Wednesday, March 27, 2002
The latest issue of Commentary isn't online yet, but I just thought I'd let y'all know that there's a letter of mine in it. Here's the text of the letter:
To the Editor:
Professor Levenson makes a number of telling points in his article, “How Not to Conduct Jewish-Christian Dialogue.” But while he 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 Professor Levenson correctly points out, the traditional Jewish understanding of other religions revolves around the seven Noahide laws that are binding on all of humanity. To the extent that other religions help more people to observe these laws, and to the extent that these religions do not also seek to undermine the Jewish people’s covenant with God, traditional Judaism would view them positively as institutions. But this 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 but un-fraught relations that institutional Judaism might have with, say, Buddhism. We cannot be strangers; if we are to avoid being enemies, we must perhaps endeavor to become friends.
There is a basis within Jewish tradition for a special relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The rabbinic trope for the Christian Church is Esau the brother of Jacob/Israel. Historically, this trope has been used to point out the sins of Christians in their abuse of the Jews. But it is also true that, in the end of days, Esau and Jacob will be reconciled. In this sense, it is not absurd to say that Jews do have a place for the Church in its eschatology, and it is not absurd for Jews to affirm that the Church will persist until that final reconciliation.
Moreover, it is not absurd for Jews to affirm that the Church may have an important role to play in bringing about the Messianic Age. Maimonides speculates that the reason God has allowed Christians (and Muslims) to dominate the world is that by this means knowledge of the true God and his Torah will be spread all over the world. In the end of days the errors of Christianity (and Islam) will be corrected, and their adherents will recognize the God of Israel as the true God. It should be possible to construct a doctrine on these foundations that sees the Church as a unique force for good, and potentially an important part of God’s plan, precisely because of its close relationship with Judaism.
An analogy might be made, perhaps, to Rav Kook’s effort to come to a religious understanding of political Zionism. Rav Kook did not stop with an agnosticism regarding the significance of Zionism - the mainstream view that Zionism should be deemed religiously significant to the extent that it allows or promotes greater observance of the mitzvot, and should otherwise be treated like any other mundane development. Rather, Rav Kook embraced a notion that the Zionists were acting as unwitting agents of the Divine Will, preparing the ground for the Messianic Age, and on this basis religious cooperation with secular Zionists was to be encouraged. Could we not see the recent efforts at reconciliation by the Catholic Church and many Protestant groups in the same light? Could we not understand these efforts as comparable in religious significance to the Balfour Declaration?
Even for those who, with good reason, want to avoid eschatological speculation, a dialogue with the Christian Church does have a dimension of religious obligation. To the extent that the Church has undertaken to purify itself of anti-Judaism, the Church has done Teshuvah. And if this is done sincerely - and I would maintain that, whether or not the process is complete, it is well-begun and in complete sincerity - then it commands a response of forgiveness from the injured, namely the Jewish people. The Church is not wrong, then, to expect more than expressions of satisfaction from the Jewish establishment, and the Jewish establishment is not wrong to seek to establish relations with the Church on a firmer and more intimate basis than it would with any other faith.