Storm of Controversy Swirls Around Orthodox Rabbinic Statement Promoting Interfaith Relations

“Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him.” Genesis 18:18 (The Israel Bible™)

It has been less than a month since the groundbreaking statement by the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC), titled “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward Partnership between Jews and Christians,” was published, and yet, the statement has already attracted a storm of criticism from all sides, as well as much powerful praise.

Many Orthodox Jews have criticized the CJCUC’s unprecedented nature of calling for further connection between Jews and Christians, arguing that such a relationship violates tenets of Jewish law. Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn, one of the originators of the statement and Academic Director of the CJCUC, explained otherwise.

“Some have claimed the statement violates Jewish law. This is untrue. Halakhah (Jewish law) does not forbid talking to religious Christians or cooperating with them,” he told Breaking Israel News.

Citing a strong Jewish legal precedent to support his position under the conditions issued within the statement, Rabbi Korn explained that theological dialogue between Jews and people of other faiths is permissible.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Photo: Wikipedia)
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Photo: Wikipedia)

“Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (a major 20th century Torah authority) only discouraged theological dialogue as a public policy. He did not forbid it halachically.  He permitted rabbis who were learned and proud Jews, who could be trusted to faithfully represent Judaism, to engage in theological dialogue with Catholics. I know of at least three rabbis that Rabbi Soloveitchik advised to do so,” he explained, applying his point to the present day.

“That was true in 1965, and it is even more so today since the revolutionary change in Catholic teaching about Jews and Judaism that has stopped all institutional missionizing of Jews and affirmed the living covenant between God and the Jewish people. All the signatories of the statement are learned faithful Orthodox rabbis. They all know halakhah well and would not violate it,” Rabbi Korn noted to Breaking Israel News.

David Nekrutman, Executive Director of the CJCUC, was also perplexed by the objections he heard from Orthodox rabbis who refrained from signing the statement.

“Those who don’t want to sign on the statement because of a certain phrasing, or specific line, where are they? Why can’t they put out an alternative? It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Everybody has a role to play,” he told Breaking Israel News.

Some Christian groups have been overly enthusiastic, misunderstanding the statement to mean the rabbis have rejected Judaism and accepted Christianity in its place. One article, published by the Messianic Christian website Israel Today, characterized the CJCUC statement as “removing one of the main stumbling blocks in the path of a major Jewish reclamation of Jesus!”

Get your own complete set of the Israel Bible

“For the out-and-out refusal by Jews to accept Jesus is slowly, but surely, coming to an end, as growing numbers of prestigious Orthodox rabbis welcome Jesus back,” the article went on.

Rabbi Korn called this “nonsense”, saying they had “used the statement for their own twisted ideological purposes by distorting it beyond recognition.” He made it emphatically clear that the signatories of the statement are only calling for expanding the Judeo-Christian dialogue.

“Some have misunderstood the statement to mean the authors accept Jesus and are encouraging other Jews to do so,” Rabbi Korn explained to Breaking Israel News. “That is entirely baseless and false. The statement says explicitly there are fundamental differences between Christianity and Judaism. All the Orthodox rabbis who signed the statement believe that it is absolutely forbidden for Jews to worship any human being, including Jesus, or to accept anything with a physical form as God.”

The statement comes at a time when the two Abrahamic religions are mending historic wounds and making great strides to reconcile theological differences which, not so long ago, seemed insurmountable.

Even the Vatican, the source of much historic oppression of Jews, has made significant changes in its theology. Fifty years after the Nostra Aetate, their astonishing announcement this past December against missionizing Jews transformed 1,500 years of Vatican policy towards Jews and Judaism. Rabbi Korn cited the Vatican’s about-face as heralding in a new era in Judeo-Christian relations, requiring Jews to move forward in ways that are really not so foreign to classical Judaism.

“After so many years of hatred between Jews and Christians, it is hard for some Jews, even learned Jews, to acknowledge that some of our great sages had good things to say about Christians and some of the good that Christianity has done in history,” explained Rabbi Korn, “But Maimonides, and Rabbis Rivkis, Emden, Hirsch and Berlin (Netziv) said these things.”

These are auspicious times for Judaism and Christianity to form relations, and Rabbi Korn did not want to miss this historic opportunity.

David Nekrutman, Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding and Cooperation, at the event (Photo: Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz/Breaking Israel News)
David Nekrutman, Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding and Cooperation, at the event (Photo: Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz/Breaking Israel News)

“Now that nearly every Christian church condemns anti-Semitism and affirms God’s covenant with the Jewish people, there is no reason not to examine these positive views of Christianity. The statement did not distort these statements in any way. These important authorities had the intellectual integrity to acknowledge these benefits of Christianity to the world, and so should we.”

Nekrutman also felt it imperative to Judaism that efforts be made to bring down the walls separating the two religions. “To continue to ignore Christianity, and not work with Christians, is to say that Judaism does not have a world mission, that Judaism is only for the Shtetl (ghetto),” he explained to Breaking Israel News.

According to Rabbi Korn, Christianity has made long strides in attempting to rectify the historic wrongs against the Jews and it is now time to stop viewing Christians as the enemy.

“As the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has said, ‘Christians are not our enemies any more’. Religious Jews and Christians are fighting the same enemies today,” Rabbi Korn said to Breaking Israel News. “Amoral secular culture and deadly religious extremism target Jews and Christians alike, and we have a much better chance of defeating these evils when we work together.”