Confrontation in the World of 2004

Alan Brill

Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill engages in interfaith encounter under the auspices of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation (IJCIC) and the World Jewish Congress (WJC). He teaches at Yeshiva University and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He is also the Founder and Director of Kavvanah: Center for Jewish Thought. He is the author of a forthcoming monograph on Orthodox approaches to other religions.


Upon reading the initial papers and responses to the symposium, I find that there are at least three bypassing conversations.  Are we attempting to situate Confrontation in historical context? Are we discussing the theology of the essay?  Or are we asking about whether the community accepts the essay? The original panel paper by Eugene Korn dealt predominately with the first two questions, while many of the initial responses focused on the last question of policy and legal status.  My response will touch briefly on these three points, leaving fuller discussions for elsewhere.


Historical context

According to Martin Marty, the chaplains and soldiers who served in the Korean War brought home to America a sense of the commonality of religion: that we all worship one God. This encounter created the ecumenical climate that in 1954 added ?under God? to the Pledge of Allegiance. By 1960, this ecumenicism had progressed beyond mutual tolerance into a liberal campaign for the blurring of divisions between Churches and creeds. [1] A careful analysis of the positions of the Jewish protagonists at Vatican II requires contextualizing their statements not just within the Jewish-Catholic dialogue, but also in the climate in America in which trading theological favors was commonplace. Or as William Hutchinson points outs, by 1960 ecumenicism meant shared goals and responsibilities and even the building of chapels to accommodate in the same structure the worship services of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.[2]

R. Soloveitchik wrote "Confrontation" and "On Interfaith Relationships" to curtail these liberal trends in the name of Orthodoxy and justly demanded the acceptance of each religion as separate theologically, historically, and existentially. He decried any common core theory or the reduction of religion to the lowest common denominator. His position served to reject the irenic trends and to limit dialogue to social issues.

R. Soloveitchik's position did, however, allow the discussion of  "communication among the various faith communities" in "the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavors," on topics, which "revolve about the religious spiritual aspects of our civilization." Especially significant is that the discussion is not limited to the secular realm. R. Soloveitchik speaks of "universal religious problems and discussion within the framework of our religious outlooks and terminology.... As men of God, our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and terminologies bear the imprint of a religious world outlook."[3]

According to R. Soloveitchik, one could offer up for discussion and share our Biblical anthropologies, our grappling with the universal religious problems, and even accept the Judeo-Christian moral climate as a basis for discussion; clearly precluded are doctrinal, dogmatic, and faith discussions.

Notably, R. Soloveitchik couched the lines between the universal and particular themselves in a universal manner, even a religious universal. Many readers struggle to understand that for R. Soloveitchik the philosophic writings of Tillich, Barth, and Kierkegaard describe the universal, man's ultimate concern. In this aspect, R. Soloveitchik's thought itself was embedded in a specific mid-twentieth century understanding of religion as constituting a universal human condition. This concept of religion obscured the issue for many of his followers, especially those not versed in the then contemporary Protestant theology.

What has occurred in the world over forty years? Ecumenicism has given way in America to a resurgence of traditional religion. Mainline Churches have declined, while engaged Evangelical Churches that emphasize their acceptance of Jesus as the core of their religion, have surged.  The Catholic Church under Cardinal Ratzinger's intellectual leadership emphasizes the role of doctrine. Hence, under current circumstances, dialogue avoids common core positions as carefully as it avoids discussions of religion as man's ultimate concern.  Now, official meetings between Judaism and Christianity are generally called encounters (not dialogue) and serve as a means of having both sides express their political concerns through overcoming the otherness of the met religion.  Discussions (even of those engaged in theological dialogue) are acts of self-presentation, highlighting difference, not working sessions of commonality.

In the last forty years, we Jews have a greater sense of our security in the world stemming from our internalizing the existence of the state of Israel. We also have witnessed the great strides of the Catholic Church, moving from persecutor to greatest friend, from offering us eternal damnation to recognition of the state of Israel.  Rabbi Soloveitchik witnessed these immense changes, but did not change his thinking, and we have no reason to think that he would.

In recent years there have been other changes, the Evangelical churches have attained an understanding of the importance of Israel for Jews; they understand the role of nationalism and peoplehood within our religion, and have thereby attained a rapid sense of political mutuality with the Jewish community despite the lack of theological rapprochement, and even despite their theological agenda. In contrast, the Catholic Church has made great theological rapprochement, but still does not hear the national elements in the Jewish narrative, though the important and historical steps taken by Pope John Paul II in that regard must be acknowledged.

The other major change for Americans is the rise of globalization. The debates between proponents of Huntington's Clash of Civilizations and those of Thomas Friedman's Lexus and the Olive Tree have replaced the concerns of the nineteen-fifties. Like modernity and nationalism, globalization has potential for both good and bad, creating a new reality, which demands confrontation and response. Globalization offers very real, and very immediate threats. Globalization is based on a culture of the marketplace, divorced from any constraints, be they ethical, religious, moral or national. Globalization creates a need to choose greater openness in place of fear and closure, and to choose real politics over academics. To respond to the current decade, rehearsing old parameters is academic; we should be seeking guidance for the contemporary issues.

As individuals, members of the Jewish people are called by God to fulfill the work of Creation, to serve as stewards of the world, and to enhance the respect of the image of God by helping those who embody it. That much of this work will take place in conjunction with non-Jews is self-evident. What is not self-evident, however, is the desirability of carrying out this work under a specifically Jewish framework, and in conjunction with other religious groups. Why should these acts of humanity be undertaken under a banner of inter-religious joint action, rather than as a response to God's call upon each individual?

The answer, I think, lies in the tenor of the times.


Theological Analysis

My comments on the theological elements will be briefer than those on history because I have recently written several long essays on these topics.

R. Soloveitchik bases his theological analysis of interfaith dialogue on the dialectic theology of Karl Barth, who stated categorically that Christian statements could not be understood by someone who does not share them. R. Soloveitchik's essay "Confrontation," written in response to the Catholic-Jewish dialogue initiated under the aegis of Vatican II, warns his followers against dialogue in a similar mode of dialectic theology. In fact, the entire section of R. Soloveitchik's essay on interfaith dialogue is indebted to Barth's Church Dogmatics 1/2 [ 17].  According to Barth, this inner faith rejects the cultural elements of religion and cannot be expressed using culture's tools.  R. Soloveitchik's dialectic definition of faith is tied to specific understanding that obscures the issues for most readers of his essay. I have dealt with R. Soloveitchik's reliance on Barth in his essay in a forthcoming paper on R. Soloveitchik and dialectic theology.[4]

I do not think that the discussion until now has dealt with the dialectic influence on R. Soloveitchik's thought. Instead the discussion tended to debate the ability to communicate faith on empirical grounds, to read all manner of foreign theologies into R. Soloveitchik's thought, or, worse, to compose folksy marriage analogies. 

A bigger theological question is whether R. Soloveitchik's essay is in continuity with prior Jewish thinkers? His approach is certainly not the only way to read the classic sources. Most earlier opinions accept the creation of philosophic and cultural universals. I have written a paper on the topic, and a forthcoming monograph, showing that Judaism possesses a wide range of responses to other religions.[5] Eugene Korn himself mentioned the difference of R. Soloveitchik's position from that of Maimonides on teaching Christians Torah.

Another theological point asks whether faith can be communicated? As stated in the prior paragraph, earlier authorities do not agree with modern approaches; they accept universals.  Even accepting that we cannot accept medieval Jewish thought and need to use modern categories, the distinction between intellectual knowledge versus experience has come under scrutiny from most theologians in the last decades. Currently, theologians emphasize that our experiences are imbedded in external language and they create statements of meaning understandable to others. I leave the further discussions of empiricism and phenomenology to another context.

The essay does, however, have an acute sense of historical fear, as David Berger proffers in his novel reading of Confrontation. In general, halakhic analysis does not open itself up to confronting the other. And as a recent article on the Talmud pointed out, there is little ethnographic curiosity, let alone encounter, in halakhic structures about other religions.

Judaism's distrust of Catholicism, however, was forged not so much by theological texts, but by the day-to-day experience, over centuries, of living among members of the Catholic faith who followed their local parishes in prejudiced acts based on cultures of violence. Our dialogue needs to look at the lay people and the events of these centuries and, in particular, the role of the Church in fostering hatred. In this, we join contemporary Catholic historians who think that the Church has to discuss its role in the culture of violence. We understand that learning to see the other side's perspective constitutes a painful process. Accordingly, it cannot be rushed. Appreciating the pain of the process is itself part of the moral understanding we aim to achieve.

Jewish participants need to agree to work to overcome their fear and distrust of the Church. Jews need to overcome their sense of minority status and find a new social model for their interactions. We need to move beyond bitterness, both in our relationship with the Church and in our own self-understanding of our place in the world community. And we will need to consider how we have relied on this culture of victimhood even when the other who surrounds us does not wish to destroy us. Since the Jewish theological tradition offers us models ranging from exclusivism to universalism, we should learn to cultivate a self-understanding appropriate for our current confrontations.

For example, theologically, reconciliation is not forgiveness. As Jews, we are in no position to offer atonement to the Church. From our standpoint, atonement from God through repentance cannot be offered in cases of sins performed against one's fellow man, especially murder. So how are we to go forward in dialogue, given the broad and deep memory of the Jews living in fear of the Church? I do think that there are traditional theological models for reconciliation, but I am not sure of their ability to be accepted in the current climate.

In our period when memory vanquishes theology, the model of South Africa may be useful for us. There, truth commissions have been set up under the assumption that getting people to understand the past will somehow contribute to reconciliation between those who were enemies under the ancient regime. The philosopher Jonathan Lear points out that people want to hold onto humiliation because they enjoy destructive hatred and the humiliation justifies their continuous hatred. The memory the Jewish people now holds of the past millennia is one that evokes hostility.

I pray that the process of joint historical exploration can create a new memory, one based in mutual honesty and respect that can enable reconciliation.


The history of interpretation of the R. Soloveitchik document should have started with the fine essay by Walter Wurzberger written to the Synagogue Council of America to interpret the doctrines of his teacher. There he acknowledges that according to R. Soloveitchik, one can discuss social issues based on the religious secular order of Judeo-Christian ethics, and he also allows academics discussions of faith. The realm that is off limits is the presentation of our faith commitments.[7] And for the following twenty-five years, the records of the discussions of the RCA show the broad latitude of interpretation given by R. Soloveitchik to his own words, including discussion of repentance and Torah study. [8]  Even on the topic of interfaith prayer services, R. Soloveitchik told Rabbi Wurzberger that communal reading of Psalms is permitted because it is not our halakhic prayer.[9]

Instead, what has occurred over forty years in the community? In general, R. Soloveitchik delicate balance between the universal and particular within religion has been falsely read as a dichotomy between a ban on any religious discussion combined with an acceptance of secular communal work.

Yet, the most important observation about Confrontation after forty years is that most who fight for its maintenance have not read it. Recently, the RCA reaffirmed its acceptance of the document. The very affirmers of the document then asked:  was the document violated at a recent event and they were told no, because the following roster of people participated. They trusted others to tell them what the document meant.  Others explained R. Soloveitchik's position as mandating the need for Roshei Yeshiva to decide all matters of interfaith encounter and that, in fact, R. Soloveitchik's position was in line with R. Moshe Feinstein's rejection of any interfaith meetings.

But much has indeed changed in forty years. R. Soloveitchik writes, "We are ready to enter into dialogue on such topics as war and peace, poverty, freedom, man's moral values... civil rights, etc., which revolve about the religious spiritual aspects of our civilization."[11] Even on the assumption that we can talk about social issues, generalities are not enough. The Jewish side has generally ignored the fact that Pope John Paul II record on social issues includes the condemnation of the Iraqi war, fighting globalization, condemning the death penalty, and his support of factory workers rights.

However, our very notions of a call to action differ. We need to compare our ethical processes. Halakhah is not the same as the magisterium or an appeal to conscience. In working together, in emphasizing the commonality, we must be careful to ensure that the differences are not erased or elided.

After forty years in which there are indeed changes of history, theology, and policy, our real questions are not exegetical or even who gets to interpret the essay. Rather:

How do we have confrontation in the world of 2004?


[1] Martin Marty,  Modern American Religion: Under God, Indivisible, 1941-1960 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986) . These themes were common even in the sermons of Orthodox rabbis during this period.

[2] William Hutchison, Religious Pluralism in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

[3] On Interfaith Relationships," pp. 79-80; and, see Lawrence Kaplan, "Revisionism and the Rav; the Struggle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy" Judaism 48:3 (1999).

[4] Alan Brill, "Triumph Without Battle: The Dialectic Approach to Culture in the Thought of Rabbi J.B. R. Soloveitchik" (forthcoming proceedings from the Van Leer R. Soloveitchik conference).

[5] Alan Brill, "An Orthodox Theology of Other Religions."

[6] Martin Goodman, "Palestinian Rabbis and the Conversion of Constantine to Christianity" in The Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture II, ed. Peter Schaefer and Catherine Hezser (Tuebingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 1-9.

[7] Walter Wurzberger, "Justification and Limitations of Interfaith Dialogue" Judaism and the Interfaith Movement, editors Walter Wurzberger and Eugene Borowitz  (New York: Synagogue Council of America, 1967) pp. 7-16.

[8] Bernard Rosenzweig, "The Rav as Communal Leader," Tradition 30.4 (1996): 214-215.

[9] Oral communication from Rabbi Wurzberger.

[10] See Marc Shapiro, "Confrontation: A Mixed Legacy," footnote 3.

[11] "On Interfaith Relationships," p. 79.