Just as Spring turns a young man’s thoughts to love, the conjunction of Christmas and Hanukah frequently turns the thoughts of would-be theologians to ecumenical dialogue. The latter temptation, at least, should be avoided.
Interfaith dialogue has gained momentum in recent decades as a consequence of the dramatic changes in Church teaching concerning Jews. (The Catholic Church’s consistently one-sided approach to the Arab/Israeli conflict and the recent claim that the Pope enthusiastically endorsed Mel Gibson’s "The Passion" have raised some doubts about the depth of that change.)
Revisions of Church teaching concerning Jewish deicide owe more to post-Holocaust Christian horror at where anti-Semitism can lead than to any contributions made by Jewish theologians. While the presence of real live Jews across the table helped catalyze this process of Christian "teshuvah," for that purpose a Hadassah delegation would likely have served as well as professors of Jewish studies.
Theological dialogue is completely unnecessary when it comes to fostering fruitful relations with non-Jews. Jews -- at least religious Jews – experience an easy comfort level with religious Christians based on certain common values and shared recognition of human finitude. Orthodox Jewish organizations, like Agudath Israel of America, have for decades worked closely with Catholic groups and Christian evangelicals on issues such as non-public schooling. The late Cardinal John O’Connor would wrap Agudath Israel’s leader, Rabbi Moshe Sherer, in a warm embrace whenever they met. Yet the two never discussed theology.
In a healthy democratic society like America, a studied indifference to the theological views of one’s neighbors – What difference does it make if my neighbor believes that G-d hears my prayers? – can go a long way to furthering harmonious relations.
Not only is theological dialogue unnecessary, but from a Jewish point of view it is pointless. Both Jewish law and Jewish thought derive autochthonously from the study of the classic halachic texts. Without a command of that vast literature, one lacks the entry ticket to the process. Christian theologians do not possess that ticket, nor, I would guess, does ecumenical dialogue attract many Jews who spend their days and nights delving into Jewish texts to know how to conduct their lives. Thus their conversation is no more relevant to Jewish theology or practice than a poll of synagogue members is to determining halachic practice.
Irrelevance would be bad enough. But there is a much greater danger from theological dialogue. The natural human tendency in any dialogue is, as my friend Yossi Klein Halevi puts it, "to reciprocate" the concessions of the other side with those of one’s own. The result is often "the theological equivalent of "I’m O.K., your O.K.," writes Harvard Professor Jon Levinson ("How Not to Conduct Jewish-Christian Dialogue," Commentary, December 2001).
Theological cotton candy is not harmless. It blurs Judaism’s unique message. Take Dabru Emet, the distillation into eight statements of an ongoing theological dialogue by four Jewish academics. First statement: "Jews and Christians worship the same G-d." That formulation conveniently ignores the fact that Christians believe Jesus was G-d incarnate. Or statement 2: "Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book." That too ignores the fact that Christians interpret the Jewish Bible in the light of their "New Testament." For their part, Jews have always read Tanach in light of the Oral Torah, which has no place in Christian thought.
No doubt, as Dabru Emet states, Jews and Christians share many moral principles found in the Torah (though many Christians also read the Sermon on the Mount as a revision of "Old Testament" values). But, as Levinson points out, in stressing shared values, the Jewish theologians were forced to omit the fundamental Jewish concepts of law and commandment.
Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, a long-time enthusiast of interfaith dialogue, serves as an object lesson in how easily such dialogue shades into heresy. In his view, Jesus was not a false Messiah, but merely a "failed Messiah," in the same way Abraham and Moses were "failures." Greenberg castigates Jews for insisting on their unique status as G-d’s Chosen People, and failing to recognize that G-d possesses enough love "to choose again and again and again."
The controversy surrounding British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s book The Dignity of Difference provides another example of the dangers inherent in ecumenicism. To his credit, Rabbi Sacks substantially revised the book after not one British Orthodox rabbi stepped forward to defend his formulations.
In his effort to construct a unitary theory of religion, Rabbi Sacks avoided any mention of the uniqueness of Sinai: Only at Sinai did G-d reveal Himself to an entire people. Instead Rabbi Sacks wrote, "G-d has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, through Christianity to Christians, through Islam to Muslims." Where or how He has spoken to the latter two faiths, Rabbi Sacks did not say.
Rabbi Sacks equated all faiths: Each possesses part of the truth; none possess all of it. One can easily imagine a young Jew defending his decision to intermarry on the basis of Rabbi Sacks’ book: "Each of our faiths has only part of the truth. Together we will possess more of it."
Not without reason does Levinson conclude his critique of Dabru Emet with the rhetorical question: "Is it mere coincidence that the recent rapprochement between Jews and Christians has been accompanied by soaring rates of intermarriage?" That too is the price of blurring distinctions.