Friday, March 31, 2006

Crossing a Theological Line

A couple of years ago, a group of Catholic Cardinals had asked Yeshiva University if they could come and observe Yeshiva students studying in their Beis HaMedrash. Apparently they had heard about the type of modern orthodoxy espoused by YU which combined a strong secular studies program along with a strong Torah studies program using the traditional Chavrusah type study sessions. They had heard how successful it was, both now and historically and wanted to see if the could learn anything from it. They believed they could possibly incorporate these methods into their own study programs by observing them and perhaps talking to a few students. YU agreed. The cardinals came. Their stay was brief and they were in the Beis HaMedrash for just a few minutes to observe.

After that event, Rabbi Chaim Keller, Rosh HaYeshiva of Telshe Chicago (and former student at YU) wrote a highly critical article in the Yated condemning the event and calling it a Chilul HaShem.

I was indignant. I wrote an article published in the Chicago Jewish News questioning Rabbi Keller’s conclusion and asking why he wasn’t being Dan Yeshiva University L’Kaf Zechus. Indeed I thought it was a Kiddush HaShem. By all accounts the event was a big success. The good will and positive press generated by it not only made The Torah and its people look good it improved an already good relationship between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church. Indeed Agudath Israel itself often filed legal briefs in federal appeals courts and even the Supreme Court (if I remember correctly) on matters of mutual concern in conjunction with Catholics and various Christian denominations. Why is a friendly response to a good faith request by the Catholic Church considered a Chilul HaShem? I still feel that way and my question to Rabbi Keller stands.

However, today’s Forward reports a similar event of far greater controversy which took place in New York. In stark contrast to Yeshiva University’s response to a request to observe its students, Yeshiva Chovivei Torah had initiated an actual learning session. They sent an invitation to the Catholic Church to send Cardinals to sit down and study in their Beis HaMedrash, B’Chavrusa with their own students . An entire morning was spent “learning” Gemarah.

To me this crosses the line. It is one thing to accede to a request in a gesture of good will to observe students. It is an entirely different matter to sit and learn with them. There are strict laws about how and when it is permitted to dialogue with non-Jews about matters of faith. Usually such situations are permitted only when forced upon us as was the case with the famous Vikuach (disputation) between the Ramban and Pablo Christiani. But here they were invited to do so. Chovevei Torah Rosh HaYeshiva, Rabbi Avi Weiss, defended his actions by saying that "This is not theological dialogue — this is a study session...” but as the article goes on to immediately say “ several moments, as straight text study made way for free-flowing discussion, it seemed hard to draw a clear line dividing the two categories.”

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik ZTL, the acknowledged and undisputed leader of Modern Orthodoxy had written an essay permitting interfaith dialogue, but not on matters of theology. It appears that Chovevei Torah crossed that line. From the article:

“(Chovevei student) Friedman told his Catholic study partner that the Hebrew word for "stand," can be understood as a synonym for "pray." The archbishop smiled, his knees nearly touching the student's. Nodding, he replied, "Jesus stood up early in the morning to pray."

You don’t need much imagination to realize where thid dialogue might lead. This event should not go unnoticed. I don’t know if it is an actually Chilul HaShem ...or whether it isn’t.. but it is certainly worth considering it as such.

I want to be clear. I am very much in favor of having good relations with the Catholic Church. I do believe they view us differently now since Vatican Two. Our attitude towards the Church ought to change from one of suspicion to one of warm and friendly relations which is a hallmark of the free and open pluralistic society that America is. I have indeed written two controversial articles on this subject, one on this blog and one in the Chicago Tribune praising Evangelical friendship as genuine and that we ought to embrace it, albeit with a watchful eye.

But it is one thing to be friends. It is an entirely different matter to debate theology with them, especially when the Catholic side is experienced elders... “Princes” of the Church and Jewish side is young rabbinical students with heads full of mush.