Thursday, May 31, 2007

Jesus, the Pope, and a Rabbi

Jesus, the Pope, and a rabbi walk into a bar.

The bartender looks up and says, "What is this, a joke?"
A scholarly variation on that gag can be discerned from an article in Friday's edition of The Forward, a Jewish newspaper based in New York.

In the article, Rabbi Jacob Neusner, a professor of the history and theology of Judaism at Bard College, explains how a 14-year-old book of his ended up playing a central role in a new book by Pope Benedict XVI called Jesus of Nazareth.

Rabbi Neusner writes:

In my 1993 book “A Rabbi Talks With Jesus,” I imagined being present at the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus taught Torah like Moses on Sinai. I explained why, for good and substantial reasons based in the Torah, I would not have followed Jesus but would have remained true to God’s teaching to Moses. Much to my surprise, Pope Benedict XVI, in his new book “Jesus of Nazareth,” devotes much of his chapter on the Sermon on the Mount to discussing my book.

“More than other interpretations known to me, this respectful and frank dispute between a believing Jew and Jesus, the son of Abraham, has opened my eyes to the greatness of Jesus’ words and to the choice that the gospel places before us,” the pope writes.

He ties this exchange of ideas to a lamentably lost tradition of disputation between religions, a tradition that was lively in the Middle Ages but began to decline during the Renaissance and nearly disappeared during and after the Enlightenment, when theories of religious tolerance gained ground (a good thing in comparison to the persecutions and pogroms that preceded it).

Says Rabbi Neusner:
In ancient and medieval times, disputations concerning propositions of religious truth defined the purpose of dialogue between religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity. Judaism made its case vigorously, amassing rigorous arguments built upon the facts of Scripture common to both parties to the debate. Imaginary narratives, such as Judah Halevi’s “Kuzari,” constructed a dialogue among Judaism, Christianity and Islam, a dialogue conducted by a king who sought the true religion for his kingdom. Judaism won the disputation before the king of the Khazars, at least in Judah Halevi’s formulation. But Christianity no less aggressively sought debate partners, confident of the outcome of the confrontation. Such debates attested to the common faith of both parties in the integrity of reason and in the facticity of shared Scriptures.

Disputation went out of style when religions lost their confidence in the power of reason to establish theological truth. Then, as in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s “Nathan the Wise,” religions were made to affirm a truth in common, and the differences between religions were dismissed as trivial and unimportant.

Disputations between religions lost their urgency. The heritage of the Enlightenment, with its indifference to the truth-claims of religion, fostered religious toleration and reciprocal respect in place of religious confrontation and claims to know God. Religions emerged as obstacles to the good order of society. Judeo-Christian dialogue came to serve as the medium of a politics of social conciliation, not religious inquiry into the convictions of the other. Negotiation took the place of debate, and to lay claim upon truth on behalf of one’s own religion violated the rules of good conduct.

Of course, religious toleration is a good thing. In the Middle Ages, after all, disputations often were not conducted in an atmosphere of civility. Jews frequently faced persecution, rather than respectful theological debate.

Rabbi Neusner views his interlocution with the Pope with optimism:
What we have done is to revive the disputation as a medium of dialogue on theological truth. In this era of relativism and creeping secularism, it is an enterprise that, I believe, has the potential to strengthen Judaism and Christianity alike.
Given this, wouldn't it be a marvel to be a fly on the wall when Jesus, the Pope, and a rabbi walk into a bar?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi, Rick!

I'd rather be a person at a nearby table with a notebook and pen in hand to take notes as the Rabbi, the Pope and Jesus debated.

Good blog!

Paul Primavera