Forty years ago, I was a rabbi in one of the affluent suburbs of New York. I was not a beginner. My father, may he rest in peace, had been a prominent Conservative rabbi, and I had been trained in the best department of oriental studies in the world and been ordained in the academic track of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. My synagogue was next door to the most important Catholic parish in our town. But, for all that, as the biblical Jacob said of his vision of the ladder, "And I, I did not know." I did not realize the importance of Nostra Aetate as it was happening. Later, when I began interfaith work with Catholics, I learned.
As I went deeper into dialogue with Catholics (and with Protestants), I also learned that there were not very many of my fellow Jews who were interested in theological and in spiritual dialogue. All of us were deeply, and justly, concerned with political dialogue on a wide variety to subjects that were, and are, of concern to us. We were very interested in discussing social action-integration, parochial education, abortion, and the use of public space for the display of religious objects such as creches and menorot. We did not always agree with our Christian partners in dialogue but we had something to discuss. However, as a group, we were not particularly interested in discussing belief, faith, messiah, incarnation, crucifixion, the place of Jesus, God, revelation, salvation, and so on.
There were three reasons for our reticence to discuss theology and spirituality. First, Jews had a long and very bad memory of theological discussion in the past. Most such discussion was nothing of the kind. It was formal dispute before a Catholic tribunal, the outcome of which was determined in advance: the Jews would lose and a pogrom would follow. Subsequent dialogue was no better: it turned out to be an opportunity to convert Jews without a pogrom and was followed by head shaking at the stubbornness of the Jews and prayers that we would someday see the truth. To put in clearly, Jews did not believe Christians were sincere about theological dialogue though we were prepared to admit that they could fairly discuss social and political issues.
Second, Jews themselves were not primarily theological or spiritual in their orientation to life. By this I mean that Jewish existence was not framed in theological, spiritual, or faith-oriented categories. After the shoah, Jews realized that "God helps those who help themselves" and we, Jews, had better look to our continued existence as a people. Particularly, we had better do our very, very best to explain, justify, and help our Christian friends and partners realize the crucial nature of the State of Israel in Jewish existence and continuity. This is still true: Christians, Catholics among them, define themselves by their faith and their spiritual culture. Jews are glad just to survive, and we know we have to fight for our survival. It is hard, but it is indispensable to our self-understanding to have our Catholic friends know that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are not just forms of racism; they are threats to our very existence, as individuals and as a group. To put it in succinct form: in their respective self-understandings, Jews are incorrigibly political and Christians are incorrigibly theological. Dialogue was, therefore, a very long and painful process--and it remains so. Jews never understood that it took the Holy See decades to recognize the State of Israel. All attempt at dialogue without that was just noise, at least as far as Jews were concerned.
The third reason for our reticence in dialogue was that there were precious few people qualified to engage in theological dialogue, and even fewer in spiritual dialogue.
Some of us were exceptions to this rule because our own self-understanding, while rooted firmly in the political realities of post-shoah Jewish existence, is also rooted in the living presence of God in our own lives and, hence, in theology, spirituality, and faith. …