Two Paths On Encountering ‘The Other’


Two rabbis affiliated with Yeshiva University are in the news this week, one delivering the opening prayer at the Republican National Convention in Tampa that will send a devout Mormon and devout Catholic off on the campaign trail, and the other criticized for expressing views that appear to be unaware or dismissive of the major positive changes toward Judaism within the Catholic Church of recent decades.

The different paths were taken by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, the convention speaker and head of the Strauss Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University, and Rabbi Hershel Schachter, the rosh yeshiva and eminent Talmudic authority at Yeshiva’s rabbinical school. Their divergent expressions underscore sharply some of the tensions within YU and the wider Orthodox community over encounters with other faiths, and varying interpretations of the views of their late, revered leader, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, known simply as the Rav.

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik (the families spell their last names differently), a political conservative with friends in the Romney campaign, is in the ecumenical spotlight thanks to his invocation. He is said to be liberal in terms of opening his students to the world outside the beit midrash, or study hall. The center he directs is committed to exposing students to “the richness of human knowledge,” according to its mission statement. And he wrote an essay, “A Nation Under God: Jews, Christians and the American Public Square,” in which he argued for more interfaith dialogue when it comes social and political issues.

He cited as proof the writings of his great-uncle, the Rav, who is well known for opposing Jewish-Christian dialogue on theological issues. But as his great-nephew writes, “mostly overlooked in this discussion is a series of guidelines on interfaith dialogue authored by the Rav that groups religious Jews and Christians together and apart from the rest of world, uniting religious Jews and Christians by insisting that they communicate with each other in a basic moral language that is religious in nature, based on an ethics predicated on belief in God and in the distinctiveness, and spiritual nature, of the human being.”

Rabbi Schachter, the highly respected decisor and disciple of the Rav, wrote a dvar Torah recently in which he bemoaned Catholic proselytizing in Israel and noted the Catholic Church’s opposition to Zionism.

He makes reference as well to the Rav’s views against interfaith dialogue and criticizes those whom he claims “have ‘reintepreted’ his words to mean the exact opposite of what they really say.”

A group made up of 35 Jewish-Christian relations centers around the country charged that the essay was filled with errors, written in an inflammatory style and distorted historical facts. Several scholars asserted that the writer seemed not to take into account the sweeping and remarkable changes in Church attitudes toward Jews, Judaism and Israel since the Second Vatican Council of 1965.

The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, weighed in, saying that it was “troubling that a religious figure and university academic who is well respected in the yeshiva world would publish such a distorted and error-filled text.” He called on the rabbi to publicly correct them.

Ruth Langer, a professor of Jewish studies at Boston College and chair of the group of Jewish-Christian relations centers, noted that “there may be legitimate grounds for halachic discussions on the inner Jewish issues being raised, but they are complex and need discussion in an appropriate context and against a background of fact.”

Surely a better understanding between Christians and Jews is an antidote to the kind of false rhetoric that brings harm, whoever its target.