The Cardinals, Chovevei Torah, and Crossing Lines

Everything about Chovevei Torah’s hosting of a group of cardinals to its beit midrash was appalling, wrong, and dangerous. Everything other than receiving them with warmth and dignity, and recognizing some of the important changes that many Christian groups have made in their dealings with Jews.

Don’t get me wrong. I have clocked more hours of close dealings with members of other faiths than most. I have published laudatory pieces about Nostra Aetate, and the past and present Popes, pieces that were well received in Catholic circles. I can proudly point to many Christians as exemplary people and personal friends. Their growth through their deep desire to do the Will of G-d is manifest. I do not believe that all non-Jews hate Jews. I welcome non-Jews often to my home, and am proud to showcase the beauty of a Torah lifestyle to them. All the while, I firmly and unhesitatingly reject major planks of their religious platform. Nonetheless, I am more than impressed by the real quest for connection to G-d that I have found in many of the people with whom I meet in my capacity as a liaison with other faith groups.

A few years ago, I was asked by the Israeli Consulate to accompany a group of evangelical ministers to Israel. Because of the very deep convictions of the ministers, the group sponsors thought it preferable to send an Orthodox rabbi than a Reform one. On matters really close to their hearts – Divine revelation, prophecy, the divinity of the Bible – they would share a common vocabulary only with a traditional Jew.

I sought the advice of a great Torah sage. His advice was predictably sagacious. Cultivating the friendship of non-Jews friendly to Israel was important, he said, but you must be careful not to do anything that detracts from our intense pride in being Jewish.

The visit of the Cardinals was an intrusion of outsiders into our sanctum sanctorum. No religion with any pride tolerates this, even when they are open and embracing of others. No Catholic priest would allow me to sample a communion wafer simply as a visitor. My wonderful Mormon friends would faint at the thought of my crossing the threshold of their sanctuary.

Our sanctuary is our holiest activity – Torah study. (Rav Kook wrote that it is a mistake to argue that Jews survived thousands of years without connection to their own land. They had a land. They created a homeland wherever they found themselves in the Diaspora. The place of Torah study became their land.) We should welcome well-meaning representatives of all faiths who extend a hand of friendship, but we should be mindful of protocol and our own dignity. The blatt Gemara is the holiest place for us, and decidedly the wrong place to greet official or semi-official emissaries of the leadership of the Church.

It is inconceivable that a group of rabbis would be received in Rome by a group of guitar-strumming cardinals singing Lema’an Achai in Latin. Rome is very mindful of protocol and decorum, and preserving its image as representing G-d’s interests on earth. We should insist on the same.

Warm hospitality is fine. I could not think of a poorer selection of song with which to greet them, however, than Lema’an Achai (“because of our family and friends” – see the classic commentaries to Tehilim 122:8 for whom this phrase is meant) It is no small distinction to be a tzelem Elokim – an image of G-d. The visitors should have been greeted with the honor and respect due to all created in His image. The further distinction of brotherhood is reserved for our coreligionists. There are halachic institutions whose function is to preserve that distinction. (Important figures in the Church do not flinch at preserving distinctions valuable to them. Pope John Paul made such important and sweeping gestures of acceptance to Jews, that some Catholics became confused. Could Jews have their own path to salvation outside of the Church? Despite the PC value of such an assumption, Avery Cardinal Dulles carefully and publicly wrote that this, alas, could not be true. He pulled no punches. Neither should we.)

Rabbi Weiss “seemed eager to say that he was not violating the taboo against holding theological discussions with non-Jews.” The taboo is important, but of recent manufacture; more important yet is the Gemara’s prohibition against teaching Torah to non-Jews, which likens it according to some opinions with theft. Yes, I know about many of the leniencies. I can find room for them in answering questions from non-Jews, even in slaking the thirst of many non-Jews to learn more of the Word of G-d because they wish to draw strength and enlightenment. But studying an abstract piece of the Gemara? With an apostate Cardinal who would love to have both worlds, and feel that he never relinquished his patrimony?

Just what part of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l’s “Confrontation” does Rabbi Weiss think no longer applies? Did he see it as a “political” piece, frowning on contacts with a Church that refused at the time to recognize the State of Israel? That is not the essay that I recall, one in whch the Rav beautifully analyzed the answers that Yaakov instructed his messenger to give to an inquisitive Esav and all his descendents. Where are we going? What do we plan to do with our gifts and talents? These we answer positively: We stand ready to direct our talents and resources to work with you to build a better world. But if you ask, “To whom do you belong” – to what conception of G-d do you commit your very essence – to this we do not even bother responding. There is simply no common vocabulary. The person of faith cannot explain his spiritual core to an outsider. How does Rabbi Weiss think that this has changed?

To get it right about matters as weighty as dealing with the Church on behalf of the Jewish people, you need more gravitas in Torah than the average well-meaning pulpit rabbi. You need to be so suffused with Torah excellence that your world view is a refraction of Torah itself. Both the right and the center of Orthodoxy have such Torah personalities. The left doesn’t come close.

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54 Responses

  1. understand says:

    Briesel- I would think that it is much more of an interfaith problem when someone like S Carmy takes part in an interfaith discussion about theological issues AND MOST OF THE NON CATHOLIC MEMBERS CONVERTED TO CATHOLOCISM in the last few yers. That is exactly what RYBS was agianst.
    Read below- from FIRST THINGS WEBSITE

    In addition to Cardinal Dulles, among the participants were Joseph Bottum, our esteemed Editor, James Buckley of Loyola, Baltimore, Shalom Carmy of Yeshiva University, John Erickson of St. Vladimir Seminary, Douglas Farrow of McGill, Eric Gregory of Princeton, Paul Griffiths of University of Illinois Chicago, Thomas Guarino of Seton Hall (his book, Foundations of Systematic Theology was the occasion of Reno’s essay), David Hart, who will be at Providence College this year, George Lindbeck, retired after a century or so at Yale, Bruce Marshall of Southern Methodist, Edward Oakes of Mundelein Seminary, Chicago, Michael Root of Lutheran Southern Seminary, Jerry Walls of Asbury Seminary, and Steve Webb of Wabash College. A very distinguished group, you might well say.

    There is this oddity about the Dulles Colloquium. When we started it was a very ecumenical group of theologians, but we have had a hard time keeping it that way. Along the way, a number of participants have entered into full communion with the Catholic Church (Griffiths, Reno, Marshall, Farrow, and, of course, Neuhaus. Not to mention Dulles, who entered many years ago, and Robert Louis Wilken of the University of Virginia, who couldn’t make this meeting.) Hart and Erickson are both converts to Orthodoxy. The colloquium is not intended as a convert-making enterprise, and we regularly seed it with new participants to maintain its ecumenical character.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    On the whole, which present-day rabbinic leaders best carry on in RYBS’s direction?

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    Jordan-In your second post, you mentioned that you spoke to a rebbe of yours at YU. You mentioned that he disagreeed completely with both you and YCT. One simple question-How could you determine that he was wrong and that you were correct without transgressing the basics of a rebbe-talmid relationship?FWIW, I see nothing vis a vis the relationship between Klal Yisrael and the RCC that evidences a change in its fundamental attitudes vis a vis Judaism and especially its support of the Arab world — which remains unchanged notwithstanding its token recognition of Israel. I would suggest that the analysis and guidelines set forth by RYBS were violated by YCT without batting a proverbial eyelash because R A Weiss freely admitted that he did not consider them binding — despite the absence of an iota of proof that either RYBS or any of his talmidim who deal in these issues such as R D D Berger or R S Carmy felt that the guidelines were no longer binding.

    IMO, R A Weiss has once again demonstrated that his strong suit is activism, as opposed to setting forth either halachic or hashkafic analyis of an issue. We once again see a case where RA Weiss knew about RYBS’s POV ( as he himself admitted vis a vis women’s prayer groups) and went ahead against this view.

  4. Steve Brizel says:

    If you are interested in seeing how YCT’s “talmidim” address other issues, take a look at its online journal. One article postulated that hats and the “penguin suit” are signs of Yiras HaShem and that kippot srugot and multi-colored attire are signs of Ahavas HaShem. Regardless of one’s view on whether a hat is a halachically mandated item or a part of one’s group identity, the above cited article struck me as pop sociology masquerading as lomdus.

    Another student-authored article asserted that women can lead Hallel on Rosh Chodesh because Hallel on that day is just a minhag. That article ignored numerous issues such as kavod hatzibbur, why a minyan is required according to some Rishonim, why we say a bracha, etc. Why a “yeshiva” allows articles on subjects of such gravity to be authored by students is a mystery. These articles are sufficient proof that YCT has left itself open to the legitimate critique that it is a Beis Charoshes LRabbanim-(to use R Chaim Ozer ZTL’s comment about a far greater predecessor-the Hildesheimer seminary)a factory for rabbis as opposed to a yeshiva. One can only wonder why the RCA would consider YCT’s “musmachim” as members.