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Parsha Vayigash

December 29, 2014

Interacting with Our Christian Neighbors
Vayigash, 5775
Shmuel Herzfeld

Parashat Vayigash tells the story of Yaakov and his family immigrating to Egypt. In many ways it is the first story of a diaspora community and how we as distinct minority interact with the majority population.

Yosef’s plan is to manipulate the situation so that his father and brothers can settle in a distinct land within Egypt, the land of Goshen (Bereishit 47:1). Yosef sets up his brothers outside of Goshen. But at the same time he recognizes the need to gain Pharaoh’s permission so that his family can continue to live separately in the land of Goshen. In order to achieve this goal Yosef carefully manipulates how his brothers should appear before Pharaoh and exactly what they should say (46:34). He then brings his father before Pharaoh so that Yaakov may bless Pharaoh and thereby further advance good relations with Pharaoh (47:10). Yosef thus carefully orchestrates the entire situation since he knows that the welfare of his family sensitively hinges upon their interactions with Pharaoh.

The question of how we as Jews as a minority community in the diaspora interact with our neighbors, who practice a different faith, is an important and sensitive question going back to biblical times.

This time of year the question is especially acute as we are surrounded by other faiths worshipping their religion and as Jews –no matter how assimilated we are--it is impossible not to notice that we are a religious minority -- cue the jokes about Jews going to Chinese restaurants and movies on the night of December 24.

Although these issues are always present in my mind, the issue is particularly relevant for me this year.

On January 2, Muriel Bowser will be inaugurated as Mayor of Washington, DC. As part of her inauguration festivities, she invited me to offer words of scripture and prayer at an interfaith prayer service just prior to her inauguration.

The prayer service is scheduled from 8-9 am at the United Church of Christ and is immediately followed by the inauguration ceremony at 9:30 am at the Convention Center.

I was honored by the invitation because I felt that Muriel has always been there for our shul. Anytime we have called with a concern she has responded. She has many times participated in our events at the shul. She has broken bread at our Shabbat table. She has introduced a bill to the city council that will help the plight of agunot. She has always been a friend who we can count on.

I told her that I would be honored to accept her invitation.

Even though I firmly believe that I should go, it is important for everyone to realize that there is an internal debate within our community about the appropriateness of a rabbi leading a prayer in a church.

In 2009, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehillath Jeshrun in NY, at the invitation of President Obama, participated in and spoke at the National Prayer Service, which took place on January 21, 2009 as part of President Obama’s inauguration service.

This was a courageous position on the part of Rabbi Lookstein as he was for the most part breaking precedent on the part of Orthodox rabbis who had generally refrained from entering churches. Indeed, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) immediately criticized Rabbi Lookstein for this.

They issued a statement, which said:

“The long-standing policy of the Rabbinical Council of America, in accordance with Jewish law, is that participation in a prayer service held in the sanctuary of a church is prohibited. Any member of the RCA who attends such a service does so in contravention of this policy and should not be perceived as representing the organization in any capacity." ( )
Rabbi Lookstein responded with his own letter to his fellow members of the RCA in which he justified his actions:
He wrote:

“First, I am very much in agreement with the RCA’s view, derived from the writings of the Rav zt"l opposing interfaith dialogue and theological compromise….
Nevertheless, I felt not only that it was permitted to participate in this event, but proper for someone in the responsible Orthodox rabbinate and, indeed, necessary.
This event was not an interfaith dialogue or meeting. It was an invitation from the new President of the United States…to meet him in prayer….
The Shulchan Aruch notes in YD 178:2 that a person who needs to be close to the government may wear even the Torah- prohibited garments of a gentile in order to represent the Jewish community well. [In those days gentiles wore distinct clothing. S.H.] The prohibition to enter a church is grounded in the appearance of impropriety, rather than an actual impropriety — indeed, wearing garments of gentiles is a Torah prohibition and this is generally thought to be a rabbinic one.
Rabbi Lookstein’s basic argument is that in general one should not enter a church but in this case he did so for the good of the Jewish community and that in certain cases one can even violate Jewish law in order to interact with the leaders of the government.

Rabbi Lookstein’s opinion is not a radical opinion. In fact, it is underlying the basis for a responsum of the Rosh (R. Yechiel Asher 13th c.), who allows one to enter into a church in extenuating circumstances (Responsa of the Rosh, 19:17).

On the other hand, the RCA’s approach here was an embarrassment to the Jewish community as it singled out for attack an esteemed rabbi who has dedicated his life to the Jewish community and in this case was doing his best to maintain his loyalty to tradition and also give honor to the newly elected President.

There may be another way to defend Rabbi Lookstein’s position without resorting to the argument that extenuating circumstances sometimes allow us to violate Jewish law.

The whole argument of the RCA is based upon a premise that Christians are allowed to believe in the trinity as from their perspective it is a form of monotheism, but from the perspective of Jews it is not considered a form of monotheism. Thus we as Jews must stay far away from this dangerous belief lest we be tempted to follow it and thereby be led astray. (See Darkei Moshe, 156.)

In addition to this opinion, the RCA must be following the ruling of Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 150:1) that states, “It is a mitzvah to keep a distance of four cubits” from a dangerous theological belief which can possibly lead us astray. Thus, since in their minds a church represents a theological threat to the Jewish people, one cannot enter into a church. Furthermore, there is a prohibition of the perception of impropriety (marit ayin) as some might think that a Jew entering a church is going there in order to worship.

In contrast, Rabbi Lookstein would argue that marit ayin does not apply in this situation since everyone knows that he is going there in a public manner to represent the Jewish community. So too, the issue of “keeping a distance of four cubits” from a dangerous theological belief would not be relevant in this case as that is based upon the premise that entering into church will be a temptation and sway us to foreign worship. That is clearly not relevant in a situation where a rabbi is being invited into a church in order to offer his own Jewish prayer on behalf of a government leader and not in order to be seduced by the temptations of another religion.

But there is another unstated factor here even though it is not discussed openly in these sources: these legal opinions are based upon hundreds and hundreds of years in which the Jews were often brutally and viciously persecuted by medieval and early modern Christians. Indeed, as part of the persecution there was often explicit attempts to convert Jews and thus these concerns, which might seem distant from us today were throughout our history very, very real threats. Now that Christians are often defenders and protectors of the Jewish people, it is fair to question the relevance of these rulings.

I spoke about this issue at length with one of my teachers, Rabbi Dov Linzer.

Rav Linzer suggested to me that even those who had theological concerns based upon medieval Christianity should draw a distinction in the modern world between different denominations of Christianity. He argued to me (and he has done so publicly as well) that the theological concerns regarding entering into a church really only apply to Catholic churches and are not applicable to Protestant churches which have different theological beliefs. Certainly in my situation in which I am being invited to offer a prayer in a Protestant church, the theological concerns are not comparable to the concerns of rabbis writing in the middle ages.

So there would be a basis for me to simply argue that even though we must be wary of being tempted by Christianity’s theology and therefore we should avoid entering a church, in this particular case where it is not a Catholic church I am still allowed to enter into this Protestant Church for the purpose of giving honor to our government and interacting peacefully with our neighbors.

All this being said, I am really uncomfortable with this whole discussion.

I can’t sit comfortably with this classification of any of the Christian people I know (whether Catholics or Protestants) as a seductive theological group who we should avoid interaction with as they are trying to seduce us with their worship.

I have a problem with this as I consider the Christians I know to be holy people who worship a monotheistic God in a way differently than I do. And that’s ok for them. They shouldn’t worship the way I worship as they are not Jewish. Only Jews should worship like Jews.

The language we use to discuss other groups of people matters and the way we interact as a religious community with other communities also matters enormously. For us to continue down a path of classifying all of our neighbors using hurtful terminology is offensive to me as a rabbi. We should take great pains to avoid using such harmful and alienating language.

Instead of relying upon the highly nuanced legalisms advanced above, I instead to choose to rely upon the opinion of the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog.

As the State of Israel was being founded a question arose: should Israel allow churches to exist in Israel? After all, if Christianity is theologically problematic then how could we allow churches to exist?

Rabbi Herzog’s approach was to recognize that Christianity today is not the same as Christianity of the middle ages. He writes: “Christianity today, even Catholics, do not worship a foreign god in the original sense of the word, rather their hearts are towards Heaven.” He further writes that if we adopt a harsh attitude towards Christianity it will arouse further “enmity, anger, and hatred throughout all of the Christian lands.” (Minority’s Rights According to Halakhah,” Herzog, Techumin volume 2.)

I am not arguing for a full-scale interfaith dialogue with our Christian neighbors. I don’t see a real point to that. I see a great value in each faith continuing to worship in its own unique way.

But I am arguing for the importance of classifying our neighbors with tremendous respect and treating with enormous dignity and recognizing that our Christian neighbors are very distant from the ancient and biblical classification of avodah zarah. Our neighbors are in most cases holy and pious people who we can learn an enormous amount from.

There are basic fundamental concepts in Jewish law that are no less important than the concerns involved in entering into a church. These are concepts like
darkei shalom—we must work towards having peaceful relationships with our neighbors; eimah le-malkhut—we must not act disrespectfully towards our government; and karov le-malkhut—it is important to have good relations with government leaders.

This week we celebrated the holiday of Chanukah. If we truly want to impact the world and bring more light to places of darkness, then we need to recognize that our neighbors are not people who in anyway whatsoever fit into the biblical character of idolaters. In the overwhelming majority of cases our neighbors worship one God and share with us a common mission in ridding the world of darkness. If we want to make our world filled with the light of Chanukah, then they need our help and we need theirs as well.

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