In his youth in rural Ontario and rural Texas, Richard John Neuhaus had little or no contact with Jews—but as an adult his contact was constant. And this played a key role in Richard's life and career as a priest and a public intellectual, for his constant contact with Jews went hand in hand with his interest, his vital concern, with Judaism. As Richard knew far better than the many Jews he criticized for departing from the teachings of the Jewish tradition on questions of public morality, Jews have no plausible identity when they are unfaithful to their revelation-based tradition, just as their revelation-based tradition has no worldly reality without real Jews faithfully practicing it.
But where did that intense contact begin? Who inspired it? Two famous Jews come to mind: the late Joel Teitelbaum and the late Abraham Joshua Heschel. Aside from one or two Jewish spokesmen (especially Rabbi Sol Bernards of B'nai B'rith) whom he met in the 1950s at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, when a serious Jewish–Christian relationship was just beginning, Richard's first contact with a really Jewish community was with the Satmar community in Williamsburg. Richard came into contact with this tightly knit, highly insular, and extremely pious Hasidic group when he received his first pastorate in a largely black and Hispanic Lutheran congregation.
At this point in his life, Richard was a member of two minorities. His black and Hispanic congregants were a tiny minority in a religious communion, the vast majority of whom were of Germanic extraction. And in the Hasidic area of Williamburg, the minority status of any Christian, especially any white Christian, was immediately apparent. Yet, despite these seeming impediments, Richard became fascinated with both the intense Judaism of the Satmar hasidim and how they had flourished, both religiously and politically, in the new world.
And being the astute man of public affairs he always was, Richard quickly got to know the legendary, absolutely authoritative leader of this community, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum. One could say that Rabbi Teitelbaum was the closest thing to the pope that any Jews have ever had in America, and Richard learned much about theological–political reality from the Satmar hasidim and their rebbe.
Richard's political interests and abilities were called forth, while he was still a pastor in Williamsburg, during the 1960s, in his participation in the civil-rights movement and, even more so, as a leader in the antiwar movement. In connection with these movements, Richard met Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel (who will always be “Professor Heschel” to me) influenced Richard's life profoundly and, in fact, Richard could never say anything about Jews and Judaism that didn't include reverent mention of Heschel.
Like Teitelbaum, Heschel came from a rich hasidic background. But, unlike Teitelbaum, Heschel opted to be a professor and a political activist, and not only on behalf of his fellow Jews, for Heschel was actively concerned with the moral climate of his adopted America and made that concern manifest in his leadership in both the civil rights movement and the fight against the Vietnam War. Moreover, unlike Teitelbaum, who was interested only in the non-Jews with whom he had to live, Heschel was involved with non-Jews with whom he wanted to live as an equal participant in a multicultural (even before that term came to be used and misused) society. Heschel was able to do that without in any way hiding or sidelining his intense Jewish faith, piety, and learning. That made him quite different from almost all the other contemporary Jewish political leaders, whose Judaism was either “in the closet” or nonexistent altogether.
Perhaps of more lasting significance, Heschel appreciated and profoundly understood the theological connection of Judaism and Christianity. Whereas most Jewish theologians and religious thinkers still regarded Christianity as a menacing other, Heschel understood how different the Jewish–Christian situation had become since the Holocaust. He pursued this dialogue at the highest theological level (right up to his then-secret meeting with Paul VI in 1964) because he saw so well what happens to Christianity when Christians lose contact with the people and the religion of Jesus. Thus Richard saw how, like Reinhold Niebuhr (Heschel's close friend), Heschel's politics, including his involvement in Jewish–Christian dialogue, was rooted in his theology, and that his theology was not just a rationalization of an essentially this-worldly, political agenda. That spoke to Richard at the deepest level.
In looking back on my Jewish contact with Richard the Christian, I think of how he always expected the Jews with whom he dealt with to be like Heschel, or, at least, to try to be like Heschel. Richard had little real interest and less patience with the Jews who would dismiss Heschel as sentimental because of his constant invocation of the Jewish past. The fact that Richard always introduced me as “Heschel's student” I took to be the highest compliment, a sign of the true nature of our friendship, because it reminded me not only of who I am but of who I must ever strive to become. Because of this and so much more, for me and so many others, I pray that the world beyond all our knowing will be his dwelling place forever more.
David Novak, a member of the editorial board of First Things, is the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.