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.

Orthodox Judaism in general, and Modern Orthodoxy in particular, is in a state of transformation. On one side are the modernizers. Egalitarian minyanim (prayer groups) with no supervising rabbi, are cropping up in the US and Israel. 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-David will soon be ordained as the first Orthodox female rabbi, though many Orthodox will not accept her ordination 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 kashrut, and more vocal opposition to Israel land concessions.

Interfaith dialogue represents another forum for debate. Forty years ago, Rabbi Joseph 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, Yeshiva 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 rabbis than any other institution in the world. In January 2004, a group of Catholic cardinals 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 http://hirhurim.blogspot.com/2004/03/cardinals-in-beis-midrash-rundown-of.html, and in the Yeshiva University News archives (not the same as the University’s student newspaper) at http://blogs.yu.edu/news/delegation-of-cardinals-meets-with-yu-educators-and-leaders-two-day-symposium-organized-by-wjc/.]

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 http://www.thejewishweek.com/features/limits_tolerance. 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 Judaism 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 Jerusalem 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 halacha, Jewish law.

However, some argue that dialogue is valuable. They point out that Nostra Aetate, a 1965 document published by the Vatican on other religions, reflects enough of a change in the Catholic Church to make dialogue acceptable to Jews. In addition, the world has changed in the last forty years, and much of the anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism 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: Hebrew Union College (Reform), Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative), General Theological Seminary (Episcopalian), Union Theological Seminary (Protestant), St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (Eastern Orthodox), St. Michael’s College (Catholic), and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. 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 Torah.” 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.