Jewish Interfaith Endeavors: Orthodox Judaism (2005)

The following report is part of a series of pieces investigating the Jewish community’s participation in interfaith dialogue.

OrthodoxIn general, orthodox means having a “correct opinion or outlook” and is a term used by people in many religions who claim authority for traditional views and forms of their religion. JudaismJudaism is the worldview, the way of life, and the religious practice of the Jewish people, living in covenant with God and in response to Torah, the laws and ethics which guide the pattern of Jewish life. Jews today interpret their three thousand year ol... in general, and Modern OrthodoxyIn general, orthodox means having a “correct opinion or outlook” and is a term used by people in many religions who claim authority for traditional views and forms of their religion. in particular, is in a state of transformation. On one side are the modernizers. Egalitarian minyanimA minyan (plural: minyanim) is the quorum of Jews, traditionally ten adult men, necessary to recite certain prayers. (prayerPrayer is the vocal or silent address to the Divine. It may consist of fixed words, spontaneous words, or rest in silence with no words at all. Some forms of prayer are accompanied with specific postures or gestures, while others are not. groups) with no supervising rabbiRabbi means “my master,” an authorized teacher or master of the Torah and the classical Jewish tradition. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE and the scattering of the Jewish people in exile, the role of the rabbi became very important in gat..., are cropping up in the US and IsraelLiterally “Wrestler with God”, Israel is the name given to the Jewish patriarch Jacob and came to refer to the entire nation, bound in an eternal covenant to God. Historically, Jews have continued to regard themselves as the continuation of the ancien.... Jews who for decades insisted that the entire land of Israel was a God-given right are now supporting unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. Haviva Ner-DavidDavid was the King of Israel (c. 1000 BCE) credited with uniting the many tribes of Israel into a centralized kingdom with Jerusalem as its capital. David is said to have planned for the Temple in Jerusalem, which was subsequently built by his son Solomon... will soon be ordainedOrdination means consecration to a priestly or monastic life. The term is used in the Buddhist tradition for the rites of becoming a monk (bhikkhu) or nun (bhikkhuni); in the Jewish tradition for the rites of becoming a rabbi; and in the Christian traditi... as the first Orthodox female rabbiRebbe is the title of the spiritual leader of the Hasidim, the pietist Jewish movement which began in 18th century Poland and continues today, with its honoring of holy teachers and its emphasis on prayer and devotion., though many Orthodox will not accept her ordinationOrdination means consecration to a priestly or monastic life. The term is used in the Buddhist tradition for the rites of becoming a monk (bhikkhu) or nun (bhikkhuni); in the Jewish tradition for the rites of becoming a rabbi; and in the Christian traditi... as valid. At the other end of the spectrum are the traditionalists, the ones who fear an undermining of their way of life. The result is increased strictness: more modest dress codes, tighter communities, more stringent levels of kashrutKosher means, literally, “proper” or “correct” and refers to food that is permissible to eat under Jewish dietary laws (kashrut). These dietary laws prescribe what foods may be eaten, how animals must be slaughtered etc., and more vocal opposition to Israel land concessions.

Interfaith dialogue represents another forum for debate. Forty years ago, Rabbi JosephIn the Christian tradition, Joseph is the earthly father of Jesus and husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Soloveitchik, widely regarded as the 20th Century’s leader of Orthodoxy, published a piece in the journal Tradition entitled “Confrontation.” Using Genesis’s description of man as created against his environment and his female companion, Soloveitchik argued that dialogue between religions, and specifically between Christians and Jews, should only occur if certain strictly prescribed conditions were fulfilled, including not using theology as the medium of communication, not suggesting that the other religion change any doctrine, and not suggesting that one’s own religion is open to change.

The result of the article has been a virtual ban on Orthodox interfaith dialogue. For example, YeshivaA yeshiva is a traditional Jewish rabbinic academy for the study of Torah and Talmud. University (YU) in New York is the Orthodox movement’s most prominent educational body. The rabbinical school, once run by both Rabbi Soloveitchik and his father, trains more orthodox rabbisRabbi means “my master,” an authorized teacher or master of the Torah and the classical Jewish tradition. After the fall of the second Temple in 70 CE and the scattering of the Jewish people in exile, the role of the rabbi became very important in gat... than any other institution in the world. In January 2004, a group of Catholic cardinalsA cardinal is a high-ranking office in the Roman Catholic Church, conferred by the Pope and involving both ecclesiastical and administrative duties on behalf of the church. The College of Cardinals is charged with the responsibility of electing a new pope... requested and received permission to visit YU. Soon afterward, the university’s official student newspaper, The Commentator, issued a poll on the legitimacy of the visit. 39% of respondents felt the visit violated Rabbi Soloveitchik’s teaching and therefore should not have taken place. 33% wholeheartedly supported the effort, and 19% allowed it only because it was initiated by the Catholics, and it would have been impolitic to refuse. [Editor’s note 2016: Details of this poll are no longer available on The Commentator‘s website. More information about the visit can be found at the Hirhurim-Musings blog at, and in the Yeshiva University News archives (not the same as the University’s student newspaper) at]

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Britain, published a book on the possibilities of religious reconciliation in the world entitled The Dignity of Difference (Continuum 2002). The book has come under attack from Orthodox leaders by proposing what many view as an “all religions are equal” clause, thereby rejecting the classical view of Jews as the chosen people and Judaism as completely true. In response to the outcry, Rabbi Sacks altered or withdrew these sections for a second edition of the book (Continuum 2003), changes he calls stylistic rather than substantial in a Jewish Week article from May, 2003. [Editor’s note 2016: This article currently available at Greenberg, Eric J. “The Limits of Tolerance,” The Jewish Week, May 22, 2003.]

Jonathan Rosenblum, director of Jewish Media Resources, an organization that seeks to further an understanding of Orthodox JudaismOrthodox Judaism affirms its commitment to the unchanging divine revelation of Torah, with the theological views and scrupulous ritual observances that accompany this understanding of the divine law. in the media, is one of interfaith and intrafaith dialogue’s strong opponents. In two columns on the subject of interfaith dialogue, “No to Interfaith Dialogue” published in Baltimore Jewish Times in late 2003 and “Interfaith dialogue – why not” in the JerusalemJerusalem, the ancient capital of Israel from the time of King David (c. 1000 BCE), was the ritual and spiritual center of the Jewish people for 1,000 years until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. For Jews, Jerusalem is still the geographical... Post in early 2004, he talks of its dangers, such as a blurring of distinctions and distortion of Jewish beliefs, and ultimate worthlessness, since such dialogue cannot lead to any changes in halachaHalakhah means, literally, “the path that one walks” and refers to Jewish law. It is the complete body of rules and practices that Jews are bound to follow, including biblical commandments, commandments instituted by the rabbis, and binding customs., Jewish law.

However, some argue that dialogue is valuable. They point out that Nostra Aetate, a 1965 document published by the VaticanThe Vatican is the residence and administrative headquarters of the Pope. Located in the area around St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, it is the official headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. Vatican City is the name of the independent state headed by ... on other religions, reflects enough of a change in the Catholic ChurchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... to make dialogue acceptable to Jews. In addition, the world has changed in the last forty years, and much of the anti-SemitismAnti-Semitism means literally “opposed to Semites” although it has always referred specifically to Jews. Modern anti-Semitism arose in Europe toward the end of the 19th century, coalescing social, racial, and religious theories that denigrated the Jew... and anti-ZionismZion is a sacred hill in Jerusalem and refers, by extension, to Jerusalem and the homeland of the Hebrew people. In this latter sense, Zion came to symbolize Jewish national-religious hopes of renewal and Zionism became the name of the 19th and 20th centu... that worried Soloveitchik seem to have diminished or altered from their original state. People have found within “Confrontation” a sanction to organize many social interfaith gatherings, even if theology is discussed.

With the fortieth anniversary of “Confrontation” in 2004, conversation reopened about the interfaith ban. In November 2003, a panel was held at Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning entitled “Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik on Interreligious Dialogue: Forty Years Later.” The panelists were Rabbi Eugene Korn, former director of interfaith affairs for the ADL, Rabbi David Berger, of Brooklyn College, Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, of Harvard Hillel, and Dr. Philip A. Cunningham, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. In their written reflections on the topic, available here, a variety of questions are addressed, including whether the rabbi’s words were a legal ruling or merely guidelines, whether he meant for them to stand in perpetuity, whether the world has changed substantially since 1964, and many others. Articles about the panel appeared in The Jewish Week and The Forward. The panel raised many questions but offered few answers, although all the participants agreed that their opinions changed as a result of the conversations. [Editor’s note 2016: A recording of the panel on Rabbi Soloveitchik is available here. The specific articles from The Jewish Week and The Forward mentioned above are not currently available online.]

The panel gives a good indication of the disagreement apparent even within the Orthodox community. This split can also be seen in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), a rabbinical school founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss in 1999 that stylizes itself an “open” Modern Orthodox yeshiva. Rabbi Weiss feels that the current Modern Orthodox community lacks enough of an appreciation for intellectual curiosity or a relationship with ideas and institutions outside its sphere, and seeks to remedy this in their curriculum. One aspect of openness, Rabbi Weiss writes, is that “many of our students regularly participate in interdenominational and interfaith events. Our students learn that religious growth comes not through dogmatism but through questioning and struggle.”

The administration does not directly organize interfaith dialogue, and unlike other participant institutions, a YCT staff member does not attend the interseminary dialogues in which students currently engage. However, YCT’s administration does respect and encourage students’ efforts, even lauding them in the school’s mission statement. Rabbi Avi Orlow, who graduated from YCT in 2004, was one of the primary organizers of an interseminary dialogue. He attributes the lack of staff presence not to ideological concerns, but rather a lack of manpower. After observing some sessions, students received permission from the administration to become full members in the dialogue in 2003.

The dialogue brings together students from seven seminaries: HebrewHebrew is the ancient language of the Israelites in which the Bible and most of Jewish liturgy is written. Union College (Reform), Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), General Theological Seminary (EpiscopalianEpiscopal refers to any church in which authority is vested in a bishop (Greek episkopos). More particularly it refers to the Episcopal Church in America, which developed from the Church of England after the American Revolution.), Union Theological Seminary (ProtestantProtestant is a term used for the range of reform movements that broke with the Roman Catholic Church during the period called the Reformation. There are many branches of Protestantism, including the Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists...), St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (Eastern OrthodoxThe Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox churches are a family of fourteen or fifteen churches that developed from the Church of the Byzantine Empire, which formally separated from the Church of Rome in the 11th century. Today they include the ancient patriarchat...), St. Michael’s College (Catholic), and Yeshivat Chovevei TorahThe Old Testament is the term Christians often use for the body of writings that comprise the Hebrew Bible which Jews call Tanakh.. The group meets in one of the seminaries once a month for an hour and a half to study Biblical texts relating to a central topic. In 2003, the theme was marriage. Discussion included intermarriage, same sex marriage, celibacy and marital counseling, the biblical commandment to produce children, and Jewish rituals of familial purity. Rabbi Orlow commented on the interesting alliances and friendships that developed during the dialogue. For example, students from St. Vladimir’s, St. Michael’s, and YCT often found themselves in agreement regarding questions of theological reform, concepts of authority, and general dispositions to the texts. Their second year after joining, YCT hosted seniors from St. Vladimir’s for a Friday night dinner.

YCT has become controversial, not necessarily because of its opinions, but because many young men who previously would have considered YU’s rabbinical school are now attending YCT. Five of the nine graduates of the 2004 class have at one point studied at YU. In addition, students and graduates of YCT are filling many prestigious intern and pulpit positions that previously went to YU graduates. With few positions available (there are less than one hundred nationwide each year), YU students and teachers alike have expressed their distress, such as in an article in The Commentator, YU’s newspaper. [Editor’s note 2016: A PDF of this article is available for download here. Robinson, Avi. “Students Choose Between REITS and Chovevei TorahTorah, meaning teaching or instruction, refers in its most specific sense to the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch or books of Moses, and to the scrolls on which these teachings are written. More broadly, Torah refers to the whole of the Hebre....” The Commentator, Vol.67:7 Dec 31, 2002.]

There is concern about what will happen to YU’s rabbinical school now that so many of its more liberal students are transferring to YCT. YU’s Rabbi Shmuel Hain predicts that the institution will react by shifting more into the ultra-Orthodox sphere, resulting in an Orthodox movement with a left and right, but no center. Others believe this development would be more linked to the recently elected president of YU, Richard Joel. Joel, the former head of International Hillel, is the first YU president who is not an ordained rabbi. He has been attacked as too liberal to lead an Orthodox institution. Others feel however that Joel is just what the Yeshiva needs to gently usher the Yeshiva into the new millennium.