Catholics, Jews, Humanists and Muslims Meet: Confronting Interfaith Dialogue 50 Years Later

This past year marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most important documents of the 20th century. It has profoundly shaped the contours of human relations since its publication in 1965. The Second Vatican Council in the work Nostra Aetate set forth a new paradigm in interfaith dialogue between Catholicism and other religions, particularly Judaism. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks remarking on the 50th anniversary of the document in our current global context of inter-religious strife and violence wrote:

“We need, if anything, another and larger Nostra Aetate, binding together the great world religions in a covenant of mutuality and responsibility.”

In the days and months leading up to the declaration by the Catholic Church much ink was spilled by people from all faiths contemplating what a new era of interfaith relations meant for them and for their faith community.

READ: Jewish-Christian Relations After the Holocaust

In the pages of Tradition, a journal of Orthodox Jewish thought, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik offered a way forward succinctly titled, Confrontation (Tradition, Spring 1964). The essay is far more than only a how-to guide on interfaith interaction but rather presents a sweeping thesis on the nature of human existence, the suffering and triumph of free will and agency and the utter uniqueness of the human being in “confronting” the rest of creation. Rabbi Soloveitchik, in what I believe to be a central argument to the entire essay, extends this notion of uniqueness to the encounter between any two people:

“In fact, the closer two individuals get to know each other, the more aware they become of the metaphysical distance separating them. Each one exists in a singular manner, completely absorbed in his individual awareness which is egocentric and exclusive. The sun of existence rises with the birth of one’s self-awareness and sets with its termination. It is beyond the experiential power of an individual to visualize an existence preceding or following his… The gap of uniqueness is too wide to be bridged. Indeed, it is not a gap, it is an abyss.”

I recently began reflecting on this essay again as Maggid Books put out a new edition of a collection of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s essays “Confrontation and Other Essays“. It is a wonderful resource to add to one’s library for easy reference to some of the most important philosophical and theological ideas from Rabbi Soloveitchik conveniently put together in one slim volume. In my previous readings of Confrontation I did not spend as much time studying the parts that develop his central idea before delving into his prescriptions for interfaith dialogue. Whether for my own study or for preparation for classes I was teaching it was those prescriptive ideas that were the most compelling during those times I read the essay. However, as I re-read and focused in on the development of his idea before the guidelines were presented, I was struck by his notion that an individual is entirely “egocentric and exclusive” and that the “gap of uniqueness is… an abyss.” Is that truly so?

Compare Rabbi Soloveitchik’s conception of the unbridgeable divide between each person with that of Martin Buber:

“Even as a melody is not composed of tones, nor a verse of words, nor a statute of lines – one must pull and tear to turn a unity into a multiplicity – so it is with the human being to whom I say You.”

The most central idea in Martin Buber’s philosophy is that it is indeed possible for one human being to cross the divide between him or her and another person. It is not the first way we encounter a person nor is it always easy but it is possible. In the development of his theory of the “I-You” (or “I-Thou”) relationship, a person must transcend the objectification of the other, must stop analyzing the parts that make up the whole of the other, and begin to see the other as part of a larger relational context.

In our own lives many of us have experienced that sort of relationship. For some of us it was when we first saw our newborn child after delivery. For others it was the moment under the chuppah with our spouse. For others it is the relationship we share with a parent or sibling or good friend. There are times in so many people’s lives where they can testify to their ability to overcome the divide that split them from another person that it would seem Rabbi Soloveitchik’s idea is not experientially true.

In my own experience, I have had those moments both in the personal and familial and in engagements of interfaith dialogue and encounter. I have sat across from another human being who did not share my theology, my practices or my community and yet I was able to see his humanity and feel connected to him in a way that transcended the differences. This is what I think Rabbi Sacks was alluding to when he wrote that today we need “another and larger Nostra Aetate.”

Fifty years later looking back at a world that was shaped by the beginnings of modern interfaith interaction and encounter we see a place of greater understanding and mutuality. There is still so much more work to do. It takes little more than looking at the first headline in the daily news to see all the work that must be done in expanding the circles of dialogue. We cannot be naive and think we have accomplished all we need to accomplish. The state of humanity is still filled with inter and intra religious conflict and hatred. People throughout the world are actively plotting and executing the murder of each other based on differences in belief or practice.

Yet, let us pause and realize what has transpired for the positive. Fifty years after the commencement of Catholic-Jewish dialogue, the Catholic Church issued a new statement only a few weeks ago that declared that Catholics no longer need to work to convert Jews to Christianity. Around a similar time a group of Orthodox rabbis (I am one of them) issued a statement acknowledging the gifts that Christianity has brought to the world and affirmed the necessity of a partnership to further better the world. Who would have ever guessed such statements were possible?

I do believe and have experienced it myself that the gap between two people is not insurmountable. I do believe that individuals can transcend their egocentricity to see the genuine spark of the Divine that rests in another person. I am convinced that it is through the act of dialogue and encounter that we not only improve our own individual character but we help make the world a more respectful, understanding and cooperative place.


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