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Waiting in Joyful Hope

Tugging on the robe

Recent history has seen a number of interesting discussions on the question of the possibility of Catholic-Jewish theological dialogue. I never saw this as a problem myself, given that as long as Catholics and Jews speak the same language (say, for example, English), they are able to dialogue -- just keep it friendly, of course! Chakira, however, posted a link to an interesting article called Confrontation, originally published in an Orthodox Jewish journal in 1964. This article proposes that *theological* dialogue between the two faiths is, in fact, impossible. We can learn about each other, and agree to disagree, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder against secularism, but that's about it.

Of course, this article was written 40 years ago, so you might think that it is a bit dated, but according to Chakira (and the header to the article) this article and its ideas remain important and influential in the Jewish community. It was even "officialized," you might say, by this statement from the Rabbinical Council of America (adopted February 1964):

We are pleased to note that in recent years there has evolved in our country as well as throughout the world a desire to seek better understanding and a mutual respect among the world's major faiths. The current threat of secularism and materialism and the modern atheistic negation of religion and religious values makes even more imperative a harmonious relationship among the faiths. This relationship, however, can only be of value if it will not be in conflict with the uniqueness of each religious community, since each religious community is an individual entity which cannot be merged or equated with a community which is committed to a different faith. Each religious community is endowed with intrinsic dignity and metaphysical worth. Its historical experience, its present dynamics, its hopes and aspirations for the future can only be interpreted in terms of full spiritual independence of and freedom from any relatedness to another faith community. Any suggestion that the historical and meta-historical worth of a faith community be viewed against the backdrop of another faith, and the mere hint that a revision of basic historic attitudes is anticipated, are incongruous with the fundamentals of religious liberty and freedom of conscience and can only breed discord and suspicion. Such an approach is unacceptable to any self-respecting faith community that is proud of its past, vibrant and active in the present and determined to live on in the future and to continue serving God in its own individual way. Only full appreciation on the part of all of the singular role, inherent worth and basic prerogatives of each religious community will help promote the spirit of cooperation among faiths.

It is the prayerful hope of the Rabbinical Council of America that all inter-religious discussion and activity will be confined to these dimensions and will be guided by the prophet, Micah (4:5) "Let all the people walk, each one in the name of his god, and we shall walk in the name of our Lord, our God, forever and ever."

Note the last line. It proposes that each people basically stick to its own religion, and leave it at that. But is this really realistic?

Problem #1: The Jewish scriptures make it pretty clear that, even from within Judaism, not all religions are created equal (no matter what the passage of Micah seems to say). Frequently, for example, we find statements mocking idolatry as a useless practice. Is Micah really suggesting that it is ok for people to follow "their own gods," when throughout the scriptures it is made clear that there is only One God? It sounds more like Micah is suggesting once again that the Chosen People forget about those other gods, and remember to follow the Lord. That's the real emphasis here.

Problem #2: Christians believe in the same God as the Jews. So the passage of Micah does not apply in this case. There are some Jews who might argue that the Trinitarian view of God that Christians hold "modifies God" to such an extent that he is no longer the same God as the God of Israel....but once you make that argument, you are making a judgment about the religion of the "Other", something that the article says no one should be allowed to do! Catch 22, folks.

Problem #3: Even if we admit that Christians believe in the same God as the Jews, some might argue that each faith should simply worship God in their own way and leave each other alone. But even that won't work. I can understand the rejection by Jews of a theological dialogue that has the ulterior motive of "convincing the Jews that they are wrong". But it is important that we also remember the words of the prophet Zechariah:

Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'" (Zechariah 8:23)

I submit to you that this is exactly what sincere Christians are doing when they seek to engage in theological dialogue with Jews. But what will the answer be? The logic of the article essentially proposes "Nope, sorry, you stick to your false gods and we'll stick to the worship of the One True God, and while you're at it please stop tugging at my robe." That can't be right.

Problem #4: There are people who, in their very lived experience, do not see a contradiction inherent in the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, because they consider themselves to be living both realities simultaneously. On the Evangelical side, you have the Jews for Jesus. On the Catholic side, there is the Association of Hebrew Catholics. While some might view these groups suspiciously as fronts for organized proselytism of Jews, from what I have seen they contain genuine sincere believers who see no contradiction in being Jewish and Christian. In fact, ideas like what are contained in Confrontation cause them genuine pain, because (once again) there is a suggestion that such groups are metaphysically inferior. Taking the logic of that article to its furthest end, Gentile Christians are being called upon to look at these groups as suspiciously as their Jewish counterparts, and effectively to abandon them....something we just can't do.

So where do we go from here? It would seem that the only way forward is in genuine theological dialogue. But that is something the article proposes cannot be done, so a blockage is created, and we are trapped in a vicious circle. Any ideas how to get out of it?