Deep Calls to Deep edited by Tony Bayfield

by
08 September 2017

Richard Harries on the refining of a Jewish-Christian dialogue

 

Deep Calls to Deep: Transforming conversations between Jews and Christians

Tony Bayfield, editor

SCM Press £40

(978-0-334-05512-9)

Church Times Bookshop £36

 

 

IN 1973, Rabbi Tony Bayfield and Marcus Braybrooke formed The Manor House Group, which turned out to be a huge influence on the 20 or so Jewish rabbis and Christian priests who were members of it. Meeting for two days a year in London and a residential weekend once a year, they read and discussed papers and grew together, eventually producing Dialogue with a Difference in 1992.

In 2011, with the support of the Council of Christians and Jews, Bayfield gathered a different group of Jewish and Christian thinkers with a refined method. This time, the group was split into pairs each with a Jew and a Christian and allocated a subject. They had to work at that subject together and then submit their results for scrutiny and discussion to the group as a whole. They finished their work in 2015, and this book is the result.

As a member of the original Manor House Group and as convener of the Oxford Abrahamic Group, which had a similar way of working, I think the method Bayfield has chosen here seems an improvement. So, the first important thing about this book is how the process of pairing off (or, if there is another dialogue partner, forming a trio) might prove a good model for similar groups around the country, though I would emphasise that a residential period once a year is fundamental to the success of such endeavours.

The eight subjects that are covered by the book are: 1. How the third dialogue partner, modern Western culture, is experienced; 2. How we should live in a modern Western democracy; 3. How we cope with our past; 4 The legacy of our scriptures; 5. Religious absolutism; 6. What respect means; 7 Christian particularity; and 8. Jewish particularity, which focuses on the state of Israel.

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This last has some interesting Rabbinic material on whether the Israelites were justified in conquering the land in the first place. The 11th-century biblical commentator Rashi argued that God as creator could give land to whomsoever he chose; but the 13th-century Spanish commentator Nachmanides (known as Ramban) took a more nuanced view, saying that it was permitted only on certain conditions. As the respected former ambassador Daniel Taub put it, when the legitimacy of Israel is denied, he brings out Rashi, and when injustice is committed by Israel, he brings out Ramban to grate against his comfort.

It was the seventh subject that nearly blew the enterprise off course. Patrick Morrow outlined Nicene and Chalcedonian Christian orthodoxy, arguing that it was a way of making the faith intelligible in a Hellenised world. But Rabbi Vivian Silverman, an experienced and patient ecumenist, admitted after three years of this encounter that he found such language unfamiliar and impenetrable. The Christian faith had become so Hellenised “as to cease to be compatible with Judaism or even understandable by Jews”; and so two other rabbis were called into the discussion who added a historical dimension.

Neither wished to shy away from the fact that there is real difference as well as some commonality. This highlights one of the important features of this book, which is also present in the section on Jewish particularity. Both sections remind us that dialogue is not about finding a lowest common denominator, but bringing into relationships of respect and trust our deepest differences.

It also presents Christians with a challenge. Is there another way into the subject of Christian particularity, avoiding Greek concepts altogether: one that uses basic Jewish categories that might have their counterpart in Christianity in a way that could make beliefs such as the incarnation and God as Holy Trinity less strange to Jews?

 

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. He is the author of The Beauty and the Horror: Searching for God in a suffering world (SPCK, 2016).

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