Musings About Interfaith Dialogue

interfaithI’d like to take a giant step backwards from the matters I’ve been discussing lately – Christian anti-Judaism, Paul, Jesus’ arrest and trial, swords (or the lack thereof) – and talk more generally about what I’m trying to do here, and what I think I can do here.

The purpose of this site is to get people talking. If you read one of my posts and think to yourself, “I want to ask Larry a question,” or “I want to share another way of looking at this question,” or even “I must tell Larry something he’s failed to take into account,” then I’ve done my job. I understand that most of my readers will never post a comment – I am a regular reader of many blogs where I never comment – but to the best of my ability, I want to break down whatever barrier stands between you (my reader) and leaving a comment. Even better: I want people to comment on other comments. I’d love to get discussions going and step away from them, and watch them go on for days and weeks. That’s a tall order! I haven’t yet come close to accomplishing this goal – the closest I have come, I think, is in the comments to the post you can read by clicking here! They’re really, really good.)

The talk I want to get going here is loosely referred to as “interfaith dialogue,” and if you think about it, the expression “interfaith dialogue” is a strange one. We say “interfaith dialogue,” as if there was something like “Judaism” capable of talking, and something like “Christianity” capable of listening. Obviously, “interfaith dialogue” is a figure of speech, and we routinely use such figures of speech. We refer to “talks” between “Congress” and the “White House” as if buildings could speak, or between “India” and “Pakistan” as if land masses could listen. We aren’t confused by references to talking buildings and land masses: we understand that these talks are conducted by unnamed people representing these nations and institutions.

In a similar fashion, “interfaith dialogue” requires people to step forward to speak and listen. But who gets to step forward, and how? What gives me the right to set up shop here and offer to be a Jewish partner in interfaith dialogue? Exactly who was it who elected or appointed me to this position? And if I’m going to offer myself up to engage in this dialogue, how exactly do I do it? Is it enough that I, a Jew, honestly put forward whatever I may think about this or that topic? Or do I need to work to put forth a typical or representative Jewish point of view, or perhaps a range of typical or representative points of view?

If the need to be (proto)typical or representative seems like an obstacle here, imagine what it must be like for those Jews who represent the Jewish people in high-ticket, big time dialogue with powerful representatives of Christianity! We Jews are lucky to live in an era when Christians frequently want to talk to us, and when these talks have produced significant results. Yaakov Ariel, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has referred to our era as the “Golden Age of Christian-Jewish Relations,” where interfaith dialogue has served as a catalyst for “unprecedented transformations in the relationship between the Western Christian and Jewish communities.” Even Harvard Professor of Jewish Studies Jon Levenson, a sometimes critic of the current state of interfaith dialogue, is quick to acknowledge how much this dialogue has accomplished. In his influential article “How Not to Conduct Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” Levenson acknowledges that high-level Jewish-Christian dialogue has resulted in “a series of statements” that reverse or limit Christianity’s traditional “teaching of contempt” of Judaism by affirming “the family connection of Judaism and Christianity, acknowledging both the Church’s indebtedness to Judaism (especially for the set of scriptures it received from the Jews) and the continuing validity of the older tradition.”

Perhaps the most important of these Church statements concerning Judaism, and certainly one of the earliest such statements, is the Catholic Church’s 1965 Nostra Aetate (Latin for “In our Age”). Nostra Aetate repudiated the centuries-old Christian claim that all Jews were and remain responsible for the death of Jesus. The document stresses the bond shared by Jews and Christians, reaffirms the eternal covenant between G-d and the People of Israel, and dismisses church interest in trying to baptize Jews. The Catholic Church has followed Nostra Aetate with a series of positive announcements relating to Jewish-Christian relations. Protestant churches have made similar pronouncements, and the combined mass of Christian pronouncements about Judaism is so considerable, it will eventually require a two-volume work to contain them all.

But I began this post with the question, who gets to speak for Judaism in interfaith dialogue? Now that I’ve set up the question … I’ll try to answer the question as best I can in my next post. In the meantime, think about the question, and post your thoughts. Who do you think should speak for Judaism, or Christianity, or any religion, or your religion, in interfaith dialogue?

  • Stephanie Barbé Hammer

    Thanks for this. When I was practicing Christianity as a child, I was never quite clear on who DID kill Jesus. I knew Pontius Pilate had something to do with it, and I knew that Roman soldiers had something to do with it. Frankly, I never even made the connection that Jesus was actually a Jew until I read (not saw) the Last Temptation of Christ. I was shocked to realize that the historical Jesus practiced Judaism. “So THAT’s what the Passover is that they are referring to in the Bible,” I thought when I turned 22. Then I actually attended a Passover. I knew many people who were anti-Semitic, but their prejudice seemed racially based, not religiously. I wonder sometimes if the religious question in our day is just an excuse for the other kind of prejudice, which was nothing to do at all with Jesus.

  • Robert

    The church is a community, not a leadership (I’m guessing, but I imagine synagogues might be similar). Those who speak for us officially are an elite which sometimes represents its own views rather than those of the community, and in any case will never ‘represent’ the full range of views within it. What I want to see is more grassroots contact. Chrsitians, Jews, Muslims, whoever, joining together informally, so we can get to know each other. That would build trust and start to demolish some of the prejudice. Official talks and statements don’t do that.

  • David

    It is abundantly clear to me that NO ONE can be said to “represent” their religion. Speaking in relation to Judaism, there are numerous denominations, each with its own take on Judaism. (Not to mention academics and historians of Judaism with their own take.) And that “take” of course is a generalization, since every denomination has multiple schools of thought. The term “Orthodox Judaism” is almost meaningless in this regard, since there are countless approaches within Orthodoxy, and I’m talking radically and substantively different approaches, relating to philosophy as well as practice. Every community, every shul arguably, has its own style, its own emphasis and flavor.

    As far as you want to drill down, as specific as you want to get (e.g. Ashkenazi, Lithuanian, Israeli, Mir Yeshiva trained, follower of Rabbi Steinman, full-time Talmud learner, Mussar (ethics and personal refinement) oriented, belonging to Shul X, NO TWO INDIVIDUALS can be expected to present even that highly particular brand of Judaism the same way. No two will react to Christianity and dialog the same way. And remember that the WAY people conduct themselves makes just as much if not more of an impact than the actual content of their words.

    And yet, at the same time, everyone DOES represent their religion, at least as far as the impression they leave with others – good, bad or ugly.

    So my answer to the question – ANYONE should be able to participate in interfaith dialog, but ideally with the explicit caveat that what you are ultimately getting is one person’s individual perspective on things, and also one very unique personality – neither of which necessarily represents the religion or its followers. And since those caveats are rarely if ever made, and people can’t help but forget them even if they are made, what we’re dealing with here is an imperfect system. And that’ll just have to be okay!

  • It is interesting to consider these three terrific comments together! Robert and David, you are both taking a similar point of view from very different perspectives. Robert, you indicate that no one person will represent the full range of views within Christianity (and I think by implication, within any religion). David, you say even more strongly that no one can “represent” a religion (yes, I noted that you put “represent” in quotes). Robert, you indicate that Christianity is officially represented by elites, and without criticizing the dialogue led by elites, you stress the importance of communication at the grassroots level. David, your stress is more on the incredible diversity within Judaism, rather than the difference between leadership and the broader community. David, like Robert, I don’t read you to criticize the kind of dialogue that takes place with the Vatican. But I think you and Robert are both making similar points, and recommending a similarly grassroots or democratic model for dialogue. Good thing too, as my survival as a dialogist requires this kind of attitude!

    But Robert and David, it’s interesting to contrast your comments with the one left here by Stephanie. Stephanie, your comment indicates the importance of the work done to date by “official” representatives of Judaism and Christianity. I can’t say that “The Last Temptation of Christ” has any connection to interfaith dialogue, as the book was written in 1953. But I suspect that more Christians today are raised with an awareness that Jesus was Jewish, and I suspect that high-level interfaith dialogue is part of the reason for this greater awareness. Somehow, the folks responsible for interfaith dialogue at the highest levels have worked around the difficulties of being a “representative,” and I think it’s worth exploring how they did that.

    Robert and David, I appreciate all you’ve said about the difficulty of being a “representative” of a religion in dialogue, and the importance of making it clear that we’re always speaking from an individual perspective. But it’s also clear to me that when we speak within the context of interfaith dialogue (or really, the contexts – this dialogue is no more a monolith than the religions “represented” in dialogue), this changes the perspective from where we speak. When we are viewed in a representative capacity and become aware of that viewing, we speak differently, and arguably, we have a different set of responsibilities. David, as you said, I think the interfaith context does impose a duty to express your “explicit caveat” that we’re speaking as individual Jews (or Christians, or Muslims, or Hindus, or Buddhists, or what have you) and not as the religion. But I think it also imposes a responsibility to be able to back up that statement (as you did) with illustrations of the diversity within the religion we’re seen as representing. Ideally, it imposes on us a responsibility to describe that diversity on particular questions (such as, in the case of Judaism, the binding nature of Halacha, the role of women in Jewish leadership and differences in how we see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict).

    I’ll go into this in greater depth in future posts, but to borrow a phrase from my friend Anthony Le Donne, I think interfaith dialogue requires something of a “posture,” and I mean this in the best sense of that word.