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Light shining on mongrel festivities

01 January 2016

Paul Vallely finds signs of New Year hope for people walking in darkness

THE glorious image of his squat Jewish father, dressed as Santa Claus, coming down the chimney and carrying a menorah, kicked off a short radio reverie by the novelist Howard Jacobson at the beginning of the festive season. It was an eloquent celebration of the splendid British ability to digest, assimilate, and to create, to use Mr Jacobson’s phrase, a wonderful “mongrel Christmas”, which is both distinct and inclusive.

There was just one thing that jarred. He spoke of the Christmas tree, beneath its evergreen glory, as a “mute accusatory crucifix in waiting” — its lurking woody skeleton a potential reminder of “the cross for which Jews will be for ever blamed”.

For ever? Once, it was undoubtedly true that Christian cultures held to the idea of the Jews as Christ-killers, a notion that St John’s Gospel does not do much to disavow. But Mr Jacobson has perhaps been too busy producing his wonderful comic novels to notice that there has been significant change on this issue.

Fifty years ago, the Roman Catholic Church made one of the most remarkable about-turns in history of religions. Realising that the Holocaust was the final outworking of the 2000-year-long insistence that the Church was the new Zion that superseded the old Israel — a self-righteous conviction that had produced a bitter history of Christian anti-Semitism and persecution — the Second Vatican Council produced a document, Nostra Aetate, which turned all that on its head with a new understanding of Judaism.

Soon after Nostra Aetate was published, the French rabbinate drafted a text in recognition of the changes. It was never published because, according to a recent article by Alon Goshen-Gottstein of the Elijah Interfaith Institute in Jerusalem, of Jewish scepticism about whether the Christian Church was really capable of changing. Fifty years on, it seems that the sceptics have been convinced that Christian actions suit those words.

In November, the French rabbinate issued a statement that speaks of a future in which Jews and Christians and all humanity gather in brotherhood around one God. The statement invites Jews to consider how they should act in the next 50 years. Then, last month, a global group of Orthodox rabbis spoke of Christians and Jews as partners in a “common covenantal mission to perfect the world”.

Both statements were significant, Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein said, because the French statement spoke to the wider world, and the Orthodox one, which has been described as “more daring theologically”, was a teaching document that spoke directly to Jews, offering them a positive view of Christianity as a divinely given religion.

The language of these two Jewish statements is rather more elevated than that of Mr Jacobson’s vivid observation that “mongrelism is a virtue in a world made dangerous by the pursuit of purity”. But the message is the same. In a world constantly shadowed by news of conflict and division — a place of what John Donne called “absence, darkness, death: things which are not” — this celebration of Jewish-Christian rapprochement is a welcome sign of the light that Christmas has brought to peoples walking in darkness. It is a fitting thought with which to begin a New Year.



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