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BOOK REVIEW : Encounters That Spur Dialogue Between Jews and Catholics : Interfaith: One book is an easy-to-read encounter between Catholic Archbishop O'Connor and Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel. The other uses the Bible as the canvass on which to draw comparisons.

November 10, 1990|BENJAMIN J. HUBBARD | Hubbard teaches a course on Judaism and Chri s tianity at Cal State Fullerton

The genesis of both these remarkable books was the mutual admiration of the respective authors and their desire to enter into profound interfaith dialogue.

The one, a face-to-face encounter between the cardinal archbishop of New York and a Nobel Prize-winning Holocaust survivor, touches on contemporary concerns between Jews and Catholics. It can be read in one sitting--and you will feel the warmth and emotion of the participants as if you were in the room with them.

The other is a series of letter-like essays about the Bible between a priest-sociologist-novelist and a rabbi-Talmudist-religious historian. It must be read in several sittings with considerable effort but corresponding rewards, because it brings the Bible to life quite startlingly--as well as the Jewish and Catholic faiths nurtured by the Scriptures.

The Weisel-O'Connor conversation takes up the Holocaust and the Church's responses to it, particularly those of Pope Pius XII. Though Weisel feels the Pope "did not do enough," he has heard there are documents in the Vatican that show otherwise but have not been made public: "Maybe if I were to see those documents, I would change my mind." The two men also differ on whether Pope John Paul II should have met with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim (Weisel thinks not) and whether the Vatican should recognize Israel (Weisel thinks so).

There are poignant moments of consensus in the dialogue--on the immense tragedy of the Holocaust, the persistence of anti-Semitism, the dignity of the Jewish and Catholic faiths, and the way each man revered his father.

The backdrop of the Neusner-Greeley dialogue is, as noted, the immense biblical canvas. For the rabbi, this includes the oral Torah, that collection of legal/Talmudic and narrative/Midrashic commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures by the rabbis of the first six centuries. Neusner opens his Christian readers to the riches of the oral Torah, especially the rabbis' efforts to see the biblical stories as parables for life: "Abraham, Isaac, Jacob--these patriarchs stand not for themselves but for the life of Israel, the holy people, and each incident in (his life) resonates in the private life of each Israelite, every Jew."

For Neusner, this is painfully true of the Nazi genocide, about which he comments: "For Abraham (in the near-sacrifice of Isaac) had to be ready to give one, but mothers and fathers in our own time gave all."

It is unfortunate that the tightly worded, sometimes obscure style of the rabbinic writings apparently has left its mark on Neusner's own prose, which is at times hard to follow.

Moving to the New Testament, Greeley calls Jesus "a visionary like the prophets, though a stable and solid visionary. He differed from them primarily in the wild splendor of his vision . . . a vision that then seemed too good to be true and still does. Finally, the vision was too subversive, too disturbing, too revolutionary, so, as Jesus probably understood early on, He would eventually have to die for it."

Greeley adds that the title "messiah" has such different meanings for Jews and Christians that most of them are talking past each other on this issue.

Neusner views the Jesus of the Gospels as foreign to the Judaism of the rabbis because of the claim of "absolute uniqueness" made about him: "Those who receive Jesus' disciples receive him and therefore the One who sent him. And that is a claim that sages in the oral Torah make for everyone who studies Torah, but not for one particular master--never."

Along with their different assessments of Jesus, Greeley and Neusner also disagree on whether Christianity and Judaism can conduct dialogue. Despite the fact that he and Greeley have "read Scripture together," Neusner thinks the two faiths, as such, cannot converse. Their presuppositions about the nature of piety, salvation and messianism make it impossible. Greeley, aware that not all is shared, thinks dialogue on what is held in common--God, origins, stories, sacred books, etc.--is vital.

The rabbi may be right in theory, the priest in practice. So what else can Jews and Catholics do but keep on conversing?

A JOURNEY OF FAITH

By Elie Weisel and John Cardinal O'Connor (Donald I. Fine Inc.:

$18.95, cloth; $8.95, paper;87 pages

THE BIBLE AND US

A Priest and a Rabbi

Read Scripture Together

By Andrew M. Greeley and Jacob Neusner Warner Books

$24.95, 288 pages

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