A Nearness in Difference

Jewish-Catholic Dialogue Since Vatican II

More than forty years ago, I was present at what I believe was the first formal Jewish-Catholic colloquy ever held in the United States. Sponsored by the American Benedictine Academy, it took place at the oldest Benedictine monastery in America, St. Vincent’s Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, from January 25 to 28, 1965. I remember vividly my sense of trepidation.

When I traveled to St. Vincent’s, I could not shake the fearfulness engendered by my Ohio childhood and memories of Catholic hostility and intransigence. That fear had been compounded by what I later learned of the church’s efforts over the centuries to convert or persecute Jews. The enormous trauma of the Holocaust, moreover, had left Jews in a perpetual state of heightened concern over even the remote possibility of losing another Jewish soul-and perhaps a default mode of wariness where Christianity is concerned. Yet a new spirit of possibility hung in the air. Nostra aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s revolutionary declaration on the relationship between the church and Judaism, would be promulgated later in the year. It would denounce anti-Semitism and affirm God’s covenant with the Jews. Clearly something significant was happening to the church’s official attitude toward Judaism, and it was reflected in that January meeting, attended by thirteen representatives of each faith.

Among all the things I learned at Latrobe, two experiences still deeply affect me. First, I discovered that Catholics existed 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, but to the thirteen Jews at St. Vincent’s in 1965 it was a revolutionary discovery. Those four days of study and encounter banished the specters of Christian denigration and proselytization from my fearful Jewish mind, enabling me to see the real human beings in front of me.

The second experience concerned one Catholic present at the Latrobe meeting whom I already knew slightly-Phil Scharper, a former Commonweal associate editor, and at the time an editor at Sheed and Ward. As I recall, the start of our colloquy on the second day was delayed because it was a saint’s feast day. A celebrative morning Mass lasted longer than our program had allowed for, and members of the Jewish delegation were invited to attend. It was an extraordinary and glorious experience to sit in the nave as monks and postulants filled that great space with their beautiful chants. Phil sat to my right during the Mass, devoutly praying, and his piety touched me to the depths of my soul. I knew then, and know now, that he was praying to the same God to whom I, too, prayed-that his devotion was directed to Adonai, my God and the God of my people. Phil’s prayer echoed in every way my own prayers: Barukh atah Adonai, elohenu melekh haolam, shenatan mehokhmato levasar vadam. Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given of Your wisdom to flesh and blood.

That shared reality should be kept in mind in thinking about the current status of Jewish-Catholic dialogue, forty years after Nostre aetate. Although belief is a critical dimension of Jewish faithfulness to God in Covenant, classic Jewish religiosity affirms that we know far better what God wants us to do than we know how to understand and explicate God’s nature and all that derives from it. Thus, the term “theology” strikes some Jewish thinkers as too Christian for unqualified Jewish use. Judaism has no communally accepted equivalent to either dogma or creed. Although 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. Anything I write or say that seems questionable to my distinguished Jewish colleagues will prompt them, in proper Jewish faithfulness, to give their better understanding of our truth. Thus does the Torah continually renew itself.

Keeping those important distinctions in mind, it is possible to say that today the great majority of Jews believe in pursuing theological discussion with other faiths, notably with Christianity. Two lines of thought, one historical-political, the other historical-religious, help explain this positive Jewish attitude toward interreligious dialogue.

The first focuses on the radical change that took place over the past two hundred years in the sociopolitical status of Jews. Revolutionary France broke utterly new ground by declaring Jews free and equal citizens of the nation-state. Before the Declaration of the Rights of Man, Jews in the Christian West were subjected to various forms of discrimination, segregation, persecution, and worse. That history of violent persecution forms the background for the odd combination of euphoria and apprehension with which Jews embraced modernity and society’s final acceptance of them as legal and social equals.

The birth of modernity and its promise of equality found Jews once again undertaking to explain Judaism to others. This effort accompanied the passage from ghetto into modern culture, a movement guided by such luminous Enlightenment figures as the scholar and philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Among Mendelssohn’s many German writings was his pathbreaking volume, Jerusalem, published in 1783, three years before his death. Jerusalem was an eloquent plea for religious tolerance and freedom of conscience-Kant called it “an irrefutable book”-that also provided a sympathetic introduction to Jewish religious belief, calculated to appeal to a fully modern audience.

The other, equally important, impetus to theological engagement with Christians comes from our ancient beliefs. The Bible promises repeatedly that God’s name will become known to all the earth. It announces, and subsequent Jewish tradition richly affirms, God’s abiding covenant with Noah and his children-that is, with all the nations. To this day, rabbinic teaching reinforces this universalizing orientation within Judaism. To be sure, during fifteen hundred years of social and legal subjugation, the primary Jewish religious obligation under the Covenant was to ensure our survival until God’s sovereignty was fully established on earth; and a significant number of Jews still believe, given the difficult task of survival, that we best serve God by concentrating our energies on our own community. Yet, the overwhelming majority of Jews in America perceive in this nation’s tolerance an extraordinary religious opportunity to pursue the larger messianic task: to seek out the faithful children of the covenant God made with the people of all nations 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 dialogue.

Over the past decade or two this openness to dialogue has been given increased cogency by a shift in the larger intellectual culture. I refer to ideas loosely associated with terms like “deconstruction” or “postmodern.” In contrast to the confidence in reason shown by proponents of the Enlightenment and their heirs, many thinkers today emphasize the elusive, even illusory nature of objective rational certainty. Wittgenstein’s investigations of the underpinnings of language and his intimations of a faith beyond explanation; Kuhn’s study of radical change in science; 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: such insights have led us to realize how much of our lives and thought are built not on self-evident certainty, but rather on what we religious people broadly call faith. It seems increasingly clear today that we do not truly understand someone until we begin to get some understanding of what, most fundamentally, she or he believes.

For many, this changed sense of what and how we know what we know has reaffirmed the place of ethics, aesthetics, and religion as among the highest expressions of our humanity, lending further impetus to the need for interfaith theological exchange. And this impetus is especially strong in America, with its novel commitment to pluralism. The United States represents a unique experiment in nation-building, one grounded on the conviction that people of radically different points of view can live together to their mutual benefit. Yet even in this country, prejudice and parochialism only slowly gave ground to toleration, and not until after World War II did theologians embrace the idea of deepening their understanding of their own faith through contact with other faiths. For a people whose collective consciousness still vibrates with fifteen hundred years of social ostracism, and whose recent history showed what can happen to any community when a government does not respect and protect difference, these developments were tinged with an almost messianic hopefulness. Today it seems clear to most Jews that American tolerance is best rooted in an understanding of the religious views of others, a notion that makes theological exchange among religious groups seem a self-evident good for a minority community like the Jews.

Despite such positive trends, one significant and influential group in the Jewish community rejects interreligious dialogue. I refer to the Orthodox rabbis loyal to Yeshiva University, with their fusion of classic Jewish learning and modern thought. This group is organized as the Rabbinical Council of America, whose spiritual guide, until his death in 1993, was the great Talmud scholar, Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik. In 1964 Soloveitchik published an essay, “Confrontation,” in the Rabbinical Council’s journal, Tradition, explaining why Jews should not participate in theological exchanges with other faiths. “We are,” he wrote, “opposed to any public debate, dialogue, or symposium concerning the doctrinal, dogmatic, or ritual aspects of our faith vis-à-vis ‘similar’ aspects of another faith community.” He listed ten examples of topics it would be “improper to enter dialogues on,” and insisted that “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.” While taking a positive view of discussions dealing with “the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavors,” the essay vows to “resist any attempt to debate our private individual commitment.”

Soloveitchik’s resistance to theological exchanges evinces a profound wariness about how such discussions may be conducted. He worried about an 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,” and opposed any meeting “in which we shall become an object of observation, judgment, and evaluation.” “Our singular commitment to God and our hope and indomitable will for survival,” he wrote, “are non-negotiable and nonrationalizable and are not subject to debate and argumentation.”

One wonders what Soloveitchik would make of the forty years of discussions since Nostra aetate, with their record of simple human respect and high human regard. He seems to have worried that the goal of such discussions would be a blurring of the boundaries of faith-that is, that interfaith dialogue would aim at a kind of syncretism, one that would almost inevitably work to the detriment of the minority partner in that dialogue. In fact, and despite acknowledging a commonality deriving from our mutual dependence on the Hebrew Scriptures, Jewish-Catholic discussions have increasingly focused on understanding each other in our differences. Today’s mature dialogue now evinces nothing like the indignities Soloveitchik feared and rejected.

Soloveitchik’s other argument against dialogue, that it violates the privacy of individual faith, demands more subtle consideration. “The great encounter between God and man is a wholly personal private affair incomprehensible to the outsider,” he wrote; the very nature of that encounter “defies all standardized media of information and all objective categories.” One hears in 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.

It is true, of course, that we cannot fully communicate to someone else the grounding experiences of our faith; but does that mean we can say nothing useful about those experiences? I do not think it mere pedantry to point out that Soloveitchik himself usefully communicated much about intimate religious experience. 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 long-estranged faiths to become less alien to one another. Having enlightened hints as to what moves your neighbors, but must remain hidden from you, 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.

Let me press forward in favor of saying the sayable by recounting another personal experience. For its 1975 meeting, the American Theological Society invited me to provide a Jewish response to the Christologies developed by contemporary theologians. In attempting to set forth what a believing Jew could say about this central Christian mystery, I quickly discovered that new ways of thinking had emerged since my graduate-school study of Christian theology two decades earlier; there was not just one Christology to consider, but a rich pluralism of views in both Protestant and Roman Catholic thought. For my part, I found that while I could only stand at some distance from the various Bible-centered, Barth-like doctrines of the Christ, I could almost too fully empathize with the various human-oriented Christologies. I was most attracted to the postliberal thought of Karl Rahner and Jürgen Moltmann, because of my similar sense of the balance of the divine and the human in our belief. Though I balked at Rahner’s climactic experiential response to God’s triune being, so different from my monotheism, I nonetheless felt an enthusiastic openness to the Rahnerian method; and I imagined what his own similar mix of insight and hesitation might be, were I to expound to him my faith in the fullness of the One God’s ongoing historic Covenant relationship with the people of Israel.

This kind of theological discussion revealed a nearness in difference that recalls to me what I experienced in that Benedictine monastery all those decades ago. It is the living hope at the core of Nostra aetate-a hope that, it still seems to me, has brought us a significant step closer to the goal we Jews devoutly pray for, a time when we shall see:

the universe as God’s own Dominion, when all flesh will call upon Your name....accepting upon themselves the yoke of Your Dominion....[as the prophet said] On that day, Adonai will be one and His name will be one.

Ken yehi ratzon, may this speedily be God’s will. Amen.

This essay is adapted from a talk given last year at The Catholic University of America in celebration of the fortieth anniversary of Nostra aetate, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to non-Christian Religions. Funding for this essay has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Published in the 2006-01-13 issue: 

Eugene B. Borowitz is Distinguished University Professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City.

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