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SIDIC Periodical XXXIII - 2000/1
Transformation. Through. Dialogue. (Pages 12-16)

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Transformation Through Interfaith Dialogue: A Personal Testimony
Solomon, Norman



I cannot say that I was ever personally transformed by interfaith dialogue. Rather, I was formed by it. I was brought up in a home which was firm in its Jewish identity, but indifferent to Jewish ritual and largely ignorant of Jewish theology. Consequently, I was left to my own devices so far as religious thought was concerned, which was a wonderful situation in which to be in the tolerant and somewhat skeptical atmosphere of my native South Wales. Not until I became an adult and went out into the “wide world” did I realize that there was supposed to be some problem for Christians and Jews to be talking together about religion; at the time, it seemed to be the natural order of things, since we all clearly shared common problems about God, scriptural authority, science, secular ethics and the like.

I was sent rather than taken to the local Synagogue, where I heard scripture read, learned the chant, and by the age of 12 or 13 had absorbed enough Hebrew to make sense of the Biblical text. Any theological notions I acquired at that time came from the popular commentary of the late Dr. Hertz, then Chief Rabbi. Hertz was anxious to defend scripture from the “attacks” of a group of apparently ignorant and malicious people called ‘Higher Critics’, and to harmonize it with ‘modern science’, which included Evolution. The unintended result of his earnest apologetics was to introduce me to the concept of historical criticism and to instill in me some wrong-headed notions about Darwinian Evolution that it took several years to correct. But he certainly gave me confidence that despite the fact the Christianity was the dominant faith, Judaism had something to be said for it.

At about this time I had the good fortune to meet up with some families, mostly of Orthodox German refugees, who introduced me to rabbinic texts, such as the Mishna. They seemed to be intelligent, broad-minded people, who had achieved a modus vivendi with contemporary culture. I think that had I been introduced to Jewish Orthodoxy by Hasidim, or by something akin to the Haredi Judaism which has subsequently evolved, I would have been alienated. However, the symbiosis of religion and culture achieved by German Orthodoxy under the guidance of Samson Raphael Hirsch (Torah im Derekh Eretz – the analogy with Schleiermacher is evident) appealed strongly.

I did not attend a Jewish school; there was none in the town, nor did anybody perceive the need for one. Most of my school companions were from Anglican or nonconformist background. The few who were religious were mostly, like myself, rebelling against the secular attitudes of their parents, or of society in general, so we felt that we had common cause. When I was 14 or 15 years old, and wanted a deeper understanding of religion, I read Augustine’s Confessions and a selection from Thomas Aquinas. In retrospect this seems a strange thing for a Jewish boy to do, but it did not seem at all strange at the time. I noticed that they said quite a lot about Jesus, and that they seemed fairly ignorant of Judaism as I knew it, but this seemed to me trivial. From Augustine I gained a sense of the passion of faith, whilst Aquinas demonstrated its intellectual integrity; it was not difficult to imagine how such attitudes could be transferred to Judaism. Indeed, when I turned to Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed soon afterwards I did not feel that I was learning much that was new to me. It was all very exciting, nevertheless, and led me to question seriously the conventional line of my school teachers that the Middle Ages was a period of intellectual confusion and obfuscation in contrast to the modern, scientific Enlightenment.

Shortly before going up to University I had another ‘interfaith’ experience of lasting impact. As I was going to read philosophy (then called Moral Sciences) at Cambridge I thought it would be good to prepare myself by attending a summer school in philosophy held that year at the University of Fribourg. The first mistake was that the travel agent issued me with a ticket to Freiburg, Breisgau (Germany), instead of Fribourg (Switzerland); I found out only when I had to change trains at Basle. The second was that I had indicated on the application form that I wished to stay in a ‘religious house’, under the impression that this would be an Orthodox Jewish one, and not, as it turned out, a monastery.

I arrived in the right town, and lodged at the monastery, where I remember living off some kosher cheese I had brought and which smelled terribly. I immediately became the focus of attention of some Latin American priests who got me to read the Sermon on the Mount with them. When I pointed out that, contrary to Matthew’s report, Leviticus does not say “love your friends and hate your enemies,” I was rushed around to the Professor of Hebrew, a kindly, elderly man, who was enjoying an afternoon nap. The priests managed to arouse him, but were dismayed when he confirmed my reading of Leviticus, and only slightly mollified by his observation that “hate your enemies” may have been a common gloss. I was subsequently bundled off to Rome to meet the pope. That didn’t work out either, as the poor man had a cold and wasn’t giving audiences, but I thought the Swiss Guard were charming and the Sistine Chapel outstanding. Who can fail to be impressed on their first visit to the Vatican? Though I was impressed not by the Roman Church as such, but by the fact that religion in general appeared significant, contrary to its marginality back home.

Back in the sanity of the school itself I came under the spell of Fr. Bochenski, whose excellent volume on twentieth century philosophy I retained for years, struggling with the German which I understood only imperfectly. It was good that before proceeding to Cambridge I was introduced to ‘alternative’ philosophies ranging from Thomism to Existentialism and given to see that some people were sufficiently behind the times to imagine that Hegel was important. At Cambridge anything other than analytical philosophy, and in particular anything outside the British empirical tradition, was dismissed; Kant and Hegel were ‘History of Philosophy’, not the real thing; Existentialism – this was the ultimate insult – qualified merely as ‘literature’. I do have some sympathy with the Cambridge position, which has not changed very much. Still, it was good to know that others, especially on the continent, believed that there were many legitimate approaches to philosophy; this knowledge enabled me to view my Cambridge studies in a broader perspective. Without it, most avenues of contemporary theology, Jewish as well as Christian, would certainly have been closed to me. In fact, religion in general might have remained a sealed book, notwithstanding rumors that Wittgenstein had somehow got involved.

The upshot of all this is that I have never felt out of place or at a disadvantage in dialogue with people of other faiths, since it was obvious to me that theology, or at least the philosophy of religion, was an enterprise in which all might engage on equal terms. When I was appointed to the Faculty of Theology at Oxford in 1995 I made it clear that I wanted to be regarded not merely as a resource person in Judaism but as someone engaged in the general enterprise of theology. Hence, for instance, my lectures on Issues in Science and Religion, though drawing on Jewish as well as Christian and other sources, address problems we have in common. I spell out some consequences of this in the final section of this essay.

Although I do not feel transformed by my adult experience of interfaith dialogue, I can list elements of my earlier formation which prepared me for it, namely: the ability and readiness to recognize truth wherever it might be found; skepticism with regard to the exclusive claims of all religions, including my own; an awareness of the diversity which exists within each religious tradition. To many people brought up within a traditional religious background, whether Christian or Jewish, such notions may appear strange. If they accept them they may feel themselves transformed, released as it were from the confines of a narrow tradition to a greater openness, to the discovery of truth and beauty in places previously regarded as dark and evil. My good fortune was to grow up in an environment in which these were the normal assumptions. It would be reassuring to think that these assumptions arose out of my religious tradition. However, they did not. They came to me as part of my humanist and Enlightenment heritage.


Are religious communities transformed by dialogue with those of other faiths? A classic instance of this is the well-documented transformation of the Catholic Congregation of Our Lady of Sion from an Order seeking to convert Jews and to help those converted into an Order that supports and calls for understanding of Jews and Judaism as they are. Jews commonly regard this transformation as being from enemy to friend, though from a Catholic point of view it would not be correct to categorize the Order in its pre-transformation guise as being an ‘enemy’ of Jews. The Catholic theology of Vatican II with respect to Jews, which the Order helped create, has enabled this change by encouraging greater openness to what contemporary Jews actually believe and do, and by calling for a revaluation of the Church’s relationship with Jews and Judaism.

There is no corresponding example of the transformation of a Jewish community, since Jews lack religious communities of this type. One must look elsewhere in the Jewish community to discover transformations. The most powerful instances are driven by social rather than theological considerations. In time of war, for instance, people of many faiths are drawn together. One of the few positive features of the American war in Vietnam was the way in which the Army chaplaincy tended to cross denominational and faith boundaries; face to face with the ultimate questions of life and death, Jews and Christians found common answers, and there were numerous instances of a dying soldier finding solace through a sympathetic priest or rabbi of a faith other than his own.

Christian/Jewish encounter groups, such as the Council of Christians and Jews, offer a less dramatic forum in which people’s attitudes may be transformed. People often join such groups with inappropriate motives; Christians in order to spread the gospel, Jews for collective self-defence. Against this backdrop it is easy to discern the journey of transformation travelled by many members. Through meeting and talk, social as well as religious, they learn to listen to the other and to relate to them as real persons rather than through warped images rooted in religious disputes of past centuries. The realization comes that we are all human, all searching for truth, and that though there may be an ‘absolute’ truth no individual, and no religious community, may claim exclusive rights to its possession or expression. The transformation leads to a new religious humility, to the recognition that God is too great to be totally contained within one tradition. Whether this perception is carried from the individual to his/her religious community depends on the individual’s standing within the community and on the tradition within that community. A Reform rabbi promoting within his/her community openness to the truth to be found in other faiths is more likely to effect a transformation than a lone individual on the margins of an Orthodox community, but even the latter has occasionally been achieved.
This leads me to comment on the wide range of attitudes to other faiths which actually exists within Jewish communities, particularly amongst the Orthodox, who are more inclined to exclusivist theologies. Amongst Ashkenazim, for instance, those who follow the pattern set in Western Europe (Britain, France, Germany, Netherlands) in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries tend to a more open attitude; those who follow Central and East European models are less open. But this simplification should not blind us to the changes which have taken place in recent years, both negative, in response to the Holocaust, and positive, arising partly in recognition of changes within the Churches, partly through the impact of liberal democratic ideologies.

Leaders of the less open communities evince a fear that their rank and file, if exposed to dialogue, may be weakened in their faith. I have rarely observed this happen. More commonly, people are strengthened in their own faith by involving themselves in dialogue. They are forced to take their own traditions much more seriously, to fill in gaps in their knowledge, and to find answers to questions which may have been niggling away at them but never reached the top of their agenda. They find new ways of looking at their own faith, and are encouraged when they find how ‘outsiders’ value aspects they had taken for granted, or even despised.

In secular societies such as those of the USA and Britain the’problem’ of how to relate to my Christian neighbor arises only when I am thinking about myself as a member of a religious community. If I think about myself as a musician, or as a golfer, or as a business executive, I don’t seem to have a problem. I don’t seem to be in need of a “transformation”. This should worry religious leaders deeply. Who is creating the “problem”? Who is, in effect, setting one community against other, to the extent that we have to seek ‘transformations’ in order to achieve understanding and social harmony?


I remarked above that “theology, or at least the philosophy of religion, is an enterprise in which all may engage on equal terms.” This raises the question, deliberately evaded earlier, of the relationship between theology and the philosophy of religion. The difference lies in the starting point of each. The theologian commences with sacred texts, regarded either as themselves the substance of divine revelation or as pointers to that revelation. S/he reformulates these in some form of rational discourse, to exhibit their ‘truth’. Reformulation entails both the selection of texts and the application of a hermeneutic. The philosopher of religion, on the other hand, commences with a form of rational discourse to which s/he is committed, and submits to a rational critique whatever conclusions s/he thinks are correctly derived from the texts. Without the theologian’s prior interpretation of the texts, the philosopher would have nothing to work on; for instance, until the theologian has attributed some meaning to the term ‘God’ which occurs in the sacred texts, the philosopher is not in a position to argue for or against theism, at least in the sense in which it is part of religion. Of course, a pagan philosopher, for instance Plato, may come up with a term translated ‘god’; but then the problem arises, as famously expressed by Judah Halevi, and later Blaise Pascal, of whether the ‘God of the philosophers’ is the same as the ‘God of Abraham’.

In practice the theologian and the philosopher of religion are often the same person. Aquinas and Maimonides, for instance, belong in both categories. As philosophers of religion they share the same, predominantly Aristotelian, starting point. However, as theologians they do not share the same starting point. Maimonides’ theological starting point is the Hebrew scriptures as interpreted by the rabbis; Aquinas’ is Jerome’s Latin Bible as interpreted by the Catholic Church.

When I use the vacillating expression “theology, or at least the philosophy of religion” I indicate that I am dissatisfied with the notion that one can separate the two other than at a theoretical level. In real life, when I think about religion, I don’t divide my mind in two. My position is that I take all writings reflecting people’s relationships with God or the Absolute seriously as material for theologizing, though I accord a ‘privileged’ status to the scriptures I identify as my own tradition, since these constitute my own language, my personal ‘window’ on the world.

Any theologian who has been exposed to interfaith dialogue has to consider how exclusive are the claims of his/her own religion. Is ‘theological space’ available for the other? Jewish apologists lean on the second century Rabbi Joshua’s statement that “The pious of all nations have a share in the world to come” (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:2), inferring that this creates space for other religions. Historically, it is unlikely that Joshua meant to include people who denied the truth of the Torah as revealed to Moses and interpreted by the rabbis; his term ‘nations’ did not mean ‘religions’. However, provided the theologian steers clear of historical inaccuracies there is no reason why s/he should not take statements such as Joshua’s as pointers in the direction of a new, more inclusive, theology.

Finally, I make the bold claim that theology progresses precisely when it is the outcome of inter-religious and intercultural dialogue. Without the stimulus of encounter with the world outside, religion turns in on itself, becomes repetitive, over-concerned with minutiae, sterile. The encounter forces it to come to terms with a changing world, with other perspectives, to be relevant to the contemporary situation, to discover new ways to articulate its basic truths, to formulate new priorities.

If we trace Judaism back to Abraham it is now approaching its fifth millennium. Yet at every significant period of its development it has interacted significantly with surrounding cultures and drawn from them, whilst rejecting elements which could not be assimilated to its fundamental message. There is no reason why the present should differ.


* Rabbi Norman Solomon is Fellow in Modern Jewish Thought, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, a member of Wolfson College, Oxford, and lecturer in Theology, University of Oxford. He has been rabbi to Orthodox Congregations in Manchester, Liverpool, London and Birmingham. His publications include several books, numerous articles and reviews. Active in interfaith dialogue, he received the 1993 Sir Sigmund Sternberg CCJ Award in Christian-Jewish Relations.


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