Rabbi Shlomo Riskin started a Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation. Originally, based on the reports in the newspaper, the institute seemed like a place to invite Christian Zionists like Pastor Hagee to show them the importance of the settlements. Now, it seems to be a full fledged center for theological dialogue about the core issues between Judaism and Christianity. They are holding a conference on Yale’s campus and have signed on Miroslav Volf, one of the most important contemporary Protestant theologians. Here is their description:
The Institute for Theological Inquiry is the theological division of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, the first Orthodox institution in Israel and the world dedicated to Jewish-Christian relations. Its American partner is the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, New Jersey. The Institute’s objective is to engage world-class theologians to break new theological ground on focused research projects in areas critical to Judaism, Christianity, social values and world culture. Through its research, ITI’s aims to develop rich new foundations for cooperative Jewish-Christian understanding, as well as spiritual and moral values that will bear on global religious, cultural and political life in the 21st century. It is the goal of ITI for its research to be adapted and utilized as pedagogical tools in educational settings.
The theme of the conference is the following:
Jewish and Christian religious life is grounded in God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants as it unfolds throughout human history…Fulfilling God’s covenant with us, as we respectively understand it, constitutes the “mission” of both Jewish and Christian life….Christians are asked to examine the implications of Christian covenantal theology for relations with Jews and Judaism, while Jews are asked to probe the covenantal implications for Jewish relations with Christians and Christianity.
Conference schedule here.
Rabbi Riskin’s paper is online. It is 43 pages long and deals with many issues.
His first point is his novel adaptation of Reformed covenant theology for a Jewish purpose. In the Reformed Protestant tradition, there is a series of covenant of the unfolding of God’s will. In a short version, the Noahide covenant is a moral requirement with all humanity, the Abrahamic is the covenant of faith and grace, and the covenant of Jesus is the messianic one of grace. In some versions, Deuteronomy is the covenant of blessings and curses for before entering the land. Rabbi Riskin postulates three covenants: Noahide as universal, Sinai as Jewish people, and Deuteronomy as universal redemption. In the third covenant, we bring the redemptive universal message to the world. He has transferred some of the aspects of the Jesus covenant to a universalism from Deuteronomy.
Rabbi Riskin pushes for a Jewish drive to seek conversion of Christians to Judaism or more to the point the conversion of Christians in the escaton. He finds passages in the Bible, Talmud, and Maimonides to support a mission to the gentiles. But in each section, he returns and says there are two opinions, conversion or conversion to the Noahide code. He concludes with a need to teach gentiles Torah since they will be united with us in the escaton.
Covenant And Conversion: The United Mission To Redeem The World
It is generally not recognized that there is yet a third covenant, presented by God before the Jewish people entered the promised land of Israel…The Bible states:
“These are the words of the Covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to seal with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, aside from (in addition to) the covenant which He sealed with them at Horeb,” emphasizing the unique nature of this third covenant (Dt.28:69). What is the message of this third, additional covenant, especially since our other two covenants have already designated us as an eternal nation and an eternal religion? I submit that this is the Covenant of Universal Redemption, which can only come about if the nations of the world accept fundamental biblical morality. It is the covenant that squarely places upon the Jewish people the responsibility of teaching the moral truths of the Bible to the world.
It is important to note that the laws delineated in this third covenant are all directed to “ish,” the Hebrew generic term for “person”—as opposed to “Jews.” They are universal in import.
This universal message of the Third Covenant may likewise be why, immediately after the content of the Third Covenant is delineated, the Bible records, “Not with you
(Israelites) alone do I seal this covenant and this imprecation, but with whoever is here, standing with us today before the Lord our God, and also with whoever is not here with us today” (Dt. 29:13-14). The meaning of these words seem to be the inclusion of the gentiles as well as the Israelites: the gentiles who are not with us today will one day stand with us in acceptance of the fundamental laws of morality.
If I am correct in interpreting this Third Covenant to be a covenant for all the nations of the world, the implications of this debate are serious indeed. Are Jews covenantally responsible to teach gentiles only the seven Noahide laws and these twelve moral imprecations, or is the Jewish people duty bound to teach the world all 613 commandments to convert them to Judaism?
Does the Bible and Talmud advocate converting the world to full Judaism, or merely to bring as many people as possible into the third covenant and the Noahide covenant with its seven fundamentals of morality? This question may be seen as a difference of opinion between the prophets Isaiah and Micah… [S]cholars disagree whether Maimonides believes that gentiles and Jews will remain separate and distinct religious bodies in the eschaton.
We are however permitted—and perhaps even encouraged—to teach gentiles the Torah and its commandments, an act that Maimonides saw as part of the commandment for Jews to love God. Finally, Maimonides contended that in the eschaton all will convert because it will be rationally and morally compelling for them to do so.
By the end of his paper, Rabbi Riskin surprised me by pleading for religious pluralism in which there is one God and the names YHVH, Allah, the Trinity, Buddha all reflect one reality. All ritual, images, statues, and representations serve the same Divine force. God only cares about morality and the forms of worship are incidental. The rainbow metaphor and its explanation seems like a paraphrase of the famed pluralist John Hick’s rainbow of faiths.
The case for religious pluralism alongside ethical and moral absolutism is strengthened by the nature of the Noahide covenant, [with the rainbow as its sign.]
R. Samson Raphael Hirsch provides additional content to the rainbow’s symbolism: Gazing upon a rainbow, one sees seven dazzling colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Yet, in reality there is but one color, white. When the rays of the sun shed their light upon the cloud, the white of the cloud refracts into the seven colors of the red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. So it is also with human beings: Humanity seems separated into different peoples, with different skin pigmentations from black, to brown, to yellow to white. In reality, however, we are all descendants of one human being, created in the image of the One Unique God. We all emerge from the divine womb and are all endowed with a portion of divine eternity.
Allow me to add to his symbolism. Can we not argue that, although we use different names, symbolic images, rituals, customs and incantations by which we call and worship the Deity, everyone is speaking and praying to the same Divine Force who created and guides our world? Allah is another name for the one God (“El” or “Elohim”), the Trinity is mysteriously considered a unity by Christians, all the physical representations of the Buddha are meant to express the All in the All that is the god of the Far East. Is it not possible that the real meaning of the credo of Judaism, the Sh’ma, is: “Hear Oh Israel, the Lord (who is known by our different names of different forces and powers), Elohaynu, is (in reality the) One (YHVH of the entire cosmos).” Just as the white of the cloud is refracted into different colors, so the one God of love may be called by different names and different powers, but these all coalesce in the mind of the one praying and in the reality of the situation into the one all-encompassing Lord of the Universe.
If this is the case, as long as humans are moral, they can call God by any name or names they wish since their true intent is the God of the universe. They may even be secular humanists, as long as they do not engage in the abominations of idol worship. The ultimate religious concern is that humans not destroy the world, and this can only be predicated upon the universal acceptance of ethical absolutes, compassionate righteousness and justice, the inviolability of the human being, and his/her right to live in freedom, peace and security.
Rabbi Riskin concludes with an acceptance of the Pauline understanding of Abraham as the covenant of faith. He views Christianity as entirely within the Noahide laws and as reconciled with Judaism. He concludes with a plea for moderate Muslims to show their morality against Satanic Islamic radicalism. (In an earlier version of this paragraph, delivered in a speech with Hagee, and printed three years ago in the newspaper, he branded all Islam as Satanic and Molech. I am glad he changed this part.) We now march together with Christians and “pluralistic Muslims.”
Christianity sees itself as being grafted onto the Jewish covenant, God’s covenant with Abraham. This is legitimate from a biblical and Jewish perspective, since Abraham, by his very name, is a patriarch of a multitude of nations. Christianity worships Abraham’s God of compassionate righteousness and justice, and traditional Christianity surely accepts the seven Noahide laws as given by God. The return of the younger faith to its maternal roots was eased by leading theologians from most churches recognizing the permanent legitimacy of the Jewish covenant with God and the possibility of Jewish salvation on the merit of that covenant. The partnership between the daughter and mother religions is particularly important today in the face of the existential threat of Islamist extremism against which all who are committed to a hopeful future must battle—including moderate Muslims. The Bible records a loving reconciliation between Isaac and Ishmael, coming together in bringing their father to his eternal resting place. The God of Abraham as the God of love, compassion, and peace is the antithesis of Satan, who instructs violence against all those who do not accept his cruel prescription for world domination.
Now that the Jewish people have returned to their homeland and to empirical history and now that Christians again recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish covenant, Jews and Christians must march together to bring the faith of morality and peace to a desperate but thirsting world. We dare not rest until we succeed and see “justice roll like the waters, and compassionate righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24). This is our united mission, far more important than the legitimate and the to-be-respected differences that divide us. And if the moderate, religiously pluralistic Moslems join us, we will all not only survive as free people created the Divine Image. We will redeem ourselves and the entire world.
Full 43 page pdf version here.
OK- now what do we make of this? On first reading, I am not sure where to start and there is no need to state the obvious. Do we treat this as ideas, as an event, or as another new project of Rabbi Riskin?
I have had a day to reflect and here are some initial thoughts.
I find the ideas in the paper going beyond anything the community has even said in the past. This is actual thinking about the very issues of covenant and redemption that separate and now with Rabbi Riskin’s help unit us. Even Rabbi Yitz Greenberg who spoke of the limits of our knowledge of the truth, still did not engage in the reading of Christian thought. For Greenberg, Christian theology is just another way of teaching Jewish thought. Here we have a direct integration of Christian thought with the goal of closing the gap between the two faiths. Even Rabbi Elliott Dorff gets to interfaith through the Jewish commitment to Elu ve ELu pluralism. If we accept internal Jewish pluralism, then we should accept the pluralism between religions. Here we have a commitment to knowing about Christianity and then thinking about actual parallel ideas.
Rabbi Riskin combines two lines of thought that are not usually combined. The first is finding Jesus’ universal message in Deuteronomy. Riskin’s version seems to have origins somewhere in a student of Walter Bruggerman. It is about an actual belief in a God given universal covenant as presented in the words of scripture..It affirms revelation of the Bible and the special role of covenantal history. This line of thought as applied to Mt Gerizim and Mt Eval is original and works well for both Protestant and Catholic thought. The second line of thought in Riskin is the pluralism of John Hick in which all religions are human responses to the quest for the absolute. This requires nothing more than a theism that can be considered as a ground of reality. The two lines of thought do not compliment each other.
As an event, this is a major rejection of Orthodox ban on theological dialogue. The mission of the organization flies directly in the face of the Orthodox approach because it speaks directly of seeking theological commonality. It is important because of who Rabbi Riskin is and because he has now raised funds for a center to engage in direct theological dialogue. It seems he has taken the Baltimore based Dabru Emet project into Ohr Torah Institutes; he certainly has invited into his project one of the main drafters of Dabru Emet.
Finally, we have the problem that he can deny any of it a week later. This past summer he backtracked on his statements about “my brother Jesus.” Since the paper was ghostwritten, as are all his recent works, the source of the ideas and the ghostwriter are not hidden well. Two years ago, he issued two op-eds within a few months of each other that sharply contradicted each other because they were written by two different people. The bigger issue is that Rabbi Riskin always needs to be in the right place at the right time. Since he does not have a prior major commitment to interfaith nor does he know the players in the field or the literature, will this be able to have any effect or even merit a backlash?
I just wrote four paragraphs. I can almost hear Prof Jon Levenson finishing his twenty page response to the this talk and this event.
Rabbi Riskin sometimes shows a desire to solve all of Judaism’s problems with a speech, but then he has no follow up. He published a book to solve the Agunah problem through Rabbinical court nullification of the marriage. Yet, he did not fight for it nor teach it in his institutions or fight against the rabbis who did not allow it to take root. I have the same sense here, he thinks that a talk alone that will boldly break new ground and undo Rav Soloveitchik’s prohibition on interfaith dialogue. However, no one will remember Rabbi Riskin for his writings; he is a man of action. The Northeast does not need another academic dialogue between those raised in the Conservative movement and a liberal seminary. Riskin should have used his clout to start dialogue with the Evangelical seminaries. There are almost 30 centers of Jewish-Catholic Reconciliation, while there are no Evangelical equivalents. He wants to change America, then let him go where other have not gone. I want to see him create a center in the heart of Baptist Evangelical country. I will also be able to take this more seriously if he walks into his Ohr torah Stone Institutes -Yeshivat HaMivtar, Yeshivat Torat Shraga, and his rabbinical training program- and puts this on the curriculum and makes interfaith part of their ideology.
For a nice blog post on Riskin’s moral bad luck, despite wanting to be among the good guys, see Magnes Zonist here.
This raises a thought for me. Having started into Benedict’s book on J.C., which begins with a brief explanation of the Catholic Church’s mid-20th Century integration of critical scholarship on the seminal documents of Christianity in particular – Biblical faiths in general. Commitments from such divergent vantage points as much Orthodox Jewry, including R. Riskin, and lhvdl Catholicism – sort of militates to me why evangelical Protestant Christianities, having Sola Scriptura commitments (lacking “NT she b’al peh”), are about the only ones who can be engaged in this “wisdom traditions” way; when text is ALL one holds to be sacred, many of them hold to textual inerrancy, anachronistic, a-historical views of the early periods of the community/ies they claim to be in continuity from, etc, and create scholarship with disregarding or selectively integrating general, ‘secular’ or inclusive scholarship; and of course the same sort of criticism could be applied to most mainstream Orthodox Jews. Lacking a “mesorah”/Holy Tradition (Orth.Christian term to me, but applies to both CC/OC), evangelicals can more easily be sold on one (one they’re “grafted to” to quote NT), by R. Riskin, since some forms of Noachide laws are alluded to in various texts of NT; but again, in absence of mesorah and presence of critical scholarship, mainstream scholarship can maintain that NEITHER the narratives of Rabbinic Judaism, who ‘authored’ the notion of Noachide Laws – nor the Made in America protestant “early Church” Christianity – can be taken seriously without the salt grains of scholarship. I expect from this institution that selective scholarship on the early Church will be applied by Jews (Israel Knohl?), and certain liberal Christian scholars to accommodate Evangelicals to selected Rabbinic Jewish ideas, but Judaism will not be similarly assessed, and at least in this way, it will thus not be a mutual exchange in theology or scholarship. But I’ve done no such dialogues myself where R. Brill has so I’m just…talking.
A response to Rabbi Riskin and Christian dialog.
I am new to this blog, but I would like to share my experience with Evangelical Christians, specifically those who are part of CUFI (Christians United for Israel).
After attending a local “night to honor Israel,” I sought ways to expand the interaction between the local Jewish community and the Christian supporters of Israel (both madinat Israel and am Israel). I have been holding Jewish group “conversations” with members of a local congregation for over a year. The conversations have ranged from Rosh Hashanah to History of Zionism to Jewish practices and beliefs regarding death and mourning. There is no interest on either side to convert the other, but a very strong interest on the part of the Christians to get to know “us” better because we acknowledge the same divinity.
I have found that Jews and Christians, particularly fundamentalist Christians, have very different approaches to Biblical study and analysis. For the Christian fundamentalist, the text, even in the King James’ version, is the absolute word of God. For the Jew, even the most Orthodox, there is always another interpretation, or insight, even if it is deemed to be wrong or even heretical. It does exist.
Many of my Jewish friends, both Orthodox and Reform, fear the Evangelical’s end game of the End of Days. I think they are wrong. I truly believe, based on my experiences that the philosemetic Christians really believe that God really meant what is stated in Genesis 12:3 and they don’t want to be cursed by our mutual God.
Zusel ben Shlomo
Caveat: I am not a rabbi or religious scholar. I speak with no authority other than my own experiences and lerning. I am affiliated with a Modern Orthodox congregation, I hold to the dictum, klal Israel chaverim.
Shalom R Zusel,
I have not had the pleasure of attending a night to honor Israel, but I have been in countless similar events here in Israel, and my feelings are identical to what you stated here
I truly believe, based on my experiences that the philosemetic Christians really believe that God really meant what is stated in Genesis 12:3 and they don’t want to be cursed by our mutual God.
I think R. Riskin has something different in mind than the long-standing “interreligious dialogue” – the materials he presents for a missionizing Judaism indicate that (he also does so rather selectively; leaving out that Gentiles who do not accept Sheva Mitzvot should be executed [Hilkhot Melakhim 8,10]). To approach non-Jews on Noachide terms is to not approach them on THEIR terms. Elsewhere in presenting ‘missionary judaism’ views, I think he stops short of saying Noachide laws are only 7 stepping-stones to being Jews; non-Jews now to be understood not on their various terms, but as “not-yet-Jews”?… Someone who is not aware of other ‘non-proseltyzing’ Jewish views could read this as a hope and mission that the world only be comprised of one people – which given the depth and breadth of halakha – entails the destruction of the worlds peopleS as themselves. I am not a historian of the Catholic Church, but I do not think even Catholic Christianity, with the longest (and renounced), history of coercive conversion, conceived of so utterly eliminating the worlds nations AS nations.
About readings of Bible, I had meant really only regarding those doctrines I mentioned, not all of the parshanut (which definitely do not all consider each other to be kosher, even if reigning Orthodoxy does so now), versus evangelical Bible study; and I do think evangelicals/fundamentalists have the idea that other protestants may have other interpretations OF the ‘word of God’ – and consider that those readings are wrong. That’s part of how they have a million denominations within streams.
My first impression of Rabbi Riskin’s paper was that he’s been reading Alan Brill’s most recent book and some of Eugene Korn’s work, and took them seriously. He’s applying a Jewish theology of other religions to the task of creating a common ground with Christianity.
I had some reservations about some of his points.
A covenant requires two participants. In what he calls the third covenant, the human side doesn’t have a representative from the gentile nations; only the Jews are there. So I don’t see how the gentiles can end up as one of the parties to the covenant as he states on page 19.
If the covenant is for the Jews to witness God’s word to the non-Jewish world, he’s not presenting anything new, other than asking Jews to change their focus from an inward one to more of an outward one. We are supposed to be a “kingdom of priests”, as Rabbi Riskin points out. Priests serve in the name of God and teach. Who should we Jews teach — ourselves? No — the mandate is already clear for us to teach non-Jews.
Rabbi Riskin makes what I feel is a common error regarding our current relationship with the Christians. He makes it seem as if the Christian world (in the form of “leading theologians from most churches”) really accepts the possibility that Judaism is salvific for the Jews. It doesn’t. This issue is one that’s controversial and open for discussion within the various churches.
The Roman Catholic church is publicly split on the matter, with the liberal US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Central Committee of German Catholics and certain cardinals (including the Pope’s principal adviser on Jewish-Catholic relations, Walter Kasper) most publicly accepting that Judaism does offer a second path outside the Church for salvation, while more conservative elements (including the Papal household’s preacher Raniero Cantalamessa and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn) deny and reject that assertion. Support for the idea is not reflected in the Catechism — salvation is still only through the Church.
Roman Catholics comprise only about half of the world’s Christians. In the US Baptist and other Protestant churches, I can’ t imagine how the concept of a dual path to salvation could ever take root.
We probably won’t see this resolved any time soon, so perhaps Rabbi Riskin is remiss for writing as if it were a fait accompli.
You can read about the various positions within the Catholic Church here:
Finally, I enjoyed how Rabbi Riskin turned the tables on the Christians with his three-step program. We’ve heard often about the Christian expectation that in the end of days Jews will convert to Christianity. In the Jewish liturgy we have mention that all nations will come to worship God in Jerusalem, but I think that this is first time a leader of the modern Jewish community has publicly speculated that perhaps the Christians will convert to Judaism!
I highly doubt he read any of my book. And I am not into joint covenants or Hick’s pluralism. But your guess about the other source he read was correct, it was one of the two main voices in the article.
Christoph Cardinal Schönborn’s position is more subtle. There is no two covenant theory or salvation by Hebrew Bible alone. He sees the Jewish covenant fulfilled in the new covenant. As he writes, there is mission but no proselytism. He avoids the word salvation and does see Judaism as not another relgion but as part of internal Christian ecumenicism, a part that is not fulfilled.
“The fact that the Church has apologised for the diverse forms of compulsion which they have had to suffer throughout the Christian era implies that Christians have now irrevocably renounced all forms of proselytism. This does not mean that Christians for their part have abandoned the mandate to proclaim the Gospel “to the Jews first”
There remains a hole that allows the spirit of the new covenant to already be at work on people who heard the first covenant. Schönborn has an essay on Mesekhet Berakhot showing the work of the new covenant and its effects on the rabbinic concepts of berakhah and tefillah.
Where is Schonborn’s essay on Massekhet Berakhot available?
The Source of Life: Exploring the Mystery of the Eucharist
If there’s mission but no proselytizing I think that implies he considers the Jews to already be in the Church, but either operating in error or apostates.
Is that it?
And if so, care to say which view he holds?
The Holy See lists dialogue with Jews under ecumenicism with non-Catholic Christians and not as dialogue with non-Christian religions.
We have not had any clarifying statements in several years to further clarify the documents. Protestants are considered “heretics, apostates, and schismatics” but giving witness.
Thank you for chewing a bit on Hick’s pluralism in your book – I didn’t really notice its particular influences in ‘interfaith dialogue’ until then, now I see it all over, truly insidious – invidious. Accepting people for whom they’re not – in fact, for whom no one of faith actually is. I think R. Riskin is of a similar strain; Judaism actually “is” what it is, others are not REALLY what they are (or at least what they think they are) – so as with Hick’s default-liberal-ambiguous universalism being the only thing that REALLY “is” – ambiguous universalisms are only offerings to be acknowledged from particularist others at the table. Can Hick, R. Riskin or the Evangelicals really accept that none of them may be what they really are, and there are no temporal yardsticks? The Jewish *believing* Orthoprax academics can rely on “Torah” – the yardstick – “is not in Heaven”, it itself is literally even adjured here – so a maculate, BibCrit Torah and the evolving, historically-conditioned tradition that gave rise to it determines its reality here (at the same time liturgically/theologically saying it derives from Torah). Some fellow travelers with R. Riskin harbor these ideas, and believe others worth talking to in other religious must secretly agree with them – looking for others acknowledging the Church preceded the NT and authored it, while saying the NT gave rise to the Church – and the Church as an utterly-human institution – but if such cloistered intellectuals exist, they are probably at the same imaginary table as Hick’s those ‘whom no one of faith actually is’; open Conservative (in the Jewish sense) Universalists breaking bread with “on the down-low” quasi-particularist universalists. But I have no idea what R. Riskin thinks the Noachide laws are supposed to be; literally given from Adam and Noach, etc, a post-exilic Rabbinic formulation with no actual historical sanction from On High? – what? If he’s going to consider intellectually coercing NJs to regard them AS Noachide laws (not de facto, as R. Steinsaltz and others propose), we really should know how, and how seriously, he takes them. Is he w/Rambam and most Charedi poskim about their historicity or R. David Novak and historical critical scholarship?
NJs to regard them AS Noachide laws (not de facto, as R. Steinsaltz and others propose), we really should know how, and how seriously, he takes them. Is he w/Rambam and most Charedi poskim about their historicity or R. David Novak and historical critical scholarship?
I would assume that he would claim to be the former but actually be closer to the latter (or de facto like Steinsaltz). You can email him or his handlers and ask. I think he would treat his new homily about the three covenant as Torah true, which he combines with Hirschman’s book on universalism, Kellner on Maimonides, and Korn on the halakhic authorities.
Fewer words coming and going is my preference. As a Catholic Christian I have found Torah study to be a jaw dropping experience into understanding the spiritual teachings of Christ. My teacher is a rabbinical student from Manhattan. Once a month he comes to my church and unpackages all the exquisite nuances contained in the Hebrew words of the Torah with a little Kabbalah tossed in. While our teacher has no inkling of the revelatory impact of his teachings, our little band of Christians are often stunned as his teaching sends wave after wave of insight flooding into our minds and hearts. Our teacher has absolutely no knowledge of the New Testament, which is as it must be for the magnificent Jew that he is, but what he reveals to us about Torah is spiritual treasure for us Christians. I cannot get enough of his kind of teaching of the Torah’s spiritual meaning.
There can be only love between Christian and Jew when they speak to each other with the language of the spirit and the heart. It would be nice if we could leave the end times conversion matter up to Hashem and not try to get ahead of the process. Letting Hashem convert us individually is enough for now.
Like it or not, despite R Riskin’s claims that he views RYBS as his rebbe, the above post confirms that he does not consider himself bound by Confrontation as a guide to interfaith ecumenical theological dialogue.