The Necessity For Theological Dialogue Between Christians & Jews

Theological issues are at stake in all interreligious dialogue, and have especially caused the great tensions between Christians and Jews throughout history. The following lecture was first delivered by Rabbi Bemporad in 1996 at the famed ecumenical research and action center Centro Pro Unione in Rome, Italy.

In this paper I will discuss the process of dialogue, and why such a process should lead to theological discussion. I will then review Rabbi Soloveitchik’s position on theological dialogue, delineate the task of theological dialogue, and offer concluding remarks.

I -The Process of Dialogue

It is the process of dialogue that is really the most important element in inter- religious communications. The content of dialogue is secondary since it is the process, which will ultimately determine the content. The process of dialogue consists in establishing a proper atmosphere for effective dialogue. It is the attitude of the participants and the way in which they respond to one another, which sets the proper stage for discussion. Regardless of the topics to be discussed, if people are not ready to talk, or if there is a lack of trust, mutuality, or respect, then genuine dialogue cannot take place.

In his many writings and speeches, Father Remi Hoeckman has convincingly shown us that if a dialogue process is characterized by a sense of trust and care, then a whole range of issues, (including theological issues) that initially no one would even think of discussing may gradually be included.

It is important to recognize that Christians and Jews have much in common. The foundations of Christianity are in Judaism. In fact, Christians define themselves in relation to Judaism as part of their self-understanding. The Hebrew Bible is seen as the Old Testament to which the New Testament is indissolubly bound. As a result, in the new atmosphere of dialogue, there have been extensive endeavors to explore the areas of agreement or commonality.

The goal has too often been limited to searching for areas of agreement. In view of the past history of Christian representations of Jesus and Christianity as separate, alien, and Judaism as superseded, the process of reconciliation has, quite appropriately concentrated on the importance of finding common characteristics.

The fact of the matter is that we have to proceed beyond looking for areas of agreement. The goal is not simply to agree. Instead, we should try to understand one another and the only way we can do that is by being willing to say, “Look, as a Jew, this is what I believe. This is why I believe it and this is how I live it.” And I expect the Christian response to be the same. It seems to me that unless we’re willing to be respectful and caring of one another, and ask the other to express his or her fundamental convictions, then we’re not engaging in the kind of dialogue that produces results required for proper understanding and harmonious relationships. By investigating areas of both agreement and diversity we will not only learn to recognize one another in ways that are not subject to the all too frequent stereotyping and distortions of the past, but indeed to re-cognize one another, see one another in new and more accurate ways.

The great Sage Hillel enjoined us not to judge our fellow human being until you stand in his or her place. What I believe he meant is that it is not enough to just put yourself in another person’s place, in that person’s shoes, or experience the world through that person’s categories, through their feelings, their hopes and fears. One must do something more. One must look at oneself with the eyes of the other. How do you look to him? With what eyes do you see me?

In genuine dialogue there is an openness to depths of oneself and depths of the other that neither had any real awareness or knowledge of eliciting at its initiation. I would go so far as to agree with David Lochhead who claims that dialogue “is a way of knowing truth that neither party possesses prior to the dialogue.” (The Dialogical Imperative p51).

Mutual communication requires a certain trust or comfort both with myself and with the other. If I fear that my partner in dialogue will misunderstand me because he is overly concerned with presenting his point of view and not really open to my point of view, Or of I am not fully clear in my mind as to what I really believe and why. Then true understanding cannot take place and then the dialogue will, at best, be superficial and polite, but will not reach the depths of true understanding. Often tension exists between the affirmations of fundamental beliefs and the openness needed for dialogue, that is why the atmosphere of dialogue is so important.

Too often Christian-Jewish dialogue has been characterized as a process of negotiations with the intent to have the partner in dialogue commit to predetermined positions. While this is important to reach agreement on specific issues it is inimical to theological understanding.

In any process of communication one must order the content of the communication in relation to the respective value framework of the participants. Generally, if something is very important and central to us, we mistakenly assume that it must also be very important and central to the other. This is not so. What may be of central importance to one person may be of little interest to the other.

Similar expressions, terms or concepts have very different associations or significance in Judaism and Christianity.

For example terms like Messiah, Salvation, Covenant have different meanings in Judaism and Christianity. But even more, the importance, significance, and centrality of these concepts vary greatly in our respective traditions. Additionally, central concepts in one religious tradition may simply be non-existent in the other.

That other religions differ from my own should make me consider the possibility that I may not have the full truth, and that the other may have something to teach me. It is presumptuous for us to maintain that the great religions of the world, which have been a source of inspiration and hope for millions of individuals with great religious teachers, have no insights to offer us.

Dialogue is needed to present a more objective and historically accurate view of one another. One cannot deny that if one were to look at Christian attitudes towards Jews ands Judaism, and Jewish attitudes towards Christians and Christianity one would often see negative stereotypes and false representations. Past misunderstandings must be clarified and we must take a new direction in the way we view one another.

Thanks to the great achievements of Vatican II with the document Nostra Aetate, the Guidelines, Notes, Papal speeches, the We Remember document, the European Bishop’s statements and the Israel-Vatican accord, much of the past negativity has been overcome. It is necessary to make both Jews and Christians aware of these great documents and developments. This will take a great deal of work.

However I believe that an essential element has been lacking in Christian-Jewish relations, which has tended to distort and skew the dialogue in such a way as to make it impossible to derive the full benefits of dialogue and reach its essence.

A symptom of this lack is that in all these years there have been no official statements coming from the Jewish side to clarify Jewish attitudes with respect to Christianity.

On the contrary, discussion has been limited to two main topics: Anti-Semitism and Israel. I think this was a necessary first step. The devastating destruction of six million Jews made it necessary to come to terms with that horror and deal with the role that Christian teachings may have had in regard to it. I think that the We Remember document as well as many of the Bishop’s statements, and the Papal visit to Israel have significantly dealt with that. Also the Fundamental Accord clearly affirms the positive relation of the Vatican to the state of Israel. As essential as these documents and activities have been to prepare the ground for harmonious relations, nevertheless, I think that these were preliminaries to real dialogue.

For dialogue to be fully effective between Christians and Jews, a fundamental question must be asked: “How can I be true to my own faith without being false to yours?” This means that one should strive to understand the other as he or she understands one’s self. One must be able to understand one’s own faith without distorting or denigrating the other’s faith. The question, of course, is whether this is at all possible if there are pre-conditions to dialogue that restrict its subject matter and approach.

When the Pope first met with members of the Jewish community, he asked that Jews make an effort to understand Christians and Christianity. After establishing the indissoluble connection for Christians of Judaism with Christianity, the Pope then gave full assent to the Guidelines prologue, which asked Christians to strive to acquire a better knowledge of the basic components of the religious tradition of Judaism. The Pope said, “They [Christians] must strive to learn by what essential traits the Jews define themselves in the light of their own religious experience.” The Pope emphasized that as essential as it is for Christians to understand Jews and Judaism, especially in the terms with which they define themselves; it is equally necessary for Jews to understand the Church and Christians in terms that they define themselves.

Dialogue and communication is needed in order not to distort the other. The Pope said to the Jewish delegation, “You are here, I believe, to help us in our reflection on Judaism. And I am sure that we find in you and in the communities you represent, a real and deep disposition to understand Christianity and the Catholic Church in its proper identity today so that we may work from both sides toward our common aim of overcoming every kind of prejudice and discrimination.” (My italics.)

What the Pope effectively said is that it is not enough for Christians to understand Jews and view them the way they view themselves; it is also very important for Jews to understand Christians the way they view themselves.

Now, can Jews really understand Christianity? Can we really understand the Catholic and Protestant faiths without thinking theologically or without discussing theology? I believe that if we are to have full and mutual understanding, theological dialogue is essential.

II – Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Position

If all of the above is correct, why is it that theological dialogue is still such a hurdle in our process of communications?

In 1964, the very famous (probably the most authoritative orthodox rabbi in America) Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote an article, entitled Confrontation in the orthodox journal Tradition. In that article he maintained that while it was legitimate for Jews and Christians to communicate on matters of social concern for welfare of the Jewish community he clearly rejected any dialogue of a theological nature. His justification for rejecting theological dialogue was the posture of the Christian community, which viewed itself as on a level above Judaism. A posture, which viewed Judaism as inferior and Jews as objects of conversion. In that situation Rabbi Soloveitchik says, “Non-Jewish society has confronted us through the ages in a mood of defiance, as if we were part of the sub-human objective order. We shall resent any attempt on the part of the populous community to engage us in a peculiar encounter in which our confronter commands us to take a position beneath him while placing himself not alongside, but above us.”

What Soloveitchik was referring to, was the history of Christian-Jewish confrontations. Jews were subjected to an asymmetrical position with respect to Christianity for the simple reason that the community of the many had the power. Now, however, Rabbi Soloveitchik also said, “It is self evident that a confrontation of two faith communities is possible only if it is accomplished by a clear assurance that both parties will enjoy equal rights and full religious freedom.”

There’s no question that dialogue for the last 36 years has been in terms of two faith communities that enjoy equal rights and full religious freedom. And, therefore, I agree with what Rabbi Soloveitchik says. The point I want to make is that the situation in 2001 is a very different situation from the one about which Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote in 1964, the year before Vatican II. Would not Rabbi Soloveitchik himself today grant our situation is different given all the changes enunciated above?

We need to discuss theology because Jews cannot really understand Christianity without understanding Christian theology. Christians understand their faith theologically and a Jew who is not willing to try to grasp what Christian Theology entails is not going to accurately understand Christianity. More importantly, if we don’t discuss theology how are we going to prevent misunderstanding each other’s beliefs and doctrines?

It is not clear why the Jewish partner in the dialogue should resist theology. Since there is always the danger that unless the statements and documents of the Church have a theological underpinning, they are subject to being dismissed as simply public relations tailor-made to the post-Holocaust situation.

Furthermore, many of the problems that have arisen between Jews and Christians are due to theological representation of Jews and Judaism. These include exclusivists’ claims to salvation on the part of Christians and the theological imperative to engage in missionizing. All these are theological issues that need to be clarified. All religious traditions hold certain beliefs to be true, and have reasons for holding them to be true. When a religious tradition asks about what it believes and why it believes it, it is talking “theology”, since theology is concerned with the meaning and truth of the claims that a religious tradition makes. To affirm therefore, as some Jewish spokesmen have, either that Judaism is not theological or should not discuss theology, is to affirm either that Judaism makes no doctrinal claims, or if it does make such claims, it has no reasons of a rational character for making them. Both affirmations seem to me untrue.

It seems clear to all engaged in dialogue that there are numerous distortions and misrepresentations of each other’s religion, many of these of a theological character. All agree that these should be corrected. But how can these distortions be corrected without theological dialogue since this assumes that each side already possesses the very knowledge that only the dialogue process can bring about.

III – Future Prospects

Where do we go from here? I believe the fundamental question for us to ask is, how can I be true to my own faith without being false to yours? I think this question should influence every single discussion on every level. I believe that question is the fundamental issue of dialogue.

It’s not enough for me to say, “Here’s what Judaism believes, now you tell me what Christianity believes.” It’s important for me to say, “I can have a sense of myself without diminishing you in any way. I can affirm my beliefs without restricting, limiting or dwarfing your beliefs. I must do it while not denigrating or distorting yours.”

Also in dialogue, move towards asking and answering the following questions: What is the place of Jews and Judaism in a Christian self-understanding, and what is the place of Christians and Christianity in a Jewish self-understanding?

If we Jews really believe that Christians are monotheists, then we have to give up the doctrine that Christians fall under the category of B’nai Noah, the sons of Noah, which was a doctrine that originally applied to pagans and is a doctrine which involves minimal monotheism. If we’re really honest and believe that Christians are monotheists, then we must have the courage to re-evaluate such a position. Then we must recognize that Christians are B’nai Abraham, they are children of Abraham, children of monotheism, and indeed are our brothers.

Also, if Jews have an irrevocable covenant with God, as Paul says in Romans, and has been repeatedly stated in numerous Church documents, then it seems to me that we have to ask, what sense does the distinction “according to the flesh and according to the spirit” make? Is the irrevocable covenant with flesh? Does that make any sense? Too often, Jews have seen this distinction as denigrating and it should be discussed.

It is necessary that each position be presented in the most intelligible and noble light, no straw men, no denigrating contrasts, but even more, there must be a common humanity, which we must appeal to in dialogue, common needs and hopes and fears.

There must be common pre-suppositions and common goals we all share as human beings prior to and independent of whatever may be our religious affirmations. Our discussion is not the same as the dialogue between science and religion nor is it the same as the discussion between religion and secularism. It is the dialogue of two historical faith communities, which share so much that, is essential and yet their interrelationships have never been historically explored in an authentic and honest manner to discover the truth that each can offer the other.

I think that we should ask ourselves the following questions. “How can our respective traditions deal with the ultimate questions we face as human beings — suffering, salvation, the nature of what it means to be a human being, the nature of God and creation, the nature of the good?” And from our own faith perspective, in trying to answer these questions, we will find that we will learn from one another, what we believe and why we believe it. And here I think it’s of utmost importance for us to recognize that we can learn from each other, that no one has cornered the market on truth.

Theology is not merely a confession of what our faith affirms, i.e., what it means, what it asserts and how it is practiced. It also claims to be true. It is also necessary to state the reasons I have for affirming it to be true. An affirmation of faith is not self-authenticating. It requires justification in terms of processes that are universally recognizable, i.e., reason and experience.

A common ground is essential to serve as a foundation for discussion. Here the common ground is itself a subject of controversy. However both of our traditions maintain that reason, our common character as human beings and our being creatures in the order of creation, as well as our being heirs of monotheism has constituted a foundation for dialogue.

Also, in both Judaism and Christianity the historical element is essential and the transcendent is connected to the historical in our affirmation of revelation as well as our affirmation of the transcendent’s connection to the soul and the soul’s self awareness.

IV – Conclusion

In conclusion, it is essential to remember the nature of the subject matter being discussed. When religious issues are discussed, when the deepest convictions by which individuals define their very essence and discuss beliefs upon which one’s whole existence is at stake, it requires a special sensitivity and understanding which simply does not apply in other areas of discussion.

I am not denying that other areas also require sensitivity and understanding; I am affirming that the emotional intensity and significance of inter-religious dialogue has a place of its own and needs special means of dealing with it. There is also the sense of grandeur and nobility of the religious quest that must be taken into consideration. We are dealing with the holy, the transcendent and highest manifestation of all that is and there is an intrinsic humility with which the human mind must manifest in the presence of discussions dealing with the Divine.

Ultimately, both traditions recognize that what is at stake in dialogue is the trusteeship that human beings have in the created order. Both traditions must recognize that what we do counts for good or ill and that an issue of the greatest significance is at stake in our joint witness in our respective ways of the God who enables us to share in his grace and exercise his will.

It is my hope and prayer that authentic, meaningful, theological dialogue, keeping in mind our mutual covenant with God, will result in a covenant between Judaism and the Church.