Rabbi Riskin's Parasha commentary finds unity in the Shema, the trinity, and buddhism

How (“Eicha” – Lamentations 1:1) can an Orthodox rabbi possibly twist Parashat Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy ch. 4-6)? The Torah portion from the book of Devarim deals with such subjects as the prohibition of idolatry and intermarriage, and introduces the Shema- the Jewish credo which simply and succinctly reaffirms our belief in the One Indivisible G-d. 

Warning us that we should neither add to nor subtract from the commandments of the Torah, Parashat Vaetchanan leaves little room for creative misinterpretation. And yet Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Chief Rabbi of Efrat and Founder of Ohr Torah Stone, uses this very portion to place a question mark in the hearts and souls of Jews on the issue of what constitutes idolatry.


Difficult to understand

Despite the fact that the Shema is on the lips and in the hearts of every Jew, and is a part of the basic bedtime routine for all observant Jewish children, Rabbi Riskin feels that the Shema is a verse which is "difficult to understand". He offers two interpretations, the first of which appears to be in keeping with normative Judaism.  But then the Torah is turned upside-down as Rabbi Riskin broaches what he sees as a second interpretation, which appears to give credence to"unity" in the form of the trinity, buddhism and hinduism. Rabbi Riskin maintains that these religious expressions "can be considered" idolatrous for the Jews, but insists that they are "never" idolatrous for the gentiles. Somehow, Rabbi Riskin produces a thick and heavy fog which descends over the once very clear directives in Parasha Vaetchanan:

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 4:15

“Take good heed of yourselves, for you saw no manner of form on that day when G-d spoke to you at Horeb...”
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 4:35

“Unto you it was shown, that you might know, that the L-rd is G-d, there is none else besides Him.”

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 4:39

“Know this day, and lay it in your heart, that the L-rd is G-d, in the heavens above and on the earth below, there is none else.”
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:4

"Hear, O Israel: The L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is One".

The Shema as presented in the Torah is not, as Rabbi Riskin claims, "difficult to understand". The Patriarch Avraham did our thinking on the issue of monotheism for us, and G-d Almighty Himself engraved the understanding of His Oneness upon our very heart and soul. We now naturally imbibe it with our mother's milk. In contrast, it is the laws of idolatry, how we relate to gentiles, and shituf which are far more complex than Rabbi Riskin suggests. Jewish Israel suggests reading Rabbi J David Bleich's paper on Entering a non-Jewish House of Worship to get taste of the halachic depth of the matters at hand.


Jesus as "a true Jewish religious thinker"

JewishIsrael is at a loss at to why to Rabbi Riskin feels that the weekly Torah portion is the place to introduce and explore the acceptance of jesus as "a true Jewish religious thinker and teacher".  Are we Jews really supposed to be at complete peace with the concept of Buddhist and Hindu polytheism, and of "the trinity as a unity" for Christians? Without proselytizing or coercion, are we not called upon to step forward and take the lead in setting an example for the world, a world which will eventually recognize the One True G-d?  Without a natural aversion to idolatrous beliefs and a lucid understanding of what constitutes idolatry, how can we Jews fulfill that role? 

Rabbis like Riskin and Shmuely Boteach are chomping at the bit to take on the proverbial theological elephants, gorillas and jesuses in the room in order to advance interfaith reconciliation.  What these rabbis fail to see is that it's the Shema in the room that prevents the all-encompassing embrace between Jews and Christians. It's the Shema that keeps the borders intact.

We all understand humankind's basic instinctual striving for the One Creator of the universe.  We know that adherents of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism are all "G-d's children" as Rabbi Riskin says. However, we also understand, thanks to Maimonides, that the pathway to idolatry is paved with good intentions (see Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim Chapter 1).  Rather than inspire a Jewish sense of clarity for our unique Jewish mission, Rabbi Riskin has instead diluted and confused that message. In the quest for commonality, some Jewish leaders are paving the way to Jewish mediocrity.

Of course, it could very well be that Rabbi Riskin is trying the Pauline approach of being "all things to all people", as he is teaching Torah to a Christian audience through CJCUC, his theological interfaith center, and apparently now through YouTube. His inclusive approach involves lowering the bar and leveling the playing field so that religious equality and pluralism rules the day. Hence, idolatrous beliefs become a non-issue, as long as all men strive to be moral human beings. That dumb-downed approach is likely to exact a cost on the Jewish people, as Judaism is not by definition a religion or theology. (See Collected Writings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Sivan I).


Rabbis challenge Riskin

It's becoming increasingly difficult to read or listen to Rabbi Riskin's radical and at times provocative interpretations of the weekly Torah portion. Some, like Rabbi Sholom Gold (who serves as Jewish Israel's Rabbinic Director) have repeatedly taken Rabbi Riskin to task for his twisted commentaries on the Torah.

In the past we turned to Rabbi Yonatan Blass, Rosh Kollel of Ratzon Yehuda, for clarification with regards to Rabbi Riskin's problematic and radical psak on Jews entering evangelical churches

[Note: the online psak and article by Rabbi Riskin, which were critiqued by Rabbis Blass and Gold respectively, have since been removed from the Ohr Torah Stone site and severely edited by the Jerusalem Post.  The original psak can be seen here and the Parasha article here].

Jewish Israel turned to Rabbi Blass, once again, as well as to Rabbi Yisrael Blumenthal, a scholar of Judaism and the Judeo-Christian polemic for elucidation.  We asked the following:

Rabbi Riskin says in the video: "…Therefore, there's a very interesting normative halacha that if there is any nation/religion that links our G-d together with another god –sometimes even G-d's son – for us, such a religious expression can be considered idolatrous, but never for them."

Jewish Israelis requesting clarification on the following:

a)      Is Rabbi Riskin's understanding of the halachic concept of shituf, considered "normative"? We were under the impression that there is significant "normative" debate about the concept of shituf and its implications.

b)      The concept of shituf is clearly idolatrous for the Jew, so why the nebulous "can be considered"– as if there are other ways to look at it for the Jew? Rabbi Riskin seems to leave an uncomfortable opening here, no?

c)       What's with the "never"?  We were under the impression that many rabbinic authorities and commentators view the concept of the trinity as idolatry even for the Christian.


Rabbi Jonathan Blass responded as follows:

"Christianity is idolatrous by definition: it rejects G-d's unity and worships a created being. It is idolatrous both for Jews and for gentiles.

There are some halachic opinions that rule that those forms of idolatry, whether they be Christian or pagan, that worship both G-d and one or more of his creations ("avoda zarah b'shituf"), are forbidden only for Jews. The reason given for this distinction is that a universal ban on this kind of idolatry would impose an unrealistic demand on gentiles, one that they could not all be expected to meet (She'elat Yaavetz I 41). 

Even idol worshippers, who demean the nobility of Man by making him subservient to created forces and objects, express in their worship, albeit primitively, a basic human yearning for a connection to the Creator (Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed I 36;  Harav Kook Olat Re'iya I 207). Their worship and their beliefs remain, however, idolatry - a scourge that has plagued mankind from the beginning of history (Guide to the Perplexed III 49)."


Rabbi Yisroel Blumenthal submitted the following reply:

a) In Yoreh Deah 148 Pitchei Teshuva 2 the two sides of the debate are brought down – there is no way one can say that it is “normative” halacha that non-Jews may worship b’shituf most halachic authorities say that it is prohibited for non-Jews as well

b) This is important especially when contrasted with the absolute “never” in the second half of his sentence – The fact is that there is no room whatsoever to consider it (shituf) permitted for Jews

c) again – this “never” ignores the opinion of most poskim"


Two years ago Jewish Israel reported on Rabbi Riskin's academic foray into the muddy waters of interfaith pluralistic pursuits. At that time we cited YU's Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill's perceptions of Rabbi Riskin's direction:

"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..."

Jewish Israel does not take a highbrow approach to matters of personal faith, but at the time of Rabbi Riskin's venture with Yale Divinity school, we did make the following observation:

"Is it universalism, globalized Judeo-Christianity, ecumenicalism, inclusivism, egalitarianism, pluralism or something else – like a fast track to "assimilationism"? In a fit of intellectual and spiritual absurdity, a number of theologians have fast-forwarded to a messianic age where divisions are put aside and we all become one big faith cooperative."

Over the last several years, we have seen Rabbi Riskin push the interfaith envelope again and again and again. We've seen him engage Christians in theological discussion on the very topics proscribed by Rav Joseph B. Solovetchik z"l, whom Rabbi Riskin claims was his mentor. And we're left with these questions, among others…

Is Rabbi Riskin compromising and diluting Judaism in order to make his Christian audience feel comfortable?  Will this approach lead to the theological trading of favors, crossing of lines and reciprocity that was the stuff of Rav Soloveitchik's nightmares?

Rabbi Dr. David Berger writes that there is evidence to suggest that Rav Soloveitchik  was concerned over the lack of qualifications for interfaith dialogue among most Orthodox rabbis, but that, "one of the rabbis most committed to enforcing Rabbi Soloveitchik’s guidelines has told me on more than one occasion that his revered mentor had said that he trusted Rabbi Walter Wurzburger to deal with theological issues in conversation with Christians."

Indeed, the following excerpts from the essay Justification and Limitations of Interfaith Dialogue ("the Commentator", March 2, 2005) by the late Rabbi Walter S. Wurzburger, seem to provide us with some thoughtful and profound Jewish answers which directly challenge Rabbi Riskin's approach. YU's Rabbi Wurzburger was a student of Rabbi Soloveitchik and headed both the Rabbinical Council of America and the Synagogue Council of America.

"…But while recognizing the values of Christianity, we must exercise great caution lest we endorse features of Christianity which cannot be justified from our perspective. Just because Christianity is willing to assign a special role to Judaism, we need not return the compliment … It is one thing to recognize many positive features of the Christian faith and to see in it an extremely valuable ally in the struggle against secularism, but an entirely different matter to accept the Christian claim that Jesus fulfills a unique function in the redemption of the world - be it only for the non-Jew…

Even if we adopt Maimonides' position as expressed in Hilkhot Melakhim and concede to Christianity an important place in redemptive history, it still does not follow at all from this premise that Christians are involved in the special covenant of Israel. By the same token, with all our appreciation of Christianity as an avenue to God available to the non-Jewish world, we must not gloss over the fact that the Trinitarian faith still falls short of our universal religious ideals. While the belief in the Trinity - classified by the Halakhah as Shituph – may not be regarded as downright prohibited to the non-Jew, we still cannot recommend it as the ideal way in which the non-Jew should relate himself to God.

We should point out that we regard belief in the Trinity as such an aberration that we would rather have a Jew remain an agnostic or atheist than accept these doctrines which for a Jew would involve apostasy or idolatry. It has been suggested by Arthur Gilbert that Jews must come to grips with the theological significance of Christianity because it arose out of Judaism. On the basis of the genetic fallacy we could also argue that Judaism must come to grips with the theological meaning of Marxism because it also arose out of the matrix of Jewish messianic thinking and was first developed by individuals of Jewish descent. It must not be overlooked that whereas Judaism presents a theological problem, if not a challenge, for Christianity, the values and insights of Judaism can be presented with complete disregard for Christianity. It is only with respect to the proper approach to the Christian community that Christian theological dogmas need be considered by us at all… We cannot enter into any deals with respect to matters of theology. We regard as offensive the mere suggestion that in return for the abandonment of missionary activities on the part of the Christian world, Jews should be prepared to acknowledge Christianity as the valid approach to the non-Jewish world. No matter how tempting the overtures of the Christian world, we cannot accept the proposal of Gregory Baum that we acknowledge Christians as the people of the covenant instead of merely classifying them as "the good people of the nations."

Matters of religious faith do not lend themselves to negotiation where in order to arrive at a mutually agreeable settlement both sides are ready to make concessions…"


[UPDATE: JewishIsrael would like to remind our readership that we completed a lengthy work in response to Rabbi Riskin's position on interfaith dialogue, which was featured in Makor Rishon Newspaper this past spring.]


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Comment by Jewish Israel on August 15, 2012 at 10:22am

"Separating him from them now is extremely difficult."

At this time it doesn't appear that Rabbi Riskin's prime interest is in maintaining spiritual separation.  But, if he starts to perceive some of the costs and problems involved, then, as you point out, it will be difficult to wiggle out of the embrace and lay down the the law. 

Comment by Moshe Verschleisser on August 14, 2012 at 10:05pm

Michelle Shocked once said "I walked along that slippery slope where if you fail through lack of faith, you sell your soul to the devil"...and it sounds to me like Rabbi Riskin has sold himself. Not that he did so intentionally, or knowingly, but it's done. Separating him from them now is extremely difficult. Buying the ticket for the roller coaster can mean you're in for a very bumpy ride that you can't get off of.

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