The Need for Interfaith Theological Dialogue
A Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of Nostra Aetate
The Intercultural Forum for Studies in Faith and Culture, The Interfaith Theological
Forum, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
The Catholic University of America, March 10, 2005
I am honored indeed to present the initial Jewish presentation at this celebration of the fortieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate, particularly as I am sharing the podium this evening with his excellency, Cardinal Walter Kasper, the President of the Commission of the Holy See for Religious Relations with the Jewish People. I hope it will help us understand the special place of orderly, cogent presentations of Jewish belief in Judaism, if, by contrast to Cardinal Kasper, I indicate my status in the Jewish religious community. I hold no official position in the Jewish religion other than being another rabbi, in my case, a seminary professor. I have no authority over anyone except the students momentarily registered for my courses and my statements about Jewish belief affect Jewish thinking and practice only as someone happens to find them persuasive. Though belief is a critical, that is, necessary, dimension of Jewish faithfulness to God in Covenant, classic Jewish religiosity affirms that we know far better what God wants us to do than how we are to understand and explicate God's nature and all that derives from it. Thus, Judaism has no communally accepted equivalent to either dogma or creed and though Orthodox Jews are bound to follow the mandates of their rabbis, neither they nor the rest of Jewry are organized in any central, authoritative, institutional structure. Even the term 'theology,' which I somewhat laboriously avoided above, strikes some Jewish thinkers as too Christian for unqualified Jewish use though it has by now become widely accepted among us. And should anything I have thus far said or will yet say seem questionable to any of my distinguished Jewish colleagues here, they will, in proper Jewish faithfulness, give you their better understanding of our truth. Thus does the Torah continually renew itself.
My chief qualification for addressing you this evening would seem to be seniority. I have written and been involved in these discussions for over forty years and, until someone else identifies himself, I am probably the only person present who was at the first formal Jewish-Catholic Colloquy held in the United States. It took place at St. Vincent's Archabbey at Latrobe, PA, the oldest Benedictine monastery in America, Jan. 25-28, 1965. Nostra Aetate had not yet been issued but there was so clear a sense of something significant happening to the Church's official attitude toward Judaism that the American Benedictine Academy sponsored this meeting of thirteen representatives of each faith.
I remember vividly the sense of trepidation with which I came to St. Vincent's. I could not shake the fearfulness engendered in me by my Ohio childhood and its memories of the Catholic hostility and intransigence I had encountered, now overlaid by what I had later learned of the Church's efforts over the centuries to convert Jews or persecute them. I mention these fears because I believe that not infrequently the Jewish reaction to Catholic teaching stems more from these old Jewish traumas than from any idea or attitude of their contemporary Christian colleagues. And, to conclude this psycho-therapeutic theme: once American Jewry allowed the losses of the Holocaust into its collective communal consciousness in the 1960s, no thoughtful Jew could face even the remote possibility of losing another Jewish soul without considerable heartache.
Among all that I learned at Latrobe, two experiences still deeply affect me. I discovered that there were now Catholics who, because of a new sensibility moving through their church, could speak to Jews and listen to them with simple human respect. Today that seems a very modest thing indeed to deeply affect one but to the thirteen Jews at St. Vincent's it was revolutionary. Those days of study and encounter banished the specters of denigration and proselytization from my fearful Jewish mind and enabled me to see the real human beings in front of me. Except for an occasional Jewish or Catholic zealot I have run into in the ensuing decades, I have regularly renewed that Latrobe experience.
Perhaps some utopian fantasy might have prepared me for that maturation but my second insight there was utterly unanticipated. The one Catholic present I believe I knew slightly before the colloquy was Phil Scharper, the Editor of the highly regarded Catholic publisher Sheed and Ward. As I recall it, we were asked to delay the start of our morning session on the second day of our meeting because it was a saint's day and the specially celebrative morning mass would last somewhat longer than our program had allowed for. Members of the Jewish delegation were invited to attend the mass if they wished and when Phil asked me if I would like to come along I said I would. This was not the first mass I had attended but it was a special experience indeed to sit at one side of a nave overflowing with Benedictine monks and postulants who had a special dedication to proper church music and whose massed voices filled the great space with their expertise and piety. As glorious as that was, I confess, it moved me only as an appreciative observer. But seated to my right all during that service, Phil, no priest, was devoutly praying the mass - and that touched me to the depths of my soul. I knew then, and know now, that he was praying to the God that I, too, prayed to, that his devotion was directed to Adonai, my God and the God of my people. And it is on that basis that I take it upon myself to extend the blessing our tradition prescribes when one sees a non-Jewish scholar of secular wisdom and pronounce it over the Catholic teachers assembled here: Barukh atah Adonai, elohenu melekh haolam, shenatan meh?okhmato levasar vadam. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given of Your wisdom to flesh and blood.
My assignment this evening is to introduce these two days of deliberation by a statement of the not uncontroversial position of the great majority of Jews who believe that our religious leaders should engage in theological discussion with the teachers of other faiths, notably those of Christianity. Two lines of thought largely epitomize this positive stance, one historical-political, the other historical-religious.
The first focuses on the radical change that has taken place in the socio-political stance of the Jews in roughly the past two hundred years, most notably in the United States. Contrast their condition with that of their coreligionists during the fifteen hundred years from the time that Constantine declared Christianity the official faith of the Roman Empire until the French Revolutionary Assembly of the Rights of Man broke utterly new ground by declaring after three plus years of debate, that Jews could be free and equal citizens of France. In that millennium and a half Jews in the West lived in various versions of discrimination, segregation and persecution, conditions which in the latter part of that period, after the First Crusade, became more physically and religiously perilous. I shall say no more about those centuries of inter-human depravity, ones whose moral ugliness is exacerbated by the fact that religious teachings largely promoted the sinfulness. But they are the background of the odd combination of euphoria and fear with which Jews have welcomed society's acceptance of them as equals wherever it has become a political reality and despite the emergence of secular anti-semitism which has often accompanied it.
In the fifteen hundred years before the Emancipation of the Jews, as we term it, we can find some Jewish polemics which respond to the various intellectual attacks made upon Judaism. Only with the birth of modernity and its varieties of Jewish equality does there come into being a Jewish effort to explain Judaism non-polemically to anyone interested in understanding it. I am thinking here of the work of Moses Mendelssohn, 1729-1786. He is often seen as the forerunner of all the Jews who later made the passage from the ghetto fully into modern culture. Among his many German publications was his path breaking volume Jerusalem, published in 1783. Not surprisingly, it is mostly devoted to a plea for the practice of religious tolerance in the modern state. Mendelssohn must have realized that he could not leave it at that and so he included a statement explaining in the intellectual terms of the majority culture what constituted Jewish religious belief and continued to make this odd, minority faith appealing to a fully modern person.
Books such as Mendelssohn's Jerusalem continued to appear over the next century or so but they are, for all their hopes of a wide readership, essentially soliloquies. That changed radically with the maturation of American democracy and its novel commitment to pluralism. Even in this country, so obviously made up of diverse religious and ethnic groups, prejudice and parochialism only slowly gave ground to toleration. Nonetheless, Americans began a unique experiment in nation-building, one grounded on the conviction that people of radically different points of view could live together to their mutual benefit if they accepted each other in their differences as well as their commonalities. It took us until after World War I to conceive of the idea that discussions between representatives of various religious groups should be a critical part of striving for the common welfare. And it was not until some years after World War II that these clergy discussions moved on to the point where theologians of various faiths sought to grow in their own faith by learning from those of other faiths. For a people whose collective consciousness still vibrates with fifteen hundred years of being social pariahs and whose recent history has indicated what can happen to any community when a government does not respect and protect difference, these developments were tinged with messianic hopefulness. Thus today it seems clear to most but not all Jews that American tolerance is founded on an understanding of those whose religious views differ from ours, a notion that makes theological exchange between religious groups seem a self-evident Jewish value.
The other impetus to theological exchange comes from our ancient beliefs. The Bible has numerous references to God's name, that is, God's person, becoming known to all the earth. It knows and later Jewish tradition richly affirms, that God's covenant with Noah and his children, that is, all the nations, continues. Sometimes in a biblical list of those who are close to God where we would expect a climactic 'People of Israel' the text grandly expands its horizon and, somewhat cryptically, I acknowledge, speaks of 'those who believe in [that is 'fear,'] God.' In later Greco-Roman documents of about Jesus' time, we hear of such God-fearers being attracted to the Jewish community. And to this day an old rabbinic teaching remains in effect to reinforce this commitment. It specifies that every Jew is God's ambassador to the world. Thus, when a Jew commits a public offense the personal disgrace is also h?illul Hashem, a profanation of God's name - and, let me emphasize in this great city, that in Jewish law the higher the person's status, the greater the sacrilege. Alternately, every public accomplishment by a Jew is also a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God.
During the fifteen hundred years of our social subjugation our primary religious obligation under the Covenant was our survival until God's sovereignty was fully established on earth. Knowing God would help us in this task made our inward orientation a Divine responsibility indeed. Even today, our numbers being small and anti-semitism remarkably resurgent, no responsible Jewish leader can minimize the importance of bolstering the health of our community. Thus a significant fraction of our community still has a reclusive orientation, believing that survival is so important and difficult a task that Jews should serve God by concentrating their energies on their own community. However, the overwhelming majority of our community believes that America's unique espousal of tolerance has provided us with an extraordinary religious opportunity. While not neglecting our primary responsibility to the strengthening of our own community, we are now able to pursue our part in the great Messianic task: to seek out the faithful children of the covenant with Noah, the present-day 'fearers of God,' and work with them to make God's name one on earth as God is one in Heaven. Different Jews may use different language to describe this task yet, in its various iterations, this is our religious reason for participating in interfaith theological dialogue.
Some years ago I might have left it at that but over the last decade or so this position has been given increased cogency by a shift taking place in our intellectual life. I refer here to that wave of ideas loosely connected with terms like 'deconstruction' or 'postmodern.' In contrast to the messianic secularism of half a century ago, thinkers working in this register acknowledge how little certainty grounds the foundations of our thinking in almost every field. The philosophic career of Ludwig Wittgenstein illustrates well an important aspect of this development. In his early writings he was the doughty champion of precision in language and logic, urging silence on all matters which could not be treated with the clarity which made certainty rational. But life proved the opposite for people not only could communicate about matters which, as it came to be called, required 'thick' description, they had a good sense of what was proper and improper usage in their discourse. Indeed, such imprecise 'forms of life,' as Wittgenstein termed them, where ethics, esthetics and religion were discussed despite their imprecision, were considered by many people to be among the finest manifestations of our humanity. With Thomas Kuhn's study of radical change in science, Jacques Derrida's deconstruction of our identification of words with realities, and the assault of feminists and people of color on the supposed universality of western thinking, many people have come to realize how much of our lives and thought are built on intuition, not self-evident certainty, on what we religious people broadly call faith. So it seems increasingly clear today that we do not truly understand someone until we begin to get some understanding of what, most fundamentally, they believe. To be sure, that is not an easy task and one cannot hope to fully fathom that on which another person's life is presently built. Nonetheless, this changed sense of how we know what we know has lent further impetus to the need for interfaith theological exchange.
One thoughtful, significant group in the Jewish community rejects this stand. I am not referring to those whose involvement in the Jewish community is resolutely secular nor do I mean the reclusivists among us who believe that Jewish responsibility demands they have as little to do with non-Jews as is practical. Rather I am pointing to that highly influential group of Orthodox rabbis loyal to Yeshiva University with its fusion of classic Jewish learning and modern thought, whose are organized as the Rabbinical Council of America, and whose spiritual guide, until his death in 1993, was Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik. An acknowledged master of Jewish law, Rabbi Soloveitchik was the final authority on issues of Jewish practice for this considerable Jewish community. He was also a sophisticated philosophic thinker whose youthful German doctorate was only the foundation for his continuing concern with modern thought.
Because of his exceptional influence and prestige a number of efforts were made in the period before Nostra Aetate was issued to find a way to have Rabbi Soloveitchik even tacitly approve the forthcoming Council statement on the Jews. I was present at one such meeting when the interfaith officer of the World Jewish Congress futilely attempted to persuade him to abandon his hands-off position. In 1964 he published an essay, 'Confrontation,' in the Rabbinical Council's journal, Tradition (6, no. 2, pp. 5-29, and was reprinted in A Treasury of Tradition, ed. Norman Lamm. New York: Hebrew Publishing Co., 1967. All references here are to this reprinting). In it, Rabbi Soloveitchik explained why one should not participate in theological exchanges with other faiths - though he specifically mentions Christianity a number of times. The issue must have been of special importance in his eyes because in this case he broke with his family custom of not publishing Jewish legal decisions before one's death and 'a statement [on this matter] formulated by Rabbi Soloveitchik appeared in the Rabbinical Council Record for February, 1966' (the 'Addendum' to the reprinting of 'Confrontation,' 78). It says, 'We are, therefore, opposed to any public debate, dialogue or symposium concerning the doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of our faith vis a vis 'similar' aspects of another faith community' (79). It goes on to give ten specific examples of topics it would be 'improper to enter dialogues on' and says 'There cannot be mutual understanding concerning these topics, for Jew and Christian will employ different categories and move within incommensurate frames of reference and evaluation.' (Emphasis in the original, 79.) The statement then concludes with a highly positive view of discussions dealing with 'the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavors' (79) It concludes, 'we are ready to discuss universal religious problems. We will resist any attempt to debate our private individual commitment' (80).
Though this statement was made not quite forty years ago I believe it reflects the continuing practice of the modern or centrist Orthodox Jewish rabbinate. While one may find Orthodox Jewish academics or even rabbis not affiliated with the Rabbinical Council of America who might participate in interfaith theological activity, I do not believe that any member of this great and significant group would even today violate Rabbi Soloveitchik's ruling. (See the letter published in Forward of March 11, 2005, p. 8, from Dr. David Berger a week after he was reported in this newspaper to have met with Catholic theologians. He affirms abiding by Rabbi Soloveitchik's ruling.) Both for its uncommon organizational significance and its substantial argument, this view demands our attention.
Rabbi Soloveitchik's argument seems to me to develop along two lines of reasoning, the one dealing with his anticipation of such possible discussions, the other stemming from his understanding of the nature of religious faith. Let me consider them in turn.
It is instructive to cite his own language about theological exchanges. He rejected any attempt to 'engage us in a peculiar encounter in which our confronter will command us to take a position beneath him while placing himself not alongside of but above us' (70). Again, he opposed any meeting 'in which we shall become an object of observation, judgment, and evaluation' (70). Or again, 'our singular commitment to God and our hope and indomitable will for survival are non-negotiable and non-rationalizable and are not subject to debate and argumentation' (73). One wonders what Rabbi Soloveitchik would make of the record of the forty years of discussions since Nostra Aetate with their record of simple human respect and high human regard. Moreover, he seems to have believed that the goal of such discussions is to reach mutual agreement, that is, that interfaith dialogue aims at a kind of syncretism of the faiths. However, as these discussions have matured they have in fact increasingly focused on our understanding each other in our differences. To be sure, at an initial stage of the contacts it is important to identify some areas where there are similarities between the discussion partners. That creates a foundation which makes open communication possible. In the case of Judaism and Christianity, that foundation generally derives from their mutual dependence on Hebrew Scriptures, for all their different ways of reading them. It seems to me that because of this, Judaism and Christianity have a closeness that no two other world religions share, a judgment I cautiously assert until there is greater clarity about Islam, our Abrahamic sibling's general attitude to the Hebrew Scriptures. Whatever the case in that matter, mature dialogue now evidences nothing like the human indignities rightly rejected by Rabbi Soloveitchik.
His other argument against dialogue, that it violates the privacy of individual faith, demands more subtle consideration. He epitomized his argument in this sentence with its extraordinary conclusion: 'The great encounter between God and man is a wholly personal private affair incomprehensible to the outsider - even to a brother of the same faith community' (73). He explains this in several ways, such as 'it defies all standardized media of information and all objective categories,' (73), or again, 'One of the confronters will be impelled to avail himself of the language of his opponent...[leading to a] surrender of individuality and distinctiveness' (73). One hears in Rabbi Soloveitchik's stance an echo of Ps. 65.2, L'kha dumiyah tehillah, which may simply be read as 'Praise befits You.' A midrash endearingly turns this into 'To You silence is praise,' for what might a human ever say that would be adequate to God's reality? Jews echo this sentiment regularly in the kaddish prayer, the doxology which frames the parts of our liturgy and occurs in other moments of Jewish practice.
True, we cannot fully communicate to someone else the grounding experiences of our faith but does that mean that we can say nothing useful about them? I do not think it mere pedantry to point out that Rabbi Soloveitchik himself has usefully communicated a good deal about the religious intimacy which finally defies verbalization. Moreover, I believe that to say what one can say even when one cannot adequately say all that one would like to say makes it possible for faiths which have long been estranged from one another to be less alien to one another. Having some enlightened hints as to what moves your neighbors but must remain hidden from you has two coordinate values. It not only gives you a richer sense of who they are and what you may reasonably expect of them but does so in a way that honors their individuality and invites reciprocal respect from them.
Let me press forward with this counter-argument in favor of saying the sayable by recounting my experience in providing a Jewish response to contemporary Christologies. For its 1978 or '79 meting the American Theological Society's invited me to set forth what a believing Jew could understand and say about this central Christian mystery. At this advanced level of theological discussion two difficulties quickly presented themselves in addition to the one pointed out by Rabbi Soloveitchik. The first problem I faced came from the dynamism of theological thought. Since my graduate school study of Christian theology two decades earlier, new ways of thinking about this theme had become current. And, let me add, were I today to revise the book which resulted from the paper I delivered in 1979, I should have to speak to a number of new Christologies; theological thought is that dynamic. The second difficulty I confronted was that there wasn't just one Christology to consider but a pluralism of views in both Protestant and Roman Catholic thought. What prompts this variety of views is the desire of theologians to remedy what they see as the inadequacies of prior presentations or the belief that some new way of thinking can provide a more cogent validation of their faith. If anything, the phenomenon of theological pluralism is even more pronounced today.
These problems of change and variety were not insuperable. In response to my request, my Christian colleagues provided me with a bibliography of works they believed fairly spanned the current significant views of Christology; the rest was up to me.
It soon became apparent to me that certain methodological considerations divided the various thinkers and my response to them would vary based on the extent to which an outsider could enter their 'circle of faith' without fully sharing in it. Thus I found I could only stand at some distance from the various biblicistic, Barth-like doctrines of the Christ whereas I could almost too fully empathize with the various human-oriented Christologies, among which, with considerable qualification, I placed the work of the Catholic theologian Piet Schoonenberg. I was most attracted to the post-liberal thought of Karl Rahner and Jurgen Moltmann because of my similar sense of the balance of the Divine and the human in our belief. Thus, I could empathize with Rahner's argument a good part of the way, only in due course to come to his climactic experiential response to God's triune being which was different from and indeed opposed to my monotheism. Nonetheless, I felt sufficient openness to the Rahnerian method that I could imagine he would have a similar mix of insight and barrier were I expounding my faith in the fullness of the One God's ongoing, historic Covenant relationship with the people of Israel.
This kind of theological discussion yielded nearness in difference and, it still seems to me, to bring us a significant step closer to the goal we Jews devoutly pray for as we close each of our daily services with the early third century prayer of the Talmudic master Rav:
We...hope in You, Adonai, our God, that we may speedily see the glory of Your might: when You remove idols from the earth and cut off all false gods, perfecting the universe as God's own Dominion, when all flesh will call upon Your name and all the wicked of the earth turn to You, with all the denizens of earth recognizing and knowing that every knee should bow to You and every tongue swear fealty. Before You they will bend the knee and prostrate themselves, rendering homage to Your glorious name, accepting upon themselves the yoke of Your Dominion that You may reign over them speedily and forever. For the Dominion is Yours and You will reign in glory for all eternity, as it is written in the Torah, 'Adonai will reign for all eternity.' And [as the prophet] said, 'And Adonai will rule over all the earth. On that day, Adonai will be one and His name will be one.'
Ken yehi ratzon, may this speedily be God's will. Amen.