Revisiting “Confrontation” After Forty Years: Some Comments

Edward Breuer

Dr. Edward Breuer was formerly Associate Professor of Jewish Studies in the Department of Theology 

at  Loyola University, Chicago. He now teaches at Hebrew University


The papers and discussion regarding Rav Soloveitchik’s “Confrontation” have been illuminating, prescient, and helpful in defining the issues and underscoring some substantial and important differences regarding our approach to Jewish-Christian dialogue. In my comments here I wish to flesh out some of the ideas that have been raised with the modest aim of further clarifying and sharpening the underlying questions.

Let me begin by stepping back to “Confrontation” itself and briefly restating some basic themes and notions that may have become obscured in the discussion. Many readers have noted that one of the key interpretative questions is the relationship between Parts I and II of this essay. In Part I, Rav Soloveitchik hits his rhetorical and substantive stride when he speaks of the third level of man’s existence, the level at which men and women strive for true self-fulfillment. It is at this level, we are told, that humans “break through to each other” by regarding the other as true equal and not an object, that community is formed, and that communication attains its most important salutary purpose. But it is precisely at this juncture that Rav Soloveitchik gives expression to his inimitable sense of dialectic when he insists that it is also within a relationship or community that man feels most alienated, and it is language and its inherent limitations that most directly separates us.

If we read Part II as relating to, and following upon, the existential tensions articulated in Part I – that is, if we choose to read the two parts as forming something of a direct linear progression – then it would appear that Rav Soloveitchik would be envisioning a confrontation of two faith communities that would, at its highest and most noble level, yield two simultaneous dynamics. The two faith communities would come together in true unity, understanding, and friendship, while still maintaining their “otherness as a metaphysical covenantal community” and a sense of  alienation from the ‘other’.

After assessing the many significant changes of the past forty years, Dr. Korn builds on this connection to argue that the relationship is now sufficiently rooted in the third level as “to allow, Jews and Catholics, like Adam and Eve, to begin forging a subject-to-subject relationship as faith community to faith community.” Later, Dr. Korn acknowledges that the metaphor of marriage suggested by the paradigm of Adam and Eve was misleading, and that a metaphor of siblings is more accurate, suggesting that Jews and Christians could attain a “deep mutual understanding” while remaining distinct and still disagreeing with each other. Whatever metaphor one employs, however, his fundamental position remains; he argues passionately and movingly that the vision and careful qualifications articulated by Rav Soloveitchik here and elsewhere would allow for Jews and Christians to move forward, to come together to discuss our shared – or divergent – religious commitments and conceptions. We, Christians and Jews alike, would only be spiritually enriched. [1]

In my reading, Dr. Korn’s presentation has moved considerably from the metaphorical, rhetorical and substantive positions articulated in “Confrontation.” Such an assertion on my part does not, of course, invalidate Dr. Korn’s assessment of the dramatic transformations of the past forty years nor his vision for the future of Jewish-Christian dialogue. But like Professor Berger, I do not think that Dr. Korn’s desire to affirm the desirability and importance of interfaith dialogue can be fairly rooted in Rav Soloveitchik’s essay.

To begin with, when Rav Soloveitchik sets down four basic conditions that would preserve Jewish individuality, one of his very first assertions was that Jews were not to see themselves as “related to any other faith community as ‘brethren’ even though ‘separated.’” Lest one dismiss this as a bit of hyperbole, we would do well to recall the derash on  the narrative of Jacob and Esau with which Rav Soloveitchik ends his essay. In this most telling denouement, he focuses on Jacob’s instructions to his servants on the eve of their encounter with Esau: “And he commanded the foremost, saying, when Esau my brother meeteth thee and asketh thee, saying: whose art thou and whither goest thou? And whose are these before thee?” Rav Soloveitchik interprets the first two questions in a strikingly existential manner that address Jacob’s identity as a member of a covenantal community – “To whom do you as a metaphysical being, as a soul, as a spiritual personality, belong?…. To whom is your historical destiny committed? To whom have you consecrated your future? What is your ultimate goal, your final objective? Who is your God and what is your way of life?” The final question, however, was of an entirely different order, with Jacob anticipating Esau’s query regarding the former’s contribution to the material and cultural welfare of society, that is, the “temporal aspects of life.” What is interesting here is that with regard to the first two questions, Rav Soloveitchik writes that “Jacob commanded his representatives to reply in the negative, clearly and precisely, boldly and courageously,” while with regard to the third question “Jacob told his agents to respond in the positive.” In what sense can these responses be characterized as positive and negative? In what sense is a statement that Jews “belong exclusively to God and His servant Jacob” a negative response? It appears to me that Rav Soloveitchik was making a fundamental distinction between a realm of interaction in which Jews can be constructive and useful partners – these are the civic, scientific, and political enterprises – and another realm – clearly that of the most fundamental religious issues – which was one not of dialogue, but of emphatic and bold assertions. The response is not negative in its theological import; it is a firm rejection of any discussion.

If we return to the question of the relationship between Part I and II of “Confrontation,” we would appear to have two ways of reading this last section. If we choose to read the essay as suggesting a direct linear progression, then we cannot suggest that the interaction between Jacob and Esau was somehow referring to an earlier, less advanced stage of civilization. Rather, Rav Soloveitchik would appear to have included this derash to specifically assert that even at the highest level, the relationship between these siblings was strictly circumscribed. Jacob was instructing his descendents never to discuss any of the broad and fundamental spiritual issues regarding the sacred destiny of the Jews. 

However, even if Parts I and II were not intended to be read as forming something of a direct linear progression, this derash would still be sounding a final and overarching note. The derash, after all, serves as an ahistorical, eternal reminder that Jews cannot transcend the limitations of the Jacob-Esau relationship. In other words, when all is said and done, Rav Soloveitchik chose to end “Confrontation” by stepping away from a discussion of conditions and qualifications to restate that even in our age, we must “meet the challenge courageously and give the same answers with which Jacob entrusted his messengers several thousand years ago.”

Differences between “Confrontation” and Dr. Korn’s essay are also evident on the rhetorical level, and these differences are not without substantive import. Where Rav Soloveitchik suggests that interfaith confrontation leads to an inexorable and acute appreciation of our seclusion and loneliness and deepens our sense of alienation, Dr. Korn’s presentation seems to leave such language aside. Where Rav Soloveitchik speaks of retreat and withdrawal from the world of Esau, Dr. Korn’s vision seems decidedly one-directional, urging us to move, cautiously and carefully to be sure, towards the religious “other.” Dr. Korn is always careful to speak of Jewish distinctiveness, and he is clearly and adamantly opposed to anything that would diminish the unique and singular identity which Jews embrace. But to argue that the Jewish sense of our own uniqueness will be existentially enhanced is not the same thing as an insistence that Jews continue to see themselves as wholly other, alien, and alone in the world. I fully understand that Rav Soloveitchik was a master of rhetorical hyperbole, and I will not claim that I always know how to parse his intentions.   Reading “Confrontation” and then Dr. Korn’s presentation, however, one is struck by the vastly different rhetorical sensibilities being expressed. Once again, I do not intend to impugn the legitimacy and integrity of Dr. Korn’s vision; I am simply not persuaded that this vision can find compelling grounds in Rav Soloveitchik’s essay.

It is however, on largely substantive grounds that I think Dr. Korn may have moved considerably from the concerns and insights of Rav Soloveitchik’s essay. My  thoughts here hew fairly closely to Professor Berger’s careful reading of  “Confrontation” and his assessment of Dr. Korn’s paper. In his essay, Rav Soloveitchik was is clearly and emphatically concerned that in any confrontation between faith communities, each party must continue to assert that “its system of dogmas, doctrines, and values is best fitted for the attainment of the ultimate good.” He assumes that each faith community would remain “unyielding in its eschatological expectations,” and that Jews, for their part,  would eschew any “trading of favors” concerning fundamental matters of faith. This acute sensitivity leads him to write that Jews should never seek to prompt changes in Christian liturgy or theology. “Non-interference with and non-involvement in something which is totally alien to us is a conditio sine qua non for the furtherance of good will and mutual respect.” This must naturally apply in both directions.

Dr. Korn speaks openly and directly of agreeing on preconditions and of the need for the Church to “satisfy Jewish conditions for legitimate and fruitful dialogue.” Obviously, if the Church does this entirely on its own I suppose this would be unobjectionable, but as I read Dr. Korn’s essay and his responses, it appears to me that he expects Christians to modify or altogether eschew traditional supersessionism, and his writing would appear to frown upon those who have resisted. In my very simple and straightforward reading of “Confrontation,” I fail to see how such expectations can be squared with Rav Soloveitchik’s clear concerns. The question of how we parse Cardinal Ratzinger’s view of Judaism is genuinely interesting to me, but once again I fail to see how “Confrontation” encourages such discussion. On the other side of the equation, Professor Berger candidly made the point that for many thoughtful, educated and sensitive Jews, there are certain elements of classical Christian theology that remain avodah zarah plain and simple. The very fact that both Christians and Jews explicitly or implicitly downplay or back away from such fundamental issues is an indication of the kinds of expectations and preconditions that both communities are party to. I will immediately add that there may be many good and legitimate reasons for conducting Jewish-Christian dialogue along these lines; but to suggest that Rav Soloveitchik was not concerned with such give-and-take is, as Professor Berger put it, to do too much violence to the meaning and message of “Confrontation.” 

Students of Rav Soloveitchik and scholars of his work might well object that my observations here would appear to portray this eminent Orthodox thinker in a highly conservative, even reactionary light. For this reason, I think it important to say that I read Rav Soloveitchik’s work as fully and profoundly engaged in the world beyond Judaism. He drew upon and internalized the writings of a wide range of modern Christian and European thinkers, and it is clear to me that he was deeply indebted to their ideas and formulations. His personal confrontation with the world of philosophical and religious ideas, in other words, contributed much to the greatness and sublimity of his own spirituality and religiosity. How then, can one square Rav Soloveitchik’s wide-ranging intellectual interests with my reading of him as one who strictly delimited the scope and range of inter-religious discussion? This question deserves to be discussed at greater length than this forum would allow, but the simple answer rests upon the distinction between a confrontation that is firmly executed on one’s own terms, and an open-ended if still circumscribed dialogue, which by definition must be founded upon mutually understood terms. Rav Soloveitchik consistently subjected all that he encountered and confronted to his unyielding belief in the truth of the Torah, a truth that he cast in absolute, objective and eternal terms. Rav Soloveitchik clung fiercely to the full-throated declaration that Judaism is “best fitted for the attainment of the ultimate good,” and that one day “our faith will rise from particularity to universality.” He understood that encounter and confrontation in the context of dialogue could not function within such determinately parochial bounds, and would invariably require compromises, subtle (and not so subtle) forms of self-censorship, and gestures both symbolic and substantive. This is what Rav Soloveitchik feared; this is what “Confrontation” would not abide.

[1] Although Dr. Korn has explained the original context here and why he adopts a Catholic “frame of reference” and focuses on Jewish-Catholic dialogue, it is not insignificant that “Confrontation” avoided particular references to Catholics, and with the exception of one section, preferred to speak of other faith communities rather than Christianity. This point deserves further consideration.