Promoting Interreligious Dialogue with Jews

One of the most wonderful passages in literature is the dialogue between the bishop and the revolutionary in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. Wonder involves surprise, and surprise might indeed be the potentiality that most defines genuine dialogue. This former member of the French Revolutionary Convention, ostracized under the changed political climate of the Napoleonic regime, has lived out his post-revolution days in solitude, just outside the truly good bishop's village. One day the boy who has been the old man's only contact with society passes the news of his master's imminent death. The bishop decides to go out to the old man with the hope, however slight, that he might wrest from him a confession and therefore win for him salvation.

They speak outside, as the old man's life wanes with the setting sun. He sits calmly and quietly, recounting his life and his credo. And in the face of all the bishop's heavy charges, the old revolutionary's words, despite their modesty, cannot but betray an extraordinary life of dedication and decency, courage and sensitivity. Even the bishop's charge of atheism proves false. For the old revolutionary professes, in simple rapture, his communion with that highest light which is reflected in lived commitment to justice and beauty and mind expanded.

In a final exquisite précis of his life's deeds and values, the old man again expresses himself, confidently and without regret – with a sense of compelling integrity and wisdom. And at the end of his defense that has no defensiveness in it, the old revolutionary challenges his prosecutor, 'Now at the age of eighty-six I am on the point of death. What then do you ask of me?' 'Your blessing,' answers the bishop as he falls to his knees with lowered head, right there by the chair of the revolutionary. But when this unforgettable bishop, now by his own turning become a parishioner, looks up, he finds the old man has died – with a beatific look of fulfillment, acceptance and peace on his face. The title of this passage in Hugo's masterwork: 'The bishop confronted by a strange light.'

According to this striking passage genuine dialogue is most defined by the potentiality of reversal, by the possibility that under some circumstances one, on other occasions both/all parties to dialogue might come to see things – to some significant degree – in a different way than before they entered into genuine conversation. What is it about Hugo's bishop that makes possible for him, that makes him prepared, for such a responsiveness, for such a response-ability?

Does this passage tell us that the bishop has now embraced the old revolutionary's credo – that he has been converted, we might say, to the old revolutionary's life orientation and way of daily translation of that faith into lived acts, practiced works? Not necessarily. Authentic dialogue perhaps cannot so affect the other in the encounter that he/she/they cease to be themselves, but absolutely instead become me/us. To do so to such an extent would no longer or not at all be dialogue, but rather imposition of one side on the other such that this other's difference is obliterated; or a total surrender of the self for and into the other.

By contrast, engaging in authentic dialogue involves a meeting of differences – which for sure comes to likewise identify commonalities. But with this what is shared in common comes to appreciate that distinct particularity of personhood that is key in each of us being and becoming  ever created and recreated in the image of the Divine Being-in-Becoming.  Thus The-I-Am-Becoming-What-I-Am-Becoming of Exodus 3:14 allows, makes possible and charges human beings to imitate this characterizing quality by participating in the Genesis account of the seven days of Creation 'Let light and whatsoever, whosoever else be and become what it uniquely can be and become!'

We shouldn't see the bishop of Hugo's drama as coming to a complete agreement with the old revolutionary's values and exemplary lived application of those values. What the bishop does come to see is that a way he formerly thought was superficial and worse – at the strongest odds with spirituality and a truly ethical sensibility – actually does or can constitute an independent, different path to an in-depth and ethical and even, in its own way, religious life.

One approach to genuine dialogue sees this as its most defining critical practice and purpose – not to make the other into the same, that is into myself or to make myself become the other; but rather to contribute to the other becoming even more what s/he can, in common with me and in unique difference from me, become. However, now – in dialogue – not become what s/he can become alone, by herself/himself; but can yet and still become in traversing, conversing open exchange and responsibility with and between, towards and on behalf of others.

See: in Buber's Between Man and Man – Beacon Press, Boston, 1955, pp. 19-20 and cited in an essay by Adam Seligman, 'Toward a Phenomenology of Religious Experience' – which is chapter four in Professor Seligman's Modest Claims: Dialogues and Essays on Tolerance and Tradition – University of Notre Dame Press, 2004

On Martin Buber see:

For an essay by Martin Bertman that appeared in the journal Judaism (Winter 2000) on Buber's 'Mysticism Without Loss of Identity' – which could be titled 'Dialogue Without Loss of Identity' –;col1

And see Buber's Two Types of Faith: A Study of the Interpenetration of Judaism & Christianity (Syracuse University Press, 2003.)

You might try closing dialogue with this work by the American Jewish artist Ben Shahn:

"The artist absorbed in thought, his chin in one hand and a colorful paint brush  'bouquet' in the other"

by Ben Shahn with Hillel's teaching:

'He was wont to say: If I am not for himself, who is/will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, [then] when?'

1968, lithograph in colors

Appears in Kenneth W. Prescott's The Complete Graphic Works of Ben Shahn (Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Company, 1973)

[ Copyright for picture: please see here... ]

Try sharing ~ entering into dialogue, engaging the question of dialogue ~ with others in these ways:

You might want to read the passage about the bishop and the revolutionary. It's the tenth chapter of what's called Book One, running the length of just over ten pages – in the Penguin Classics edition – pages 49 to the top of 59 ~ so that you'll want to yourself abridge it somewhat. Choose key passages and then make copies for everyone. You might want to look at the shortened chapter in small groups. And you might want to do so reading aloud – which is how all pre-modern reading was engaged – universally, across cultures; even when a person was reading alone. Let people in the small groups know that they should read a part of the tale and then look up from the text and talk about the part they just read - or they should stop if someone in the group finds something in the text that was evocative in some way for him or her. After some discussion of that part, the group proceeds ~ returns to reading the text and then again stops to look up and share thoughts that that passage has brought up for one or more of the group's participants. After a while the small groups can come together again as one and people can share some of what they 'came up with' in their small groups.

And as part of your sharing this passage from Les Miserables ~ invite  and join your colleagues in sharing some of what participants in this dialogue and in past dialogues have experienced.


Here's yet another passage, another text, you might want to share with others in a similar way as we just considered Dialogue should strive for a really honest addressing of issues that really matter to the participants, concerning which so much is at stake in really trying to understand one another.

Even if in the end it will not be the view adopted by all or even one day by any ~ to give it its say perhaps reflects a willingness to truly try & understand the other; which in & of itself can make a difference.

From Merold Westphal, 'Thinking about God and God-Talk with Levinas' in The Exorbitant: Emmanuel Levinas Between Jews & Christians  ~ edited by Kevin Hart & Michael Signer (Fordham University Press, New York, 2010), pp. 217-220.

And here's yet one more idea for a text – this time another story – your dialogue group might want to talk about together ~

It's all of four & a half pages – so a great short story to read aloud – again You might want to initially to do so in small groups ~ Then to come together again as one group & hear from each of the small groups "how they found" the story ~ what ideas the story evoked in the participants of your dialogue group.

The story is "Mr. Andrews" by E.M. Forster ~ from his The Eternal Moment and Other Stories (My edition is published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, copyright 1928.) It's about two souls rising up toward heaven – a Christian and a Moslem ~ and how as they converse in their ascent they are at first full of compassion for the other; since each is certain that his newfound fellow will not be admitted when they reach heaven's gates – each being an infidel to the other. A passage from the story's opening:

The two souls floated upward, hand in hand. Mr. Andrews did not speak again, for he was filled with horror at the approaching tragedy. This man, so godless, so lawless, so cruel, so lustful, believed that a he would be admitted into Heaven. And into what a heaven – a place full of the crude pleasures  of a ruffian's life on earth! But Mr. Andrews felt neither disgust nor moral indignation. He was only conscious of an immense pity, and his own virtues confronted him not at all. He longed to save the man whose hand he held more tightly, who, he thought, was now holding tightly onto him. And when he reached the Gate of Heaven, instead of saying, 'Can I enter? as he had intended, he cried out 'Cannot he enter?'

And at the same moment the Turk uttered the same cry. For the same spirit was working in each of them.

The entire story is accessible online at Either use this link to the book:

or access amazon's website and then enter the category 'books' for Search. Once that 'page' is before you, place your mouse's cursor on the picture of the book where it says Look Inside, though without clicking on it. A small window opens. Click on Front Cover. Now on the left hand side there's a menu, on the bottom of which there's a box for Search Inside This Book. Enter the word 'andrews.' Seven 'results' of the search will appear. Skip the first one – which is the name of the story among the book's Table of Contents. The next five results are the pages to 'our' story. (The last of the seven results is mention of this story on the back cover of the book.) Clicking on the arrow on the left of each page or on the box above the arrow that says Next Result brings up the next page till the story's end on page 61. 

Dr. Christopher Leighton's marvelous 'Presentation Before the Performance of Bach's Passion of St. John' ~ which includes the story of the spiritual giant of Lithuanian Jewry and its academies of advanced Talmudic learning, Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin (1749-1821) ~ of how

'when he died there was great excitement in heaven. The host of angels came out to greet him and told him there would be no need of a trial. He would be admitted to heaven immediately, so rich was he in good deeds. But Rabbi Hayim brushed aside the invitation and insisted that there had to be a trial for him, just as there is for everyone else. He cited the passage in the Talmud which says that all must be treated equally by the law. At the trial, he was told that, of course, he should be admitted and given a seat of honor in heaven for having established this mighty academy. But Rabbi Hayim argued, on the basis of a passage in the Talmud that deals with the laws of partnership, that if he were entitled to a reward, then surely the students of the Yeshiva were as well, for he could not have accomplished what he did without them. The court confirmed that he was right, that the students were also entitled to a share of his glory. But Reb Hayim then argued that he would not enter heaven unless and until all the people of Volozhin were admitted too, for they had taken the students in and supported them so that they could study. Without them, he said, the Yeshiva could not have succeeded. Therefore, they, too, deserved a share of the reward. The Heavenly Court conferred, checked all the references that the Rabbi cited on the laws of partnership and came to the conclusion that he was right: the people of Volozhin were entitled to a share of the glory. Then Reb Hayim argued that all Jews should be admitted with him, since all Jewish householders everywhere contribute in some way to the maintenance of the Torah. But even this did not satisfy him. He argued further that gentiles too have provided a home for Jews, and therefore they too have a share in the Torah. This time he was told that he had asked for too much, that there simply was not enough room in heaven for all, and that what he was asking was not possible until the Messiah comes. "In that case," said Rabbi Hayim, "I will stay outside with them and wait." And until this day his great soul waits patiently at the portals of heaven, studying the law with intensity and praying for the ultimate redemption of all humanity.'

Here is Dr. Leighton's complete talk:

Here are some additional sources addressing key issues that challenge the possibilities & impossibilities of Christian-Jewish dialogue:

To see pages 197-205 of David Hillel Gelernter's new book on Judaism: A Way of Being (Yale University Press, 2009) ~ two appendices – Appendix B on 'What Makes Judaism the Most Important Intellectual Development in Western History?' !? and Appendix C on 'Jewish and Christian Ethics'

~ once again 'go to' amazon's website and proceed as we set out here immediately above except that this time, of course, enter 'gelernter' and the book will appear first in the list. Click on that and then again place your mouse's cursor on the book and then click on Front Cover. In the box for Search Inside This Book enter 'christian.' This will bring up most of 'our' pages. For the skipped page 200 again 'go' to Search Inside this Book ~ this time entering the word 'sukkah.' Page 200 will appear. To see page 202 enter the word 'authenticity.' As for page 205, just click at the bottom of the search results for 'christian' – just click on Show 4 more results.

Here is Rabbi Soloveitchik's 1964 essay 'Confrontation' as well as papers and further discussion at a conference held at Boston College in 2003. In the essay 'the Rov' – 'The Rabbi' as he was and is known to so many – argues against Jews and Christians coming together to discuss their religious perspectives. He does encourage their cooperation on issues of social ethics – working towards a more justice society. What is most often missed here is the more than plausible reading or highlighting of the reason(ing) of his argument. He does not say that the problem really entails the reality or the question of the absolute or even relative truth or falsehood of Christianity for Jews – or of Judaism for Christianity. On the contrary! The thrust of his concern can be understood to involve the distinctly independent and unique truth value of the religious experience of the adherents of each faith tradition ~ distinctly independent and unique ~ personal though obviously in a communal way indeed relating, committed to a tradition, but yes is so distinctly independent and unique that there is a certain kind of futility and confusion not given to sufficiently significant amelioration in trying to accurately articulate and understand the religious experience, each of the other. So that while this is not our view on Jewish-Christian dialogue – that it should not be engaged in regard to religious or theological categories of meaning and experience – such a reading of Rabbi Soloveitchik's argument against it offers a distinctively compelling kind of affirmation or respect for the irreducible incontestable truth value of the religious experience by the adherents of different traditions.

For his essay and the responses at this conference and more ~ see:

On 'The Controversy Surrounding the 2008 Good Friday Prayer in Europe:
The Discussion and its Theological Implications
' ~ see:
A Dictionary of the Jewish-Christian Dialogue – Expanded Edition ~ edited by Leon Klenicki & Geoffrey Wigoder
(Paulist Press, 1984 ~ 1995 by The Stimulus Foundation)

And also ~
Leo Baeck, Judaism and Christianity (translation by Walter Kaufmann, Jewish Publication Society, 1958)

Some  readers may know of Jane Clements, founder of FODIP, (The Forum for Discussion of Israel and Palestine) in the UK. At their Web site ( you can access:

Ten Principles of Dialogue on Israel/Palestine:

To what extent do you think these principles are useful in the Jewish-Christians dialogue? How would you adapt or amend them?