Is Christian-Jewish Theological Dialogue Permitted? (part 1)

August 30, 2012


My revered teacher and mentor, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, published an essay entitled “Confrontation,” dealing with the subject of Jewish-Christian dialogue; it appeared in the Spring 1964 edition of Tradition, the official journal of the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of America.  What follows is an analysis of and commentary on my mentor’s masterful study 46 years later, including some noteworthy encounters with Christians over the years, and a discussion of the changes that have occurred in Christian doctrine since 1964. My contention is that Rav Soloveitchik fundamentally permits theological dialogue with Christians, albeit under certain carefully-crafted guidelines, and that, under those guidelines, such dialogue is essential and critical to defending the interests of the Jewish people today.


Professor David Flusser and a Protestant Nun

My first involvement in Christian studies took place at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1960-61, when I had the privilege of attending a course on the Greek text of the Gospels given by the renowned Professor David Flusser, the foremost international scholar of the “Inter-Testamental” period.  A deeply observant Jew, a Talmudic scholar and a historian–theologian of early Christianity, Flusser brought to bear all of the Talmudic parallels to Jesus’ teachings. The course – which covered most of the gospel according to Matthew in Greek exposed me for the first time to the Jewish life that Jesus led.

Since the requirement for the course was fluency in ancient Greek, only four students enrolled; an Israeli Egged Bus driver, an autodidact and Greek native whose avocation was the history of religions; a Protestant nun from Bonn, Germany, who was spending the year (as I was) studying in Israel; a 23-year-old monk named Yohanan from Terra Sancta; and me, a Greek major and student of Rav Soloveitchik, newly-graduated from Yeshiva University and planning to return for Semicha (Rabbinical) studies after this Israeli interlude.

The class met in the Givat Ram campus three times a week in a very large room (Professor Flusser generally lectured to overflow audiences); the three men sat in the front row, opposite Professor Flusser.  All the way at the far end of the room – in splendid isolation, dressed in a gray habit – sat the Protestant nun.  Although we were often engaged in lively discussion over the proper interpretation of a text, she never joined in.  The only time she spoke was after class, privately, directly to the professor.

On the last day of the term, the nun approached me shyly with a question; she understood that I was a rabbinical student and wondered if I could direct her to a program leading to conversion to Judaism.

When I asked why she was interested in conversion, she explained that she had been taught at her seminary that because the Jews had rejected Jesus as the Messiah, they were doomed to wander stateless throughout the world.  Once she realized that that God had fulfilled His divine promise to us and that we had indeed returned to our ancient homeland, she questioned her previous theology and began exploring the “Old Testament” assiduously.  Her friendship with a young religious woman had introduced her to the lifestyle of Sabbath and Festival observance, and that had confirmed her decision to become Jewish.

Coincidentally, I had been studying Talmud privately that year with an older and very respected protégé of Rav Soloveitchik – Rav Zev Guthold.  Rav Guthold’s official position in Israel was “Megayer HaMedinah,” the one responsible for all conversions in the Jewish State.  I introduced my classmate to Rav Guthold with a warm endorsement.

About three years later, my wife and I came to Israel for the summer.  Rav Guthold told me that this nun had indeed converted, married a “Rav Arele” hassid, and dressed almost identically to the way she had dressed when I had known her in her former identity. She now had one baby and was pregnant with a second.  “My husband and I agree on almost everything except for one issue,” she told me when we finally got together. “I am a religious Zionist.” My encounter with this former nun made me aware of two things: the significance of the re-born State of Israel in the revision of what had been accepted Christian doctrine, as well as how seamlessly a deeply religious and modest Christian can adapt into a Hassidic religious life-style.

Brother Yohanan, Birkat Kohanim, and Christian Persecution

I also got to spend time with Brother Yohanan.  We were almost the same age, so we naturally became friends and spent every Saturday evening together at the movies.  I shared with him a lot of my thoughts and dreams, including my desire to participate in Birkat Kohanim at the Kotel (which in 1961 was closed to Jews).  One night, he said to me, “I have looked into the matter and I am sure that I can arrange to fulfill your dream.”  I asked him what I had to do and he told me that it was simply a matter of completing a form.  “Meet me at the Garden of Terra Sancta and bring your American passport”, he said.  “Then I’ll be able to admit you as a Passover pilgrim, you will be able to pray at the Western Wall, and if you can find a quorum of Jews, you can recite the priestly blessing.”

I was very excited, I met him as arranged and he gave me the form to fill out which I did with alacrity.  It asked some standard questions about my identity which I readily filled out, but at the end of the form the last line read, “I hereby attest to the fact I am a believing Christian.”  I could not possibly sign that; the pen almost fell from my hand.  He looked crestfallen. “Why not?” he asked. “They are not going to ask you to baptize yourself.  It doesn’t really mean anything.  Just sign it and then you will be able to visit the Western Wall.”  At that moment, I was overwhelmed by thoughts of all the massacres against the Jewish people perpetuated in the name of the founder of Christianity: the auto de fé, the deicide charges, the pogroms on Easter and Christmas.  There were tears pouring down my cheeks.  I screamed at him, “We can’t even learn Torah on Christmas eve,” nittel nacht (the night of the birth) was the night of pogroms, when it was forbidden for Jews to enter the Beit Midrash, the study hall which housed the communities’ sacred Jewish texts.  Were the Jews to have gathered to study that evening as they did every other evening, an entire community of men could be destroyed by simply torching the study hall.

He looked at me with absolute horror.  “Then we can’t be friends anymore, because you hate me.”  “I don’t hate you at all,” I protested.  He insisted: “But you hate my god.”  No, I said, “We learned about Jesus together with Professor Flusser.  I don’t hate your god, who was a religious Jew.  I hate what your religion made of your god, in whose name millions of my people were murdered.”  He walked away from me, bitterly calling out: “If you hate my religion, then you hate me.  We can no longer be friends.”

It was a difficult but sobering moment and from that conversation on, we never spoke again – although we continued to attend Professor Flusser’s classes together.

Missionaries in Efrat: We Must Take Strong Measures to Prevent Fraudulent Attempts to Convert Jews to Christianity

In the late 1980’s, the Jewish Agency arranged for 72 families from the Former Soviet Union to come and make their homes in Efrat.  Some Messianic Christians missionaries heard about our new arrivals and thought that these people would be easy prey. The missionaries placed copies of the Tanach – the 24 books of the Bible – together with the New Testament in Hebrew and Russian in every mailbox in Efrat; the “Jewish” and Christian Testaments were bound together in one bind, so that the unsuspecting Russian Jews would think they were a single sacred text, with the Gospel as part of the Jewish Bible.  The text was published in Hebrew on one side, Russian on the other.

As soon as I heard what had happened, I sent a letter to all the residents of Efrat, instructing them to publicly burn the entire Bible together with the Gospels.  This was because the Talmud teaches that a Sefer Torah, (Bible Scroll) which was written by a Jewish heretic or someone who is attempting to cause a Jew to renounce his religion (and anyone who accepts Jesus as a Divinity and/or the Messiah has ipso facto renounced his privileges as a Jew) has to be burned (See Rambam Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 6:8).

I have the utmost respect for the Gospels as the sacred literature of the Christians; however, when the two testaments are joined together and sent to unsuspecting Jews in order to convert them, I felt I had to take a stand so strong as to disallow any credence to connecting the Gospels to the Jewish Bible, and in a manner which would leave no room for compromise or misunderstanding.

Intimations of Change Within the Church

Most Welcome Christian Visitors Arrive

When the second Intifada (Palestinian uprising) began, tourism to Israel came to a standstill.  Especially Efrat, which is technically beyond the “Green Line,” felt the isolation, even from friends and relatives. I then received a call from a woman who introduced herself as Schwester Marta, who asked if she could bring a busload of tourists from Germany to visit.  Needless to say, I made an appointment to meet their bus at our parking lot the next day at 1:00 pm.

Nothing could have prepared me for the miraculous sight that greeted my eyes the following afternoon.  Forty Protestant  nuns, garbed in gray habits, descended from their tour bus, holding aloft Israeli flags and accompanying me to my office in Efrat, singing in Hebrew “Nahamu Nahamu Ami,” ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,’ a verse from the Prophet Isaiah.  Hundreds of our students streamed out of our high schools to watch this stirring spectacle.  Schwester Marta presented us with a textured tapestry of Jerusalem, featuring the verse from Psalms, “For the Sake of Jerusalem I dare not be silent.”  She then said – impromptu, “We want you to know that we have a special love for the Jewish people.  We want to invite you to see our kibbutz in Darmstadt, Germany, called New Canaan.  New Canaan also has a community of houses which we would like you to dedicate.”  The nuns then led the entire assemblage in the singing of the Hatikvah national anthem, and took their leave.

I felt truly comforted by this experience, as if these nuns had given me the courage and faith to continue defending Efrat from Palestinian suicide bombers and drive-by shootings.  I decided then and there then when I next visited our eleven rabbinic emissaries serving pulpits across Germany, I would investigate New Canaan.

What I found was a sweetly calm and laid-back verdant diamond, a perfectly tailored and beautifully appointed “kibbutz” with large and colorful farming areas for fruits, vegetables and flowers.  Upon entering, we first came upon an artificial stream with the words “River Jordan” announcing its namesake, and then 12 stones set in a row, each inscribed with the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel.  In the distance were clusters of home communes, modest but tasteful houses, in which the 140 nuns and 60 monks who comprised the village-kibbutz lived, and from where they raised and exported their produce, with all profits going to support hesed (lovingkindness) projects in Israel.  One community of homes sported a sign which read Beth El, another Shiloh, a third Kiryat Arba, the largest Jerusalem-and then I came upon Efrat.

When I rose to “dedicate” Efrat, I quoted the verses from Isaiah (53) describing the travail of the suffering servant, who suffers for the sins of the world. “Whereas you believe that this text refers to the founder of Christianity, our major commentaries believe that it refers to the Jewish people entire (historic Israel); the scapegoat of the world, cast off of the craggy mountain peaks into the crematoria of Auschwitz and Treblinka.  We must teach the world the morality of the Ten Commandments, we must hold aloft the banner of a God of love, morality and peace.  We must prevent a worldwide Jihad of suicide bombers.  And if we work and teach together, perhaps we will bring all the children of Abraham back to their father and to our Parent-in-Heaven.”

As she accompanied me to my car, I asked the Schwester to explain the origin of New Canaan.  “We were seven religious girlfriends, all of whose fathers had served in Hitler’s Wehrmacht.  We made a pact together to create New Canaan as a penance for our fathers’ sins.”  She then led us all in Hatikvah.  As I travelled back to Israel, I felt that I had never before seen such an expression of repentance, a total re-dedication of life to atone for the sins of one’s parents.

Israel Faces Fanatic Moslem Foes and Christian Religious Friends

More and more Christians kept coming to Efrat, expressing love and support for the Jewish State of Israel emphasizing our common heritage of the 24 Books of the Bible and seeking ways to help us socially and politically.  I began to understand how crucial their newfound friendship was, given an international climate in which not only the Arab bloc, but also the European Union, the former CIS, more and more South American countries and indeed the United Nations as the “peacekeeping” force in the world, were questioning our legitimacy as a nation. They were condemning us left and right for protecting ourselves against Hamas rockets which were being hurled at our civilians and students (even within the “Green” Line).

And political ties with the Christians assumes even greater significance if one accepts the thesis of Harvard’s Professor Samuel P. Huntington, in his masterful work “Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.”  Radical Islam is spreading its suicide-bombing terrorist tentacles throughout the globe, from Afghanistan to Indonesia to Pakistan to Lebanon to Chechnya to London to New York, creating an Iran-Al Quaeda-Syrian-Hamas-Hezbollah axis of fanatic Jihadism which threatens the entire free world.  This present World War, in which the Israeli-Palestinian clashes are only small change, is primarily a religious war, in which Allah-turned-Satan by Wahhabi Islam is poised to overtake the God of love, compassion, morality and peace of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Since we are fewer than 13 million Jews worldwide, our forging an alliance with almost two billion Christians is not only politically clever, but becomes a crucial, planet-saving necessity.

But before I could embark on any kind of alliance with the Christian world, I had to entertain the possibility – given the past 2000-year-long history of Christian enmity against, and persecution and forced conversion of, the Jews – that our Christian friends were really wolves in sheep’s clothing, that they were now embracing us only in order to convert us.

The Catholic Church Reaches Out

I quickly learned that as early as the 1960’s, the Second Vatican Council embarked on a process of “aggiornamento” – the “updating” of Catholic doctrine, including a post-Holocaust and post-Jewish State new look at the Catholic attitudes towards Jews and Judaism.  (For much of what is to follow in this regard, I am deeply indebted to my colleague and partner Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn, and his essay “The Man of Faith and Religious Dialogue: Reviewing ‘Confrontation’ After Forty Years,” Modern Judaism,Volume 25, Edition 3).

It was within this context that at the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church under Pope Paul VI issued its landmark document “Nostra Aetate” (“In Our Time”) in October 1965, (almost two years after Rav J. B. Soloveitchik’s “Confrontation”).

  1. Nostra Aetate was accepted by a large majority of Roman Catholic bishops around the world and as such became part of the magisterium — the official teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church. It set down three path-breaking departures from previous Catholic doctrine:
  2. The repudiation of anti-Semitism: In Nostra Aetate’s exact language, the Church “deplores all hatreds, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism leveled against the Jew.”  In two other authoritative Vatican documents, the “Guidelines” of 1974 and the “Notes” of 1985, the verb “deplores” is changed to “condemns,” and Pope John Paul II (18 May 1920 – 2 April 2005), stated that anti-Semitism is a “sin against God and humanity.”
  3. The rejection of the charge of deicide against the Jews collectively, “without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews today …the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accused by God.” Nostra Aetate did not absolve the Jewish people of the charge of deicide; it said the charge itself was completely false and invalid.
  4. The rejection of the idea that our Jewish covenant with God has been cancelled, or superseded – taken over – by the Christians. “Jews are the people of God of the Old Covenant, which has never been revoked by God…The Permanence of Israel is a historic fact, to be interpreted within God’s design.  It (Israel) remains a chosen people.”

Does this third point mean that the official Catholic Church now views Judaism for Jews as being just as salvific (“saving”) as is Christianity for Christians?  A number of American Catholic theologians maintained that it does, in a paper they published entitled “Reflections on Covenant and Mission” (August 12, 2002, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), and they therefore maintain that targeting Jews for conversion to the Church is no longer acceptable Catholic theology.  Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the present Pope Benedict), however, doesn’t go so far; he insists that Christianity is the highest expression of God’s revelation (Many Religions, One Covenant, Ignatius, San Francisco, 1999, pp. 70-71).  But he also maintains that the conversion of the Jews “is hardly possible within our historical time and perhaps not even desirable” (ibid p. 109).  In Dr. Korn’s words, he is an “eschatological supersessionalist.”  (I cannot find fault with this position, since I believe that Maimonides teaches in his Laws of Kings 12,1 that in the eschaton, “all of humanity will return to the true religion” – that is, to Judaism, in accordance with the statement of R. Shimon ben Elazar in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 57b) and the words of the prophet Zephaniah (3:9).  As long as we can respect each other in the fullness of our respective faith commitments without feeling beholden to convert the other, I can well appreciate the faith of each that he has the more perfect revelation, as will be proven by who converts to whom in the eschaton. This is also the position of R. Soloveitchik, as I later explain in this paper.

It was clear to me that such profound theological changes could only have emerged from two realizations on the part of honest officials within the Catholic hierarchy:

  1. Had it not been for the seeds of Christian anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism, sown far and wide by Church Fathers, Popes, Crusaders, Inquisitors and hooligans for nearly 2000 years, the Holocaust could never have developed into the evil that murdered six million innocent Jewish men, women and children. And so Pope John Paul II, when he visited the Yad Vashem Memorial and the Kotel in March 2000, said, “We are deeply saddened by the behavior of those who in the course of history have caused your children to suffer. Asking forgiveness, we commit ourselves to genuine brotherhood with the people of the Covenant.”
  2. The State of Israel and its unprecedented success as a homeland for the Jewish people after their lengthy exile refuted the traditional Christian doctrine that God willed the Jews to wander statelessly as punishment for their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah and son of God. Although it took 29 years after the acceptance of Nostra Aetate for the Church to recognize the state of Israel, it did so in June of 1994. The bishops at the Second Vatican Council would never have delivered the authoritative and groundbreaking theological position taken in Nostra Aetate without the knowledge that they had the support of a significant number of Catholic theologians and churchmen.  (And note that Nostra Aetate came almost two years after Rav Soloveichik’s article, “Confrontation”).

The Evangelicals: A Meeting with Pastor Hagee

The large numbers of Christians who were visiting Efrat – and especially those who were truly interested in studying – were mostly Evangelical Christians.  I had become quite friendly with the charismatic Pastor Robert Stearns, who brought groups of Evangelicals of all ages who wanted to hear our Biblical interpretations, who wanted to study Talmud, who wanted to study about the Sabbath and the Festivals.  I understood that their intention was not conversion to Judaism; they merely wanted to live their lives more and more the way Jesus had lived his life!  Having lived in America, they were never part of the Christian European anti-Semitism; they also loved to study the “Old Testament,” which gave them a natural affinity for Jews and for the Land of Israel.

I felt instinctively the sincerity of their friendship – and it was mainly to satisfy their thirst for learning about Judaism, the Sabbath and the Festivals and their desire to strengthen their ties to us, to the Land of Israel, and to our right to our homeland – that I began to consider opening a Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat.  I received strong encouragement from Malcolm Hoenlein, a good friend and the Executive Vice President of Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, as well as from leaders of AIPAC. I understood that an Orthodox rabbi – who accepted the divinity of the 24 books of the Bible – would be taken most seriously by the Evangelicals who share the same belief, and I had heard that, according to one study, Evangelicals comprise 35% of the American voting public.

At about this time, I visited San Antonio, Texas where one of our young rabbinical emissaries had just been appointed Assistant Rabbi to Rav Aryeh Scheinberg. Rabbi Scheinberg is a beloved friend of long standing and a most respected colleague, who is known as Pastor John Hagee’s “rabbi.”  Rav Scheinberg suggested that I meet this most influential pastor of the Evangelical world, which I was most anxious to do.

Pastor Hagee is a most impressive man with a clear, deep, articulate voice and a warm and embracing manner.  He looked at me intently and said, “Rabbi, I love the Jewish people; Rabbi, I love you, Rabbi.”

The truth is that this extraordinary Christian leader puts his money where his mouth is; he dedicates much of his life to raising millions of dollars each year, which he distributes to help important social welfare and educational institutions throughout Israel.  He really demonstrates the love he feels.

Nevertheless, since I was just at the cusp of announcing the opening of our Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, I had to ask my question:  “Tell me the truth, Pastor Hagee, do you love us because you want to convert us?  Do you love us to death?”  He flashed one of his signature smiles, amused by the hutzpah, or naivete of my question.  “No, Rabbi, I don’t love you because I want to convert you; but neither do I love you purely out of altruistic consideration.  I love you because of Genesis 12:3, where the Bible records that ‘God said to Abraham, ‘I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I shall curse.’  Rabbi, I want to be blessed, not cursed!”

Pastor Hagee has a ministry which is measured in millions; he is undoubtedly the most successful pastor in our generation.  Rabbi Scheinberg reported to me that during the 49 years he has lived in San Antonio, Pastor Hagee had not tried to convert even one Jew to Christianity.  Given the overwhelming charisma of Pastor Hagee, this can only be because he truly does not believe that Jews must be converted to Christianity.

So I established the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, in order to forge a political alliance against fundamentalist and radical Islamism and in order to forge a moral-ethical alliance against radical and materialistic secularism.  We must convey our mutual belief in a God of love, compassion and morality, the kind of absolute morality which would never refer to suicide bombers who murder innocent women and children as freedom fighters!  I also felt humbled in the presence of a Christian who had such complete faith in the Divine words of our Holy Bible.

Getting Into the Nitty-Gritty of the Issue

Are We Permitted – or Perhaps Even Mandated – to Teach Torah to Christians?

Large numbers of Christians continued to come to our Center; they were, however, less interested in discussing politics or even in Israel’s right to a Jewish State (which they took as a given, since the Land of Israel was promised – even guaranteed – to the Jewish people by the Creator of the heavens and earth Himself), and more interested in learning Torah: the Written Law, chiefly the Pentateuch (the Chumash – Five Books of Moses) in accordance with traditional Jewish commentaries, and the Oral Law, the Talmudic Pharisaic Tradition that Jesus also studied.  Hence, I had to face a fundamental question:  Are Jews permitted to teach Torah to Christians?

The great legalist-philosopher-decisor Maimonides (11th Century) rules in one of his responsa (1:149, Blau edition) that “it is permissible to teach the Torah and Commandments to the Christians and draw them close to our faith.” This is very much in line with the Seforno (1475-1550) in his commentary to God’s exhortation (preceding the Revelation of the Decalogue) that Israel be a “kingdom of priest-teachers and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6), that “as a result of this teaching function, you will be a treasure for all (of the nations); you (all of Israel) will be a kingdom of priest-teachers to bring understanding and instruction in Torah to all of humanity, ‘to call out to everyone in the name of God so that everyone will be enabled to serve God with one accord’ (Zephaniah 3:9). As it is said (in Scripture), ‘and you (Israel) shall be called the priest-teachers of the Lord (Isaiah 61:6),’ and as it is said, ‘From Zion shall go forth Torah,’ (ibid 2:3).

Maimonides speaks in perfectly consistent tones regarding the Jewish obligation to teach Torah to the world in his “Book of the Commandments” (Sefer HaMitzvot), Positive Commandment 3.  Here, in analyzing the command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your might,” Maimonides equates “loving” God with “knowing” God; we achieve the performance of this commandment by “delving deeply and becoming knowledgeable in God’s commandments and deeds (the two revelations of Torah and Creation, the commandments and the sciences; he may also be including philosophy, which is allied to physics and cosmogony, as well as history)  so that we may come to know Him.”

Maimonides then adds a most crucial addendum as part and parcel of this commandment to love – or know – God:  “This commandment also includes seeking out and calling every human being to the service of God (avodat Hashem), may He be  blessed, and to believe in Him… For when one truly loves (knows) God – to whatever the extent that it is possible for one to grasp Divine truth – one will undoubtedly seek out and summon the deniers and fools to the true understanding which one has achieved.

In the language of the Sifrei,  ‘You shall love the Lord your God’ means ‘make God beloved to every human being in the world as did your father Abraham,’ as it is written, ‘the Souls whom they made in Haran’ …in accord with the greatness of (Abraham’s) love did he seek out people for the faith.”

How Much of the Torah do We Teach

At this point in our discussion, the reader may be a bit perplexed. Is Maimonides declaring Judaism to be a missionizing religion, with an obligation upon every Jew to bear witness to the world regarding the 613 commandments? This would certainly go against conventional wisdom. Maimonides does definitively rule that Jews are obligated to teach – and even coerce – Gentiles into accepting the Seven Noahide laws of morality: not murdering, not stealing, not committing sexual immorality, not eating the limb of a living animal, not worshipping idols, not blaspheming God, and establishing courts to enforce the first six laws (Laws of Kings 8,10). This is in line with God’s election of Abraham, “in order that he instruct his household after him to observe the ways of the Lord by doing acts of compassionate righteousness and moral justice” (Gen 18:18,19), as well as the divine charge to the first Hebrew and the “father of a multitude of nations” that “through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3). According to at least one view of the Talmud, these laws of morality are sufficient to gain for the gentiles a share in the world to come, and are certainly necessary to secure a world without bloodshed that would not destroy itself if universally accepted.

From these sources it should be indubitably clear that if we are to teach the Christians the commandments (at least the seven commandments of Noahide morality, and perhaps all the commandments of compassionate righteousness and moral justice) as well as a deeper understanding of God (remember, the Noahide laws do not include faith in God, and Maimonides derives outreach to the gentiles from the command to “know and love God”),  how can we not be speaking to the Christians in theological terms? After all, when one teaches, one must always listen to one’s students, and learn from their responses. Theology means the study of God.  Making God known and beloved to the gentile world is all about theological dialogue!

And even in terms of the nature of the corpus of commandments that we are permitted and even encouraged to share with the Christian world, it is clear that Maimonides goes beyond the seven Noahide laws.  To be sure, we have already said that the positive and obligatory command for us to “missionize” and even coerce gentile acceptance of these laws refers only to the seven Noahide laws, which are necessary for a civilized society and a world of peace.

However, we have already seen how, in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot (Positive Commandment 3), Maimonides advocates spreading knowledge of God by means of spreading the “Commandments” – not merely the seven Noahide laws.  In his responsum permitting teaching Torah to Christians (ibid 1:149), he again speaks of teaching the commandments, and “thus drawing them closer to our faith (dateinu),” going on to write “…and perhaps, “yah’zeru l’mutav,” they will return to the best path (ibid).  And so, in the last chapter of his Mishnah Torah, in speaking of the Messianic Age in the eschaton, Maimonides says, “everyone will return to the true religion” (dat ha’emet – Kings 12,1), adding “they (the gentiles) will neither rob nor destroy; rather they will eat permitted foods in peace and quiet together with (or like) the Israelites” – which, to me, implies that they will keep our laws of kashrut, but probably within a vegetarian context.  Moreover, within his “Guide to the Perplexed,” Maimonides refers to the Sabbath on which – in the eschaton – all humanity will rest; “therefore we are told in the law to honor this (Sabbath) day – in order to confirm thereby the principle of Creation that will spread in the world when all people keep the Sabbath on the same day” (Guide 11:31).

In sum, Maimonides would maintain that the gentiles need not convert, but that it is salutary to expose them to the Torah commandments and – in the eschaton – they will convert or at least come to acceptance of many of the commandments, more than the seven Noahide laws[1].


[1] See the difference of opinion between Menahem Kellner (that the gentiles will convert to Judaism in the eschaton) and Chaim Rapaport (the Gentiles will accept only the Noahide laws) in Meorot 7:1, Tishrei 5769, and Gerald Blidstein (“Political Concepts in Maimonidean Halakha,” Bar Ilan University, 1983, p.98 n.27 and p.227), who ends up somewhere in between, as I do.  The reader will also note that in his responsum 1:149 (Blau edition), Maimonides only permits the teaching to Torah to Christians but NOT to Moslems, who do not accept the validity of the Bible and will therefore use our teachings against Judaism and against the Jews. However, Rav Chaim David HaLevi (“Asei Lecha Rav” part 7,48) the former Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, also permits teaching Torah to Moslems, since the only time we prohibit Torah study at all to gentiles is before they accept the Noahide laws, and Moslems are monotheists.  Indeed, Maimonides himself contrasts a gentile who does not yet keep the seven Noahide laws – and who may neither be occupied in the other commandments of the Torah nor may he rest on the Sabbath – with the children of Noah, who may keep all of the rest of the commandments, and if he is occupied in Torah, he may be compared to a High Priest (see the contrast in B.T. Sanhedrin 49, Avodah Zarah 3).  A Child of Noah receives reward for any additional commandment he performs,  he may bring whole burnt offerings to the Temple, and his charitable gifts are to be gratefully and distributed among the poor of Israel (Laws of Kings 10:10).

And so the Mechilta De R’Yishmael (in its introduction to the giving of the Torah, in Parashat Yitro) asserts: “The Torah was given in an open-spaced no-man’s land (desert,parousia) because, had it been given in the land of Israel, the Israelites would say to the nations of the world: ‘You have no share in it.’  But the Torah was given in the free-to-all desert, so that anyone in the world who wishes to accept it may come and accept it.”

Finally, although Maimonides considered Christianity to be idolatry (unlike the overwhelming majority of Middle-Age decisors who did not believe Christianity to be idolatry for the Christians) – he – nevertheless highly respected the influence of Christianity to spread major positive concepts of Jewish ideals to the farthest recesses of the globe:

“It is beyond the human mind to fathom the designs of the Creator, for our ways are not His ways, and neither are our thoughts His thoughts.  All these matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth and the Ishmaelite (Mohammed) who came after him only served to pave the way for King Messiah, and to prepare the entire world to worship God together as one, as it is written, ‘For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord to serve Him with one accord’ (Zephaniah 3:9).  Thus the Messianic hope, the Torah and the Commandments have become familiar topics of conversation among inhabitants of the far isles and (were brought) to many peoples uncircumcised of heart and flesh…” (Laws of Kings, XI:4, unexpurgated version of Rav Kapah).

These words of the greatest philosopher and halakhic authority in Jewish history after Moses can only serve to underscore the importance of dialogue with the Christians and conveying the theological truths about God, Torah and the Messianic Age which must (and will eventually be) accepted by a receptive world.

Hence it is indubitably clear that we may teach Torah to the gentiles – the seven Noahide Laws as compulsory, and as much of the rest of it that they would wish to learn. And that is precisely what our Center for Jewish Christian Understanding and Cooperation does: we teach the Hebraic roots of Christianity, the basic lessons of our Written and Oral Torah as studied and practiced by Jesus.

It goes without saying that a great part of Torah is predicated upon the Land of Israel, from the commandments of proper tithing and the Sabbatical year which are rooted in the produce from the soil of the Holy Land to the great Jewish leaders from Abraham to Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, zt”l, whose physical remains have been fused with the eternity of the soil of the homeland of historic Israel (Knesset Yisrael).  Any honest study of /Torah must serve to strengthen the bond between Israel and its land in the eyes and hearts of all who learn it – and teaching the Christians goes a long way in strengthening their commitment to Israel as a Jewish State.

One of the Center’s earliest experiences clearly demonstrates this point; in 2009, 24 Evangelical pastors came to our center for one week on a mission to study the Hebraic roots of Christianity through the sacred texts of our holy books and tours of our holy land. (As it turned out, they were snowed in for two days, so the hours of text study overpowered the hours of tour study.)  The result was 24 CUFI (Christians United for Israel) evenings which took place in 24 churches on the Eastern seaboard of the United States – all dedicated to celebrating the State of Israel as a model for emulation and raising funds to help the indigent in Israel.

Rav Soloveitchik’s “Confrontation”

Background and Overview

My revered teacher and mentor, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, published a groundbreaking essay on Christian-Jewish dialogue in the journal Tradition, a publication of the Rabbinical Council of America, in the Spring-Summer edition of 1964, one-and-a-half years before the Second Vatican Council ratified Nostra Aetate in October 1965 (The essay was penned at least two years before).

This was at a time when the Catholic Church was rethinking its relationship to the Jews (in the wake of the Holocaust as well as the unexpected and unprecedented, phoenix-like rebirth of the Jewish State of Israel) and was beginning to cultivate Catholic-Jewish inter-religious dialogue within this context of “aggiornamento” – the updating of doctrine.  Rav Soloveitchik was legitimately concerned, lest such dialogue at this early and delicate stage lead to Jewish recapitulation on fundamental Jewish truths, which would obviously be disastrous.  It was to this end that the “the Rav,” the internationally renowned halakhic and theological leader of Yeshiva University style Orthodox Jewry – the Lubavitcher Rebbe called him “lamdan ha’dor,” the greatest Talmudic scholar of the generation – penned his far-reaching and penetrating essay, “Confrontation.”

The essay begins and ends with biblical exegeses, opening with a masterful commentary on the Biblical chapters on Creation and their ramifications for understanding the human existential mission and predicament, and concluding with the confrontation between Jacob and Esau after the patriarch leaves Laban and is returning to his ancestral home; obviously, Jacob represents Israel and Esau is the Midrashic symbol for Rome and the Vatican.  The major piece of this theological tour de force is dedicated to Israel’s relationship towards or confrontation with the world – and the concomitant obligations this engenders – as well as Israel’s confrontation with its religious faith counterpart, Christianity, and to what extent dialogue in that setting is desirable, or even possible.

Contrary to what many Orthodox rabbis have maintained, “Confrontation” should not be seen as a cut and dried halakhic responsum permitting Jewish-Christian dialogue on “universal problems,” which are “economic, social, scientific and ethical,” but categorically forbidding dialogue in areas of “faith, religious law, doctrine and ritual” (Rabbinical Council of America, Mid-Winter Conference, February, 1966). Were that the case, Rabbi Soloveitchik would have written just such a precise halakhic responsum setting down these guidelines replete with Talmudic citations and halakhic precedents, rather than the highly nuanced, theologically rich, and dialectically infused “Confrontation.” Moreover, the very RCA statement of 1966 forbidding discussions of “faith and religious law” concludes, “To repeat, we are ready to discuss universal religious problems. We will resist any attempt to debate our private, individual faith commitment.”

Apparently, how to define “religious” issues is neither simple nor clear-cut. In fact, Rav Soloveitchik defined his philosophical school of thought as that of an “HalakhicExistentialist” – committed to the proposition that halakha deals with the most fundamental existential problems of humanity! Rav Soloveitchik himself often cited in his writings Christian theologians such as Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth and Rudolf Otto (See, for example, the beginnings of “Halakhic Man”) and the first reading that he gave of his “Lonely Man of Faith” essay prior to its publication took place at an Inter-faith Seminar (sic) at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass. (See Korn, “The Man of Faith and Religious Dialogue,” Note 8).

Perhaps, what the RCA was really saying in its 1966 statement was that “we resist any attempt to debate our private faith commitment,” whereas “discussion (or dialogue) of universal religious problems” is perfectly permissible. Perhaps,  much more in line with the Rav’s thought is the statement adopted by the RCA [and probably written by R. Soloveitchik himself] at its Mid-Winter Conference in Feb ’64, which is appended to the “Confrontation” article in Tradition ’64 and calls for a “harmonious relationship among all faiths” in order to combat the “threat of secularism and materialism and the modern atheistic negation of religion and religious values.” Combating the negation of religion requires, at the very least, basic theological discourse defining “religious” values.

Indeed, I believe that a careful reading of “Confrontation” will more than justify the salutary benefits of religious dialogue today, albeit in accordance with the very specific guidelines and limitations expressed by the Rav and to which we at the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) carefully adhere.

Let us explore together the Rav’s “Confrontation,” utilizing as much as possible his own words, to attempt to fully understand his position.

Adam in the Garden of Eden; Non-Confronted vs. Confronted Man

Rav Soloveitchik typologically explains the initial biblical description of man as “natural man,” who sees himself as part and parcel of the natural world around him, non-confronted by it and bearing no responsibility towards it. “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden eastwards, and he put there the man whom He had formed” – in the midst of all of the alluring and seductive vegetation all around (2:8,9). Natural man is egocentric and hedonistic, driven only by instinctive pleasures, devoid of individuation and self awareness. In short: non-confronted man.

Six verses later we see the emergence of a different man, a confronting and confronted man, who looks at the world, understands his power over it and his responsibilities towards it, and who accepts a commanding God setting limits to his conquests: “And the Lord God took the man and He placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to preserve it … and the Lord God commanded the man, saying…” (2:15,16). Man has a kerygma, a mission, to perfect and preserve the world, to attempt to subdue the other, lesser creatures roundabout, and to agree to submit to – and be subdued by – the Creator of the Universe. He says – and lives – “I am responsible, therefore I am.” Confronted and confronting man has now emerged.

Confronting and confronted man is filled with self-awareness; he recognizes his position in the universe as unique (because he can control and conquer) and tragic (because he, too, will be subject to conquest by evil and by death), and he is beset by profound and debilitating loneliness (“It is not good for the human to be alone,” Gen.2:18). And so, in addition to the universe, he confronts Eve, his life-partner, with whom he can establish a community by means of verbal communication – or dialogue (ibid 2:23) – a counterpart with whom to confront the world.

Words, however, are a double edged sword; they express “what is common in two existences,” the similarities between two individuals joining their lives and destinies, but also the “singularity and uniqueness of each existence,” what is separate and distinct for each one respectively. And of course the wages of sin are felt when the one attempts to control and subdue the other (ibid, 3:16: “He shall rule over her”).

From this paradigm, it is clear which confrontation is positive, salutary, even redemptive.  And so, Rav Soloveitchik goes on to write that Jews engage in a double confrontation, with the Universe as well as with God, through our Covenant as Jews. And while “westernized” Jews may think that it is impossible to engage in both the universal and the covenantal confrontations – they may think that that they are mutually exclusive, that concern for world obviates and even drowns out the concern for a unique and separate covenantal identity – the very opposite is the truth.

Indeed, it is the covenantal confrontation which defines and directs our national kerygma (mission) towards the universal and the universe: “Through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth,” was God’s charge to Abraham. “But only in this (not in wisdom or strength or wealth) shall be praised the one who is to be praised: be intelligent, and come to know (understand) Me, that I am the Lord who does (acts) of lovingkindness, moral justice and compassionate righteousness on earth (the whole of the earth), for in these do I delight, says God,” was Jeremiah’s message to the Israelites, as well as the citation with which Maimonides concludes his final magnum opus, “The Guide to the Perplexed.”

Moreover, continues the Rav as he goes on to deal with Jewish-Christian confrontation and dialogue: “Involvement with the rest of mankind in the cosmic confrontation does not rule out the second personal confrontation of two faith communities, each aware of both what it shares with the other and what is singularly its own. In the same manner as Adam and Eve… encountered each other as two separate individuals, cognizant of their incommensurability and uniqueness, so also two faith communities – which coordinate their efforts when confronted by the same cosmic order – may face each other in the full knowledge of their distinctness and individuality. We reject the theory of a single confrontation and instead insist upon the indispensability of the double confrontation” (Tradition, Vol. 6, No.2, Spring-Summer 1964).

The only reason why the Rav questions a confrontational dialogue with the “other faith community” which would be as salutary as Adam’s confrontation with Eve – is because the Church historically treated us as inferior beings; in the Rav’s own words, “Unfortunately, however, non-Jewish society has confronted us throughout the ages in a mood of defiance, as if we were part of the subhuman objective order separated by an abyss from the human” (ibid, p.19,20).

“A confrontation of two faith communities is possible only if it is accompanied by a clear assurance that both parties will enjoy equal rights and full religious freedom. . . A democratic confrontation certainly does not demand that we submit to an attitude of self-righteousness taken by the community of the many which, while debating whether or not to ‘absolve’ the community of the few of some mythical guilt (i.e. deicide!–SR), completely ignores its own historical responsibility for the suffering and martyrdom (it has inflicted) upon the few, the weak and the persecuted… there should be insistence upon one’s inalienable rights as a human being created by God… we do not intend to play the part of the object encountered by dominating man,” the Christian (ibid, p.21).

In other words, Rav Soloveitchik is not against religious dialogue with Christians; that is why this essay is entitled “Confrontation,” and not “Non-Confrontation.” The only thing he insists upon, however, is that the confrontation be in the spirit of religious equality, of mutual respect for the individual faith commitments of each which are not subject to logical debate, or traded compromises in matters of our unique covenantal faith values and rituals.

Red Lines and Pre-Conditions

These are the three things that Rav Soloveitchik argued against and these are, likewise, my red lines in dialogue with Christians:

  1. We will never dialogue with Christians if they represent missionary movements, if their avowed or surreptitious purpose is to convert Jews.
  2. We will never debate unique Jewish ritual or faith issues with Christians. We will attempt to share with them unique Jewish points of theology and ritual practice if they wish to better understand them, but we and they must realize that each faith community has religious expressions which transcend rational logical discourse and which are not subject to debate.
  3. We will never enter into dialogue with Christians in which we are expected to compromise our religious values or doctrines in order to be more in consonance with Christianity.

Here are Rav Soloveitchik’s words, published in “Confrontation,” in which he set down his pre-conditions for Jewish-Christian dialogue, which are my pre-conditions as well:

“In light of this analysis, it would be reasonable to state that in any confrontation we must insist upon four basic conditions in order to safeguard our individuality and freedom of action.

  • First, we must state, in unequivocal terms, the following. We are a totally independent faith community. We do not revolve as a satellite in any orbit. (p.21).

The Rav was afraid that since Christianity claimed that it had superseded Judaism, this is what they would attempt to foist on us in any debate and – since they were the many and we were the few – we would be forced into a difficult position. Hence, our independence in faith has to be accepted and respected.

  • Second, the logos, the word, in which the multifarious religious experience is expressed, does not lend itself to standardization or universalization (p.23).

Here, he emphasized that we are not one religious faith community with Christianity. He went on to write, “We must always remember that our singular commitment to God, and our hope and indomitable will for survival are non-negotiable and non-rationalizable and are not subject to debate and argumentation” (p.24).

  • Third, we members of the community of the few should always act with tact and understanding and refrain from suggesting to the community of the many, which is both proud and prudent, changes in ritual or emendations of its texts (pp. 24-5).

We do not want Christians to ask us to change our religious texts and so we ought not expect of them to change their religious texts. I would submit that we can and must, however, share with them the pain in our hearts and injuries to our bodies that we have experienced as a result of certain of their sacred texts, as in the statements in the Gospel which refer to the historic Jewish collective guilt for “deicide” and the references in their writ and liturgy to convert the Jews now.

Rav Soloveitchik continues:

  • Fourth, we certainly have not been authorized by our history, sanctified by the martyrdom of millions… to revise historical (Jewish) attitudes, to trade favors pertaining to fundamental matters of faith, and to reconcile “some” differences… We cannot command the respect of our confronters by displaying a servile attitude. Only a candid, frank and unequivocal policy reflecting unconditional commitment to our God, a sense of dignity, pride and inner joy in being what we are, believing with great passion in the ultimate truthfulness of our views, praying fervently for and expecting confidently the fulfillment of our eschatological vision when our faith will rise from particularity to universality, will impress the peers of the other faith community among whom we have both adversaries and friends.

Here Rav Soloveitchik is expressing the view of Maimonides that ultimately, in the eschaton, everyone will turn to the Jewish faith.  In the meantime, however, in our confrontation with the other faith community, we must express passionate commitment towards our unique religion without holding back the intensity of our intellectual and emotion fervor; only then will our peers in the other faith community truly respect us.

It should be obvious that the four pre-conditions stipulated by the Rav for Jewish-Christian dialogue have largely been accepted by the Catholic and Evangelical churches, as well as by many Protestant church authorities.  Nearly all churches today have rejected the collective deicide charge against the Jews, deplore anti-Semitism, asked for forgiveness for Christian persecution of Jews, and no longer maintain that Christianity has superseded the Jewish People’s covenant with God.

In fact, we do enter Jewish-Christian dialogue very much as equals – and even as “equals plus.”  Our very existence in history – despite destruction, exile and global persecution – affirms God’s covenant with us as well as His existence on earth (“you are My witnesses says God…,” Isaiah 43:10), and our return to our homeland, Israel, after close to 2000 years of exile, confirms the divine Biblical prophecies of Deuteronomy 30:1-10 and Isaiah 11:11.

And if many of our Christian brothers and sisters believe that in the eschaton everyone will become Christian, we see that Maimonides believes that in the eschaton, everyone will become Jewish! As long as the group with whom we dialogue respects us as we are now in the fullness of our differences, we can very well agree that the eventual Messiah will tell us who is converting to whom (if indeed a conversion will be necessary at that time).

Understand the Differences from Generation to Generation

As for those Jews to whom the Christian involvement in Jewish persecution culminating in the Holocaust makes it emotionally impossible to participate in any kind of Jewish-Christian discourse –for whom the very idea of delving into Jesus’ Jewish identity cannot escape their lips or enter their hearts since so many atrocities were perpetrated against innocent Jews in his  name – I can only urge that they revisit the Torah commandment, “Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations; ask thy father, and he will declare unto thee, thine elders, and they will tell thee” (Deut. 32:7). Rabbenu Sa’adiah Gaon lists this verse as one of the 613 commandments, as exhortation to study history.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch goes one step further, interpreting the Hebrew “shnot” not as “years” (from the Hebrew shanah), but rather as differences (from the Hebrew shinui).  Be sensitive to the changes in history and respond accordingly: be sensitive to the evil empire of radical Islam threatening to destroy Israel and the entire free world in a “religious” war of the civilizations; be sensitive to the fundamental doctrinal changes within contemporary Christianity; be sensitive to the outstretched hands of so many in the Christian world offering friendship and support.  Have we the moral and religious right to reject their overtures in the present climate of widespread Israel hatred and delegitimization?

Click here to continue Reading (Part 2)


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