Orthodox rabbis bless Christianity? Sounds like 'groundbreaking' news. Except for ...

I live in Annapolis, a sailing town on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. It's the capital of Maryland, briefly served as the first capital of the United States (bet you didn't know that), and is home to the U.S. Naval Academy.

Because I'm sort of a sports chameleon (except for the New York Yankees, my first sports crush) I tend to follow the local teams wherever I happen to land. Hence, I know more about Navy's teams than I ever imagined I would.

However, here's all you need to know about Navy sports.

The football team can go winless and get crushed in each of its first 11 games of the season. But as long as it beats Army, always it's last regular season opponent -- no matter what the score, no matter how poorly played a game -- the season is declared a success.

Seems like disingenuous spin to me, but that's just how it is around these parts. Every blown field goal, every dropped pass, interception, fumble, you name it -- all is forgiven. Just beat Army; 2-0 is sufficient.

I view the recent announcement by some two dozen Orthodox Jewish rabbis about Christianity being part of God's plan for humanity's salvation in a similar vein.

Journalists who are interested in this story need to know that there is considerably more smoke here than fire -- more self-affirming wish-fulfillment than anything else.

The proclamation received precious little mainstream news coverage. I'm not sure why. Did the main-streamers recognize the announcement's limited scope? Did they just miss it as they miss so many religion stories? I'd like to believe it's the former. But my money is on the latter.

Because it arrived during the extended Hanukkah-Christmas season, when reporters are hungry for a feel-good story to fulfill editors' demands for good cheer seasonal journalism, I expected more coverage of this statement. (Even American Jewish and Israeli media gave the story relatively short shrift.)

However, the story did create buzz in some traditional Christian and a sprinkling of politically conservative media -- do their readers overlap? -- both domestic and international (American, European and Israeli rabbis were involved). Most of it was restricted to online coverage.

Vatican Radio, for example, topped it's coverage with this overwrought headline: "Orthodox Rabbis issue groundbreaking statement on Christianity."

Breitbart, the politically conservative American Web publication, went for the clicks with this headline: "Orthodox Rabbis Issue Groundbreaking Declaration Affirming ‘Partnership’ With Christianity."

So why am I commenting on this story if it stirred so little broad interest?

Because it's indicative of how narrowly focused, agenda-driven media can distort a story's importance and, in the process, distort readers' understanding of the complicated world of religion and faith and the real divisions they encompass.

Was use of the word "groundbreaking" at all justified or just flat out hyperbolic? (Is this a good time to repeat my comment from last week about the difficulty of writing tight headlines that do not oversell?)

I'd say the latter. Here's why.

The statement was originally signed by 25 rabbis. As of this writing, 11 more have signed on. Given the many thousands of Orthodox rabbis of various stripes (there's no way to determine an accurate number because of the myriad ordination authorities), 36 amounts to less than a drop in a global bucket.

Orthodox Judaism -- as the name implies, the religion's most traditional form -- is as atomized as is Protestant Christianity. Not only is there no single authority that comes anywhere close to speaking for the whole, but the various groups often disagree vehemently. Some are Zionist, some are anti-Zionist; some are Hasidic, some are anti-Hasidic; some are ultra-Orthodox, and some are liberal Orthodox.

As for those that have signed the statement so far, they fall overwhelming into the liberal (also referred to as Modern Orthodox) camp.

Many of the more prominent signers have been engaged in Jewish-Christian dialogue for decades. Still, the far greater number of Orthodox rabbis worldwide adhere to the dictates articulated by, among others, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, among the most influential of 20th Century Orthodox philosophers and educators. He warned against engaging in theological -- as opposed to public issue-oriented -- interfaith dialogue, seeing it as a slippery slope.

I recall an interview I did in the mid-1990s with Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a pioneer Orthodox leader on interfaith issues, about the interface between Judaism and Christianity. He is one of the most  prominent statement signers.

Sitting in his home office in New York's Riverdale neighborhood, Yitz, as he is affectionately called, told me that he believed Christianity was God's plan to spare Judaism from being numerical overwhelmed, and utterly altered, by Gentiles brought to the faith by Paul's evangelizing.

If you have the time and interest, read this long interview that Greenberg did back in 2006 with Beliefnet on the issue. Likewise, click here for a more nuanced handling of the rabbinic statement, as well as an overview of Catholic-Jewish relations in recent decades, posted on Commonweal's Website.

Interestingly, some outlets paired the statement with Pope Francis' recent remarks about his Church not looking to convert Jews in any official, organized manner -- though individual Catholics remain free to do so. Christianity Today was among them.

Was the pairing an attempt to produce an interfaith kumbaya moment? Heaven knows the world sure could use many such moments about now. Or a way to note the developments without inflating their importance?

GetReligion likes to point readers toward complete texts, whenever possible. So read the entire rabbinic statement here and reach your own conclusion on its importance. I invite you to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

IMAGE: Pope Francis in Jerusalem, at the Western Wall, from Wikipedia.

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