The Covenant and the Jewish-Christian Dialogue

A Response to Rabbi Norman Solomon and Cardinal Walter Kasper


Mary C. Boys, s.n.j.m.

Union Theological Seminary, New York City


It is a privilege to respond to these learned and wise papers.  I understand my role as respondent to be modest:  to highlight a few points and to pose some questions that will stimulate discussion.  If Rabbi Solomon (from Oxford) and Cardinal Kasper (from the Vatican) will pardon me for drawing an analogy from the American national pastime, my role is like the lead-off hitter—simply get on base and hope to rally the rest of the team.  Whether I will be as successful as Ichiro (Suzuki, of the Seattle Mariners [American League’s most valuable player in 2001 famous for his ability to get on base]) remains to be seen.

I will address both papers in the order in which Rabbi Solomon and Cardinal Kasper spoke last evening while also indicating points of connection.  My focus will be on the implications of their papers for relations between Christians (especially Catholics) and Jews.

Rabbi Solomon’s paper addressed questions about covenant in a fresh manner.  In particular, I find his argument about the metaphorical nature of covenant provocative.  If covenant is indeed a metaphor conveying Israel’s self-understanding in relation to God, what, then, does this claim allow?  What does it disallow?  Rabbi Solomon answers the latter question in part in his assertion that argument over who “has” the covenant or whose is superior is an essentialist error.  The polemic of our respective ancestors in faith (see Kasper, p. 6) hardened the metaphor into doctrine, making what is a “beautiful yet plastic metaphor” into an “object of ownership.”  Thus, recognizing the metaphorical character of covenant precludes Jews and Christians arguing over who “possesses” it, and, by implication, makes debate about the one-covenant or two covenant theories (see Kasper, p.7) irrelevant. 

Among the numerous covenants (Solomon, p. 3), three are primary:  with the environment, with all humanity and with Israel as a nation of faith.  These, of course, are the primary covenants of Tanakh.  Those of us who accept the revelatory character of the New Testament would add a fourth great biblical covenant:  the “new” covenant made possible by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  While this claim is obviously incompatible with Israel’s faith, presumably Rabbi Solomon would not preclude the possibility of this fourth great covenant, since he writes that Israel’s “intimate covenant relationship with God does not exclude some other nation, religion, or group perceiving itself in an intimate covenantal relationship with God” (p. 11).  To speak of “relational distinctiveness” allows a pluralist perspective on covenants.

A parenthetical observation:  Even as I was reflecting on this point, my eye fell on the Book of Mormon, “Another Testament of Jesus Christ.”  Might Rabbi Solomon’s contention about the metaphorical character of covenant be of help to Christians in sorting out how we assess the Mormon supersessionist claim?

Given the important implications of Rabbi Solomon’s categorization of covenant as metaphor, we will benefit from further discussion of his argument.  At least two other points deserve discussion as well.  In light of his pluralist perspective on covenant, how would he respond to Cardinal Kasper’s inquiry about Judaism’s judgment about other religions?  And what is the significance of the rearrangement of the order of his fourteen theses in the conclusion?

I turn now to Cardinal Kasper’s paper, taking up the topic of images and then of what it might mean to have a developing theology of covenant.

First, images.  Cardinal Kasper works primarily with two:  the olive tree and bridges.  Since Phil Cunningham will address the image of olive tree in his response, I will speak about bridges, especially since Rabbi Joe Ehrenkrantz also brought this to our attention in last evening’s discussion.  Cardinal Kasper uses the image of bridge in two ways.  In his conclusion, he points to the need to build bridges, and then dares us to walk on bridges “that have existed as long as we have existed as Jews and Christians” (p. 10).  Yes, we have always had bridges, but for many years these bridges have been very tenuous—more of the rope variety in which one feels at peril!  Earlier in his paper (p. 3), he speaks about Pope John Paul II as one who has constructed bridges throughout his life, and points first to the pope’s longstanding friendships with Jews.

I wish to develop this point because I believe friendships between Christians and Jews are of the utmost importance in furthering mutual understanding.  If covenant is primarily about relationship with God and one another, then friendships are a key embodiment of covenant.  When friendships have not been possible, serious divisions arise between us.  We have not paid sufficient attention to the consequences of those regional medieval councils between 465 and 694 that essentially segregated Christians from Jews. Once we no longer knew one another as human beings, it became all too easy to reify and dehumanize the religious “other.”   I believe this medieval conciliar legislation was a major cause of the enmity that developed between our two communities in the High Middle Ages. If Christians all too readily demonized Jews, it was in large measure because we no longer knew them.

Contemporary theologians today are beginning to address the significance of friendship for interreligious understanding.  James Fredericks, a Catholic priest from Los Angeles and scholar of Buddhism who writes under the rubric of “comparative theology,” speaks of interreligious friendships as relationships that “promote understanding between believers in helping them locate the text not merely within its historical context but also within its living, existential context.”[1]  Interreligious friendships are both destabilizing and empowering.  The stranger may pose a threat to our current self-understanding, but also may bring the power to liberate us for a new and welcome self-understanding.

Similarly, Michael Barnes, an English Jesuit who is a scholar of Hinduism, reminds us that dialogue is first and foremost not an intellectual activity but a religious one.  He suggests, following Raimundo Panikkar, that we need a “a theory of interpenetration, not the theological colonialism of Anonymous Christianity.”[2]  This implies a theology of dialogue rather than for dialogue.  Barnes emphasizes the necessity of “interior dialogue” in proposing a Spirit-centered theology of religions.  Dialogue is not simply a “more civilized form of mission; it is about learning who the other is in order to find out who I am.”  It requires spiritual preparation: “dialogue forces us—myself and the other—to find the ground of our common search in the Divine.  Such dialogue requires a commitment, an honesty and a willingness to learn, qualities which are as difficult to sustain as the single-minded zeal which so much characterized the greatest of the old missionaries.”[3]

What Fredericks and Barnes argue is that relationships between persons of different religious traditions help us to take differences seriously.  They become a way of gaining a sense of the “thick texture” of another tradition, and serve as a catalyst for us to return to our home tradition with new questions that stretch our horizons and invite deeper reflection.

I turn now to a densely worded, two-sentence paragraph in Cardinal Kasper’s paper that I propose to exegete briefly.  The Cardinal writes:

This overview of the question of the Covenant has led us directly to the central issue of the Jewish-Christian dialogue:  what is the relation between the old Covenant, which is still valid, and the new Covenant, which is described by the New Testament as the eternal Covenant?

Rabbi Solomon’s paper raises the question of whether our language of “new” covenant, while firmly embedded in Christian tradition, does not invite invidious comparison with the “old.”  There is no single “old” covenant.  And if this covenant is “still valid,” is it not also “eternal”?  Perhaps we Christians have not sufficiently wrestled with the metaphorical character of “new”; by flattening its metaphorical character, we gloss over the complexity of covenant and preclude pluralism.  I realize this is a major challenge for Christian theology, but since the theology of the covenant is not static (p. 5), it is a point at least worth probing.

It is the second sentence of this same paragraph that raises an even more significant question for me:

It is clear that, in the same way as we have rejected the replacement theory, we must also reject any relativistic pluralism or undifferentiated dualism, in the sense of the simplistic co-existence of two realities.

This complicated sentence invites commentary.  First, I underline the significance of the Cardinal’s rejection of replacement theory (or supersessionism).  I wish this theory a happy death—while it may be mortally ill in certain theological and ecclesial circles, it is, unfortunately, all too well in pastoral and catechetical contexts. 

Second, Cardinal Kasper rejects “relativistic pluralism” (emphasis my own).  I understand these to be theories of pluralism that dissolve differences, such as the claim of John Hick that all religions should be regarded as different responses to the same ultimate reality.  Typically, these theories work from the typology of exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism.  But this typology typical of the “school” of relativistic pluralism does not exhaust theological approaches to pluralism.  Indeed, thinkers such as Fredericks and Barnes, and a host of others, offer alternative understandings that if not yet fully adequate theologies of pluralism, are nonetheless promising.  Thus, we ought not to confuse (let alone condemn) the approach of one school of thought with all theologies of pluralism.

Third, the Cardinal rejects “undifferentiated dualism, in the sense of the simplistic co-existence of two realities.”  I am not entirely sure what he means here, but I think he may be pointing to a statement in the 1985 Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church: “Church and Judaism cannot then be seen as two parallel ways of salvation. . . .”

I wish to take issue with the adequacy of the phrase “two parallel ways of salvation.”  Do we not have an obligation to pursue the theological implications of our (belated) recognition of the continuing validity of God’s covenant relationship with Israel?  If the covenant was never revoked, if God’s favor is still with Israel, obliging Jews to live their vocation in the world in response to God’s faithfulness, then how should we articulate their relationship with us?  Is it not incumbent upon us to pursue our claim—negatively worded—further and in the positive? Can we not provide what John Pawlikowski speaks of as “theological space” for Judaism?

Can we not finally admit that since God’s covenant with the Jewish people remains in force, that Torah is a true path to God, a true path to salvation?

Judaism and Christianity are not “parallel” ways of salvation, an “undifferentiated dualism.” Rather, they are intersecting pathways in which we meet each other at various junctures on our journeys of faith.

This has profound implications for a theology of mission.  Cardinal Kasper, in his paper for the 17th meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee (ILC) in New York City (April 20-May 4, 2001), said that Catholics do not have a “mission” to Jews:

Thus mission, in this strict sense [conversion from false gods and idols to the true and one God] cannot be used with regard to Jews, who believe in the true and one God.  Therefore—and this is characteristic—there does not exist any Catholic missionary organization for Jews. There is dialogue with Jews, not mission, in the proper sense of the word, toward them.[4]

Yes.  Can we now go further, and acknowledge that we have no mission because Judaism is a true way to salvation? 

Thinking of Jews and Christians as meeting on intersecting pathways on the journey of faith reminds me of Martin Buber’s image of the “narrow ridge.”  He proposed this metaphor as an alternative to absolutist positions:  “On the far side of the subjective, on this side of the objective, on the narrow ridge, where I and Thou meet, there is the realm of the between.”[5]  The narrow ridge expressed his sense that the he did not “rest on the broad upland of a system that includes a series of sure statements about the absolute, but on a narrow rocky ridge between the gulfs where there is no sureness of expressible knowledge but the certainty of meeting with the One who remains undisclosed.”[6]

Those who would be partners of the religious “other” may indeed walk along the narrow ridge.  We are daring a walk our ancestors in faith were not able to take.  Our position may feel precarious at times, but in seeing one another more truly, we catch glimpses of the Holy Other who draws us together in covenantal relationships.

[1] James L. Fredericks, “Interreligious Friendship: A New Theological Virtue,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 35/2 (1998): 168.

[2]  Michael Barnes, Christian Identity and Religious Pluralism (Nashville”  Abingdon, 1989), p. 131.

[3] Christian Identity and Religious Pluralism, p. 115.

[4] Walter Kasper, “The Good Olive Tree,” America 185/7 (September 17, 2001): 14.

[5] Martin Buber, The Way of Response (New York: Schocken, 1966), p. 55.

[6]The Way of Response, p. 110.