"Confrontation": A Mixed Legacy

Professor Marc B. Shapiro holds the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton .


If any evidence were needed of the centrality of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in contemporary American Orthodoxy, one need only look at the vigorous exchange of ideas between Drs. Korn, Berger and Rabbi Klapper. These thinkers have focused on a close reading of the seminal essay "Confrontation," and have argued about its message and implications in a changed world. I would like to call attention to some points that have not been raised, which I regard as unfortunate results of the widespread acceptance in American Orthodoxy of the perspective offered in "Confrontation."

            My goal in these comments is not to criticize the essay, but rather to clarify its impact. In fact, both in my personal and professional life (with perhaps one exception) I have avoided all venues of interfaith dialogue, and this despite being in my eighth year of teaching at a Jesuit university. I have participated in numerous events where Christians were exposed to Judaism, as well as some where I learnt more about Christianity, but it is unlikely that Rabbi Soloveitchik's position has any relevance to these situations. 

Rabbi Soloveitchik's warning was directed against Jews dialoguing with Christians in some sort of organized, presumably official,[1] meeting, and the fears he expressed relate to this type of setting. On the other hand, individual Jews and Christians discussing each other's religion has occurred in every generation, and neither this, nor a Jew giving a lecture to Christians about some aspect of Judaism, qualifies as dialogue of the sort that the Rav was warning against. It is therefore not surprising that even the most strident opponents of dialogue do not mention the subject of Orthodox professors teaching at universities whose student body is primarily Christian.

I have abstained from involvement in interfaith dialogue not because I regard the Rav's essay as a binding halakhic decision, but because I would have felt uncomfortable being regarded by the other side as a representative of Judaism. (Despite being part of a department of theology and religious studies, I am hardly a theologian.) In addition, I have always been sensitive to an aspect of dialogue that the Rav was concerned with, namely, that Jews will feel pressure to adjust their religious views in response to moves from the Christian side. In calling attention to this point, I feel that the Rav was uncannily prescient

            Yet despite the fact that I have lived my life in accordance with the Rav's guidelines, I believe that his position has had certain negative consequences. It might be that these are the sorts of consequences that Orthodox Jews who follow the Rav's prescriptions must live with, but I hope not. 

One of these consequences is religious separatism, and when it comes to interfaith relations the Modern Orthodox have adopted the same position as that of the right-wing Orthodox. Thus, in the United States one finds virtually no relationships between Modern Orthodox rabbis and Christian clergymen, or between Modern Orthodox groups and their Christian counterparts, even of the sort that the Rav would encourage.[2] This type of separatism is to be expected when dealing with the haredim, but one would have thought that the rabbinic leadership of Modern Orthodoxy would be more open-minded in this area. Yet for many Modern Orthodox rabbinic figures this is not the case, and when a group of Cardinals recently toured Yeshiva University a number of faculty members and students of the Rav expressed strong criticism of the administration in allowing this visit.[3] In fact, the Rav was often cited as a source for this opposition, as if anything he wrote in "Confrontation" spoke against friendly relations and interchange of ideas in non-theological settings.[4]

In today's Orthodox world, when it comes to Christianity the stress is on the negative, beyond anything the Rav wrote about in "Confrontation." This has brought about a broad refusal on the part of Modern Orthodox rabbis to have even the barest of relationships with their Christian counterparts. I am not blaming this on "Confrontation," since before the essay appeared such relationships were also rare, but the essay reinforced the atmosphere of distance between Orthodox Jews and Christians in all spheres, even though this was not its intent. To put it another way, I would say that, despite its intent, "Confrontation" reaffirmed Orthodox Jews' inclination that, in all but the most negligible circumstances, they should ignore the dominant religion and its adherents. A different essay by the Rav could have put an even greater stress on the positive results of interfaith cooperation in "secular" spheres.[5] Instead, almost nothing was done to remove the fear of Christianity from Orthodoxy, and while in the very shadow of Vatican II this might have been the correct approach, by now I think we have moved beyond this. Yet even in our day it would still be unheard for a Christian clergyman to address the members of an Orthodox synagogue or group about matters of joint concern. A lay Christian might be welcome, but any relationship with clergy is seen as dangerous, in that it could lead to a compromising of traditional Jewish beliefs.

            Another result of the lack of any theological dialogue between Orthodox Jews and Christians is that in addition to the fear of Christianity, there remains an enormous amount of ignorance. On numerous occasions I have heard Orthodox Jews assert that according to Christianity one must accept Jesus in order to be "saved." When I have pointed out that the Catholic Church as well as most Protestants have repudiated this notion, the response is usually incredulity.

It is also significant that Orthodox Jews treat Christianity as an abstraction, and medieval style discussions about its halakhic status continue to be published. I find it strange, however, that in our post-modern era, people can write articles offering judgments about Christianity based solely on book knowledge,[6] without ever having spoken to Christian scholars and clergymen, i. e., without having ever confronted Christianity as a living religion.[7] There is something deeply troubling about Orthodox figures discussing whether Christianity is avodah zarah without attempting to learn from Christians how their faith has impacted their lives. I would think that this narrative, attesting as it does to the redemptive power of faith, must also be part of any Jewish evaluation of Christianity.[8] Yet barring theological dialogue, how is this possible?

I realize that the halakhic system prefers raw data to experiential narratives, but certainly modern halakhists and theologians are able to find precedents for inclusion of precisely this sort of information. After all, wasn’t it personal contact with Gentiles, and the recognition that their lives were not like those of the wicked pagans of old, that led to a reevaluation of the halakhic status of the Christian beginning with Meiri and continuing through R. Israel Moses Hazzan,[9] R. David Zvi Hoffmann, and R. Jehiel Jacob Weinberg?

The concern with dialogue leading to attempted revisions of traditional Jewish beliefs is of course well-founded, but the flip-side is that without any direct contact distortions can arise in the other direction as well, namely, in how non-Jews are viewed. Could Saadia Grama ever have written his infamous book[10] if his Gentile neighbor, the Christian, was a real person instead of a caricature? Of course, one does not need interfaith theological dialogue in order to see adherents of other religions in a more positive light than Grama, but as noted above, a current trend opposes even non-theological dialogue. When all substantive contact with the Other is off-limits, it becomes much easier for extremists to reawaken old prejudices that should have no place in a modern, democratic society.

            I don't have any illusions that the leaders of American Orthodoxy will change their stance on this matter even after considering what I and others have written. Yet this does not mean that all is lost when it comes to Jewish-Christian relations. Even without theological dialogue there is still a great deal that we can discuss, and thus ensure that neither Orthodox Jews nor Christians are strangers in each other's eyes. There is a host of social and political issues that affect both of our communities and a vast reservoir of goodwill and respect among Christians for Jews and Orthodox Jews in particular. Isn't it time the Orthodox responded in kind?  

[1] This point is stressed by David Hartman, Love and Terror in the God Encounter ( Woodstock , VT. , 2001), pp. 157-158.

[2] In "Confrontation" the Rav writes:  "We cooperate with the members of other faith communities in all fields of constructive human endeavor." See also the more emphatic Feb. 1966 statement of the Rabbinical Council of America, formulated by the Rav, in Norman Lamm and Walter S. Wurzburger, eds., A Treasury of "Tradition" (New York, 1967), pp. 78-79: "In the areas of universal concern, we welcome an exchange of ideas and impressions. Communication among the various communities will greatly contribute towards mutual understanding and will enhance and deepen our knowledge of those universal aspects of man which are relevant to all of us. . . . When, however, we move from the private world of faith to the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavors, communication among the various faith communities is desirable and even essential. We are ready to enter into dialogue on such topics as War and Peace, Poverty, Freedom, Man's Moral Values, The Threat of Secularism, Technology and Human Values, Civil Rights, etc., which revolve about religious spiritual aspects of our civilization. Discussion within these areas will, of course, be within the framework of our religious outlooks and terminology." It appears that this is precisely the sort of dialogue currently carried on by Israel 's chief rabbinate, under the able guidance of Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen. (The Center's website contains the Dec. 2003 joint statement issued by the Jewish and Catholic participants.) Yet this type of dialogue would never be sanctioned by Orthodox leaders in the United States .

[3] See e. g., R. Hershel Reichman, "The Cardinals' Visit: Thoughts of a Rosh Yeshiva," The Commentator (Yeshiva U. student newspaper), Feb. 17, 2004; R. Herschel Schachter, "The Temple and the Mikdash Me'at," idem, Am Hanivchar (audiotape of a shiur), R. Mayer Twersky,  "The Humility to Defer," idem, "Living as a Jew in Gentile Society (audiotape of a shiur) , all available at www.torahweb.org.

[4] Even in the Middle Ages R. Bahya Ben Asher, commentary to Lev. 11:7, was able to look towards Messianic days as a time when Edom (i. e., Christendom) would not merely support the people of Israel (as is the case with many Christians today), but would even build the Third Temple ! Presumably, this must be understood as meaning that they will help the Jews in the rebuilding, yet it still speaks to a remarkable level of interfaith cooperation. See Abraham Lipshitz, Iyyunim ba-Veur al ha-Torah le-Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher ( Jerusalem , 2000), pp. 238-239

[5] In the final footnote to "Confrontation", the Rav writes: "The term 'secular orders' is used here in accordance with its popular semantics. For the man of faith, this term is a misnomer. God claims the whole, not a part of man, and whatever He established as an order within the scheme of creation is sacred."

[6] This book knowledge is often very limited as well, and it is worth noting that while Catholic universities routinely offer courses on Judaism, a course devoted to Christianity – or any religion for that matter – cannot be offered at Yeshiva University . While there are legitimate, perhaps insurmountable, halakhic concerns about such courses, this itself illustrates why many otherwise learned and sophisticated Orthodox Jews are so ill-informed when it comes to world religions.

[7] It must be noted, however, that information acquired in this fashion might not reflect authentic Christian doctrine. An example of this is found in a responsum of R. Joseph Messas (1892-1974), Mayyim Hayyim ( Jerusalem , 1985), II, p. 198. In a striking example of interfaith discussion, he describes his visit to a church while serving as rabbi of Tlemcen , Algeria . There he discussed Catholic doctrine with a priest so as to be able to decide a halakhic query. Yet Messas' report of how the priest explained the Trinity is hardly the Catholic position. Assuming Messas understood what he was told, what most likely happened was that the priest, living in an Islamic country, did not feel it necessary to offer a completely frank explanation of what the triune God is all about.

[8] Included as an appendix to "Confrontation" is a Feb. 1964 statement adopted by the Rabbinical Council of America and probably authored by the Rav. It states: "Each religious community is endowed with intrinsic dignity and metaphysical worth." This evaluation is far removed from the notion that Christianity is nothing more than avodah zarah.

[9] Hazzan goes so far as to state that it is obligatory (!) for Jews to make use of church tunes in the synagogue service, since these are so effective in bringing one to love of God. He also testifies that in Smyrna the cantors would go to a church in order to learn the hymns, which would then be adapted to Hebrew prayers and used in the High Holidays service! See Kerakh shel Romi ( Livorno , 1876), pp. 4a-b.

[10] Romemut Yisrael u-Farashat ha-Galut ( Lakewood , 2002).