Monday, March 22, 2004

Cardinals in the Beis Midrash: A Rundown of Positions

On Monday, January 19th, a delegation of Roman Catholic cardinals, along with some Yeshiva University (YU) roshei yeshiva, entered YU's main beis midrash (study hall) and proceeded to look around and talk with some of the men who were studying in the packed beis midrash at the time. Yeshiva College's undergraduate newspaper, The Commentator, reported the following from an interview with YU Chancellor R. Dr. Norman Lamm: "In addition, Dr. Lamm sees no further role for Yeshiva in ongoing discussions. 'We acted as hosts at the request of the World Jewish Congress,' he said. 'We're not involved in further dialogue and we don't intend to get involved.'" The newspaper further reported from an interview with a mashgi'ah ruhani in YU, R. Yosef Blau: "Rabbi Blau added that the cardinals asked to see the Beit Midrash on their own volition. 'That shifts the Halakhic parameters,' he said."

This incident quickly grew into a major storm that has polarized the YU world. Of particular note are the very vocal responses from leading scholars. The following is a summary of the responses of which I am aware:

R. Zevulun Charlop, the dean of YU's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS); R. Yosef Blau, the mashgi'ah ruhani of RIETS; and R. Dr. Norman Lamm, chancellor of YU have spoken out in favor of the visit. Dr. Lamm and R. Charlop spoke in YU's main beis midrash to justify the visit to the students. Accoding to a summary posted by R. Avraham Bronstein to his blog, the rabbis emphasized that the interfaith dialogue was only about social and not religious issues, and that Christianity is considered by many Jewish scholars to be outside of the parameters of avodah zarah.

R. Abba Bronspiegel, a former rosh yeshiva in RIETS and a well-known opponent of Dr. Lamm's, wrote a letter to The Commentator protesting the cardinals' visit. He contended that the Catholic Church has, historically, been the cause of so much Jewish death that it is highly insensitive to allow their representatives into our holiest place, the beis midrash. Furthermore, the wearing of crosses in our holy place is sacrilegious and reminiscent of historical sacrileges performed in our holy places. Additionally, one of the cardinals, Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, was born Jewish and is technically an apostate who abandoned the Jewish religion for Christianity. Showing him great respect is not the proper way to treat such an apostate. And, finally, R. Bronspiegel noted that R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik had been extremely opposed to interfaith dialogue and it is entirely improper for the school he lead for decades to engage in such an enterprise.

In direct response to R. Bronspiegel's letter, the noted historian Dr. Lawrence H. Schiffman sent in a letter to The Commentator. Writing as a participant in the interfaith conference of which the visit was a part, Dr. Schiffman noted the very positive impression that the visit left on the cardinals. He also cautioned against blaming individual Christians for the sins of other Christians.

R. Hershel Reichman, a rosh yeshiva in RIETS and the author of four volumes of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik's lectures on the Talmud, published an essay in The Commentator in which he enumerated the reasons he felt the visit to be problematic. First, Rav Soloveitchik explicitly prohibited interfaith dialogue on religious issues. "To my mind, priests listening to bachurei yeshivah learning Torah in a Beis Midrash is a 'religious' event. I would also say the same if rabbis went into churches to listen in on Christian religious classes. I understand the term 'religious dialogue' as used by the Rav z'tzal to include not only discussing with priests the Gospels -- their theology, but also l'havdil, discussing the Torah -- which is our theology." Second, history teaches us that we need to be suspicious of Church attempts to proselytize to Jews. Third, "[u]ntil this day, the Catholic Church has never renounced totally and unequivocally its basic tenet that Jews must convert to Catholicism for true salvation." Additionally, and the relevance of this issue is not clear, the visit was shortly before the release of the film The Passion that seems to blame the Jews for killing Jesus. Neither the Pope nor the cardinals have denounced the movie on this point. Fourth, some may interpret the visit as YU conferring forgiveness on the Catholic Church for its past sins against Jews, something that YU lacks the authority to offer even if it wanted to (which it should not). Fifth, the visit gives the impression of Jewish compromise and weakness.

Most recently, R. Jeremy Wieder, a young rosh yeshiva in RIETS, weighed in with his view on the matter in an essay published in The Commentator. He starts out by saying what, I think, is the most intelligent statement yet made on the subject. "I should state at the outset that I do not view the visit as having enormous significance, positive or negative." Very true. He then states that there was nothing halakhically wrong with the visit, especially considering that it was initiated by Cardinal Lustiger and Dr. Lamm would have insulted him by refusing the request. R. Wieder then proceeds to argue that the visit (and presumably the accompanying sessions) did not constitute dialogue on religious issues. Rather than being religious dialogue, the speeches were "religious monologue" because there was no give-and-take on the topics. He further points out that Cardinal Lustiger is not technically an apostate because of the exceptional circumstances of his youth (being saved from Nazis by Catholics and raised in their home). Additionally, he questions the suspicion of the Catholic Church and how deep it should run.

R. Julius Berman, a prominent Modern Orthodox scholar and the chairman of the RIETS board, published an extensive analysis of the visit in The Commentator. He conveniently numbered his points and I will follow that enumeration. 1. Forgiveness of the Catholic Church is not an issue here. 2. There was no interfaith dialogue on religious issues during the visit. 3. YU bungled the PR of the event. 4. The cardinals should have been diplomatically asked to remove or cover their crosses. 5. We cannot and should not voice admiration for a Jew who accepts Christianity. 6. The visit does not fall within the technichal realms of kiddush and hillul Hashem. However, those terms are frequently used on a colloquial level. 7. As a minority in the world with such a long history of persecution, it would have been unwise of us to turn down the request.

Finally, R. Eugene Korn, a prominent supporter of interfaith dialogue, weighed in with his own analysis in The Commentator. As he has done elsewhere, R. Korn argued that even R. Soloveitchik would approve of interfaith dialogue - even on religious issues - due to changes (a virtual revolution) within the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has changed on many positions and we must acknowledge it. The Catholic Church never attempted to convert Jews via dialogue but through hostile disputations. Dialogue today, including the discussions associated with the visit to YU, are "done with dignity, equality, and respect" and with "no hint of formal theology or conversion." "What I witnessed during the Cardinals' visit was not weakness, but strength." No student of Rav Soloveitchik's with whom I have discussed this believes that R. Korn is correct in his interpretation. Indeed, Dr. David Berger has, in my opinion, convincingly refuted him on this matter.

My analysis to follow when I find the time to write down my thoughts.

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