The creation of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought last year afforded a special opportunity for Yeshiva University. Among the student body and the Modern Orthodox communities who look to YU as a flagship, there was great hope that the Center would serve as a much-needed academic forum to explore the fusion and confrontation of Torah ideas with those of modern Western society. My friends and colleagues, both on the Kol Hamevaser staff and in the larger YU community, were excited at the prospect of many new lectures, seminars, and special events concerning Torah and Western Thought, under the direction of R. Dr. Meir Soloveichik.
A year has passed and the Center’s activities continue with great success – as measured by enrollment in its seminars and turnout at its events featuring prominent public figures. But an unsettling trend has emerged in the content of R. Dr. Soloveichik’s message as director of the Center, amplified by the moves he has recently undertaken as a high-profile figure in the American public sphere. With this point I no longer presume to represent the opinions of others in the student body or larger YU community, but I am deeply compelled by my own conscience to speak out.
The director has consistently conveyed the sentiment that Jews and Christians in the United States share a heritage of religious morals, stressing the centrality of this shared heritage in his analyses of our Torah beliefs and our role in shaping general society. Perhaps most typical of R. Dr. Soloveichik’s approach to this subject is his argument in “A Nation Under God: Jews, Christians, and the American Public Square,” an article presented to the seventeenth Orthodox Forum.[i] R. Dr. Soloveichik there highlights a letter of the Rav titled “On Interfaith Relationships”[ii] as a proof-text to demonstrate that “the universality of basic biblical beliefs [shared by Jews and Christians]… can unite faiths in their public engagement.”[iii] He has held true to this belief, protesting abortion rights with Christian activists in the 2000 March for Life; testifying in the House of Representatives on a panel with Catholic, Lutheran, and Baptist clergy in February 2012 on behalf of the right of religious institutions not to pay for employees’ contraceptives; and delivering the opening invocation at the 2012 Republican National Convention (having achieved recognition as a capable and eloquent spokesman for socially conservative values alongside the Christian establishment.)
Furthermore, I have observed the extent to which this sentiment, along with R. Dr. Soloveichik’s impressive background in Christian theology, plays out in his presentations on Jewish belief and identity. I have yet to attend a shi’ur of his that does not quote extensively from Christian sources. His talks often elucidate matters of Jewish life and theology through the prism of comparison and contrast with Christianity, even when the titles do not reflect that angle: R. Dr. Soloveichik’s April 2012 presentation on “The Scandalous Yichus of the Mashiach” defined the Jewish conception of the Messiah only in distinction from the Christian version, and his August 2011 public conversation with Senator Joe Lieberman on the topic of “Religion and Democracy” emphatically addressed the senator’s relationship with his Christian colleagues on account of their sharing doctrines of monotheistic faith. To be clear, I am not a student of the Straus Center, nor have I been in the past. But I am a concerned student of Yeshiva University. When I attend shi’urim and dialogues like these, I wonder why the YU community is experiencing this Christian-centric brand of “Torah and Western Thought,” a brand which presents Torah as comparative theology and Western Thought as exclusively religious. And when I read the national news, I wonder why the name of my Yeshiva is now publicly associated with the camp of the Christian Right in American politics and activism.
A simple and important principle underlies this discomfort, and I feel that it bears mention in this publication: Judaism and Christianity are antitheses in the way they are commonly practiced and expressed. Judaism is the heritage of a nation chosen by God to uphold a special mission, charged with a set of values and a detailed legal code. Christianity, in any one of its many forms, is solely a religious tradition–fundamentally antinomian, universalist, belief-based, and generally detached from national identity. In the American context, Christianity has a great deal at stake in the public sphere; its leaders in this country undertake the responsibility to ensure that society and government abide by Christian morals. Judaism, as a national faith and way of life, does not seek to impose its values or laws upon other nations, even those that act as its gracious host and invite its adherents to participate in public life.
This principle is a crucial counterpoint to R. Dr. Soloveichik’s approach to Jewish activism and association with the Christian Right. Rather than arguing theology with the doctor of theology, I want to emphasize what he has chosen to de-emphasize. Whenever different ideological groups form alliances for activist purposes, they must stress their similarities and downplay their differences, and I take issue with the manner in which R. Dr. Soloveichik does that. Without question, Judaism and Christianity share a biblical heritage and many of the same values, but the two traditions have also embraced profoundly different roles vis-à-vis world society. De-emphasizing this latter fact conflates Judaism and Christianity too much for comfort.
American Jews, as an influential bloc of society, have not tried to preach their religious values to the general public, nor have they joined the Christians in preaching theirs. As a rule, for the last four decades the majority of Jews in this country have voted with their liberal principles, choosing not to side with the Christian Right.[iv] This is not to say that there have not always been exceptions within the Jewish community, nor to imply that whatever the majority of American Jews do is necessarily right for Judaism. I am not referencing this trend as some sort of proof or backing for my discomfort; what I would like to convey, however, is a sense of the ideological basis that drives these Jews to stay away from Christian politics, because it is a basis with which I strongly identify. I recognize that attitudes toward this issue may be changing, especially within the Orthodox community, and that R. Dr. Soloveichik is a leader at the forefront of these changing attitudes. But he is also now a representative of my Yeshiva who bears great responsibility in speaking on behalf of the YU community to the American public. Before he continues to do so, I have chosen to express my view on the matter, and I hope that others in this community will do so as well.
When those other American Jews and I look at Christianity, we see beyond the limited similarities it bears to our own faith in its monotheism and biblical origins and perceive something fundamentally different. We relate respectfully to our Christian brethren as fellow citizens and are genuinely interested in their beliefs, but we keep our political distance and, in the voting booths every single year, ask the Christians kindly not to impose their religious values on all Americans.
American Jews of many different stripes famously find difficulty with relating publicly to God, especially as compared to their Christian counterparts. We do not speak about God to our neighbors; much less do we try to convince anyone of His presence and role in worldly matters. And this is not a matter of shame; not in the slightest. Jews are too this-worldly to join Christians in perceiving transcendentally that which we see around us, too concerned with nigleh (the revealed) to constantly recourse to the nistar (the hidden) – more attentive to the terrified pregnant woman than to her unborn fetus and more concerned with the death row inmate than with the biblical sense of capital justice that put him or her there.[v]
As bearers of the halakhic tradition, the increasingly politically conservative Orthodox community ought to pay attention to America’s broad Jewish population and strive to speak to its sensibilities. Simply put, the Torah was meant for the Jews and speaks directly to the Jews. Devarim 33:4 declares, “Torah tsivah lanu Moshe, morashah Kehillat Ya’akov – Moshe commanded us the teaching [Torah] as a heritage of the Congregation of Jacob.”[vi] When Orthodox rabbis detach the matter of Jewish faith and practice from the larger Jewish community and align it with the generic bracket of American “religious values,” they commit a terrible disservice to the foundations of Torah. And when they try to impart Halakhah to the Gentile public, even for matters of sexual morality, they overstep the bounds of its jurisdiction and the will of the nation for which it is intended.
If we Orthodox Jews in America begin to see ourselves and are seen by others as more closely associated with Christian communities and interests than with the other members of our own nation, I will feel a sense of profound failure. This is not to say that we shomrei mitsvot should make our peace with other denominations’ abrogation of Halakhah, but that, despite it, our community should more quickly associate with them, as a Jewish nation, than with the Christian establishment, as part of a larger religious America. Let us not allow our insulated communal life to deprive our future generations of a sense of Jewish nationhood.
Because of recent events, my beloved Yeshiva University is becoming a media-favored anomaly – an Orthodox Jewish institution in New York whose de facto ideological spokesman is heard and seen so prominently among the Christians. If I may address R. Dr. Soloveichik publicly here, I ask him to consider the discomfort of students like me, to shift the conversation of Torah and Western Thought beyond the lens of Judaism’s relationship to Christianity, and to reassess his public activism that so deeply affects the image of YU.
Chesky Kopel is a senior at YC majoring in English and History, and is an editor-in-chief for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Meir Soloveichik, “A Nation Under God: Jews, Christians, and the American Public Square,” Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence, and Fear of God, ed. by Marc D. Stern (New York: Yeshiva University Press; Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2008), 321-347.
[ii] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “On Interfaith Relationships (a),” in Community, Covenant, and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications, ed. by Nathaniel Helfgot (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2005), 325-326. Whether or not R. Dr. Meir Soloveichik’s reading is an accurate characterization of the Rav’s position in not my concern, and addressing it here at any length would detract from the larger issue at hand. For more on the Rav’s position, see R. Dr. Yoel Finkelman’s rejoinder: Yoel Finkelman, “The Rav on Religion and Public Life: A Rejoinder,” The Torah u-Madda Journal 15 (2008-9), 237-252. See also Jake Friedman, “Confronting ‘Confrontation:’ Understanding the Rav’s Approach to Interfaith Dialogue,” Kol Hamevaser 4:2, (2010): 17-18, available at www.kolhamevaser.com.
[iii] Meir Soloveichik, Ibid.
[iv] See, for instance, the Solomon Project’s survey findings: Mark S. Mellman, Aaron Strauss, and Kenneth D. Wald, “Jewish American Voting Behavior 1972-2008: Just the Facts,” July 2012, available at www.thesolomonproject.org.
[v] See, for instance, the Pew Research Center’s survey findings concerning American Jews’ views on abortion: “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, August 2007, available at www.pewforum.org; the Pew Research Center’s findings on American Jewish movements’ attitude toward capital punishment in the USA: “All of the major Jewish movements in the United States either advocate for the abolition of the death penalty or have called for at least a temporary moratorium on its use.” Excerpt from “Religious Groups’ Official Positions on Capital Punishment,” The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 4 November, 2009, available at www.pewforum.org.
[vi] My translation.