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 prophet informs Israel how to interact with other nations. Subtitled “A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity,” 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 God.
  2. Jews and Christians seek authority from the same book–the Bible
  3. Christians can respect the claim of the Jewish people upon the land of Israel.
  4. Jews and Christians accept the moral principles of Torah
  5. Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon.
  6. The humanly irreconcilable difference between Jews and Christians will not be settled until God 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 rabbis and Jewish educators from all denominations (though very few among them were Orthodox), 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 David 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, Rabbi 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 rabbi 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.