Interview with Rabbi David Rosen - Part three: We must first be a blessing to one another

by Marguerite A. Peeters

- In 1948, it was possible to declare human rights universal because there was still some kind of consensus on the values that bound western societies together. This is no longer the case, and the new situation puts the concept of universality in crisis. Do you believe it is possible, realistic to think that we could reformulate an ethic for this now “global” era that is founded on what is universal and is therefore open to and rooted in divine transcendence? This is certainly not the case of the global ethic forged under the aegis of the UN after the Cold War: the UN has gone another way now.

And I don’t think it is just the UN. If you look at the founders of the European idea, they were all people with profound religious backgrounds, and therefore with very profound, solid moral values, whereas I would say relativism is the norm now rather than the exception. So whether it is possible to achieve the ideal, I don’t know. But I do know that there is enormous responsibility of religious institutions and religious people to be able to play that role and provide the moral stability, anchorage and compass for the well-being of humanity at large.

- Many of the challenges that we face today are of an anthropological nature: the loss of sense of conscience and incapacity to discern between good and evil, the use of reason for negating reality and so on. There is a trend among postmodern scientists to claim that the existence of the “laws of nature” is uncertain. They now prefer to adhere to so-called “consensus science” – a consensus among experts without certitude about the truth of their findings.

I think often these comments are made without adequate unpackaging. I understand what they
are saying. In fact in a sense, even their secular comment, which may be seen as an anti-religious comment, in a way can be seen as a religious comment, because it is acknowledging the limitations of our own human understanding, on the one hand. On the other, there are some obvious things that nobody is going to disagree with: nobody is going to disagree that there is a law of gravity, and therefore there are consequences if you jump off a building.

- But some today would even claim that our male or female body is a social construct.

Well, there are some areas definitely, but no side is going to say that there are no laws of nature.

- In one of your articles, you state that “It is no exaggeration to describe sustainable development as the Bible’s mandate to us.” Sustainable development is a concept forged in the 1970s and 80s and adopted as a global norm in the 1990s. It is one of the key paradigms of the new global ethics. It has a traceable origin; this origin is purely secular and is, in my analysis, marred by pessimism. Global governance does not speak about creation, but about “the Earth”, generally capitalized, and the trend is to consider that human beings and other species come from the earth and return to the earth. This view distorts the relationship God established between human beings and the rest of creation. Neither pessimism nor secularism belong to your ethical approach. How should people of faith deal with this distortion? Is it wise to use the new, globally normative language?

This is a cardinal question that you raise. What is the preferred strategy by which to address this “Tower of Babel” that you have exposed? You may be right that the way to do it is through what amounts to a confrontational expose. An alternative is to try to “re-hijack” the secular language and reinvest it with religious meaning, values and teaching. This was what I was trying to do, but I am open to the critique that I may be doing more harm than good in this (or may be just naïve).

- God leads your personal life. He also leads the history of humanity. In your intervention at the Mideast synod last October, you said: “The relationship today between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people is a blessed transformation in our times”. More at large, how do you read the times we are in? What is your sense of where humanity is heading now?

It is such a big question that the question is whether one could give a comprehensive answer. And even if I take the little areas, like Israeli society for example in which I live, there are so many conflicting and divergent current trends, that it is very hard to have any comprehensive view. To take something very basic, some people say Israeli society is getting more religious, while others are saying Israeli society is getting more secular. They are both right, because both things are happening in different ways at the same time. So if we talk of our modern world at large, on the one hand, this is the most blessed of all times inasmuch as we have more knowledge, more education, more technological tools to be able to improve the condition of humanity. And yet this incredible growth in capacities has not been matched by a moral and spiritual growth. In certain respects, in some areas, it is even regressive. These are very perplexing and challenging contradictory realities in which we live all the time. To be able to have some kind of universal perspective is, I think, beyond human capacity, in the sense that it is asking us to be angelic. I can’t even see where the Middle East is going tomorrow, let alone where our world is going. But I do know that if our world does not seek to at least try to catch up in terms of its moral and spiritual maturation with its technological and technical developments, we face a very serious crisis. And you already see that in many parts of the world, as to what’s called lifestyles, the breakdown of family, the deracination, disorientation of people… Only a worldview that sees those structures as sacred, in other words as transcending interests and fluctuations and material concerns, is capable of providing the solidity, the stability, the anchorage and the moral compass that can ensure that the technical advantages and the technological advantages are blessings rather than curses.

- In this perspective, what do you expect of Jewish-Catholic reconciliation?

This is the direction in which we should be going. This should be the message now: after having addressed the terrible misunderstandings and errors that bedeviled our relationship, and now that to a large extent we have rediscovered our loving fraternity, we must address together, from the perspective of the “common patrimony” that we share, the challenges that we face in our world. Now our responsibility is to address the present and the future. My desire would be for a joint theological reflection. Unfortunately, because of the structure of the components that make up our Jewish-Catholic Liaison Committee that is meeting here at the moment, I am not sure whether this particular structure has the capacity to do that. But nevertheless, in terms also of the dialogue between the Holy See and the Chief Rabbinate - which is, I would say, on a more solid moral religious foundation, I think it is really important to produce joint positions on contemporary issues, which is what we have been doing since this bilateral commission was established, thanks to John Paul II.

- But you refer to an “asymmetry” in the Jewish-Christian relationship.

Right, but that is for our own self-understandings, and that’s important in itself. But in terms of our responsibility for humanity, we have responsibility to address those challenges together. We can’t do it entirely, because there are things that distinguish us, otherwise we wouldn’t be the different faith communities that we are. But there are fundamental things that we share. As Martin Buber put it, “we share a book and a hope and that is no small thing”. And as John Paul II put it, we are called, as the children of Abraham, to be a blessing for humankind, and in order to be so, we must first be a blessing to one another. This is our métier, to be able to address the world together. Yes, we must address it separately, but we must address it together as well.

- How do you interpret this mutual blessing? How could it concretely take shape? How can Catholics be a blessing to Jews? What are your hopes and expectations? And how do you think Jews can be a blessing to Catholics? What are your intuitions?

This is a big question. I spoke about this very issue a few years ago at Fordham University. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has described Judaism and Christianity as two Midrashim (homiletical expositions) on a common text – the Hebrew Bible. This appears to me to be a very useful formula – from a Jewish perspective – in our Jewish encounter with Christianity. One of the things it implies is that we can, and I believe should, be able to illumine one another in our own understanding of our own religious heritage and teaching. This has generally not been possible for us in the past as a result of the pain and burden of our tragic historic experience of Christianity, nurtured by rivalry, degenerating into contempt and persecution, which prevented us from being able to view Christian teaching or even the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth in a positive light. Being able to do so now (at least for those of us who are now able and desirous of doing so) enables us not only to recognize Jesus of Nazareth as a Jewish brother and teacher, but also to re-emphasize fundamental values and teachings of our own that have often been muted as a result of the polemical encounter and competition with Christianity. Jesus’ emphasis upon love and reconciliation; on being prepared to suffer humiliation rather than humiliate; the Christian use of personal prayer, for example; are all fundamental Jewish teachings and practices, but which as I say have often been underemphasized in the face of the polemic with Christianity. As we free ourselves of the shackles and heal ourselves of the wounds of past persecution and conflict, and as we enjoy the fruits of cooperation and mutual esteem, we can learn much from Christian teaching (albeit as opposed to much of the conduct of those who have claimed to be Christian); to recover, reaffirm and deepen our own understanding and expression of these fundamental Jewish concepts and teachings.