When I taught an introductory religion class at Stonehill, one of my favourite texts to teach was Jon Levenson’s Commentary article, “How not to conduct Jewish-Christian dialogue.” Levenson’s article is a critique of Dabru Emet, a brief statement made by four professors of Jewish studies. Dabru Emet emphasizes the commonalities between Jews and Christians: they worship the same God, seek authority from the same Hebrew Bible, and accept the moral principles of that text.
Levenson responds: wait a minute. For Trinitarian Christians (the vast majority today and for most of Christianity’s history), Jesus is God in a fundamental sense; but for a Jew (or Muslim), to say that a man is God is an idolatry that drastically compromises God’s fundamental oneness and uniqueness. While the content of the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible as understood by Jews – may be mostly the same as that of the Old Testament, they are read in a very different light. To understand the Tanakh, Jews turn to Mishnah and Talmud; to understand the Old Testament, Christians turn to the New. As a result, the stories of the Hebrew Bible unfold very differently in each – they are even placed in a different order, so that the Tanakh culminates with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, while the Old Testament ends with a prophesy heralding the “coming of the Lord.” And this isn’t just a matter of arcane scriptural study: it affects one’s ethics, one’s idea of the good life. Jewish ethics have been traditionally focused on following God’s laws and commandments as revealed in Torah, Christian ethics on following Jesus’s example – or even more so on faith in him and his saving grace.
Now my interest in Levenson is not in the particulars of Jewish and Christian traditions, since I identify with neither tradition. Rather, what I deeply appreciate is his criticism of Dabru Emet‘s method. Such documents, Levenson argues, “avoid any candid discussion of fundamental beliefs,” and “adopt instead the model of conflict resolution or diplomatic negotiation.” Continue reading