Monthly Archives: December 2015

Interview with Rabbi David Wolpe

David Wolpe, the senior rabbi of the Sinai Temple in Los Angeles is consistently ranked as one of the top rabbis in the United States.  His congregation attracts a thousand worshippers on a Shabbat morning and at its peak his Friday night service attracted 1500. He is the author of a many books and contributes short columns to many national media sources. I know him as the busy public celebrity who has had debates with several of the new atheists and through his active online presence with tens of thousands of follower. But in his books, his real message is found in how he sits with a friend undergoing chemotherapy, discusses faith with adolescents, or comforts a congregant going through tough times.

wolpe headshot

What is behind his great success and what can we learn from him? I came to do this interview via Twitter, in that Rabbi Wolpe paid me the honor of recommending my blog to someone else on Twitter, “good interview, excellent blog” to which I responded: “would you like an interview?” But as I prepared this interview, I found less of an exchange of ideas and more of a person. Unlike other rabbis whom I have interviewed, David Wolpe came across without any cynicism, point to prove, or need to argue. He speaks from his heart.

Rabbi David Wolpe is a leader who feels a deep affinity to King David as shown in his recent David: The Divided Heart (Jewish Lives). But King David now lives in successful suburban America where his congregants are creative and prosperous, but at the same time fissured and flawed. Wolpe portrays David as self-confident, sensitive, and gentle, and that David’s connection to God often seems more stable that his difficulties with people. In Wolpe’s presentation, King David has an enlarged vision that others cannot see, he can envision possibilities.


“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  Inside all of us is a life of the spirit that needs cultivating.  A Chabad Rabbi may give a similar message by quoting the first chapter of Tanya about how we all have a divine soul. Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai, in contrast, quotes Teilhard and offers the message without the certainty of metaphysics.

Recently Wolpe posted “What is a Rabbi at her or his best? A spiritual midwife helping others bring forth their deepest selves.” Wolpe’s goal is to support people to cultivate the spiritual self by using the insights of Judaism.

Why Faith Matter? asks Rabbi David Wolpe in his book of the same title where he answers the challenges of the new atheists, the conflict of religion with science, and the continued relevance of religion. He writes: “Faith begins with a question:”Who are you?” He answers: “Love of this world, of one another, is the sole hope in an age when we can destroy the world many times over. Faith when “not blind or bigoted” pushes us to be better, to give more of ourselves, to glimpses of transcendence scattered throughout our lives. He is not going to convince the skeptic or the under-educated.

In this book, we see David Wolpe, philosophy major and philosophy instructor meet the atheism of Bertram Russel, stand with a chemotherapy patient, confront the meaninglessness of the Holocaust, and acknowledge the lack of definitive proofs for God. Wolpe is in favor of honest doubt, uncertainty, and limitations of knowledge. He does not allow any turns to a false certainty, even those of the existential who preaches an existential leap. Rather, we are left with our very human lives that surprises and challenges us, to which we respond with hope and striving for transcendence. The volume can be put on the shelf with one’s copies of Rick Warren, Mitch Albom, and Marilynne Robinson.

Wolpe’s popular book Why be Jewish? answers the title question with a variety of heart felt thoughts grouped under three headings: to grow in soul, join a people, and seek God. The first reason to be Jewish is “to grow in soul.” There is a mystery within us; we have deeper levels to reach in our lives, but many people only open a few doors of their soul. Judaism allows one to open many more. Judaism’s central teaching is that we are all in the image of God; we each have great potential and responsibility.

The second reason to be Jewish is to join a people to be part of an amazing history, a surviving people, and to connect to our land of Israel. As part of the Jewish people you gain a system for realizing truth; one gains the enduring wisdom of the Torah and the power of the Torah for our survival.  The third reason is to seek God. But we should be aware of the limits of human language to grasp God. We access God through living as the Talmud shows involved in human affairs and to rise above our baser instincts. God is felt, spoken to, listened to.

Note that Wolpe is a critic of the trend of spirituality without religion:

Do you like feeling good without having to act on your feeling? … Spirituality is an emotion. Religion is an obligation. Spirituality soothes. Religion mobilizes. Spirituality is satisfied with itself. Religion is dissatisfied with the world. Religions create aid organizations… To be spiritual but not religious confines your devotional life to feeling good.

Being religious does not mean you have to agree with all the positions and practices of your own group; I don’t even hold with everything done in my own synagogue, and I’m the Rabbi. But it does mean testing yourself in the arena of others. [I]nstitutions are also the only mechanism human beings know to perpetuate ideologies and actions.

wolpe headshot 2

Covenantal Judaism

Rabbi Wolpe is not your grandfather’s Conservative Rabbi. The Conservative movement of the Northeast formulated in the 1950’s responded to the working class moving to suburbia and has noticeably declined rapidly. The Northeastern establishment of the Conservative movement even voted against outreach twenty years ago, thinking there would be natural continuity. There are still twice as many Conservative Jews as there are Orthodox, some of it in decline, some of it in a status quo, and other parts growing stronger and bigger.

Yet, there is a generation of new Conservative Rabbis with new ideas, new approaches, and most importantly new locations in the West.  Wolpe is one of the new approaches. There are even Orthodox rabbis who teach Wolpe’s ideas in their own congregations. Wolpe hosts events to draw people into the congregation including high profile debates and public forums.

In 1998, Wolpe and singer-songwriter Craig Taubman pioneered using contemporary music for the Shabbat-eve musical service called Friday Night Live that offered worship song  mixing traditional prayers with new tunes. Attendance soon soared from 300 worshippers to a peak of about 1,500. Until this point, the use of instruments on Shabbat within the Conservative movement, was limited despite the 1958 allowance of organs and a 1970 opinion permitting guitars and other instruments.

In a move taken from the Rick Warren playbook, Wolpe and Taubman stepped down to give the program to a younger cadre of leadership.

Wolpe’s views on the future of the Conservative movement are easily accessible through his 2005 essay on Covenantal Judaism, his 2007 reiteration, and his recent 2015 essay on Relational Judaism. Judaism should not be stuck in prior centuries slavishly following prior opinion. The wisdom of our age contributes to the ongoing unfolding of Torah, which he now terms a  “Judaism of Relationships.”

Covenantal Judaism. That is our philosophy and should be our name. Renaming heralds our rejuvenation. We believe in an ongoing dialogue with God. Not everything significant has already been said, nor is the modern world uniquely wise. Our task goes beyond mere clarification of the old or reflexive reverence for the new. As with a friendship, we cherish the past but are not limited to its formulations or assumptions. Venerating the teachings of Maimonides does not negate that tomorrow, with the tools of modern study, a new Rambam may arise. The Judaism of relationship. Covenantal Judaism. Such is our creed, our dogma, our gift.

Covenantal Judaism holds aloft the ideal of dialogue with God, with other Jews of all movements, and with the non-Jewish world. In holding each of these as sacred we stand in a unique position in Jewish life. Ritual is language, part of the way we speak to other Jews and to God. Learning, ancient and modern, is essential to sustain the eternal dialogue. “I have been given the power,” said the Kotzker Rebbe, “to resurrect the dead. But I choose a harder task — to resurrect the living!” Resurrection of passion, of faith, of community requires not the touch of the Divine, but the touch of another human being.

The Covenant and Jewish Law: The overriding commandment of Covenantal Judaism is to be in relationship with each other and with God. The more halacha (Jewish law) we “speak,” the more full and rich the relationship. Our faith is neither a checklist nor a simple formula. It is a proclamation and a path.

Jewish authenticity is not measured by the number of specific actions one performs but the quality of the relationships expressed through those actions. Recall what the Torah says of Moses: In praising our greatest leader, The Torah does not recount that he performed the most mitzvot of anyone who ever lived, or even that his ethics exceeded all others. We are told that Moses saw God “panim el panim” face to face. The merit of Moses is in the unparalleled relationship he had with Israel and with God.

In Wolpe’s view, the goal is to strike a middle position between past and present. We dare not permit it to turn into a fossilized faith or a sacrifice to the seductions of modernity. In a different interview, he commented:

RW: I think that it’s very hard for people at the same time to feel the tradition that has deep roots and divine and yet understand how much of it is a product of human creativity. That’s a difficult balance so; it’s easier to think, it’s all G-d or its only people. And if it’s only people then I can discard it anyway I want. If it’s all G-d then I can never ever think of changing no matter how much the modern world may demand it. But I believe that Conservative Judaism represents this idea of ongoing dialogue between people and G-d and just like friendship many many important things are said but there’s always a possibility to say a new thing. So for me that’s the most exciting wonderful model, but I understand that it’s a model that for some people is difficult because it puts all of your life in a sort of dynamic balance so you can’t rest in one place too easily.

When Wolpe speaks of his commitment to academic scholarship, it does not mean that he is an academic scholar, or gives Wissenschaft lectures. Rather that is a signal that he acknowledges that the Jewish classic texts are part of the ongoing human relationship with the divine.

Wolpe does not want to be frozen in the 1950’s conservative motto of “tradition and change” in which a rabbi adapted the old to the current life in suburbia. Wolpe comments that “Tradition and change is actually not a slogan; it is a paradox,” Wolpe said. “It says: We stand for two exactly opposite things. We are the oxymoronic movement.” In its place he offers a defining motto of what a rabbi should be doing, that is, to be “centered on relationship: with other Jews, with the non-Jewish world, and espousing a continuing and growing relationship with God.”

Where do the trends of halakhic egalitarianism and the Seminary tradition of the academic study of Talmud fit into this vision? You can answer by asking how these activities help in relating to God, sitting with a sick congregant, or raising the status of Judaism in the wider world.


As stated above Rabbi Wolpe does not seek to recreate the 1950’s Conservative movement, but he also does not accept the triumphalist myth within Orthodoxy. Most of the recent small growth of Orthodoxy still leaves the Conservative movement as twice its size. Most of the turn to Orthodoxy, he ascribes to the world-wide turn in the last few decades to fundamentalist religions. Rather Wolpe thinks that as “the intellectual pressures of Western society increase” on Orthodox society, “you will see a gradual defection from fundamentalism.” He opines the possibility that “unbeknownst to all these yeshivot – they are training the next generations of Conservative Jews. It has happened before and it may happen again.”

Let us turn to his review of former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to see where the dividing line lies and why he thinks the Conservative movement will prevail. Wolpe cites that Sacks praises pluralism in nations outside of Judaism, but only tolerates Orthodoxy within Judaism.  For Wolpe, this is not a logical argument, rather obedience to a fundamentalist position. Preaching pluralism to the world and denying it at home.

With this dubious stroke, Sacks decides that one people cannot sustain internal variety. But this is a conclusion that both Jewish history and much of Jewish philosophy, with its plurality of incompatible views, flatly contradicts. Moreover, it is a conclusion that I suspect he would be unwilling to apply to others. Can there be no pluralism among the French, Indians, or Serbs? Can there be no multiple forms of Chinese Confucianism? Only on Orthodox premises—God told us we must be this way—are Jews bound to reject pluralism. But then our obligation to act in a certain manner does not stem from the fact that Judaism is “the religion of a particular people.” Rather, the sticking point is God’s will. Presuming to outlaw other interpretations on the basis of one reading of God’s will— God does not wish us to be non-Orthodox Jews— is an ancient, venerable practice, but not much of a concession to the dignity of difference.

In addition, Wolpe praises Sacks as a wonderful wordsmith but ignores the serious intellectual questions of our age or to modern academic disciplines. Sacks cannot be an apologist for Judaism to those leaving Judaism because he ignores the real challenges.

More important than his occasional susceptibility to platitudes is the fact that Sacks fails to do justice to the challenges presented by the modern study of religion. He appears never to risk a straightforward reckoning with biblical criticism. Sacks has been quoted as harshly attacking those who deny the Mosaic authorship of the Torah. But since modern criticism is the standard approach in virtually every non-Evangelical or non-Orthodox university in the Western world, it cannot be simply dismissed out of hand. For a thinker preoccupied with the widespread Jewish abandonment of tradition, ignoring the intellectual impact of comparative religion, history, archeology, textual criticism, and science leaves a gaping hole in the middle of his discourse.

I repeat, Wolpe is not  interested in giving classes based on scholarship and his sermons may be more God centered than Sacks. Wolpe’s book on David was not critical but it acknowledged that the text and all the interpretations came from human struggles.

Elsewhere, Rabbi Wolpe answers the question: Why Do People Become Orthodox? He answers “ The three principal, positive reasons why I believe people choose to be Orthodox: community, coherence and connection [to the Divine will]. In that discussion, Wolpe distinguishes Orthodoxy from Conservative Judaism as the distinction between Kabbalistic theurgy to perform God’s expressed will as opposed to therapeutic encouragement.

The kabbalistic, theurgic amplification is that performing the mitzvah can make a difference to (or in) God’s self. How pale, by comparison, is the dutiful liberal explanation that the mitzvoth will make you a more sensitive person, a more caring person, someone closer to the history and destiny of your people. Of what power is such therapeutic encouragement beside God’s expressed will?

Wolpe backhandedly and with self-depreciation clearly defines the liberal position as cultivation of the self, compassion, and connection to Jews, rather than submission to a Divine will.

1)      One of your main focuses is God in one’s life: What is faith and trust in God?

As I have gotten older my notion of God has gotten more abstract.  When I wrote Healer of Shattered Heart(1990) I was very taken by the midrashic idea of God.  Heschel’s God of pathos – direct, immediate, whose love and embrace are boundless – is powerfully present in rabbinic sources.  It spoke to me and speaks to me.

I still find it beautiful and emotionally compelling.  Increasingly however, I believe we are completely incapable of truly grasping anything real about God. A two year old cannot understand an adult, or even understand what he does not understanding.  The gulf between God and us is immeasurably greater than that between an adult and a two year old. So I come to God less through intellection than through a sense of living in harmony with that great mystery.

And therefore trust is for me trust in something I cannot understand but Who endows the world with wonder, souls with spark and life ultimately with its deepest meaning.

2)      What are the ways we come to God?

We come to God in almost every way – through study, ritual, nature, contemplation, music, relationship.  Individuals have different lodestars.  I love books, but others will find more God in a leaf of a tree than the leaf of a manuscript.  I’ve come to think of religious tradition as a well marked path to get to the destination of both community and Divine Presence.  Judaism can show you endless ways to get there, conflicting ways at times, but the ultimate embrace of God reconciles all the incommensurables.  Some guidelines are firmer than others of course; some beliefs or behaviors take you out of the tradition.  But its boundaries are far wider than once thought.

3)       What is the active role of God in our lives?

God’s role is not a supernatural interventionist but a strength and a guide, an enduring relationship and a deep spur and comfort.  I am skeptical of the God who responds to prayers by changing the world and like very much Leon de Modena’s (early 17th Century Italian darshan) analogy of the man standing on the shore watching someone pull his boat to the dock.  If you were mistaken about mechanics and motion, says Medina, you might think he is pulling the shore to his boat.  Similarly, when we pray we think we are changing God, but we are actually pulling ourselves closer – changing ourselves.

Of course, I cannot know.  Do I rule out God’s intervention?  Of course not.  But if it happens, I believe it is on a meta level — there is a design in history but it is large enough to accommodate many different details that are a result of free choice. That is unsatisfying to those who wish to prove – or disprove – God’s direct cause and effect. But when I had cancer and was receiving chemo, I could not ascribe to God the mechanistic answer to prayer that would respond to me, because I was praying, but not heal the guy in bed four, who neglected his prayers.  So I am content to believe that any intervention is mysterious, if it is real.  In this my orientation is from Buber: what God wants from us is presence, and that is what we should seek from God – not goods, but God’s presence.

4)      What role do specific ritual mizvot play in your life?

Mitzvot are the language we speak to God.  Just as gestures, signs and symbols are part of human communication, they are part of theological communication.  When we light Shabbat candles, it is an age old sign; not only a connection to our ancestors, but something we are saying to God.  So for me the greater mitzvah is to expand and deepen communication, which is more compelling than the command to a single act or observance.

Like my father before me, I am not a ritually oriented person. By that I mean that rituals are often hard for me to sustain, even though I find them nourishing.  My life is more ritually embroidered than most conservative jews, and Shabbat and Kashrut (since I am a vegetarian in any case) and prayer are integral to my normal routine.  Yet they serve as powerful reminders that to stay ‘in touch’ is sometimes a yoke as well as a joy.

My favorite single mitzvah is to recite the modeh ani each morning.  Gratitude is the foundational religious emotion, and to awaken to a new day fills me with appreciation for the restoration of my life and soul.

5)      What is the role of Torah study in your life and that of your congregation?

These days I read more than I study, and generally study ‘for use’ – to prepare derashot and writings and classes.  Not entirely, but mostly. I teach a couple of classes, including a Thursday morning Torah class,  a monthly lunch which this year is focused on topics in the Talmud, and am planning to start a Shabbat morning parasha class during the first hour of shul.

In the congregation there are study groups of various kinds, havurot and Sunday morning Torah study and so forth.  Yet the practice of regular study is one of the things that non-Orthodox Judaism has been weak in for the past decades.  It is a major failing, and in this as in many other things we could learn from our Orthodox sisters and brothers.

6)      Why do you avoid the trends toward Neo-Hasidism, pantheism and renewal?

 Theologically I am deeply drawn to insights that are psychologically oriented.  Most of the notable modern theologians – particularly Heschel and Soloveitchik – write in this mode.  As a lover of literature (had I not been a Rabbi I would have been an English Professor) I am drawn to literary analysis of the Bible, and find in Midrash and modern literary analysis great theological nourishment.  Additionally, I find my Jewish readings enriched by my favorite non-Jewish writers, particularly Emerson, who is an endless well of provocative thoughts. The writings of certain great modern Rabbis, like Israel Leventhal and Milton Steinberg, are particularly dear to me and I hope will not be forgotten.

In high school I was enamored of Bertrand Russell and also read quite a bit of Walter Kaufman, a self-proclaimed ‘heretic’ who was also thoughtful and deep and influential in his day.  Although I believe I outgrew that world view, they oriented me to look for the slightly skeptical but surprising take on theological matters. So I find the slightly astringent (and now sadly neglected) Maurice Samuel and Arthur Cohen worth rereading. But mostly I am drawn to parshanut (Midrash is after all a species of parshanut) and Radal on Pirke D’Rabbi Eliezer or the remarkably productive, perspicacious Torah Temimah (his commentary, Tosefet Bracha, is extraordinary) are ever surprising stimulants.

In my own mind I do not so much avoid Neo-Hasidism and renewal, as choose selectively those bits that serve my own theological bent.  So I have taken from classical Hasidic literature (especially the Kotzker, whom I think a remarkable religious genius, if a profoundly troubled human being) and use books like Itturei Torah quite a bit.  But although I read and appreciate Art Green and R. Zalman and the school(s) they represent, my father’s family has roots in Lithuania.  Perhaps I am too much of a Litvak soul; Heschel and Buber speak profoundly to me in different ways, but their ‘Hasidut’ such as it is, is mediated by a profoundly intellectual approach.  I find that more compelling.

7)      You portray King David’s life as the messy but creative life of lover, husband, fugitive, king, sinner, father, caretaker, one that is  fissured and flawed. You paint him as living in the real world. Is that the way you see life?

One of the reasons I was so drawn to King David is that my appreciation for human frailty grows year by year.  I tell younger people that you think you will figure life out as you get older but the opposite, in some sense, actually happens.  The world gets more confusing.  Not because you know less, but the puzzle gets bigger.  You weigh more factors.  Lines are less clear cut.

King David was an astonishingly gifted and astonishingly flawed person.  One of the greatest characters of history, outsized, lasting.  I see his enormity as a model that we, in our lesser ways, reproduce without being aware of it.  The Greeks used to say that whatever road of life you took you found Plato on the way back.  I might similarly say that whatever sin you commit or blessing you bestow, David got there first.  In that sense working on his life consolidated and deepened my view of how human beings work.

wolpe quote

8)      In 2005, you wrote a programmatic essay about your vision for the Conservative movement. What do you think of that essay today? essay?

One thing I believe I was right on is that Judaism needs a public voice.  I was once silenced in a meeting of Jewish leaders on the question of how to revive Judaism.  I kept saying “media, media media.”  I told them it was a shame that only Christian preachers spoke on television.  This was before Facebook and social media in general and I was concerned that Jewish kids were not confronted with powerful role models.  I still think the absence of rabbinic and Jewish voices in public discourse – not political, but public – is a lack that we need to remedy.

But I am someone who is almost constitutionally incapable of seeing one side of the issue.  Invariably I find merit in the other side.  I am bad, in this sense, at being single minded.  So even though I argue vigorously (convincing myself, as a rule, in the process), I am well aware of the dialectic of debate in our tradition and I find the dogmatically certain an astonishment, and sometimes a little worrisome.

10)   What is your advice for the Conservative movement?

I see the Conservative movement as the movement in Judaism that is most centered on relationship: with other Jews, with the non-Jewish world, and espousing a continuing and growing relationship with God. I find that compelling and that is why many years ago I suggested the name “covenantal” in place of “Conservative” for our movement.

Additionally I think of CJ as a movement suffering from a lack of self-definition.  When it was a big tent movement people did not want to define it for fear of losing those at the edges of the tent.  But mushy movements are not growing ones.  So I still believe that a single centralized vision is essential.  And it should be a combined effort of all the organizational braches – the rabbinical schools and assembly, the United Synagogue and with input from laity around the country.  The very process of such reexamination will create dynamism, I believe, that will lead to other and better things.

But I believe deeply in its potential.  Conservative Judaism takes modern scholarship seriously and is not afraid of its insights.  It believes that in relationship (hence another suggestion, relational Judaism) is the secret of our continuity.  Community is our keystone.  And I believe that Conservative Judaism motivates people to see the larger Jewish picture.  Just yesterday one member of my synagogue became President of the Federation and another member became campaign chair.  That’s not a coincidence.  Conservative Judaism at its best pushes people not only intellectually but communally and encourages them to think beyond their boundaries.  It is, or should be, the commitment of a thinking Jew in the modern world.

12)   What did you personally learn from the Exodus controversy in 2001? What does that say about the bifurcation from scholarship even in the liberal world?

What Exodus controversy?

Oh, THAT Exodus controversy.  Well, I learned one thing that I put into practice when I announced that we would be performing same sex marriages.  Before I made the latter announcement I did a series of classes to prepare people.  I think for the Exodus I did insufficient preparation.  But it does demonstrate that what we study and what we preach are often at odds with each other.  Even today when I say something about the Passover story people will say “How can you say that when you question if it happened” (for the record, I never said it didn’t, just that it was uncertain and did not happen the way the Bible depicts it.)

My answer to that is that spiritual memory and historical memory are not identical and religion, if it is to move forward both academically and communally, has to acknowledge those divisions.

13)   What advice do you have for young  rabbis?

Young Rabbis.  Don’t let your sense of mission interfere with your evaluation of your own gifts.  Create the kind of rabbinate that you are good at and your congregants will appreciate you.  If you are pastoral, don’t take a place where they put a premium on speaking; if detached, don’t look for a place where there needs to be a lot of hand holding; if your dream is song and dance and joy, make sure the community is open to your vision.  A mismatch in Rabi and shul is very painful, because unlike other professions, when people criticize a Rabbi they are commenting less on a specific skill than on his or her personality and it is painful.

Two ways of thinking about what you do.  A Rabbi is a spiritual midwife.  We help others give birth to the spiritual drives that exist within them.  And our message is, like a quarterback in football, thrown a little ahead of the receiver.  In time the congregant will (if it is done right) grow into the message, rather than grow out of it.  It is like the Kotzker’s insight about why we say in the shema “al levavecha” – these words should be “on your heart” rather than “in your heart.”  He taught that hearts are not always open, but if you put the words there, in time the heart will soften and they will sink in.

All in all, it is an extraordinary and rewarding calling.  You get more positive reinforcement in a week than most people get in a year.  Ok, you also get more criticism in a week than most do in a year.  But let me close by telling you what two different Rabbis told me when I was starting out.  One said, “Only go into this if you love Jews.” He was right.  But I do, very deeply.  And another told me that he never felt he was wasting his time; the work matters.  As he said, very memorably, no matter how difficult the day, you can get into bed thinking, “it was for God, Torah and Israel.” Be strong, have courage and good luck.

Addenda from an op-ed
When asked about how to deal with tragedy, Wolpe answered in a way that encapsulates his entire view of the tradition of Judaism.

  1. In the face of death, religion maintains that life is meaningful. Not only because of the belief that human beings never fully disappear, but because it teaches that this pageant, with all its pain and anguish, need never resolve into despair. Life still matters; we always matter.
  2. A religious community provides comfort and help. Long after others have forgotten, the congregation will be there, with everything from meals to a shoulder to a prayer.
  3. God is called “Zochair Kol Hanishkachot”— the One who remembers everything forgotten. In the community too, we read the yahrtzeit notices years, sometimes decades later. We do not let the memory of those we loved slip away.
  4. The long tradition reminds us that others have suffered and endured before us. The bereaved can turn to Job and Ecclesiastes for theology and wisdom; to Aaron and David and Sarah and Naomi for the companionship of those who have lost; to the Rabbis for endless, anguished and deep reflections on the fleetingness of life, the meaning of faith, the promise that is the leitmotif of religious life.  Nothing erases pain; nothing wipes away loss. But a kehilla kedosha, a sacred community, is the beginning of healing our hearts.

“The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable:” Another Jewish Perspective

Last week, the Vatican’s Commission of Religious Relations with Jews issued a major document “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable” to coincide the fiftieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate. There have been many conferences around the world this year to discuss the 1965 document, what it means today and how to move forward. Even as I type, the members of the Vatican Commission are in Tel Aviv celebrating this document and discussing how to move forward.

This is a first draft subject to change as I work out my ideas.

Most of the global media coverage focused on a few talking points that can be summed up as three: that there is nothing completely new in this document, that there will be no active mission to convert the Jews and that Jews are somehow mysteriously saved without an acceptance of Christ.

My focus is on the document as a whole and the process.

One of the biggest innovations of the document, which took two and a half years to write, was that it was done in consultation with Jews and that there were Jews on the podium at its release that were called on comment on it. Picture the unfathomable: a rabbinic statement that had Christian input and joint religious presentation, which is what we have here.


In the last fifteen years, an era of email and global travel, there has been a flurry of Jewish-Catholic conferences and meetings. Everyone involved knows each other well; everyone emails frequently, and visits each other’s home institutions. Cardinals still annually come to NY Jewish institutions and everyone attends interfaith events like Kristallnacht memorials.

And that is what interfaith dialogue means today. It is not two sides, each foreign to each other, both arrayed against each other to discuss theology. Both sides read each other’s books and op-eds, having visiting lectureships, and are well acquainted with each other. Even an op-ed in a Jewish paper, a colloquium in a university, or a scholarly article on Qumran are part of the dialogue in an information age.

Historical Studies

A second innovation is the extent to which the new document is grounded in historical scholarship. Judaism and Christianity are bound to each other because they both grew out Second Temple Judaism(s); the various sectarian, apocalyptic, hypostatic, and purity ideas of the first century. Both are outgrowths of the Bible, and produce the two religions of Judaism and Christianity. In the background of the document, one hears Daniel Boyarin, Peter Schaefer, and a host of Dead Sea Sect scholars.

In 2001, The Pontifical Biblical Commission, under Cardinal Ratzinger, acknowledged Rabbinic Judaism as a parallel to Christianity worthy of study and respect. The ethos of that statement oozes throughout this document, which considers that there are “spiritual treasures concealed in Judaism for Christians.”  Catholicism teaches now that the rich complimentary Jewish reading is a possible one in that both readings serve God’s will.

After the destruction of the Temple both the New Testament and the Rabbinic literature are parallel responses to changed circumstances. How are they related? Who knows? The discussion starts now with further study.

The document quotes Talmud Sotah, once anathema and labeled blasphemous by Catholics, to understand the Jewish position. It also quotes Avot and Genesis Rabbah, this is a big shift in acknowledging the continuity of Judaism. (See the picture below of Cardinal Kasper in the Yeshiva University beit midrash with a Talmud in hand.) The Church no longer thinks Jews are just the Bible.

The Church is told that it still draws nourishment from the root of Israel. And it mandates that this study should extend to the training of priests. When a generation of priests is brought up with knowledge of Judaism and Rabbinic texts, it will certainly lead to further connections and integration. Will it lead to a generation of Catholic midrashic scholarship and Catholic Hebraists? Will it affect Catholic liturgy and doctrine away from medieval thinking? Time will tell.

Whereas documents of the 1960’s spoke of Divine Love and existential commitment, and documents from John Paul II spoke of the workings of the Holy Spirit, and the document We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah spoke the voice of lawyers, this document speaks the voice of contemporary historical scholarship.

The historical approach is especially shown in the new readings of the New Testament. The document treats Jesus and the originals hearers of his word as Jews. Paul is presented following what is called the New Perspectives on Paul pioneered by E.P. Sanders, John Gager, and James Dunn in which Judaism is not intrinsically rejected. The anti-Judaism statements of the New Testament are removed through the use of rhetorical criticism especially in the reading of the books of Acts, and Epistle to the Hebrews. Now, the anti-Jewish rhetoric is treated as just that, nasty rhetoric directed against a specific small group in the course of in-house fighting.The document specifically labors to emphasize these new readings.

At one point, the document makes a major slide from the fact that contemporary Jewish historians can see Jesus as Jewish to the theological speculation that “Jews are able to see Jesus as belonging to their people.” They are not the same.


The actual proximal function of the document is to clear up the immense confusion on the state of Jewish-Catholic relations on the fiftieth anniversary of Nosta Aetate. Nostra Aetate said much less than people think and the last fifteen years we have seen a flood of diverse opinions and statements.

Prior to Nostra Aetate, Jews were seen by much of Catholic teaching as blinded, the Devil, and false; and that once the Jews have served their purpose then God has forgotten them. Jesus had transcended his origins and had nothing in common with his birth religion, according to this now-outdated view. These were repudiated in 1965.

It took more than three decades for Pope John Paul II to move the relationship forward with three bold innovations. First innovation was to acknowledge Judaism as a living religion with an eternal covenant; second, to recognize the Holocaust; and third to actively acknowledge the state of Israel.

Pope Benedict XVI has moved the religions closer in Catholic thought by teaching that Jews and Catholics share one common Abrahamic covenant based on Genesis 15. In addition, after his works on the life of Jesus, based on those of Raymond Brown, Jesus in his Jewish context is now taken as obvious. But he strongly rejected the idea of two separate but equal covenants-rather one covenant. This document must work within his constraints, but in the future Catholic theologians may not.

Nostra Aetate was a revolution. But it did not in itself offer pluralism, recognize Judaism as a separate religion or, even as John Paul II did, grant continuous validity to Judaism. At the fortieth anniversary of Nostra Aetate in 2005, the recent comments of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger were opening up a diverse chorus of where to go next. This year, the need was to give imprimatur to what was said in the last decade in order to go forward.

Nostra Aetate is laconic in the extreme. What does it mean theologically for Jews to be “Abraham’s stock” or “dear to God.” Therefore, Nostra Aetate has both progressive and conservative interpretations, as do most of the documents of Vatican II. Just since the years 2000, there have been diverse statements from Bishops councils around the world, from Catholic theologians, from Catholic interfaith workers and from contradictory voices within the Holy See.  Various Catholic authors and leaders all have different views on the fine points of the Jewish- Christian relationship.

The working out of the laconic statements is an unfolding of the Church’s position. Different documents on the topic have different levels of authority, not usually known to the lay person. In the process of creating this new document, some of both the progressive and conservative statements have been pruned leaving a certain focused perspective. The document brings together specific lines of development based on statements and interpretations of Pope John-Paul II and Benedict, those of Cardinals Kasper and Koch, along with prior documents of the committee.

The document “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable” has the clear and distinct voice and ideas of Cardinal Walter Kasper throughout. For my readers who do not keep current in Christology and Ecclesiology, it is an understatement to say that Kasper is one of the leading theologians of the Church. His most famous theological opponent is Cardinal Ratzinger on the topic of the authority of Bishops.

Kasper and Ratzinger also seemingly differed in a variety of documents on the role of the Jewish-Catholic relationship. This document is clearly the more liberal voice of Kasper along with the voice of Cardinal Kurt Koch’s “Theological Questions and Perspectives in Jewish-Catholic Dialogue (2011) and Pope Francis’ recent address ‘Evangelii Gaudium. On the other hand, it does not contain the progressive voices referring to dual covenants of Moses and Christ.


Finally, many of the theological positions of the last fifteen years are technically still on the table, if someone wanted to return to them. The media, as to be expected, may overstate the finality of these answers. Tyros to these documents, however, may worry too much about major retractions, not understanding how a conservative church and its doctrine moves dialectically between Cardinals and theologians through the years in order to move forward.  The Church is clearly committed to moving forward in Catholic –Jewish relations, but I know that I will probably live to see this document amended at least twice by further documents.

The Document

The first two sections of the document single out Judaism for special treatment compared to other religions. They note that even though the final draft of Nostra Aetate included comments on Islam and Asian Religions that should not mean that all world religions are the same. Judaism was the heart of the document and its catalyst.  In fact, the document is emphatic that Judaism is not “another religion” than Christianity. The relationship is almost “Intra-religious” – “kind of, or a sui generis relationship.” The two faiths are “not really in dialogue” and they are not having a religious confrontation because they are not really separate.

This is not new but was under the radar. During the years 2000-2006, some of the Jewish interfaith participants kept thinking that Cardinal Ratzinger’s reemphasis on a single covenant meant a lowering of the status of Judaism, when it fact it was a little perceived raising. Ratzinger’s goal was to reign in the theologians of Asian religions such as Jacques Dupruis, whom in their acceptance of Asian religions he thought were removing the need for covenant by replacing it with pluralism. But in the process, there has been an increasing placing of Judaism under the Biblical covenant together with Christianity. For more than a decade, there have been arguments moving from internal Christian ecumenicism into Jewish-Christian relations.

The new dividing line between the faiths is the role of Jesus as divine heavenly authority compared to the Torah as the divine authority; this is exactly where Jacob Neusner placed it in his dialogue with Cardinal Ratzinger. The document quotes Genesis Rabbah to show the structural parallelism in that Christian affirm that Christ pre-exists creation while Jews affirm that the messiah and Torah.  And recently, Pope Francis affirmed that both faiths have one God, share the covenant that is revealed in Christ or the words of Torah. He is constrained theologically to create two paths but not allow for two separate covenants.


Much of the language and ideas on covenant and mission are based on the thinking of Cardinal Walter Kasper, see for example this 2010 document  written by Kasper. The very title of the essay is taken from Romans 11:29 “for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” And three lines before Paul declares, “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26 ff). Kasper made this a pillar of his thinking in the aforementioned essay and it reappears here.

The document says that the church did not see what Paul was saying for two millennium because they were misled by theories of replacement and supersessionalism. Now they seek to return even as it remains a mystery how it works.

In this document, a covenant “means a relationship with God that takes effect in different ways for Jews and Christians.” A new covenant can never replace the old.

The document clearly seeks to drive out any vestiges of nineteenth century Lutheran Marcionism of thinkers such as Kant, Harnack, and Kierkegaard. Both, the old and new covenants are paradoxically eternally valid.

Jewish and Catholics use the word covenant differently. For Catholics, the world is devoid until God reveals himself with self-disclosure and a covenant of faith. Only those included in the covenant can know God, thereby excluding non-Biblical people. For Jews, covenant is circumcision, Torah, Sabbath, law, and peoplehood. And for Jews, God can be known by all people of the world naturally.

The document acknowledges that the Jewish covenant is circumcision, Torah, Sabbath, law, and peoplehood, their knowledge of Judaism would certainly recognize this. But the Catholic position is that the Noachide covenant as developed by the prophets is the more universal and advanced covenant.

The document see the Jewish reading of the covenant as particularistic and the Christian one as available for the entire world. The document asks “Jews could with regard to the Abrahamic covenant arrive at the insight that Judaism without the church would be in danger of remaining too particularist and of failing to grasp the universality of its experience of God.”

The document assumes that two different paths would endanger Christianity. It specifically faults and seeks to correct the many writers who took the 1985 “Notes on the Correct Way to Present the Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis” as implying two parallel ways to salvation, Mosaic covenant and Christ.

kasper talmud
(In the YU Beit Midrash)


Yet, the seeming bombshell of this document the statement that Paul would not exclude salvation from those Jews who do not believe in Christ.

Jews sharing the single covenant with Christians are saved. “That the Jews are participants in God’s salvation is theologically unquestionable, but how that can be possible without confessing Christ explicitly, is and remains an unfathomable divine mystery.” But how can this be harmonized with the universal Christ? It is a “mystery of God’s work.” This statement will certainly be clarified in later generations.

However, there are already many resources for working out this salvation without an explicit knowledge or assent to Christ. In the 1960’s Karl Rahner proffered the idea of the anonymous Christian in which Christ can work through people even if they are unaware of it. Gavin D’Costa, a decade later, formulated a theory of the Holy Spirit working on people without their knowledge and there are a variety of Evangelical solutions such as Clark Pinnock’s concept of Christ coming to people after they die. Even if these earlier formulated are not directly used there is a shelf of various positions that seek to be inclusivist, that, is, included the other in one’s own scheme.

To offer a analogous case, recent Vatican theologians have stated that babies who die without baptism no longer go to limbo. But then how are they saved? There is a  recent January 2007 Vatican document that is still working through the issues and offers hope and mystery that they go to heaven.  Each separate theological commission is working through similar issues left open by Vatican II.

How does the Church relate to the salvation of modern Jews, especially non-observant or secular Jews? This document has not confronted the issue


On the important question of mission, the document says there is no active mission to the Jews. Let us look back at the “covenant and mission” controversy of 2002, progressives and conservatives split between active mission and no witness at all. This document attempts to strike a balance.

On the other hand, the Jewish side reluctantly learned the difference between active mission and witnessing.The bad days of active mission are over but the Catholic Church will always witness her faith to welcome people into her fold and assume that she is the fulfillment of the biblical promise.

Conclusion of the Document

If Judaism is not a foreign religion requiring dialogue, then what is the purpose of dialogue? The purpose in this document is to add depth to knowledge from the “spiritual treasures concealed in Judaism for Christians.” In addition, dialogue is now “for the joint engagement throughout the world for justice and peace, conservation of creation, and reconciliation,” and finally it is to combat Anti-Semitism.

The conclusion of the document affirms that Christians should relate to Jews as “people of God of Jews and Gentiles, united in Christ.” I am not sure that any Jewish theologian would be comfortable with this formulation.  Judaism is a separate religion and religious community.

Nevertheless, there is no need to flog your favorite Jewish thinker; one can firmly say that Jews do not see themselves as “United in Christ” without having to cite Soloveitchik. Many on the Catholic side understand how we feel and are committed to acknowledging the ongoing validity of the Jewish covenant but they are working within their own theological restraints. And even in the wider context of this document, the phrase should not be over read.

In addition, some Jews feel more comfortable engaging Protestants, Muslims, or even Hindus (only the latter two naturally understand my dietary restrictions, need to hand wash before eating, and prayer times).

There were two Jewish documents written in response this past week, one from the French Rabbinate and the other from a group of English speaking rabbis living in Israel. They need their own discussion.

Overall, a firm commitment to moving forward, to more study, to a obligation to including Judaism in seminary formation of clergy, and to a greater familiarity. Looking at this from the vantage of 1965, or even of 1998, this is a worthy document.