David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. He is a founder of the Union for Traditional Judaism, serves as secretary-treasurer of the Institute on Religion and Public Life in New York and contributes to its monthly journal First Things, which has been called “the spiritual nerve centre of the new conservatism” by the New York Times Magazine. He has written hundreds of articles in scholarly journals as well as writing and editing many books on the Jewish legal tradition, political theory and Jewish-Christian relations, including Talking With Christians: Musings of a Jewish Theologian (Eerdmans, 2005). He has lectured throughout the United States and Canada as well as in Israel, Europe, and South Africa. Dr Novak spoke with Jim Pope about the new relationship between Jews and Christians that is being celebrated by some and ignored by others.
MercatorNet: Professor Novak, you describe your emergence as a young Jewish theologian coinciding with the emergence of a new era in Jewish Catholic relations. Can you describe this?
David Novak: Well, I was a student in the early 1960s at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, studying with Abraham Joshua Heschel, who, I think by the admission of most now, is considered to be the most important Jewish theologian — in North America — of the twentieth century. That would be a fair guess. He was invited to Rome to begin discussions with very high officials in the Church about this document that would be coming out of Vatican II, which had already been convened, or at least the idea had been proposed by Pope John XXIII.
He discussed this with us students to get our thinking on the subject, especially because he was getting a lot of criticism from people in the Jewish community because, basically, the Jewish-Christian relationship for the most part hadn’t been that good.
Then there were other criticisms: “We shouldn’t be telling the Catholics what to do with their theology”. To which the response was, “What if they ask us? We’re not butting into the conversation; they invited us. What should we say? — ‘We’re not interested. Sorry, we’ve got other commitments?’”
MercatorNet: You describe the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate as “undoubtedly the most significant statement of the Church regarding the Jews in modern times, perhaps ever.” How did it improve Jewish Christian relations?
David Novak: It improved it because in Christian theology – even going back to perhaps the New Testament, certainly from the Patristic period – there has always been a debate in Christian theology over the question of supersessionism. Did God un-elect the Jewish people and replace the Jewish people with the Church? Or is the election of the Jewish people indelible and the Church is, as Paul put it, the branch grafted onto the tree [of Judaism]? And that’s always been back and forth and forth and back in Catholic theology.
Nostra Aetate basically declared that God’s covenant with Israel, with the Jewish people, is indelible and has not been revoked, however much Christians might think that they understand the covenant better than the Jews do. (And we think that we understand it better than they do!) That was the difference.
You can’t have a dialogue as a Jew and a Christian – I’m not just talking as two human beings – if the Christian side thinks that, basically, my faith community shouldn’t exist. There’s just no possibility of interfaith dialogue. Once the Christian community removes that [supersessionist belief]… now we can have a conversation!
In the past the conversations we had were all on an individual basis. But that we can actually speak to each other, officially as it were, definitely came out of Nostra Aetate, from the Christian side.
So that was the importance of the document. It’s had profound ramifications. You can say, “How did it change things on the ground, so to speak?” Well, it changed things on the ground in the sense that the Catholic Church removed all anti-Jewish teaching. Pope John XXIII, you remember, removed that line from the Good Friday liturgy, “the perfidious Jews”.
All of this had tremendous ramifications that began at the very highest levels. I wouldn’t say it trickled down, it gushed down to the ground in terms of ordinary Christians and their views of Jews and their understanding of what Judaism is all about. I think it was quite extraordinary.
MercatorNet: Your latest book, "Talking with Christians", makes the same point: that we’ve changed from talking at each other, or past each other, to talking with each other.
David Novak: If it hadn’t been for Nostra Aetate, among other things, I don’t think that I could have written this book because I don’t think there would have been enough Christians to talk with except for random, maverick individuals.
MercatorNet: Nostra Aetate moved it to a conversational level – beyond disputation, beyond proselytism, beyond supersessionism and the counter-supersessionism that you have talked about on the Jewish side. Yet in spite of the commonalities, there are still some well-intentioned dangers on the new level of dialogue. What would those be?
David Novak: Well, I don’t know if there are dangers. There is always going to be a tension in the relationship because Judaism and Christianity to a certain extent are making cross claims and that is going to be the case until the end of time, the final redemption which we are all waiting for or should be waiting for.
My view of that final redemption is that, somehow or other it’s not going to be that the Jews are going to look at the Christians or the Christians are going to look at the Jews and say, “Ha, ha, ha. We were right and you were wrong.” I think that God’s answer is one that is going to surprise us all. I don’t think there are going to be winners and losers at that point.
But, very clearly, there are very fundamental differences. And the fundamental difference is whether the relationship with God is constituted by the Torah or is it constituted by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Now that being said, we could not even have that difference if there weren’t the commonalities.
MercatorNet: The statement of the Catholic Church, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah", when it came out [in 1998], was criticized by people in some Jewish circles because it was not an apology. You countered that this was a misunderstanding both of the Catholic theology in the document and of Jewish theology…
David Novak: Well, the Catholic Church, as it understands itself, is not responsible for the Holocaust. Let’s put the responsibility where it belongs. Those who are responsible for the Holocaust are those who perpetuated it: the Nazis and their helpers and followers…
Most apologies are either cheap or besides the point. So, therefore, I was somewhat annoyed that certain segments of the Jewish community didn’t understand the statement and they didn’t understand the statement because they have their own political agenda, which I do not agree with. So that is why I wrote that piece.
MercatorNet: "We Remember" states that the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jewish people “who are called to witness to the one God and to the law of the covenant”. You have commented that a better definition of Jews and Judaism could not have been formulated by Jews themselves.
David Novak: Yes, that’s why we’re in the world. “You are my witnesses”: that is what the prophet Isaiah said. It’s nice to see somebody outside the Jewish tradition appreciating what we are all about.
However, if there are Jews who think that being a Jew is nothing more than some kind of nationalistic or racial or ethnic or whatever — and that is all — then they are not going to appreciate that theologically charged assessment of what the Jews are all about.
MercatorNet: Together with Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Peter Ochs and Michael Signer – perhaps in response to “The Church and the Holocaust” – you drafted "Dabru Emet", which is subtitled, “A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity”. It contains eight brief statements [published in the New York Times, September 2000]. Would you care to highlight any of these?
David Novak: The proposition, interestingly enough, that caused the most controversy in the Jewish community was not the one that I thought was going to cause it. The proposition where we said, “Nazism is not a Christian phenomenon” – we acknowledged that Christian anti-Judaism certainly contributed to it – that was important to say. After all, if Jews are going to look upon every Christian, every Catholic, as a potential Nazi, then we do not have the basis for a dialogue any more than we have a basis for a dialogue if Christians think that Jews should go out of business.
So that caused controversy. But the one that caused the most controversy was the one in which we said, “Jews and Christians worship the same God.” That is because it re-ignited a debate in Jewish theology that goes back just as far as supersessionist debate in Christian theology. And that is, “Do Christians really worship our God, the Lord of Israel, the Giver of the Torah, the One who elected us, or not?” If not, then Christians are, by virtue of that, idolators and polytheists. And that has been a hotly debated topic. So, just as Nostra Aetate took sides in a perennial Christian debate, so Dabru Emet took sides in a perennial Jewish debate.
MercatorNet: Now there were close to 200 signatories to the statement. How was it received, by and large? Was it regarded as the first corporate Jewish contribution to the ongoing dialogue?
David Novak: The reception of the document in the Christian community was quite good — especially in Europe — where it has been translated into eight different languages now. And it is interesting that the reception in Israel was, in some ways, more confident in it to a great extent — than in North America. I have to say we were quite disappointed in terms of the American and Canadian Jewish thinking establishment. It didn’t seem to be something that they wanted to publicly acknowledge. It was quite disappointing that it didn’t receive much coverage in Jewish periodicals. I can imagine why, but I must be diplomatic.
But the leadership of the Jewish community in the United States and Canada to a large extent has not emphasized to the troops, so to speak, these tremendous changes that have taken place in the Jewish-Christian relationship. That is unfortunate and I must say, and I think that my fellow authors would agree with me, we were quite disappointed that this was not taken more seriously by what could be referred to as the Jewish establishment – the periodicals and the big organizations.
MercatorNet: One of the statements in "Dabru Emet" is, “The humanly irreconcilable differences between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture”. You have already alluded to that. Given these differences, what larger reasons are there for Jews and Christians to continue the dialogue in a secular society?
David Novak: Secular society is the key term. One of the reasons for the change in atmosphere which has made dialogue possible is the change in the political situation.
The changed political situation is really that Christians no longer have power – as Christians – over Jews. That is a political fact. It is also a cultural fact. The cultural fact is that even though, in the United States and Canada, there are many more Christians than Jews, in both of these societies Jews and Christians are a minority; a minority at the level of what I would call “high culture”; a minority in the political hub, the universities, the courts, the media.
What we call the “culture-forming institutions” are clearly in the hands of those who are either indifferent to or contemptuous of both Judaism and Christianity. And that makes a big difference. There is now a level political and cultural playing field.
Christians, I think, can find more sympathy in themselves for Jews because Jews have a lot more experience in being a minority, being marginalized and surviving nonetheless — physically, politically and culturally. For many Christians that is a new experience and something that Christians can learn from Jews.
Jews can learn from Christians. Jews now have more political power than we ever had. Christians have less; Jews have more. One elevator is going up and the other is going down and we are now at the same landing, so to speak. We might be staying here for awhile… Jews have a lot to learn from Christians on how to handle having political power, where one uses it responsibly and one doesn’t get taken in by the non-religious agenda of political powers that look upon religions as being useful (and I’m being very generous, here). A lot of this changed political climate, this changed cultural climate, enables people to have conversations that, with very few exceptions, they couldn’t have otherwise.
MercatorNet: Going forward, is it going to be more of the same, or is there yet another new level of conversation…?
David Novak: I think that the most important issues that are being debated now are what I call questions of public morality. Morality is rooted in faith, but you can make a formal distinction between them. So those kinds of issues are quite important and there is a lot of work that can be done and needs to be done. Not just talking. That’s where I see the cutting edge at the present time, but where we are going to be two years or five years or ten years down the road is not for me to predict.
MercatorNet: As one of the leading interlocutors in the dialogue, what has been one of your greatest satisfactions over the years?
David Novak: The friendships I have made with people like Richard Neuhaus [editor of First Things], Robert Louis Wilken [Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia] – special mention there – and others are because of our mutual commitments to some things in common and even to some things that are dissimilar. Over the years that has been the most satisfying personal outcome of this dialogue for me.
Jim Pope (email@example.com) teaches religion at St Thomas of Villanova College near Toronto. He is completing a doctoral dissertation in religious studies at McMaster University.