"Orthodoxy is Reticence" – Taking Theology Seriously

Rabbi Dr. Shalom Carmy

Shalom Carmy teaches Philosophy and Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University, where he is Chair of Jewish Studies Division of Yeshiva College.


Eugene Korn suggests that "Confrontation" should not be read as a halakhic responsum because it is written in English. At one level, the statement is incorrect. Alfasi and Maimonides, among others, addressed their audiences in the vernacular. R. Soloveitchik penned many responsa in English in his capacity as Chairman of the Rabbinical Council of America's Halakhah Commission. Yet the statement is right in a deeper sense. Here, as in other halakhic responsa, the Rav is concerned to explain his halakhic and religious orientation, reaching out to people whose entire outlook may be distant from our own, more than to offer technical justification in the mode of typical 20th century poskim. Hence the rabbinical reader searches in vain for detailed analysis of halakhic questions like the precise status of Christianity from a Jewish perspective or the technical parameters of studying Torah with non-Jews. What is at stake is a way of apprehending the world. The reader who cannot enter into this vision will invariably experience sullen incomprehension or else will try valiantly but mechanically to follow the letter of the Rav's guidelines without grasping the larger picture. In a word, to borrow a phrase the Rav used in similar contexts: Jewish-Christian dialogue cannot be treated as one would a question about the kashrut of fish.

Nobody familiar with the full range of the Rav's published writings and lectures can deny that he found Christian thought helpful in working out and communicating his own ideas. It is simply impossible to follow him without considering his appreciation and critique of Kierkegaard, Otto, Scheler, Newman, Barth, Brunner, and Niebuhr among others. He differed from other contemporary rabbinic authorities not only in the breadth and depth of his intellectual life, but also in revealing these pursuits to the public. Offhand there seems to be no difference between reacting to Barth in the library and interacting with him, or with those like him, in person.

However, the Rav vividly perceived and articulated the intimacy between God and the individual and between God and His people. One cannot communicate to an outsider, without distortion and objectification, the secret life of Torah, its study and fulfillment, any more than a refined person would "dialogue" explicitly with friends and acquaintances about his most intimate family relations. Often, as with human love, precisely the unique gestures and turns of phrase that an outsider is liable to dismiss as insignificant are those that defy paraphrase and explanation. Modesty is not only a matter of external garb. It is a reticence about exposing human and communal singularity. Though the Rav could present this orientation in the language of Kierkegaard and Barth, it is rooted in the traditional halakhic conception of Torah as part of a sacred covenant between God and Israel for which the conjugal image is a suitable metaphor. The Rav would probably have liked Auden's line: "Orthodoxy is reticence."

All this may sound absurd to those for whom the theological singularity of Jewish existence and Torah is at best an intellectual formula rather than a vivid, pervasive experience, and it is alien to a compulsively talkative culture that sees reticence as an obstacle to overcome. Clearly there are situations when speaking of private matters to outsiders, or in public, is vulgar and degrading. Yet even refined people sometimes allow friends and acquaintances, themselves excluded from their lonely communion, some measure of access to their intimate lives. Such attempts at communication, however inadequate, are often dignified and valuable and useful. The fully "orthodox," who have internalized the Rav's attitude to Torah and Jewish singularity and share Auden's esteem for reticence, may require fewer reminders and constraints. Policy, however, requires general guidelines. Though no rigid set of guidelines can prescribe the appropriate behavior and nuance for every case, the Rav, in "Confrontation" and subsequent documents, undertook to provide them.

Of course, Jewish-Christian dialogue is more problematic than the personal analogy with which I began. When I speak to my neighbor I encounter another individual; though a Jew may develop a significant friendship with his, or her, Christian counterparts, official dialogue is a transaction between organizations. While the most productive moments of dialogue may take place in private, the ostensible framework of dialogue is that of public discourse measured by results, joint statements and so forth. Then the professed goals of the participants are incompatible. The most tolerant Christian, for instance, firmly believes that I would be a lot better off if I accepted the divinity of Jesus; the most empathetic Jew firmly rejects the idea of a human being who is divine. As Francis Cardinal Arinze put it recently: the fact that dialogue must be kept separate from propaganda or missionary activity does not invalidate the latter.1  This introduces a pressure not common in ordinary neighborly relations.

Lastly, the historic hatred and contempt of the past two millennia adds a formidable barrier to authentic communication. Despite the best intentions one is tempted to bargain for a more advantageous position, to make or demand concessions, to wheedle and to coax, to impose one's agenda and vocabulary. We all hope and pray that the improved atmosphere of our generation is permanent. But we academicians tend to focus too much on the Christian circles that have proven congenial, ignoring those beyond our ken. Within that narrow ambit one cannot overlook the fact that conditions making for present amity may not persist. Currently, our Christian brethren and we share a mutual fear of the menace posed by secularism. If the secularist danger abates (a major goal of our work together!) that motive would weaken. Consciousness of the Holocaust as a religious catastrophe has affected the attitudes of veteran Christian theologians. There is no guarantee that younger generations will respond in the same manner. When R. Soloveitchik wrote forty years ago, few would have predicted the hostility to Israel that now plays a role in liberal mainline Protestant churches, just as few anticipated the collapse of Communism. I enjoy and value my interactions with Christian colleagues and thus have no inclination to perpetuate hostility. The 20th century, however, has been exceptionally hard on prophets of inevitable progress in human relations.

It should be evident by now that I find perspicuous the Rav's emphasis on the difficulty of communicating intimate religious insight and that I don't consider developments in the Roman Catholic or any other church to have superseded his ruling. However, because our subject is not as unambiguous as the kashrut of fish, it may be misleading to apply the Rav's categories in a mechanical way. The line between discussion of social and ethical matters and "theology" is not always easily drawn. Take an (oversimplified) example: Judaism insists that forgiveness requires repentance; Christianity does not. Few questions have greater import for personal, social and political ethics. If Jews and Christians can talk about anything beyond nuts and bolts political cooperation, they should be able to talk about this. Given the rich cultural and psychological dimensions of forgiveness and revenge, these should be areas where both sides can learn. Within the last year First Things has published two articles by Orthodox Jewish writers on this topic.2 Nonetheless, precisely because of its moral salience, it is hard to think of any subject that lays bare the most intimate religious passions of Christian and Jew. Unless one bleaches the debate of its living doctrinal substance-and the Rav explicitly recognizes that requiring men of faith to bracket their deepest experiences constitutes unacceptable censorship-- it ruthlessly brings to the surface questions about atonement, justification, faith and works, and so on. To discuss these matters with honesty, without compromising one's own convictions or bullying or taking refuge in empty generalities, demands the utmost in sophistication and tact. As much as trinitarianism informs much work in moral theology, the thorny metaphysical issues concerning the Trinity are mere logic-chopping by comparison. Guidelines are no substitute for common sense, dignity and humility.

I am surprised by the suggestion that the Rav's essay had a chilling effect on Orthodox Jewish comprehension of Christianity and appreciation of Christians as individuals. Are we to understand that until 1964 the Modern Orthodox maintained a lively interest in Christian theology, eagerly awaiting each new volume of Barth's Church Dogmatics and Rahner's Theological Investigations, and that the Rav's reservations about public dialogue abruptly or gradually brought this intellectual activity to a standstill? If so, one would expect non-Orthodox rabbis and intellectuals, whose education in Christian theology has continued unimpeded by the Rav's strictures for the past forty years, to be well versed in the discipline. Meanwhile, as Jewish Studies and Philosophy students at Yeshiva University encounter members of the "community of the many" who influenced their teachers, and debate excitedly more recent figures like Dulles, Lindbeck, Hauerwas and Milbank, I don't know whether theologically liberal Jews are doing the same.

Though it has become common for many Modern Orthodox to blame their deficiencies on the rabbinic elite, the Rav is not responsible for this one. Indifference to and ignorance of Christianity is part and parcel of the American academy's tendency to marginalize religion and deprecate religion's intellectual resources. To treat religion, and its cognitive demands, with respect, is to confront the very difficulties the Rav addressed in "Confrontation" and elsewhere. The intractable conflict of incommensurable ideals and beliefs that cannot be resolved by invoking neutral, universal secular standards, before which the various religions are judged, engenders discomfort and loneliness. For modern Jews, taking theological distinctiveness seriously is perceived as an obstacle to integration in American life; going along with secularism is not perceived as harmful. The solution is to downplay or oppose the positive contribution of Christianity in American life and, correspondingly, to reduce halakhic Judaism to behavior devoid of distinctive intellectual commitment.

Some years ago, after a lecture at an Ivy League university, an Orthodox student confided that she had wanted to major in Philosophy but switched to Psychology upon discovering that the Philosophy department was populated by Christians. I asked whether the psychology professors were aligned with Orthodox perspectives on free will, sexuality and other controversial matters. She fell silent and admitted that nobody had ever raised that question before. It was hard not to contrast this exchange with the conduct of my revered teacher R. Aharon Lichtenstein, the Rav's son-in-law and primary disciple, who chose to write his doctorate in English under the scholar who unabashedly upheld the ideals of Christian humanism.3 I also recall the story I heard from another of the Rav's loyal students, R. Walter Wurzburger. When RCA officers balked at organizational participation in a Catholic initiated conference on "Man as the Image of God," on the grounds that this was "theology," the Rav remarked sarcastically that a conclave on "Man as a Purely Naturalistic Being" would not have set off the same alarms.

The guidelines produced by R. Soloveitchik on behalf of the RCA can be followed in a bureaucratic spirit. Doing so will avoid error and enhance mutual respect, even if it is unlikely to yield insight. Seeking out cosmetic, non-confronted dialogue by evading the conflicts and loneliness at the core of the Rav's thinking, insensitive to the reticence that befits Orthodoxy, is incompatible with passionate commitment and intellectual self-respect. Such intellectual Marranism continues the policy of passive accommodation to the dominant intellectual culture of liberal secularism. Whoever wishes to continue the Rav's creative confrontation with the giants of Christian thought can do so, with dignity, humility, courage and reticence, within the frame of reference developed for us by the Rav and in his spirit.


1.  For salient categories of inter-religious activities see Arinze: Meeting Other Believers: the risks and rewards of interreligious dialogue (Huntington, Indiana, 1998).

2.  See Meir Soloveichik, "The Virtue of Hate" (First Things, February 2003) and S. Carmy, "Taking Forgiveness Seriously" (First Things, April 2003).

3.  On Harvard's English department in the mid-1950s, see William Pritchard, English Papers (Saint Paul, Minnesota, 1995) 53-106.