Modern Orthodox Leaders Bless Interfaith Dialogue


For much of the last half-century, interfaith discussions between Christian churches and the Jewish community have been largely the province of non-Orthodox Jews. Influenced by prohibitions on Jewish-Christian dialogue activities issued by prominent charedi and Modern Orthodox rabbinic leaders, most Orthodox Jews have been reluctant to engage with Catholic and Protestant counterparts in an official, public way.

This week, some Orthodox leaders joined the interfaith discussion.

A public statement, drafted by Rabbi David Rosen, a veteran of interfaith work, calling for greater cooperation between the Orthodox community and Christians “to address the moral and religious challenges of our era,” was published on the website of the Israeli-based Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC), an organization founded seven years ago by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the chief rabbi of Efrat.

The statement, “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians,” bore the signatures of some 30 Orthodox rabbis, mostly from Modern Orthodox circles, including Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, a longtime advocate of improved interfaith relations, Rabbi Riskin, who is also the former spiritual leader of Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, Rabbi Marc Angel of Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan, and Rabbi Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs.

“Both Jews and Christians have a common covenantal mission to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty,” the statement declares. “Our partnership in no way minimizes the ongoing differences between the two communities and the two religions.”

While the signatories cited a warming relationship between Jews and the Protestant Church, the CJCUC statement, religious in nature, did not refer to a growing political rift between supporters of Israel and some Protestant denominations, notably the Presbyterians, who in recent years have aligned themselves with the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, which seeks to economically isolate Israel.

Rabbi Greenberg hailed the statement: “While individual Orthodox rabbis have made some of these statements [favoring interfaith dialogue] … they were often dismissed as individual opinions or even beyond the Orthodox pale,” Rabbi Greenberg said. “Here is an important international group of leading Orthodox rabbis who are saying that these views have standing. Hopefully it will stimulate partnership projects as well as more Orthodox rabbis joining in the dialogue.”

“The very fact that Orthodox rabbis are willing to make such a public, positive statement about Christianity is well worth noting,” said Rabbi David Sandmel, director of interfaith affairs at the Anti-Defamation League. “It speaks to the successful efforts of Christians, especially the Catholic Church, to form bonds with the Jewish community and the growing openness among Orthodox Jews to reciprocate.”

However, Rabbi Sandmel cautioned, “We should remember that this statement represents the views of those rabbis who signed it, not Orthodoxy as a whole.”

The statement, which cites traditional opinions by past rabbinic authorities who approved of limited Jewish partnership with Christians, comes a dozen years after Rabbi Eugene Korn, former Anti-Defamation League director of interfaith affairs and a current CJCUC staff member, called for a re-examination of the Orthodox prohibition on Jewish-Christian theological discussions, and three years after Rabbi Riskin stated in an essay on the CJCUC website that Christianity’s changing attitudes towards Jews and Judaism permitted wider contact with Christians.

Rabbi Riskin told The Jewish Week that this week’s statement was influenced both by Jewry’s increasingly open relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, begun by the Nostra Aetate papal document 50 years ago and by the actions in the last few years by Pope Francis, and by the terrorist actions of “extremist Islam,” which require united opposition by members of other monotheistic religions.

“We’re in the middle of a religious war” against Muslim extremists, seeking Christian “partners,” Rabbi Riskin said in a telephone interview.

Rabbi Riskin said the Catholic Church, which has dropped its call for the conversion of Jews and has recognized the Jewish community as the biblical “Chosen People,” as well as many Protestant sects’ support for Judaism as an authentic faith, allowed him and the other signatories to endorse the historic call for closer ties with Christians.

In supporting the CJCUC statement, Rabbi Riskin and other signatories argued this week that the Christian Church of the 1960s is not the Christian Church of 2015, and that the bans on interfaith work issued by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (the leader of non-chasidic charedi Jewry) and by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (leader of Modern Orthodox Jews) do not apply.

“Everything in the statement is fully consonant with Jewish law,” Rabbi Eugene Korn, academic director of CJCUC, told The Jewish Week in an email interview. “Jews have real enemies today — but Christians are no longer among them. Both communities must defeat the same assaults on our faiths from radical secularism and intolerant religious extremism.”

Philip Cunningham, professor of theology at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and director of the school’s Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations, called the CJCUC statement “unprecedented in its positivity — hopefully it will encourage deeper Catholic-Jewish theological conversation.” And Commonweal, a liberal Catholic publication, called it a “theologically compelling and provocative statement [that] is quite a 50th-anniversary present for Nostra Aetate.”

Spokesmen for the Orthodox Union (the central umbrella organization of the Modern Orthodox movement in the United States), Agudath Israel of America (the main charedi umbrella group), and (IJCIC), which coordinates interfaith activities for the Jewish community, declined to comment on the CJCUC statement. However, in 2000, the OU did comment on a precursor to the statement titled “Dabru Emet: A Statement on Christians and Christianity,” calling it “fraught with danger” and “uncomfortably relativistic.”