Rabbi Riskin Responds to His Rabbinic Critics

OK- We are not out of the woods yet. The discussion is not over. Rabbi Riskin has just written a 14 page broad response to his Rabbinic critics, which was just posted today. He also has an op-ed in the newspaper.

Riskin completely revises Rav Soloveitchik by saying that he did not oppose dialogue. The essay refers to and relies heavily on much of Eugene Korn’s writings and takes them further, almost Korn vs Rav Schechter. Riskin gives an opening narrative of how he encountered Christians learning about Judaism. He argues that he is not soft on missionaries as shown by his reaction to missionaries in Efrat in the 1980’s. He turns his story to his realization in the second intifada that the only tourists to Israel were Christians with a deep connection to Israel. Riskin argues that in a hostile world of Arabs and the hostile EU, we should pragmatically embrace the Christian Zionists.

Riskin asked Pastor Hagee: Do you want to convert us? Hagee said no! So Riskin takes that as good enough to develop a relation.

Are We Permitted to Teach Torah to Christians? He answers that we can teach then the Noahide laws and that knowledge and love of God, must naturally include theology.

He offers an unsupported novel reading of Rav Soloveitchik, in which he argues that Rav Soloveitchik only banned theological debates but not friendly discussion. If the Rav wanted to give a pesak then he would have written a halakhic pesak instead of a theological essay.

Riskin really slips on the idea of the double confrontation. Rav Soloveitchik did indeed argue for a double confrontation, a universal social confrontation and a particular Jewish confrontation from the Patriarchs. But Riskin defines the particular covenant of Abraham as universalism and reaching out to all people. If some err in one direction by treating Rav Solovietchik as only one confrontation of particularism without the universal confrontation, Riskin in contrast errs in the other direction by treating the particular covenant of the patriarchs (brit avot) as Hagee’s universalism of Abraham. Our particularism is really a universalism. There are many valid universalists in the Jewish tradition such as Shadal, Mendel Hirsch (son of Rabbi S. R. Hirsch), and Seforno, who is cited in numerous places in the essay. But Seforno and Rav Soloveitchik are not in agreement. Rabbi Reines, the founder of Religious Zionism, was a proponent of Seforno’s universalism but that is another path.

Riskin reads the word “confrontation” as if it meant engagement. However, the original 1950’s dichotomy was between dialogue, integration, and embracing as terms of closeness, while confrontation means one is confronting a challenge. For Riskin, Rav Soloveitchik would have allowed dialogue is there is no mission, no debate of articles of faith, and theological compromise. He feels that in his dialogue with Evangelicals fulfills all three criteria.

Riskin concludes with a novel twist of Rabbi S R Hirsch interpretation of “consider the years of many generations” as a need to be sensitive to the changes in history and the Torah should respond to the changes. (Somewhat the opposite of the original.)

The essay concludes “Rav Soloveitchik wants us to communicate what we believe in the secret chambers of our hearts, the differences in our religious commitments. However, as shown in my transcriptions of Rav Soloveitchik lectures, he thought the self could not communicate the depths of the heart, not to parents-children, not to husband-wife, not to friends or students, and certainly not to a different faith commitment.

Is Christian-Jewish Theological Dialogue Permitted? A Postscript to Rav Joseph B. Solovetichik’s article, “Confrontation”

My contention is that Rav Soloveitchik fundamentally permits theological dialogue with Christians, albeit under certain carefully-crafted guidelines, and that, under those guidelines, such dialogue is essential and critical to defending the interests of the Jewish people today.

Missionaries in Efrat: Strong Measures must be taken to Prevent Fraudulent Attempts to Convert Jews to Christianity

In the late 1980’s, the Jewish Agency arranged for 72 families from the Former Soviet Union to come and make their homes in Efrat. Some Messianic Christians missionaries heard about our new arrivals and thought that these people would be easy prey. The missionaries placed copies of the Tanach – the 24 books of the Bible – together with the New Testament in Hebrew and Russian in every mailbox in Efrat; the “Jewish” and Christian Testaments were bound together in one bind, so that the unsuspecting Russian Jews would think they were a single sacred text, with the Gospel as part of the Jewish Bible. The text was published in Hebrew on one side, Russian on the other.

As soon as I heard what had happened, I sent a letter to all the residents of Efrat, instructing them to publicly burn the entire Bible together with the Gospels. This was because the Talmud teaches that a Sefer Torah, (Bible Scroll) which was written by a Jewish heretic or someone who is attempting to cause a Jew to renounce his religion (and anyone who accepts Jesus as a Divinity and/or the Messiah has ipso facto renounced his privileges as a Jew) has to be burned (See Rambam Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 6:8).

Israel Faces Fanatic Moslem Foes and Christian Religious Friends
More and more Christians kept coming to Efrat, expressing love and support for the Jewish State of Israel emphasizing our common heritage of the 24 Books of the Bible and seeking ways to help us socially and politically. I began to understand how crucial their newfound friendship was, given an international climate in which not only the Arab bloc, but also the European Union, the former CIS, more and more South American countries and indeed the United Nations as the “peacekeeping” force in the world, were questioning our legitimacy as a nation.

(For much of what is to follow in this regard, I am deeply indebted to my colleague and partner Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn, and his essay “The Man of Faith and Religious Dialogue: Reviewing ‘Confrontation’ After Forty Years,” Modern Judaism, Volume 25, Issue 3).

In Dr. Korn’s words, [Pope Benedict] is an “eschatological supersessionalist.” (I cannot find fault with this position, since I believe that Maimonides teaches in his Laws of Kings 12,1 that in the eschaton, “all of humanity will return to the true religion” – that is, to Judaism, in accordance with the statement of R. Shimon ben Elazar in the Babylonian Talmud (Berachot 57b) and the words of the prophet Zephaniah (3:9). As long as we can respect each other in the fullness of our respective faith commitments without feeling beholden to convert the other, I can well appreciate the faith of each that he has the more perfect revelation, as will be proven by who converts to whom in the eschaton. This is also the position of R. Soloveitchik, as I later explain in this paper.

Nevertheless, since I was just at the cusp of announcing the opening of our Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, I had to ask my question: “Tell me the truth, Pastor Hagee, do you love us because you want to convert us? Do you love us to death?” He flashed one of his signature smiles, amused by the hutzpah, or naivete of my question. “No, Rabbi, I don’t love you because I want to convert you; but neither do I love you purely out of altruistic consideration. I love you because of Genesis 12:3, where the Bible records that ‘God said to Abraham, ‘I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you I shall curse.’ Rabbi, I want to be blessed, not cursed!”
Pastor Hagee has a ministry which is measured in millions; he is undoubtedly the most successful pastor in our generation. Rabbi Scheinberg reported to me that during the 49 years he has lived in San Antonio, Pastor Hagee had not tried to convert even one Jew to Christianity. Given the overwhelming charisma of Pastor Hagee, this can only be because he truly does not believe that Jews must be converted to Christianity.

Are We Permitted – or Perhaps Even Mandated – to Teach Torah to Christians?
Large numbers of Christians continued to come to our Center; they were, however, less interested in discussing politics or even in Israel’s right to a Jewish State (which they took as an axiom, since the Land of Israel was promised – even guaranteed – to the Jewish people by the Creator of the heavens and earth Himself), and more interested in learning Torah: the Written Law, chiefly the Pentateuch (five books of Moses) in accordance with traditional Jewish commentaries, and the Oral Law, the Talmudic Pharisaic Tradition which had been studied by Jesus. Hence, I had to face a fundamental question: Are Jews permitted to teach Torah to Christians?

From these sources it should be indubitably clear that if we are to teach the Christians the commandments (at least the commandments of Noahide morality, perhaps all the commandments of compassionate righteousness and moral justice) as well as a deeper understanding of God (remember, the Noahide laws do not include faith in God, and Maimonides derives outreach to the Gentiles from the command to “know and love God”), how can we not be speaking to the Christians in theological terms? After all, when one teaches, one must always listen to one’s students, and learn from their responses. Theology means the study of God. Making God known and beloved to the Gentile world is all about theological dialogue!

Rav Soloveitchik’s “Confrontation”
Contrary to what many Orthodox rabbis have maintained, “Confrontation” is not to be seen as a cut and dried halakhic responsum permitting Jewish-Christian dialogue on “universal problems,” which are “economic, social, scientific and ethical,” but categorically forbidding dialogue in areas of “faith, religious law, doctrine and ritual” (Rabbinical Council of America, Mid-Winter Conference, February, 1966). Were that the case, Rabbi Soloveitchik would have written just such a precise halakhic responsum setting down these guidelines replete with Talmudic citations and halakhic precedents, rather than the highly nuanced, theologically rich, and dialectically infused “Confrontation.” Moreover, the very RCA statement of 1966 forbidding discussions of “faith and religious law” concludes (italics are mine – SR), “To repeat, we are ready to discuss universal religious problems. We will resist any attempt to debate our private, individual faith commitment.”

Apparently, how to define “religious” issues is neither simple nor clear-cut. In fact, Rav Soloveitchik defined his philosophical school of thought as that of an “Halakhic Existentialist” – committed to the proposition that halakha deals with the most fundamental existential problems of humanity! Rav Soloveitchik himself often cited in his writings Christian theologians such as Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth and Rudolf Otto (See, for example, the beginnings of “Halakhic Man”) and the first reading that he gave of his “Lonely Man of Faith” essay prior to its publication took place at an Inter-faith Seminar (sic) at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass. (See Korn, “The Man of Faith and Religious Dialogue,” Note 8).

Perhaps, what the RCA was really saying in its 1966 statement was that “we resist any attempt to debate our private faith commitment,” whereas “discussion (or dialogue) of universal religious problems” is perfectly permissible. Perhaps, much more in line with the Rav’s thought is the statement adopted by the RCA [and probably written by R. Soloveitchik himself] at its Mid-Winter Conference in Feb ’64, which is appended to the “Confrontation” article in Tradition ’64 and calls for a “harmonious relationship among all faiths” in order to combat the “threat of secularism and materialism and the modern atheistic negation of religion and religious values.” Combating the negation of religion requires, at the very least, basic theological discourse defining “religious” values.

Indeed, it is the covenantal confrontation which defines and directs our national kerygma (mission) towards the universal and the universe: “Through you shall be blessed all the families of the earth,” was God’s charge to Abraham. “But only in this (not in wisdom or strength or wealth) shall be praised the one who is to be praised: be intelligent, and come to know (understand) Me, that I am the Lord who does (acts) of lovingkindness, moral justice and compassionate righteousness on earth (the whole of the earth), for in these do I delight, says God,” was Jeremiah’s message to the Israelites, as well as the citation with which Maimonides concludes his final magnum opus, “The Guide to the Perplexed.”

In other words, Rav Soloveitchik is not against religious dialogue with Christians; that is why this essay is entitled “Confrontation,” and not “Non-Confrontation.” The only thing he insists upon, however, is that the confrontation be in the spirit of religious equality, of mutual respect for the individual faith commitments of each which are not subject to logical debate, or traded compromises in matters of our unique covenantal faith values and rituals.

These are the three things that Rav Soloveitchik was against and these are, likewise, my red lines in dialogue with Christians:

We will never dialogue with Christians if they represent missionary movements, if their avowed or surreptitious purpose is to convert Jews.

We will never debate unique Jewish ritual or faith issues with Christians. We will attempt to share with them unique Jewish points of theology and ritual practice if they wish to better understand them, but we and they must realize that each faith community has religious expressions which transcend rational logical discourse and which are not subject to debate.

We will never enter into dialogue with Christians in which we are expected to compromise our religious values or doctrines in order to be more in consonance with Christianity.

In addition to universal social human concerns, Rav Soloveitchik wants us to communicate what we believe in the secret chambers of our hearts, the differences in our religious commitments. He opposes a debate on these unique issues with the other faith community, but not our teaching of these issues to the other faith community.

This excerpt was less than two pages. Read the rest of the fourteen pages –here.

3 responses to “Rabbi Riskin Responds to His Rabbinic Critics

  1. The 14 page article is nothing new. The same article appeared in the Hebrew weekly Makor Rishon last spring. Rabbi Sholom Gold criticized the article in a letter the editor and Rabbi Riskin responded. A comprehensive critique of Rabbi Riskin’s article is being prepared by Jewishisrael.com in both Hebrew and English.

  2. Rabbi Riskin’s article in Makor Rishon can be read at

    Rabbi Gold’s letter to the editor in response can be read at
    The letter to the editor in English can be read at
    Rabbi Riskin response to Rabbi Gold can be read at
    In the coming days Rabbi Gold and Jewishisrael.com will be releasing a lengthy report in response

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