerusalem Lecture at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, on March 4, 2024. Rabbi Wendi Geffen, senior rabbi at NSCI, provided the introduction of speakers and served as emcee. The lecture is part of a longstanding series that maintains dialogue between Jewish and Catholic communities on the theological issues affecting their relationship. The lecture is sponsored by the Archdiocese of Chicago, AJC-Chicago, Anti-Defamation League, Catholic Theological Union, Chicago Board of Rabbis, DePaul University, JUF/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Rabbi Wendi Geffen, senior rabbi at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, greets the gathering on March 4, 2024. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Cardinal Cupich listens to the lecture. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Cardinal Cupich delivers opening remarks. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Professor Mary C. Boys, SNJM, of Union Theological Seminary in New York, gives the keynote. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Participants listen to the lecture. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

Catholics and other Christians would do well to remember the Jewishness of Jesus, according to Mary C. Boys, who delivered the 27th annual Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Jerusalem Lecture at North Shore Congregation Israel March 4.

Boys, a professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York and a sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, said that means that Christians must make the effort to understand more about the religious and cultural milieu that Jesus lived in.

“Jesus was born in a particular time and place, the diverse world of Second Temple Judaism,” Boys said in her address, titled “Recovering a Jewish Jesus: An Imperative for the Church.”

It was a time when the debates Jesus engaged in over the meaning of the Torah would have been seen as a sign of someone educated in and serious about Torah, she said.

“He was a charismatic itinerant preacher and healer,” Boys said, and not the only one.

It was only after Christianity became more established as a religion, well after the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, that leaders sought to differentiate themselves from the Jewish people.

She cited Justin Martyr, who in the second century wrote his “Dialogue with Trypho,” in which he posits that the appearance of Christ essentially replaced Judaism.

“It was, ‘Your Scriptures are no longer yours but ours,’” Boys said. “It’s apparent that Justin knew relatively little about how Jesus observed and practiced Torah. … Originally, the claim was, ‘We are Israel also,’” she said. “Then it moves to, ‘We are Israel instead.’”

As the centuries passed, the Christian view of Jews and Judaism took a turn for the worse. By the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom and others “inveighed against the Jews themselves, sometimes in cruel and callous ways.”

The change, she said, had more to do with Roman politics and the institutionalization of Christianity than with the Jewish people.

At the time, she said, the attitude essentially was, “Sure, Jesus may have been born a Jew, but he became a Christian, as did the early disciples and Paul. That Jesus is Jewish is acknowledged, but Judaism is seen as obsolete.”

That continued for centuries, she said, with Christians referring to Judaism as only in the past, while Christianity is the present and future. She demonstrated her point by referring to a recent church bulletin article she read, from a parish in Westchester County, New York.

Despite that bulletin article, Boys said, there has been a move to recognize Jesus’ Jewish identity among Catholic scholars since at least the 1980s. At the same time, Catholics and Jews have engaged more in interreligious dialogue, which has fostered ongoing relationships and greater understanding.

However, Boys said, none of that has put an end to antisemitism, which has in fact become more blatant in the months since the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s subsequent and ongoing attacks on Gaza.

“We cannot be but shaken by the vitriolic antisemitism which has emerged with new intensity,” she said. “We have no moral high ground from which to speak. Christianity cannot shirk responsibility for denigrating and demonizing Jews. … We need to be aware of the way in which these time-worn Jewish tropes have resurfaced.”

Opposing antisemitism does not necessarily mean supporting the actions of the Israeli government, especially its conduct of the war, which the Gaza Health Ministry reported had killed 30,000 people as of Feb. 29, Boys said, mentioning a conversation she had with a rabbi in her neighborhood.

When she asked how his congregation was doing, the rabbi said, “We are lacerated, not only in the wake of Oct. 7, but by the continuing devastation of Gaza.”

Rabbi Wendi Geffen, senior rabbi of North Shore Congregation Israel, said the Jewish community values the friendship of its Catholic dialogue partners during such difficult times.

The Bernardin Jerusalem Lecture series commemorates Cardinal Bernardin’s journey to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, accompanied by local Catholic and Jewish leaders. On March 23, 1995, Cardinal Bernardin delivered a lecture titled “Anti-Semitism: The Historical Legacy and the Continuing Challenge for Christians,” in the Senate Hall at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Since then, the lecture has alternated between Catholic and Jewish speakers and Catholic and Jewish venues each year. Sponsors include the Archdiocese of Chicago, AJC-Chicago, the Anti-Defamation League, Catholic Theological Union, Chicago Board of Rabbis, DePaul University, JUF/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, and the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership.

“Chicago really stands out, really among the entire country as a model for what’s possible when it comes to building strong not just interfaith dialogue, but I’d like to say and think friendship amongst our community and we hope that those bonds remain strong,” Geffen said in her introductory remarks.

Cardinal Cupich, who introduced Boys, reaffirmed the friendship between Catholic and Jewish communities.

“Friendship and trust are important realities to lean on in troubled times,” he said. “It’s true that in such periods, relationships can become strained. Trust is often put to the test. Past traumas can resurface and doubts of sincerity can creep into the closest of relationships. But relationships, especially when they are strong and have been proven over time, can be a reminder of the value of walking together, keeping in mind how we have benefited from one another and how our friendships have been so enriching as we work for the kind of peace that is built upon justice.”

He noted a public exchange of messages between Pope Francis and Jewish scholars celebrating dialogue and encouraging dialogue to continue.

“Tonight’s lecture, an outgrowth of longstanding relationship between Jews and Catholics in Chicago, is a concrete response to this invitation to broaden our dialogue,” the cardinal said. “It is also an opportunity for me publicly to reaffirm the commitment of the Archdiocese of Chicago to cultivate the understanding, friendship and empathy that has the power to transform communities. Likewise, we remain committed to combating antisemitism in all of its pernicious forms. These promises do not presume that we will always agree on matters of policies or implementation, particularly during times of war and conflict. They mean, however, that we remain committed as friends to seek a just and peaceful future together. It is apparent that Oct. 7, 2023, will mark a new epoch in the life of Israel and the Jewish people. Let me again offer my condolences for all who have died and continue to suffer to this attack, which is worthy of every condemnation. I join my voice to so many others calling for the release of hostages and the increase of humanitarian aid for those in dire need of it. I join my voice to the Holy Father’s in praying for an end to the ongoing violence in the region and for a lasting peace to take root in Israel, Gaza and the Palestinian Territories.”


  • catholic-jewish relations

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