Translating Each Other

A Rabbinic Reflection on Jewish-Catholic Understanding

Editor’s Note: Pope Benedict XVI reminded us in Verbum Domini 43, “I wish to state once more how much the Church values her dialogue with the Jews. Wherever it seems appropriate, it would be good to create opportunities for encounter and exchange in public as well as in private, and thus to promote growth in reciprocal knowledge, in mutual esteem and cooperation, also in the study of the sacred Scriptures.” The following article from soon-to-be-ordained rabbinical student Amelia Wolf represents an initiative to promote dialogue and mutual understanding with our Jewish brothers and sisters, drawing on the riches of our shared spiritual heritage. 


I committed my very first blunder in Jewish-Catholic interfaith dialogue when I was in high school. I was a student at a Catholic all-girls school when a beloved and respected teacher asked me to pray for a family member experiencing illness. She knew I was Jewish. She also knew that I was a person who prayed regularly and had an active spiritual and religious life. I panicked, then demurred. Rather than saying what I feared was the truth — that I didn’t know how Catholics prayed for healing, and what if I was expected to pray in Jesus’ name as my friends did, and what if my prayer (which would be for God’s ears only) would be somehow offensive — I lied. I said, “oh, we don’t do that,” despite the fact that included in our set liturgy is a prayer said three times daily for the sick; and there is a rich Jewish tradition of reciting Psalms for their healing.

In other words, I was so convinced of a lack of shared language we might use to pray for one another that I closed off an entire avenue of what might have been a powerful, spiritual relationship. I closed off a relationship between my teacher and me, between myself and God through this particular prayer, and between myself and the ill family member that I never would have met but would have been connected to if I had said his name as I prayed for his healing.

The fact that I defaulted to babble (and Babel, which we’ll return to below) and not Psalms is telling. At some point I had come to the conclusion that Catholic-Jewish dialogue was impossible. I’m sure I had never been taught this explicitly. But what I had absorbed was an assumption of an uncrossable breach between our traditions. I had made the mistake of buying into a narrative that one religion can only exist to replace or oppose another. Decades after Vatican II, the new spirit of reconciliation hadn’t pervaded the day-to-day interactions of personal relationships. I have since ventured into much more fruitful inter-religious conversation, but it is this bungling that has stuck with me. Here, I seek to look into where we get stuck and what, I hope, might be a path forward.

Too often in our very long and, at times, very fraught shared history, Judaism and Catholicism have been understood to exist in a state of utter opposition. Catholics have taught that to be Jewish is to be guilty of the sin of killing Christ. Jews have taught that to be Catholic is to be guilty of the sin of idolatry. In the religious framework of either community, to be the other was to completely misunderstand God. Of course, this way of looking at the other hardly encourages learning from the other, let alone leaving room to respect the sacred practices each community has fostered to communicate with and interpret the Divine.

On the other hand, there are those who teach that Judaism and Catholicism exist in a state of temporal continuity. This can be unfortunately hierarchical. There are Catholics who believe that Catholic Christianity is Judaism perfected and Jews who believe that Christianity (and Islam) is well enough for non-Jews but hardly the original thing. And even when avoiding these value judgements, well-meaning Jews and Catholics often fall into the trap of assuming that the differences between our religions and cultures are merely aesthetic. The polite interfaith dialoguer who is afraid that difference might mean animosity seeks to erase our very deep disagreements in doctrine, ethics, peoplehood, religious living, and the very nature of God. But there must be a vast gulf between “different ways to pray to the same God” and “we’re really all just the same anyway.”

If the choices are: Catholics and Jews reject one another, Catholics and Jews overcome one another, or Catholics and Jews actually just have everything in common, no wonder I felt as if I didn’t have the language for interfaith prayer. The former two options preclude an honest relationship between two world religions and the third option precludes any honesty at all! So of course, I would like to propose a fourth option.

Rather than (dis)continuity, rather than an original religion and a superseding one, Judaism and Catholicism can be seen as both branching out from what came earlier. We share a legacy of Temple-based Israelite practice, and in the earth-shattering, world-destabilizing period of time after the destruction of the Second Temple by Rome, Rabbinic Judaism and the Church both established themselves on the foundation of that legacy. Both developed new frameworks to carry forward this destabilized legacy into a world that no longer seemed to support it — a world where God’s promises of protection and relationship seemed to be remote or even frighteningly void.

The Book of Exodus describes Moses breaking the tablets of the law upon witnessing the sin of the Golden Calf. According to the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b), Israel carried the broken tablets in the Holy Ark alongside the new, unbroken ones that replaced them. In Exodus 31:18, those first, broken tablets had been written by the hand of God. The second, unbroken set that Moses later brought down were written by the human hand of Moses. One set Divine and shattered, one set human and whole, both worthy of resting in the Ark in the Tabernacle, God’s dwelling place on Earth. In this way we can understand that human responses to tragedy are worthy of being cradled alongside God’s original word. We can understand that, like the Tabernacle itself, religion may be dictated by God but it is built up by human beings.

My rabbi and teacher Burt Visotzky has said that both Jews and Catholics believe that before creation was the Word and that the difference is that for Jews, the Word is the words of God (Torah) and for Catholics it is the Word made flesh (Christ). I would add that for Jews the Word is not just the written Torah but also an Oral Torah. This is the Torah that we understand as being passed along a chain of human transmission: spoken to Moses, and from Moses to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, the Prophets to the Great Assembly, and, finally from the Great Assembly to the Rabbis. The Rabbis spoke (and speak) different versions of these Words and set them down to discuss, to argue, to repeat, and to transform. For Jews, every written or spoken sacred work since the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Written Torah, is Oral Torah and it is through the lens of the Oral Torah that we understand the Written Torah.

For Catholic Christians and Rabbinic Jews both, then, the current frameworks of our religion are built upon sacred, human transmission, where mortal and Divine meet. Maybe for Catholics, it is in the body of a man fully human and fully Divine who asked a disciple to start a Church. Maybe for Jews it is in a conversation started by God at Sinai and continued today by all Jews everywhere we are found.

I understand the truth claims made by our religions to be distinct and, at times, mutually exclusive. One cannot be both a practicing Jew and a practicing Catholic. This, however, can be an opportunity to grow stronger in both our separate and mutual commitments, to learn about what must be different, and to celebrate what can be shared. We can recognize the sacred framework of the other, the beloved language in which the other speaks to and of God, while also holding strong to the unique and particular aspects of our different faiths. The broken world we live in demands our cooperation and understanding.

I have been asked to write about what I would like Catholic clergy to know and preach about the Hebrew Bible — and I recognize that I have barely even touched the question, at least not explicitly. But I go back to my fourth option, my proposition that both our religions, the Catholic Church and Rabbinic Judaism, have developed whole languages and philosophies and frameworks to begin to understand what it meant to live a life dedicated to God in the wake of the destruction of all that seemed to be promised and set down in the Hebrew Bible.

There can be no understanding of a Jewish relationship to the Hebrew Bible, or the authority the Bible holds in our lives, without understanding how the Jewish sacred conversation has continued and developed in the two thousand years since the destruction of the Temple. Just as one cannot understand the Church without the New Testament and the Magisterium, so too one cannot understand Judaism (and Jews) without the Talmud and the other sacred literature we call the Oral Torah.

Catholicism then can neither complete Judaism nor supersede it nor even claim a common Judeo-Christian heritage. But what I hope Catholics can and do claim is a kinship, a recognition that while we have our immense differences, we can say we are both hard at work as fallible human beings trying to understand God’s word and trying to build a better world based upon it.

Since Migdal Bavel, the Tower of Babel, we have spoken many languages. The people who were involved in that particular construction project, however, were less interested in each other than in building a tower. We are taught in Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (chapter 24), a medieval source of teachings based on the Torah, that when any of the builders of the Tower of Babel fell and died, nobody would care enough to pause in their work. But if any of them dropped a brick, all would stop to mourn. Of course once their speech was confused it was never worth it for them to begin the hard work of translation. They had never been invested in the people around them, in their points of views and relationships. And so, when relationship became difficult, they scattered.

But we don’t have to be like that. We can speak different languages and confuse each other and misunderstand each other, yes, but we can translate for each other, too. We can be interpreters for and of each other and in doing so build something that will come far closer to reaching God than the Tower ever did.

If I had understood that in high school, I would have been able to pray for my teacher’s family member, in my own language, based on my own understanding of prayer and of God. It would not have been the same language that my Catholic teacher would have chosen. Yet it would not have been discontinuous either. Incredibly, given our histories, we might have even prayed together, like Isaac and Rebecca who, according to another classical Jewish teaching (Genesis Rabbah chapter 63), prayed in separate corners of the same room for the same healing. And wouldn’t that have been beautiful?

Amelia Wolf About Amelia Wolf

Amelia Wolf will receive her Rabbinic Ordination and Master's in Jewish Studies with a concentration in Talmud and Rabbinic Literature in May 2023 from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She currently serves as Rabbinic Intern at Conservative Synagogue Adath Israel of Riverdale in the Bronx, NY and Rabbinic Fellow at Temple Beth El in Oneonta, NY. She will be joining Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington, VA as their rabbi in July 2023. Amelia is an IJCIC Fellow in Interreligious Leadership.