05/03/2011 04:24 pm ET | Updated Jul 03, 2011

A New Holy Week Agenda

Palm fronds were being waved in the park down the street from my apartment as I wrote this column, while my wife did final Passover cleaning of the closets and I put off for a few more hours the requisite scrubbing of the oven. Holy Week and Passover coincided this year, as they so often do. The question is what we should make of this proximity of calendars and neighbors: what course should relations among religious groups take in 21st century America? Important answers to that question, I think, can be found in the messages of the holidays that Jews and Catholics celebrated this past week.

New York's Archbishop Timothy Dolan pointed to one crucial step in his recent address at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Dialogue between Catholics and Jews, he said, should henceforth be regarded as a duty of the faithful, not a kindness. The archbishop called for a move from dialogue focused on "grievance" to one based upon mutuality of interest and concern. He urged Jews and Catholics alike to appreciate each other's concept of memory and, by so doing, cultivate greater respect for each other's testimony to God's saving actions in the world. In a speech that was alternately (and simultaneously) humorous, honest, and warmly embracing, he called on Jews and Catholics to know each other better, to engage each other more substantially, and to move from talking together to working together.

This sounds very right to me. I do not know what Jewish experts and activists on the matter of Pius XII's actions or inaction during the Holocaust will make of the Archbishop's proposal that we reopen that matter without prior assumptions as the Vatican provides for open, easy access to all relevant documents. I do know that it meant a lot to me as a Jew to see the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Bishops reiterate the Catholic Church's recognition of the State of Israel and to hear his impassioned plea that those who love God demonstrate that love by closer cooperation. When I asked him what he thought in the observances of Easter and Passover was most relevant to his theme, he responded exactly as I would have done: the necessity and possibility of hope.

That is the heart of the matter where interreligious dialogue is concerned. Catholics, Jews, and all other religious groups share responsibility for a planet that is threatened as never before by a long list of evils, including political and social chaos, global warming, widespread hunger, terrorism, and nuclear war. The result, not surprisingly, is mounting nihilism and despair. All the earth's citizens, whatever their religious beliefs, desperately need reasons for hope and common effort that bring redemption closer. We want to reassert life in the face of death and to do so with confidence that life has a chance of holding its own in that struggle.

That is why the mere acceptance of diversity -- an attitude of "live and let live" among religious groups -- no longer seems enough to me, as welcome as that attitude is when compared to the intolerance and persecution that held sway for centuries. Dialogue among religious leaders is likewise a major step forward, but it too is only a means to the goal for which we strive rather than a valid stopping point. That is true even if such dialogue results in greater knowledge of each other's traditions and does not aim (as it still does too often) at proof, disproof, or proselytism.

What is needed, I think, is engagement among the laity. We might well begin with the hundreds of thousands of Jews, Christians, and Muslims who live side by side in New York City. Instead of talking about our faiths, let's exercise them in common action, talking as we go about our families, commitments, frustrations, and fond hopes. I treasure the religious thinkers of all faiths who teach that God's presence is made palpable in the world when believers do good in God's name. Young people especially need rescue from the cynicism that overtakes us when the pious of any religion talk a good game but fail to help anyone. We owe them, and each other, confirmation that religious belief makes a difference to ethical practice.

I am always moved when Catholic friends describe the passage from darkness to light that takes place on Easter Sunday morning. Christ's rise from the Cross, in their eyes, inspires and makes possible our own rise. His suffering empowers humanity not only to bear suffering, but to relieve it. The Passover Haggadah contains a similar message: if God had not rescued the Jews from Egypt, the text states, "we and our children and our children's children would still be slaves unto Pharaoh." That is why Jews are commanded to tell the story of Passover each year -- and to act on that story. Gratitude gives rise to responsibility. Fortified with testimony that redemption occurred at least once long ago, we more easily muster the faith that redemption can and will happen again -- and the confidence needed to help bring it about.

Self-cleaning ovens are a welcome addition to pre-Passover ritual and, in the end, I took advantage of this modern aid to traditional Jewish practice. But one probably learns more about what it takes to start fresh on the work of redemption by getting down on hands and knees and scrubbing the old-fashioned way. There is no parallel shortcut to dialogue or partnership among religious groups. Such cooperation may strike many, if not most, believers as unnatural, unnecessary, and difficult. I suggest, nonetheless, that we make it a priority for action before next year's observance of Holy Week and Passover. All of our faiths, without exception, can certainly use the exercise.