The Jewish–Christian dialogue of recent decades is a new thing that stands in sharp contrast to the terribly complicated relationship between Jews and Christians over the past two thousand years. It is not at all surprising that there are both Christians and Jews who are afraid of the dialogue. The relationship between Jews and Christians is inherently ambivalent. Jewish–Christian dialogue at its best is energized by the complex dialectic involved in that ambivalence. There are both Jews and Christians, however, who have no patience with ambivalence and dialectic. For them, the relationship must be either fully positive or fully negative. They refuse to live with what some French philosophers like to call la différance.
A fully positive relationship between Christians and Jews is one that would elide all differences. Such a relationship can only be proposed coherently by Christians who see Jews, quite simply, as objects of their proselytizing project. In this view, Judaism is nothing more than proto–Christianity. It follows that Judaism and the Jews should be positively included in the Church, and that inclusion should be total. Obviously, such an approach cannot be proposed by a Jew, since no one can argue that Christianity is proto–Judaism, or that it could be positively included in the Jewish people. (Admittedly, there are “messianic Jews” who think there can be a Christian branch of Judaism. But they have been able to convince only a few gentile Christians and no non–Christian Jews that this is possible, let alone desirable.) While for almost all, if not all, Christians evangelization is a necessary part of being Christian, those Christians involved in the dialogue clearly recognize that the dialogue itself is not an instrument of evangelization. It is noteworthy that churches involved in the dialogue—most prominently the Catholic Church—no longer engage in missionary activities that directly target Jews. At the deepest theological level, this has resulted in the denial of supersessionism, the idea that God has rejected the Jewish people and has replaced them with the Church. Those communities that view Judaism as nothing more than an object of Christian inclusion cannot participate in the dialogue in good faith, and therefore do not.
A fully negative relationship between Christians and Jews, on the other hand, is one that would remove the very existence of the other community. Most horribly, this was the approach of those Christians who saw the Nazi program of the elimination of the Jews (even before the mass murder perpetrated by the Final Solution) as justified by Christianity itself. There have also been Jews—one thinks of the late Professor Eliezer Berkovits—who have viewed Christianity as the true cause of the Nazi policy of Jewish elimination and who have therefore argued that the Jews—and indeed the entire world—would be better off without Christianity. Happily, even Christian and Jewish opponents of the dialogue usually recoil from such a drastic negation of the other, although they may have difficulty in coming up with a strong argument against it.
The document “Speak the Truth: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity”, written by four Jewish scholars long active in the dialogue (Tikva Frymer–Kensky, Peter Ochs, Michael Signer, and this writer), was issued in September 2000 (see FT, November 2000). This document emphasizes what Jews and Christians have in common, while explicitly asserting what does and what should keep the two communities separate and distinct. In no way does the document avoid the aforementioned ambivalence and dialectic. It has received much publicity and has been translated into at least six other languages. It has been very favorably received in many Christian quarters, and it certainly has not been interpreted as any kind of Jewish capitulation to Christianity.
It is not too much to say that Dabru Emet provides the first normative text for Jews dealing with the new and better chapter in the relationship between our communities dating from the 1965 statement, Nostra Aetate, of the Second Vatican Council. As there is still Christian opposition to the Christian document of 1965, so there is now Jewish opposition to Dabru Emet. In fact, those of us involved in the statement expected more opposition than has surfaced to date, for we know full well how controversial is the very question of Christianity among Jews. We are surprised, however, by the source of the most explicit public attack on Dabru Emet to date, namely, the article “How Not to Conduct Jewish–Christian Dialogue” by Professor Jon D. Levenson, an eminent Jewish scholar who teaches at the Harvard Divinity School, appearing in the December 2001 issue of Commentary, a monthly magazine published by the American Jewish Committee.
It seems strange that the attack comes from Prof. Levenson, who is no stranger to the theological dialogue in which many of us have long been his colleagues. He also teaches Jewish Studies in the oldest Christian divinity school in North America. Prof. Levenson was invited (along with almost two hundred other Jewish teachers) to sign Dabru Emet, but was one of the few to decline, indicating that he had serious differences with the statement. One might have expected that he would either ignore the document or propose an alternative way of conducting the dialogue. Instead, he has not only rejected our version of the dialogue, but appears to reject any version of dialogue that is not essentially negative.
If Prof. Levenson taught in an officially Jewish religious school, such as a yeshiva or rabbinical seminary, his opposition to the dialogue might be understandable. Many Jewish scholars who teach in such exclusively Jewish institutions have either avoided the dialogue altogether or have opposed it on theological grounds. Many of them follow the view of the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903–1993), who was the leading Orthodox Jewish theologian in North America and opposed Jewish–Christian theological dialogue (but with far less invective than Prof. Levenson) in the 1960s because he thought that theology is incommunicable between different faith traditions. (The authors of Dabru Emet, conversely, think that on many theological issues Jews and Christians speak languages similar enough to each other to be intelligible to each other.) For many, but not all, of the disciples of Rabbi Soloveitchik—one thinks of Rabbi Irving Greenberg and Rabbi David Hartman as notable exceptions—Jews can engage in theological discourse only with fellow Jews, as Christians can do so only with fellow Christians. I think this view is mistaken but can understand its rationale as being consistent with the theology of many Orthodox Jews. At the same time, one notes that some Orthodox rabbis did sign Dabru Emet.
Prof. Levenson begins his article with the admission that interfaith dialogue is “one of the most remarkable cultural developments of the past half–century.” Toward the end of the article, however, he asserts, “One need hardly be an advocate of interfaith hostility to observe [that] the two communities . . . feel an instinctive repugnance toward each other.” In a relationship of instinctive repugnance, how could there be anything but hostility? How could there possibly be a dialogue, “a speaking together thorough a question” (the literal meaning of the Greek dia logos), based on mutual repugnance? Isn’t that what took place in the infamous medieval disputations, when Christians and Jews spoke against one another and, hence, past one another? Surely it is better and more accurate to say that both communities are concerned with each other, and that this concern has both positive and negative features. Even the negative aspects of that concern need not presuppose repugnance or entail hostility.
Since so much Christian concern with Judaism and Jewish concern with Christianity has been negative, Dabru Emet accented the positive points that the new theological dialogue has brought to light again after a very long eclipse. As Aristotle pointed out, in a state of affairs having both a negative and a positive pole, overemphasizing one pole requires re–emphasizing the other to achieve a healthy balance. If we emphasized the positive pole of the Jewish–Christian relationship more than the negative, it is because for too long we have only heard about what is negative in this relationship.
Prof. Levenson opposes the dialogue because of a presumed theological impasse between Judaism and Christianity, and he also connects it to “the history of religiously inspired contempt.” Why Prof. Levenson teaches mostly Christian students in a Christian divinity school is a question he needs to answer, even if only to his Christian students and colleagues at Harvard. Moreover, why would Christian students want to study Judaism with a teacher who sees their relation to Judaism and his relation to Christianity to be one of “instinctive repugnance”? As a practicing Jew, I have studied with Christian teachers whom I respect for who they are and what they are, including their positive concern with Jews and Judaism. Why would any self–respecting Christian not expect the same of his or her Jewish teachers?
Perhaps there are Christians, however, who actually enjoy hearing from a Jew as learned as Prof. Levenson just how anti–Jewish Christianity has been, and how that anti–Judaism has translated into anti–Semitic acts against Jews. This might be a symptom of “post–Christianity,” a kind of moral logic for Christians in the process of distancing themselves from Christianity. Jews have long experience with Christians who have tried to help us in putting our Judaism behind us. Do Christians now have Jews who assist them in putting their Christianity behind them? Jews who have welcomed such “help” are repugnant to many of their fellow Jews for what is seen to be their self–hate. (Indeed, the term Selbsthass or “self–hate” was coined to describe a certain type of Jewish assimilationist in early–twentieth–century Europe.) Perhaps we are now seeing a Christian equivalent of this self–hate, a kind of theological masochism. If so, it should be repugnant to anyone, and Prof. Levenson, practicing Jew that he is, should heed the admonition of the great rabbinic sage Hillel the Elder, who famously taught that “what is hateful to you, do not do to someone else.”
Once again we are reminded that the stakes are very high in the dialogue, and that anyone who participates in it, as do Prof. Levenson and the authors of Dabru Emet, must take full responsibility for what they say and to whom they say it. Prof. Levenson must take responsibility for his assertion that the Jewish–Christian relationship necessarily involves mutual repugnance. If repugnance leads to hostility, it would seem to follow that Judaism must necessarily be hostile to Christians and Christianity. If so, is Prof. Levenson not telling Christians that they must necessarily be hostile to Jews and Judaism? It is hard to see how that could be good for Jews, or anyone else. The anti–Jewish hostility of times past has been overcome with full theological conviction by Christians in the dialogue. Their actions prove it. But maybe Prof. Levenson thinks these pro–Jewish Christians are “whistling in the dark,” as he says his Jewish colleagues in the dialogue are doing.
David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.