Rabbi Shlomo Riskin started a Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation. Originally, based on the reports in the newspaper, the institute seemed like a place to invite Christian Zionists like Pastor Hagee to show them the importance of the settlements. Now, it seems to be a full fledged center for theological dialogue about the core issues between Judaism and Christianity. They are holding a conference on Yale’s campus and have signed on Miroslav Volf, one of the most important contemporary Protestant theologians. Here is their description:
The Institute for Theological Inquiry is the theological division of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, the first Orthodox institution in Israel and the world dedicated to Jewish-Christian relations. Its American partner is the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, New Jersey. The Institute’s objective is to engage world-class theologians to break new theological ground on focused research projects in areas critical to Judaism, Christianity, social values and world culture. Through its research, ITI’s aims to develop rich new foundations for cooperative Jewish-Christian understanding, as well as spiritual and moral values that will bear on global religious, cultural and political life in the 21st century. It is the goal of ITI for its research to be adapted and utilized as pedagogical tools in educational settings.
The theme of the conference is the following:
Jewish and Christian religious life is grounded in God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants as it unfolds throughout human history…Fulfilling God’s covenant with us, as we respectively understand it, constitutes the “mission” of both Jewish and Christian life….Christians are asked to examine the implications of Christian covenantal theology for relations with Jews and Judaism, while Jews are asked to probe the covenantal implications for Jewish relations with Christians and Christianity.
Conference schedule here.
Rabbi Riskin’s paper is online. It is 43 pages long and deals with many issues.
His first point is his novel adaptation of Reformed covenant theology for a Jewish purpose. In the Reformed Protestant tradition, there is a series of covenant of the unfolding of God’s will. In a short version, the Noahide covenant is a moral requirement with all humanity, the Abrahamic is the covenant of faith and grace, and the covenant of Jesus is the messianic one of grace. In some versions, Deuteronomy is the covenant of blessings and curses for before entering the land. Rabbi Riskin postulates three covenants: Noahide as universal, Sinai as Jewish people, and Deuteronomy as universal redemption. In the third covenant, we bring the redemptive universal message to the world. He has transferred some of the aspects of the Jesus covenant to a universalism from Deuteronomy.
Rabbi Riskin pushes for a Jewish drive to seek conversion of Christians to Judaism or more to the point the conversion of Christians in the escaton. He finds passages in the Bible, Talmud, and Maimonides to support a mission to the gentiles. But in each section, he returns and says there are two opinions, conversion or conversion to the Noahide code. He concludes with a need to teach gentiles Torah since they will be united with us in the escaton.
Covenant And Conversion: The United Mission To Redeem The World
It is generally not recognized that there is yet a third covenant, presented by God before the Jewish people entered the promised land of Israel…The Bible states:
“These are the words of the Covenant which the Lord commanded Moses to seal with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, aside from (in addition to) the covenant which He sealed with them at Horeb,” emphasizing the unique nature of this third covenant (Dt.28:69). What is the message of this third, additional covenant, especially since our other two covenants have already designated us as an eternal nation and an eternal religion? I submit that this is the Covenant of Universal Redemption, which can only come about if the nations of the world accept fundamental biblical morality. It is the covenant that squarely places upon the Jewish people the responsibility of teaching the moral truths of the Bible to the world.
It is important to note that the laws delineated in this third covenant are all directed to “ish,” the Hebrew generic term for “person”—as opposed to “Jews.” They are universal in import.
This universal message of the Third Covenant may likewise be why, immediately after the content of the Third Covenant is delineated, the Bible records, “Not with you
(Israelites) alone do I seal this covenant and this imprecation, but with whoever is here, standing with us today before the Lord our God, and also with whoever is not here with us today” (Dt. 29:13-14). The meaning of these words seem to be the inclusion of the gentiles as well as the Israelites: the gentiles who are not with us today will one day stand with us in acceptance of the fundamental laws of morality.
If I am correct in interpreting this Third Covenant to be a covenant for all the nations of the world, the implications of this debate are serious indeed. Are Jews covenantally responsible to teach gentiles only the seven Noahide laws and these twelve moral imprecations, or is the Jewish people duty bound to teach the world all 613 commandments to convert them to Judaism?
Does the Bible and Talmud advocate converting the world to full Judaism, or merely to bring as many people as possible into the third covenant and the Noahide covenant with its seven fundamentals of morality? This question may be seen as a difference of opinion between the prophets Isaiah and Micah… [S]cholars disagree whether Maimonides believes that gentiles and Jews will remain separate and distinct religious bodies in the eschaton.
We are however permitted—and perhaps even encouraged—to teach gentiles the Torah and its commandments, an act that Maimonides saw as part of the commandment for Jews to love God. Finally, Maimonides contended that in the eschaton all will convert because it will be rationally and morally compelling for them to do so.
By the end of his paper, Rabbi Riskin surprised me by pleading for religious pluralism in which there is one God and the names YHVH, Allah, the Trinity, Buddha all reflect one reality. All ritual, images, statues, and representations serve the same Divine force. God only cares about morality and the forms of worship are incidental. The rainbow metaphor and its explanation seems like a paraphrase of the famed pluralist John Hick’s rainbow of faiths.
The case for religious pluralism alongside ethical and moral absolutism is strengthened by the nature of the Noahide covenant, [with the rainbow as its sign.]
R. Samson Raphael Hirsch provides additional content to the rainbow’s symbolism: Gazing upon a rainbow, one sees seven dazzling colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Yet, in reality there is but one color, white. When the rays of the sun shed their light upon the cloud, the white of the cloud refracts into the seven colors of the red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. So it is also with human beings: Humanity seems separated into different peoples, with different skin pigmentations from black, to brown, to yellow to white. In reality, however, we are all descendants of one human being, created in the image of the One Unique God. We all emerge from the divine womb and are all endowed with a portion of divine eternity.
Allow me to add to his symbolism. Can we not argue that, although we use different names, symbolic images, rituals, customs and incantations by which we call and worship the Deity, everyone is speaking and praying to the same Divine Force who created and guides our world? Allah is another name for the one God (“El” or “Elohim”), the Trinity is mysteriously considered a unity by Christians, all the physical representations of the Buddha are meant to express the All in the All that is the god of the Far East. Is it not possible that the real meaning of the credo of Judaism, the Sh’ma, is: “Hear Oh Israel, the Lord (who is known by our different names of different forces and powers), Elohaynu, is (in reality the) One (YHVH of the entire cosmos).” Just as the white of the cloud is refracted into different colors, so the one God of love may be called by different names and different powers, but these all coalesce in the mind of the one praying and in the reality of the situation into the one all-encompassing Lord of the Universe.
If this is the case, as long as humans are moral, they can call God by any name or names they wish since their true intent is the God of the universe. They may even be secular humanists, as long as they do not engage in the abominations of idol worship. The ultimate religious concern is that humans not destroy the world, and this can only be predicated upon the universal acceptance of ethical absolutes, compassionate righteousness and justice, the inviolability of the human being, and his/her right to live in freedom, peace and security.
Rabbi Riskin concludes with an acceptance of the Pauline understanding of Abraham as the covenant of faith. He views Christianity as entirely within the Noahide laws and as reconciled with Judaism. He concludes with a plea for moderate Muslims to show their morality against Satanic Islamic radicalism. (In an earlier version of this paragraph, delivered in a speech with Hagee, and printed three years ago in the newspaper, he branded all Islam as Satanic and Molech. I am glad he changed this part.) We now march together with Christians and “pluralistic Muslims.”
Christianity sees itself as being grafted onto the Jewish covenant, God’s covenant with Abraham. This is legitimate from a biblical and Jewish perspective, since Abraham, by his very name, is a patriarch of a multitude of nations. Christianity worships Abraham’s God of compassionate righteousness and justice, and traditional Christianity surely accepts the seven Noahide laws as given by God. The return of the younger faith to its maternal roots was eased by leading theologians from most churches recognizing the permanent legitimacy of the Jewish covenant with God and the possibility of Jewish salvation on the merit of that covenant. The partnership between the daughter and mother religions is particularly important today in the face of the existential threat of Islamist extremism against which all who are committed to a hopeful future must battle—including moderate Muslims. The Bible records a loving reconciliation between Isaac and Ishmael, coming together in bringing their father to his eternal resting place. The God of Abraham as the God of love, compassion, and peace is the antithesis of Satan, who instructs violence against all those who do not accept his cruel prescription for world domination.
Now that the Jewish people have returned to their homeland and to empirical history and now that Christians again recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish covenant, Jews and Christians must march together to bring the faith of morality and peace to a desperate but thirsting world. We dare not rest until we succeed and see “justice roll like the waters, and compassionate righteousness as a mighty stream.” (Amos 5:24). This is our united mission, far more important than the legitimate and the to-be-respected differences that divide us. And if the moderate, religiously pluralistic Moslems join us, we will all not only survive as free people created the Divine Image. We will redeem ourselves and the entire world.
Full 43 page pdf version here.
OK- now what do we make of this? On first reading, I am not sure where to start and there is no need to state the obvious. Do we treat this as ideas, as an event, or as another new project of Rabbi Riskin?
I have had a day to reflect and here are some initial thoughts.
I find the ideas in the paper going beyond anything the community has even said in the past. This is actual thinking about the very issues of covenant and redemption that separate and now with Rabbi Riskin’s help unit us. Even Rabbi Yitz Greenberg who spoke of the limits of our knowledge of the truth, still did not engage in the reading of Christian thought. For Greenberg, Christian theology is just another way of teaching Jewish thought. Here we have a direct integration of Christian thought with the goal of closing the gap between the two faiths. Even Rabbi Elliott Dorff gets to interfaith through the Jewish commitment to Elu ve ELu pluralism. If we accept internal Jewish pluralism, then we should accept the pluralism between religions. Here we have a commitment to knowing about Christianity and then thinking about actual parallel ideas.
Rabbi Riskin combines two lines of thought that are not usually combined. The first is finding Jesus’ universal message in Deuteronomy. Riskin’s version seems to have origins somewhere in a student of Walter Bruggerman. It is about an actual belief in a God given universal covenant as presented in the words of scripture..It affirms revelation of the Bible and the special role of covenantal history. This line of thought as applied to Mt Gerizim and Mt Eval is original and works well for both Protestant and Catholic thought. The second line of thought in Riskin is the pluralism of John Hick in which all religions are human responses to the quest for the absolute. This requires nothing more than a theism that can be considered as a ground of reality. The two lines of thought do not compliment each other.
As an event, this is a major rejection of Orthodox ban on theological dialogue. The mission of the organization flies directly in the face of the Orthodox approach because it speaks directly of seeking theological commonality. It is important because of who Rabbi Riskin is and because he has now raised funds for a center to engage in direct theological dialogue. It seems he has taken the Baltimore based Dabru Emet project into Ohr Torah Institutes; he certainly has invited into his project one of the main drafters of Dabru Emet.
Finally, we have the problem that he can deny any of it a week later. This past summer he backtracked on his statements about “my brother Jesus.” Since the paper was ghostwritten, as are all his recent works, the source of the ideas and the ghostwriter are not hidden well. Two years ago, he issued two op-eds within a few months of each other that sharply contradicted each other because they were written by two different people. The bigger issue is that Rabbi Riskin always needs to be in the right place at the right time. Since he does not have a prior major commitment to interfaith nor does he know the players in the field or the literature, will this be able to have any effect or even merit a backlash?
I just wrote four paragraphs. I can almost hear Prof Jon Levenson finishing his twenty page response to the this talk and this event.
Rabbi Riskin sometimes shows a desire to solve all of Judaism’s problems with a speech, but then he has no follow up. He published a book to solve the Agunah problem through Rabbinical court nullification of the marriage. Yet, he did not fight for it nor teach it in his institutions or fight against the rabbis who did not allow it to take root. I have the same sense here, he thinks that a talk alone that will boldly break new ground and undo Rav Soloveitchik’s prohibition on interfaith dialogue. However, no one will remember Rabbi Riskin for his writings; he is a man of action. The Northeast does not need another academic dialogue between those raised in the Conservative movement and a liberal seminary. Riskin should have used his clout to start dialogue with the Evangelical seminaries. There are almost 30 centers of Jewish-Catholic Reconciliation, while there are no Evangelical equivalents. He wants to change America, then let him go where other have not gone. I want to see him create a center in the heart of Baptist Evangelical country. I will also be able to take this more seriously if he walks into his Ohr torah Stone Institutes -Yeshivat HaMivtar, Yeshivat Torat Shraga, and his rabbinical training program- and puts this on the curriculum and makes interfaith part of their ideology.
For a nice blog post on Riskin’s moral bad luck, despite wanting to be among the good guys, see Magnes Zonist here.