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Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification
by david novak
oxford university press, 194 pages, $24.95

David Novak’s new book is a theologically learned and philosophically nuanced investigation of grounds for Jewish-Christian dialogue. It is written from within the resources of Jewish theology in order to locate theological—in contrast to merely pragmatic—reasons for interfaith dialogue. The book, however, goes well beyond an in-house Jewish effort to justify dialogue with Christians. From the outset, Novak contends that the main issue for this dialogue is no longer how Jews and Christians can work out a political or civil modus vivendi, but rather how either can speak theologically without yielding to secularism. In this sense, the book is a justification for theological discourse itself. It is a primer on the problems of sustaining biblically based theology in the twentieth century. 

Novak begins by examining three Jewish objections to dialogue with Christians. The first holds that nothing has substantively changed since the middle ages. Dialogue may be required for practical purposes, but not for religious ones. As Novak points out, this point of view is not peculiarly anti-Christian; it reflects a general rejection of the non-Jewish world. The second objection rejects religious dialogue because Christianity is taken to be essentially and incorrigibly anti-Semitic. The Holocaust, in this view, is simply an extension of the tradition of Christendom. The third position sees some value in dialogue, but only insofar as the singularity of either religious tradition is bracketed. Proponents of this view would filter dialogue through the secular language of inalienable rights, constitutional order, or any common ground that does not explicitly presuppose theological convictions unique to parties in the dialogue.

Novak argues that all three positions misunderstand the “pervasive context of modern secularism.” Christendom no longer exists as a political-ecclesiastical order; even in weaker sociological terms the modern society in the West could scarcely be called “Christian.” Furthermore, modern political and ideological expressions of anti-Semitism can hardly be portrayed as an extension of medieval anti-Judaism. One cannot fail to take into account the anti-Christian character of fascism and communism. Finally, the notion of a secularly based common ground is an illusion: the secular understanding of moral autonomy is not a neutral position but is rather the principal alternative to both Judaism and Christianity. It is a mistake, Novak argues, to believe that the moral and political language of autonomy could ever be a fit instrument for expressing what is common to the theonomous ethics of Judaism and Christianity.

Throughout the book, Novak makes the grounds for interfaith dialogue more rather than less difficult to achieve. His criteria for dialogue are at least twofold. First, each party must be able to recognize himself in the characterization of the other one. Second, each participant’s characterization of himself must be seen as consistent with his own religious tradition. Novak’s rules of recognition require that the dialogue from either side remain tradition-dependent, and hence he allows no easy appeals either to maverick theologizing or to translating theological traditions into the universalist Esperanto of autonomous rights.

At the same time, Novak’s case against secularism does not permit the fantasy of secularism’s replacement by a Judeo-Christian civil order that would uproot secular science, law, or economics. The dream of restoration of a premodern social order is out of the question. The effort to resist secularism in order to sustain tradition-dependent theological discourse, even while finding a necessary place for the secular agenda, constitutes, as Novak admits, “no small task.” He further complicates that task by stipulating that neither party to the discussion is permitted to manipulate the grounds of discourse by a theological scheme that subsumes its interlocutor under either a greater generic category or a higher singularity—as, for example, in the Christian position that Judaism is a teleologically inferior precursor to Christianity, or in the Jewish position that gentile adherence to the Noahide laws represents only a preliminary morality en route to the Torah.

In short, then, Novak closes the doors most easily opened to the dialogue, at least the historically familiar ones. For this, he is to be congratulated. It is rare today to find a theologian in any tradition willing to make theological discourse more rather than less difficult and demanding.

The middle chapters of the book work from within the historical resources of Jewish theology, in particular the ancient and medieval interpretations of how gentiles stand under the Noahide laws. The Noahide laws, Novak explains, designate not only the pre-Judaic conditions of a theonomous morality (the moral law as preceding Sinai), but also something co-Judaic, standing as it were on the horizon of Judaism (the moral law applicable to gentiles in the present). Novak examines the opinions of Rabbenu Tam (twelfth century) and Rabbi Menahem Ha-Meiri (fourteenth century), among others, in order to answer the question, What is to be made of Christians, who are neither pre-Judaic nor polytheistic gentiles of the sort encountered in antiquity?

For ancient and medieval Jewish theorists, a key issue was whether Christians are adequately non-idolatrous, such that one could say that they not only observe the Noahide laws, but do so in a way correlated with a minimally correct monotheism. If the two are correlated, then Jews can view Christians as participating in a moral order that is theologically recognizable, and at least quasi-independent of Jewish enforcement. Novak’s work in this area is fascinating, for it throws light upon a theological approach to natural moral law that is almost always overlooked in favor of the metaphysically based natural-law theories of the high middle ages.

Novak also has an intriguing chapter on Maimonides, who held that Christianity is a derivative and potential Judaism. Novak rejects this model for both philosophical and theological reasons. Of particular interest is his treatment of Maimonides’ ambivalence about non-Judaic monotheisms—Christian and Islamic. As an Aristotelian, Maimonides underscored the primacy of speculative rationality, and on this score Islamic monotheism seemed speculatively superior to Christian trinitarianism. But in terms of what Novak calls the “practical,” Maimonides respected the closer connection between Christianity and Judaism in their common biblicism. Not surprisingly, Novak suggests that the common biblicism is a more promising context for interfaith dialogue than Maimonides’ speculative system. It would have been preferable if Novak had not depicted these two perspectives as a difference in emphasis between speculative and practical rationality, for the shift to what Jews and Christians share by virtue of the biblical narrative relocates both theory and practice to a different perspective, one perhaps best described as historical. This is an important qualification to make, lest Novak’s distinction be used to underwrite the post-Kantian notion that practical rationality can supply reasons where theory is deficient. Catholics (like myself) would never recognize themselves or their tradition in that arrangement, though they would certainly agree with Novak that the faith elicited by biblical revelation is a superior realization or perfection of speculative rationality than Maimonidean speculations on trans-lunar astronomicals.

Two additional chapters treat the quest for the Jewish Jesus and Franz Rosenzweig’s theology of interfaith dialogue. The former focuses mainly on Martin Buber, and contains useful discussions on the danger of religious syncretism, as well as on how Jewish-Christian dialogue gets short-circuited by a de-christologized Jesus and a de-legalized Torah. The latter examines the dialogue between Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) and Eugen Rosenstock (a Jewish convert to Christianity). The exchange between Rosenzweig and Rosenstock was pioneering in that their common enmity to secularism provided a point of commonality that superseded the older problematics of Christendom. Novak makes a similar point about that commonality, but he also makes it clear that this via negativa approach to dialogue is by itself insufficient for sustaining productive theological discourse. Beyond that, Novak suggests that Rosenzweig (perhaps because of his Hegelianism) was insufficiently attentive to the need to respect the singularity of the Christian religion. Rosenzweig held that Christianity is the universalist, missionizing wing of biblical revelation, in contrast to Jewish particularism, which emphasizes the role of the Jews as the unique people of God. But Christianity, Novak points out, no less than Judaism, needs to resist any loss of its religious and historical singularity. This is particularly true of Christianity in the modern, secular environment, in which there are pressures to reduce theological terms to those of a vague religion-in-general. What is suggested here is that Jews need to help Christians preserve a distinct theological perspective, if for no other reason than to prevent the dialogue between them from devolving into such weak generic terms that it ceases to be theological.

The book’s final chapter, “A New Theology of Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” is ambitious and philosophically challenging. Novak examines three different ways in which the singular—a particular religion or revelation—can be related to the general. First, the singular can extend itself to the general, in the way Roman civil law was extended to the empire via the rubric of a ius gentium, where non-Roman subjects of the empire were treated as resident aliens. Second, the singular can be viewed as a starting point en route to the general—as the Stoics conceived of the individual as a starting point for reaching cosmic harmony, or as Kant held that the individual, self-legislating will is a point of entry into the kingdom of ends. Third, the singular can be viewed as the teleological achievement of the general; thus, for example, Maimonides’ potency-act model served as a way to explain how the Noahide laws shaped the general, gentile mass out of which the Torah represented the full, singular actualization and completion.

Novak gives cogent reasons why none of these models is very helpful for interfaith dialogue. All are imperialistic, for they subsume the particularity of traditions to a general cosmic order: either to a more comprehensive generality, or to a higher singularity. Novak’s alternative is to argue that the dialogue should emphasize the possibility of revelation which grounds irreducible theological traditions rather than one or another general scheme of human potential for religion. Human perfections—for example the moral and intellectual perfections of the prophet—might provide necessary, but certainly not sufficient, conditions for revelation.

The possibility of a revealed word and a human response to it is something quite different than a set of human potentials being immanently realized. In the latter model, both the divine word and the covenantal community would only be needed to trigger, or to remove impediments to, the development of the natural potential. The logic of possibility, however, leaves the framework of revelation and covenant free of necessity. The divinely initiated revelation, the human response, and the eventual outcome are kept free of any necessary potency-act reductions (Aristotle) or a necessary progression of Reason (Hegel). Believers are thus relieved of the need to construct metaphysical arguments to absorb the positions of their rivals.

Novak is perhaps a bit harsh in his judgment of the potency-act model. Karl Rahner, of whose work Novak’s is reminiscent, managed to make many of the same points without jettisoning the potency-act background altogether. Rahner, relying on Aquinas, spoke of the potentia obedientialis, the obediential potency, to be transformed in the light of revelation. One can try to avoid use of Aristotelian terminology altogether, but it is not clear that we can even discuss the matter of human openness to the revealed word without making some assumptions about the determinate nature of the being who stands open—frogs presumably have no obediential potency or openness to respond (rationally, volitionally) to the revealed word. This objection, however, does not detract from Novak’s main point: that any effort to unpack revelation itself from a stock of human potentials would undercut the central convictions of both Judaism and Christianity.

Novak contends that both Jews and Christians must bring their fundamental philosophical and theological convictions to the dialogue. By philosophical, he means theories about human nature and sociability; by theological, he means theories about the capacity for relationship with God. Here, he insists, there is a “common anthropological border between Judaism and Christianity.” Along this border can be discerned a common Judeo-Christian ethic, which is distinguished from a common Judeo-Christian faith (which Novak, of course, rejects). The four central tenets of the common ethic are: (1) The human person is created by God for the primary purpose of being related to God; (2) This relationship is primarily practical, its content being a response to the commandments; (3) The human person is created as a social being, the sociability being a condition for covenant with God; (4) The ultimate fulfillment of human persons, individually and collectively, lies in a future and universal redemptive act by God, standing on the unattainable historical horizon.

One can argue with Novak’s second tenet, for in saying that the relationship is “primarily practical,” he would seem to give short shrift to the possibility that volitional activity in relation to either divine or human persons transcends (or ought to transcend) making and doing. Can, for example, the notion of love be adequately handled in terms of the “practical”? (It might be noted that this is not the only place in the book where the meaning of “practical” for Novak remains unclear or problematic.)

Novak’s other tenets stand as clear statements of the component parts of a theonomous ethic. He hits the nail on the head when he points out that both Judaism and Christianity conceive of the moral life as a vocatio—the response of a being called by a divine other. This understanding stands in sharp contrast to the secular ethic of autonomy, in which the individual is principally responsible to respond to the voice of his or her own reason.

One has to admire Novak’s way of mapping the common moral border between Judaism and Christianity. His two central points are correct and clearly drawn: (1) The common border is posited from their respective theological traditions, and hence the border is not a detachable minimalistic ethic; (2) The common ethic consists of a moral theonomy rather than autonomy, and despite some terminological overlap with modern secularistic ethics, it represents a substantively different understanding of moral order.

Assuming, then, that Novak is on the right track in his formulation of the common ethic, there remains not so much a criticism as a question. What are Jews and Christians to make of the secular civil, legal, and moral order which makes autonomy the principal value? The question is reminiscent of that raised by Joseph Raz in The Morality of Freedom (1986), where he points out that even if the modern doctrines of individual rights do not adequately account for, in the sense of explicating, the value of autonomy, it is still true to say that the autonomous life is the main value and unifying ideal of modern societies. Raz’s question is how these societies are to treat pockets of believers who reject the notion that autonomy is the principal value and goal of morality and law. His response is tentative and groping, but he suggests that secular legal and moral culture cannot remain true to its own vision without attempting the assimilation of these practitioners of a premodern ethic.

The question for Novak is similar, but the answer will be more problematic. The common moral border between Judaism and Christianity is not a common faith, but it is drawn (to use a stronger term, posited) in terms of theology. It is not clear what resources Novak leaves us with in drawing a common border with those who hearken to the voice of moral autonomy. Novak gives no indication that Jews and Christians can, or ought to, develop a natural-law theory independent of their respective traditions and theologies. The underlying conviction of some Christian natural-law theorists is that although believers and non-believers have different grounds with regard to theology, they share a common philosophical ground in the doctrine of natural rights. See, for example, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s recent essay “Seeking a Common Ground on Human Rights” (DePaul Law Review, Vol. 36), in which he argues that the legal theory of Ronald Dworkin is a reliable guide for locating common ground, metaphysical and religious differences notwithstanding.

It may be true that the common ground is superficial, and for the most part only terminological (in the case of Dworkin, it is unlikely that we are speaking of the same ethic in any respect), but the language of natural rights allowed at least a half-truth to constitute common discourse about principles in the civil and legal polity. Should this philosophical tradition of natural rights he reworked to make it friendlier to a theonomous ethic? Perhaps the autonomous ethic can be shown to be a mistake on philosophical grounds—a demonstration that might be worth undertaking, if for no other reason than to avoid a two-truth situation. As long, that is, as the principle of autonomy is a philosophically plausible ground for human conduct, it is difficult to see how believers can avoid the problem of theonomy for the Sabbath and autonomy for the rest of the week.

What alternatives are left in our respective theological traditions? How, for instance, would the Noahide laws apply to modern, secularized gentiles who would seem to be more accurately characterized as post-Judaic and Christian, than pre-Judaic or even co-Judaic? In his treatment of ancient and medieval Jewish opinion, Novak shows that a merely pragmatic adherence to the laws, without some correlation to the theological ground, is not sufficient for judging the gentiles as having any moral independence; that is to say, such adherence lacks the requisite condition for self-governance and enforcement. Does this not have an explosive implication for our civil and legal order? Novak clearly and explicitly rejects the idea that believers can uproot the secular scientific, legal, and economic culture. How one leaves this in place while abandoning the claims about moral autonomy is, as he says, “no small task.”

Novak’s book rightly puts aside for now the difficult questions about dialogue between believers and non-believers. He is, I believe, entirely correct to focus upon the theological terms of the dialogue between Jews and Christians. And on that score, he is not only challenging but successful. Jewish-Christian Dialogue deserves the widest possible attention and consideration among believers. We shall be interested in seeing how, in his future work, its author goes on to treat the vexing issues concerning dialogue between believers and non-believers

Russell Hittinger is spending the year as a visiting professor in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. He is the author of A Critique of the New Natural Law Theory (Notre Dame, 1987).