Missionaries and Maligners

[This is an Ami Magazine “News Commentary” piece — one of several features I write for the publication.]

An umbrella group of institutions engaged in Jewish-Christian relations and the Anti-Defamation League both issued statements recently that were harshly critical of Rabbi Hershel Schachter, the respected posek (halachic authority), Rosh Yeshiva, and Rosh Kollel at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in New York. In a dvar Torah posted to the web, Rabbi Schachter had decried missionary activity in Eretz Yisrael and the efforts of some Orthodox-ordained rabbis to affirm Catholic claims to “a covenantal connection” to Eretz Yisrael.

In the process, he noted how the “official Catholic response” to the Zionist movement was a negative one, and how the position of the Vatican to this day is that Jerusalem should be an “international city.” And he noted Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l’s strong opposition to the establishment of religious bonds with Christian clergy—and how “shameful” it is that some claiming to be disciples of “the Rav” have disregarded or misrepresented his words. Rabbi Schachter is recognized as, in the words of the New York Jewish Week, “a leading disciple” of Rab Soloveitchik, whom the paper calls “a towering figure of 20th-century Orthodoxy in America.”

It was a recent edition of that Jewish weekly that reported that the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, a group dedicated to “enhancing understanding between Jewish and Christians,” had scored Rabbi Schachter’s “inflammatory language” and “glaring errors.”

The Council asserted that the goal of “interreligious exchange” today is not “to entice Jews to baptism” but rather to help Christians “understand today’s Judaism”; and that “since 1967, the Vatican has not called for the internationalization of Jerusalem.”

In fact, though, while there has been much progress over the years in the Vatican’s position toward Israel (largely born of realities on the ground that could no longer be ignored), the Vatican has never conceded Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem. As recently as this past June, the Vatican took pains to note that an economic agreement it was negotiating with Israel regarding Church properties in Jerusalem should not be regarded as even a de facto recognition of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem.

Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman also criticized Rabbi Schachter, who, he asserted, “seems to know nothing about the current state of Jewish-Christian relations.”
That state, however, is subject to differing interpretations.

There is no doubt that the Church has made positive strides over the years, most notably the groundbreaking 1965 Nostra Aetate declaration disavowing anti-Semitism. Whether there are in fact Catholic efforts, as there are Protestant ones, to “reach out” to Jews is not clear. But “interfaith dialogue,” while embraced by some outlier Orthodox rabbis, has been deemed off-limits by all widely accepted Orthodox religious authorities, Rabbi Soloveitchik among them. And Rabbi Schachter is eminently qualified to offer his thoughts and guidance on such issues.

How the controversy came about isn’t clear. While it’s not impossible, it isn’t likely that either the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations or Abe Foxman regularly follows Rabbi Schachter’s divrei Torah. Did the Jewish Week (the only medium in which the “story” was covered), perhaps “tipped off” by some anonymous informer, decide to pro-actively approach the two groups? One thing is certain: this isn’t the first time the paper has made an effort to subject Rabbi Schechter to vilification.

In 2008, the paper reported that Rabbi Schachter had made—and apologized for—an ill-considered off-the-cuff remark about an unimaginable Israeli government’s relinquishing control of Jerusalem, and its culpability for such an action. And in 2004, in a shiur about the halachic permissibility of a woman reading the kesuva at a Jewish wedding, he was taken to task by the paper for invoking a Talmudic metaphor signifying an action whose performer is of no halachic consequence. The kesuva reading, he said, could just as well be performed “by a monkey.” The Jewish Week’s editor said that the Rosh Yeshiva’s words “seem[ed] to compare women to animals.”

In an editorial in 2008, that editor offered his assessment that “despite [Rabbi Schachter’s] ‘modern’ credentials, many believe that in temperament and outlook, he is more closely aligned to the more traditional yeshiva world,” thus betraying what the editor sees as Yeshiva University’s essence.

The real story here may not be the state of Jewish-Christian relations, but, sadly, of Jewish-Jewish ones.


The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with permission and the above copyright appended.

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