Reflections on Jewish-Christian Dialogue
Leo D. Lefebure
I have been involved in Jewish-Christian conversations since a high school religion assignment led me to interview the rabbi at a synagogue near my home on the southeast side of Chicago. As part of our high school religion program, our class also visited a synagogue in Skokie and listened to the rabbi there; I was formed in an atmosphere of respect for Judaism and interest in fostering Jewish-Christian relations. My introductory freshman theology course included Martin Buber’s I and Thou as the first text and was popularly referred to as “the Buber course.” My first Jewish teachers were at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, where I learned much about the Jewish tradition from Professor Jon Levenson and the late Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf. Rabbi Wolf’s pointed lectures on modern Jewish thought and history decisively shaped my fundamental understanding of Judaism and modernity. Later, Professor Levenson read with careful attention my Ph.D. dissertation proposal on the biblical wisdom trajectory, pelted me with probing, critical questions, and acknowledged, “There’s something in it,” noting that not many students of Christian systematic theology could do serious reflection on the Hebrew Bible.
After I finished my doctoral studies I joined the faculty of the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, IL, northwest of Chicago. During my first fall on the faculty, there was a Catholic-Jewish priest-rabbi retreat, during which I got to know a number of the rabbis in the Chicago area, including Rabbi Herman Schaalman, who would become a good friend, and his son-in-law, Rabbi Ira Youdovin. What struck me most on this retreat was the extreme sensitivity of the issue of Catholic-Jewish marriages for the rabbis. At the time there was only one Reform rabbi in the Chicago area who would preside at such a marriage; he had already been in many bitter fights with the other rabbis and did not want to go through another; so he and I took a walk in the woods on the beautiful fall afternoon when the topic was to be discussed.
These retreats became cherished annual events, and in time we welcomed Protestant and Episcopal clergy as well. We not only spoke together but we prayed together. I recall standing in a chapel at Mundelein between two rabbis, praying the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer together. For the rabbis, the prayer that Jesus taught was a perfectly good Jewish prayer. On the last retreat I attended at Mundelein, a Greek Orthodox priest joined us for the first time as part of a new initiative of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Chicago to enter Jewish-Christian dialogue. The Orthodox priest recounted his own experience of earlier studying Hebrew in seminary. A friend of his asked him why he would study Hebrew, and he replied that he wanted to understand Jesus as a Jew and his Jewish heritage. The friend insisted that Jesus was not a Jew; Jesus was obviously a Greek Orthodox because throughout the New Testament, Jesus speaks Greek. The two argued back and forth for a while, and finally the friend conceded, “Well, maybe Jesus was a Jew; but if this is true, don’t tell the Church leaders about it!”
I also became a member of the Chicago Area Jewish-Catholic Scholars Group, where we discussed a wide variety of theological topics, such as covenant and mysticism. At one session I presented a paper on Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), discussing the integration of reason in Catholic theology. I stressed the importance of the little word “et” (and). After I finished, Rabbi Hayim Gorem Perelmuter noted analogies to the Jewish tradition, stressing the similar importance of the Hebrew connective “vav” (and) in Judaism. However, Rabbi Schaalman sharply disagreed, arguing that in Judaism philosophical reason has always been marginal—either apologetic or ancillary. At that, the contest was on between two of the most distinguished senior rabbis in the Chicago area, neither of whom would back down; and I, like the other Catholics present, was a happy bystander listening to the vigorous rabbinic debate. As often happened, I learned much about the diversity of the Jewish tradition from the disagreements among the rabbis themselves.
After the Vatican issued the statement, We Remember: On the Shoah, I participated in Catholic Theological Union’s consultation for Edward Cardinal Cassidy, President of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, attended by about thirty Jewish and Catholic scholars. In response to the many criticisms of the document, Cassidy explained the difficulties in drafting the statement and stressed that it was one moment in an ongoing process. Later, when I taught at Fordham University, I delivered a paper on Martin Buber and interreligious dialogue at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan, in conjunction with the publication of Rabbi Dennis Ross’s book on Buber (God in Our Relationships: Spirituality between People from the Writings of Martin Buber). I have also collaborated with Jewish leaders in a variety of multi-lateral interreligious organizations.
When I moved to Our Lady of Victory Parish in July 2005, Werner and Marleen Hein immediately invited me to attend the local Catholic-Jewish dialogue, and I have been delighted to participate ever since. Participation in this dialogue has continued to enhance my appreciation of the wisdom of the Jewish tradition, and I appreciate the friendships that have been formed through our discussions. This dialogue has complemented my other experiences of dialogue and has not represented any radical change of mind from my earlier experiences.
For many years, I have come to appreciate the immense significance of the Jewish tradition both for Christian origins and for the ongoing history of Christianity. This relationship, which has frequently been so troubled, is a continuing source of blessing and challenge for Christians. In the historic animosities, I see the worst dangers of Christian triumphalism and a profound failure to understand the teachings of Jesus. In the movement toward reconciliation and understanding in recent decades I see tremendous hope.
Recently, what has most changed my thinking about Jewish-Christian relations has been the historical work of scholars like Daniel Boyarin and others who have explored the close, overlapping relationships between (or dual identity of) Jews and Christians during the ancient and early medieval periods. The boundary lines that were thought to have been clearly established in the first century C.E. turn out to have been either porous or, for many, non-existent for centuries. To my mind, we have barely begun to probe the implications of these discoveries for Christian identity and the relationships between Jews and Christians today.