Chaim Ingram
Chaim Ingram

Acute Angles: Parameters of Interfaith Activity

Shalom Rabbi Ingram.  I was intrigued to read of a [Modern] Orthodox initiative in Israel directed at interfaith dialogue and activity. I had thought that Orthodoxy shied away from mixed-faith ventures.  Am I wrong?   Chedva.   

Dear Chedva,

The short and typically Jewish answer is – it depends!

The initiative to which you refer is the Ohr Torah Stone program run by Rabbi Kenneth Brander.  Among its stated aims is “to define the halachic status of other [monotheistic] religions according to Judaism and outline our responsibilities to the country’s non-Jewish minorities”. The initiative has gained new impetus as a result of the historic Abraham Accords.

This would appear to be a most welcome enterprise and long overdue.

However it should be noted what this venture is and isn’t.  It isn’t a nebulous attempt to learn about each other’s religious traditions in order to see what we all have in common and blend into a companionable pot-pourri of shared experiences or, more worryingly, shared prayer services.

It is a quest for halachic clarity in defining our relationship to those of other faiths and (hopefully) exploring our shared heritage of the universal code of morality known as the Seven Noachide Laws and their outgrowths.

The other important factor here is that this venture is taking place in Erets Yisrael where we are on “home soil” and, therefore can call the tune on the agenda. This was also the case when, several months ago, a remarkable joint prayer service initiative for an end to coronavirus took place spearheaded by Israeli Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau together with Christian, Muslim and Druze leaders.  I also well recall the memorable and carefully-planned Nations Bless Israel gathering  which took place at Sydney’s North Shore Synagogue last year (a Shule is also ‘home soil’ – note that in any event it is halachically forbidden for a Jew to enter a church for any reason – see Avoda Zara 17a).

\ I am also reminded of my far-off schooldays when we used to have a Jewish assembly four days a week (yes, I went to a State grammar school in London) while on Mondays, Jewish pupils were invited into the main assembly where the hymns and prayers were carefully selected to invoke G-D alone. There was one famous hymn called the “Old Hundredth” which is actually a stirring English rendering of Hari’u (Psalm 100) and for which I, as a senior music student, was invariably chosen to accompany the singing on the piano!

The classic source for the parameters of interfaith or mixed-faith activity is found in the Book of Bereshit (Genesis). We shall read the passage in synagogues around the world this Shabbat.. Jacob and his Aramean father-in-law Lavan make a covenant (31:44-54).  Lavan invokes “the G-D of Avraham and the gods of Nahor” Elo-hei Avraham veilohei Nachor note the word Elo-him can refer either to G-D or to idolatrous ‘gods’, depending on context.  Rashi, basing himself on a source in the minor Talmudic tractate of Sofrim (4:5), confirms that the second usage of the word elohim in that phrase refers to pagan deities – the ones which Lavan’s father, Nahor, and his grandfather, Terah, served.

Jacob will have none of it.  He rejects any linkage between the true Deity his grandfather Abraham worshipped and the false deity of his grandfather’s brother, Nahor.  Pointedly, and to allay all doubt and confusion, Jacob swears by Pachad Aviv Yitschak, the Awe[some G-D] of his father Isaac, heir of Abraham.

Fascinatingly, R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky (1891-1986) views this incident as the basis for the Hagada’s statement that “Lavan attempted to uproot everything, as it is written An Aramean tried to destroy my father (Deut 26:5)”.  Had the idolatrous Lavan succeeded in persuading Jacob to find common theological ground with him, then Israel’s special mission in the world would have faltered at first base.

As we approach Chanuka, the festival par excellence commemorating the triumph of authentic Judaism over foreign ideological infiltration, it is vital for us to recognise boundaries and identify danger areas. Today’s militant secularist ideology is the heir of Hellenism and it is the most dangerous form of idolatry for the Western Jew today. Moreover, it is incumbent upon us to join forces with representatives of our “daughter monotheistic faiths”, Christianity and Islam, on moral and ethical issues such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and sexual morality where we do share some common ground, in order to present a united front against the secular-humanistic doctrines which pervade Western society today.

Such multi-faith activity in my opinion is not just permitted, it’s mandated!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments