I’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?