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Lauren F. Winner

Terms of Engagement

Where things stand in Jewish-Christian dialogue.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, my grandfather was an active member of his local branch of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, best known for sponsoring National Brotherhood Week (the inspiration for Tom Lehrer's satirical song of the same name). The group aimed to foster interfaith understanding and, eventually, to combat racial prejudice. In a 1951 article on organizations that promoted civil rights, lawyer Joseph B. Robison noted, "Since [the NCCJ] adheres to the principle of refraining from action on any controversial question, the value of its work in an area in which all issues are highly controversial is open to question." But on the local level in Asheville, North Carolina, the group did foster understanding and feelings of fellowship among Jews, Protestants, and Catholics, and members of the group were able, by the early 1960s, to work together on issues of larger civic concern, such as the local implementation of civil rights measures.

The NCCJ was not far from my mind as I read Gustav Niebuhr's Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America, an engaging journalistic portrait of contemporary interfaith endeavors. Niebuhr showcases groups of Christians who helped guard Muslim buildings against vandalism in the weeks after 9/11; a Congregationalist church that, after realizing their own numbers were dwindling, gave their church building and land to the local Jewish community; Methodists in California who raised money for the rebuilding of three Sacramento synagogues that had been destroyed by arsonists; Jews and Episcopalians who helped fund the repair of a mosque damaged by American bombing in Afghanistan; Muslim and Hindu communities that intentionally "welcome the curious" to educational tours of their mosques and temples.

Much has changed, and much has not changed, since my grandfather's term as Jewish co-chair of his local NCCJ chapter. The demographics, of course, are different: the Immigration Act of 1965 guaranteed that American interfaith conversations would no longer be limited to Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. (The NCCJ acknowledged that shift by changing its name in 1999 to the National Conference for Community and Justice.)

What has not changed is that, at least on Niebuhr's account, interfaith encounters remain largely social—in two senses of the term. Niebuhr describes people of different faiths getting together and getting to know one another better, and he describes episodes in which people of different faiths work together in the pursuit of some shared civic goal. Niebuhr argues that these partnerships— neighbors of different faiths helping guard mosques against vandalism, for instance—go beyond "mere courtesy" and "being 'nice.'" Rather, they represent "vitality within a functioning civil society, the creation of networks that reach beyond obvious boundaries." In a country in which mosques are being vandalized, such social engagements are not to be gainsaid.

One of Niebuhr's profiles—that of Baltimore's Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies—points away from the purely social, toward more explicitly theological encounters between different religious communities. The ICJS brings Jews and Christians together to study shared sacred texts. The institute is especially keen to, in the phrase of executive director Christopher Leighton, "defang Christian anti-Semitism." (Leighton's comment points to the important reality: when it comes to Christian violence against Jews, the social and theological are inextricably linked.)

Niebuhr says that one of the questions central to Jewish-Christian theological engagement is "what does it mean to be different together?" That is an important question, but it is only one question that theologically engaged Jewish-Christian conversation asks. Over the last fifteen years or so, some of the most interesting work in academic theology has been that of Jewish and Christian theologians who are committed to substantively theological dialogue. These theologians have asked, inter alia, what a robustly anti-supersessionist Christian theology looks like, and what Christianity and Judaism have to learn from one another about how we speak to and about the living God of Israel. This turn in academic theology is perhaps represented best by three books published between 1996 and 2000, books that remain seminal in Jewish-Christian conversation: Christianity in Jewish Terms, co-edited by Tikvah Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel and Michael S. Singer; The Church and Israel After Christendom by Scott Bader-Saye; and The God of Israel and Christian Theology by Kendall Soulen.

Such explicitly theological conversations can feel risky, and they are sometimes difficult to pull off. For Jews, the risks are almost unavoidable. After all, for most of the last 2,000 years, most Jewish-Christian "conversations" have not been conversations at all. They have been, rather, Christians talking about Jews in ways that are both hermeneutically and literally violent. For Jews today, the risks include having their story told by someone else— specifically by a someone else (the church) whose own self-narration seems to require criticizing and re-telling Judaism's own account of itself. Christians know that we, too, are taking risks in these conversations. If Christians are really willing to believe that we may learn something about the God who is Christ by engaging with Jews about the God of Israel, our understanding of God, and of ourselves, may change.

Because these conversations can be perilous, we regularly need to revisit the terms on which we conduct them. In establishing the terms for contemporary Jewish-Christian dialogue, no one has been more influential than David Novak; the fruits of his thirty-year engagement with Christians and Christianity have been recently collected in the volume Talking with Christians. Central to Novak's vision of Jewish-Christian conversation is his insistence that when Jews talk about Christians, and when Christians talk about Jews, we can't say things about the other religion that its practitioners and adherents wouldn't recognize. This means avoiding obviously false and obviously polemical descriptions: "Christians are idolaters"; "Jews don't recognize Jesus' lordship because they are stiffnecked." But it also means avoiding linguistic sleight of hand, subtly ascribing to practitioners a description of their religion that they wouldn't recognize, as when some well-meaning Christians talk about how much they love "the Jewish faith." "Faith" (emunah in Hebrew) is not a category alien to Judaism, but the phrase "the Jewish faith" is tacitly Christianizing. It is not a phrase that many Jews would use to describe themselves, or even recog-nize—at least, they wouldn't recognize the thing that Christians mean when Christians speak of "the Jewish faith." The Jewish people, sure. Jewish practice, great. But not "the Jewish faith."

Novak's point may seem obvious: don't describe your neighbor in terms she wouldn't recognize. But, in fact, this simple guideline has broad and deep implications for how Christians speak about Judaism—not just in the academy, but also in the local church, especially in the pulpit. It has implications for how we speak about "Pharisees," "the Law," and (most obviously) the role of "the Jews" in the Crucifixion. A friend of mine recently sent me a draft of a sermon on John 1 and Galatians 3. It was, generally, a lovely sermon, full of imaginative discussions of light, with references to Albert Einstein— until my friend suggested that we think of "the Law" as Newtonian physics.

Novak's guidelines for Jewish-Christian engagement are helpful, but one of his terms may, in the name of safety or comfort, ultimately limit too radically what these conversations can achieve. Specifically, Novak has often argued that Jewish- Christian conversations should bracket points of disagreement that are specific to the revelations of each community.

In our conversations, we should focus on commonalities. So, for example, we may discuss areas of ethical concern about which we have some agreement, but we should not discuss soteriology, the identity of Christ, or other matters of revelational specificity about which we are fundamentally at odds.

Sometimes Novak overrides his own guideline. In particular, he has a habit of ending his essays about Jewish-Christian matters by pointing to the eschaton: e.g., "The different claims of Judaism and Christianity are only tentative. Surely what God will do at the end of history will be radical enough to surprise everyone— Jews, Christians, and all others who wait for that time here and now."

Again: "At [the] deepest level we are still strangers to each other. It seems that we shall have to remain strangers until God judges us all in the end in a world where we all hope to be the lasting friends of God and thus lasting friends of each other. May that day come speedily." And so on.

This eschatological gesture is helpful insofar as it recognizes that both Judaism and Christianity are fallible; everyone will be subject to eschatological correction. But the gesture also exposes the limitations of Novak's view that our conversation ought not veer into territory of theological disagreement. For Novak's irenic eschatological vision evades some quite real differences in Jewish and Christian eschatology.

In response to Novak's eschatological gestures, a Christian might want to ask: What will the nature of our different communities' eschatological corrections be? What will Jews see when they see Jesus of Nazareth in his eschatological splendor? What will Christians see about the God of Israel when they look next to them at the heavenly banquet and see they are seated next to a Jew who, on earth, denied the divinity of Jesus? The danger of such questions is obvious. Jews risk something essential to their account of themselves in a conversation about whether or not, and how, they will recognize Jesus at the end of days, and Christians asking "Who would be the Christ whom Jews might see?" risk Christology. But if we are not willing to occasionally hazard these questions, perhaps our conversations are not going far enough.

Other conversational "terms of engagement" may create a space for some of these riskier conversations. One such possibility is suggested, at least tacitly, by Randi Rashkover and C. C. Pecknold's marvelous edited volume, Liturgy, Time, and the Politics of Redemption.

This volume brings together 11 Jewish and Christian theologians' considerations of the logic and politics of liturgy. Stephen Kepnes and Robert Gibbs both describe how liturgy directs our attention to eschatological matters.

Peter Ochs' elegant reading of the Jewish morning prayer suggests that application to this liturgy prepares and enables people to make different kinds of judgments during their day than they could if they were simply taking their cues from, say, the liturgies of making the coffee and watching Diane Sawyer.

Scott Bader-Saye argues that liturgy—not so much daily prayer as the keeping of an annual Christological liturgical calendar—schools us in a kind of providence and plentitude that makes possible both patience and an otherwise foolish politics.

Each of the essays in Liturgy, Time, and the Politics of Redemption repays careful reading, but the volume is more than the sum of its parts. Taken as a whole, the volume suggests that risky, theologically engaged Jewish-Christian conversations may be possible when they emerge from our shared (though also different) practices. The unspoken assumption of this volume is that when we are in the midst of acting out our friendship with the God of Israel, we may take a step toward deeper friendship with one another.

The ICJS (following an idea pioneered by Ochs) locates Jewish-Christian conversations in the practice of studying our sacred Scriptures together. This volume suggests that we may also root our Jewish-Christian conversations in our shared practice of liturgy—not necessarily through praying together (though sometimes we might do that, too), but through pausing in the midst of our own stammering attempts to speak to God and observing another faithful community at prayer. On Rashkover and Pecknold's terms, we pause not simply so that we might note, and revel in, family resemblances, but rather because this pausing is itself an expression of the finitude of our own witness.

What are the potential fruits of such an engagement? One of the most provocative sentences of Liturgy, Time, and the Politics of Redemption comes at the end of Rashkover's introduction. "Judaism may learn from Christianity's practiced application of liturgical life into the political realm," she writes, "and Christianity may learn from Judaism's careful investigation in the reasoning structures of its scriptural texts and liturgical performance." This merits lingering over. Rashkover is particularly interested in the political and reparative work—the tikkun—that this liturgical observation may make possible. She is suggesting that Jews may learn something from the ways Christianity's liturgy overflows into politics. (Here I take her to mean not a Constantinian or imperial politics but rather the politics suggested in this volume most pointedly by Scott Bader-Saye and Benjamin Quash: the kind of politics enunciated in the dismissal from the Eucharist, the moment in which the "fed" body of Christ is sent forth to model Eucharistic unity and help bring Eucharistic abundance to a hungry world.) Rashkover is also suggesting that Christians could learn from Jews a kind of self-analysis that may be underrepresented in the polemical logic of much Christian testimony. Jews can teach Christians a kind of careful reasoning pattern (one illustrated most clearly here in Ochs' essay) and a way of practicing text-study as a form of worship that helps practitioners see the historicity of their community's engagement with God through time.

I have dwelled on Rashkover's claim at some length because it demonstrates the kind of mutually beneficial learning that can develop when theological risks are taken within the context of appropriate terms, here represented by respect for each tradition's liturgical life. But this is just one example of the kinds of provocative insights afforded by theologically driven dialogue. For Jews these conversations may be more an act of generosity than necessity. But Christians need to participate in these conversations, it seems to me, for at least three reasons. First, for people who are called to love God with our minds, and who are called to love neighbor, substantively theological conversation between Jews and Christians may be seen as a form of neighbor-love. Second, these conversations are an act of repentance—repentance for the violent consequences that Christians' stories about Jews and Judaism have had for Jewish communities for centuries. Third, we need Jewish conversation partners for the integrity of our own theological narration. We need to talk with Jews not out of some generalized pluralistic sense that diversity always enriches conversation (which may or may not be true), but out of a theologically particular sense that without Jewish conversation partners, Christians' theological speech— that is, Christians' claims about the God of Israel—risks hubris and possibly serious error. Put minimally, we need Jewish conversation partners who are willing to check, or at least question, our narration about Israel and the church. Put more positively, we need Jewish conversation partners to help us understand what we mean when we say that the Christological event is informed by the God who elected Israel.

Lauren Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. Her study of 18th-century Anglicans in Virginia is forthcoming from Yale University Press.

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