Responses to Professor Berger, Rabbi Klapper and Professor Cunningham

Eugene Korn


I thank each of the respondents for their remarks, which have deepened my understanding of the issues. Our conversation today illustrates how dialogue with others can help enrich one’s own thoughts and convictions.


Response to David Berger:

Allow me to first address Professor Berger‘s penetrating remarks. I, too, believe that he and I are in general agreement, not only on the philosophic principles raised by the concept of theological dialogue, but also, I would hope, on the practical steps we need to take to go forward.

Regarding Professor Berger’s specific claims, I do believe that the specter of hostile and unequal dynamics that would inevitably discredit Judaism (the doctrinal argument) in the proposed Vatican-Jewish dialogue was Rav Soloveitchik’s primary—but not exclusive—concern in “Confrontation.”

On the literal level, the majority of Part II is devoted to warding off this eventuality. And behind the words, a discerning reader senses Rav Soloveitchik’s deep, and quite legitimate, resentment of the historical Catholic “frame of reference” regarding Jews and Judaism. I tried to indicate that the warranted Jewish concern toward this 1900 year old Catholic posture could not—and should not be understood to —disappear with one pronouncement, however official as was the 1963 Vatican II text that Professor Berger correctly cites. No serious historically-aware Jew, least of all Rav Soloveitchik, could believe that this one text could wash away the supersessionist thrust of Catholic motive for dialogue.

Only a series of consistent steps in a prolonged process could reverse Jewish suspicions of Church motives. Professor Berger correctly notes that Rav Soloveitchik continued to guide the RCA on interfaith matters well after Vatican II. (I assume until the early 1980’s) We should remember that in the early 80’s the Vatican had not yet apologized for the Christian role in the Shoah, and the Pope had not yet visited a synagogue in friendship or come to Jerusalem to pray at the Kotel. While not having any formal logical relation to the topics of theological dialogue, these gestures moved Jews enormously and had a critical positive psychological impact on Jewish attitudes toward the Church. In other words, they influenced the “historical argument” that Rav Soloveitchik employed in the essay.

On the formal level, it was only in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when the Church explicitly affirmed that Judaism continues to be a vital, living religion, when it recognized Israel—with its salutary theological implications—and only recently has the Church begun to publicly distance itself from the policy of converting Jews. More than a generation has passed since Rav Soloveitchik followed the changes in Church theology and policy. In that generation the Church has moved much farther in respecting Judaism, and those changes have been essential for satisfying Jewish conditions for legitimate and fruitful dialogue.

I, too, acknowledge the private and ultimately incommunicable nature of the full faith experience and this, I contend, was a secondary and real concern of Rav Soloveitchik. But surely it is fallacious to argue, as many have, from the fact that faith in all its depth cannot be communicated to the conclusion that nothing regarding the faith experience is communicable. So the issues to be explored are (1) what can be expressed—either in formal logical or phenomenological terms—even partially, and (2) what expressible categories can be subjects for constructive theological dialogue.

Rav Soloveitchik was an enormously complex and private person and we will never know exactly what his personal ideas were regarding the limits of discourse. But it is undeniable that he attempted to communicate his experience of covenantal commitment in the form of personal religious anthropology when he presented “Lonely Man of Faith.” This expression was a magnificent gift to Jews and Catholics alike. The presentation supplied us with religious insight and a spiritual language, and we are all the richer for it. I suspect that it strengthened the convictions of most believers in the importance of faith in the modern world. If so, I see no reason why serious Jews and Christians cannot come together in similar expressions of their religious phenomenologies around subjects like religious commitment, the use of shared scripture, the image of God, the interplay of law and ethics, and their conceptions of religious history. Refusing to express this aspect of our religious lives inhibits the development of a serious spiritual language credible to religious Jews engaged in intellectual quests. Many Orthodox Jews yearn for a living expression of Jewish spiritual experience that conveys depth, complexity and integrity (similar to R. Soloveitchik’s language in “The Lonely Man of Faith”) with greater effectiveness than the childish talk about God now often heard in our circles.

In fact, Professor Berger acknowledges my major conclusions, that some aspects of the faith experience are communicable and that while “untrammeled” dialogue is out of court, carefully constructed “dialogue in its place” is worthwhile. Indeed, he and I are “not far apart.” Moreover, Professor Berger acknowledges that he has participated—with Orthodox blessing—in limited theological dialogue. Both acknowledgements are important for they allow us to navigate a responsible path between an incorrect categorical prohibition on theological dialogue and irresponsible unconstrained theological conversation.

Finally, Professor Berger is correct: “Confrontation” is not obsolete. It is very much alive and relevant today. Rav Soloveitchik’s four conditions for respectful dialogue should “be placed always” before Jews and Christians who talk theology together. I do not discount the practical risks of dialogue and that sometimes the dynamics of dialogue can move toward violating these conditions, as Professor Berger relates. And I would add that if Cardinal Ratzinger—or anyone else—insists on using dialogue for Christian mission, (i.e. conversion), then he is not a fitting partner for dialogue with Jews. But I believe that if all parties do their homework, approach dialogue in good faith, and explicitly agree on these ground rules, the risks are worth taking. As Rav Soloveitchik incisively explained in the famous footnote #4 of Halakhic Man, spiritual greatness demands complexity and risk.  


Response to Aryeh Klapper

I would like adjust somewhat R. Klapper’s restatement of my primary theses. I argued that the four conditions laid down by R. Soloveitchik are still the foundation for proper theological dialogue by Catholic and Jews, and that today these can be met by both parties. The restriction on non-polemical theological dialogue grew out of R. Soloveitchik’s belief in 1964 that these conditions were not (or could not be) met by the Church.

Secondly, as a traditional Jew trained in Talmud, I am very wary of making predictions, for fear of being called either a child or a fool. And as one trained in philosophy, I am well aware of the logical problems involved in asserting subjunctive counterfactual claims. Hence I do not claim that if R. Soloveitchik were alive today, he would approve of theological dialogue. This no one can know with certainty. Rather, I tried to analyze what is rationally analyzable, namely his 1964 arguments regarding theological dialogue, and assess which are applicable and which not in contemporary conditions. 

Evidently R. Klapper believes that Rav Soloveichik did issue a halakhic decision regarding interfaith theological dialogue, and that there is legal substance behind what he calls “the rhetoric of presentation” in “Confrontation.” My analysis addressed only the arguments in “Confrontation,” which by any understanding of halakhah as a precise technical discipline fail to have halakhic import. It may be that Rav Soloveichik did make a halakhic argument against dialogue privately to others, but this appears nowhere in the public historical record. This claim is therefore beyond any scholarly discussion. It also creates insuperable problems for one who maintains halakhic commitments: What is the Torah or Rabbinic basis for such a pesaq? When does it apply? To whom does it apply? Can it be overridden by other halakhic desiderata? If so, what are they? In other words, this is in the realm of speculation that is immune from both rational analysis and halakhic seriousness.

R. Klapper correctly points out that the implications of whether the essay expressed a legal decision or a policy statement are ones of degree not of kind. One needs stronger arguments and data to overturn a pesaq than to change a policy, but ultimately both apply to a limited set of conditions. (Only the famous three halakhic prohibitions of murder, adultery/incest, and foreign worship are categorical, i.e. independent of all conditions.) Therefore when relevant conditions change, both new pesaq and new policy are called for. Heart transplants are a clear example of this. When the first transplants were performed, authorities ruled they were forbidden due to lax rules for removing the heart from the donor and the low probability of procedure’s success. Later, as the correct rules were developed and the technique became more effective, halakhic authorities ruled it permissible. 

R. Klapper raises the point that, “what one pope has done, another can put asunder.” This is certainly true, but I would add that as I understand the Catholic reconciliation with Jews and Judaism, it is not the idiosyncratic initiative of Pope John Paul II, but now a 40 year process endorsed by every pope since John XXIII and part of the official teaching of the Catholic magisterium. This transformation may suddenly reverse itself, but that is improbable (a virtue of all orthodox institutions) and would require a fundamental shift in Rome . I was careful to state that Jews should only participate in dialogue after agreement by both parties in acceptable ground rules and therefore Jewish participation should be contingent and reversible. Should the Church at any point resist those ground rules, Jews can and should retreat from dialogue. Of course participation in dialogue entails risk, but so does everything worthwhile, particularly in the spiritual life. I judge that this is a risk worth taking if it is minimized by careful planning and agreement a priori on principles.

I sense that R. Klapper (and many others) commit a fallacy by equating dialogue with reduction in identity.  He is correct that Jews and Christians should not marry on a theological level, but that is not what dialogue attempts to do. Marriage is the wrong metaphor for relations between Jews and Christians. (I admit to contributing to this error in my paper by using the paradigm of Adam and Eve that Rav Soloveichik used in “Lonely Man of Faith.”) The more accurate metaphor is that of siblings, the one that Rav Soloveichik used in “Confrontation” (Jacob and Esau) and that Pope John Paul II used when he addressed Jews in Israel (“I am Joseph your brother.”). Brothers still talk to each other when they disagree and live differently. Jews and Christians can see each other as siblings, distinct from each other, disagreeing with each other, and ultimately clinging to different existential commitments. We should remember that the Torah tells us that even Jacob and Esau as well as Joseph and his brothers reconcile to some degree at the end of their troubled relationships. The question is whether Jews and Christians wish to try to achieve a deep mutual understanding that would give us and our children more hope for our futures.

I believe that R. Klapper misunderstands the nature “We Remember” or of the Church’s coming to grips with its role in the Shoah. As all the Church documents make clear, it is a result of internal reflection and spiritual purification, not a “favor” to the Jews or a concession to their demands. Of course, the Church awareness of its role has been heightened by her discourse with Jews, and in this sense, dialogue indeed changes its participants. (Most participants in religious dialogue feel that they are changed for the better and have become more deeply committed to their traditions.) Here I think we come to the real resistance on the part of the traditional Jewish community today: fear of change. I do not believe this was the basis of Rav Soloveichik’s objections, but it may be the major sociological impediment to a careful engagement with non-Orthodox culture in general and the Catholic Church in specific. R. Klapper alludes to the fact that halakhic Judaism has not gone far in recognizing the other’s value. I believe that there is both halakhic and Jewish philosophic bases for such recognition when the other is not our physical or spiritual enemy. Do we dare attempt this? Can we liberate ourselves from the image of a being a victim and try to engage the world? We should keep in mind that while resistance to change seems psychologically comforting and sociologically safe, if we quest after spiritual growth, improvement and teshuvah, then by definition we must be open to change. The real questions for Jews are whether we can exercise responsible control over the conditions for change and whether we have the strength to venture into something new.

R. Klapper’s distinction between official and individual dialogue has merit. While the Church has an official hierarchy and official representatives, the Jewish community lacks such a structure, and therefore it is difficult for Jews to “represent the community,” (One exception may be the Israeli Chief Rabbinate—which is engaging in theological dialogue with the Vatican) Perhaps one degree of caution is for qualified Jews qua individuals to enter this a rena , and not make any pretenses of representing Judaism—Orthodox or otherwise.

Lastly, I endorse R. Klapper’s call to act on Rav Soloveichik’s advice for the Orthodox community to cooperate with Christians on social, ethical and political issues. The fact that we have not done this to date indicates how resistance to change still powerfully governs our lives, even when our religious leaders counsel otherwise. In the end, however, since Orthodox ethical, communal and political values are based on our religious commitments, such discussion will inevitably touch on theology. This is something that committed and informed Jews in the 21st century need not fear.


Response to Philip Cunningham

I appreciate Professor Cunningham’s sensitive comments and want him to know that from my vantage point his eavesdropping is welcome.

I have little substantive disagreement with Professor Cunningham’s observations and questions. It seems to me that Rav Soloveitchik’ four preconditions are a good beginning for “trammeled” dialogue. I would make sharper demands—I am a “machmir” [stringent one] here—by requiring that equality of rights and dignity, forswearance of conversion, and attempt at strengthening of each’s spiritual commitments be explicitly articulated preconditions.

I agree that sensitive people can identify holiness in others. Rav Soloveitchik identified with Otto’s numinous, many of us sense holiness in Rav Soloveitchik’s confession found in “Lonely Man of Faith”, and many Jews (and not a few Catholics) sensed holiness in Pope John Paul II’s prayer at the Kotel. I am reminded of a rabbinic interpretation of our creed, “Hear O Israel , the Lord, Your God, the Lord is One.” Say the Rabbis: “Let the Name of Heaven be heard because of you.” Somehow, truly spiritual gestures and lives succeed in radiating God and holiness to others. The spiritual challenge is being brave enough to try to see holiness in “the other” and do this for others.

Professor Cunningham has pointed us in a fruitful direction in his questions about understanding the concept of equality in a theological context. I remember Rav Soloveitchik pointing out in a public lecture that an intimation of God can be found in mathematics. Once infinity enters the domain of finite math, all the conventional rules for equations are shattered. Perhaps God’s Image makes us equal in our infinite sanctity, equal in our uniqueness, and equal in our dependence upon what Jewish mystics called the “Ein Sof,” (The Infinite One). Here we arrive once again at a religious experience and challenge that Jews and Christians share, and both might benefit from hearing each others’ reflections on this.

It is true that both Judaism and Christianity have influenced each other. Yet there is no symmetry here. As the pope has said often, Christians cannot understand Christianity without its Jewish historical and theological roots. The inverse is certainly not the case.

Looking forward, we do in fact have the cultural option of avoiding each other. We could continue to isolate ourselves, maintain false unflattering stereotypes of each other that serve our isolationist purposes, and build our identities negatively upon our distance from “the other.”  I believe that such a strategy is counterproductive on a political level, and spiritually it echoes an ascetic withdrawal from the world and history.  I cannot speak whether this is a legitimate option for contemporary Catholics, but for Jews—who throughout history were forced by Christians but never voluntarily chose to live in ghettos—it would signal a rejection of God’s covenantal challenge to Jews “to teach tzedek and mishpat” to the world, to “be a blessing to the nations of the earth,” and to embrace God’s creation as a place where God can be found.