What the Vatican Said and Why We Should Care

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19 Responses

  1. DavidF says:

    Quite simply fascinating. I appreciate the elucidation on something whose significance definitely eluded me and which possibly has many positive ramifications for the Jewish people who are daily being portrayed in a severely negative light by many of our neighbors and enemies.

  2. Raymond says:

    Perhaps the problem here is simple ignorance. Christians cannot seem to understand why we do not believe in JESUS, but all they really need to do, is to study the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith, and then it should become obvious to them why we feel about JESUS the way we do. And if they bothered to read the Kuzari, they might realize why our religion has the best chance of being the one that most conforms to spiritual reality, and thus the inherent absurdity of trying to turn us Jews into Christians. As for the land of Israel belonging to us Jews, I remember many years ago, when I decided to read through the entire Torah, without commentaries, just reading it. What became so clear to me from reading it through like that, is that G-d is the Ultimate Zionist. Had I not known what the book was that I was reading or who wrote it, I might have thought it was a book of Zionist propaganda! Unfortunately, while it is at least conceivable to me that some Christians might be open to studying, at least on a surface level, the religious works I just recommended, I just cannot imagine any moslem who would be willing to read our Torah with that open of a mind. And so our Jewish people must continue to suffer, too often in very painful, tragic ways, because the gentile world chooses to remain stuck to their terribly mistaken views.

  3. Shades of Gray says:

    Nice essay. When reading it, I thought of two other interfaith essays on Cross Currents, among others (“Reciprocity and Specialness”, 3/07 and “The Cardinals, Chovevei Torah, and Crossing Lines”, 4/06). It would be a nice project for someone with time to index all CC posts by topic to make it easy to search.

  4. David Ohsie says:

    Dear Rabbi Adlerstein, thank you for your analysis of something that many of us would have missed. However, I think that the specific your attacks on the “Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity” are off the mark. You say with respect to their reference to a “common covenantal mission” that “I am not aware of any covenant that G-d entered into with the Throne of St. Peter.” This is obviously not what they meant; instead they are referring Noachide laws which they call later “the fundamental ethical obligations that all people have before G-d that Judaism has always taught through the universal Noahide covenant” later in the document. (Dr. Berger objects to the statement because he claims it affirms some personal theories of R. Irving Greenberg that the signers would object to and he admits were likely not even aware of).

    As far as the Rambam calling the Christianity a “gift” to the nations, what they say is that “we acknowledge that Christianity is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations.” The Rambam does call Christianity a fulfillment of prophecy despite the antisemitic persecution and theological error that resulted from it. The reason for this decree was to “prepare the path for the Messiah and to cause the entire world to worship God.” Of course idolatry is an evil, but that was prevalent before Christianity and this version, while in error, brings people closer to a correct understanding. Whether or not “gift” is the best word, it sounds consistent with the Rambam to me. (Dr. Berger’s attack is a different one; he says that they leave out the end of the Rambam where the Christians and Moslems recognize their teachings as errors”).

    Finally, the perfect is the enemy of the good. You suggest private responses, but if there is no public Orthodox response, the public responses are left entirely to non-Orthodox groups. While there are parts of the document that I would not have written (not that anyone asked :), that is going to be true of all documents produced by a committee.

    [YA – I strongly disagree with all three of your points. What you write is true. What they have written is not. 1) The bris you refer to is certainly not with Christianity, which half of our rishonim saw as in violation of one of the Noachide laws. In fact, it may not be a bris with anyone at all, but with the earth! Assuming, arguendo, that it is with Bnai Noach, it is certainly not a bris held in common between Jews and non-Jews, who have very different missions. To some of our rishonim (including Rambam!) the Noachide laws do not constitute a mission, but are a minimalist set of statutes to prevent society from descending into chaos 2) Saying that monotheistic religions have a role (as Rambam does) is not the same as calling them a gift (which he wouldn’t). A cloud may have a silver lining, but the cloud still darkens our day, and would be unwelcome as a gift. 3) Perhaps the search for perfection is elusive. This statement was not just imperfect, it was inaccurate, misleading, and waters down Torah hashkafah. All the things that the Rav cautioned against.]

  5. mb says:

    Terrific explanation.
    One comment.
    ” I am not aware of any covenant that G-d entered into with the Throne of St. Peter. ”
    Me neither. But God did have a covenant with Gentiles that some of them view Christianity as an embodiment(excuse the pun) of it. After all, the Gentiles lost their oral tradition several millennia ago and had to resurrect it(oops!) somehow.

    [YA – They do. We don’t. That’s the point. Well, one point. The more important one is that the Vatican document balanced two competing needs, and did it quite well. It demonstrated graciousness and sensitivity to the “other” without sacrificing fidelity to sacred teaching. We ought to be able to do the same. The Orthodox document didn’t.]

  6. Avrohom Katz says:

    RYA – Can you comment on whether the current political situation of Muslim fanatics in any way contributes to the C’s aligning with the J’s?

    [YA – Aderaba. The Vatican does politics astutely. They hedge their bets. They are doing plenty of reaching out to Muslims, and there are lots more of them than us, including a few hundred million who support the idea of exterminating Christians, many of whom are within beheading distance. I don’t believe that the threat of jihad has moved the Church closer to the Jews. (Besides for the fact that this process began well before anyone understood the threat of Muslim extremism.) Remember as well that in many places (like the US!) the Catholic Church leans very liberal on many matters, including Israel-Palestine. Progress on attitudes towards Jews has occurred despite their orientation in the Middle East, not because of it.]

  7. Len Moskowitz says:

    Two comments:

    First, the Vatican Commission’s document clearly states that it is not Church doctrine nor is it a Church teaching document It is meant to promote discussion. And so it is premature to take this document as what the Church believes. It is the simply tentative understanding of a few very well-respected Church theologians.

    Second: One of the key differences between the Church and Jews is that the Church believes in individual salvation. To my knowledge, they have no concept of “kahl yisrael yesh la-hem khei-lek l’olam ha-ba” (all Israel has a portion towards the world-to-come). The Church has no national entity that achieves salvation as a unit – there are only individuals who are saved individually by faith and works. So it shouldn’t be surprising if they decide that non-Torah-observant Jews are not saved.

    In contrast, Jews have both an individual relationship with HKBH and a national one. As the Shunamite woman stated to Elisha: ‘b’tokh ahmee ah-no-khee yo-sha-vet” – our individual lot is cast among our nation and bound to it. If the majority of the nation is observant, perhaps the non-observant are counterbalanced and, as a nation Israel is perceived by HKBH as righteous.

  8. David Ohsie says:

    “2) Saying that monotheistic religions have a role (as Rambam does) is not the same as calling them a gift (which he wouldn’t). A cloud may have a silver lining, but the cloud still darkens our day, and would be unwelcome as a gift.”

    I’m sure we won’t agree about the statement, but as far as the Rambam goes, he does seem to indicate that it is something driven by God as fulfillment of prophecy and thus must be beneficial, and not a bad thing with a silver lining. That is why he has to mention that the God’s ways are not our ways. We would never imagine that introducing anti-semitic persecution as a improvement device, but God can. I also would point out that, at this point, only one of the two negatives that he mentions remains.

    “Jesus of Nazareth who aspired to be the Mashiach […] and was also alluded to in Daniel’s prophecies, as ibid. 11:14 states: ‘The vulgar among your people shall exalt themselves in an attempt to fulfill the vision, but they shall stumble.’

    Can there be a greater stumbling block than Christianity? All the prophets spoke of Mashiach as the redeemer of Israel and their savior who would gather their dispersed and strengthen their observance of the mitzvot. In contrast, Christianity caused the Jews to be slain by the sword, their remnants to be scattered and humbled, the Torah to be altered, and the majority of the world to err and serve a god other than the Lord.

    Nevertheless, the intent of the Creator of the world is not within the power of man to comprehend, for His ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts, our thoughts. Ultimately, all the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and that Ishmaelite who arose after him will only serve to prepare the way for Mashiach’s coming and the improvement of the entire world, motivating the nations to serve God together as Tzephaniah 3:9 states: ‘I will transform the peoples to a purer language that they all will call upon the name of God and serve Him with one purpose.'”

    How will this come about? The entire world has already become filled with the mention of Mashiach, Torah, and mitzvot. These matters have been spread to the furthermost islands to many stubborn-hearted nations. They discuss these matters and the mitzvot of the Torah, saying: ‘These mitzvot were true, but were already negated in the present age and are not applicable for all time.’

    Others say: ‘Implied in the mitzvot are hidden concepts that can not be understood simply. The Mashiach has already come and revealed those hidden truths.’

    When the true Messianic king will arise and prove successful, his position becoming exalted and uplifted, they will all return and realize that their ancestors endowed them with a false heritage and their prophets and ancestors caused them to err.”

    [YA – Thanks for sharing the translation of the text. We can now let readers decide for themselves whether “gift” or “silver lining” is the better descriptor. Let’s hope that the two of us will soon be able to approach Moshiach directly and ask him whether he would score Christianityis contribution as an assist, an RBI, or a run driven in by a batter being hit by a pitch]

  9. tzippi says:

    Thank you for pointing out why this is relevant.
    Personally, I’m quite grateful not to be experiencing what my great-grandparents left Europe over in the 1890s.
    While it’s interesting to see the evolution of Catholic thought, do you think this will trickle down to the laity? So many people don’t take Catholic teaching seriously in their practical lives.

    [YA – The anti-Semitism had no problem trickling (or pouring) down for centuries. No a priori reason why tolerance and even philo-Semitism can’t trickle down. They already have for many people. There is uneven application of this trend in different places, and some substantial numbers of people are always going to be haters. But there is no question that Nostra Aetate made, and continues to make, a difference.]

  10. Ariel Segal says:

    “If conservative Protestants can borrow some of this, we will be making real progress.”
    Fascinating article, Rav Adlerstein! Regarding conservative Protestants, it is interesting to note that back in the 18th century, Rev. Ezra Stiles, a Puritan minister (and friend of several Rabbanim, including Rav Raphael Hayyim Isaac Carregal) said the following in his diary about a Jewish acquaintance. He was struggling with the idea that perhaps a good Jew had a chelek in Olam Haba (acc. to his Christian understanding).
    ” On 28th of May died that amiable, benevolent, most hospitable & very respectable Gentleman, Mr. Aaron Lopez Merchant, who retirg from Newp* Rhd. Isld in these Times resided from 1775 to his Death at Leicester in Massachusetts. He was a Jew by Nation, came from Spain or Portugal about 1754 & settled at Rh. Isld. He was a Merchant of the first Eminence ; for Honor and Extent of Commerce probably surpassed by no Merch* in America. He did Business with the greatest Ease & Clearness – always carried about with him a Sweetness of Behav. a calm Urbanity an agreeable & unaffected Politeness of manners. Without a single Enemy & the most universally
    beloved by an extensive Acquaintance of any man I ever knew. His Beneficence to his Famy connexions, to his
    Nation & to all the World is almost without a Parallel. He was my intimate Friend & Acquaintance ! Oh ! how often have I wished that sincere pious & candid mind could have [Stiles wishes Lopez accepted Xtianity]. The amiable & excellent Characters of a Lopez, of a Manasseh Ben Israel , of a Socrates & a Gangenelli would almost persuade us to hope that their Excellency was infused by Heaven, and that the virtuous & good of all Nations & Religions, notwithstandg their Delusions, may be bro’t together in Paradise [with the Christian Savior, as he goes on about for a while]”

    In sum, one can see at least one conservative Protestant mulling this idea around the time of the American founding.
    Puritan Hebraism at its best has been a bulwark against antisemitism in America (notwithstanding its darker sides, like regarding
    Native Americans as equivalents of the 7 nations of Canaan)….
    B”H for this Malchut shel Chesed even so!

    The article from which I got this quote can be found (for free, as it is pre-1923 and hence public domain) at

    Kol Tuv, Ariel Segal

    • Charlie Hall says:

      Ezra Stiles was at the time in Rhode Island, which never had an Established Church and welcomed Jews. The other Puritan colonies were theocracies and did not permit Jews, Catholics, or dissident Protestants to form congregations. (In the 17th century, they weren’t permitted at all!) And even Rhode Island rejected Aaron Lopez’ petition to become a naturalized British subject. Stiles would later serve as President of Yale which maintained its theocracy until 1818 — I am aware of a case of a dissident minister having to flee the colony as late as 1816. And synagogues could not be officially organized there until 1843

      Aaron Lopez himself was not the saint that Rav. Stiles made him to be. He was a slave trader — one of the few Jews to have engaged in that despicable practice.


  11. Steve Brizel says:

    R Adlerstein deserves a huge Yasher Koach for delineating what the RCC said and did not say, as well as R D Berger’s surgical dissection of a LW MO statement .

  12. DF says:

    R. Adlerstein, I appreciate your words. But what can you say, when at the same moment you wrote it, R. Yair Hoffman, a contributor to this site, was writing on Yeshivah World News the following: “The truth is that almost all of the denominations of Christianity in which Rabbi Riskin has entered into dialogue with are halachically considered Avodah Zarah.”

    So we have a world in which Christians have ceased practicing idol worship more than two thousand years ago. And for many hundreds of years, culminating in the papal bull or document you speak of, Christian attitudes towards Jews have steadily been improving, to a point today when they are our closest allies on matters of faith, Israel, and everything in between. Yet for the majority of Halachic Jews, nothing has changed. We are frozen in time, as though we were still living in the times of the Greeks. I don’t expect you, in this forum certainly, to criticize orthodoxy. It would go against the site’s mission statement, after all. But the rest of us have no such strictures. So maybe I shouldn’t ask you to speak, but I would ask you for some advice how to respond when others ask me – what do we say to the Yair Hoffman’s of the world?

    [YA – Not having read R Hoffman’s piece, I can’t comment on it. It is true that Christianity is considered avodah zarah for Jews, but I don’t know why that would be germane to the question of whether to dialogue with them. (The issue of whether Christianity is acceptable for non-Jews according to the halachos of sheva mitzvos is of course more complex, with lots of material on both sides.) What matters is what should be discussed, and who should be doing the discussing. My own understanding (and I have discussed the matter with important figures in the yeshiva world, as well as people close to the mesorah from Rav Soloveitchik zt”l on this topic) is that the continued support of tens of millions of Christians is a matter of national security, and that there is ample room to work within the parameters of halacha towards firming up the relationship. This can be done without the missteps of the recent document from the Orthodox left.]

    • mycroft says:

      “It is true that Christianity is considered avodah zarah for Jews”
      Actually complex it is unclear if a Jew accepts Christianity is guilty of involve “apostasy or idolatry”
      It is completely forbidden for a Jew to accept Christianity-for a Jew we would much prefer he become an atheist than become a follower of another religion.
      To some extent we are dealing with a problem that the Talmud didn’t have but Rishonim already had- how to deal with non Jewish religions that are not AZ-including for most Islam and some Christianity. Thus the issue of whether a Jew can enter a mosque is not clear there are those who believe that it is absolutely forbidden to enter any non Jewish house of worship even if it is NOT a house of AZ.

  13. mycroft says:

    “Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l on what is kosher in interfaith conversation”
    No one ever can be totally sure what the Rav would have permitted in interfaith dealings. Even people who dealt with Rav actively in this area-most are in olam haemet-would not have been sure exactly his parameters. Thus, it is no secret that those who did such work often met for hours with the Rav before dealing in such matters. To do a proper guess one could not merely look at Confrontation but also as Prof Kaplan has pointed out many times his guidance on what specific activities are permitted and which aren’t-reprinted I believe in Treasury of Tradition 1967 when they reprinted Confrontation. In addition I believe an analysis of what he permitted and didn’t in the years until at least 1980-afterwards his decline sadly was becoming evident-is crucial. His viewpoint is very complex-probably not agreeing with either side of the attacks.
    Re AZ and religion with most believers in the world there is strong evidence that in practice the Rav acted as if the Meiri’s position on the religion is halacha lemaaseh.

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    R Adlerstein has focused on why the above linked statement is objectionable:
    “Both Jews and Christians have a common covenantal mission to perfect the world under the sovereignty of the Almighty.”
    When such a statement is taken to its logical conclusion, it cannot answer the question of “why be Jewish” because it is a politically correct statement that ignores and rejects Halacha and Jewish history that rejected any such stance as permissible for the Jewish People as individuals and as a nation , and bedrock Jewish beliefs such as Bchiras Yisrael, and that Am Yisrael exists solely as a nation that is Kidshanu Bmitzvosav, both of which were dispensed with and viewed as superceded R”L by the founders of the RCC. Such a statement deserves the widest possible rejection and condemnation in the Torah observant world. Yes, Klal Yisrael , Am Yisrael and Medinat Yisrael need allies-but never at the expedient gesture of rewriting and and setting forth unacceptable views of Ikarei Yahadus

  15. Charlie Hall says:

    “If conservative Protestants can borrow some of this, we will be making real progress.”

    Two relatively liberal Protestant groups in the US have made statements very similar to what the Catholic Church recently said, even citing the very same New Testament verse as a justification. They are the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church. The Presbyterian Church USA rejected a similar statement about 30 years ago. 

    [YA – ….but no cigar. Both of these denominations have adopted (or are poised to adopt) anti-Israel, pro BDS resolutions – something that the Catholic Church is not likely to do]

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