Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik on Interreligious Dialogue - 40 Years Later:

One Catholic’s Reflections

Philip A. Cunningham

I would like to begin with some introductory comments. First, I am acutely aware that today’s conversation is one within the Orthodox Jewish community. I am an eavesdropper overhearing a discussion of great personal interest and that to some degree discusses me. But I can offer an outsider’s perspective only because of the graciousness of the primary speakers.

Second, I sincerely am quite honored to share a panel with three such distinguished Jewish friends. I hope my own comments as a Roman Catholic will make some contribution to this intriguing conversation.

Third, I am painfully conscious, even if I do not constantly refer to it, of the sinful collective behavior of my own faith community toward the Jewish people over the past millennium.  One of the Christian criteria that could be brought to bear regarding another’s religious legitimacy is the Matthean statement that “by their fruits you shall know them” (Mt 7:16 ,20). Were Jews to apply this standard to Christian history or perennial Church teaching it is hardly likely that a positive assessment would ensue. All the more reason, then, for a Christian to encroach upon an Orthodox discussion on interreligious theological dialogue without any expectations, let alone demands, and only in the greatest humility and deference. I am in disagreement, then, with the person Rabbi Berger quoted who welcomed the response from the Jewish community to Catholic reforms expressed by Dabru Emet. Given our history, I don’t think we Christians have a moral platform that permits us to hold such expectations. On the other hand, we might say that our internal reforms are driven by our religious need to be faithful to the Gospel and that these reforms should proceed irrespective of Jewish approval or response.

Having voiced these caveats, I think my proper role today takes two forms. I can comment directly on remarks that the panel has made on Christianity and most especially on the Catholic Church. I can also raise general questions that have occurred to me upon “overhearing” the discussion in the hopes that such queries from an outsider’s perspective might open up the conversation even further.

Some Specific Remarks on the Catholic Church and the Second Vatican Council

All three speakers have commented on the post-Second Vatican Council reforms that are underway in my own faith community. Whether these reforms to date ought to affect the application of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s ideas among Jews today is not for me to say.  What I can say is that our efforts over the past four decades are, as Cardinal Walter Kasper said last year here at Boston College , “only the beginning of the beginning.” Recent controversies in the United States over the dialogue document mentioned by Rabbi Korn, the Reflections on Covenant and Mission, and more recently over the Mel Gibson movie, The Passion of Christ, indicate that enormous challenges remain.  

I would stress that the aim of the post-Vatican II reform is not only to encourage dialogue between Jews and Catholics. It is also to root out utterly among Christians the supersessionist idea that the Church had replaced Jews as God’s covenanted people.  This notion is so woven into the fabric of Christian history and theology that Rabbi Soloveitchik was, in my opinion, quite correct to discourage theological conversation with the “community of the many” on such terms.

It is impossible for Christians to articulate the history and religious contours of our faith without reference to Jews and Judaism because we originated as a distinct community in the words and deeds of late Second Temple period Jews, most especially, of course, Jesus of Nazareth.  Therefore, the repudiation of supersessionism impacts the heart of Christian identity and all aspects of our faith tradition. The disputes over the Reflections on Covenant and Mission can be understood in this light as evidence of a healthy echbon hanefesh, a diagnosis of the Church’s central nervous system as it were. This is not an easily or quickly accomplished task.

So I would question, as one with some experience of the internal dynamics of the Catholic conversation, Rabbi Korn’s description of three current Catholic positions about Judaism and salvation. He had identified these as (a) the views of the authors of Reflections on Covenant and Mission; (b) the views of Cardinal Walter Kasper; and (c) the views of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.  In my opinion, his first two categories are not separate. Cardinal Kasper desires a fuller treatment of relevant soteriological issues that were not the main topic of the Reflections, but agrees that Jews are in a saving covenant with God and that the Catholic Church has no offices devoted to converting Jews. However, to explain this further would get us into esoterica of Catholic theology that are tangential to today’s topic.

For similar reasons, I would also disagree with Prof. Berger’s interpretation of Cardinal Ratzinger’s writings, which, it seems to me, are not so much pre-eschatological as conflicted and in process. Prof. Berger’s and my different readings of Cardinal Ratzinger arise, I suspect, from an insider’s vs. an outsider’s engagement with the subtleties and idiosyncrasies of Catholic, perhaps especially Vatican, theological speech, which, again, are not the focus of this panel.  However, I agree with him that a linking of conversion with dialogue does exist in the hearts of some Catholics (typically ones who have not done much dialoguing) and so the issue “has not been rendered altogether obsolete by the developments underscored by Dr. Korn.”

Eight Questions Generated by the Conversation

Prof. Berger noted that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s “larger argument is that the personal experience of faith cannot even be communicated.   What can be communicated is intellectual apprehension of faith.  The problem is that such communication is pitifully inadequate. […]  Thus, as much as theological propositions can be conveyed, as much as even religious emotions can be partially expressed, that which ultimately commits a person to God or a faith community to its particular relationship with God remains essentially private, leaving not only a lonely man of faith but a lonely people of faith—a nation that dwells alone. Since Rabbi Soloveitchik believed that untrammeled interfaith dialogue presumes to enter into that [private] realm, he declares it out of bounds.”  This last sentence relates to Rabbi Korn’s comment that Jews should “exercise care and explicitly agree on the preconditions and protocols of [theological] dialogue before beginning the precarious journey.”

These insightful comments raise a number of questions for me.

  1. What is “untrammeled interfaith dialogue” and how would “trammeled” interfaith dialogue be defined? What are the “preconditions and protocols”?

  2. Cannot distinct religious communities discuss their ineffable experiences of the Holy One?

While it is surely true that one’s innermost selfhood and its relationship to God cannot be communicated to another, it seems to me equally certain that the reality of another’s relationship to God can be divined. Perhaps this reality could be articulated by the word “holiness.” Even though I would not imagine that I could ever enter into the personal Jewish experience of faith, I think I can identify holiness when I experience it in Jewish people or in the Jewish tradition. Nor does this perception automatically lead me to desire to absorb or appropriate the holiness of the Jewish other. Krister Stendahl’s evocative phrase “holy envy” comes to mind. I discern holiness, for example, when I glimpse the profundity of rabbinic debate on this or that subject. I also realize that this manifestation of the divine presence is not mine. It belongs to Jews. So the question is: Is not profoundly spiritual dialogue possible about one another’s experiences of the Holy One within one’s own tradition, and even in the other’s, and even recognizing the fact that there is a limit to what can be conceptualized, let alone articulated, in human speech?

  1. Is it possible for one faith tradition, having experienced holiness in another, to apprehend intellectually that the other community could have revelatory experiences of the Holy One in which one’s own community does not share?

Let me elaborate on this unsettling question from within my Catholic context. If Christians can encounter the holy in the rabbinic tradition, even while not entering wholly into the worldview of that tradition, then don’t we Christians have unavoidably to conclude that in Israel’s perpetual covenant God is continuously revealing Godself to the Jewish community in ways that are distinct from our own experiences of God through Christ? When such “revelations-in-relationship” lead to different or even conflicting verbalizations with my own tradition’s articulations, must I automatically conclude that the rabbis “got it wrong”? Or is it more true to my own tradition to hold instead that the greatness of God would be lessened if God could be apprehended in only one way? Can we be content to trust the Holy One to resolve perceived paradoxes eschatologically?  I note in passing that this line of thinking is especially difficult for Christians in regard to Islam.  

I believe that some such understanding of revelation is pertinent to Prof. Berger's comment (to paraphrase), " that classical Christian theology is not considered 'strange worship' for Christians, but it is for Jews." While the complex issue of avodah zerah is, for different reasons, perilous for both Jews and Christians to consider, perhaps the unprecedented, even blessed, present moment in our communities' long histories opens up prospects for mutual insight that have never before been possible.

  1. Does not the very existence of communities of faith imply that inter-community conversation is possible?

Prof. Berger suggested that the essentially private personal commitment to God of the “lonely man of faith” is analogous to a “lonely people of faith” whose communal commitment to God is also private and so ultimately ineffable. However, if individual incommunicability can be sufficiently overcome so as to permit communities of shared faith discourse, then analogously why wouldn’t it be possible for two distinct faith communities, especially if they are historically and/or theologically related, to sufficiently overcome their particular communal experiences to permit some sort of intelligible discourse?  Indeed, if my last sentence was in any way comprehensible to anyone else, I think I have proven my point!

To move to another subject, all three of my colleagues seem to agree that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s gravest concern was the pressure that dialogue inevitably exerts to “trade theological favors” with a resulting loss of identity and spiritual distinctiveness.  In an e-mail to me a few days ago, Rabbi Klapper expressed this informally but very eloquently:

The absence of halakhic rhetoric [ in “Confrontation”] is a deliberate effort to avoid introducing the question of the theological status of Christianity, which from existing halakhic perspective is certainly not one of absolute equality with Judaism. The Rav actually opposed precisely the dialogue Dr. Korn advocates on the grounds that such dialogue exists only when one forms community (and a collective identity), and community, as Dr. Korn correctly notes, presumes absolute equality, and requiring all parties to make that presumption amounts to trading theological favors and at the least constrains our evolving understanding of our own traditions.

When I read these words, I was reminded of the words of a Vatican document of 2000 mentioned by Prof. Berger, entitled Dominus Iesus: “Equality, which is a presupposition of inter-religious dialogue, refers to the equal personal dignity of the parties in dialogue, not to doctrinal content, nor even less to the position of Jesus Christ … in relation to the founders of the other religions” [#22].  Whatever else might be said, it would seem that our two traditions are at least equal in claiming the superiority of their respective foundational truth claims!

But to return to my role of raising questions:

  1. How are we to understand “absolute equality”?

Obviously, absolute equality cannot mean abandoning defining truth claims for the sake of interreligious conversation. But is that the only way to define equality in this context? Could not the equality required for interreligious dialogue include the equality of all human beings as made in God’s image? The equality that stems from freedom of religion? The equality that springs from the realization that the Holy One cannot be fully compassed by human beings? The equality that prevails when all parties have set aside the objective of trying to “convert” the other? 

  1. What kind of preparation for theological dialogue is needed in either community?

Rabbi Soloveitchik was concerned about the preparation of those Orthodox Jews who might speak “officially” to Christians. If so, this is a concern for Christians, too. Neither community has much prior experience or precedent of mutually enriching interreligious dialogue to draw upon.

I also think that much needs to be said about how we conceive of our respective religious traditions.  On a historical level, it seems hard to deny that our two communities have been influencing one another for ill and for good for many, many centuries. Is it possible, then, to speak of Judaism and Christianity as if they were two isolated realities? I am not arguing that there are not profound differences between us. Nor do I feel that there are no legitimate boundaries between us, perhaps echoing here Prof. Berger’s phrase about “theological discussion that knows its place” (and that Rabbi Soloveitchik might not be categorically reject if that “place” was agreed upon).

I am wondering if a fear of a loss of identity, a fear that Christians and Jews both experience when they substantively encounter one another, functions uniquely for Jews and Christians (as opposed to, say, Christians and Hindus, Jews and Buddhists, or even Jews and Muslims who also have a shared history) precisely because we have been interacting for so long and have at least partially defined ourselves with one eye on each other. So the question --

  1. If it is true to any degree that Christian and Jewish identities have been shaped by the encounter with each other, then isn’t it logical to expect that by engaging in interreligious dialogue Jews and Christians will actually intensify their respective identities because their similarities and differences will be personally experienced? 

I think the virtually unanimous experience of dialogists that their understanding and appreciation of their own tradition has deepened because of dialogue demonstrates this point. However, such Jews and Christians will also be changed by the encounter to the extent that any stereotypes or distortions of the other were at work in their own self-understanding. The boundaries will have shifted, and this shift will be upsetting to some co-religionists on both sides (again, to the degree that their own self-understanding is shaped by misconceptions of the other).

Finally, I have to wonder if in the twenty-first century we really have any choice, despite our appropriate hesitations and concerns. We are horribly aware that our world is afflicted by conflicts in which religious traditions are employed to foster hatred and violence.  Stereotyping and caricature prevail among too many religious people, including here in the United States . Religious communities ought to be agents of social reconciliation and shalom. However, I believe, given the various complex histories at work, that only intense interreligious dialogue can enable people of faith to play their proper role. Which leads to my last question –

  1. Might not Christians and Jews have a special opportunity and a special responsibility in this regard? If we are able to assist each other in turning around our troubled relationship, not into some sort of syncretistic spirituality, but into one in which Jews and Christians can respect and even value and learn from our differences, then what more powerful example could there be  for a world so desperately in need of hope?


To Rabbi Klapper:

Rabbi Klapper has reasonably stated, "I am less confident in the comprehensiveness and especially permanence of [Catholic] repentance than Dr. Korn.  What one pope has done, another can put asunder ...  My strong sense is that an America-centric perspective dramatically overestimates the extent to which the new church theology about Jews has penetrated the actual church, both hierarchy and laity."


While, given our shared history, it is reasonable for Jews to wonder about the permanence of recent reforms in Catholic teaching, to say "what one pope has done, another can put asunder" is an overstatement. Nostra Aetate is instructive here. Unlike most other Catholic ecclesiastical documents, Nostra Aetate did not cite previous councils or the writings of the popes. Its authors had to go all the way back to the Apostle Paul in their search for positive theological affirmations about Judaism and the Jewish people. This in itself shows the extent and longevity of the "teaching of contempt." 


Since Nostra Aetate's promulgation in 1965, however, there is now an extensive body of authoritative ecclesiastical documentation that reinforces such foundational points as the rejection of supersessionism and the of the deicide charge. In addition, first-time historic events of great theological signficance have occurred, including the papal prayer at the Western Wall. Future popes and bishops will have reckon with these precedents, which in the Catholic tradition are not easily circumvented. 


On the other hand, Rabbi Klapper is surely right  to ponder how far newer theological insights have penetrated the Catholic community at large. As one might expect of an effort to recraft long-standing core ideas, the evidence is mixed. It leads me to suggest that Catholic and other Christian efforts at teshuvah would be enhanced by meaningful dialogue with Orthodox Jewish friends.


To Rabbis Klapper and Berger:

Both Aryeh Klapper and David Berger expressed the concern of Rabbi Soloveitchik that, as Rabbi Klapper put it, theological interreligious dialogue would cause participants to "build community [that] will create shared experience, in other words shared identity, with no lines to preserve individuality." I am afraid I don't see that this follows at all, though I admit that a member of a religious majority may here have very different impressions from members of a religious minority.


(A) My experience of dialogue suggests that far from some sort of syncretistic identity, a concern for the distinctiveness of the other's identity emerges. It is not a "shared identity" that develops, it is a shared respect for each other's characteristic perspectives that deepens.


(B) Social psychology informs us that personal identities are formed in relationship to others who are both similar and different from us. Post-first century Judaism and Christianity have not developed in isolation from each other, or from other traditions, but rather in interaction, positive and negative, with them. To some extent, we already have a "shared identity," or perhaps better, a "reciprocal identity," because of our shared history and theological rootedness in biblical Israel. I do agree that the conscious maintenance of religious boundaries is necessary, however, those boundaries may be different from those that were demanded when our communities were hostile to one another. 


(C) Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is quoted as saying, "rather than engaging in dialogue, let us become friends." To me, friendships will be pretty superficial (and hence ephemeral) unless the friends converse with some degree of intimacy. Since it is our distinctive faith experiences that define both Jews and Christians, it would seem that discussion about our respective faith experiences would be required for Jews qua Jews and Christians qua Christians truly to be friends and not simply good neighbors. Having said all this, though, I want to repeat my agreement with Rabbi Klapper's sentiment that there is a need for "lines to preserve individuality." This leads to the following remark. 


To Rabbis Berger and Korn:

I would like to repeat a question I posed on the day of our conference. Both Eugene Korn and David Berger used such terms as "untrammeled," "undefined," "preconditions and protocols," "dialogue that knows its place" to discuss setting some sorts of limits or qualifications for theological interreligious dialogue. Rabbi Korn mentions possible prerequisites such as agreeing upon the equality of rights and dignity, the forswearance of conversion, and the attempt at strengthening of spiritual commitments. Alternatively, dialogue could be limited according to topic or methodology;  I suspect the latter would be more fruitful. However one approaches things, it seems to me that one major question that must next be considered is how the limits of theological dialogue between Catholics and Jews might be defined.