Jewish Interfaith Endeavors: Dabru Emet (2004)

The following report is part of a series of pieces written in 2004 investigating the Jewish community’s participation in interfaith dialogue.

“Dabru Emet,” literally “speak the truth,” is a quote from Zechariah 8:16, in which the prophetA prophet is one who communicates a divine message or vision, sometimes calling people to repentance or awakening, sometimes predicting future events. Jews, Christians, and Muslims all look to Hebrew prophets, including Abraham and Moses. Muslims believe ... informs IsraelLiterally “Wrestler with God”, Israel is the name given to the Jewish patriarch Jacob and came to refer to the entire nation, bound in an eternal covenant to God. Historically, Jews have continued to regard themselves as the continuation of the ancien... how to interact with other nations. Subtitled “A Jewish Statement on Christians and ChristianityChristianity is the religious tradition of Christians: those who confesses faith in Jesus Christ, follow the path Christ taught, and gather together in the community of the church.,” Dabru Emet (available online here) is a document created by the National Jewish Scholars Project that first appeared in the New York Times in 2000. In the introduction, the authors explain that because of the ways in which Christianity’s doctrines concerning Jews have improved dramatically in that last half century, a Jewish response was in order. Eight brief statements lay out how Jews can relate to Christians, a sort of stepping stone to deeper dialogue:

  1. Jews and Christians worship the same GodGod is a term used to refer to the Divine, the Supreme being, Transcendent deity, or Ultimate reality..
  2. Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book–the BibleThe Greek term biblia means the “books.” Bible is used in both the Jewish and Christian traditions to refer to the book which gathers together their sacred writings. The Hebrew Bible includes the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings—a collection re...
  3. Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel.
  4. Jews and Christians accept the moral principles of TorahThe Old Testament is the term Christians often use for the body of writings that comprise the Hebrew Bible which Jews call Tanakh.
  5. Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon.
  6. The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until GodThe term god with a small “g” is used to refer to a deity or class of deities whose power is understood to be circumscribed or localized rather than universal, or to refer to a plurality of deities. redeems the entire world as promised in Scripture.
  7. A new relationship between Jews and Christians will not weaken Jewish practice.
  8. Jews and Christians must work together for justice and peace.

Written by four Jewish scholars and signed by over 200 rabbisRabbi means “my master,” an authorized teacher or master of the Torah and the classical Jewish tradition. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE and the scattering of the Jewish people in exile, the role of the rabbi became very important in gat... and Jewish educators from all denominations (though very few among them were OrthodoxIn general, orthodox means having a “correct opinion or outlook” and is a term used by people in many religions who claim authority for traditional views and forms of their religion.), Dabru Emet represents the first attempt to create a unified Jewish statement on interfaith dialogue.

The statement is supplemented by two books. One, Christianity in Jewish Terms (Westview 2000), is a compilation of articles meant to expand on the brief statements of Dabru Emet. The other, Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification (Oxford, 1989), was written by DavidDavid was the King of Israel (c. 1000 BCE) credited with uniting the many tribes of Israel into a centralized kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital. David is said to have planned for the Temple in Jerusalem, which was subsequently built by his son Solomon... Novak, one of Dabru Emet’s drafters, and outlines some of the early ideas that later contributed to Novak’s involvement with the project.

In addition to its widespread support however, Dabru Emet met with huge opposition in the Jewish community. One of the best known critiques of the document is an article by Harvard professor Jon Levenson, entitled “How Not to Conduct Jewish-Christian Dialogue” (Commentary 12/01). In his piece, Levenson argues that by only addressing commonalities, and erroneous commonalities at that, a blurring of critical distinctions occurs, leading to more of a concern with mutual affirmation than actual truth.

Following Levenson’s article, a large number of letters were written to Commentary, including one by the four writers of Dabru Emet. These, as well as Levenson’s response to them, appeared several months later under the title “Jewish-Christian Dialogue” (Commentary 4/02). One writer, Rev Walter Michel, included in his letter a link to his longer critique of the document. Most of the letters dispute points Levenson made in his piece, or argue that he misread the work as a scholarly piece when it was plainly not that, but others lend him support. One contributor in particular, Elliot Dorff, wrote to say that after reading Levenson’s article he regretted having signed Dabru Emet.

In addition to the pieces in Commentary, David Novak published a response to Levenson in First Things. The piece, as well as one by Richard Neuhaus in the same issue criticizing another Commentary writer, touched off a rivalry between the two journals. An article on the clash can be read here. In a calmer vein, RabbiRabbi means “my master,” an authorized teacher or master of the Torah and the classical Jewish tradition. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE and the scattering of the Jewish people in exile, the role of the rabbi became very important in gat... Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, a leading figure in Jewish interfaith efforts and one of the document’s signers, speaks of its merits here, while Arthur Hertzberg argues that the document focusses on “Yesterday’s News” and ignores the more important issue of selective historical memory.

Dabru Emet is the first document of its kind, but its publication and the subsequent debate surrounding it have highlighted a number of long-established components in the interfaith conversation within the Jewish community. One is Orthodoxy’s separate and mostly absent voice (see related report). Another is a departure from language of triumphalism and chosenness in favor of stressing equality in different paths to God. Perhaps most important however is the difficulty in identifying common ground. Although the sanhedrin, Jewish court of law, has not existed for centuries, there was traditionally a gadol hador, a principal sage for each generation. This rabbiRebbe is the title of the spiritual leader of the Hasidim, the pietist Jewish movement which began in 18th century Poland and continues today, with its honoring of holy teachers and its emphasis on prayer and devotion. acted as a unifying figure, an almost universal theological authority. Once the denominations emerged in the 19th century, there was often a gadol for each denomination. However, there is no gadol for any of the denominations today. The result is that each community (often in the case of interfaith dialogue, each individual) makes these choices on its own, which will invariably be disputed by others.

Dabru Emet strove to present the common ground on which a conversation could begin. For interfaith dialogue, it has served its purpose, and is now used as a base for programming in communities around the world. The intrafaith debate represents an unexpected conversation that emerged, a continuation of the rich tradition of discourse that has typified the Jewish people for centuries. In time, this second conversation should help distill nuances within past scholarship and pave the way toward future endeavors.