The most visible feature of interfaith dialogue is the invisibility of the orthodox rabbis. Yet Israel’s chief rabbis meet with Christian leaders and they received the Pope at Hechal Shlomo, and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s interfaith centre in Efrat recognises that some Christians prefer to deal with the traditional section of Judaism. True, it is usually the modern orthodox rabbis who show a degree of interest, whilst the charedim warn against any association with Christians. Their arguments include the following:
• Jews have suffered so much from Christians that they only want to be left alone.
• Jews suspect that Christians still want to proselytise them.
• Jews fear that Christianity has no real respect for Judaism.
• Jews see faith as a deep, personal matter that cannot be discussed with outsiders.
• Judaism, like other faiths, was moulded by a history which outsiders do not share.
• Jews respect the conscience of all faiths and see no need for apologetics.
• Strengthening Judaism is a more urgent task.
• Co-operating to improve society is more important than theological talk.
• We need to engage with all philosophies, not just Christianity.
These and similar arguments have been put forward with differing emphases by rabbinic giants such as the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik; and Professor Eliezer Berkovits, and many orthodox Jews are reluctant to differ from the gedolim.
However, many of us argue that we cannot lock ourselves away and must be on good terms with all groups who stand for spiritual and ethical principles. We believe that Christianity is genuinely trying to overcome its anti-Jewish past, and its hand of friendship should not be spurned. This applies especially to the Catholics, whose postwar record is highly positive despite occasional setbacks. Most Protestant denominations have also shown a wish to work constructively with us, though the picture varies.
In Australia the best known rabbinic figures all had links with Christian clergy. The story is told in my Veech lecture, “Australia and the Christian-Jewish Encounter”. When the Councils of Christians and Jews were founded, the relationship became formalised and more focussed, though not every rabbi wanted to be involved. In both Britain and Australia I personally have had a long and energetic commitment to the cause, not that this minimises the contribution of others. Now that I am in Israel, I am a board member of ICCI (Inter-Religious Co-Ordinating Council in Israel), which works with many groups including Muslims, and I give lectures for Rabbi Riskin’s Centre.
How much is all this effort achieving? Sometimes we pat ourselves on the back and say, “How far we have got!” At other times we sadly admit, “How little we have progressed!” The best assessment is suggested by a Midrash about a man who reaches a crossroad to find his way blocked by a huge rock. He tries to push it out of the way but simply hasn’t the strength. He could of course sit down and weep. What does he in fact do? He begins chipping away at the edges… and little by little the rock gets smaller.