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Catholics and Jews in Partnership
I am writing about the Millennium Conference with the Vatican which took place in London, May 23-25, 2000. Since this conference closed, a number of relevant events and encounters have prompted in me partly digested thoughts and ideas related to this conference experience.
I have just edited an article by an Israeli Reform rabbi on the Middle-East peace process for the journal, MANNA. The Rabbi makes the point that there are many more Israelis in favor of the concept of peace than in a set of proposals capable of gaining agreement. I suppose that is obvious but it was sobering to see it written in black and white, and supported by opinion polls. This experience took me back to New York and the end of August modestly titled Millennium World Peace Summit of Spiritual and Religious Leaders. It was an enormous privilege to be invited to this awesome, not to mention colorful, sight. We were treated to an immemorial, mind-numbing succession of addresses or statements by representatives of faiths from at least 70 corners of the world. I was perversely relieved to learn that it is not only rabbis who use 20 words when one is more than enough! But the very fact of the gathering was worthwhile. So, too, were the frequent avowals of commitment to pluralism and the universal enthusiasm for peace. But as a generic concept. For there was very little actual dialogue, and I have no idea what people actually meant by peace, and still less what compromise packages they would vote for in order to realize the concept.
Now back to January 1999
Sir Sigmund Sternberg is a truly remarkable man. A Hungarian-born refugee from the Nazis, he pursued a successful commercial career before devoting his life to bridge building and reconciliation, seeking understanding and harmony between religious and ethnic groups. Nearing his 80th birthday and honored the world over, an astonishing array of political and religious doors are open to him. He decided to take a small group of British Reform and Liberal rabbis to Rome. We were privileged to have an audience with the Pope, take tea with the Italian President in the Quirinale Palace, receive hospitality from numerous ambassadors to the Holy See – and spend an extremely fruitful morning with Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy and Father Remi Hoeckman who constitute the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.
We had been, of course, wisely briefed by Sir Sigmund, an old friend of Cardinal Cassidy. Over recent years giant strides have been taken in repairing the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jews. From the tireless work of the Sisters of Sion to remarkable statements and actions by the Pope himself, signs of goodwill are readily apparent and many successes can be pointed to. Yet a relatively narrow range of ‘political issues’ keeps surfacing and disturbing the positive atmosphere. Convents and crosses at Auschwitz; recognition of Israel and attitudes to Israel and the Palestinians; the record of Pope Pius XII; the beatification of Edith Stein – all are examples. All are issues of enormous emotional significance to a Jewish community which is still profoundly affected by the Shoah.
We suggested to Cardinal Cassidy that it would be good to mark the beginning of the Third Christian Millennium by looking forward rather than back, and by beginning to talk about a theology of partnership: how Jews and Christians can create the theological space necessary for mutuality and respect, and how we can then take forward a common agenda of concern for humanity and the globe – peace between our faiths contributing to peace in the world. The response was overwhelmingly positive and the London-based Millennium Conference, sponsored by the Vatican and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, was born. Its title quickly became The Theology of Partnership.
Fifteen months later
What evolved in May 2000 was a three-day gathering at the Sternberg Centre in North West London. Some 50 Catholic and Jewish scholars took part, the Jewish scholars nominated by the Jews and the Catholics by the Vatican and their local organizing committee led by Bishop Charles Henderson. Only the opening session, addressed by Cardinal Cassidy and Sir Sigmund (and graced by a selection of songs from a choir of children from a Jewish and a Catholic Primary School) was public. The rest of the time was for the 50 scholars to talk to each other. There were six pairs of papers, all pre-circulated and pre-digested, to give the maximum time for discussion. There were discussants, discussions and a significant summary session.
We began with the Theology of Partnership itself. I opened with a paper on covenant, arguing that siblings provides the best metaphor for understanding the nature of the relationship between Jews and Catholics. It affirms covenant as the most appropriate theological concept for granting mutuality, respect and independent space. Professor Clemens Thoma from Switzerland responded on the covenant theme and concurred that issues surrounding covenant lie at the very heart of the relationship, both its past difficulties and its future potentialities. Rabbi Professor Elliot Dorff from the USA explored the concept of election, and his paper was paralleled by that of his compatriot, Rev. Dr. Edward Ondrako.
We then moved on to the context of the partnership with Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet, the Principal of Leo Baeck College looking at the way Jews have read and reread our sacred texts and challenging Catholics to learn from this particular Jewish specialité de la maison. His fellow speaker Professor Dr. John Pawlikowski from Chicago was, as always, in sparkling form. Professor Susannah Heschel, daughter of one of this century’s most famous rabbis and a brilliant scholar in her own right, looked at the challenges of modernity and postmodernity, as did Dr. Janet Martin Soskice from Cambridge.
The third and final theme was on the content of partnership. Bishop Adrian van Luyn from Rotterdam looked at the role that religion can play positively in relationship to government and society and invited Jews to join him in an active role in relation to the European Community. Rabbi David Rosen from Israel looked at issues of power and powerlessness both past and present. Finally, that doyen of Catholic Jewish dialogue, Dr. Eugene Fisher from Washington and Rabbi Dr. Sidney Brichto from Britain looked at the values that Jews and Catholics can bring to the partnership.
Since the authors of the papers spoke only very briefly, the discussants – persons from the other faith tradition who brought out the papers’ salient points and questions – proved very important. Amongst them were Professor Joann Spillman (USA), Rabbi Tovia Ben Chorin (Switzerland), Sr. Margaret Shepherd (UK), Rabbi Dr. David Goldberg (UK), Rev. Dr. Robert Murray (UK), Rabbi Alexandra Wright (UK), Rev. Michael McGarry (Israel), Professor Guy Stroumas (Israel), Professor Mary Boys (USA), Rabbi Richard Block (Israel), Dr. John May (Ireland) and Rabbi Ron Kronish (Israel).
Without going into further detail about the papers, I will offer a few reflections and impressions. Each day Mass was celebrated in the Interfaith Centre of what is the largest Jewish religious, educational and cultural centre in Europe. So too were Jewish daily services. Jews witnessed Mass, and Catholics witnessed Jewish prayers. In some ways this was the most moving aspect of the whole project – deepening understanding without in any way compromising anyone’s religious integrity.
The discussion, like the papers, was uncompromisingly theological. For some present, this was new. Although Jews were often forced into theological dialogue and debate in the Middle Ages, recent trends in orthodox Judaism have resolutely set their face against any such enterprise. One of the key figures of modern orthodoxy, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik rules explicitly against theological discussion, and this is reinforced by the views of orthodoxy’s leading Holocaust theologian, Eliezer Berkovits. My impression is that all participants found the venture into theology stimulating, refreshing and exciting.
There were occasional moments of tension, but almost every one of them was either internal to the Catholics or internal to the Jews, almost never between us. The issue of women was never far from the surface. There was one moment which I will never forget because it touched upon my own particular preoccupations. I had been forcefully arguing for the importance of Catholics declaring the covenant with the Jews unbroken and Jews confirming that, by virtue of the New Testament and the events that it describes, Christians stand in covenantal relationship with God as well. I asked for help in clarifying whether there were two independent covenants or whether both were strands of the covenant with Abraham or indeed of the covenant with Noah. One of my colleagues suggested that for most of the last 2000 years the concept of covenant had not played a terribly important part in Jewish theology. I heard the leading Catholic present mutter in exasperation: “No sooner do we start to shift in their direction on covenant then they tell us it isn’t important anyway!” I suggested to him that we aren’t known as a peculiar people for nothing!
Which brings me to my central reflection.
It was a good conference. Everybody felt that they had gained something from it and did not regret the commitment of time. I hope the book on the proceedings of the conference will demonstrate the quality of the papers and discussion. But it wasn’t dialogue. There were too many people and too little time for that.
For the last fifteen years I have been involved in a dialogue group, first a Jewish-Christian group, then a Jewish-Christian-Muslim group. In each we met or are meeting on a regular basis, in the case of the Jewish-Christian-Muslim group twice a year for two-day residentials. We have always tried to keep the groups small (the Jewish-Christian group was a dozen and the Jewish-Christian-Muslim group eighteen) and the composition constant. In that way friendships have blossomed, trust has developed and people have eventually been able to share the very core of their faith, their commitments and their confusions. For me personally it has been as if I have been both privileged and had the courage to take a tour of someone else’s garden. I have begun to appreciate that garden and understand something of its significance for my friend and colleague. I have come back to my own garden with no less commitment but nevertheless profoundly changed, not the least by understanding better my own garden and realizing that there are weeds growing there which only the owners of the garden can uproot. That is dialogue. It is exciting and demanding. One cannot be quite sure where it will lead, but every fibre of my being tells me that what I have tasted, glimpsed is central to those thoughts with which I began this article.
The Sternberg Centre Conference was worthwhile. As I later sat in New York with John Pawlikowski at the Millennium Summit having a good gossip, I knew it was worthwhile. But there was none of the engagement, wrestling, pursuing a theme relentlessly, entering into the very mind and heart of one’s dialogue partner and sharing of one’s own inner commitments and confusions. Which is why, when I replied to a challenging lecture by Eugene Fisher in an article in the Journal World Faiths Encounter and replied as if I were his dialogue partner, I sounded completely the wrong note and we missed each other.
Which leads me to: Where do we go from here?
Somehow more dialogue between Catholics and Jews has got to take place. Of course it is already taking place, but I suspect not amongst those who are going to lead the Church and the Synagogue forward as leaders should.
First, dialogue is not the same as political negotiations, important though they are, that have characterized so much of the high level contact between the Church and the Synagogue. Second, if it cannot take place amongst 50 people gathered together in privacy, it is certainly not going to happen in the context of 2000 people gathered together in the glare of, if not the world’s television cameras, at least those of CNN.
Thirdly, it is all very well to have a concept of peace – between two religions for instance – but no amount of brandishing the word and no amount of goodwill should mask the fact that until we know what it is going to take to make peace, what we are going to have to give and compromise, what we are going to have to sacrifice and uproot, what we are going to have to go through in thought and emotion, can we begin to know whether the prize is actually attainable. I am sure that it is. But there is a long journey ahead of us.
* Rabbi Tony Bayfield is the professional head of the Reform Movement in Judaism in Britain and Director of the Sternberg Centre for Judaism in North West London. He is co-editing the book on the proceedings of the May 2000 Millennium Conference with the Vatican