by Mordechay Lewy
Only a few Jewish representatives are actually engaged in the current dialogue with Catholics. In this, they often perform the miracle of being everywhere at all times. What are the reasons that so few participate in this dialogue? As much as we welcome the ongoing dialogue on the highest possible official level between the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Holy See, reluctance of the Orthodox mainstream persists. Why is mainstream Orthodox Judaism in Israel and elsewhere not ready to be engaged?
To begin with, the dialogue is characterized by many dimensions of asymmetries; and I do not mean only the numerical disproportion of us compared to Catholics. It seems to me that the main obstacle to a dialogue is what most Jews conceive as self-sufficiency in defining their religious identity.
We Jews do not need any other theological framework but the Bible in order to explain our proximity to God as his chosen children. To be chosen has not been always a blessing, to say the least. In its beginning, Judaism was not hostile to proselytism. In post-biblical antiquity, Judaism absorbed undeniable elements of Greco- Roman culture. During the exile, Jews had to mark their own identity in a potentially and often actually hostile environment, which never abandoned its religious zeal to convert Jews. This survival technique included theological self-sufficiency, exclusivity and the denial of proselytism. The medieval spirit of encyclopedic drive to compile summae leads Maimonides to write his Mishne Tora. His work was codified in the 16th century by Josef Caro's catechism, the Shulkhan Arukh. Orthodox Halachic Judaism today relies to a great degree on Caro's catechism. Its aim is to preserve tradition and survival technique at any cost, even in Israel, where we have created the only society in which Jews form the majority.
It is a fact that Reform and Conservative Judaism are more open to dialogue with Christians. They do so from the viewpoint of their American experience, where communal cohabitation among ethnic and religious groups is the lifeline of American society. The leading authority of Orthodoxy in America, Rabbi Soloweitchik, resented any inter-religious dialogue that leads to discussing principles of faith with Catholics. At the same time, he did not resent the dialogue on issues that could lead to improving the common good of ethnic cohabitation. Therefore, the dialogue with Catholics is limited to "soft" topics which touch more upon religious policy matters (bioethics, ecology, violence etc.) and never embrace "hardcore" issues, such as doctrinal principles of belief (the Trinity, the coming of Messiahs, Sacraments, etc.).
But this is not only due to the exclusivist theology of self-sufficiency. Most Jews perceive their history during the Diaspora as a traumatic battle of survival against constant Catholic efforts to convert them gently or, in most cases, coercively.
The Jewish aversion to Christianity existed already in antiquity and was caused due to a "family rift" in which the two parties competed for God's benevolence. The process of separation of the Early Christian community from the bonds of mainstream Judaism created a vast corpus of polemical literature, in which Jews had their share as well. This animosity extended into the European Middle Ages, during which Jews lived as a minority under Christian domination. It was even ritualized in some Jewish prayers. Many Orthodox Jews would still neither enter a church nor like to be confronted with a crucifix.
This traumatic behavior continues today as a Pavlovian reflex. A serious painful wound, inflicted in the past, opens up time and again whenever the victim is confronted with the symbols of the perpetrator. This pattern of behavior may be considered offensive. It contributes to a new cycle of polemics and apologetic posture on the Catholic side. But, in addition to this, there is also an invisible and unspoken obstacle.
The trigger of any dialogue is a sense of basic curiosity to get to know the other side better. Knowing better the other implies to understand him better. Tolstoy minted in his War and Peace the famous phrase: tout comprendre c'est tout pardoner. It might be very well that many of us, being still traumatized after the Shoa, would like to avoid any situation in which we will have to pardon someone, especially if he is identified rightly or wrongly as representing the perpetrator. The Jewish victim seems unable to extend absolution for distant and recent misdeeds done to his brothers and sisters.
Here we have a significant normative asymmetry. Catholics are used to the weekly practice of receiving absolution after confession. In Judaism, we completely lack this practice. Only on Yom Kippur do we seek absolution from God and ask forgiveness from our fellow men. But this occurs, as we know, only once a year.
….and why are they advised to join the dialogue ?
Judaism is founded on recognizing the unity of the human race, the law of righteousness, and truth being supreme over all men – regardless of race or creed. Righteousness is not conditioned by birth. Gentiles may attain it as may Jews, as mentioned in Tosefta, Sanhedrin 13, "The righteous among the Gentiles have a share in the world to come". In Leviticus, 19:18, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor like thyself", applies to every human being. Those principles are conducive to a respectful treatment of the other. Despite changing living condition in Europe, medieval rabbinical sources show respect to other religions. Not only Maimonides, but also Rabbi Menachem Hameiri of Perpignan (1249-1315) recognized in his Talmud comment Beit Habechira that Moslems and Christians deserve fairness in economic transactions, as “peoples bound by the ways of religion” (comments on Tractates Baba Metzia,27a and Baba Kama 113b). Rabbi Moses of Coucy admonished fellow 13th century Jews not to lie, "neither to Jew or Gentile, nor to deceive them in the least thing" (Semag, § 74). Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488 -1575) in the Shulchan Aruch stated, "modern Gentiles are not reckoned as heathen with reference to the restoration of lost articles and other matters" (Hoshen Mishpat, § 266). Rabbi Moses Rivkes (1600-1684), author of a comment on Shulchan Aruch, wrote in Beer Hagolah, 7:7, that Christians “believe in the Creator, the Exodus, the Revelation at Sinai and whose whole intent is to serve their Maker”. Rabbi Jacob Emden (1698 – 1776), in a response to Polish Jewry appeals to Christians to treat the Shabbateans as apostate as well, "For it is recognized, that also the Nazarene and his disciples, especially Paul, warned concerning the Torah of the Israelites, to which all the circumcised are tied. And if they are truly Christians, they will observe their faith with truth, and not allow within their boundary this new unfit Messiah Shabbetai Zevi ... But truly even according to the writers of the Gospels, a Jew is not permitted to leave his Torah." This passage is annexed into Emden's Seder Olam Raba, Hamburg 1757, p.33. In his comment, Lechem Shamajim on the Mishna Tractate Avot, Amsterdam 1751, p. 41, Emden praises Muslim and Christian scholarship: "The sages of Edom and Ishmael speak in our favor … due to the one common divine teaching which they share… Although some dumb were almost annihilating us…, the wise amongst them stood as lions against those who were ill minded, especially the Christian sages who look always after the truth. … they have been our protectors and this will be considered a charitable deed of them".
Jewish Orthodoxy, pluralistic in its approach towards Christians in the distant past, seems since the Shoa to have resisted change. Of the three prevalent attitudes towards Christians, only the ultraorthodox Haredim are totally negative, guided by the Psak Halacha [halachic verdict] from 1967 of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895- 1985). This verdict, published in Igrot Moshe, Yore Dea 3:43 prohibited any meetings with priests. For now, Haredi attitudes, which even delegitimize other minded Orthodox Jews, will persist. The Orthodox mainstream attitude is expressed by Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (1903-1993) in his programmatic article "Confrontation"(Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, 1964) – considered a response to pre-Nostrae Aetate deliberations. Although he denies the possibility of religious dialogue, he suggests a common platform of concerted action in the secular public sphere. Soloveitchik's parameters are:
1. Jewish-Christian scope of action for the common good is confined to the secular sphere, as God commanded mankind in Genesis 1:28: replenish the earth, and subdue it.
2. Respectful relations between religions require strict non-interference. One should refrain from suggesting to other faith changes in ritual or emendations of its texts.
Forty years of Jewish-Catholic dialogue after Nostrae Aetate were a period of mutual trial and error in which an own dynamism developed. Emerging modern Orthodoxy went beyond the confines which Soloveitchik delineated, becoming the hardcore of Jewish Orthodox currents, which carry the message of the present dialogue. One of their renowned speakers, Rabbi David Rosen, explained the rationales of dialoguing with Catholics thus:
1. Ignorance breeds prejudice and thus threatens communities’ well being, especially for a minority. Through dialoguing, barriers of prejudice and stereotypes are removed and mutual respect is promoted.
2. An ulterior basis for inter-religious relations is the perception of a “common agenda”, as no religion is an island. All religions in the West have become minorities in an overwhelmingly secular world.
3. Each religion is equal before God with its own truth. The claim of monopoly on truth amounts to limiting the encounter with the Divine.
4.. Christianity’s identity is uniquely bound up with Jewish history and revelation, despite our fundamental differences. As Judaism teaches that our obligation is to testify to God’s presence and sanctify his name in the world, we have an obligation to work together.
Christians and Jews look back upon 2000 years as a common traumatic past. After the Shoa, the Catholic Church initiated in the Sixties a radical change towards Jews. Conversion is banned to a distant and unknown eschatological horizon. The survivability of Judaism is guaranteed with the establishment of the Jewish State. Their hand is stretched out to us. It would be unwise not to grasp it, lest we mortgage our future in continued animosity with the Catholic world. The first 2000 years do not warrant repetition. Both of us deserve better.