The limits of ecumenical dialogue

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In these times we are surely obliged to forge new alliances. Our traditional friends of yesteryear – the liberals and the Left – now stand at the forefront of campaigns to demonize and delegitimize us and increasingly indulge in outright anti-Semitic rhetoric.

It is not coincidental that the Bush administration, which today stands alone between Israel and its foes, has been strongly influenced by Christian evangelicals who continue to demand that American foreign policy be based on moral and biblical foundations. In stark contrast to the Presbyterians and the World Council of Churches, who even now continue campaigning for divestment and delegitimization, the evangelicals have elevated support for the Jewish state as one of their top priorities.

Interdenominational activities have always been a sensitive issue. Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik, the revered spiritual leader of Modern Orthodoxy, warned of the dangers of becoming involved in theological or interfaith dialogue, both on halachic and pragmatic grounds. He predicted that such activities would invariably encourage false facades of supposed shared theological foundations.

Rabbi Soloveichik did approve of activities with other denominations to promote common humanitarian objectives. He would assuredly have endorsed relations with evangelicals based on support of Israel, and common social goals, as long as theological dialogue was avoided.

The relationship with the Catholic Church is more problematic. After Nostra Aetate led to a repudiation of charges of deicide against the Jewish people, the International Jewish Committee on Inter-Religious Consultation (IJCIC) was created as an umbrella body for Jewish organizations liaising with the Vatican.

Relations were intensified with the advent of Pope John Paul II, who encouraged a softening of the traditional Catholic hostility against the Jewish state. However, as a rule, Orthodox rabbinical and lay leaders tended to distance themselves from this activity.

Over the past few years the World Jewish Congress bypassed IJCIC and began negotiating independently with the Catholic Church. A series of meetings with international Catholic prelates were held in New York in which progress was achieved in relation to the struggle against anti-Semitism.

These WJC initiatives began to assume a theological flavor, as exemplified at the recent New York meeting, when Cardinal Angelo Scola informed the WJC gathering that “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – like the God of Jesus Christ, is the living God who is maintaining close and salvific relations with his people.” Though well intentioned, such remarks crossed the line delineated by Rabbi Soloveichik.

It is therefore not surprising that the centrist orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, as a matter of principle, absented itself from these activities. It is therefore somewhat paradoxical that the main impetus for the new direction came from WJC governing board chairman Israel Singer, himself an Orthodox rabbi. Even more surprising was that he was supported by the two ultra-Orthodox rabbis associated with him who are involved in WJC activities – Rabbi Bleich from the Ukraine and Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt from Moscow.

However, the most disconcerting aspect of the WJC relationship with the Catholics is the prominent role accorded to the Cardinal of Paris, Jean Marie Lustiger, who until his recent retirement was regarded as a possible candidate to become the next pope.

Over the past two years, Cardinal Lustiger, a Jew who converted to Catholicism, has become a virtual World Jewish Congress icon. He was a major speaker at governing board and executive meetings and, even more surprisingly, was selected to be the keynote speaker for the WJC plenary assembly held earlier this year in Brussels.

There is no doubt that Lustiger is sincerely committed to combating anti-Semitism in the church and obviously enjoys representing the church at Jewish-related activities. The pope is clearly happy to use him in this capacity, and even appointed him as his personal representative at the 60th commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz in Warsaw.

However it is difficult to understand how an international Jewish body headed by an Orthodox Jew using a rabbinical mantle can ignore the fact that Lustiger is not just an enlightened Catholic prelate opposed to anti Semitism. He is an apostate, a Jew who converted to Catholicism. More than that, Lustiger, who speaks Yiddish, continues to describe himself as a Jew, albeit a “fulfilled Jew.”

This in no way detracts from the fact that Lustiger is undoubtedly an honorable man, a victim of the Holocaust placed in safe-keeping by his parents in a Catholic boarding school. But having said that, it is surely still bizarre for an international Jewish body to elevate such a person to a leading public role. To many Jews, repeatedly promoting an apostate demonstrates an utter lack of sensitivity to Jewish history and the checkered roles in history assumed by Jewish converts to Christianity in relation to their own people.

In the past such situations were avoided. When the World Council of Churches nominated the Rev. Dr. Hans Ucko to be their liaison on Jewish affairs, IJCIC, with the full support of the WJC, politely declined on the grounds that they did not wish to deal publicly with an intermediary who was an apostate.

All of this is highly delicate. But while we are obliged to maintain cordial relations with the Catholic and other churches they must understand that we Jews also share profound sensitivities.
There may be grounds for liaising privately with a man such as Cardinal Lustiger, but it is surely grotesque and crossing the line for Jews to promote him as a role model.

It is not only a matter of Jewish dignity. As Rabbi Soloveichik emphasized, we also need clarity regarding our end goals in relation to ecumenical activities.

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