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.