Monday, April 27, 2015

Judaism and Christianity – Blurring the Lines

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
One of the most epochal developments of the 20th century is the evolution of Jewish Christian relations.  The change in attitude by our Christian friends and neighbors towards the Jewish people and Judaism itself has transformed our relationship. We have evolved from centuries of Christian hatred and persecution to one of tolerance, camaraderie, and even brotherly love.

The Church once considered us to have broken our covenant with God, thus losing His grace, and blamed us collectively and for all time for the death of Jesus. They had believed that Christians replaced the Jewish people covenantally in God’s eyes. 

They now reject the notion that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death; believe that Judaism is a legitimate ‘brother’ faith; and even offered apologies for their past atrocities against us in the name of their faith. Vatican II accomplished all that. The Church no longer seeks to convert us. At least not actively.

The same is true for many Protestants. At least those that are termed Fundamentalist or Evangelical Christians. They too have in most cases abandoned trying to convert us. They see our destiny entwined with theirs. And act toward us by the directives expressed numerous times in what they call ‘the old testament’ (our Torah). That God blesses those who bless the Jewish people. I am convinced that this is - if not their sole motivation – by far their primary one.

This attitude has resulted in some amazing support for Israel and the Jewish people by virtually all Fundamentalist denominations. For example Pastor John Hagee an Evangelical minister whose church has more members than any other denomination has shown more support for the State than AIPAC – if that’s even possible. I will never forget for example the enthusiastic applause Pastor Hagee received when spoke to AIPAC for the first time.

All of this is unprecedented. Not all that long ago the only thing we knew about Evangelicals was that they had a mission to convert us. That is by far no longer the case. I completely reject the notion by some that it still is. While I realize that there are still some organizations that do this (e.g ‘Jews for Jesus’), they are minuscule in number and do not represent the vast majority of Fundamentalist Christians in this country whose numbers have been estimated to exceed 60 million Americans.

I have therefore long advocated that we do everything we can to strengthen the relationship we have with them. Never has there been a better time to do so. And I believe that is indeed being done.

Unfortunately with every rose, comes a thorn.  This new blessing which God has bestowed upon the Jewish people has also caused some very misguided  activity by  well meaning people. Activity that has been rejected as illegitimate by the greatest Halachic minds of the 20th century spanning all of Orthodoxy. Both Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yoshe Ber Soloveitchik have completely opposed the idea of interfaith dialogue of any kind. Rav Soloveitchk could not have been clearer in his essay entitled ‘Confrontation’. Here is how he put it:
"the language of faith of a particular community is totally incomprehensible to the man of a different faith community. Hence the confrontation should occur not at a theological, but at a mundane human level... the great encounter between man and God is a holy, personal and private affair, incomprehensible to the outsider..."
Theological dialogue between Judaism and Christianity was not possible. And certainly not anything remotely close to a joint prayer service. Two completely separate theologies that are anathema to each other.

That is not to say that we should not interact with them in other ways. Of course we should. God gave us this blessing and we ought to accept it and develop it. Not on theological issues. But on those issues where our own religious values overlap. Of which there are many.

Many values of western civilization – especially in America - are based upon what has in recent times been referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic.  Which means that we both Judaism and Christianity have in common many of the values expressed in the Torah. That ought to be the basis of our relationship. These values ought to be promoted together by Christians and Jews in our society.

Which brings me to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. It appears that he has once again parted company with his Rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik.  It was done by Rabbi Riskin’s  protégé, David Nekrutman, who heads Rabbi Riskin’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) located in Efrat.  The very existence of an organization that is in part dedicated to theological discussions with Christians violate’s his mentors directives. But their latest project has gone even further. By promoting and hosting a joint prayer service in an Orthodox Shul on Yom Ha’atzmaut. Christians were invited to join us and say Hallel and read scripture from the pulpit!

Opposition to this came swiftly from the Charedi community. But they were not the only ones.  R’ Shlomo Amar, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel (and current Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem) quickly penned his strong opposition to it. So too did Rabbi Sholom Gold, a leading  Religious Zionist rabbi. Their strong words can be seen at the Jewish Israel website. I join them in opposition to this.

I understand Rabbi Riskin’s motives. I am sure they are pure. He wants to strengthen ties with the Christian community.  I agree with that goal. But his methods have crossed lines that Poskim across the board have drawn. Lo Zu HaDerech. This is not the way to do it.

Which is why I am so disappointed in him. Again. I had always seen him as a champion of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. A role model for rabbinic leadership in the modern era. A man that has done so much in the furtherance of Judaism. He has inspired many Jews to take a closer look at their heritage and their faith and become more observant. And to foster a closer relationship with the Christian community.  I believe he still has these goals. But as important as it is to promote our common values, it is equally important to make sure our differences are clear. So that there never will be a blurring of the lines.