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Bishops at the Yeshiva
by Sylvaine Lacout

Last December, a meeting was organised in New York and Washington D.C. between a delegation of bishops and priests led by the Archbishop of Paris, Mgr. Michel Aupetit, and representatives of Orthodox Jewish communities. Sylvaine Lacout, the only woman in the delegation, was able to participate thanks to her position as Director of the Christian Centre for Jewish Studies at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris. She kindly shared with us about her visit.­­­

“The climate was simple and fraternal. These meetings, which since 2003 have brought together Cardinals, Bishops and Rabbis in New York, were born, on the Catholic side, from a desire of Cardinal Lustiger to establish a dialogue with the American rabbis who had not wanted to go to the Second Vatican Council to which they had been invited as observers. The Cardinal thought that these rabbis remained a reference for contemporary Judaism. The investigation showed that their polite refusal was written, on behalf of the Council of Rabbis of North America, by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903–1993), founder of the rabbinical school that became Yeshiva University in New York. After the Council, exchanges were established between Soloveitchik and Cardinal Bea. Rabbi Soloveitchik then specified the conditions of the dialogue to which he was in no way opposed: no discussion on theological subjects, but necessary cooperation on points of common interest: questions of society, ethics, economics, place and roles of religions in public debates, etc.

The highlight of these meetings was the reception at Yeshiva University in New York, the world’s leading Jewish institution for higher education. It hosts about 5000 students on four campuses. Its curriculum is based on the Torah oumadda philosophy (Torah combined with secular studies) of modern Orthodox Judaism. Each student at Yeshiva University follows two paths: a religious studies course and a classical university course. Students are encouraged to attend rabbinical school in the morning and medical, law, psychology or business courses in the afternoon. The idea is to train “executives” of society who are at the same time strictly observant Jews or even qualified rabbis, even if they do not work as such.

Women can also follow this double route in yeshivoth reserved for them. This group of religious and profane people is characteristic of so-called modern orthodoxy. It is a question of reconciling an integral and uncompromising fidelity to the Halakha (code of Jewish laws established by the Talmudic tradition) with as complete an integration as possible into the surrounding society. The study of the Torah (Hebrew Bible and commentaries) is essentially done not in lectures or research seminars, but in large rooms where students, sitting in pairs at small tables cluttered with books, discuss particular points among themselves. Teachers stand at desks around them and intervene at the students’ request. We went to one of these study rooms, real hives where Talmudic passages are studied with an overflow of gestures and words. We were able to meet students—boys and girls—who shared with us how they reconcile religious and secular studies, and how these subjects enrich each other… a beautiful model for our Catholic faculties.

We met other people, and one of them was particularly moving. We were received in a very nice apartment overlooking Central Park. Rabbi Mordechai Kreitenberg, founder of the “Jewish Retreats”, welcomed us into an Orthodox Jewish family. He had invited young people who had followed these retreats, couples, financiers, lawyers, but also Jews from Hasidism, belonging to a very strict congregation, the Satmar, who recognise themselves as descendants of Baal Shem Tov (rav Israël ben Eliezer, founder of the Hasidim movement, 1700–1760). Each one was able to share in great openness how they live their relationship with the Lord, through study, prayer, observance of the commandments, and the education of children. The men told us that they met at around five in the morning to take some study time every day before going to work.

They have testified to us that observance of the commandments is not a constraint but a joy to respond to their profound vocation to be the light of the world, by manifesting Adonai’s sovereignty over their lives. It was overwhelming in simplicity, truth and trust! In Washington, we of course went to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is an American national institution, which was opened in April 1993. The Museum’s research director gave us a beautiful testimony: of German origin, then a young girl, she discovered that her father was a notorious Nazi, and this terrible discovery led her to study the Shoah and become a specialist in it.

Having already made this trip two years ago, I was able to see how much the Jewish-Christian dialogue is progressing. The debate is not theologically based, because the differences between Jews and Christians are irreducible, but it is deeply marked by the desire to work together to build a just world. In the declaration signed by Orthodox rabbis “ published in 2015, it is stated: “We are no longer enemies, but unequivocal partners in the articulating the essential moral values for the survival and welfare of humanity.”

A beautiful invitation to continue the journey begun together.