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Behind the Headlines; Rabbis Debate Value of Dialogue with Gentiles and Non-orthodox

Should Orthodox leaders engage in dialogue with non-Jewish clergy? With non-Orthodox rabbis? If so, what topics may be debated, and in what context?

Rabbis of centrist or modern Orthodoxy, caught between an increasingly assertive right wing and ever-widening divergences with liberal Judaism on the left, met here last week to discuss the value of continuing dialogue with other movements of Judaism and with non-Jewish clergy.

The setting was the mid-winter conference of the Rabbinical Council of America, the nation’s largest body of Orthodox rabbis. The council meets twice a year, once for business and once for its mid-winter study and reflection session.

“It is our duty to stretch out our hand and hope that if we reach out, there will be a solution to our problems,” Rabbi Max Schreier, president of the council, said in his keynote address to the conference.

The Rabbinical Council has faced opposition to its interfaith and inter-movement activities for more than 35 years, both internally and from other Orthodox groups.

The debate has centered on its membership in the Synagogue Council of America, which unites Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbinical and congregational groups. Opponents say membership in that umbrella group implies legitimization of Judaism’s liberal streams.

Through the Synagogue Council, moreover, the Rabbinical Council is affiliated to the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (commonly known by the acronym 1JC1C), which conducts ongoing dialogue with the Vatican and other Christian groups.

A MATTER OF ‘DAMAGE CONTROL’

In a panel discussion following Schreier’s speech, several leading Orthodox practitioners of interfaith dialogue sought to explain these activities and their limits.

“I sec our job in the Synagogue Council of America and in IJCIC as plain damage control,” said Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, a former Rabbinical Council president who co-chairs the Synagogue Council’s interreligious affairs committee.

“We are not discussing religion, but we arc discussing issues from a religious position,” Schonfeld said of his Synagogue Council activities.

“We arc people of spiritual background. We can’t discuss a problem as a stockbroker, a glazier or a businessman. We watch over the store and we call it the interreligious affairs committee.”

Israel Singer, another Orthodox activist involved in interreligious activity, said he enters such dialogues with a sense of cynicism.

“If you have to talk to this guy to stay safe, you talk to the guy,” said Singer, who as secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress plays a key role in IJCIC.

“My object is to enhance the position of the Jewish people in every way I can, whether with a head of state or church,” Singer said.

According to Schonfeld, the deciding factor in entering the Synagogue Council and its interfaith panel — for him personally and for the Rabbinical Council — was the opinion of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the supreme halachic authority of modern Orthodoxy, known to his followers as “the Rav.”

Soloveitchik, the Leib Merkin Distinguished Professor of Talmud and Jewish Philosophy at Yeshiva University, is ailing and rarely speaks in public today.

MATTER OF ‘UNIVERSAL CONVICTION’

In 1965, Schonfeld recalled, Henry Siegman, then Synagogue Council head, now executive director of the American Jewish Congress, “asked me to become the chairman of the interreligious affairs committee. I went to the Rav, and he said, ‘We don’t need it.’ “

“In 1967, when I was asked again, he said, ‘Now you have to take it.’ Why? Because the conditions have changed. There is an onslaught against Israel.”

Rabbi Walter Wurzburger, a respected theologian who has been president of both the Rabbinical Council and the Synagogue Council, called such dialogue “a religious, ethical imperative.”

“We should not look upon dialogue with the non-Jewish religious community simply in terms of our own self-interest, but also in terms of certain universal responsibilities as people of faith,” said Wurzburger, former editor of the Rabbinical Council journal Tradition.

Recalling his own personal observations of Soloveitchik’s respect for other religions, Wurzburger said: “The Rav never prohibited talking to non-Jews on matters of socio-ethical importance.”

“I plead with you, let us not be so victimized by the Holocaust and by the United Nations” that you “completely abandon the universal conviction,” he added.

“I love Jews much more than anyone else,” Wurzburger said, “but my love for Jews docs not entail hatred or disdain for non-Jews.”

The Rabbinical Council has been a member of the Synagogue Council since the umbrella group was founded in the 1930s, according to Rabbi Louis Bernstein, a former Rabbinical Council president and author of “Challenge and Continuity,” a history of the Orthodox group.

In 1955, 11 yeshiva deans issued a ban on participating in “mixed groups,” Bernstein said in an interview. Still, he said, “the Rabbinical Council of America never recognized this ban.”

FOSTERING ‘MUTUAL UNDERSTANDING’

But Rabbi David Hollander, who was president of the Rabbinical Council at the time of the ban, said he had been personally instructed by Soloveitchik to observe the 1955 ban and avoid Synagogue Council activities, for fear of legitimizing non-Orthodox Jewish practice.

“I asked Rabbi Soloveitchik, ‘Should I, as president, attend the Synagogue Council meeting?’ He said: ‘Do not flout the decision of the roshei yeshivos, and do not attend the meetings,’ ” Hollander recalled.

Soloveitchik is not known to have written formally on the topic since 1966, when he made this statement in the Rabbinical Council Record:

“In the areas of universal concern, we welcome an exchange of ideas and impressions. Communication among the various communities will greatly contribute towards mutual understanding.”

The debate has continued, however. “This has been an ongoing fight, with Hollander leading the challenge,” said Bernstein. “We are not the College of Cardinals. It’s perfectly OK to disagree. But the reality of life is that (the pro-dialogue) points of view have prevailed.”

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