Whither Jewish-Christian Dialogue?
A Jewish Perspective on 50 Years of Nostra Aetate
Rabbi Fred Morgan AM
JCCV-Catholic dinner, 14 June 2015
About six weeks ago I was privileged to give a talk on the same topic at Santo Tomas University in the Philippines. There were two major differences between that event and this one. First, though my hosts were very hospitable, we weren’t meeting over dinner – and breaking bread together is an important element in dialogue. The second difference is that in Manila I was the only Jew in the hall; indeed, I was the only Jewish person that most of the participants had ever met. Many of you will know that the Philippines is a very religious country. 85% of the population is Christian, most of them Catholics; and they are observant Catholics, at that. The other 15% is predominantly Muslim, living mostly in the southern part of the country, Mindanao. There is a synagogue in Manila but the Jewish community is virtually all expatriates. Jews make up approximately 0.001% of the population. And without the presence of Jews, it’s very difficult to engage in Jewish-Christian dialogue.
So how did I come to be talking about Jewish-Christian dialogue in such a Catholic country? It’s fair to say that it came about because of one thing: Nostra Aetate. Such an invitation would have been inconceivable 50 years ago. The same is undoubtedly true of this talk tonight. It is only possible due to the efforts of the 2nd Vatican Council and the publication in 1965 of “Nostra Aetate” (NA) – the Church’s declaration on its relations with non-Christian religions, and the 50th anniversary of which we are marking this year. The fourth section of NA deals with Christian understanding of Jews and Judaism. Though a mere 14 sentences in the Latin, it has been described as the Magna Carta of Jewish-Christian relations, ground-breaking in the manner in which cuts through ancient prejudices and assumptions and provides the basis for new way of thinking about Judaism from a Christian perspective. The Catholic scholar Edward Flannery has said that NA “terminated in a stroke a millennial teaching of contempt of Jews and Judaism and unequivocally asserted the Church’s debt to its Jewish heritage.” Flannery here uses a phrase, the “teaching of contempt,” which was coined originally by the Jewish historian Jules Isaac; it was Isaac who persuaded Pope John XXIII to include consideration of the Church’s relations with the Jews in the deliberations of the 2nd Vatican Council. NA opens the door to Jews and defends their rights to religious dignity in a way that had not existed within Christian societies hitherto. This is the first point I want to make: that NA is of great important to the catholic community, but it is also of great significance to the Jewish community.
At the same time, I need to make it clear that it is still an oddity in many parts of the world for Christians to hear Jews speak about their religious life and culture. This is especially true at the grass roots level, within parishes and churches. A bit later this evening we’re going to hear about a project initiated by the CCJ in Victoria entitled “Grass Roots Dialogue”. The aim of the project is to introduce interreligious dialogue to rank and file members of faith communities. Many of the hosting congregations have never actively welcomed those of the other faith into their sacred space before. They have never listened, Christian to Jew or Jew to Christian, to the religious ‘other’ present their faith narrative without apology or dispute, simply to seek understanding of someone who holds to a different religious faith.
However, putting together the project has not been straightforward. There have been many difficulties along the way. There have been doctrinal issues, questions of purpose and goal (why should we listen to the other? There is no ultimate truth in what they say, so what do we gain from it?), and liturgical intricacies to be negotiated. There is much distrust; there are many barriers to dialogue. This is still the case 50 years after NA. The experience suggests that the “our time” of nostra aetate (“in our time”) has not yet fully arrived; we are still working at it
If many Christians are still uncertain about NA and its implications, how much more so are members of the Jewish community. This is the second point I wish to make, and I’ll be exploring it in some detail. Jewish uncertainty, not to say distrust, was there from the very beginning. I mean, the beginning of Christianity in the distant past; but also, the genesis of NA as a reimagining of the relationship between Christians and Jews.
The earliest Jewish involvement in NA came while the document was being drafted. Cardinal Augustin Bea, the person responsible for Vatican 2’s declaration on other religions, approached the Jewish community to play an advisory role. Among the Jewish figures he approached were two rabbis of the highest stature in the American Jewish community: Joseph Soloveitchik and Abraham Joshua Heschel. Soloveitchik represented what we today know as “modern Orthodoxy”, and Heschel “Conservative [Masorti] Judaism”. Both men had large numbers of disciples, and their influence still looms very large within Jewish world. They both came from well-established Jewish communities in Europe (Soloveitchik from Lithuania, Heschel from Poland); they were both deeply immersed in Jewish learning but also secular scholarship; both had received doctorates in philosophy from the University of Berlin; they were both inclined towards religious Existentialism. But there was a major difference between them. Soloveitchik emerged from a traditional background of rigorously rational Talmudic learning, while Heschel came from a charismatic, passionate Chassidic background. We can see this in their reactions to the notion of dialogue, reactions which were similar in some respects but crucially different in others.
Soloveitchik resisted becoming involved in NA, and he gave a talk, subsequently published under the title “Confrontation”, in which he argued that the limits on theological discussion are absolute. This is because, he argued, though others can relate to me in a general way as a religious being (homo religiosus) they cannot in any way understand what it is that drives my particular religious impulses, since these are always embedded within a specific religious tradition that has to be lived in order to be fully appreciated and understood. In other words, my theology will always remain opaque to someone outside my faith tradition, just as theirs will always remain beyond my grasp. Since my religious faith is ultimately incommunicable, the purpose of interfaith dialogue cannot be mutual understanding. On the contrary, it can only be to try to convert someone else to my way of thinking, even if this is not the overt intent.
For Soloveitchik, this reasoning reflected his understanding of Christianity as well as his existential position. He had learned that mission is at the heart of the Christian kerygma, Christianity’s message or essential meaning. Certainly, he saw this in the historical experience of the Jewish people, who after the period of the Crusades had often been forced to listen to Christian sermons in their synagogues in Europe, and who were regularly offered the unappealing choice of conversion or death.
As a result of both his theological and his historical understanding, Soloveitchik refused to (as he put it) “trade favours” with his beliefs. He said that Jews could engage with Christians in matters of common social and political concern – war and peace, social justice, economic well-being, race relations and so forth – but not in discussions of faith. But this distinction is problematic. Soloveitchik himself acknowledged that, for a person of faith, the division between “religious” and “socio-political” matters is artificial and cannot be maintained. Some of his disciples would later use this weak link in his argument to open up possibilities for interfaith encounter with Christianity on a meaningful level. They argue that Soloveitchik himself would have approved of greater dialogue with Christians as the years went on. But for many other Jews – the majority, in fact, both then and now – Soloveitchik’s speech effectively closed the door on Jewish-Christian relations. In other words, for many Jews even today “dialogue” means simply “peaceful co-existence”. Jews and Christians travel parallel roads, and never the twain shall meet.
While agreeing with what Soloveitchik says about the uniqueness of an individual’s faith experience, Abraham Joshua Heschel took a different approach from Soloveitchik. He was an activist in temperament and in religious philosophy. As a result, when he heard on the eve of Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the Jewish year – that a clause was going to be inserted in the draft of NA threatening to undermine the theological status of the Jewish covenant with God, he immediately went to see the Pope to put the Jewish position. He argued that the clause would encourage Catholics to maintain a policy of evangelisation to the Jews, and in dramatic fashion he said that if he had to choose between conversion and Auschwitz, he would choose Auschwitz. This is a powerful statement, expressing as it does exactly the choice that Jews have often had to make in the face of Christian mission. But what is significant for our discussion is that Heschel chose to enter into theological dialogue with the Pope, even though, like Soloveitchik, he believed that faith is intrinsic to an individual’s experience and cannot in reality be communicated to another. He did this in order to address a gap in understanding which he felt would negate the value of the interfaith work that Vatican 2 was pursuing.
As NA was released, Heschel spelled out his position in a lecture he delivered at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, called “No Religion Is an Island”. There are times, he said, when it is necessary and possible to engage in dialogue. The aim of dialogue is not to convert the other but rather to enable the other to understand better the differences between you, or how it is that you each believe what you believe, as sincere people of faith. Such dialogue can help bring a sense of God’s presence into the world, as well as encourage us to stand beside each other in promoting the well-being of the world. Heschel himself literally stood beside Martin Luther King during his nonviolent march in Selma, Alabama, to promote the rights of people of colour. [In photographs of that famous march, Heschel is the white fella with the beard in the front line. Unfortunately he is not acknowledged directly in the film Selma, though if you look carefully you can see the actor who plays him in the march.]
These, then, were the two responses to NA articulated within the Jewish community. The first was to avoid dialogue and to live our lives as two parallel religious communities. This view corresponds to the outlook of the rationalistic Talmudic academies in Eastern Europe. The second was to engage in dialogue as means of heightening our sense of God’s presence in our lives while creating a world of peace within which each religious community can pursue its distinctive religious goals. This corresponds to a particular expression of the Chassidic temperament that Heschel had inherited from his ancestors.
The talks by Soloveitchik and Heschel are now recognised as significant articulations of Jewish responses to the ideas expressed in NA. But the Jewish world at the time was little aware of NA or its implications for Jewish-Christian dialogue. This state of ignorance has largely continued through the five decades since NA was published. Only a tiny minority of Jews are engaged in a significant way in dialogue with Christians.
Why has this come about? In part it is a feature of life in secular societies. The need for peoples of faith actively to engage with other people of faith is not felt so strongly in secular societies, since in the political sphere it is the secular authority that maintains civil relations among different groups of residents. [Note, for example, the debates in Australia over whether to maintain or change section C18 of the Racial Discrimination Act.] But it is also because NA was not propagated widely enough within the Church itself. It has taken many decades for the principles enunciated in NA to percolate down to the local clergy, much less the ordinary people in the pews. As a result the Jewish people have not felt its effects in an immediate way.
A Jewish commentator in interfaith dialogue, Gary Bretton-Granatoor, has identified four major turning-points in NA’s section 4, which deals with the Christian attitudes towards the Jewish people:
1. It rejects the position that the Jewish people as a whole, at the time of Jesus or subsequently, were or are responsible for the death of Jesus.
2. It acknowledges that the Jewish people have a unique and ongoing relationship with God through the covenant that is described in the Bible (that is, the “Old Testament”). This covenant was never abrogated. It quotes St Paul (Romans 11) in support of this claim.
3. Judaism offers its adherents a viable path to salvation which does not require a belief in Jesus as Messiah or Son of God.
4. Anti-Semitism at all times and in all places is a sin.
These statements represent a remarkable shift in the Church’s teachings vis-à-vis Judaism.
From the Christian perspective, the Jewish response to this momentous rethinking of the Christian position on Judaism was undoubtedly disappointing. Few Jews were aware of the radical nature of NA or its impact on Christian thinking, and even fewer were impressed by the opportunities it offered. Some Jewish commentators were concerned at the slightly patronising tone of NA. They asked why they should be released from responsibility for killing Jesus when this was a Roman form of execution, no Jews could have carried it out in any case, and the idea of a people being condemned on the basis of an ancient myth is absurd.
The same patronising quality was felt in NA’s acknowledgement that the Jewish covenant with God has not been abrogated, replaced or superseded; after all, the rabbis never entertained the notion that the covenant between the Jewish people and God has been abrogated. The condemnation of anti-Semitism is welcomed, but the Jewish community would have expected an explicit reference to Christian complicity in promoting anti-Semitism over the centuries, and the absence of any direct reference in NA to Nazism and the Holocaust was felt as an affront by a community that had been decimated by Hitler’s henchmen and their fellow-travellers just two decades previously.
Finally, and perhaps most glaringly to Jewish eyes, there was no reference in NA to the Jewish connection with the land of Israel and the significance of the State of Israel as a spiritual as well as political homeland for the Jewish people. It was clear that this was left out of NA at the request of the Arab Christian leadership, but that is no consolation for the Jewish community.
Over the decades following NA the Vatican produced a short list of other documents that address some of these issues in lesser or greater detail. The statement on the Holocaust, entitled We Remember: Reflections on the Shoah and published in 1998, was especially appreciated by interfaith scholars within the Jewish community. Programs focussing on dialogue also increased within the Jewish world, to keep up with the interest that was growing in the Catholic world. But the process was extremely gradual.
NA insists that Jesus was a Jew, and that in order to understand their own faith Catholics have to engage with the Judaism of Jesus. The “New Testament” requires Christians to read and digest the “Old Testament” – that is, the Hebrew Bible – if it is to be understood properly. This idea is emphasised even more in the Church’s later commentaries on NA. Jews come to this issue from a different starting point. They know that Judaism did not disappear or become redundant with the birth of Christianity. On the contrary, Judaism has remained religiously alive and vibrant over the ensuing two millennia, right up to the 21st century. This vitality has come about through subsequent rabbinic writings, which are called collectively the “Oral Torah”. These teachings are precisely what early Christianity rejected. By rejecting the Midrashic and Mishnaic traditions, Christianity became irrelevant to Judaism.
From the Jewish perspective, the Judaism that Christians are interested in is the Judaism of 2000 years ago, “Biblical” rather than “rabbinic” Judaism, a sacred relic. Nevertheless, Christianity sees itself as reliant on Judaism to know itself completely. Judaism, however, is not reliant on Christianity for its self-understanding. There is, then, an imbalance or asymmetry between the two religions. As the great 20th century philosopher Franz Rosenzweig put it, Christianity is dependent for its existence on Judaism, but Judaism is not dependent for its existence on Christianity.
It is important to note that over the past few decades a branch of Jewish scholarship has been emerging that challenges this understanding. Jewish academics have put forward the idea that there is an historical symbiosis in the emergence of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. The argument is that they both emerge from the same social melting-pot dominated by Roman occupation, that the earliest Christians were in fact Jews, and that the “parting of the ways” is better described in the language of siblings finding their own space in relation to each other, rather than a child establishing her independence from her parent. If that is the case, then Judaism (as it exists in its many expressions today) and Christianity (as it exists in its many denominations today) are mutually dependent in terms of self-understanding. This requires a shift in the Jewish position which, as yet, only a small number of Jews, mainly university academics, have taken on board. It restores symmetry to the relationship between Jews and Christians.
Another reason why the majority of Jews remain uninterested in dialogue with Christians despite the changes wrought by NA, is that they continue to see Christianity as constructed around an error. The error is enunciated as early as Justin Martyr’s (probably fictional) Jewish spokesman Trypho in the second century. Jews find it literally incredible that Christians can hold the beliefs they do about the divinity of Jesus, the sanctity of saints, the efficacy of relics and icons, and similar elements of mystery. Even the language of Christianity is alien to Jewish ears; it sounds either impenetrably scholastic, or quixotically pious. In the main, Judaism is a deeply grounded, earthy religion. It is not “legalistic,” as it has disparagingly been termed, but rather it seeks to discover holiness in everyday activities. It engages in what one scholar calls “down-to-earth spirituality” (Arthur Waskow) and another calls “normal mysticism” (Max Kadushin).
Rabbi Leo Baeck, in his famous book The Essence of Judaism (written as a response to Adolf Harnack’s The Essence of Christianity, a best-seller in its day), described Christianity rather disparagingly as the archetypal “Romantic religion” (by which he meant otherworldly, paganistic, mythical, and so, to some degree, missing the point about what it means to be truly human). The great 12th century scholar Maimonides labelled Christianity as idolatrous (for him, this was a legal category; it implied certain behavioural restrictions in relation to Christians). But I believe it is Christianity’s “romanticism”, more than its apparent idolatry, which befuddles Jews. It is in Jewish eyes hopelessly “romantic” and disengaged from reality to worship as God a person who lived as a human and died a human death.
Over the years I have come to realise that this is an unjust view of Christian faith, and I believe it needs to be amended through encounter with Christians. A sincere response to NA requires the Jewish community not to assume an understanding of Christian dogma based on odd bits and pieces picked up from the street, but on the contrary to listen more carefully to Christian explanations of what it is that they actually believe, and what such beliefs mean to them. This makes the relationship more symmetrical. There have been some scholars who have attempted such an approach. Yitz Greenberg is one of the few who has offered a Jewish theological understanding of Jesus as Messiah, locating Jesus within Jewish messianic ideals and seeing him not as a false messiah (the common Jewish view) but as a “failed messiah,” a messianic figure for whom the time was not right. This may not resonate with a Christian audience but it is a giant step within Jewish thought, because it aims to deal seriously with the Jewish Jesus.
Other Jewish scholars have also engaged with Jesus’ biographical narrative. Several scholars have contributed to a complete Jewish commentary on the New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine. Dr Debbie Weismann sees this annotated NT as indicative of the Jewish approach to theology. She refutes the often-heard claim that Jews do not “do theology” by arguing that Jews do in fact engage in theology but in a different way from Christians, not systematically but by writing commentaries on texts. This fits the notion that midrash is “unsystematic theology,” that is, theology in a Jewish key.
As the decades passed following the publication of NA in 1965, many Christian specialists on interfaith dialogue, for example, Professor John Pawlikowski, bemoaned the absence of a coherent Jewish response to NA. This failure to respond is, in part, because of the way that the Jewish community is organised. There is no formal hierarchy that can submit definitive statements the way that many Christian denominations do. The closest we get is the classic “rabbinic responsum.” This is how the articles by Soloveitchik and Heschel, “Confrontation” and “No Religion Is an Island”, were read by the previous generation. But in today’s democratic, egalitarian world something of wider provenance is needed. There was considerable excitement, therefore, when in 2000 a Jewish statement signed by over 200 rabbis across the denominations (but all liberal-minded) appeared in the media. It was published as a full-page spread in newspapers in New York and Baltimore; a very post-modern way to engage in religious exposition. This was the sort of Jewish response to NA that Christian scholars had been waiting for. Called Dabru Emet [“Speak Truth!”]: A Jewish Statement about Christians and Christianity, it offered eight brief propositions outlining a contemporary Jewish approach to Christianity.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the Jewish world was less enamoured of the effort than the Christian world. After all, “two Jews, three opinions.” In this case, we would expect 200 rabbis, 300 opinions. The real miracle was that 200 rabbis could agree on anything. Being a people of texts, the Jewish commentators on Dabru Emet went through it with a fine tooth comb. It had its defenders, such as David Rosen, then head of the International Council of Christians and Jews, and its critics, pre-eminent among them Harvard scholar Jon D Levenson. In many respects it carries on the themes that were identified by Soloveitchik and Heschel about the limits of theological understanding and what it might mean to listen carefully to Christians in dialogue. It reignites the earlier debates over the significance of the Hebrew Bible, the Holocaust and the land of Israel in seeking true interreligious understanding between Jews and Christians. Most importantly, it keeps the door of dialogue open.
Where does Jewish-Christian dialogue stand 50 years after NA? This is the third and final topic I wish to address. Edward Kessler of the Woolf Institute for Jewish-Christian Relations in Cambridge has written extensively on the state of dialogue today. He is very concerned, for example, with the continuing rise in anti-Semitism in Europe and, indeed, around the world. The growth in anti-Semitism does not seem to be slowed by the pursuit of Jewish-Christian dialogue. Despite Kessler’s serious reservations regarding the practical value of dialogue, in good Jewish fashion he insists on maintaining a posture of hope. In the spirit of hope, we can identify three areas of development in Jewish-Christian dialogue, knowing how difficult it will be to move things forward but accepting that if the Church could usher in “a new era, fresh attitudes, a new language of discourse” with NA (Kessler’s words), then so can we today.
The first area of development has to do with learning about each other’s most basic values, presuppositions, motivations and goals. To really learn about each other, we need to start by examining all of our assumptions about the other, what we think we know, views we have inherited and opinions we already hold about the other faith and its adherents. This is especially true for the Jewish community, which thinks it “knows” Christianity because it sees Christmas and Easter come around every year in their appointed seasons. That isn’t enough. We need to find members of the other community and sit down to learn with them on a regular basis. Actual conversation must become a priority.
These conversations must be no-holds-barred. No topic relating to our religious life or outlook can be excluded from the discussion, no matter how confronting it might be. This is the second area for development: to face the tough issues.
It is clear that this is a gradual process. It is built on developing trust. The reason why NA does not mention the Holocaust is clearly because it was too painful and controversial for the Church to address it in 1965. It was not until 1998 that the Church published its statement on the Shoah. There are still issues that disturb the Jewish community relating to the behaviour of Popes Pius XI and XII before and during the War, the reluctance of the Vatican for several decades to open up its archives, the Church’s insensitive handling over the years of a number of issues relating to the Shoah and thus to Jewish pain (locating a convent at Auschwitz; beatifying Edith Stein). From the other side, the Jewish community needs to resist replacing the Church’s “triumphalism of power” with its own “triumphalism of pain.” There are behaviours of the Jewish people that Christians may find difficult, especially in relation to the State of Israel and the Palestinian people. These questions need to be addressed. Until we can have discussions around these matters, our dialogue remains at the level of what I call “tea and crumpets;” it sacrifices sincerity and honest concern to politeness and propriety. Such dialogue cannot move us forward. In this vein, I have tried to be sincere and open in my comments tonight.
The third area is in some respects the most difficult. It is to learn how to be true to our own religious tradition (avoiding a pluralist position) without claiming to have sole access to the truth (avoiding an exclusivist position). In practical theological terms, this means developing new understandings of covenant and of mission. From a Jewish perspective it is obvious that this is a problem that faces Christianity; but it is also a problem that faces Judaism. When Jonathan Sacks first published his eloquent but challenging book, The Dignity of Difference, it was attacked by certain rabbis for suggesting that Judaism represents for him the pre-eminent vision of religious truth but other religions may also be valid pathways to God. Sacks’s critics feared that such a view would weaken the commitment of Jews to Judaism. It is certainly the case that in our secular democratic societies the critical question is not, What kind of Christian or Jew should I be?, but rather, Why should I be a Christian or a Jew at all? It may be that we can only respond to this question after we have engaged in dialogue with those who like us have faith, though the content of their faith may differ substantially from our own.
Who better to engage in such dialogue than Christians and Jews? With a history of mutual interaction going back 2000 years to the very parting of our respective traditions, we are well placed to talk to each other. Nostra Aetate has given us the strength and the hope that we need to move forward in this pursuit.