It has been forty years since my revered teacher Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, popularly known as “the Rav” by his followers in the modern wing of American Orthodoxy, presented his paper “Confrontation” to the Rabbinical Council of America. The paper was later published in the Council’s intellectual journal, Tradition . Together with subsequent guidelines, the principles advanced in this essay have governed Orthodox Judaism’s policy regarding “dialogue” with other religions, most notably the Roman Catholic Church. The essay’s fortieth anniversary is a good time to think again about the Rav’s position and how it might provide guidance for us today.

The practical conclusion of “Confrontation” is easily summarized: Jews must work together with representatives of the “religion of the many” when it comes to ethics and public policy. Moreover, “religious values, doctrines, and concepts may be and have been translated into cultural categories enjoyed and cherished even by secular man.” But unlike these “cultural” manifestations of religion, the divine imperatives that characterize a faith community are incommensurate, particularistic, and incommunicable: “dialogue” with respect to such doctrines as the election of Israel, the eternal authority of the Torah, the Trinity, and the incarnation, is ill-advised and futile. Just as it is illegitimate for Jews to tailor their convictions to the expectations of the majority community, it is likewise “impertinent and unwise” for the community of the few to advise or solicit corresponding changes on the part of the “community of the many.”

“Confrontation” has been the subject of more polemical revisionism than any other single essay by Rabbi Soloveitchik. Some project onto the Rav’s conclusions their own unease with the Christian contribution to human spiritual culture. Others say that Jewish concerns about dialogue are no longer justified because Christianity is no longer supersessionist. They argue, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the Rav changed his mind”or would have changed his mind had he kept up with developments.

Nobody familiar with the full range of the Rav’s published writings and lectures can deny that he found Christian thought helpful in working out and communicating his own ideas. It is simply impossible to follow him without considering his appreciation and critique of Kierkegaard, Otto, Scheler, Newman, Barth, Brunner, and Niebuhr, among others. He differed from other contemporary rabbinic authorities not only in the breadth and depth of his intellectual life, but also in his willingness to reveal his interests to the public. It is thus impossible to take his positive words about Christian cultural and intellectual creativity as mere politeness.

In a Boston College website symposium last year, I denied that developments in the Roman Catholic Church, or any other church, have superseded my teacher’s ruling. Formal dialogue, in which authorized representatives of faith communities present their official positions, has never attracted me. Yet for as long as I have been an Orthodox Jew, I have recognized the importance of Christian thought for my own intellectual growth. For better or for worse, Western culture has played a part in making me who I am. The vigorous pursuit of self-knowledge eventually led me to become acquainted with my Christian counterparts: I enjoy and value these opportunities. The encounters of which I speak are academic, not ecclesiastic. The goal is not to produce position papers but to enhance understanding. At the same time, the relationship is not one of dry scholarship: what my Christian colleagues and I are after is not information but wisdom. And the life of wisdom is intertwined with the passion of commitment.

In the intellectual context, the line between discussion of social and ethical matters and “theology” is not always easily drawn. Take an (oversimplified) example: Christianity insists that one offer forgiveness even to those who have not repented of their transgressions; Judaism makes no such demand. Few questions have greater import for personal, social, and political ethics. If Jews and Christians can talk about anything beyond nuts-and-bolts political cooperation, they should be able to talk about this. Given the large cultural and psychological dimensions of forgiveness and revenge, these should be areas where both sides can learn. Precisely because of its moral implications, this subject lays bare the most intimate religious passions of Christian and Jew. Unless one bleaches the debate of its living doctrinal substance”and the Rav explicitly states that requiring men of faith to bracket their deepest experiences constitutes unacceptable censorship”it inevitably raises questions about atonement, justification, faith and works, and so on. To discuss these matters with honesty, without compromising one’s own convictions or bullying or taking refuge in empty generalities, demands great sophistication and tact. Thorny metaphysical issues concerning the Trinity are mere logic-chopping by comparison.

Despite the differences between formal dialogue and discussion, Soloveitchik’s reasoning about the former”particularly his emphasis on the privacy and intimacy of the faith experience”deepens our appreciation of the latter. His reservations about dialogue suggest an approach that is essential to the kind of individual intellectual and ethical discussion that is important to me. His outlook has affected the way I face the “community of the many,” and it has helped define my attitude toward the cultural challenges confronting my own Jewish community. Recognizing the limitations of formal dialogue highlights the virtues of discussion.

The Rav vividly perceived and articulated the intimacy between God and the individual, and between God and His people. Most attempts to communicate to an outsider the secret life of Torah”its study and fulfillment”involve distortion and objectification. It is as difficult and as dangerous as trying to “dialogue” explicitly with friends and acquaintances about one’s most intimate family relations. The unique gestures and turns of phrase that an outsider is liable to dismiss as insignificant are often loaded with a meaning that defies paraphrase and explanation. Modesty is not only a matter of external garb. It is a reticence about exposing human and communal singularity. Though some may find it ironic that the Rav borrowed the language of Kierkegaard and Barth, his formulations are rooted in the traditional halakhic conception of Torah as part of a sacred covenant between God and Israel”a covenant for which the conjugal image is a suitable metaphor. The Rav would probably have liked Auden’s line: “Orthodoxy is reticence.”

All of this may sound absurd to those for whom the theological singularity of Jewish existence and Torah is an intellectual formula rather than a vivid, pervasive experience; and this kind of modesty is alien to a compulsively talkative culture that sees reticence as an obstacle to be overcome. Clearly there are occasions when it is vulgar and degrading to speak of private matters to outsiders. Yet even modest people sometimes allow friends and acquaintances some measure of access to their intimate lives. Such attempts at communication, however inadequate, are often dignified and useful. The fully “orthodox,” who have internalized the Rav’s attitude to Torah and Jewish singularity and share Auden’s esteem for reticence, may already have a sense of how to strike a balance between communication and modesty. Policy, however, requires general guidelines. Though no rigid set of rules can prescribe the appropriate behavior and nuance for every case, the Rav undertook to provide certain general principles.

Of course, Jewish-Christian dialogue is more problematic than the personal analogy with which I began. When I speak to my neighbor, I meet another individual; but while a Jew may develop significant friendships with his or her Christian counterparts, official dialogue is a transaction between organizations. Though the most productive moments of dialogue may take place in private, the ostensible framework of dialogue is that of public discourse measured by results, joint statements, and so forth. In that case the ultimate goals of the participants are incompatible. The most tolerant Christian, for instance, firmly believes that I would be a lot better off if I accepted the divinity of Jesus; the most tolerant Jew firmly rejects the idea of a human being who is divine. As Francis Cardinal Arinze explains in his Meeting Other Believers: The Risks and Rewards of Interreligious Dialogue , the fact that dialogue must be kept separate from propaganda or missionary activity does not invalidate the latter. This introduces a pressure not common in ordinary neighborly relations.

Lastly, the hatred and contempt of the past two millennia add a formidable barrier to authentic communication. Despite the best intentions, one is tempted to bargain for a more advantageous position, to make or demand concessions, to wheedle and to coax, to impose one’s agenda and vocabulary. We all hope and pray that the improved atmosphere of our generation is permanent. But we academicians tend to focus too much on the Christian circles that have proven congenial, ignoring those that are hostile or indifferent. Nor can one overlook the fact that the conditions making for present amity may not persist.

Currently, traditional Christians and Jews share a mutual fear of the menace posed by secularism. If the secularist danger abated (a major goal of the dialogues and discussions between Orthodox Jews and Christians), that motive would weaken. Consciousness of the Holocaust as a religious catastrophe has affected the attitudes of veteran Christian theologians. There is no guarantee that younger generations will respond in the same manner. When Soloveitchik was writing forty years ago, few would have predicted the hostility to Israel now noticeable in liberal mainline Protestant churches, just as few anticipated the collapse of communism. My personal experience encourages optimism. The twentieth century, however, was exceptionally hard on prophets of inevitable progress in human relations.

My experience also suggests that the mystery and intimacy inherent to the “orthodox” Jewish mentality is not alien to the classical Christians I know and whose works I study. Hence it is not surprising that my most committed students at Yeshiva University are able to benefit from members of the “community of the many” who influenced their teachers, and they are eager to debate contemporary figures such as Avery Cardinal Dulles, George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank.

More liberal Jews”and I include here many who take the practice of their religion seriously”gladly “dialogue” with secularism even as they decline to acknowledge cultural common ground with their Christian brethren. Though usually ascribed to the legacy of persecution, this indifference to, and ignorance of, Christianity is part of the American academy’s tendency to marginalize religion and deprecate religion’s intellectual resources. To treat religion and its cognitive demands with respect is to confront the very difficulties the Rav addressed in “Confrontation” and elsewhere. The intractable conflict of incommensurable ideals and beliefs”a conflict that cannot be resolved by invoking neutral, universal secular standards”engenders discomfort and loneliness. Taking Jewish theological distinctiveness seriously is perceived by many as an obstacle to integration in American life; going along with secularism is not perceived as harmful. Many Jews have decided that the solution is to downplay or oppose the positive contribution of Christianity in American life and, correspondingly, to reduce halakhic Judaism to behavior devoid of distinctive intellectual commitment.

Some years ago, after a lecture I gave at an Ivy League university, an Orthodox student told me that she had wanted to major in philosophy but switched to psychology upon discovering that the philosophy department was populated by Christians. I asked her whether the psychology professors were aligned with Orthodox teachings on free will, sexuality, and other controversial matters. She fell silent and admitted that nobody had ever raised that question before. It was hard not to contrast this exchange with the conduct of my revered teacher Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, the Rav’s son-in-law and primary disciple, who chose to write his doctoral dissertation under a scholar who unabashedly upheld the ideals of Christian humanism. I also recall the story I heard from another of the Rav’s loyal students, Rabbi Walter Wurzburger. When officers of the Rabbinical Council ofAmerica balked at participating in a Catholic-sponsored conference on “Man as the Image of God,” on the grounds that this was “theology,” the Rav wryly remarked that a conference on “Man as a Purely Naturalistic Being” would not have set off the same alarms.

The naked public square and the antireligious academic arena are incompatible with passionate commitment and intellectual self-respect on the part of religious Jews. Like the Marranos of early modern Spain, who publicly converted to Christianity and practiced Judaism only in private, too many Jews today engage in a policy of passive accommodation to the dominant intellectual culture of liberal secularism. The more thoroughly we recognize the mystery and incommunicability of Jewish distinctiveness, the more evident are the reasons not to do so. Jews who wish to engage in creative confrontation with the giants of Western thought can do so within the frame of reference developed for us by the Rav, and they can do it in his spirit of humility, courage, and reticence. Such engagement may increase the likelihood that when we find ourselves side by side with similarly oriented members of the “community of the many,” we will do one another some good.

Shalom Carmy is Chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva College of Yeshiva University in New York. He is also the editor of Tradition.

Articles by Shalom Carmy

Loading...