While pleased with Jon D. Levenson’s designation of us as “four highly-regarded professors of Jewish studies” [“How Not to Conduct Jewish-Christian Dialogue,” December 2001], we are dismayed by his wholesale dismissal of our efforts in writing and publishing Dabru Emet, a dismissal epitomized by his closing charge that our efforts pose “hazards to Jewish practice and identity” and that to deny this (as we have explicitly done) is “whistling in the dark.”
Truth be told, Mr. Levenson was invited to sign our statement, and we respect his decision not to do so based on his theological disagreement with us. But we do not respect, indeed we protest, his contemptuous dismissal of our project through sarcasm and unjust condemnation of our very motives, which seem to us examples of his bad faith as a fellow Jewish thinker.
Presented as a newspaper ad, Dabru Emet is a political statement, offered to arouse attention and to provide the minimal common ground needed for any serious discussion. We find it bizarre that a serious scholar like Mr. Levenson would base his criticisms on such a statement alone, totally ignoring the book we published, Christianity in Jewish Terms (Westview), for just the kind of scholarly review he purports to offer. Most of Mr. Levenson’s specific criticisms are answered in that book. Although we are prepared to add new answers to his old questions in subsequent publications and forums, we can only do so in an atmosphere of good faith, one that we expect in Jewish-Christian dialogue and all the more so in intra-Jewish dialogue. Aside from the considerations of space, we cannot do so here and now with Mr. Levenson in his present state of mind. We expect better from our fellow Jewish interlocutors, especially from those whose disagreement is truly interrogatory and not an exercise in invective.
We are, finally, perplexed that Mr. Levenson thinks Jews and Christians have “an instinctive repugnance toward each other,” when virtually his entire professional career has been spent teaching Jewish studies in Christian divinity schools.
University of Chicago
University of Toronto
University of Virginia
University of Notre Dame
South Bend, Indiana
Dabru Emet is a statement about Christianity, speaking on behalf of a renewed Judaism that is recovering its confidence and sense of purpose after the devastations of the Holocaust. Like the previous revitalizations of Judaism after periods of terrible loss, this one entails significant changes in Jewish reasoning. For two centuries before the Holocaust, Judaism was largely defined by an irremediable battle between modern, secular Judaism and anti-modern Orthodoxy. Dabru Emet belongs to a Judaism that is no longer defined by this logic. It therefore elicits the most confused responses from Jews who still think in terms of either/or. Such Jews find nothing new in Dabru Emet because they misread it in terms of their own, old dichotomies. Jon D. Levenson’s review is a symptom of this kind of reading.
The four authors of Dabru Emet, including myself, believe that our revitalized Judaism should make its wisdom known in the public square. We believe that Jews must respond to what our neighbors are teaching and enacting. But we cannot respond to what we do not understand. In the past, Jewish parents encouraged their children to study their neighbors’ secular beliefs, but they tended to discourage any comparable study of their neighbors’ Christianity. This veil of ignorance may once have served the purposes of Jewish self-definition. It is no longer wise or tenable.
In the first place, unless they understand various Christian theologies, our children will be unable to judge which forms of Christianity now enhance Jewish values and self-interests and which continue to threaten them. Furthermore, our children take greater pride in their Judaism, and are more eager to learn about it, when they engage in dialogue with representatives of other religions, Christianity most of all. Finally, we have learned from the horrors of the past century that secular humanism is an insufficient bulwark against Western tendencies toward nihilism and totalitarianism. Among fellow religionists, we need to locate friends within the Christian world who will help us protect the next generations from such influences. Dabru Emet is an invitation to these Christians to join us.
University of Virginia
Nicholas de Lange:
Jon D. Levenson’s article is an excellent example of the poison to which Dabru Emet is intended as a very modest antidote. Many Jews remain unaware of the radical changes that have taken place in Christian attitudes to Judaism in virtually all the Western churches since World War II. Mr. Levenson is aware of these changes, yet he insists on giving prominence to hostile sound-bites from Christian leaders in the remote past as if they were characteristic of Christian attitudes today. Such slogans have been wheeled out endlessly by those who want to show that Christianity has a long history of anti-Judaism. (It is possible, of course, to find equally negative stateme]nts in classical Jewish writings about Gentiles in general and Christians in particular.)
I signed Dabru Emet because I wanted to reassure ordinary Jews that the old horror stories can be relegated to the history books, and that Christianity does not pose a threat to Judaism. That is the essential message of Dabru Emet. It is not an attempt to demonstrate, as Mr. Levenson puts it, that Judaism and Christianity are “as alike as two peas in a single religious pod.” I do not see this claim anywhere in the document, which in fact insists on the irreconcilable differences between the two religions.
Dabru Emet stresses common ground in a factual and uncontroversial manner. But its main thrust is to challenge arguments that might be put forward against Jews’ adopting a more tolerant and even positive attitude to Christianity. Its claim is that neither Christian theology nor contemporary issues like the Holocaust and Israel constitute an obstacle to Jews’ trusting Christians and working together with them to increase justice and peace in the world.
In advancing this claim the statement contributes to overcoming age-old conflicts that have done irreparable damage to the world we inhabit. I am not sorry to have signed Dabru Emet, and I stand by every word in it.
Jon D. Levenson is normally a very good and reliable scholar. His work has illuminated a number of significant topics, not least among them important aspects of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. He is quite right to remind us that the differences between our two deeply interrelated faith-traditions are as important to keep in mind as what we hold in common. Still, he is a bit unfair to the authors of Dabru Emet in his assumption that by looking at the latter they are automatically denying the former.
Mr. Levenson attacks Dabru Emet for its assertion that the “humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world.” This means, he says, that the statement affirms “as a matter of belief that the Church will survive until the final redemption.” But this does not follow. The irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians is a matter of fact. It would exist even if every Christian on earth were to disappear and if the Church were no more.
Mr. Levenson next dismisses Dabru Emet‘s affirmation that “Jews and Christians accept the moral principles of Torah.” His examples here are very weak, however. Saying that one should avoid not only adultery itself but also wanting to commit adultery is not a sermon that would surprise a Jewish congregation any more than a Christian one. Likewise, as Mr. Levenson points out, there are Jewish precedents for turning the other cheek—that is, requiting evil with good.
Finally, there are two areas in which Mr. Levenson has lost perspective. The first is his rather astonishing attempt to impose a supersessionist theology upon Christianity. Here, at least from the vantage point of official Roman Catholic (and much of Western Protestant) tradition, he is simply wrong. Catholicism does not teach, as he claims, that “the Church . . . has replaced the Jewish people, Abraham’s natural descendants.” It once did, but this is exactly the misunderstanding that the Second Vatican Council rejected. Yes, Mr. Levenson can find a lot of support in the writings of the Church fathers for his viewpoint. But none of these Church fathers was cited by the Council in its key statements, Lumen Gentium and Nostra Aetate. Mr. Levenson here falsely presents the teaching of my Church.
Second, Mr. Levenson appears to argue that Nazism was not in any serious way inimical to Christianity and that if Germany had won the war the Nazis would not have turned their eyes more systematically toward the elimination of the churches as a potential threat to their “thousand-year Reich.” In fact, Nazi ideology represented, from top to bottom, a rejection of all that the Christian churches stood for. The churches were the Nazis’ obvious next target.
If Mr. Levenson were to undertake even the briefest of studies of what the Nazis did to the Catholic clergy of Poland, I believe he would see what the Nazis had in mind. Frankly, his bland denial of reality in this instance strikes me as bordering on historical revisionism.
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Rabbi Charles L. Arian:
Jon D. Levenson’s strongest criticism of Dabru Emet is leveled at its assertion that “a new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice.” He correctly notes that the era of growing Christian-Jewish understanding has coincided with unprecedented high rates of intermarriage and assimilation. He claims that the breakdown of the “instinctive repugnance” Jews and Christians have felt for each other is what has made intermarriage possible.
But Jews are intermarrying not because they no longer feel a repugnance for Christianity but rather because they have ceased to believe in and practice Judaism. Many Jews make no religious affirmation beyond the view that “Jesus was not the messiah.” Their automatic antipathy toward Christian belief causes them to assume that whatever Christianity affirms, Judaism denies. A religious identity based on nothing more than the negation of “the other” has no staying power.
In a dozen years as both a Hillel director and the rabbi of a Conservative synagogue, my experience has been that—contrary to Mr. Levenson’s fears—a positive appraisal of Christianity can strengthen Jewish practice and identity. Jews learn that belief in a personal God who loves and redeems us is not just a “Christian” concept.
Institute for Christian
& Jewish Studies
I very much agree with Jon D. Levenson’s argument about “how not to conduct” Jewish-Christian dialogue. He is surely correct to point out the historical and theological pitfalls of a dialogue of mutuality between Judaism and Christianity. And he is right to highlight and criticize shallow attempts at a kind of tolerance based on the lowest common denominator.
But I do not think Dabru Emet—which I signed—attempts to promote this type of shallow tolerance. As I think Mr. Levenson might agree, the proper aim of interreligious conversation should not be mutual affirmation but the opportunity for each party to clarify its own position and even judgment of the other. Dabru Emet, taken together with Christianity in Jewish Terms (its companion volume of scholarly essays), attempts to provide precisely this kind of educational opportunity.
Mr. Levenson is most concerned with what Dabru Emet teaches Jews about Judaism. He is afraid that, in the already permissive culture of what he sees as mutual respect between Jews and Christians, Jews will find no reason for remaining Jewish. Yet it may be that the soaring rates of intermarriage have more to do with Jewish ignorance about Judaism than with the attitudes of Christians.
An enormous misconception of liberal Jews is that Judaism lacks a theological dimension and is concerned only with ethics or humanism. They would be surprised to learn that the Jewish tradition is saturated with profound theological commitments. Learning about the ways in which Judaism shares a number of theological assumptions with Christianity may teach liberal Jews about their own religion. And the more they learn about the Jewish and Christian traditions, the more they may appreciate not the mutuality between the two, but their profound if not irreconcilable differences.
Princeton, New Jersey
Rabbi Ruth Langer:
There is no question that Dabru Emet is flawed. Its brevity precludes theological sophistication, and differences of opinion among committee members resulted in shallow compromises. But as a signer of the document, I believe, contrary to Jon D. Levenson, that it is a useful starting point for deeper discussion.
The revision of Christian theology concerning Jews, at least among Catholic and mainline Protestant churches, is real, and deserves a serious Jewish response. Mr. Levenson faults Dabru Emet for never mentioning the rabbinic concept of the Noahide laws and their guarantee of salvation for ethical non-Jews who do not practice idolatry. But the Noahide laws cast all Gentiles into a common category, and our Christian partners rightly see this as a violation of a cardinal principle of dialogue: to strive to see the other in a way that corresponds to the other’s self-understanding. Christians challenge us to develop a theological understanding of them as Christians, not as generic Gentiles. Dabru Emet responds to this—albeit inadequately.
Just as revisions of Christian theology followed scholarly exposures of the realities and consequences of Christian anti-Judaism, so too an adequate Jewish statement will require deeper study of how Jews have understood their Christian neighbors. Books like David Novak’s Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification build upon isolated medieval statements that take a positive view of Christianity, ignoring our vastly larger heritage of negative portrayals. As Mr. Levenson points out, Dabru Emet continues to dodge this issue. But only by directly confronting it can we match the soul-searching of our Christian partners and construct a more adequate corrective.
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts
Sister Margaret Shepherd:
In reading Jon D. Levenson’s criticisms of Dabru Emet I could not help recalling the Jewish response to Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document generally seen as the cornerstone of modern Christian-Jewish relations. After it was issued in 1965, there was great disappointment and considerable anger at its omissions. Jews found no mention of either the Holocaust or Israel; they also found references to anti-Semitism that did not acknowledge any Christian responsibility for Jewish suffering. Several paragraphs represented major steps for Roman Catholics, but these were not always appreciated by Jewish readers.
The key point, however, is that the document was not an academic theological exposition, but rather part of a conversation within the Church which included traditionalists who thought that no change was necessary. Arab bishops, for example, opposed Nostra Aetate because of their rejection of the state of Israel, and others felt that relations with faiths other than Judaism merited equal concern. Nostra Aetate had to be conservative if it was to obtain approval. Yet today, both Christians and Jews recognize Nostra Aetate as the beginning of a process of dialogue, and read it in the light of the important developments of the past half-century to which Mr. Levenson refers.
It seems to me that Dabru Emet should be read in the same way. Any document seeking to initiate dialogue has to commend itself to a wide and often skeptical constituency—in the case of the Jewish community, a constituency whose memories remain steeped in tragedy. If it is to gain a public hearing and contribute to a purposeful and warm relationship that will overcome past hostility, it has to address understandable fears and focus, at least initially, on areas of agreement.
Council of Christians and Jews
Rabbi Samuel M. Silver:
In his critique of Dabru Emet, Jon D. Levenson lists the differences, mostly theological, between Judaism and Christianity. But the document is not an academic work. It is a treaty, not a treatise.
Shading the truth for the sake of comity has biblical precedent. God reported to Abraham that Sarah had said she doubted she could bear a child since she was so old. In fact, Sarah expressed doubts because Abraham was so aged. But for the sake of domestic peace God told a white lie. Perhaps the same principle could apply in the case of Dabru Emet.
Delray Beach, Florida
Though Jon D. Levenson clearly grasps the dangers inherent in the approach taken by the authors of Dabru Emet, it is not clear that he sees the importance of their effort.
As Mr. Levenson notes, the traditional Jewish understanding of other religions revolves around the seven Noahide laws. To the extent that other religions encourage people to observe these laws, and to the extent that these religions do not seek to undermine the Jewish people’s covenant with God, Judaism views them positively. But this framework is insufficient as a basis for cooperation with Christianity. Because we read the same book (albeit very differently), and because we make similar claims to a unique covenant with God, we cannot have the distant relations that Judaism might have with, say, Buddhism.
Indeed, it is not absurd for Jews to affirm that Christianity, unlike other faiths, may have an important role to play in bringing about the messianic age. Maimonides regards Christianity’s success as a means by which knowledge of the true God is disseminated. Here we find a doctrine that sees Christianity as a unique force for good, and potentially an important part of God’s plan, precisely because of its close relationship with Judaism.
Even for those who, with good reason, want to avoid eschatological speculation, dialogue with Christians retains a dimension of religious obligation. To the extent that the Christian churches have undertaken to purify themselves of anti-Judaism, they have repented. If sincere, this gesture commands a response of forgiveness from the injured. Christians are not wrong, then, to expect more than expressions of satisfaction from the Jewish establishment, and Jews are not wrong to seek to establish relations with Christians on a firmer and more intimate basis than with any other faith.
Brooklyn, New York
For too long, emphasis on doctrines that differentiate faiths, as well as denominations within a faith, have resulted in hatred, bigotry, and bloodshed—most recently illustrated by the fanaticism of the September 11 attacks. Has the time not come for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to find a commonality in the sublime monotheistic vision they share? That vision is theologically compatible with all three faiths and is broad enough to draw them together. Through ecumenical efforts like Dabru Emet, we may more rapidly advance to the time when, as the statement says, “the humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians” will be settled.
Charlotte, North Carolina
Jon D. Levenson’s cogent critique of Dabru Emet is a service to Jews and Christians who could easily be misled into concluding that there are no really difficult theological differences between their faiths. Two of the most intractable of these are the divinity of Jesus and Christianity’s abrogation of Mosaic law—neither of which is mentioned in Dabru Emet. Its authors would argue, no doubt, that they wished to focus on what unites us rather than on what divides us. But if the document’s aim is to show how Jews evaluate Christianity, omission of the difficulties Mr. Levenson enumerates is fatal.
As an Orthodox Jew who has devoted much energy to Jewish-Christian dialogue, I am saddened that Dabru Emet missed the opportunity to produce a document that did not evade the hard questions while contributing to improving Jewish-Christian relations.
University of Houston
While the motives underlying Dabru Emet are understandable and even laudable, Jon D. Levenson’s critique properly underscores serious concerns outweighing the benefits that the document strives to achieve. Shortly after the statement was publicized, the Orthodox Union asked me to formulate the following very brief response, which was later adopted as the position of the Rabbinical Council of America:
Dabru Emet is in many ways an admirable statement composed by people for whom I have high regard. I agree with much of it, including the controversial but carefully balanced passage denying that Nazism was a Christian phenomenon. However, I did not agree to sign it for several reasons. First, for all its exquisitely skillful formulation, it implies that Jews should reassess their view of Christianity in light of Christian reassessments of Judaism. This inclination toward theological reciprocity is fraught with danger. Second, although it is proper to emphasize that Christians “worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, creator of heaven and earth,” it is essential to add that worship of Jesus of Nazareth as a manifestation or component of that God constitutes what Jewish law and theology call avodah zarah, or foreign worship—at least if done by a Jew. Many Jews died to underscore this point, and the bland assertion that “Christian worship is not a viable religious choice for Jews” is thoroughly inadequate. Finally, the statement discourages either community from “insisting that it has interpreted Scripture more accurately than the other.” While intended for the laudable purpose of discouraging missionizing, this assertion conveys an uncomfortably relativistic message.
Brooklyn, New York
Many of my reasons for not supporting Dabru Emet are articulated by Jon D. Levenson in his spirited and brave article. To the points he makes let me add just one: Dabru Emet gives precedence to Christianity over other religions outside Judaism. Its authors write: “While Christian worship is not a viable religious choice for Jews, as Jewish theologians we rejoice that, through Christianity, hundreds of millions of people have entered into relationship with the God of Israel.” Christian proselytizing among Hindus, Sikhs, and other non-Christians is thus given tacit support, and the statement seemingly gives its seal of approval not only to contemporary attempts to spread the Christian faith but also to the ways Christianity has extended its reach in the past. The only groups that appear to be out of bounds to Christian missionaries, the statement implies, are Jews.
Although Jews have lived among Christians for centuries, Jewish-Christian dialogue is no more important than Jewish-Muslim, Jewish-Buddhist, or Jewish-Hindu dialogue. Jews should engage in dialogue with all religious communities, affording theological precedence to none.
University of Cincinnati
Jon D. Levenson’s splendid critique of Dabru Emet rightly focuses on intellectual issues. But he treats as a minor detail what strikes me as critical: nearly all the signers are Reform and Conservative rabbis, whose congregations are loaded with intermarried couples. It seems to me that the statement’s urgency derives from the practical politics of finding something to say on the subjects of Hanukkah/Christmas and Easter/Passover, not to mention the problem of little Moshe O’Reilly.
With more than half the Reform congregations in the country unwilling to hire clergy who do not perform intermarriages, and with Conservative rabbis facing heavy pressure not to preach against intermarriage at all, Dabru Emet is more than politically expedient. The statement’s utter misrepresentation of Judaism’s view of Christianity, which Mr. Levenson puts on display, is a necessary theological cover for the shame of Reform and Conservative Judaism and their rabbis’ craven politics. What motivated the handful of Orthodox signers I cannot imagine.
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York
Jon Levenson is to be congratulated for his excellent debunking of Dabru Emet. In the mid-1960’s, after Vatican II, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the great Orthodox sage, wrote that interfaith dialogue was prohibited between Christians and Jews precisely because of the potential blurring of the theological differences between the two faiths. I was thus particularly disturbed to find several Orthodox rabbis among the statement’s signatories.
Flushing, New York
I signed Dabru Emet with many of Jon D. Levenson’s reservations but with the thought that Jews needed, at least, to begin formulating a Jewish theological response to the Catholic initiatives of the past three decades. After reading Mr. Levenson’s article, I think that maybe I—and others—should have refused to sign until substantial changes were made.
University of Judaism
Rev. Walter L. Michel:
As a Christian scholar of the Bible and a Lutheran pastor, I totally agree with Jon D. Levenson’s assessment of Dabru Emet. Its signers are not “speaking truth.” Worse, they propagate half-truths. Their politics of appeasement are a danger to Judaism and a misconstrual of Christianity. The Holocaust would not have been possible without the pernicious Christian teaching of supersession—that is, the victory of Christianity over Judaism and the doctrine that only through Jesus is a relationship with God possible. Nor have Christians repudiated this teaching since 1945.
I have written my own response to Dabru Emet. Interested readers are welcome to view it on my website: www.michelwl.net.
Jon D. Levenson
I had hoped for a response from the four authors of Dabru Emet that would address at least some of my substantive objections to their statement. I would have been most interested, for example, to see them deal with the challenges posed by the Christian doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation (each completely unmentioned in the statement) to their unqualified assertion that “Jews and Christians worship the same God.” Maximally, I hoped that they would take seriously the point, underlined here by Michael Wyschogrod and David Berger, about the Christian identification of Jesus with God, and in light of it perhaps even concede that their affirmation was too sweeping and too simple.
Similarly, the authors might have explained why their statement ignores altogether the existence of the New Testament, especially in the paragraph that begins: “Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book—the Bible.” For the Jewish and the Christian Bibles are not “the same book,” and in a paragraph of 90 words it should have been possible to acknowledge that fact. Nor does the statement recognize that even when it comes to the scriptures the two communities do hold in common, they often necessarily interpret them through lenses that are not shared.
In my article I raised a question about the authors’ praise of Christians who embrace the state of Israel “for reasons more profound than mere politics.” Do they also, I asked, welcome those whose reasons for supporting Israel lie in the distinctively Christian expectation that the ingathering of the Jewish exiles will serve as a prelude to the second coming of Jesus and the conversion of all Jews to Christianity? Here, too, I hoped for an answer—negative, affirmative, whatever—or at least for an explanation of why my question was inappropriate, if that is what the authors of Dabru Emet think.
I also criticized the authors’ claim that “Jews and Christians accept the moral principles of Torah.” In particular, I pointed to a stream of both ancient and modern Christian thought that sees Jesus as revealing a deeper and higher ethic than that of the Jews and their Torah. This is an ethic that Christians often present as based, variously, on love, grace, or Spirit, but emphatically not on law and commandments: a point of view that Dabru Emet certainly obscures and perhaps denies. I would have liked to hear their reply. (Or is this “Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity,” as Dabru Emet is subtitled, addressed only to Christians who have modified their theology so as to bring it into conformity with Judaism? This, too, it would be good to know.)
In discussing the statement’s “finely crafted paragraph” (as I called it) on the Holocaust, I wondered about the basis for the claim that, “If the Nazi extermination of the Jews had been fully successful, [Nazism] would have turned its murderous rage more directly to Christians.” At the least, I wanted to know the historical source for the idea that the Nazis were planning a Holocaust-like assault on Christians (as opposed to a more intense crackdown on the minority of Christians who expressed political dissent). At most, I hoped the authors would acknowledge a critical difference: that the Holocaust was based on racial ideology, whereas the Nazi dislike of traditional Christianity had to do with the theology, ethics, and politics of the church.
I could go on, but let me just mention one other hope of mine—that the authors of Dabru Emet would explain why they are so confident that the “new relationship between Jews and Christians,” which of course they endorse, will not weaken Jewish identity and practice. For if the two communities really are as fundamentally alike as Dabru Emet claims—same God, same book, same moral principles, etc.—and if (as is widely acknowledged) the social barriers between Jews and Gentiles have largely collapsed in America, it seems to me that defections from Judaism (whether through intermarriage or conversion) will become vastly easier to accomplish and traditional Jewish resistance to such defections will come to seem increasingly retrograde and parochial, even racist. I hoped the authors would let the readers of COMMENTARY know the grounds for their unqualified optimism that this will not be the case.
Every single one of these questions goes unaddressed in the response to my article by the four authors of Dabru Emet. Instead, they accuse me of (inter alia) a “contemptuous dismissal of [their] project,” “unjust condemnation of [their] very motives,” and “bad faith,” and they profess themselves unable to answer me so long as I am in my “present state of mind.” But I did not dismiss their project. I subjected it to analysis. Nor did I express contempt for it The motives I ascribed to the authors were entirely benign—to achieve a relationship with Christians characterized by “not just agreement but mutual affirmation.” At the same time, however, I expressed my intellectual judgment that the result of their labors—unintentionally, but inevitably—was seriously flawed in both conception and execution. As for the charge that I wrote in bad faith, is good faith to be measured in increments of agreement?
Nor are the diverse matters I raised for discussion clarified much in the book that the authors accuse me of “totally ignoring.” This worthwhile volume, which I footnoted in my article, consists of essays by Jews and Christians offering a variety of views, none of them designated as representing the view of Dabru Emet itself. The essays are not cast as explications of the eight paragraphs of the statement, and indeed the invitations to contribute to this volume predated the appearance of Dabru Emet. Some of the questions I raised are treated in the book; others are not. Whether any of them is “answered,” as the four authors of the statement here claim, is a separate issue. One of the Jewish contributors to the book was Elliot Dorff, who now states in his refreshingly frank letter that he is considering withdrawing his signature from Dabru Emet in light of my article.
Not only do the authors fail to respond to my arguments; they seem to have had trouble understanding them. Thus, in the last paragraph of their letter, if I read it aright, they accuse me of an “instinctive repugnance” toward Christians, something they say they find perplexing. I can dispel their perplexity, and refute the charge, by quoting exactly from my article:
One need hardly be an advocate of interfaith hostility to observe that two communities that feel an instinctive repugnance toward each other are unlikely to form an amalgam, whether through acculturation or intermarriage. By the same token, communities that have largely overcome their animosity and moved to mutual respect, as Jews and Christians have done to a significant extent in the United States, must look elsewhere for such reinforcements to group identity as existed under the older and more contentious arrangement.
Clearly, the four authors of Dabru Emet have read me in a way diametrically opposed to my meaning. My point was, and is, that “instinctive repugnance” is largely a thing of the past, at least in the United States. With the social factor thus neutralized, the maintenance of Jewish identity has become correspondingly more dependent on the religious dimension. That is precisely why, contrary to the claim of Dabru Emet, the presentation of Judaism and Christianity as fundamentally and thoroughly alike is hardly a risk-free enterprise.
Finally, the authors of Dabru Emet tell us that their document is “a political statement, offered to arouse attention and to provide the minimal common ground needed for any serious discussion.” This is a new point: it is certainly not how the document refers to itself, or indeed what one would be led to expect from a statement that, as I have noted, places its emphasis in at least one crucial respect on considerations that are “far more profound than mere politics.” Be that as it may, once the hoped-for “serious discussion” commenced, was it not inevitable that theologians would draw attention to points mat the political statement neglects or misinterprets in pursuit of its desired comity? As I indicated in my article, my own view is that pursuing interreligious dialogue as if it were an exercise in political negotiation or conflict resolution inevitably hampers the conversation and distorts the traditions in dialogue. A genuine dialogue is vigorous and muscular, an exercise in which participants do not automatically strive to present their own tradition as nearly identical to the other’s, or to meet in some imagined middle.
Let me now turn to the letters from individuals. Peter Ochs (who is one of the four authors of Dabru Emet and thus also signed the collective response) finds me so mired in the “old dichotomies” as to fail to appreciate that “a renewed Judaism . . . is recovering its confidence and sense of purpose” and “should make its wisdom known in the public square.” But the underlying conception of Dabru Emet is anything but new. It is, in fact, a staple of American interreligious dialogue over the past half-century: the idea of a Judeo-Christian tradition. Already in 1969, the late Arthur A. Cohen attacked this conception of the relationship of Judaism to Christianity as “shot through with falsification, distortion, and untruth.” Surely a statement that is “speaking on behalf of a Judaism that is recovering its confidence and sense of purpose” would not be so squeamish about acknowledging crucial differences with Christianity. And how can “our revitalized Judaism . . . make its wisdom known in the public square” when it can barely distinguish itself from the majority religion and professes to have the identical moral principles?
I must add to Peter Ochs that nowhere in my article did I fault Jews for “study of their neighbors’ Christianity,” which happens to be a lifelong pursuit of my own. This objection is a complete red herring.
Similarly to Nicholas de Lange, who is so upset by the six paragraphs I devoted to classical Christian anti-Judaism—in an article seven pages long—that he neglects my oft-repeated acknowledgment of today’s dramatically different situation. Besides, I should think that most advocates of Jewish-Christian dialogue would not want the gruesome status quo ante to be forgotten, and would hesitate to label reminders of it as “poison.”
In the judgment of Eugene Fisher, Dabru Emet holds open the possibility of a final redemption in which Christianity will have already vanished. I leave it to others to ascertain whether this is indeed the sense of the document, and, if so, whether that would conform to the political purposes its authors now impute to it. More serious is Mr. Fisher’s disagreement with my claim that many Christians have, from the beginning, seen the ethic preached by Jesus as an improvement upon the Torah, or a radicalization of it If Mr. Fisher truly thinks this theology (evidenced already in the Sermon on the Mount) is no longer widespread among Christians, I would refer him to sources ranging from broadcast evangelists to distinguished professors of theology and the Christian scriptures. Here, for example, are the words of the widely used introduction to the New Testament by Helmut Koester:
From the perspective of the situation under God’s rule, the law of the Old Testament is criticized [in the teaching of Jesus] insofar as it does not correspond to the original will of the creator. . . . True justice and mercy are thus shortchanged, because righteousness according to the law permits the establishment of walls between human beings instead of the razing of those walls.
Eugene Fisher also faults me for saying that Catholicism teaches that “the Church . . . has replaced the Jewish people, Abraham’s natural descendants.” Those words of mine referred not to Catholicism but to the apostle Paul, who, as I noted, vacillates on the issue. As for whether the Catholic Church has repudiated supersessionism, Mr. Fisher, of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, might consult Dominus Iesus, a Vatican declaration promulgated about six weeks before Dabru Emet. It tells us quite forthrightly that “The first Christians encountered the Jewish people, showing them the fulfillment of salvation that went beyond the Law.” Nor is any exception admitted to the judgment articulated in Dominus Iesus concerning “the followers of other religions”—that “objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the Church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.”
But it is on the Holocaust that Mr. Fisher is most gravely, and most dangerously, misinformed. I never denied that the Nazis detested traditional Christianity and persecuted Christians whose conscience led them to speak or act against the Reich. But did Nazi ideology represent, “from top to bottom, a rejection of all that the Christian churches stood for”? And is Dabru Emet therefore right that, as he puts it, “the churches were the Nazis’ obvious next target”?
That is hardly the whole story. Mr. Fisher has at the very least forgotten about the church group known as the German Christians, whose name was suggested to them by the Fuehrer himself and who, in the words of an authoritative English-language study, “sang hymns to Jesus but also to Hitler.” These pro-Nazi churchmen numbered well over a half-million, and perhaps many more, and controlled most university faculties of theology. Mr. Fisher may wish to argue that the German Christians did not practice authentic Christianity; even so, it is quite a leap to conclude that, once the Final Solution of the Jewish problem had succeeded, the Nazis planned a Holocaust-like fate for these Christians as well. As for the tragic fete of many Catholic clergy in Poland, Mr. Fisher needs to ask whether the Nazis killed them because they were Catholic or because they were Polish. If the former, why did the Nazis fail to treat similarly the Catholic clergy of Germany, France, and Italy (including Pope Pius XII)?
Rabbi Charles L. Arian is correct: knowledge of Christianity and a positive evaluation of it do not pose a threat to Jewish identity, but ignorance of Judaism does. The problem, however, comes when the two religions are presented as minor variations on a common theme—equally valid denominational variants of some overarching Judeo-Christian tradition. Under such a dispensation, it is hard to imagine that in a period of increased denomination-switching, the change will be to the advantage of Judaism.
Leora Batnitzky’s thoughtful letter calls for a new practice of interfaith dialogue, much more sophisticated and much more credible than the old mode in which stress was placed on how alike we all are. She believes that “the proper aim of interreligious conversation should not be mutual affirmation but the opportunity for each party to clarify its own position and even judgment of the other.” But if that is so, why did she sign Dabru Emet? What kind of “judgment of the other” can there be when a Judaism without law, commandments, or Oral Torah expresses its unconditional approval of a Christianity without New Testament, Trinity, Incarnation, or—to give one last example—Mary, Mother of God?
For the same reason, I cannot accept Rabbi Ruth Langer’s “cardinal principle of dialogue.” It is one thing to grasp “the other’s self-understanding” accurately. It is something altogether different to make that self-understanding normative for one’s own evaluation of the other, as if each community’s self-conception were infallible and beyond critique. On that assumption, no religious tradition could ever have much to say to outsiders, and dialogue would degenerate into monologues of mutual affirmation.
Sister Margaret Shepherd suggests intriguingly that the inadequacies of Dabru Emet derive from the fact that it stands at “the beginning of a process of dialogue,” in the manner of Catholicism in the mid-1960’s. But Jewish-Christian dialogue, at least in America, is hardly in its infancy; I first got involved in it over 35 years ago. It is time, in short, for a mature interreligious dialogue—which is why, although I agree with Rabbi Samuel M. Silver that “a white lie” is occasionally justified by the need to “shad[e] the truth for the sake of comity,” I do not agree that this is such an occasion. And even if I did, I would not name the resultant document after the words of a Hebrew prophet exhorting us to “speak the truth to one another.”
As Noah Millman correctly observes, Judaism’s relationship to Christianity differs from its relationship to other religions. Whether this means that Jews should regard Christians as exempt from the Noahide commandments and bound by some other set of norms is, however, doubtful. As for Maimonides’ notion that Christianity (along with Islam) prepares the way for the acceptance of God’s rule, this is a kind of Jewish counterpart to Christian supersessionism, and I doubt that many signatories of Dabru Emet would endorse it. The statement does stipulate, after all, that “We do not see [Christianity] as an extension of Judaism.”
Mark Bernstein wants Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to work toward peace and good relations. I do, too, and I would include other religions and worldviews in the same wish. We part company on the question of whether Jews should pursue this worthy goal by muting their tradition so that it dissolves into “the sublime monotheistic vision [these three traditions] share.”
The letter from the distinguished theologian Michael Wyschogrod is especially important, for it was he who first suggested to the Jewish scholars at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies that they prepare a statement about Christianity. That he declined to sign the document that was finally produced and now draws attention to its evasions should suffice to demonstrate that opposition to Dabru Emet is not tantamount to a dislike of Jewish-Christian dialogue, an enterprise to which he has contributed for several decades.
The supportive letters from Jacob Neusner and Steven Brizel point to the oddity that several Orthodox Jews signed Dabru Emet. My suspicion is that they did so out of a commendable wish to show solidarity with sympathetic Christians in an age of increasingly dangerous secularism, and out of a less than commendable failure to give proper scrutiny to the theological claims the statement actually makes. The letter of Elliott Dorff, a leading figure in the Conservative movement, suggests that the Orthodox signatories were not alone in this.
I want to thank David Berger for his letter and his incisive evaluation of Dabru Emet. Steven Fine raises an interesting question: what effect will Dabru Emet have on the increasingly important dialogues of Judaism with non-Christian religions? He is surely right that the position of its Jewish signatories—who greet the conversion of non-Jews to Christianity with joy—will not help relations with Hindus, Buddhists, and other non-Christian groups.
Finally, I thank Walter L. Michel for directing us to his own critique of Dabru Emet. Pastor Michel’s letter reinforces doubts about how deeply the repudiation of supersessionism has penetrated Christianity. To what degree, for example, may the reflexive anti-Israel sentiment increasingly rampant in liberal Christian circles be seen as a resurgence of classical anti-Jewish theology, which sees exile as the condign fate of the perfidious and murderous Jews? At a more abstract level, to what degree can Christianity maintain its own core convictions without claiming to have superseded Judaism in some respect?