It is not often that an interfaith conference deserves the epithet "historic," but this encounter at the Sternberg Centre in North London between hand-picked representatives of the Vatican and leading Liberal and Progressive Jews must surely qualify. Welcoming the delegates at an opening ceremony in the West London Synagogue, Rabbi Mark Winer called Pope John Paul II and Edward Cardinal Cassidy, President of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, "heroes" of the dialogue, while the newly appointed Archbishop of Westminster, Cormac Murphy O'Connor, said he was "among friends." Both he and Cassidy in his keynote address stressed the "common ethic" that gives Catholics and Jews a basis for dialogue. "We have but one God, and we each understand ourselves as being in a special covenant-type relationship with that God." Responding, Sir Sigmund Sternberg said that it was largely thanks to Cassidy that difficult matters such as the Carmelite convent at Auschwitz, the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel, and the beatification of Plus XI had been resolved.
As the conference papers had been circulated beforehand, almost the entire two days of the conference could be devoted to formal responses and discussion among the forty-two delegates. As the papers are to be published, I shall not summarize them here. Instead, I shall try to capture the most significant points discussed. The topics covered were covenant and election, sacred texts and the context of modernity/postmodernity, religion and the state, and the question of shared values. Such an agenda has never before been tackled at this level.
In response to a scholarly paper by Clemens Thoma on the covenant, several Jewish speakers maintained that the importance given to the covenant in Judaism is a reaction to Christian theology rather than a central Jewish concern. Rabbi Tovia Ben-Chorin suggested that creation is the more basic and truly common theme. Eugene Fisher asked whether Christianity and Judaism were two responses of the one people of Israel to the destruction of the temple, and Rabbi Jonathan Magonet wondered whether the Messiah would have been so important for Jews if it had not been for Christianity. John Pawlikowaki suggested that this "co-emergence" thesis hits at the nerve center of Christianity. Echoing Rabbi Tony Bayfleld's paper on the sibling relationship as the best model for Jewish-Christian dialogue and Rabbi Elliot Dorfi's very substantial treatment of election, Rabbi David Goldberg and Fr. Edward Ondrako said that metaphors such as mother-child are ambiguous: Which is which?
The discussion on election raised some fundamental issues. Responding to an intervention by the undersigned on the "concentric circle" structure of Catholic pronouncements on other religions, Fisher pointed out that the language of the liturgy is moving away from this ecclesiocentric thinking. Janet Martin Soskice distinguished epistemological and ethical dimensions of election: Both Christians and Jews are chosen--not to know eveything, but to do something. Cassidy focused the discussion further by asking, "Election for what?" This was echoed later by Rabbi Sidney Brichto: Survival for what?
Reflecting on many years of experience in interpreting the Bible with Christians, Magonet showed that Jews are content to live with a plurality of interpretations rather than searching for the authoritatively "rigirt" one, while Pawlikowslti, pointing out that the Bible is always an "interpreted text," criticized the church's use of scripture. In response, Fr. Robert Murray acknowledged that the traditional view of scripture as "a vast collection of oracles awaiting fulfillment" is misleading, though he reasserted the validity of typological interpretation--not the same thing as supersessionism--and suggested that the parallels between Orthodox Jewish and Orthodox Christian ways of appealing to scripture would be worth pursuing. …