Faith & Interfaith

Jewish-christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification.
by David Novak.
Oxford University Press. 194 pp. $24.95

Interfaith discussions between Christians and Jews—in professional jargon, “the dialogue”—have hit upon hard times. The pace may be undiminished, but the élan that once characterized such discussions has clearly disappeared. A number of factors account for this. In part, it reflects the very success of the early phase of interfaith dialogue, which saw a wholesale revision of negative Christian teaching about Jews and Judaism; this achievement, coming with near lightning speed, left many of the participants feeling exhilarated but also seriously disoriented. Then again, once some of the major issues were resolved, others came to the fore that proved more intractable. To the Jewish side, in particular, the hostility expressed in many Christian quarters to Zionism and the state of Israel came as a bitter disappointment, while still another irritant was the question of the symbolic uses of the Holocaust, an issue that has emerged again in the imbroglio over the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz.

In Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification, David Novak seeks to restore enthusiasm to the interfaith enterprise by establishing it on a fresh basis. Moving far beyond the usual rhetoric of brotherhood, he puts forward a “philosophically formulated theological argument for Jewish-Christian dialogue.” That argument is strikingly original in a number of respects. And it is of no small interest that the person putting it forth is a traditional Jew, indeed the leading halakhic traditionalist of the Conservative movement. For until recently, such Jews—mainly in the Orthodox camp—have been strongly opposed to interfaith dialogue altogether.

As a traditional Jew, Novak speaks from a strong position of faith, and one that is, moreover, highly particularistic. Indeed, he labels as “inauthentic” all attempts to constitute interfaith dialogue on the basis of an easy universalism. Authentic dialogue, Novak maintains, is the “relationship of Jews and Christians, in which each one faces the other from a distinctive point of origin, one that always transcends the point of meeting between them.” This precludes both “religious relativism” and “religious syncretism,” the former because it makes the “authority of any particular revelation absurd,” and the latter because it leads to ersatz theology and liturgy. At the same time, Novak stresses, interfaith dialogue cannot be mere disputation, it must be conducted in such a way that “each side can recognize itself” rather than appearing as a “phantom” of the other’s projection.

What is the aim of dialogue as Novak sees it? Here again his traditionalism is clearly evident. For Novak, the dialogue is both about faith and from faith. By the former I mean that he sees the agenda of interfaith dialogue as largely, if not exclusively, theological—the state of Israel is mentioned exactly once in Jewish-Christian Dialogue—while by the latter I mean that Novak sees dialogue as issuing in a religious united front opposed to the dominant secularism of our time.

This is the key innovative aspect of Novak’s argument, and it reflects the powerful influence on his thinking of Richard John Neuhaus’s The Naked Public Square. Novak approvingly quotes the Reform theologian Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski on this point: “Neither Jews nor Christians can really afford to be isolationists. In this pagan world of ours, we together are the minority ‘people of God.’” And it is precisely here that Novak takes issue with the traditionalist Jewish opponents of interfaith dialogue, ranging from ultra-Orthodox figures who manifest a visceral dislike of Gentiles to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the leading modern Orthodox thinker, who has made the case against dialogue in broad philosophical-theological terms.

The common error of such people, Novak argues, is the failure to appreciate the source of the main challenge to Judaism today: it is not (a greatly weakened) Christianity but “secularist absolutism.” As he puts it in responding to Soloveitchik’s argument that Jews and Christians should talk about everything but matters of faith:

When these metaphysical or theological concerns are purposely bracketed, secularist criteria of human nature and society must inevitably become the basis of common discussion. . . . We have already seen in our own society how secularist criteria yield values that cannot be accepted by either faithful Jews or faithful Christians in such areas as life and death, the role of the family, crime and punishment. . . . If the theological . . . foundations of these values and the norms they justify are to be kept hidden, then the only justification left will be a secularist one.

Novak’s traditionalism shows itself yet again in his respectful attention to models from the past. The aim here is not to come up with a binding precedent for dialogue—given our radically new historical situation, that is impossible—but rather to uncover a “tendency.” On this basis, Novak offers a fascinating tour d’horizon of Jewish legal and theological perspectives on Christianity, from the biblical foundation of the seven “Noahide” Laws through a discussion of such matters as “The Status of Christianity in Medieval European Halakhah” to, in the modern era, “The Quest for the Jewish Jesus” and Franz Rosenzweig’s dual-covenant theory.

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While Novak is eager to draw from the well of Jewish experience, in the end he articulates an original position of his own. For Novak, religious tolerance—and that, at best, is what the traditional sources affirm—is nothing more than “covert triumphalism.” What is needed instead, as we have seen, is an “understanding of the other community that the other community [can] accept about itself.” With this in mind, Novak formulates a theory of the “singular and the general.” As he writes in summarizing his position:

One can see Judaism and Christianity . . . as acknowledging a realm of possibility that is taken to be the human precondition for God’s revelation to singular faith communities. And this realm of possibility can be constituted as the border they share. . . .

Jewish-Christian Dialogue is a major statement, and one that can contribute significantly to the revitalization of the dialogue process. Novak has a clear sense of what that process should and should not be. His respect for the claims of faith extends not only to Judaism but to Christianity as well; indeed, Novak’s openness to the latter is nothing short of astonishing. And while his call for a religious united front in opposition to the dominant secularism of the day is likely to put off some readers, there is no gainsaying that he has put his finger here on a vitally important issue.

The one serious flaw in Novak’s scheme is that it allows little if any place for a concern with Zionism and Israel as part of the agenda of dialogue. Novak, to be sure, might argue that there are other vehicles and avenues for addressing this issue, and that it need not form a part of the dialogue process itself. But this will not do. If a fundamental condition of the dialogue is that “each side . . . recognize itself,” without Israel contemporary Jews cannot but appear as strangers to themselves. The crucial fact is that Jews today—most especially in the Diaspora—relate to Israel in a religious way, and certainly as a source of ultimate meaning. (Three-fourths of American Jews indicate in surveys that the destruction of Israel “would be one of the greatest personal tragedies in my life.”) This, of course, makes for a very complicated situation, since the state of Israel is a modern, secular entity. But it does not alter the fact that for vast numbers of contemporary Jews, Israel is the faith by which they sustain their Jewish lives.

Novak’s failure to give due recognition to this fact is freighted with irony, since his own book offers eloquent testimony to the extraordinary impact the state of Israel has had on the outlook of contemporary Jews. Reading Jewish-Christian Dialogue, one cannot help being struck by Novak’s sense of absolute confidence vis-à-vis the Christian majority, a confidence which in no way conflicts with his openness to Christianity but which, indeed, makes that openness possible.

As a Jew, Novak may belong to a numerical minority, but he shows no sign at all of being part of a psychological minority. Whence this surefootedness? It arises, I would argue, from the radiating influence of Zionist “normalization,” which, among the other wonders it has performed, enables a Jew in the Disapora to enter into dialogue with Christians feeling that he has behind him as many “divisions”—spiritual and otherwise—as his interlocutor.

“The first and most important prerequisite of interfaith,” Abraham Joshua Heschel once observed, “is faith.” David Novak has faith in abundance: faith in Judaism as a religion and faith in the good will of believing Christians. Were he more attentive to the faith of contemporary Jews in the state of Israel, his brief for dialogue would be the stronger.

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