Rabbi Adlerstein courting Israel’s neighbors at the National Prayer Breakfast in DC. (Photo: Courtesy)
Interfaith or Multifaith?
A Conversation with Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
One of the Orthodox Jewish community’s most respected voices, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein serves as the Director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Last month, Rabbi Elie Mischel spoke with Rabbi Adlerstein to reflect on his important work and how he navigates the complexities of multifaith dialogue.
Your position at the Simon Wiesenthal Center places you at the forefront of the Jewish people’s relationship with other religions. What are your goals in connecting with people of other faiths, and what have you learned?
We have several goals. First and foremost is advancing the good of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel. We are a small, embattled country, and a small embattled religion, beset with
enemies on all sides and sometimes from within, with a shrinking list of dependable allies. One of the last dependable sources of support for the State of Israel, and sometimes for the Jewish people, are other faith communities – Christians in particular.
We also have a second goal that is lishma. For the first time in 2,000 years, we have an opportunity to speak our minds as believing Jews and provide guidance to others who wish to know the dvar Hashem (the word of G-d) about pressing social issues.
Often, these groups are embattled in their own ways, and are looking for someone to hold their hand or pat them on the back and say, “Listen, we are theologically incompatible with each other. But we share in our gut and our minds a firm conviction in the existence of a borei olam, a Creator, of His communication with man, of normative demands that are immutable and without which man and mankind will not be happy.”
I have learned a number of things in doing this work. The assumption with which many of us grew up, that every Christian is out to convert us, and that converting us is at the very top of their list of priorities, is simply not true. There are tens and probably hundreds of millions of Christians who are neither antisemitic nor particularly zealous about recruiting others. Not that they’ve become “reform”; we’re talking about true believers. But history has taught them that direct proselytizing is often counterproductive and not as effective as trying to live as exemplars of their faith and hoping that others will be attracted to it.
When people challenge me and say “what do you have against Christian proselytizing? Don’t you guys daven three times a day that you want everybody to profess your religion?” My response is “First of all, no – we don’t want everybody to become Jewish. We want them to be monotheistic, but we’re not proselytizing for Judaism. Secondly, we don’t go door to door trying to convert people. We don’t believe the world is divided into two universes – the world of the believers and the world of the sword, meaning those who still have to be converted. Our goal is that the entire world will, in messianic times, come around to their senses with a lot of handholding from mashiach, and see the truth.” Lehavdil, there are Christians who believe the same thing. Their job is not to spread the good news by handing you Bibles or leaving them in your motel room, but to simply live lives that other people would want to emulate. And I have far less of a problem with that.
I’ve also learned of the extent of genuine Christian love for Jews and for Israel. I could go on for a while telling you about many of these people. I’m not going to venture a guess as to how many and what percentage of Christians love Israel, but many of them are deeply connected to the Jewish roots of Christianity. Their central belief is an image from the book of Romans of all non-Jews being grafted onto the “tree” of Israel, with the trunk of the tree being the Jewish people.
Ironically, this parable itself is lifted from one of our prophets, but it really is a paraphrase of G-d’s blessing to Avraham Avinu, a berachah that shocked me the first time its beauty hit home. וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה, “And through you, all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l said “Look, Christianity and Islam are not quite our cup of tea. But isn’t it something that a majority of people on the face of the globe today see Avraham Avinu as their spiritual father?” It’s something that has paid off in recent years with the Abraham Accords.
My training was as a teacher of Torah; I never expected to work with non-Jews. I was a maggid shiur at the time, when I was drafted unexpectedly to do this kind of work. I thought, “Wow, this is the kind of thing that Reform rabbis do! What am I going to talk to Christians about?” But I discovered very quickly that not only can Orthodox Jews do the job, but at least in the case of religious Christians, they can do it far better than anybody else. There is an instant connection and shared vocabulary, and there is even an instant trust that neither side is going to bother trying to convert the other. We’re not suspected of trying to convert them, because they know we don’t proselytize. And they know that Orthodox Jews don’t make good targets for Christians. It doesn’t work!
So much of our vocabulary coincides. We talk about G-d in intimate terms, as One Who surrounds us 24/7, a G-d we feel responsible to, where there are consequences to our actions and not everything is up for grabs, and a G-d Who cares about us. This instantly gives us things to talk about, without having to get into theological points that separate us.
Many of the writers in this edition of HaMizrachi argue that it is important to develop relationships with people of other faiths. Are there dangers in engaging in interfaith work?
Of course there are serious dangers, but the fact that there are dangers doesn’t relieve us from the responsibility of doing the work that has to be done. Our challenge is to develop people with the right set of tools to successfully and safely engage with other religions.
I make a point of speaking with an adam gadol, a great rabbinic leader, at least once a year, to check in. I ask questions when particular issues come up, but at my yearly check up, I say “tell me if I’m getting in too deep, or if I’m veering off in the wrong direction.” I have been pulled back a number of times, though most of the time I’ve surprisingly received a green light to go full steam ahead. I think it’s important for anybody who’s involved in this work to have rabbeim and chaverim they can speak with.
Rav Soloveitchik’s position on this is very important. The Rav was 100% against interfaith dialogue; he wrote about it, it’s a matter of record. His opposition to it was surpassed only by his cousin, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l. Yet, the Rav always had one person whom he trusted to do interfaith dialogue. For many years it was Rabbi Walter Wurzberger zt”l, and when he passed away, the baton was passed to Rabbi Dr. David Berger.
How does this fit with the Rav’s opposition to interfaith dialogue? Somebody had to speak to the broader world on behalf of the Torah community, to explain the Torah viewpoint, because we don’t want Reform and Conservative rabbis to speak for us. The Rav was afraid that many people would get it wrong – there are plenty of those people around today – and some would “give away the ranch”. I can point to examples, not for this interview, of how people involved in classic interfaith dialogue improperly “gave away the ranch”. But real bnei Torah with a strong mesorah (tradition) from their rabbis are less likely to stumble in this way.
The strongest allies of the State of Israel are evangelical Christians. They’re not the only ones. In every mainline Protestant domination, even the very liberal ones with an anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian stance, you will find many people who are ardently pro-Israel. There are good people out there, and we have to find them. But traditional evangelicals remain our best friends.
Interestingly, the evangelicals did not participate in the decades of interfaith dialogue, where people would discuss a text, trade insights and see how their different faiths could enrich each other. That’s the kind of dialogue the Rav rejected; he insisted that we don’t share a common vocabulary through which we can express our religious feelings. The evangelicals had a similar attitude. They said “What? We need Catholics to know ourselves? We split with them 500 years ago; what are they going to tell us?”
Ironically, we have a clearer path to working with evangelicals. Neither of us are interested in this classic kind of interfaith dialogue. They want to know what we can do together. They’ll say, “We’re beset with lots of problems. Externally, politically, and how to survive in a society that is hostile to traditional religion. You guys can help us, or we can help you! Let’s talk.”
This kind of dialogue is very, very different from the old kind of interfaith dialogue. At the Wiesenthal Center, we call this “multifaith dialogue”. With this kind of dialogue, you can build projects in different communities that take advantage of religious fervor and conviction, without getting into theology. It’s the power of faith itself that still speaks to almost half of America. Good things can happen from there.
The greatest danger is insidious proselytizing. Many people promise that they don’t proselytize, but then you discover that it’s a shell game, and parts of the ministry’s corporate structure doesn’t proselytize, but other parts do. We don’t want any part of that. Some organizations, the Wiesenthal Center included, stop short of any association with any group that even has a meaningful alliance with groups that proselytize to Jews. I have no problem with their proselytizing to non-Jews. But those who target Jews, who are active in the State of Israel, we want no part of.
On this issue, there are members of our community who overreact. Baruch Hashem, these kanaim l’dvar Hashem (zealots for the word of G-d) say that any amount of support from the Christian community is not worth one Jewish soul – which is absolutely true. But we’re people who must deal with pragmatic realities; that’s what halachah is about. Chazal put it in two words: כַּבְּדֵהוּ וְחָשְׁדֵהוּ, “respect them and suspect them”. Our approach must be equal parts of both. We must respect them, but without diluting our religious principles. And we must always look over their shoulder to see what lurks in the background. אֵין לוֹ לַדַּיָּן אֶלָּא מַה שֶּׁעֵינָיו רוֹאוֹת, “you can only deal with the evidence you have before you”. You do your research, and you have friends planted in various places who can help you. Making these meta-halachic decisions is never foolproof, but Hashem doesn’t expect more than that.
There are Jews, among them many wonderful geirim (converts) who grew up in the Christian community, who tend to view everything in the Christian world through the lens of their own experience, and think every Christian is a proselytizer. They’ll say, “everybody I knew back then wanted to save Jewish souls. That’s really what’s behind every non-Jew.” And there are a few people who make a living off of this claim. But this attitude is an overreaction and dangerous to the State of Israel. Though their suspicions generally come from a good place, it’s not in the interest of Medinat Yisrael or the Jewish people globally.
Does teaching Torah to non-Jews qualify as interfaith dialogue?
It’s a halachic issue. What parts of Torah are you allowed to teach and what parts are you not? This is a sugya (topic) that everybody working in this field must learn thoroughly and discuss with responsible poskim. There are certainly different points of view on it.
The poskim I speak with believe that anything concerning the sheva mitzvot bnei Noach (Seven Noahide Laws) is permissible to teach. If people want to know the word of G-d, you should certainly teach them! The sheva mitzvot bnei Noach includes Who Hashem is, what we were created for and what His expectation is from us. Not G-d’s expectations of the Jewish individual, but from the rest of mankind. The book of Bereishit is overflowing with these ideas.
Personally, I feel comfortable teaching certain areas of Torah to non-Jews, but not others. I’ve told non-Jews who wanted to come to some of my shiurim that this material is not for you. I’m not comfortable teaching the detailed laws of the avodah in Vayikra. But if you go through Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch’s commentary on Vayikra and study his teachings on the ethos of the sacrifices and what each sacrifice is meant to accomplish – these teachings are important for non-Jews as well. Certainly the mevakesh, the seeker, should not be turned away.
The Rambam was asked: is it permissible to teach Torah to non-Jews? He answered: “Of course not! However, I would make an exception for Christians. If Christians ask you questions about Tanach, you should teach them.”
Now, the Rambam hated Christianity, though I don’t know if he ever met a Christian in his life. He lived in Muslim countries, his tormenters were all Muslim, but he did not like Christianity. And so his position on this is very surprising. The Rambam held that since Christians believe in the Bible, we are not concerned that they will pervert it. Now, I’m not sure he would write that today, but he did write it back then. Because they value the Torah, if you show them the truth, they might accept it.
In his Seridei Eish, Rabbi Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg writes that when the Rambam said this, it wasn’t because the Rambam thought that teaching Christians would lead these Christians to convert to Judaism. Rather, the Rambam simply meant that they’ll see the truth, that they’ll see what Hashem is trying to communicate to them.