Robert E. Tornberg


In preparation for our sixth and final Colloquium,each participant was asked to "select a text, a practice or a belief from within your tradition that you understand differently because of . . . a new understanding of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. . . ."

The text I chose, a poem written by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, is an old favorite of mine which I have used in many ways prior to my experience in the Colloquium. It has been a resource for me in the teaching of prayer, discussions of God and inquiries into human relations.

There must have been a time when you entered a room and met someone and after a while you understood that unknown to either of you there was a reason you had met. You had changed the other and he had changed you. By some word or deed or just by your presence the errand had been completed. Then perhaps you were a little bewildered or humbled and grateful. And it was over.

Each lifetime is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.

For some there are more pieces.

For others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble.


Some seem to be born with a nearly completed puzzle.

And so it goes.

Souls going this way and that.

Trying to assemble the myriad parts.


But know this. No one has within themselves

All the pieces to their puzzle.

Like before the days when they used to seal

jigsaw puzzles in cellophane. Insuring that

All the pieces were there.


Everyone carries with them at least one and probably

Many pieces to someone else's puzzle.

Sometimes they know it.

Sometimes they don't.


And when you present your piece

Which is worthless to you,

To another, whether you know it or not,

Whether they know it or not,

You are a messenger from the Most High 

(Kushner 1977, 69-70).


In thinking back on how I have used this poem over the years, I realize that I generally saw "my puzzle" as a Jewish one. The pieces that I have collected have, for the most part, been from others who have helped shape my Jewish identity in a very direct way. The puzzle pieces that stand out most in my memory relate to my acquiring a growing understanding of Judaism from within that tradition. These include learning Talmud, exploring the prayerbooks of our people, uncovering the world of Midrash, growing in my observance of holidays, rituals and other Mitzvot. Each of these gifts of knowledge and feeling was presented by a special teacher, an admired role model, a cherished colleague or a wonderful friend. Each of these gifts made me comfortable in the world of Jewish texts and practice. I certainly would not be the committed, identifying, knowledgeable Jew I am without the help of so many important people along the way. They gave so much of themselves, and "whether they know it or not" they were messengers from the most High.

While I continue to grow as a Jew every day, several years ago I realized that I was at a point in my life where my Jewish "self" was firmly in place and I truly felt that I "know who I am." Just about the time I consciously realized this, I applied to participate in The Catholic-Jewish Colloquium. I must admit that I really didn't know what to expect. Little did I know that as a result of my participation in the Colloquium, the jigsaw puzzle of my lifetime would not only change in size, but also in shape, as pieces were added.

It all started with the first session. We were strangers getting to know each other and were being very careful about what we were saying. We had been assigned to bring a text that was central in determining the way a Catholic or Jew develops an understanding of tradition. I sat there resonating to most of the Jews who shared a variety of texts, many of which I "owned" as well. The Catholic participants also shared their texts, some of which I had studied. The way many of them talked about their chosen text, however, was quite foreign to me and made me uncomfortable. Their easy use of "faith language," certain concepts of spirituality and personal relationship with Jesus left me feeling ill-at-ease.

As a result of my discomfort, as well as having always wanted to ask this question, I blurted out "Why do you need Jesus anyway? Why can't you relate directly to God?" As I recall, there was a shocked silence in the room and finally a Catholic participant answered, "You just don't understand. It isn't that we need Jesus. He just is!"

This simple, straightforward answer was not the "arms-length" intellectual response I had been looking for and shook me to the core of my being. At that moment, I realized, for the first time, that Christianity is not some cognitive construct that people "choose" to accept—they believe its truths as deeply as I believe the truths of Judaism. For me, Adonai "just is"; for them Jesus/God "just is." Simple? Yes! But, I had never conceived of this in these terms before.

During the next five sessions of the Colloquium, no matter what we were doing, the critical element for me was spending time with deeply religious people. We were Christians and Jews, sharing the love we feel for our traditions, the insights we have learned, and the truths we know and feel. I specifically remember one late night discussion with my Catholic roommate. We had spent time that day sharing the textual bases of our two faiths. He was especially impressed with the depth of knowledge the Jewish participants had about our texts. He had many questions, and as I answered them, I became more and more passionate about the written words of our people. As I talked, I felt wonderful about my knowledge and my intense feelings about my texts.

At that time, however, I was also becoming quite conscious of my "jealousy" of the Catholic participants' ability to speak so easily about their spiritual experiences. I was, therefore, quite surprised when my roommate expressed his own jealousy over the depth of learning the Jewish participants had about their texts and the intellectual side of religion. When I reacted to this and shared my own sense of what I was lacking, we both felt validated in who we are. We also learned something important about the strength of the other and understood that we could help each other learn to "fill in the gaps" we each sensed we were missing.

The simultaneous study of our two traditions gave us the opportunity to transmit to each other many of the declarations of "just is" that are at the core of our being. As we interacted in the process of studying theologies, histories and texts, we truly got a window into each other’s souls. For example, in Colloquium IV we focused on the immigrant experience of both Jews and Catholics. I had known that Catholics had faced some difficulties when they came to the U.S. I was really stunned, however, as the Catholic participants shared personal and family memories. The parallels to the pain of the American Jewish immigrant experience were striking and I believe that a new kind of bond was created between me and my Catholic colleagues.

Similarly, anger, sadness and sorrow were clearly evident in the Catholics each time we studied medieval persecutions of Jews, and especially the Holocaust. Experiencing this allowed me to let go of much of my historical resentment and diminished the focus on my own victimization. This led to an unburdening of much of the anger which I had carried around for years. Until I could release myself from being a victim, I had no room to appreciate Christianity. By the last session, this transformation had taken place.

My colleagues in the Colloquium have shared freely of themselves in giving pieces of their puzzles to me and I have reciprocated. This occurred in the formal study sessions with leaders and scholars, in discussions with participants and during less formal times such as dinner and late night discussions. If the truth be told, I have had deeper, more meaningful conversations about God, faith and religion with my colleagues in this program than I have had with any other group of people in my lifetime.

So what have I gained as a result of this experience which I believe has transformed me as a Jew and a human being? At a foundational level, I have gained a true appreciation of Christianity. Previously I "tolerated" it as another religion, but it had, I believed, little from which I could learn. As a result of the intense study in the presence of intensely religious Catholics, I see their religion as a true and valid faith for those who accept it. It adds beauty and meaning to their lives and I can share in their joy over this reality.

At a deeper level, I have come to understand and appreciate the tremendous faith held by the Christians in our group. I found that they were much more ready to discuss, explain and clarify matters of spirituality and faith than are many of the Jews I know. It seemed that they were not at all self-conscious about sharing their inner lives. As a result of seeing their comfort, their joy and their satisfaction with uncovering this "just is" openly with themselves and others, I wanted to share more and more of myself with them.

This brings me to the place where I found the greatest meaning as a result of the Colloquium. Because of my involvement with others who could so easily express their faith, I dug inside myself and found that I, too, could be in touch with similar feelings within my own tradition in very new ways. This was not so surprising, but as time passed and we participated in more experiences together I was able to articulate ideas, concepts, feelings and beliefs that simply had not come easily to my tongue in the past.

In short, I am not the same person I was in February 1993 when we began this odyssey together. As a result of our study, our discussions and arguments, and the intimate relationships that have developed, I find myself a much more spiritual person. When I teach, God is not only talked about more often, God is actually present for me. I now look for opportunities to share my Judaism with non-Jews, as well as chances to learn from and with them. As I look at the Kushner poem today I see a greatly expanded puzzle. It is no longer an exclusively Jewish puzzle. Perhaps I can best describe the change by saying it is now a puzzle with a much more expansive picture. And yet, as I consider this statement I also know that my picture is more Jewish than ever.

I have given away many pieces of my puzzle to my friends in the Colloquium, but I have gained many more pieces from them. I believe I have "changed the other" and that the other has changed me. The gifts we have given and received have not simply left me "a little bewildered or humbled and grateful." I know that they and we—us—are, in fact, messengers from the Most High.

Robert E. Tornberg is Principal of Cohen Hillel Academy in Marblehead, Massachusetts.


List of Works Consulted

Kushner, Lawrence. 1977. Honey from the Rock: Visions of Jewish Mystical Renewal. New York: Harper and Row.