Rabbi Shlomo Riskin: Rabbi Schachter’s Stance on Christianity Overlooks Major Jewish Teachings


I was taken aback by Rabbi Hershel Schachter’s article, “Experimental Judaism: Playing with Fire”. It paints a picture of Christianity that was accurate before 1965, but which has undergone a sea change–one might even say a theological earthquake. This occurred as a result of the miraculous establishment of the State of Israel and the realization by honest and authoritative Church leaders that the Holocaust could not have taken place had it not been for the seeds of anti Semitism sown by Christian teachings over the last two millennia. The groundbreaking document, Nostra Aetate, adopted overwhelmingly by the majority of Catholic bishops around the world at the Second Vatican Council in 1965 is now official Catholic doctrine. It explicitly condemns anti Semitism, repudiates the charge of deicide and asserts that the Jewish people is still in a living covenant with God. This covenant has not—indeed can never be—revoked. The Catholic Church has said again and again “God does not repent of the gifts He makes or the calls He issues (to the Jewish people).” (Epistle to Romans 11:28-29 and Nostra Aetate, 4)

Most official Protestant churches today also espouse these positions regarding Judaism and the Jewish People. Pope John Paul II humbly asked for forgiveness from the Jewish People in the main synagogue in Rome and at the Kotel in Jerusalem. He has publically and repeatedly called anti-Semitism “a sin against God” and referred to the Jewish people as his “elder brothers”. Leading Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical theologians have publically stated and authoritatively written that the gospel was never meant to convert the Jews during historic time, and that Jews must be respected as a separate and unique faith community with a separate and unique covenantal relationship with God.

These theological changes have been demonstrated by the close friendship of many in the Christian community, a friendship without ulterior motive and based purely on the Torah’s insistence that Jews are God’s chosen people and we are called upon by God to bring blessing to the gentile world and in turn be blessed This has been reiterated orally and in writing by leading representatives of all branches of Christianity—Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical. The Christian world– especially the Evangelicals–have become the greatest supporters of Israel’s right to the land of Israel in modern times. Why Rabbi Schachter chooses to ignore all of these changes and describe Christianity with a false caricature of “shmadism” (conversionism) is difficult for me to comprehend. There still are individual Christians and isolated organizations that missionize to Jews, but they do not represent the normative theological voice of Christianity today. They are strongly repudiated by leading Christian theologians and certainly by all rabbis who participate in Jewish Christian dialogue.

Rabbi Schachter cites a statement by Rav Soloveitchik in the name of his grandfather that anything considered idolatrous for a Jew is equally idolatrous for a Christian, and therefore any Jew who teaches Judaism for any reason to believing Christians is strengthening idolatry. Since I have proudly established a Center for Jewish Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel, where we teach Christians the Jewish roots of Christianity, it appears that I am being charged with strengthening idolatry. Once again, Rabbi Schachter seems to have overlooked major positions in our religious teachings. Maimonides clearly believes that Christianity is idolatrous. Yet at the same time, Rambam believes that teaching Torah to Christians is salutary: “It is permissible to teach the Torah and commandments to the Christians and draw them closer to our faith” (Teshuvot ha-Rambam, Blau edition, Responsum 1:149). Moreover, in the unexpurgated Rav Kapah version of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, (Laws of Kings 11:4), Maimonides writes: “ It is beyond the human mind to fathom the Creator…all these matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth…..only serve to pave the way for King Messiah and to prepare the entire world to worship God together as one. Thus the Messianic hope, the Torah and the Commandments have become familiar topics of conversation among the inhabitants of the far isles and was brought to many peoples uncircumcised of heart and flesh…” Apparently, Torah–its concepts and its laws–are important areas of study and practice even for Christians today.

Rabbi Schachter’s citation of Rav Soloveitchik’s claim in the name of his grandfather that there is no differentiation between Christians and Jews regarding idolatry does not stand up to an examination of rabbinic sources. The overwhelming majority of halakhic decisors during the past several hundred years see Christianity as idolatry for Jews, but not for Christians. For Jews, the trinity is a weakening of pure monotheism; however for Christians who believe that the trinity is ultimately a unity and includes the one true God who created the Heavens and the Earth, this belief is a movement away from paganism and towards monotheism. It therefore cannot be considered idolatrous for the Christians. This is the position not only of The Rema (Darkei Mosheh on Tur Orah Haym 151) and Shakh (Yoreh Deah 151,4), whom R. Schachter mentions as if they are isolated and unrepresentative halakhic opinions, but also of R. Menachem ha-Meiri and the vast majority of later Ashkenazi rabbinic authorities as well, including Rabbis Moshe Rivkis (Be’er HaGolah, Hoshen Mishpat 425.5), Yair Bacharakh (Havat Yair, Responsa 1,185), Yaakov Emden (Seder Olam Rabah ve’Zutah 35-37), Avraham Borenstein (Avnei Nezer 123:9), R. Yehizkel Landau (introduction to Noda Biyehudah, tinyama edition) Dovid Zvi Hoffman (Melamed LeHo’el Yoreh Deah 55), Yehiel HaLevi Epstein (Arukh HaShulhan Orah Hayim 156’4), Abraham HaKohen Kook (Iggarot 1, 89) and many others. (This is only a partial list. A more complete list of the halakhic sources can be found in “Rethinking Christianity” by Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn in Jewish Theology and World Religions (Littman Library, 2012.)) The breadth of this halakhic position is vast over geography and time, making it implausible that all these venerated authorities were disingenuous and were hiding their real opinions because of gentile political authorities. Rav Yaakov Emden went so far as to state “The Nazarene brought double goodness to the world. The Christians eradicated idolatry, removed idols from the world and obliged everyone to follow the Seven Commandments …Their intent is for the sake of heaven; their reward will not be denied…”

Carrying Rabbi Schachter’s assertions forward to their practical effects, if Rav Soloveitchik’s citation of his grandfather would indeed be normative halacha we would be obligated to destroy every church in Israel, since the Torah demands for we eradicate idolatrous altars in our holy land. We would also be obligated to forcibly convert every Christian in Israel or expel from Israel all Christians who insist on remaining Christians (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 8:10). Could this ever be wise policy for Israel to follow? Can we really believe this is correct and what God wants Torah Jews to do today? Fortunately an honest study of the halakhic sources I have cited demonstrates that this is not the normative view of our halachic decisors.

As far as the charge against: “Those who claim to be the disciples (of Rav Soloveitchik) and have reinterpreted his words to mean the exact opposite of what they say,” I urge the interested reader to study my article: “Is Christian-Jewish Dialogue permitted? A Post Script to Confrontation,” found on the website of the CJCUC (www.cjcuc.org), and published in Hebrew as יד לאיתמר, אמונות ודעות במשנת הגרי”ד סולובייצ’יק , in the Mekor Rishon newspaper. Our Center follows the guidelines set down by the Rav.

After reviewing all these sources and after seeing how the teachings of our Center have served to intensify the commitment of our Christian friends to the land and people of Israel, it appears that the accusation made by Rabbi Schachter that we are enhancing shmad is as exaggerated as is his unfortunate caricature of Christianity.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone, and chief rabbi of Efrat.