Here is the first of a series of responses to Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s Biblical centered Judaism that converges with Christian Zionists. Read the original interview first.
Rabbi Arie Folger is the Chief Rabbi of Vienna since 2016, prior to that he was rabbi of the Israelitische Gemeinde Basel in Switzerland since the beginning of 2003 and various other congregations including Munich and Frankfort. Rabbi Folger’s semicha is from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He also earned an MBA at New York University. Folger is heavily involved in Jewish-Christian interfaith work and could be considered Orthodoxy’s point man on the topic. My introduction will give some of his prior statements in order to contextualize his response to Rabbi Wolicki.
Between Rome and Jerusalem
Folger was a major force in the drafting and editing on the 2017 Orthodoxy response to Nostrae Aetate Between Jerusalem and Rome Reflections on 50 Years of Nostra Aetate, a document that has not gotten enough publicity in the Orthodoxy community. Folger was appointed by the Standing Committee of the Conference of European Rabbis to chair the committee and draft the document, with significant input from committee members. From the inception, the goal was to include also the RCA and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. It is the first such documents signed by major Orthodox rabbinic organizations. (Here is the document and here is his statement on how the document came to about). I was hoping to blog about it but never got to it.
The document has a strong Hirschian universalism of a single human family but God chose the Jews to be alight unto the nations. At the same time, it works to stay with the guidelines of Rav Soloveitchik. According to Rabbi Folger, the document was directly inspired by Sforno and Rav Menachem Leibtag on “You shall be a kingdom of priests” as well as Rav Hirsch’s view on what the original Divine plan for humanity
The most important paragraph of the entire document is in the middle. When the document acknowledges that after fifty years, they are willing to acknowledge that it was not a stealth act of mission, rather a sincere change in the Church. Now they are our friends whom we share tolerance, respect, and solidarity.
They declare a new fraternal relationship with Catholics despite theological differences. “Therefore We Declare despite the irreconcilable theological differences, we Jews view Catholics as our partners, close allies, friends and brothers in our mutual quest for a better world blessed with peace, social justice and security.”
The Hirschian sense that Jews are a light unto the nations which does not mean that all good is done or taught by Jews, rather that Jews have to foster humanity’s appreciation and their own performance of “holiness, morality, and piety.” Meaning that there can be holiness and piety among the Catholics and we should appreciate it.
The document at three points affirms the inclusivism of the medieval thinkers, that we share common beliefs Creation, Exodus, and the Bible and in another place in this short document it says we share the Bible and the idea of an ultimate redemption. “We acknowledge that this fraternity cannot sweep away our doctrinal differences; it does, rather, reinforce genuine mutual positive dispositions towards fundamental values that we share, including but not limited to reverence for the Hebrew Bible.”
The next paragraph has a different language and instead of using the concept of “values we share” uses the word “common beliefs in the divine origin of the Torah.” “Despite profound theological differences, Catholics and Jews share common beliefs in the Divine origin of the Torah and in the idea of an ultimate redemption, and now, also, in the affirmation that religions must use moral behavior and religious education — not war, coercion, or social pressure — to influence and inspire.”
However, the document reaffirms doctrinal differences that Rabbi Wolicki elides. Folger’s document on behalf of Orthodoxy writes: The theological differences between Judaism and Christianity are profound. The core beliefs of Christianity that center on the person of “Jesus as the Messiah “and the embodiment of the “second person of a triune God” create an irreconcilable separation from Judaism.
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI article in Communio
This past summer July 2018, Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI article in Communio that created ambiguities. Rabbi Folger became the Jewish community’s voice in response. Folger wrote an article entitles Danger for the dialogue? [Published in Jüdische Allgemeine, July 19, 2018.] The part needed for this interview is when the Emeritus Pope wrote that: “Insofar as Jews and Christians interpret the Torah differently and live their laws differently, this is due to other readings and theologies, but both are committed to the text.” Meaning that we share the Bible but interpret it differently, as if both are valid options. A progressive view for a head of the Catholic Church.
However, Folger responded: “This reinterpretation is neither acceptable nor meaningful to Jews nor does it correspond to Halacha. We are two different, independent faith communities. And yet we profess our brotherhood together…An important principle of interreligious dialogue is that we recognize each other’s autonomy and respect our respective boundaries.” This paragraph is the crux of the difference between Rabbis Wolicki and Folger.
And he reiterated that: “even in the sentences from the Vatican that are the most favorable to Jews, there is always talk of the covenant of Abraham and never of the covenant of Moses or of the covenant on Sinai. “
Emeritus Pope Benedict responded to Rabbi Folger about the need to talk theology not for the purpose of convincing one another but for understanding. He wants Christians to share christological interpretations of the Bible not because he hopes we will accept them, but because he hopes we will understand them. Benedict states that we will not agree with each other until the end of history. That is a major admission from a conservative Catholic theologian. As difficult as it is for him to commit not to missionize Jews, he found the words to do exactly that.
Rabbi Folger responded: “We share common values, and both respect the Hebrew Bible. Even if we interpret several passages differently, we have a common foundation here.”
But acknowledge the importance of a dialogue of understanding between the faiths.
Although, as a student of several of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s students, I have much greater affinity for your third point (to engage the moral sensitivities of society and to better protect religious people and their religious freedom) than for theological dialogue, which Rav Soloveitchik rejected, I find your invitation to pursue a more modest goal potentially more appealing, since you do not advocate a dialogue in which we try to convince each other but a dialogue to understand each other
(Rabbi Folger and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn)
Let’s Continue to Respect (and Recognize) Difference
I thank Rabbi Prof. Brill for letting me respond to a recent interview he conducted with Rabbi Wolicki, in which the latter professes a far greater openness towards interfaith prayer and towards Christians than Orthodoxy is comfortable with. Indeed, while I consider some of his ideas daring and even worthwhile, I must object to other ideas of his. (As a little aside I should add that I have never met Rabbi Wolicki, nor do I know his organization. I am engaging the issues purely on the intellectual merit as they were stated in the interview published on the blog.)
Rabbi Wolicki disagrees with the Orthodox aversion to interfaith prayers. Wolicki feels that we should revise our aversion to interfaith prayer. He is particularly keen to hold prayer assemblies with Christian and chant psalms together. To buttress this approach, he cites Maimonides that when the Beit haMikdash (the Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem) stood, we were bidden to accept sacrifices not just from Jews, but from all people, including idolaters, along with citing a decision by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein allowing participation in neutral prayer in public school as long as the prayers were not camouflaged Christian texts.
I beg to differ. Wolicki conflates two different issues. When the Rambam writes about gentiles, even idol worshippers making offerings, he is not talking about an interfaith service. Even Rav Moshe, who discusses common neutral prayer in a setting in which participation is unavoidable, is not discussing an interfaith service. What people object to in an interfaith service, is that representatives of various faiths lead prayers, either solo or a public group. Interfaith prayer is generally less particularistic than what each faith would do on its own, a stripped down of forms particular to any specific faith. It is either still deeply connected to the different faith communities involved, or it is so bland as to no longer be recognizable as prayer.”
Let me restate that in more practical terms. I am quite involved in interfaith action and I oppose interfaith prayer. However, ever since becoming a senior rabbi sixteen years ago, I have consistently participated in prayer with gentiles, simply because gentiles also visit synagogues and some of them join with us in prayer. Sometimes clergy of other faiths, including but not limited to Catholic and Evangelical clergy, have visited synagogues where I have served and they have joined in to prayers as well. (My policy as to whether they may do so only in neutral garb or also in clerical attire differs based on event and based on what synagogue we are talking about, though mostly they attended in neutral clothing).
But all those cases were about gentiles joining in in Jewish prayer not a joint service. That is precisely what the Rambam writes about when discussing the offerings of gentiles. Gentiles may offer sacrifices in the Temple regardless of whether they are already monotheists or are idol worshippers, but when they bring such sacrifices, they do so on the halakhic terms of the Jewish Temple service, and though for close to two thousand years the Temple lays in ruins, when they join in with Jewish prayer, at least outwardly they do so according to halakhic decorum.
The kind of interfaith prayer we oppose, however, is one which each group offers its own prayers, or the leaders of each confession acts in turn as prayer leader, or we simply each demonstrate what prayer in our respective faiths looks like. Let’s face it, can you imagine the Rambam supporting a Hindu priest to act as the Kohen in our Beit haMikdash? How about a fully robed Cardinal as chazan for Mussaf? No? Didn’t think so, either. The Cardinals I know and with whom I have broken bread and shared a podium aren’t running to invite me to run the mass, either, nor to recite the Kedusha of Mussaf in church.
Wolicki will surely reply that the only kind of interfaith prayer he suggests accepting is one where the texts are shared such as Psalms and the setting neutral. Still, he’s having the gentiles as full participants, surely with leadership roles. That is patently not what the Rambam had in mind.
But I can offer him an alternative. Let him invite the gentiles to shul to silently join in with the public in the silent Jewish recitation of Pesukei deZimra. And I suggest that we open this experience to all gentiles, not just to Christians. (I share with him the expectation that Christians will be more likely to want to take up this offer, for some of the reasons he stated, namely that we share a holy text – even when we disagree how to read it – and we share some foundational values based on that shared text).
Rabbi Wolicki thinks that Christian Zionists’ support for Israel isn’t conditioned on their desire to usher about the Second Coming, nor is it in his opinion conditioned upon a desire to bring about the conditions that will make masses of Jews accept Jesus as savior, but it is rather what we may term in a good way a naive appreciation for the Hebrew Bible, which both Christians and Jews see as the embodiment of the Word of G-d. According to Wolicki, it is their love of Scripture and their conviction that the Bible is true and relevant that makes them support Israel and Jews, and they do so unconditionally, with no ulterior motives.
To that I may say that I have met a lot of fine Christians of various denominations who fill the above description of Christian Zionists, who simply celebrate the fulfillment of biblical prophecies, and have no afterthoughts. But I also met numerous other Christians who see this as a sign that they must step up their missionary activity. Even mainline churches that openly disavow mission to Jews still support church organizations that either directly or indirectly missionize Jews. The same Protestant and Evangelical groups that profess an undifferentiated love of Jews and Israel also fund Messianic Jews & Jews for Jesus either directly or (usually) a little less directly.
There is a reason that in the statement Between Jerusalem and Rome, we played up the statement of the Catholic Church’s Papal Committee on Religious Relations with the Jews disavowing missionizing Jews, because (a) it is a major achievement in our relationship with the Catholic Church, and (b) because we want other Christians to listen and understand what a truly respectful relationship entails.
Thus we wrote:
In its recent reflections on Nostra Aetate, “The Gifts and Calling of God are Irrevocable,” the Pontifical Commission … proclaimed that “the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews.” Though the Catholic Church has not disavowed witnessing to Jews, we understand that it has nonetheless shown understanding and sensitivity towards deeply held Jewish sensibilities, and distanced itself from active mission to Jews.
We ordinarily refrain from expressing expectations regarding other faith communities’ doctrines. However, certain kinds of doctrines cause real suffering; those Christian doctrines, rituals and teachings that express negative attitudes toward Jews and Judaism do inspire and nurture anti-Semitism. Therefore, to extend the amicable relations and common causes cultivated between Catholics and Jews as a result of Nostra Aetate, we call upon all Christian denominations that have not yet done so to follow the example of the Catholic Church and excise anti-Semitism from their liturgy and doctrines, to end the active mission to Jews, and to work towards a better world hand-in-hand with us, the Jewish people.
And frankly, though achieving support for Israel is important, I am not willing to do that at the cost of endangering Jews’ spiritual well-being. Giving missionaries more opportunities to prey on Jews, or just emboldening them by making them feel they are conquering more ground, is simply out of the question. Or as I put it sometimes, we have excellent relationships with some faith groups, but there are also numerous faith groups out there who either don’t like us, or love us too much.
On the other hand, probably like Wollicki, I am not bothered by Christians not adopting a dual theology. I do not engage in interfaith work to create a single warm and fuzzy common religion, but rather insist on respecting our respective differences. Some differences cannot be bridged. I refer you to the Document Between Jerusalem and Rome for some key unbridgeable differences between Judaism and Christianity. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI listed a few others in his famous summer 2018 paper, Gnade und Berufung ohne Reue (Grace and Calling with no Regret).
We highlighted that:
The theological differences between Judaism and Christianity are profound. The core beliefs of Christianity that center on the person of “Jesus as the Messiah“ and the embodiment of the “second person of a triune God” create an irreconcilable separation from Judaism. The history of Jewish martyrdom in Christian Europe serves as tragic testimony to the devotion and tenacity with which Jews resisted beliefs incompatible with their ancient and eternal faith, which requires absolute fidelity to both the Written and Oral Torah. Despite those profound differences, some of Judaism’s highest authorities have asserted that Christians maintain a special status because they worship the Creator of Heaven and Earth Who liberated the people of Israel from Egyptian bondage and Who exercises providence over all creation.
The doctrinal differences are essential and cannot be debated or negotiated; their meaning and importance belong to the internal deliberations of the respective faith communities. Judaism, drawing its particularity from its received Tradition, going back to the days of its glorious prophets and particularly to the Revelation at Sinai, will forever remain loyal to its principles, laws and eternal teachings. Furthermore, our interfaith discussions are informed by the profound insights of such great Jewish thinkers as Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, and many others, who eloquently argued that the religious experience is a private one which can often only be truly understood within the framework of its own faith community.
Pope emeritus Benedict XVI highlighted what is often termed Fulfillment Theology, the claim that Jesus fulfilled certain precepts of the Torah in such a way that they should now be fulfilled in a christological manner. Thus, Christians see the sacrificial service of the Beit haMikdash as being metamorphosed by the Crucifixion and now applying to Jesus. Needless to say, we Jews have no use for such reinterpretations. Indeed, in his letter to me, Benedict / Ratzinger acknowledged that he won’t convince Judaism to accept such readings as legitimate, and only wants to share them so we can understand how Christians see themselves, but without expectation of Jews granting legitimacy to christological readings.
When faced with the reality that most Evangelicals still hew to Replacement Theology, Wolicki bemoans that “the world of Christian academia is a problem.” He believes that many Christians would be open to a different theology that is less antagonistic to Jews and Israel. Wolicki also points out that many Christians hold an intermediate position – alas one we still take issue with – that does not agree that Jews were somehow superseded, but yet find that in many individual aspects of the Law, Christological understandings have superseded the Jewish understandings. In Rabbi Wolicki’s opinion, meeting live Jews and hearing us explain our positions will humanize Jews in their eyes and open up the possibility that they move away from Replacement Theology and even that they minimize the impact and extent of their Fulfillment Theology.
Here I am with Wollicki. Rejecting Replacement Theology and promoting instead a Fulfillment Theology is exactly the kind of thinking Benedict XVI / Joseph Ratzinger proclaimed in his summer 2018 essay.
I responded to Benedict in a private communication that was eventually published by Communio in German, French and some other language editions (the latest I obtained was in Slovenian), I did not take issue with his fulfillment theology, because I understand how difficult it is for the church to justify theologically that Jews have their own eternal and unbroken covenant with G-d. Even as I obviously disagree with the christological interpretation, I understand that Christians need to find a way to make their new philosemitic attitude be justified in terms of ancient scriptures and to make theological sense.
I only took issue in my earlier article Gefahr für den Dialog? (A Danger for Dialogue?) in the Jüdische Allgemeine with Benedict / Ratzinger’s desire to share christological readings with Jews, a desire he moderated in his letter to me.
Even as Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope emeritus, staked out claims I cannot agree with, he formulated them that way so as to fight against the legitimacy of replacement theology. In turn, I respect certain interfaith boundaries that prevent me from getting too involved in lecturing Christians how to understand their own theology. The only exception I make is for the kind of replacement theology that has practical consequences of fostering antisemitism. Replacement Theology has birthed quite a lot of antisemitism throughout the ages, which expressed itself in violent ways, in deligitimization of Jews and Judaism (and now of Israel) and in missionizing Jews.
Hence, I am supportive of Wolicki’s reaching out to seminaries so they meet live Jews, get to talk to them and sensitizing them to the ravages of religiously motivated delegitimization of Jews and Judaism throughout the ages. Based on what Wollicki writes about his efforts at having Christians meet Jews, I have no issue with this aspect and even applaud the effort.
However, Wolicki puts in my opinion too much stock in the belief to Evangelicals that Scripture is more important than theology. To a particular segment of Evangelicals, that may be true, but other Evangelicals think very differently.
Rabbinic literature and Theology
When asked how he wants to read the Bible regarding the State of Israel, Wolicki not only sees in the modern state an affirmation of G-d’s eternal covenant with the Jewish People and particularly an affirmation of the covenant regarding the Holy Land, but rather as the definite onset of the Messianic Era. In order to be so sure and consider us so far along into the Messianic Era, Wolicki explicitly disregards the arguments from Jewish theology and Rabbinic Literature.
Rabbi Wollicki is clear in his wanting us to read Tanach without taking the writings of Rabbinic literature and Jewish thought into account. Protestants do that, but sola scriptura isn’t a particularly Jewish attitude. Our thought wasn’t suspended in a vacuum between the concluding canonization of Tanach and the establishment of the State of Israel. We instead have Mesorah, the tradition.
Rav Soloveitchik argues in his relevant homily “Two Banks of the River” in Chamesh Derashot (in English The Rav Speaks) that we constantly risk substituting new ideas for what has faithfully remained with us and nourished us and kept us existing as a community for thousands of years. But discarding the old for the new isn’t what we traditionally faithful Jews do. Instead, as Rav Soloveitchik writes, we build bridges between the two banks of the river, or try to.
Wollicki rejects the relevance and the appropriateness of engaging in theology, including the traditional categories of hashkafa, machshava, aggada etc. But Rav Soloveitchik is more important than ever.
On the role of miracles in our lives, Wolicki proclaims that “a miracle is a deviation from the laws of nature for God’s purposes. … What’s trickier is identifying those contemporary events that qualify. … The role of miracles is what we choose it to be.” Here, too, in general terms, I am with Wollicki. There are miracles and we are often blinding ourselves before their existence.
But this raises thorny theological issues such as, what do we expect a miracle to be like I don’t like the excessive emphasis on the supernatural quality of miracles. But I am basing myself on Rabbinic thought and Jewish theology.
On the contrary, the miracles performed by Moshe, Eliyahu and Elisha are unique, unlike other prophets. Maimonides states, it is not miracles that convinced our ancestors; prophecy did. Clearly miracles are not reasons to believe, but they are reasons to be thankful and can serve the purpose to breaking non-belief.
Wolicki considers atheism to be very similar to paganism, in that both consider us subservient to forces of nature and find discussions about morality and virtue irrelevant to this relationship with nature. I agree. Right and wrong are a product of ethical monotheism. G-d being the one and only power and expecting us humans to act in a certain manner is what made a universal morality possible. This is a Torah teaching, something we spread in the world. My teacher, Rabbi J. David Bleich, likes to emphasize that atheism possesses some of the very same problems are paganism, for both are kofer be’ikar.
Wolicki thinks Christians are our biblical partners with whom we are to rebuild the world in accordance with the biblical blueprint, even though they read the bible as modulated by the New Testament and end up reading Tanach often very differently than we do. I agree that we have a special relationship with Christians, but I cannot see how the extent to which Wolicki wants to take this special relationship makes any sense.
In my conversations with Catholic bishops, cardinals and theologians, I have found that they agreed with my analysis (actually David Berger’s), that for all their rejection of superssessionism and their profession of acceptance of Jews’ eternal covenant with G-d, there are limits to how far they go. They only ever accept such matters that they can successfully incorporate theologically. For example, they profess that the covenant of Abraham is eternal, but they are almost entirely quiet about the covenant of Moses or Sinai.
I’d expect Orthodox Jewish thinkers to be no less aware of the limits of how far we can reasonably go. Christians share with us the veneration of Tanach as the Word of G-d, but we fundamentally disagree how to read it. Christians share with us a number of biblical values and draw inspiration from some of the same stories. We both agree that there is one G-d, Creator of heaven and earth and Who took the People of Israel out of Egypt.
But we disagree as to the nature of G-d, whether He would or could ever be incarnate in the flesh, and these are among the unbridgeable differences between our faiths. We call the Catholics in Between Jerusalem and Rome “our partners, close allies, friends and brothers in our mutual quest for a better world blessed with peace, social justice and security.” But we are not going to be building the Beit haMikdash together.
Wolicki believes that his attempt to get Christians to recognize G-d’s ongoing covenant with the Jewish People and to get them to praise Him for the miracles of the Return to Zion would be appreciated by Rambam, were he alive today. To buttress his argument, he cites the passage where Rambam says that Christianity and Islam, though wrong about many theological truths, are nonetheless playing an important role in preparing all of humanity to accept monotheism and the truth of Torah.
I see no significant problem with the above. However, Wolicki, and I will of course disagree how to fulfill the ideas in this section. As we write in Between Jerusalem and Rome:
As God chose Avraham, and subsequently Yitzchak and Yaakov, He entrusted them with a dual mission: to found the nation of Israel that would inherit, settle and establish a model society in the holy, promised land of Israel, all while serving as a source of light for all mankind.
I must disagree about his portrayal of Islam. Whether or not Islam believes in the same G-d as we do, is a halakhic question, to be analyzed with halakhic tools and methodology. The poskim disagree with Wolicki.
Wolicki, however, cannot bring himself to see anything positive in Islam. I beg to differ. Just because some or many Muslims adhere to their own kind of replacement theology and just because some or many see themselves as in conflict with Jews over the sovereignty over the Holy Land, does not mean that they are devoid of positive impact.
Maimonides’ positive attitude towards Muslims is because Rambam believes theology to be very important. Their theology is closer to Judaism, especially their view of God. His hope was apparently that Islamic theology would spread understandings that would lead to people rejecting some aspects of Christian theology, thereby bringing people closer to Jewish theology. Just like Rambam expected Christian respect for the Hebrew bible to make people more receptive to the Hebrew Bible’s message.
Wolicki reads Psalms as poetry, as holy poetry, and finds that by approaching Psalms that way, he can access additional layers of meaning. I agree. When I worked on the RCA Siddur, we approached Tehillim pretty much the same way. We drew on Rav Hirsch and Malbim, but also on Daat Mikra and the luminaries of Michlelet Herzog. But we always checked with our Jewish theology, with our Mesorah, to make sure we do not mistakenly go out on a limb.
Explaining Judaism to Christians
In reaching out to Christians to make them discover Jews and revise any negative attitudes they may have, Wolicki “don’t spend much time or energy explaining Judaism. That’s not my goal. … the goal is really to connect over what we share.” I do not think it is possible to be “making Christians think differently and more respectfully of Jews and Judaism” without explaining how we Jews read the Bible, which is absolutely through the lens of our living and uninterrupted interpretive tradition and its legal application through Talmud and Halacha. On account of the Rambam cited above, I only reluctantly discuss the Oral Law, which is a corpus that is not held in common by Jews and Christians, but some of it must be shared to allow them to become acquainted with who we are and what we stand for.
In conclusion, I want to highlight the importance of theology. It is all to easy to get high on account of some positive development in Christian theology and exegesis that appreciated some Jewish insights or respects some Jewish sensibilities. But by ignoring the real differences between different faiths, we neither respect each other properly, nor do we do our own faith justice. In the process, we also fail to maximize the potential of the interfaith relationship, which lies not in some warm and fuzzy ecumenism, but rather in using a strong vector for living out our common values for the betterment of society. Rather than deceive myself by singing psalms together in the mistaken belief that this is what Rambam meant regarding accepting sacrifices from gentiles, I much rather fight poverty, fight for religious freedom, defend the rights to shechita, mila, freedom of access to worship and freedom for religious education, fight for peace, against potentially violent religious extremism and against secularist prejudices against religious people.