Rabbi Eugene Korn, an expert on interfaith relations who serves as American director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel,
is the author of two new books on the subject: “Jewish Theology and World Religions (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization) and “Covenant and Hope (Eerdmans). The Jewish Week interviewed him by
e-mail. The following is an edited version of the exchange.
Q: How did a rabbi with a typical rabbinical training develop a strong interest in interfaith work?
A: God works in unpredictable but wonderful ways. In 1992 I was a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel, with no particular interest in interfaith issues, and I was placed in a seminar in contemporary religious thought together with serious Christian thinkers who loved the Jewish people. I never saw even the slightest hint from them that they were interested in converting me.
There was another person in that seminar, Asher Finkel, an Orthodox American rabbi who was chairman of the graduate department of Christian-Jewish studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange N.J. When I returned to America, he invited me to teach in the department, concentrating on the history and impact of the Holocaust. Since then, I have become more and more interested in the theological and ethical issues that religious Jews and Christians struggle with.
Scholars have for many decades been writing about the shared heritage of the Jewish and Christian communities. What new perspective do your books add?
Much of what passed for Jewish-Christian dialogue in the early days was really a conversation between secularists. Serious interfaith conversation is dramatically different today because it is between believers. We struggle with theology, ethics, community and spiritual issues, not the need to “blend into America” that dominated the early NCCJ cohort.
My books reflect this religious conversation. The first book, “Jewish Theology and World Religions,” is an internal Jewish discussion … about our relation to the world beyond the shtetl. The second book, “Covenant and Hope” represents the fruits of a two-year research project I was privileged to co-direct with Robert Jenson, the pre-eminent philo-Semitic Lutheran theologian of Princeton. Professor Jenson and I invited 16 Jewish and Christian thinkers to think deeply about two topics: First, how does God’s covenant inform your religious life and direct your relations with others outside your covenant? Second, how can a rational person still have hope for human redemption and what responsibility does your faith impose upon you to bring about progress in history?
Despite years of Jewish-Christian dialogue, many Jews have suspicions as to whether an apparent change in Christian circles is real — witness the efforts of some liberal Christian denominations to withhold support from Israel, and some Catholic statements that conversion of Jews is still a goal. Do you sense a new attitude among Christian leaders?
Christendom is not a monolith, and not all Christians are the same. We are no longer engaged in a theological duel to the death. For sure, there are still “pious” reactionaries in these churches who want to return to the bad old days when it was necessary for Judaism to be false in order for Christianity to be true.
What are the limits of how far the mutual understanding between Jews and Christians can go?
It is one of the questions that Jews and Christians in serious religious interaction ask themselves and each other. All of us understand that there must be limits, and that we must remain distinct, both communally and theologically.
Orthodox leaders several decades ago banned theological dialogue activities with Christians. Does this have an influence on the extent of the interfaith work you can do?
The ban stems from the public policy position of the great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1964 — before the dramatic official transformation of Church doctrine regarding Jews and Judaism. Like any rational policy, it needs to be continually reassessed for its applicability under changing circumstances..