Theologian returns to Pittsburgh with call for improving Jewish-Christian relations
Ruth LangerOffering insight, Tracing Roots

Theologian returns to Pittsburgh with call for improving Jewish-Christian relations

'Working to improve relations between Jews and Christians, on both sides, has been a way of doing something that matters'

Ruth Langer. (Photo courtesy of Ruth Langer)
Ruth Langer. (Photo courtesy of Ruth Langer)

Ruth Langer is looking ahead by being historic.

On Feb. 28, the professor of Jewish studies at Boston College and former Pittsburgh resident will return to Western Pennsylvania to address “Lent and Easter through Jewish eyes: Liturgies of Purification, Both Catholic and Jewish” at Saint Vincent College.

The upcoming talk, Langer said, will focus on “places in the observance, particularly Easter, that we can understand better if we understand the Jewish background that it draws on.”

Comprehending first-century Jewish life or “the parting of the ways” isn’t necessary to derive benefit from Langer’s talk, she said: “Hopefully the academics will get something out of it, but I will use vocabulary and explanations that are accessible to everybody.”

For more than 20 years, the professor has focused on Jewish-Christian relations, with a specific interest in liturgy.

Her book, “Cursing the Christians: A History of the Birkat HaMinim,” probes the Amidah’s 12th blessing.

The earliest form of that daily prayer, according to Langer, cursed Christians, apostates, sectarians and enemies of Israel.

Over time, however, the text was amended.

Its present form, according to many English-translated Ashkenazi siddurim, now reads: “Let there be no hope for informers and may all wickedness instantly perish; may all the enemies of Your people be swiftly cut off, and may You quickly uproot, crush, rout and subdue the insolent, speedily in our days. Blessed are You, Master, Crusher of enemies and Subduer of the insolent.”

Langer is happy to talk texts but also faith, as along with her doctorate she holds rabbinic ordination.

Having semicha, she explained, adds to the richness of her work.

“I’m in a theology department — as opposed to a religious studies context or Jewish studies context — and theology is significantly applied study of religion, it’s supposed to matter,” she said. “And so, for my career, working to improve relations between Jews and Christians, on both sides, has been a way of doing something that matters, that has, hopefully, some impact on the world.”

For many, envisioning a world where people of diverse faith can respectfully coexist is hard to imagine.

Langer said harmony is possible, but understanding history is a prerequisite.

Thanks to “Nostra aetate,” an official declaration of Vatican II made by Pope Paul VI in 1965, relations between Jews and Christians have “vastly improved over the last 50 or 60 years,” she said. “There’s still rockiness, and some of that rockiness has shown up in the last couple months since Oct. 7.”

When asked to describe the state of Jewish-Christian relations since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, Langer said that, generally, “Catholic universities have been overall safe spaces for Jewish students.”

The academician said she suspects that’s due to the presence of a “moral voice at the Catholic campuses.”

“Part of that moral voice is that antisemitism is a sin — so then you have to figure out what antisemitism is, that’s a different matter — but it means that there are relationships built, there’s those concepts, there’s ideas, which led to overall a great sense of horror at the initial Hamas assault,” she said. “There is also a horror at the reality for the situation for people in Gaza right now, but that’s more muted and balanced in the Catholic world than it is in the parts of the Christian world where a relationship with Jews and Judaism has not come as far along.”

Langer is optimistic that interfaith dealings can improve.

“Certainly better education of the clergy and the students in seminary into the realities of Jewish-Christian relations, its history and its sensitivities would be one of my key recommendations,” she said.

Still, whether diverse practitioners of faith can achieve mutual respect is often predicated on the makeup of their worship spaces, Langer explained.

“A church with a top-down authority structure has vehicles for making these sorts of changes easily,” she said. That can be harder in churches with a more congregational model, she continued, “because authority goes from the bottom-up, and the bottom isn’t necessarily deeply educated theologically or religiously.”

For Langer, there’s a biographical element to improving Jewish-Christian relations.

She grew up in Squirrel Hill on Mount Royal Road and attended Colfax Elementary and Middle School before graduating from Taylor Allderdice High School.

Her family, she said, traces its ties to Pittsburgh since the 1830s.

“My grandfather, my great-grandfather and maybe my great-great-grandfather, were real leaders at Rodef Shalom,” she said. “I still remember my grandfather [Marcus Lester Aaron] going to board meetings and ritual committee meetings, or worship committee, when he was in his late 80s. He was still a figure to be reckoned with in the congregation.”

Langer left Pittsburgh more than 40 years ago but has returned periodically to intern at Rodef Shalom, speak at the congregation and visit family.

“It’s definitely the place of my roots,” she said. “I think that, in many ways, the interreligious work that I’ve been doing is a piece of my Pittsburgh legacy.”

Recently, Langer has focused on the liturgies of J. Leonard Levy, who was rabbi at Rodef Shalom from 1901 to 1917.

“He was my grandfather’s childhood rabbi, and one of the things he really did — and that I saw with his successors — was reach out and build relationships with the Christian community,” she said. “I feel that in some ways I’m continuing that legacy, that piece of what Rodef Shalom stood for in those years.”

Langer has dedicated her career to Jewish-Christian relations but said ordination, tenure or a comprehensive knowledge of liturgy isn’t needed to improve a relationship.

“What really matters is to build relationships at all levels, but especially with the people who can call out to their own communities and say, ‘Hey, wait a second, what do you think you’re doing?’

And that only happens when you are literally building those relationships,” she said. “It doesn’t happen if we just turn inward.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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