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Respecting Difference in Interfaith Dialogue

There were a plurality of views among Second Temple Jews about the nations (i.e. Gentiles). These views could range from the view that the vast majority of the Gentiles would perish or become subservient to Israel at the eschatological judgment, that there could be hope for Gentile proselytes to the Torah or for morally upright Gentiles who did not have the Torah but obeyed the basic commandments given to Noah as the ancestor of humanity, and the universalistic hope that the nations would come to worship the God of Israel in peace in the coming eschatological age. Terence L Donaldson lists the spectrum of views in his book Judaism and the Gentiles: Jewish Patterns of Universalism.

There was also a plurality of view among ancient Christians: some Jewish followers of Jesus accepted that belief in Jesus as Messiah was compatible with traditional Torah observance and condemned Paul’s Law-free Gentile mission as antinomian (e.g. the Ebionites), others thought that non-Jews could be incorporated into Israel’s covenant without undergoing proselyte conversion (e.g. Paul), and still others insisted that their predominantly non-Jewish Christian communities displaced Israel as God’s chosen people (e.g. Justin Martyr). Thus, there are inclusive and exclusive strands in both traditions.

When Jews and Christians meet together for interfaith dialogue, we do not have to sweep points of difference aside even as there may be many areas in which we agree. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber pinpoints one key difference in worldview about whether the Messiah has come and the messianic age has dawned: “The Christian sees the Jew as the incomprehensibly obdurate man who declines to see what has happened, and the Jew sees the Christian as the incomprehensibly daring man who affirms redemption in an unredeemed world” (cf. Martin Friedman, Martin Buber’s Life and Work, p. 119). Yet this difference can be respected without descending into caricature about the beliefs and practices of the “Other” and we can affirm our mutual commitment to working towards a just and peaceful future. This applies to interfaith dialogue in general. And let me add another note as a Canadian grieving about Trump’s divisive campaign: we must be committed to living together in harmony in a small interconnected planet, to growing in our understanding of the richly diverse cultural and religious traditions around the world, and to standing against discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender, culture, or religion!

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