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Jewish-Christian Dialogue

I have read with a great deal of interest Russell Hittinger’s thoughtful review of David Novak’s new hook, Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification (March). At the very outset of the hook, as Hittinger notes, Novak examines three objections to dialogue made by believing Jews. His persuasive theological refutation of these objections is an important dimension of Novak’s project, one that deserves greater attention.

It is among the great virtues of Novak’s brilliantly argued theological “justification” for dialogue that it comes from a traditional Jewish scholar and from a traditional Jewish religious perspective. In recent years Jewish support for dialogue has primarily come from the most theologically liberal rabbis and scholars. Indeed, since Nostra Aetate was promulgated by the Second Vatican Council twenty-five years ago, most Orthodox Jewish thinkers have been openly hostile to any and all theological discussions between Christians and Jews.

One of the most influential Jewish arguments against such dialogue was made in 1964 by the preeminent Orthodox rabbi and theologian, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, at the very time when the deliberations of Vatican II were to add a fresh impetus to Jewish-Christian dialogue in general and Jewish-Catholic dialogue in particular. In an oft-quoted article published in Tradition magazine, Soloveitchik concluded that the differences between Judaism and Christianity were so profound that believing Christians and Jews could never enter into meaningful dialogue with one another on matters of theology and faith. While Jews and Christians might cooperate in areas of shared social and political concern, theological encounters should remain off limits.

So compelling were Soloveitchik’s arguments to his colleagues in the Orthodox Jewish community that the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America adopted a policy statement discouraging inter-religious dialogue. As Novak correctly points out, “Soloveitchik’s influence amongst many of the more acculturated traditionalist Jews precluded the participation in dialogue of a large segment of the Jewish community who would have been more disposed toward it and who would have had the best credentials for it in terms of religious commitment and knowledge.”

Until now, no traditional Jewish scholar has effectively challenged and refuted Soloveitchik’s underlying assumption that traditional Jewish religious practice and participation in theological dialogue with Christians are mutually exclusive. Novak’s persuasive argument provides believing Jews—Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike—with the theological insight and erudition with which to refute the arguments of those Orthodox critics, such as Soloveitchik, whose objections to dialogue have for so long gone unanswered.

While Soloveitchik’s position had provided many traditional Jews with a theological rationale to shun religious contacts with Christians, Novak has now provided the Jewish faith community with the theological premises upon which to reaffirm them. The publication of Novak’s book is thus an important and long- awaited event in the evolution of contemporary Jewish thought and scholarship on Jewish-Christian relations in America. With its many other virtues that Russell Hittinger illuminates in his review, it is a book that should be welcomed and read especially by those believing Jews who have, until now, been reluctant to engage in theological conversations with believing Christians.

Rabbi David Dalin
maurice greenberg center for judaic studies
university of hartford

Christians and Development

Amy Sherman’s “Christians and Economic Development” (March) is a sweeping and largely accurate reading of existing Protestant views on economic development in the Third World. With many evangelicals, she shares skeptical views of the predominantly leftist, redistributionist orthodoxies that still dominate the hierarchies of many religious bodies active in international development work. Her citation of Gustavo Gutierrez’ revisionist statement that “there could be a capitalist liberation theology” is a striking instance of how quickly such orthodoxies are changing, raising new questions about the relationships between economic and theological truths. As evangelicals work toward forming their own contributions to the debate over development in the 1990s, they face the likelihood of immediate successes and long-term difficulties.

Immediate successes, because they have long incorporated entrepreneurial dimensions in their development work, both in fundraising techniques at home and in structuring economic relationships with the Third World. It is hunger for the freedom to create wealth that moves the revolutions of Eastern Europe, which may themselves offer the most responsive ground for such “new” development thinking. Sherman’s insights would be expanded by a microeconomic look at entrepreneurial efforts; they exist today on both the left and the right of religious development agencies.

Long-term difficulties, because no other religious group active in international development today retains such a strong commitment to tying together spiritual and material dimensions of development as do evangelical Protestants . . . . The pressures toward a homogenized, secular “goodness” in relief and development matters . . . are often intensified by United Nations’ bureaucrats and, for Americans, by the U.S. Government itself.

The postwar consensus on private involvement in state-sponsored relief and development has disintegrated into factional interest-group struggles, struggles that will only be intensified by new pressures to assist development in Eastern Europe. A restructuring of private/public cooperation in these humanitarian matters, planned jointly by private aid providers and the Bush administration, would be very much in order.

Bruce Nichols
philadelphia, pa

The Catholic Whig

Michael Novak’s genial and full-length portrait of the Catholic Whig (“The Return of the Catholic Whig,” March) brings into sharp focus the theological and political concepts that should frame our public debates in the coming decade.

A small addendum, though. Even if recent events signal the triumph of democratic capitalism as an idea, democratic capitalism as a reality has some difficult days ahead in the realm that Novak has elsewhere called “moral-cultural.” Catholic whiggery can be an essential resource here, but we should not underestimate the magnitude of the necessary Kulturkampf.

True, human persons in community should be valued for their capacities to know and love, but who, outside of highly restricted circles, is willing to speak and defend such language? Paradoxically, our very institutions of higher learning and our culture in general have a deep prejudice against the very idea of true human knowing. Even worse, many intellectuals think that to suggest that a practical recta ratio exists is the prelude to fascism. The same people tend to regard metaphysical views per se as totalitarian. The only refuge from these dangers, they believe, is a deconstruction of all centers of meaning and authority, though the result is a free-floating human existence they find somehow preferable. As Vaclav Havel wrote of all this from prison before his miraculous rise to the Czechoslovak presidency: “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.”

All of us—in East and West—need to remember the Whig lessons on the necessary balance between person and community. But these very concepts depend on our finding a more Catholic balance in our relating of past and present. For some parts of the world, greater appreciation of human ingenuity and its living actuality is required. For us, living in a society that seems to know and care less and less about the most basic facts of our past, the main task is to counterbalance the tremendous ferment of human creativity with the strong and steady presence of the fertile principles on which creativity is based. The contemporary Catholic Whig in America is forced to oxymoron: how do we recover and perpetuate an innovative tradition?

Robert Royal
ethics and public policy center
washington, d.c