On the nature of interfaith relationships

Many years ago, the indisputable Rabbinic Doyen of Centrist Orthodoxy (call it Modern or Torah U’Maddah if you like), Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, issued clear rulings under which interdenominational activities must be underpinned. Note, unlike, more right-wing streams of Orthodoxy, Rav Soloveitchik, was not an extremist advocating zero contact. At the time, the Rav’s focus was on Xtianity, as this was the prevailing pressure in the USA. To think that his advice would not equally apply to other religions, such as Islam, or Hinduism, or Buddhism is a non sequitur.

Rav Soloveitchik stated (emphasis is mine):

1. “We are a totally independent faith community. We do not revolve as a satellite in any orbit.” Jews must not concede at all to the notion that their covenant with God has been superseded. This refusal should be recognised by all participants as an ongoing point of disagreement between the faith communities, not an issue to be ironed out by apologetics or revisionism.

2. “The logos, the word in which the multifarious religious experience is expressed does not lend itself to standardization or universalisation. The confrontation should occur not at a theological, but at a mundane human level. There, all of us speak the universal language of modern man.” Because the theological language of the respective faith communities expresses religious sensations too intimate to be comprehended by those of another faith, dialogue must remain in the realm of the “secular orders.”

3. “Non-interference is a conditio sine qua non for the furtherance of good-will and mutual respect.”No Jew must ever suggest changes or emendations to Christian rituals or texts, and the converse is a requirement as well.

4. Any response to Christian overtures that even hints toward a willingness to compromise the fundamental matters over which millions of Jewish martyrs were sacrificed is an affront to their memory. To willingly equivocate where they stood firm demonstrates utter insensitivity to the “sense of dignity, pride, and inner joy” that their memory ought to inspire.

With this in mind, let us examine a letter from Rabbi Ralph Genende (emphasis is mine) of Caulfield Shule as an Orthodox Rabbinic member and President of JCMA

To Our Muslim Sisters And Brothers

Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia Statement

11th July 2016

We watched with sadness and horror the tragic events of the last days of Ramadan and can’t imagine how difficult they were for you.

We know that there is wide consensus that these terrorist attacks are largely political and that Islam is being distorted and manipulated for political and ideological purposes.

The victims, the families and friends of the victims, are all in our prayers.

In Australia, we heard with pain the divisive and hurtful comments of Pauline Hanson about Islam and Muslims.

Know that we share in your sorrow and distress and that we stand with you in the struggle for love and compassion.  May they overcome bigotry and hatred and violence.

May the blessings of peace, Shalom, Salam speedily grace our planet.

Rabbi Ralph Genende

President JCMA on behalf of JCMA

I have a number of questions of Rabbi Genende.

  1. Does he accept Rav Soloveitchik’s principles as outlined above? If he does, I am comfortable with that. If he does not, I posit that he is acting outside the boundaries set by Rav Soloveitchik for the RCA. [ Yes, I am aware of revisionists from both sides (left/right) who want to strengthen or weaken what Rav Soloveitchik ruled, but I treat these as speculation of little substance]. We have what the Rav said explicitly. It is clear and unambiguous.
  2. If he accepts the Rav’s views, did he formally write the parameters to his colleagues through which dialogue could proceed, as enunciated by the Rav above. In particular, did he write words to the effect that“As Jews we will never concede at all to the notion that our covenant with God has been superseded by other religions and we formally seek your acknowledgement of this point before any dialogue can proceed. You may have your viewpoint, but I seek your explicit agreement that you acknowledge that we will never see our covenant as superseded by other religions, and there can be no apologetics or revisionism in this regard.”
  3. Can Rabbi Genende tell us whether he received condolence style letters of apology from his Muslim colleagues ever. If not, why might that be? If yes, surely, it is critical that he actually publish those letters. Such letters, more than Rabbi Genende’s letter, act as a counter balance to incitement.
  4. We experienced the recent murder of Rabbi Marks and the stabbing of the young girl Hallel Ariel about whom the State Department made no statement despite her being a US citizen, let alone a human being. I assume Rabbi Genende heard the brave tear-jerking speech at the grave by Hallel’s mother. Muslim men of the cloth, in such a forum, need to distance themselves from Arab politics, and issue unambiguous condemnation of cruel, disgustingly opportunistic cold-blooded murders. Surely, one basis of this group is that violence is to be condemned at all times, except if attacked in a war situation where one is defending oneself.
  5. If Rabbi Genende received no such letter of condolence from his Muslim friends of the cloth, then I see no reason for him to continue with letters of “Salaam”. What is the point? The only outcome from such things is  Queens Day honours for the committee for their tolerant platitudes and joint acts of breaking bread.
  6. I am not an expert on Pauline Hanson’s platform, however, a significant number of Australians voted for her viewpoint. In a democracy, this counts for votes in determining how we are governed. There is rhetoric and views from Hanson’s acolytes that are to be condemned. There are other statements that state the obvious, but neither the Labor Party or the Liberals would ever say those for fear of losing votes.  Whatever Hanson’s views are, I do not see it as the role of this committee via Rabbi Genende to make pronouncements about a political party unless Hanson’s party has a platform which is universally considered amoral. Rabbi Genende doesn’t mention which comments of Pauline Hanson he as our representative objects to, but I think that should be the focus and not Hanson herself. He should focus on what was said that is offensive, and if need be, condemn such statements where they offend common human decency. In a vacuum though, the letter simply reads as a political rejection of everything Hanson’s party stands for. It’s not the party per se. It is explicit policies, which may emanate from any party, including the Greens, that might be horribly objectionable to all three religions because they breach a basic covenant of morality. The issues, not the parties, should be the focus.
  7. I invite Rabbi Genende to publish letters initiated by either Xtian, Muslim or other colleagues in respect to violence against civilians in the wider world, including Israel. Paris anyone?
  8. I invite Rabbi Genende to ask his colleagues to openly condemn the current outrageous UNESCO proposal where they brazenly rewrite history, announcing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is an exclusive Muslim holy place which has no connection to the Jewish people or their religion whatsoever! Does Rabbi Genende not remind his co-religionists that this is blatant lying, and lying is a common mundane human act that all religions should condemn? It is precisely the type of pronouncement (from UNESCO) about which Rabbi Soloveitchik warned.Last week UNESCO adopted a resolution which refers to Israel as the “occupying power” in Jerusalem and on, what UNESCO calls, the al-Haram al-Shariff (Temple Mount). The Western Wall (Wailing Wall) that is today Judaism’s holiest site is referred to as “Al-Buraq Plaza” in the resolution.The UNESCO resolution claimed “Israel is planting Jewish fake graves! in other spaces of the Muslim cemeteries” near the Temple Mount and falsely accused Israel of “the continued conversion of many Islamic and Byzantine remains into the so-called Jewish ritual baths or into Jewish prayer places.”. Will Rabbi Genende’s committee distance themselves from such lies publicly? If not, why not? How does one sit on a committee with anyone who denies the Jewish foundation of Jerusalem?UNESCO especially mentioned the damage caused by Israeli Forces since Aug. 23 “to the gates and the windows of the so-called Qibli Mosque inside al-Aqsa Mosque.”. The organisation claimed that Israel doesn’t respect the integrity, authenticity and cultural heritage of al-Aqsa Mosque as “a Muslim Holy Site of worship and as an integral part of a World Cultural Heritage Site.” Rabbi Genende knows this is an abhorrent rewriting of history, or to use the words of Rav Soloveitchik,“Jews must not concede at all to the notion that their covenant with God has been superseded.”

    Given that this implicitly and explicitly concedes our covenant, let alone provable history, on what religious basis is Rabbi Genende continuing dialogue unless his co-religionists openly reject the notion in a letter initiated by them?

    Aug. 23 is the date that 67 Jews were murdered in Hebron in 1929 during riots that began after similar lies about a Jewish threat to al-Aqsa ignited the Arab street in British-ruled Palestine. Talmudic Geniuses from the Yeshiva in Hebron were among those murdered. Will Rabbi Genende not also focus on this parallel or does he confine himself to personhood statements of grief when one group of Muslims murders another group of Muslims?

    The UNESCO resolution doesn’t utter a word about the daily riots that already started on the Temple Mount in the summer of 2015 and continued into the autumn after the Palestinian Authority and Hamas spread false rumors that Israel intended to change the status quo on the mount. There is overwhelming video evidence of who started the fighting at the Temple Mount and of Muslims barricading themselves in the al-Aqsa mosque. Video evidence doesn’t count in a world of lies, and if men of the cloth don’t condemn such lies, why are we sitting with them on one table?

  9. One has to wonder: apart from appeasement in the name of “we are all one” what Rabbi Genende’s involvement on this committee actually achieves. I’d argue that sending all Victorian students to the holocaust centre achieves much more than such letters.

I also read the growing trend of experiencing the religious practices of other religions in moments of “unity”, with nice accompanying pictures (Rabbi Genende amongst them). I ask again, how is this consonant with Rav Soloveitchik’s ruling that things be restricted to secular orders. Rav Soloveitchik, effectively meant, looking after the poor, the needy, and Noachide-style edicts of having proper courts, order, etc.

I have no doubt that Rabbi Genende has the best intentions, but I believe that unless we see letters initiated by his co-religionists of this committee, then we are not getting a proper picture of what this committee does or what it hopes to achieve, and whether it achieves it or whether its terms of reference should be refined or changed.

I, for one, would have no regret in condemning  those Jews in Israel who burnt the Palestinian youth and criticising it as an act which is contrary to Halacha and normal moral law. Did Rabbi Genende write such a letter? We all know that  such Jews are minuscule in numbers, and that the Shin Bet is on their heads and tails, sometimes with justification and sometimes without. Jews act to quell violent radicalism.

Be under no illusion, Rabbi Genende. Even today, Xtians believe that all Jews should convert to Xtianity and Muslims believe that all Jews should convert to Islam. Under that factoid, it seems to me that confining activities to joint acts of the more secular, as enunciated by Rav Soloveitchik is the correct and only approach to take. Any more is platitudes that achieve very little.

The politics and policing of curbing incitement is the domain of politicians and the law, not a religious committee that ought to work together to foster those secular good acts that benefit society.