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Telling Tales: Making Sense of Christian and Judaic Nonsense, The Urgency and Basis for Judeo-Christian Dialogue.

Jacob Neusner is a learned and prolific writer who has at least one book ready for the press every year. In his book Telling Tales, Neusner makes the astonishing claim that Jewish-Christian dialogue is non-existent. There are other Jews who, like the late Yeshayahou Leibovitz, say that the seemingly symmetric word Jewish-Christian dialogue in fact is deceptive, that the need for dialogue is Christian rather than Jewish, since the very existence of Judaism remains a thorn in the flesh of "the true Israel", the church, and that Jews simply look upon Christianity as one of many possible ways of rejecting halachah, Jewish teachings. Jewish liberation theologian Marc H. Ellis characterizes the Jewish-Christian dialogue as an "ecumenical deal" and says: "Any retreat on the Christian side in support of Israel is ipso facto a retreat from Christian repentance in relation to Jewish suffering." Jewish-Christian dialogue is "demand on the Jewish side and silence on the Christian side".

Neusner claims that Jews and Christians have been exchanging monologues. He is anxious that they really meet instead of continuing along parallel lines. In order to arrive at a point of intersection, where real dialogue is possible, it is necessary to do away with that which has served as dialogue, but which has in fact been more a matter of talking to one's own audience. The "dialogue" has been rather two self-serving monologues, where the Jewish contribution has been to resist Christianity's insistence on discussing why Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah and so go out of business. No one is really open to dialogue. Christianity never contemplated conceding the legitimacy of the Jewish viewpoint. For Jews on the other hand, Christianity never happened: "Preferring to pretend that Christianity never made a difference anyhow, Judaism went its solitary way. So the one side invented a Judaism for the sake of argument, and ... the other side simply 'deconstructed' its debate partner, making of Christianity what it chose, which was either nothing or something absurd and beyond all serious consideration" (p.72).

The Jewish-Christian dialogue has not been a dialogue. Each has had an agenda that was not construed on a common turf, but inside one's own camp. Christians want to know why Jews don't believe in Christ. Jews want to have Christians improving in their dealings with Jews (denouncing antisemitism) and are anxious to win a Christian support of the state of Israel. If before 1967 one could have stronger Christian support, one realized from the 1970s that one would have to be satisfied with exercising damage-control.

But where is the theology of the other? Neusner labels the theory of two covenants as a theory which may possibly serve social order and which argues: "'Yours is good for you, ours is good for us, so let's live in peace'. But no serious theological solution consists in denying now what we, on both sides, have affirmed for so long; we Jews never believed Christianity was a true religion, forming a path to God, for if we did we should not accept gentile converts to Judaism, and Christians cannot believe Judaism forms a valid covenant and at the same time accept Judaic converts to Christianity" (p.83). Neusner has a valid argumentation, but is it useful to look upon religion as closed boxes: those who are Jews are Jews and those who are Christians are Christians? Will there not always be people who for one reason or the other need to go beyond their own confineS? While it is true that anyone who needs to proselytize and to seek converts is likely to disqualify anything but his or her own faith, there will nevertheless, and in spite of all proselytism, always be those who like Andre Gide, "passa d'une communaute a l'autre pour y recueillir les fleurs du genie d'autrui, toujours avide et curieux de ce qui peut se faire de beau et de grand ailleurs"... That movement of people of faith should not be simplistically labelled and rejected.

Many in the Jewish-Christian dialogue would benefit from reading Neusner's book, and not only for its theological value. There are also good pastoral words: "For honest constructive argument, we do not have to love another" (p.97). The Christian-Jewish dialogue can neither be based on love, nor on guilt or on indemnification. Such a relationship is neither healthy nor invigorating. It is destructive to be always the victim or the victimizer. Even to be a victim surrounded by love is difficult. A "born-again" American woman came up to my friend, an Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem, and said: "Oh, if you only knew how much we love you Jews!" He looked at her and said: "You don't have to love me. Common decency is enough."

Neusner proposes a different kind of dialogue, where both Jews and Christians try to make sense of the deeply held convictions of the other: the conception of God incarnate in a human being and the conception of the uniqueness and holiness of Israel. Judaism and Christianity need to see each other as totally alien to one another. Then, and only then, can a genuine and honest meeting begin. While this may open the way for a less inflamed dialogue, one wonders if for the sake of a renewed understanding the common roots and history really can be dismissed. Judaism and Christianity may today be totally alien to each other, having gone in two completely different directions, but can they simply walk away from that parting of the ways?

Dialogue with Judaism can only commence when Jews cease to be a fabrication of Christianity. Neusner pledges: "We (will) do our best with the Incarnate God; now you try to do your best with Israel -- and no quotation marks this time" (p.158). We need to learn to do much more of our theology without quotation marks and without "in-house" descriptions, which, when they are seen to have parted company with reality, are revealed as their own worst enemies. All Christian theologizing should pay attention to the old saying: Hic Rhodus, hic salta! Show me what you can do!
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Author:Ucko, Hans
Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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