Interreligious Learning and the Formation of Jewish Religious Identity

David Ellenson

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion


It is a social scientific truism that social, religious, and cultural identities are not simply established facts. They are produced and reproduced within a matrix of complex social, cultural, political, religious, and economic traditions and realities. Identity is embedded in life.

In commenting upon the Boys-Lee case study, "The Dynamics of Interreligious Learning," of the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium they conceived and supervised, I am mindful of this social scientific perspective. Furthermore, this perspective on identity formation teaches me that the confluence of attitudes and insights, positions and feelings I bring with me to this task of analysis and commentary are themselves informed by the multiplicity of forces that have shaped my own way of being in the world, my own multiple dimensions of identity. I am in large measure a person conscious of my minority cultural and religious status as a Jew raised to adulthood in the Southern Baptist environment of Newport News, Virginia. At the same time, I am a rabbi committed to the practice and transmission of Judaism to present and future generations and a professor trained and formed academically in the social sciences as well as religious thought and history through the joint Columbia-Union doctoral program in Religion. My own identity and the myriad forces that shape as well as the diverse sensibilities that inform it are not so different from those of virtually all the Jewish participants in the Colloquium.

This reminds me, as I assess the Colloquium and ponder what it says about matters of religious identity formation in the modern world, that I myself, as well as the participants in the Colloquium, are all products of a world in which a sense of "double consciousness" marks us. This phrase, which W.E.B. Dubois employed earlier in this century to describe the reality imposed by a modern American setting upon the consciousness of African-Americans and other minority cultural and religious groups, refers to the sense modern persons possess of "always looking at one's self through the eyes of others" (Dubois 1965, 215 and 218). As a result, the process of identity formation in the modern setting for both individuals and communities is transformed from what it had been in earlier epochs.

Today forces and realities which are more complex and plural than in the past shape the self as well as the community with which one identifies. This is so for two reasons. The first is that identity can no longer be constructed in isolation from a distant "other." Rather, both the self and the community are realized and established in confrontation with "others" who also inhabit our world. Propinquity and frequent communications among diverse persons and communities are among the marks of our times. The intimacy such interactions foster falsifies, or at least calls into question, many of the certainties that formerly marked the process of identity formation in prior generations.

The second reason why the process of identity formation in the modern period is so distinct is that persons are fully aware that identity is in large measure socially constructed. Peter Berger has coined the felicitous phrase, "the heretical imperative," to characterize this condition that informs virtually all persons and communities in the modern setting. Hairesis (option or choice) has become, in Berger's view, the quintessential feature of the modern Occident. It is inescapable. Persons are no longer born and socialized into a community as if by fate. Rather, identity—including religious identity—now becomes in large measure a matter of negotiation, an expression of choice among competing modes of identity, for individuals and communities alike. There is a self-consciousness, a self-recognition and self-awareness concerning the role played by society and culture in the establishment of both personal and communal identity that was absent from the world of our ancestors. For them, identity was seen as an "established fact," not the product of "social construction" and "choice" (Berger 1979). As Mary Douglas puts it, "We moderns [are quite self-conscious that we] operate in many different fields of symbolic action." In contrast, "for the Bushman, Dinka, and many primitive cultures, the field of symbolic action is one" (Douglas 1966, 68-69).

The very existence of the type of colloquium discussed in these pages, in which the identity of Christians and Jews is formed and reformed in the dialogical presence of the other, is itself a reflection of the consciousness and social reality that Dubois, Berger, and others contend is the hallmark of the modern situation. Indeed, Boys and Lee themselves testify to the accuracy of these accounts of the modern condition when they observe that the "pluralism" that dominates "our largely secular society. . . compounds the difficult task of forming people in the identity of a particular religious tradition" (p. 2). "Heresy" is now universal. The task of creating "sacred order" in the modern situation turns out to be complex and difficult. How interreligious learning not only reflects this fact, but further complicates the task of identity formation in a modern setting of "tolerance and transformation" will constitute the focus of my remarks in this paper.

Formation of Communities

Communities, like individuals, have always, in part, defined themselves and established their identities by drawing boundaries which delineate between themselves and another. Social scientists from Durkheim through Erickson have routinely taken note of this phenomenon. In focusing on notions of social order and group cohesion, these scholars have observed that collectivities often posit or possess an opponent over against whom they have constructed their own sense of identity, their own way of being in the world. The group, by assigning the label of "other" to a rival group, helps to establish its own boundaries by defining specific norms and mores as acceptable forms of practice and belief. The range of beliefs and activities open to persons in the group is thereby limited and the group is able to state precisely the limits of permissible behavior, belief and activity for its members. The group, by defining its rival as other, helps to establish its own sense of cohesion and community.

A further word about this phenomenon of "drawing boundaries" will clarify the social mechanics that animate its function in the construction of identity. Designation of a rival group as "other" contributes, from the perspective of the social sciences, directly to the social task of boundary maintenance and subsequent identity formation. In order for one group to exist, there must be another. Social scientists dealing with identity formation routinely note that no group can even be conceived as a group except as set off by itself and made a group by other groups (Barth 1969). People who are members of one community routinely create boundaries between themselves as members of one group and others who are not members of the group. A "we-they dichotomy" is a crucial element among the social mechanisms groups employ to construct their own identity (Cohen 1978, 379-403). In addition, precisely because groups need to draw boundaries in order to maintain a sense of identity and order for themselves, they are particularly zealous in establishing the limits of permissible behavior and belief in opposition to those beliefs and opinions that the group perceives as most threatening to its own sense of cohesion and identity. The applicability of these insights concerning the dynamics of identity formation and group cohesion are readily apparent when we begin to analyze elements and attitudes displayed by the participants as well as the organizers of the Colloquium.

Jews and Christians are formed, Amos Funkenstein claims, by religious traditions which are "tied to each other with ... bonds of aversion and fascination, attraction and revulsion" (Boys and Lee, 28). The negative dimension of all this for forging a safe and confident venue for Jewish-Christian interreligious learning, as Boys and Lee note, is that Jews often only associate Christianity "with violence and persecution." Christians, along with their religion, become the preeminent "other" for all too many Jews and Jewish identity—or at least elements of it—are constructed in opposition to the Christian and his/her Scripture and faith.

Boundary Maintenance and the Experience of the Jewish Participants

Many of the testimonies Jewish participants offered concerning the attitudes they brought with them to the Colloquium provide evidence of the impact of boundary maintenance and the necessity for maintaining the barriers erected by traditional Jewish attitudes concerning Christians and Christianity for the construction of a secure Jewish identity. For example, Lee's own "experiences of Catholics and the Catholic Church growing up in Boston had not predisposed her to Catholic-Jewish dialogue" (Boys and Lee, 1). Nor is this attitude atypical of that expressed by other Jews who engaged in the Colloquium. After all, the Christian Scriptures, in the words of one Jewish participant, constituted a "forbidden book" (Boys and Lee, 18).

In short, the challenge of creating a situation of Jewish-Christian interreligious learning and dialogue for contemporary Jews involved with and socialized into the Jewish community is that Jews are by and large raised to think of Christians as persons who regard Jews as "deicides," and who think that the New Testament is above all an anti-Jewish tract. As one participant candidly observed, "We all carry scripts and to stop seeing ourselves and others in those ways is to start out on a journey that has no script and really is frightening, and that on some very basic level ... [involves] a recrafting of self" (italics mine).

However, this "recrafting of self," though "frightening," is precisely what transpired in the setting of interreligious learning that Lee and Boys forged. For the Colloquium, as the Jewish participants' statements indicate, fulfilled the goal Boys and Lee set of liberating Jews "from a view of Christianity as primarily predicated on rejection and persecution of Jews." Instead, as one Jewish member of the Colloquium so movingly and dramatically phrased it, he was able for the first time "to hear and understand Christian faith and spirituality in a very different and more open way" when a Christian colleague responded to his question, "Why do you need Jesus?" with the candid reply, "It isn't that we need Jesus. He just is." Or, as another Jewish participant phrased it in recounting her response to the meaning and import of Jesus for Catholics, "Listening to my new [[Christian] colleagues that day brought an `aha' of both understanding and appreciation which was both exhilarating and scary."

In making this assertion, this Jewish participant tacitly rejected the claim put forth by the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in opposition to interreligious dialogue over thirty years ago. Soloveitchik contended, "Each community is engaged in a singular. . . gesture reflecting the. . . nature of the act of faith itself and it is futile to try to find common denominators" (Soloveitchik 1964. 18-19). For the Jewish participant cited above, the Colloquium resulted in a transformed sense of being Jewish. Jewish identity was no longer dependent upon the rejection of the religiosity and the humanity of the Christian. Christians and their faith could now be seen in empathic hues and no longer confined simply to caricature and stereotype.

Interreligious learning in the presence of the "Christian other" demonstrated to the Jewish participants that Christianity meant and means more than the persecution of Jews. The Church, no matter how heinous its role in provoking anti-Jewish sentiment has been in the past, also has spoken to the religious and spiritual needs of those devoted to it. The educational environment of the Colloquium and the palpable reality of Christians who were "spiritual and faith oriented" allowed Jews "to discover new ways of seeking and connecting with spirituality and God within their own Jewish tradition." Most importantly, it permitted Jews, in constructing their own sense of identity, to begin to transcend "the perspective that we are victims and that Christians are potential perpetrators." This, in turn, held important implications for the construction of Jewish identity and self-understanding. As one participant voiced, "If I view myself as victim, then I actually practice Judaism differently."

Such testimonies indicate that Jewish participants began to recognize the religious character of Christianity, that is, the ability of the Church to move its people to profound assertions of faith and significant acts of piety. Such recognition allowed the Jewish participants to move beyond the total rejection of the "Christian other" in the construction of their own identity as Jews. It enabled them to see that neither Jewish pride nor Jewish identity needs to be constructed upon or bolstered by the rejection of the "Christian other." No longer need Jews assert that Christianity is morally and spiritually worthless as a result of its culpability in fostering anti-Jewish attitudes and actions as it has all too often during the previous two millennia.

The "reconciliation" effected by the Colloquium "threw" its Jewish members "off balance." The vertigo the Colloquium engendered for its Jewish participants resulted from the reconceptualization and reassessment of Jewish self-understanding and identity the Colloquium demanded of its participants. The Christian now had to be seen not simply as another person who participated in the Colloquium. Indeed, there is no reason to suppose that the Jewish participant found this universalistic perspective especially challenging or troublesome even at the outset of the Colloquium. Rather, the Colloquium compelled the Jews to see their Catholic colleagues and friends in all their particularity as "Christian men and women." The Jewish participant in the Colloquium was forced to recognize that individuals may be good, decent, and spiritual not in spite of, but precisely because they are committed Christians. Christianity, these Jewish participants came to understand, consists of more than a hatred for Jews. It comprises a force for good in the world. Constructing one's identity over against such persons is a much more complex and difficult task than establishing it over against a heinous caricature. It is no wonder, given the role that the Christian has traditionally played as the "preeminent other" for Jews in the construction of their own identity, that the effects of the Colloquium were "dizzying" upon the transformed sense of Jewish self-identity that emerged among its Jewish participants.

Boys and Lee, in planning the Colloquium, affirmed the insight of Diana Eck, whom they quote, "The theological task, and the task of a pluralist society, is to create the space and the means for the encounter of commitments, not to neutralize all commitments." It was thus their hope "that participants would leave the Colloquium with a deepened commitment to their own tradition—to have their own identity strengthened by sustained relationship with the other." Their aim was not to have the participants in the Colloquium surrender to what David Tracy has labeled a "relaxed pluralism" where everything is permitted and where boundaries are neither drawn nor commitments affirmed (Tracy 1985: 451). Rather, they demonstrated that standing in relationship to the other is essential if true dialogue and transformation among persons of "rival religious traditions" are to occur.

The participants—Jews and Catholics alike—transcended past borders that precluded such conversation. The venue of a carefully and thoughtfully constructed setting for interreligious learning allowed them to cultivate the ability to listen to and empathize with positions advanced by those who had formerly been seen as preeminently other. The Colloquium demonstrated that when such affirmation and acknowledgment of the other as fully equal occurs, identity can be transformed—not obliterated –and serious and respectful conversation can result. The modern situation—one of "heretical imperatives" and "double consciousness"—has made this possible.

The Catholic-Jewish Colloquium succeeded in transforming the identity of its participants because it established a setting in which caricatures of the "other" could no longer be maintained. These caricatures—so understandable in light of the historical circumstances which had forged and maintained the identity of Jews as a religious community distinct and apart from Christians—were initially softened and ultimately dissolved in the face of personal address and encounter.

The value of such dissolution is inestimable, because, as Michael Wyschogrod has observed about Jewish intrareligious dialogue:

There is a value in talking to one another in and by itself, apart from any "result" achieved. . . . To be with fellow [human beings] is to become aware of [their] mode of being in the world, of the reality of [their] being. . . . Let us realize that the alternative to speaking is violence. There is really no such thing as ignoring a fellow human being. Not to speak with my neighbors is a mode of relating to [them], and even if the mode does not immediately express itself in violence, it points onward because the alternative to speech is communication by deed, violent deed (Wyschogrod 1983, 242).

When persons will not speak with the other a dehumanization of the other easily arises, and a demonization results. As a committed Jew, not only the past history of Jewish-Christian relations, but recent events like the slaughter of Muslims engaged in prayer in Hebron in 1994 and the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995, all too painfully remind me of the tragedy that can ensue when the path of dialogue is not taken.

Colloquia and meetings like the one analyzed in this paper are more than exercises in which the identity of all those who participate is both strengthened and reformulated in the meeting with the other. They also embody additional moral and religious dimensions. By confronting the other in his or her full integrity as a person embedded in tradition we—as persons informed by and conscious of the imperatives of the modern world—are each reminded of the ineffability of God and of the mystery and infinity that lie at the heart of religion and culture, history and memory. Our traditions and our symbols as well as our rituals—constructed and mediated as we are aware they are through human agency—are fragile and tentative gropings for the reality of the divine whose presence they purport to represent in the world. They are all penultimate. They point toward, but do not fully contain, the Divine, Whose plenitude is beyond all words and rituals. The Colloquium and the setting of interreligious learning it fostered teach us a great deal about how religious identity is constructed and transformed. More importantly, it testifies that members of each tradition can learn from one another even as the uniqueness of each community's own memory and the identity are asserted and affirmed. 

The enterprise of interreligious learning, so assessed, reflects more than the social dynamics involved in the process of forging a particular community's sense of religious identity. It also contributes to the creation of an atmosphere of mutual respect between former rivals who were all too often actual foes. Interreligious learning, carried out in the manner of the Catholic-Jewish Colloquium, permits its participants to forge a new sense of religious identity. It allows the Jew to assert, as Eugene Borowitz did in his work Contemporary Christologies over a decade ago, "To be sure, I see a substantial difference between my faith and that of the [Christian] theologians I have studied here, but I cannot say that their wisdom is only `human wisdom.' They know a great deal about the God of my people and their knowledge has consequences for their lives [as well as my own] in ways. . .which are recognizably directed to God's service" (Borowitz 1980,190).


David Ellenson is I. H. and Anna Grancell Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.


List of Works Consulted

Barth, F. 1969. Ethnic groups and boundaries: The social organization of culture. London, Allen and Unwin,

Berger, Peter. 1979. The heretical imperative. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books.

Borowitz, Eugene B. 1980. Contemporary Christologies. New York: Paulist Press.

Cohen, Ronald. 1978. Ethnicity: problem and focus in anthropology. Annual review of anthropology 7: 379-403.

Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and danger. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Dubois, W.E.B. 1965. The souls of Black folks in three Negro classics. New York: Avon Books.

Soloveitchik, Joseph. 1964. Confrontation. Tradition 6: 5-30.

Tracy, David. 1985. The analogical imagination. New York: Crossroads.

Wyschogrod, Michael. 1983. The body of faith. New York: The Seabury Press.