Jonathan Muskat

The Value of Interreligious Dialogue

This past week, I had a fascinating conversation with Professor Malka Z. Simkovich, an orthodox Jew, who is the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies and the Director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at Catholic Theological Union.  She is involved in numerous local and international interreligious dialogue projects which help to increase understanding and friendship between Christians and Jews.  In preparing for the conversation, I especially was curious about two things in particular.  First, why does she dialogue?  Second, is her dialogue consistent with Rav Soloveitchik’s guidelines for this type of dialogue that he set forth in his 1964 essay, “Confrontation?”  He seemed to reject any interreligious discussion in areas of faith, religious law, doctrine and ritual.  I assumed going into the conversation that Professor Simkovich would talk about the value of Jewish-Catholic dialogue in terms of finding common moral values emanating from religion to promote in a world of increasing secularism.  I was wrong.

She explained the value of dialogue as exposing Christians to Jews as normal, friendly, ethical people which ultimately will foster good relations between the two faith communities and which will decrease antisemitism.  Positive social interaction can correct ugly stereotypes that one group has about another, and dialogue among faith communities perhaps can erase age-old negative stereotypes that Christians may have about Jews.  I also would have thought that Professor Simkovich would have promoted interfaith dialogue with Evangelical Christians because of their support for the State of Israel, but she urged caution when dialoguing with these groups due to concerns about the intentions of some members of this community towards us and whether deep-down their goal is to convert us.

But what about Rav Soloveitchik’s concern with interreligious dialogue?  In his essay, “Confrontation,” Rav Soloveitchik expressed concern that theological dialogue would be transactional, that it would create pressure to “trade favors pertaining to fundamental matters of faith, to reconcile ‘some’ differences.”  He was concerned that dialogue might result in Christians saying, “Well, we’ve reassessed certain of our long-held positions, so can you consider reassessing some of your long-held positions?”

Indeed, in recent years, Catholic teachings about Jews have changed.   Pope John Paul II made clear that he believed that God’s covenant with the Jews is not revoked.   Additionally, anti-Semitism has been repudiated and denounced by the Church.  Furthermore, diplomatic relations have been established between the Church and the State of Israel thereby recognizing the right of the Jewish people to their historic homeland.  Moreover, the Vatican released a document that stated that Jews do not need to be converted to Catholicism to find salvation.  One could well imagine a Catholic turning to a Jew and saying, “Look how much we’ve compromised and revisited our religious doctrines to create a more theological favorable attitude towards the Jewish community.  Maybe you can consider revisiting some of your attitudes towards Christianity.”

Rav Soloveitchik’s message over forty years ago is still relevant today, that we should not reconsider our long-standing beliefs towards Christians.  For example, we still believe in the doctrine of election and we reject pluralism.  We still believe that the Jews are the chosen nation of God.  Additionally, we reject the possibility that you can be a good faith Jew and believe that Jesus is the messiah and is coming back from the dead. There cannot be any expectations of reciprocity in our dialogue with the Christian community.  Perhaps we can discuss universal values or maybe even aspects of our own religion, but there cannot be any expectation that we reconsider our long-held core Jewish beliefs about Christians just because Christians have reconsidered their long-held beliefs about Jews.  Professor Simkovich asserted that if we hold firm to these rules of dialogue, then we can achieve significant benefits through our interactions with the Christian community by erasing negative stereotypes that ordinary Christians may have of Jews with whom they have never interacted.

At the same time, I think that there is another benefit of interacting with other faiths and this benefit may require some Jews to reconsider their long-held beliefs about Christians.  Just as Christians may have certain negative stereotypical views about Jews, maybe we have certain negative stereotypical views about Christians.  Maybe we believe that “halacha he Esav sonei et Yaakov,” that deep-down, all non-Jews hate us.  Maybe we need to reconsider that position, if, indeed, Christians truly view us in a different light than they have in the past.  In the thirteenth century, Rabbi Menachem Meiri asserted that the discriminatory laws and statements found in the Talmud against Gentiles only apply to the idolatrous nations of old, but not to modern Christians.  Perhaps by dialoguing with Christians about values and faith in a manner that is not transactional, that does not require reciprocity or concessions on our part, we will learn to truly respect each other even if we do not share the same beliefs.  After all, every person, Jew and Gentile, was created in the image of God.  Maybe by interacting with and reaching out to men and women of other faiths in a manner that does not compromise our values, we can actually start to sense that Divine image even in men and women of other faiths.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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