The Orthodox rule barring Jews from entering Christian churches has once again triggered a denominational flap among Jewish clergy that threatens a scheduled Sept. 9 interfaith service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on behalf of New York’s poor.
It could also signal the end of the New York Board of Rabbis as a group that includes all Jewish rabbis.
At issue is a letter sent out by the New York Board of Rabbis — perhaps the last Jewish group around that boasts Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis as members.
The letter signed by Rabbi Robert Levine, a Reform rabbi and the board’s interfaith committee head, invites board rabbis to participate in an “Interfaith Prayer Service for Justice” which will include clergy from all faiths including Protestants, Muslims and Buddhists.
“This is intended to be a powerful statement from the combined clergies of New York that active concern for the most vulnerable in our midst is not merely a good thing to do, but a true commandment,” says the letter from Rabbi Levine, of Congregation Rodeph Sholom on the Upper West Side. “It is very important that the rabbis from our community are well represented in what may be an unprecedented event in the city of New York.”
But almost immediately, the letter drew fire from the Orthodox camp on two fronts: objections to the venue and the form — a prayer service.
One respected member of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) says this incident could be the end of Orthodox participation in the board.
“Jews are obligated to give their lives rather than engage in acts that smack of idolatry,” declared David Berger, a professor of Jewish History at Brooklyn College and an ordained Orthodox rabbi. “Interfaith prayer held in a sanctuary dedicated to Christian worship and containing images of the crucified Jesus may well fall into this category. If the New York Board of Rabbis does not withdraw its endorsement of Jewish participation in this event, I do not see how Orthodox rabbis can retain their membership in the organization.”
Even board president Marc Schneier, who is Orthodox, said he won’t attend the gathering, adding that he didn’t think there would be any Orthodox participation in the service. He insisted that Rabbi Levine’s letter, and the specifics of the program, were not approved by him.
Had he been told in advance, Rabbi Schneier said he would have told Rabbi Levine that the letter is offensive to Orthodox members.
“The fact that this letter gave off the impression that this is a prayer service, the letter sends the wrong message. What’s been told to me is that it is a non-denominational, non-liturgical gathering.”
“At the same time, this type of program does put the Orthodox membership in a very sensitive position. As a matter of principle, I can’t attend. It’s a matter of law within Orthodox tradition.”
But Rabbi Levine told The Jewish Week that he had no notion that the program would spark such controversy, but defended the important work of interfaith social justice.
“I honestly believe faith leaders should be able to speak out on issues of social justice in each other’s houses of worship. I understand colleagues who do not share that point of view. They can make their decision, but we’re not going to back down on the interfaith approach in the greater world.”
But he added that had he known of level of Orthodox objection, “we could have handled things a little bit differently.” He blamed a failure to communicate fully on the issue.“We have done programming in a church before, and this kind of reaction never occurred to me,” Rabbi Levine said. “Given this reaction, more careful consultation is in order.”
Rabbi Levine said the program calls for a series of “scripted prayers invoking God to help us deal with homeless problems. It’s not liturgical, it’s not a service,” he insisted. “It is faith leaders using the Hebrew Scriptures and prayers we can all relate to, to ask God to help ourselves.” He said great care was taken by all clergy to write prayers that would not be offensive.
Rabbi Levine said the board has always sponsored programs in which some Orthodox colleagues do not participate. “That doesn’t mean we haven’t proceeded,” he said. “That’s how I looked at it.”
Ironically, the board has in recent months been presenting itself as a model for Jewish interdenominational harmony.
Rabbi James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said it was “bad language” for Rabbi Levine to use the term “interfaith prayer service.”
“It should be an interreligious gathering, assembly, convocation,” said Rudin, a Reform rabbi.While he has no problem entering a church for a speech or to deliver a paper, Rabbi Rudin says he does not encourage interreligious services because “it refers to the lowest common denominator. Jews can’t pray as Jews. Christians can’t mention Jesus. It waters down everyone.”
For the Orthodox rabbis, the issue is a centuries-old rabbinic prohibition against entering a church. Some attribute the concept to the Torah itself.
Brooklyn College’s Berger says the issue turns on the concept of idol worship.
“The question is whether Christianity is idolatry,” according to the halacha, or Jewish law.”
The answer is yes, according to many rabbinic sages.
“I’m afraid that I think entering a church, at least in the area where prayers are conducted is prohibited, particularly if it is a church where there are icons,” says Berger.
He says the rabbis of the Talmud disagree as to whether or not Christianity is idolatry for gentiles. But there is no disagreement that Christianity is idolatry with respect to Jews.
“According to the overwhelming majority of opinion, a prayer service, even without sectarian reference, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which is full of Christian icons, is something that no Orthodox rabbi should even think of participating in.”
But Berger says he is not advocating separatism.
Several times a year he participates in meetings between several Orthodox rabbis and high-level Catholic leaders, including Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor, to discuss issues of common interest, such as school vouchers, abortion, and Israel.
The difference is, they meet in the cardinal’s offices in a church-owned building — but not a church.
Interestingly, Berger says the rabbis had fewer problems with meeting in a Muslim prayer house. He says the great 13th century halachist Maimonides deemed Islam compatible with Judaism’s teaching of divine unity.
So how do the “gentiles” feel about the prohibition?
Rabbi Schneier says he must turn down invitations every year to speak at African-American churches on Martin Luther King Day. He says the church leaders understand.
“I can only tell you from my own experience that people understand it and respect it.”
But in light of developments in the 20th century — for instance, the restoration of the state of Israel, a new positive relationship with the Catholic Church — wouldn’t a re-evaluation of the ban be in order?
“We need a recognized halachic authority to come forward, if this law was ever going to change,” Rabbi Schneier said. “That is why the dearth of halachic rabbinic giants is such a loss to the Jewish community today.
“In 1998,” he said, “this is the practice.”
Berger however says it is a core belief of Judaism, and can never be altered.