Interfaith Dialogue Under Fire
I. The Traditionalist
I find the recent exchange between R. Hershel Schachter and R. Shlomo Riskin about interfaith dialogue distressing. Both scholars are accomplished in their respective areas yet both present troubling claims, some excessively difficult. Allow me to explain my objections and why I believe that R. Schachter is, overall, correct. (Some may object that I would, of course, side with my teacher but I did not have to comment at all. As you will see, I believe that R. Schachter is supported by the foremost Orthodox expert on interfaith dialogue.)
R. Schachter began this exchange with a critique of unnamed rabbis who support Christian activity in Israel and an unspecified Jewish program that teaches Torah to Christians (link). R. Schachter’s presentation suffers from a lack of nuance reflected in a conflation of Christian factions and an imprecise statement of their theology. This is certainly because, as R. Schachter will freely admit, he is not particularly familiar with Christian theology. He instead relies on R. Soloveitchik’s presentation and haphazard mentions in popular media and Torah periodicals. A more nuanced presentation would acknowledge that there are multiple Christian denominations and, even within those denominations, varying schools of thought. Even Catholicism, despite its distinct hierarchy, allows for debate on many theological issues. (Let me add that I make no claims to expertise on Christian theology but have tried to follow articles on interfaith dialogue in Christian periodicals for a number of years.)
R. Schachter’s arguments can be restated in the five following points:
- A large number of Christians, particularly supporters of Israel and including the current Pope, believe in some version of Supersessionist Theology. In their view, Christians have taken over the biblical role of Israel and Jews must accept Jesus to achieve salvation.
- Some (not all) adherents to one or another version of this theology actively missionize to Jews, across the world and particularly in Israel. Publicly supporting Christian leaders and movements plays right into the hands of missionaries, who appropriate those statements for their own purposes.
- Teaching Torah to Christians is forbidden and teaching them to perform commandments intended for Jews is doubly so. A Christian does not accomplish a mitzvah by performing the act if he intends it as a Christian act.
- Even though some authorities believe Christians are permitted to engage in Christianity, they do not allow Jews to become involved in Christianity at all. Furthermore, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik quoted his grandfather as ruling that even Christians must abandon Christianity.
- Additionally, this activity certainly falls under the theological dialogue that R. Soloveitchik forbade in his classic essay, Confrontation.
II. The Innovator
In responding to R. Schachter’s critique, R. Riskin offers a broad defense of his Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel which I found disturbing. I share R. Riskin’s sense of comradeship with many Christians, who share so many of our values and display so many virtues. I want to engage in theological dialogue with Christians because I believe the potential intellectual and emotional benefit to be great. However, I recognize R. Soloveitchik’s concerns and, even if I disagreed, would defer to his authority. R. Riskin seems to have an extra portion of the enthusiasm I share, because that is the only way I can explain his surprising responses to R. Schachter’s critique.
- R. Riskin argues that most Catholics and Protestants reject Supersessionist Theology, as shown in the 1965 Catholic document Nostra Aetate (“The rejection of the idea that our Jewish covenant with God has been cancelled, or superseded – taken over – by the Christians”). As we will discuss, this is incorrect and only half the story. R. Riskin seems to paint here with as broad a brush as R. Schachter.
- R. Riskin states, quite accurately but also inadequately, that Christians of all stripes have repeatedly and publicly denounced missionizing to Jews. There are two related issues that we will discuss shortly.
- R. Riskin states that even the Rambam, who unquestionably believed that Christianity is considered idolatry, allowed teaching Bible to Christians and even saw ultimate value in Christianity. I believe R. Riskin’s point here is twofold: 1) He can certainly teach Torah to Christians even according to the strict opinion because Rambam allowed it. And 2) even according to the strict opinion, Christianity has divinely intended positive value.
In his longer essay, R. Riskin more fully defends his teaching Torah to Christians. He points out that Rambam explicitly permits teaching Bible and Noahide commandments to Christians as well as bringing them to love God. R. Riskin puzzlingly finds in this permission to teach Christians not just Bible and the Noahide commandments but also “the basic lessons of our Written and Oral Torah.”
- R. Riskin then takes his argument to a dangerous level. He argues that, according to R. Schachter, we would be obligated to destroy all churches in Israel. This highly charged accusation is incorrect, unfair and can ironically be turned back at R. Riskin, as we will see shortly.
- And finally, R. Riskin interprets R. Soloveitchik’s essay, based on Dr. Eugene Korn’s approach, to allow for theological dialogue as long as there are no concerns of missionizing, no debate and no theological compromises.
III. Mediating the Views
As should already be clear, I believe that R. Schachter is essentially correct in this debate. Let me address the five issues listed above.
- We speak a different religious language than Christians. Broadly speaking, if you ask a Christian whether he wants to convert Jews, he may very well say no because he is not interested in conversion. He may think that Jews should stay Jews and not abandon their ancient and holy religion. But if you ask him whether he will witness to Jews, he will most likely say yes because he of course wants to share his faith in Jesus with his Jewish friend. Witnessing is central to (most forms of) Christianity. Even a Christian who does not want you to abandon Judaism, still wants to help you bring Jesus into your life. Most likely he doesn’t see the contradiction but even if he does, he still feels obligated to witness. I don’t see anything wrong with this on a personal level and can respect someone for his view despite finding it religiously objectionable. Like R. Riskin, I find great many areas of mutual interest and respect with Christians. Of course, on this issue theologies and personalities vary, but R. Schachter is correct that witnessing is core to the Christian faith, something which even Nostra Aetate does not deny.
Let us discuss Nostra Aetate for a moment. This monumental document radically changed Catholic-Jewish relations. It did not appear out of nowhere but was under development for years. I mention this only to point out that R. Soloveitchik was aware of its basic contours when he wrote Confrontation. Nostra Aetate did not conclusively end witnessing to Jews. If anything, it left the status of Jews within the Catholic worldview ambiguous and subject to decades of debate. Some theologians adopted a “double covenant” theory, proposing that Jews need only their covenant with God and not Jesus. Most reject this approach.
Significantly, in the year 2000, the current Pope Benedict XVI when he was merely a Cardinal published a document titled Dominus Iesus, approved by Pope John Paul II, which rejected “double covenant” theory and affirmed that all people, including Jews, can only achieve salvation through Jesus. Pope Benedict had previously published a book, Many Religions–One Covenant, in which he states that Christianity has superseded Judaism. He also affirms the importance of missionizing and states that “mission and dialogue should no longer be opposites but should mutually interpenetrate” (p. 112).
The prior two paragraphs were informed by, and the quote taken from, Dr. David Berger’s collection of essays, Persecution, Polemic, and Dialogue: Essays in Jewish-Christian Relations. The bulk of the book discusses Medieval topics but the final section contains indispensable studies on contemporary interfaith dialogue by the leading Orthodox thinker on the subject. Dr. Berger’s conclusion, in essays spanning three decades, is clear: Mainstream Christians still believe in missionizing and witnessing to Jews. Dr. Berger writes: “In sum, we now have an official document of the Catholic Church, ‘ratified and confirmed’ by the Pope himself [and whose author is now Pope! -GS], declaring that a key purpose of interfaith dialogue is mission, which includes the message that conversion is necessary to attain full communion with God” (p. 383). “Cardinal Ratzinger’s [now Pope Benedict's -GS] vision, however, is not confined to the eschaton. He appears interested in bringing individual Jews to a recognition of Christian truth even before the end of days, and he sees interfaith dialogue–though that is not its only purpose–as one means of accomplishing this end” (p. 390).
In a recent statement (link), Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, clarified: “‘The Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed toward the Jews,’ but that does not exclude Christians bearing witness to their faith ‘in an unassuming and humble manner.’”
I fully believe that many fine Christians do not intend to offend Jews by attempting to convert them. However, many find the instinct to witness impossible to overcome. The July 24, 2005 New York Times carried a story about R. Yechiel Eckstein and his Fellowship of Christians and Jews. In the course of an interview with the reporter, one of R. Eckstein’s Christian staff members, Sandy Rios, openly admitted to wanting to convert Jews! (He was fired shortly after.) I can’t find it right now but I believe R. Eckstein wrote in a Jewish magazine, perhaps Jewish Observer, about how a Christian friend witnessed to his son. He was proud that his son was uninterested but not every teenager is a rabbi’s confident son.
Regardless, there can be no denying the frequent missionizing to Jews by many Christians. Every summer, I see New York flooded with missionaries who specifically target Jews. According to this news item, missionaries planned to build a center right off of Kings Highway in Flatbush (link)! In Israel, Yad L’Achim tracks and counters missionaries (link). The website of Catholics for Israel explicitly states “Our mission to the Jewish people is to provide resources to our Jewish friends who are interested or curious in knowing more about the person of Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth and about the Catholic faith” (link). And who can forget the Southern Baptist 1995 declaration on missionizing to the Jews (link)?
R. Riskin correctly speaks of Christians who denounce converting Jews. However, that is only part of the story. Many believe that Christians should formally missionize to Jews and many more believe they should informally witness to us.
- R. Riskin argues that, according to the Rambam, he may teach Christians Bible and about the commandments, and brings textual proofs to this position. However, he inexplicably fails to explain the key texts underlying this issue–Sanhedrin 59a and Chagigah 13a. The acharonim discuss this issue at length and, while one view exists that could justify R. Riskin’s activity (which he does not quote), authorities such as R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah vol. 3 no. 90) and R. Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg (Kisvei Ha-Gaon R. Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg, vol. 1 pp. 26-30, discussed here) would not approve. R. Weinberg analyzes the Rambam’s view in detail.
The second issue, of messianic purpose in Christianity, seems irrelevant to me. That Christianity and Islam further the divine plan by bringing people closer to truth does not automatically mean that they are true. The statement itself means that those religions are better than paganism. That is certainly a statement of value, a finding of an element of truth inside the religions, and a declaration of praise for Christians and Muslims who rise above prior religious errors. But it does not constitute justification for those religions. As R. Walter Wurzburger wrote, “with all our appreciation of Christianity as an avenue to God available to the non-Jewish world, we must not gloss over the fact that the Trinitarian faith still falls short of our universal religious ideals” (link). I quickly note that my calling a Christian wrong for accepting Jesus is no more offensive than him calling me wrong for rejecting Jesus. We clearly differ on this basic religious issue and we each develop our theology accordingly.
- R. Riskin’s claim that “the overwhelming majority of halakhic decisors during the past several hundred years see Christianity as idolatry for Jews, but not for Christians” fails on three counts. First, it is objectively wrong. I once set out to conduct such a survey and concluded that the majority fell just slightly on the other side. Second, debates such as these are never decided by merely counting the numbers. We must also consider the weight of the authorities. Heavyweights such as R. Akiva Eiger, the Minchas Chinukh and the Noda Bi-Yehudah fall on the strict side (I am surprised that R. Riskin lists the Noda Bi-Yehudah as lenient based on a clearly apologetic front-note when his son’s responsum, published in Noda Bi-Yehudah, vol. 2 Yoreh De’ah no. 148, dismisses the lenient view). And third, R. Schachter fully admits in his critique that some disagree but pointed out that R. Soloveitchik quoted his revered grandfather as siding with the strict view.
- R. Riskin’s implication that R. Schachter’s view inevitably leads to the destruction of churches inadvertently plays to the Jewish media’s frequent misattribution of offensive positions to leading rabbis. In this case, it is not only untrue but equally applicable to R. Riskin himself. The Satmar Rav cleverly pointed this out (Va-Yo’el Moshe, Ma’amar Gimmel Shevuos chs. 90-98). Even according to the lenient view above, which R. Riskin claims the overwhelming majority of authorities adopt, the obligation to destroy churches should still apply because Christianity is considered idolatry to Jews, even if not to Christians. I discussed elsewhere the legal niceties with which R. Menachem Kasher thoroughly rebuts this argument (here). My point here is that R. Riskin’s attribution of this obligation to R. Schachter is incorrect and applies equally to him.
- On the issue of interpreting Confrontation, R. Riskin states that he follows Dr. Eugene Korn’s approach. Dr. David Berger firmly rebuts Dr. Korn’s analysis in his book (pp. 385-391), available online here: link. While, as Dr. Berger notes, there are gray areas of theology on the borders, that does not undermine R. Soloveitchik’s clear position on theological dialogue. We should also take note that R. Soloveitchik closely guided the RCA for decades in its interfaith dialogue, long after Nostra Aetate was published. He never allowed anything remotely as bold as R. Riskin’s project.
R. Schachter’s critique seems like a rough draft, a correct analysis that required further development. R. Riskin’s response is much more startling because of its polish. When looking at content rather than form, and developing the ideas provided to their fullest, R. Schachter seems to me to be siding with Dr. Berger’s general approach in his own halakhic way while R. Riskin is basing a radical departure on debatable, if not entirely inaccurate, analysis.
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