Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, engaged in a dialogue at the seminary last week with New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan after the archbishop delivered an address on Catholic-Jewish relations in the United States. The Jewish Week later asked him to react to the archbishop’s remarks.

Jewish Week: The archbishop said Catholic-Jewish dialogue in the United States has too often focused on “our grievances with each other” without a “balancing attention to our mutual needs.” He then called for a new perspective “to build support for what is mutually beneficial.” Do you agree, and will you support that initiative?

Eisen: I do. There is so much we have to talk about with each other — and even more that we should be doing with each other. There are hungry people to be fed in New York, and Catholics and Jews could help feed them.

The most important thing in my view is that there was little cooperation among religious groups over the course of the centuries, and we have global challenges right now that demand major cooperation among religious groups and not just Catholics and Jews.

The archbishop spoke also of taking steps together to address “issues of pressing concern to both communities, such as inter-religious marriage, handing on our traditions to our children and stopping the ‘leakage’ of [the] faithful.”

I like moving from grievance to mutuality of concerns, and I think we have a lot of items [to discuss]. How it proceeds will depend on the entirety of the agenda.

He said the Church stands by its recognition of the State of Israel, and that is crucial to the Jewish community at a time of widespread delegitimization of Israel. It is all the more important that he reaffirmed the Church’s recognition of the State of Israel to exist and thrive.

Will the Catholic-Jewish dialogue he calls for help stem intermarriage?

The new book by Robert Putnam, “American Grace,” proves that the fastest-growing religion in America right now is none. So we face a common challenge, and I think we have a lot to learn from one another about how best to do that. We each make some mistakes that the other one could avoid.
The Church welcomes converts, and the Jews [also] hope to convert [non-Jewish fiancés and spouses] to Judaism. I think the point here is to make our religion as relevant and compelling to young people as we can.

I think we are in the paradoxical but valid position that we’d like our kids to respect one another and cooperate with one another but to practice the religion in which they were raised. Hopefully interfaith relations will be as prominent a feature of the American scene as intermarriage.

Archbishop Dolan said the visits of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to the Great Synagogue in Rome are proof that “bettering” our two relationships is a religious duty. Do the Jewish people have a similar religious duty to the Church?

We have a religious duty to engage in inter-religious dialogue and cooperation with every religion that extends a hand to us. …
The question was asked that evening about our responsibility for the planet — for the environment — and I said I thought the strongest statement of that responsibility was the opening chapters of Genesis, which makes human beings the stewards of God’s creation; the archbishop agreed with me.

The archbishop said the papal visits to the Rome synagogue should “put to rest the notion that the church’s renewal of her relationship with the Jewish people is not authentic…” Do you believe that?

I think he and many of the Catholic bishops he represents are totally sincere. Whether every part of the Church is, we will see. Given his prominence in the Church, this is a very welcome and important development.

The archbishop said also that were Pius XII to be beatified and canonized, it would not signify an approval of his actions.

He argued that this kind of judgment belongs to historians and scholars. Do you believe the Jewish community will see it that way if the archives show the pope in a less than flattering way?

I think there will be a certain amount of disappointment if that turns out to be the case. I understand the Church is also moving ahead with the beatification of Pope John Paul II, and people will welcome that.

The archbishop said there is shared frustration over the pace of opening the Vatican archives with respect to Pope Pius XII’s work. He suggests that it should be opened in phases, rather than as a whole, if that is what is needed to complete this project. Would you agree?

I’m going to leave it to the experts and activists on the Pope Pius XII matter. He [Archbishop Dolan] said he wants to start without preconceptions and with openness. I welcome the initiative.