The Possibility of Transformation Through Dialogue

The following are excerpts from a speech by Rabbi Jack Bemporad given at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome as a part of the Cardinal Bea Lecture Series.

In the many years that I have been involved in Christian-Jewish relations I have come to the conclusion that there are two foundational questions that must be asked and appropriately answered if our interreligious dialogue is to reap the harvest which great leaders like Cardinal Bea have sown for it.

First, How can I be true to my own faith without being false to yours? Second, What is the place of Jews and Judaism in a Christian self-understanding and likewise what is the place of Christians and Christianity in a Jewish self-understanding.

Theological dialogue between the religions is critical to prevent misunderstanding each other’s beliefs and doctrines as well as exposing any misconceptions we may have. It is only through dialogue that we can learn something about the other, not just in some kind of abstract statement in a book but in a mutual give and take between human beings.

In order to answer the questions I have posed we must develop a common language for dialogue. Our two faiths use the same words but mean different things: suffering, salvation, revelation, redemption, Messiah. There is a whole list of terms we share without really understanding the other’s complex set of connotations. Unless we talk to one another, listen to one another, there is no way that we can truly hear each other. Only theological dialogue can help us understand each other’s religious language.

The process of dialogue is also an essential element to achieving this goal. Too often we are concerned with the question of agreement. I don’t think that’s the issue. The issue is not whether we agree, the fact of the matter is that if we did agree we’d have nothing to talk about. We need to try and understand where we disagree and why. It is not agreement but understanding that is paramount. We must be 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 vice versa.


This dialogue, this deeper understanding has truly begun to emerge in recent years but there is still much work to be done.

In the Catholic Church, epoch-making changes have been made in the last 38 years beginning with Nostra Aetate, the Guidelines, the Notes, Pope John Paul’s visit to the synagogue in Rome, the We Remember document and most recently the papal visit to Jerusalem. These events have all shown great efforts on the part of the Vatican to provide a totally different atmosphere for Christian-Jewish dialogue and relationships on all levels.

But, it is a source of great regret for me that in all the years of Catholic opening to the Jewish community, the authoritative body of the Jewish community (the IJCIC) had not seen fit to issue its own statement on the place of Christians and Christianity within a Jewish understanding.

Let me offer not an excuse but an explanation.

It’s unfortunate, but it’s true that most of the documents of a revisionary character with respect to Jews and Judaism appeared after the Shoah. Jews ask the question, “Did it have to take the destruction of European Jewry for Christianity to wake up and discover that we’re brothers, that now our covenant is irrevocable?”

The Holocaust was a devastating experience for the Jewish people. Almost 40 percent of Jews were killed. Also it was not sheer numbers but also the fact that the highest and most important centers of Jewish learning perished as well. Imagine, in Catholic terms, if of the billion Catholics, 400 million were killed in a period of a few years, the Vatican was demolished and its great universities like this one devastated. Think what this would mean to you.

You see, most Christians have no sense of the vulnerability, the precarious nature of being a Jew. There is a feeling that Jewish identity constantly hangs in the balance. Each generation doesn’t know whether it will be the last one. The Jewish people are a people forged in adversity. The Jewish relationship with God and the Jewish relationship with oppression are linked at the core of our being, as old and as formative as the exodus itself.

Jewish thinking, Jewish religious structures, Jewish self-understanding, all the forms, all the bodies that served as vehicles for our spiritual self-preservation, evolved in part to control, circumvent or contend with a hostile environment. Under this kind of pressure, Judaism has become what it needed to be in order to survive.

Therefore the challenge of dialogue, the challenge of reconciliation, the challenge of love is terrifying, because it can appear to threaten everything that helped keep Jews, Jews. Reconciliation challenges us to dismantle the emotional and political defenses that have bolstered us, preserved us and to a great extent become us. This is the tragedy. Reconciliation challenges us to breathe new life into a stale, dusty habit, born out of oppression, to open the ghetto that still exists in our minds and hearts. Reconciliation and dialogue challenge us to take the energy we’ve expended in self-defense and redirect it towards mutuality and love and affection and caring and, most of all trust.


This trust is very hard to establish and recent pronouncements that the church must missionize make Jews very uncomfortable. I personally am convinced that the Catholic Church has no intention of launching a mission to the Jews.

But for those who still want to engage in converting Jews I can only ask them: would it be so terrible if the Jewish people, an ancient people, continue to exist? We have our own biography of more than three thousand years. What would be the benefit of ending this heroic, tragic and sublime biography that has nourished so many? Is it not possible that Judaism should continue to be a significant voice in the orchestra of humankind? Certainly if the documents since Vatican II mean what they say, then this is also what the church wants.

Lastly, I think that we should ask ourselves the following questions. “How can our respective traditions deal with the ultimate questions that 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?”

By trying, from our own faith’s perspective to answer these questions, and by committing dialogue and understanding, I believe we will find that we can learn from one another and come to know better what we believe and why we believe it. We must recognize that there is always opportunity for partnership and growth.

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, or to experience the world through that persons categories, through their hopes and fears, their feelings. One must do something more: look at yourself with the eyes of the other. How do you look to him? With what eyes does he see you?