The Un-Response

Erica Brown

 Scholar-in-residence of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the director of the Jewish Leadership Institute.


I have chosen to respond to Dr. Eugene Korn’s compelling essay and to his respondents by ironically not addressing many of the issues he raises through Rabbi Soloveitchik’s "Confrontation," the essay that spurred this fruitful conversation. Whether or not Rabbi Soloveitchik would have supported interfaith dialogue today given the sea-change that has taken place in the Catholic Church since 1964 is a moot question. Rabbi Soloveitchik is sadly not with us. A host of articles that have questioned his hypothetical response to various innovations within the Centrist Orthodox community have proven personally frustrating to this reader. The better question is: is it fair to guess? Is it intellectually honest to presume, based on statements hither and thither from his actions, other articles or anecdotes, what he would have said? Rabbi Soloveitchik’s complex and sophisticated outlook on a plethora of issues should vitiate such attempts to second guess him. If, in raising this thorny issue, we are really asking this question because we want to know should we as Centrist Orthodox Jews engage in interfaith dialogue with Christians today then we must rely on the words of the living. The fact that we may lack the "one theologically sophisticated traditionalist with sufficient authority to craft appropriate and politically acceptable response" in Dr. Korn’s words should not prevent us from inviting the voices of the many in place of the one.

To formulate a response, I would like to journey back in time. Daniel Lasker summarizes medieval polemical arguments as taking three forms in his Jewish Philosophical Polemics Against Christianity in the Middle Ages: 1) min ha-ketuvim, exegetical arguments, 2) min ha-mitziut, historical arguments, and 3) min ha-sekhel, rational arguments. In a combative pose, we were forced to engage Christians on multiple levels of debate. Lasker suggest that the first two forms of confrontation were largely ineffective because Jews and Christians spoke past each other. Within their own scholarly contexts, Jews and Christians interpreted biblical texts and historical realities to support their respective positions. Interpretation is an unwieldy sword and is apt to change in the hands of its holder. Hermeneutic battles are virtually impossible to win. Consequently, Jews challenged Christian doctrines like transubstantiation, the virgin birth and the trinity through rational debate. Not surprisingly, for Jews, Christian doctrine always came up short. Nahmanides himself concluded in one of his famous disputations that only one brought up a Christian could adhere to its inner "logic." What Nahmanides wrote of Christianity is arguably true for all faiths; to understand one religion does not create automatic accessibility to others.

Nahmanides’ point supports the Rav’s statement in "Confrontation" (pp.23-24) that "The word of faith reflects the intimate, private and paradoxically inexpressible cravings of the individual for his Maker...which is totally incomprehensible to the man of a different faith community." Interestingly, Nahmanides does not say that a Christian should feel ashamed of the irrationality of his beliefs. His response is generous while being realistic (he may have had little choice given his audience). People brought up in faith communities learn to adapt their logical facilities to the tenets of their religion on the unarticulated premise (to borrow an expression) that the over-examined life may not always be worth living. While we might seek to ground faith in the anchors of rationality, believers of all religions understand that belief ultimately transcends reason.

Rabbi Soloveitchik charges that attempts to understand the inner logic of another faith are "absurd." This harsh word is picked apart by Dr. Korn, who claims that this position is "incoherent:" Korn cites the fact that Rabbi Soloveitchik did address interfaith audiences and did believe that expressions of faith could be articulated, proximally if not exactly. Dr. Korn then claims that, "What was absurd to him was any attempt at rational demonstration, scriptural analysis or logical deduction to prove or disprove faith." This statement, in light of Lasker’s observations, requires further edification. Can we confidently say that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s word choice is limited to spheres of logical deduction or rational demonstration alone? Faith is sculpted less through doctrine and dogma than through the nuances of behavior and ritual, custom and history. The word absurd may seem harsh but unequivocally communicates what authenticity seems to demand. No, we cannot organically understand other faiths, nor can books, lectures or inter-faith dialogue communicate the truths of a religion with adequacy. We may use the portals of history, literature or other scholarship to learn about another religion, but dialogue implies talking to and not talking past or looking over the artifacts of another person’s treasured beliefs.

It is in the spirit of this absurdity that Rabbi Soloveitchik’s essay "Confrontation" should still be read, and not merely as a contextual product of the times, as Dr. Korn argues. Notwithstanding the significant theological leaps made by the Vatican in the past decades, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s position still seems more honest. Some of that honesty is tied into the insecure ground we still tread. The Nostra Aetate is still too fresh against the backdrop of centuries of persecution to conclude, as Dr. Korn does, that it is "a theological journey that continues until this day and from which Christianity will likely never return." It is also hard to make distinctions between the strides that the official church has made doctrinally and the dilution of these changes into the minds of the average church-goer. A colleague of mine shared this incident with me a few months ago. Her seven year old daughter was told by a seven-year old neighbor that because she was Jewish she was going to hell. The Jewish parent chalked this up to childish incoherence until she asked her adult neighbor herself. "My son is not wrong. If you’re Jewish then you can’t be saved. Only Christ will save you." We may dismiss this as foolish or ignorant banter, but you can’t rewrite the prejudice of centuries in the blink of a historical eye. It will take centuries of doctrinal and behavioral changes to reach what Dr. Korn calls an authentic dialogue, one which is "free religious expression that is governed by legitimacy of difference and mutual respect." It is not enough to speak respectfully in our academic halls and journals. It is the inter-faith dialogue at fence posts and in subway carriages which will determine the impact of new church initiatives.

If this sounds politically incorrect, so be it. Political correctness cannot be bought at the price of historical dignity. Rethinking the proselytization of Jews is still not enough to bring us to authentic dialogue about our belief systems. And why must we talk about it? The work that Jews, Christians and Muslims have to do together to ameliorate the world will bring us together repeatedly in conversation. Christians may need to make theological space for Jews before partnering with them in the work of the world, but that conversation is largely an internal one and one that is gratefully taking place now. We do have a lot to talk about. It is the talk of compassion and charity; it is the cement of a Western society aching for moral guidance and belonging. Excuse my naive simplicity, but isn’t that enough to talk about? Do we need to talk so much? In terms of Rabbi Soloveitchik, we can thank him for provoking this commentary. At the same time, the Centrist Orthodox movement cannot maintain vibrancy by second-guessing the words of a giant who lies sleeping. We should not ask what he would have said or done, only what we should now do and say in his absence. Anything else diminishes from the spiritual and intellectual legacy that he did leave us. The fact that there may not be someone of his stature to ask today is our own fault. Our conversations outside the faith should come from a place of security; Centrist Orthodoxy may not be secure enough to invite these conversations. But perhaps by talking with those on the outside of our faith about tikkun olam, reapairing our broken world, we will come to heal ourselves by concentrating on the needs of others.