A coalition of 35 American institutions engaged in Jewish-Christian relations responded sharply this week to a recent article by Rabbi Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University, that suggests the Catholic Church is missionizing in Israel and that Israeli rabbis who engage in dialogue with the Church are guilty of idolatry.
A statement signed by the leaders of the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, an association devoted to “enhancing understanding between Jews and Christians,” said Rabbi Schachter’s essay contained “blatant inaccuracies” and “inflammatory language,” and “promulgates a long list of glaring errors — errors that he would not tolerate in other’s writings.
“Were a Christian to make similar errors about Jews,” the statement said, “that Christian would rightly be understood as an anti-Semite.”
The rabbi, a much-revered teacher, decisor and one of the most respected religious authorities in the Orthodox community, wrote a dvar Torah for the Torah portion of Re’eh (Aug. 18) on TorahWeb.org. In it he accused nameless Orthodox rabbis in Israel who educate Christians about Judaism as being guilty of “deepening and furthering avodah zarah (idolatry)” and conversion.
“It is very painful to see that there is missionary activity taking place in Eretz Yisroel,” the rabbi wrote, noting that the Catholic Church rejected the modern Zionist movement a century ago because the Jews lost their “chosen” status when they did not accept Jesus as the messiah.
Several interfaith scholars said the content and tone of Rabbi Schachter’s article suggested that he is unaware or dismissive of the sweeping changes in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council, in 1965, seeking to do teshuvah — the Church’s language — for centuries of anti-Semitic theology by changing its liturgy and teachings about Jews and Judaism.
“Rabbi Schachter writes as if the Church is still missionizing and has not accepted the Jewish nature of the State of Israel, which is not true,” Ruth Langer, a professor of Jewish studies at Boston College and chair of the council, told The Jewish Week.
“My great concern is that the rabbi is propagating the notion that the Church is out to convert Jews, and he is not recognizing that it has undergone teshuva [repentance],” said Langer, adding that “a failure to forgive” undermines the positive changes made by the Church.
She and other scholars noted that the Catholic Church and many Protestant churches have no programs to missionize to Jews in Israel or anywhere else.
Explaining the nature of Jewish-Christian dialogue, the Council statement said: “An explicit precondition of interreligious exchange today is that conversion must not be the goal. Christians seek conversation with Jews in order to understand today’s Judaism, not to entice Jews to baptism.”
The statement added that Jews engage in discussion with Christians to better understand them, and themselves.
“We also avoid a demonization of the unknown, or, as in Rabbi Schachter’s statement, a demonization based on past but not present realities.”
The Council statement said that since 1967 the Vatican has not called for the internationalization of Jerusalem, that in 1993 it diplomatically recognized the State of Israel and that it is engaged in official dialogue with both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic chief rabbis of Israel twice a year.
Eugene Fisher, the former U.S. bishops’ director of Catholic-Jewish relations, told The Jewish Week the rabbi’s article “sounds like it was written by someone in the 1940s,” and said he worried that “the very harsh language and false claims” of Rabbi Schachter’s essay “can be disastrous in the long run” in terms of Christian-Jewish understanding.
Widely credited for reforming Catholic teaching on Judaism, Fisher noted that Christians are “a minority within a minority” in Israel and “when someone of his [Rabbi Schachter’s] stature comes out with dangerous falsehoods, bad things can happen.”
Rabbi Schachter is a leading disciple of the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a towering figure of 20th-century Orthodoxy in America who was opposed to interfaith dialogue on theological matters.
An official of Yeshiva University said that Rabbi Schachter takes part in the annual campus visit of senior pastors of the Catholic Church, and that the university promotes unity among Jews and fosters positive relations with all people.
The Jewish Week was unable to reach Rabbi Schachter for comment.
The Council statement said it is “tragic that Rabbi Schachter distorts and misrepresents” the encounter between Jewish and Christian theologians committed to a deeper understanding of each other’s faith and beliefs.
“Throughout history Jews have suffered terribly from crude, hateful and false stereotypes that were spun by Christian polemicists,” the statement said. “Neither Jews nor Christians dare repeat this moral and theological error in our day.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, said in a statement issued Tuesday that Rabbi Schachter “seems to know nothing about the different Christian denominations or the current state of Jewish-Christian relations, which have improved greatly over the last four decades,” especially the Catholic-Jewish dialogue.
He said it was “troubling that a religious figure and university academic who is well respected in the Yeshiva world would publish such a distorted and error-filled text which promotes negative attitudes.”
He called on the rabbi to public correct the errors.
Rabbi Schachter has been known to make blunt, politically incorrect statements in the past.
In 2008 he was pressured to apologize for a statement he made to a group of yeshiva students in which he appeared to advocate shooting the prime minister of Israel should the government “give away Jerusalem.”
Four years earlier, women’s groups complained that a talk he gave seemed to compare women to animals in expounding on the issue of reading from a ketubah at a marriage ceremony. He said the marriage would be valid “even if a parrot or a monkey would read the ketubah.”