"Confrontation," Religious Freedom, and Theological Dialogue

Rabbi Joseph H. Ehrenkranz

Rabbi Joseph H. Ehrenkranz is the Executive Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding of Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Connecticut. He is also Rabbi Emeritus of the Congregation Agudath Sholom, Stamford, Connecticut, where he served as rabbi for 45 years.


Some time ago, I was a student of Rabbi Soloveitchik for three years. He taught Tuesdays and Wednesdays and would walk into the classroom followed by someone carrying a pile of his books, which he would allude to or consult during the class. The week before, he had assigned the sources that we were to prepare for class. He would ask, “Has everyone prepared and studied the sources?” There would be murmurs and nods by the students. He would continue, “I have a question. Can you help me with this question?” He would then ask the question of the day and invariably we would not be able to answer it adequately, if at all. He would then say, “It does not bother me that you are unable to answer the question fully. However, there seems to be a contradiction in the sources. How could you claim to be prepared when you had not considered this question?” Thus would begin our delightful confrontation with the texts, tradition and each other.

The present discussion begun by Rabbis David Berger, Eugene Korn, and Aryeh Klapper on Rabbi Soloveitchik’s great 1964 essay “Confrontation,” asks us to help answer a central question: What appropriate forms are Jewish-Christian relations and dialogue to take, here and now? It is not a belated question, but rather, a perennial one. American Orthodox Jewry is convinced that whatever one’s conclusions may be, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s writings must be a foundational source to consider when setting the parameters for our discussions. 

It seems at first glance that regardless of our present deliberations our minds have been made up. Most of us in one way or another have been or are engaged in theological dialogue with Christians. If our own engagement in dialogue has failed to avoid theological questions, then have we not a priori disregarded R. Soloveitchik’s counsels? Does this conversation, then, amount to mere lip service to the Rav?

It certainly seems so to some. Erica Brown in her mischievously-titled “Un-Response” asserts that “the Centrist Orthodox movement cannot maintain vibrancy by second-guessing a giant who lies sleeping.” She is rightly concerned that R. Soloveitchik’s “spiritual and intellectual legacy” today receives less attention than it should – but she goes on to insinuate that the consensus in this conversation is that “Confrontation” should be put out to pasture, so to speak, for its perceived obsolescence. I think Judaism is a vibrant and meaningful religion precisely because of our process of deliberately waking up our giants and wrestling with them in the expansive fields of truth.

Rabbi Korn interprets the Rav as presuming there to be a difference between dialogue of individuals and dialogue between institutions. As far as relationships between individuals, I have experienced innumerable interactions with Christians which have strengthened me on my path to becoming a better Jew. Institutional dialogue has been equally powerful but is more difficult to describe. Institutional structure and modes of discourse are very different for Christians and Jews. We remember the unfortunate  “institutional” theological disputations between leaders of the Catholic Church and rabbis in medieval Europe, which often ended in ignominious persecutions against the religious and human freedom of the Jewish community. As one would expect, the Rav clearly warns against such engagements, but as Rabbi Berger aptly notes, such an obvious warning was hardly necessary. Two decades after the Shoah, hostility by individuals and institutional antagonism towards Judaism could scarcely be considered impotent; therefore, the Rav’s wisdom must lie behind the obvious.

The uniqueness of our time is that the institutional Catholic Church is leading rather than grudgingly following an enormous rethinking of attitudes toward Judaism and the Jewish people. Rabbi Korn’s synopsis of the positive developments in Catholic teaching is not nearly exhaustive – a very encouraging fact. It has come time for us to trust in the genuine teshuva  (“unmotivated by external fear,” as Rabbi Klapper observes) symbolized in the figure of John Paul II praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Certain crimes can never find recompense, but in my experience working at a Catholic university, I believe that the Catholic Church has committed itself to the eradication of the seeds of future injuries within its teaching and practice. This commitment has not gone unnoticed by many of us, and the 1965 Vatican II document Nostra Aetate is seen as the watershed for more recent developments. The importance of this document’s assertions cannot be overstated, especially as they pertain to Jews from the vantage point of Catholicism. However, I believe that another document of Vatican II, called Dignitatis Humanae (Declaration on Religious Liberty), should not be overlooked because it allows for the important ideas in Nostra Aetate to be properly understood.

Issued about five weeks after Nostra Aetate, this document helps to situate the philosophical and theological assumptions of the rights, freedoms and responsibilities of each person, grounded in one’s human dignity, ultimately rooted in the divine law. Dignitatis Humanae asserts the universal, incorruptible, and fundamental human right to religious freedom, and in so doing, addresses some of the very concerns of “Confrontation” even more directly than does Nostra Aetate. Nor has it been less influential than Nostra Aetate in the shaping of post-Vatican II Catholic thought. A central passage in this declaration reads:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others within due limits. The Council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.[1]

Two crucial points emerge from this striking text. First, the Church is advocating a position that only a century earlier was understood to be heterodox. Indeed, in 1864, Pope Pius IX promulgated his Syllabus of Errors, which condemned, among other things, the notion that “every human being is free to embrace and profess that religion which, led by the light of reason, he believes to be true.”[2] With Dignitatis Humanae, the very same notion, formerly condemned, became official Church teaching.

Second, this text states that it is inherent in one’s nature as a reasoning human being to be able to perceive the urgent necessity of religious freedom and for individuals and institutions to act accordingly. Notwithstanding the evidence of selfishness and evil in the world, in this assertion the Church is in fact reaching out to all people of good will and is approaching them (us) as equal partners and sojourners in search of truth. Dignitatis Humanae is in large part addressed to Christians, but its language makes clear the Church’s intent to promote religious freedom not only for the whole world, but with the whole world. The rational apprehension of human dignity, though often informed or strengthened by religious belief, is part and parcel of the common commitment to religious freedom shared by Christians, Jews, and other groups and individuals for whom peaceful human development is a goal.

These statements of the institutional church represent the normative teaching of Catholics with respect to people of other faiths (and even atheists and agnostics). Furthermore, the teaching pontificate of John Paul II has tirelessly emphasized to an entire generation of Catholics the social, philosophical, and theological imperative of religious freedom. Before the Second Vatican Council, such ideas were nearly unthinkable; but after the Council and John Paul II, their reversal or abandonment is even less imaginable.

Religious freedom of this sort may set a secure stage for certain forms of interaction; but now what about theological dialogue? I do not believe the Rav’s essay constitutes a halakhic injunction against it. Rather, he is reaching out to us and asking for our help with a difficult and engaging question. The answers to this question will help us to approach two profound insights.

First, the Rav challenges us to remember the incomprehensibility of God and appropriately demonstrates the practical impossibility of exploring the utter vastness of human communication and experiences of the Divine. The “word of faith”[3] cannot be related simply to another, however, the pursuit of truth, which leads to holiness, requires that we study and learn from others. But which others? Little or nothing can be gained from confrontations with those who are arrogantly ignorant or those who seek to convert, or those who threaten one’s life. It is the pursuit of truth in a context of mutual respect that equalizes and dignifies us as God’s people. Despite their divergent positions, both Hillel and Shamai pursued truth and spoke the words of God, and we are better for it. This is wise teaching: a balance of appropriate reverence, caution, and openness to others is essential to walk the path of truth which leads, above all, to holiness.  

Even if we were to agree that communication of the deepest experiences of faith is impossible and for some even undesirable, it leads us to a second insight: What does God want from us that we should or can accomplish together? We cannot do all things alone, we must work together. Halakha is what guides us and is informed by wisdom and a tradition that leads us to living an ethical life. This ethical living requires that we work together for justice and achieve peace by tikkun olam. But, again, with which others must we work to achieve peace? I am convinced that Jews and Christians must do so together, without blurring the essential distinctions that remain between our communities and without placing one community in a position of superiority over the other. A partnership in pursuit of truth and peace is equal or it is nothing; with the lofty moral aims that Jews and Christians share, equality in our collaboration is all the more imperative. To pursue peace in the world is the foremost task of all people. We must pursue this task together, for peace by its very nature demands that all fully participate in its achievement.

I close with an open question: when we work together to pursue truth or achieve aims of an ethical or social nature, are not Jews and Christians entering into a de facto theological relationship? I see no danger in admitting this, and furthermore, I think it will help to define our relationship more clearly than would otherwise be possible. Whether or not Christianity can be accurately described in terms of avodah zorah, the ethical and social efforts of Christians themselves are aimed at discerning the will of the God of Israel for the world. This entails theology. Social action and working for justice by Jews and Christians is per se guided by theological convictions and commitments rooted in a theological worldview. Given that social and ethical cooperation is an imperative for both religious communities today, it seems that our relationship must honestly confront and embrace its theological dimension.

This theological ‘confrontation’ must occur at the level of leadership, where mutual trust first develops between individuals of good will and can extend to institutions. Theological dialogue retains the inherent dangers and ambiguities described by Rabbi Soloveitchik when it is practiced without extensive religious formation and preparation. Religious leaders must fulfill their particular mandates, in this instance by engaging in theologically-guided collaboration, the fruits of which will be reaped by the laity. There are several centers in North America devoted to this task, including the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding of Sacred Heart University, of which I serve as executive director (or the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College who convened and host this symposium). Though the profundity of the experience of faith cannot be fully shared, the expression of ethical goals must be contextualized theologically if we are to cooperate as God intends. The leadership of the Catholic Church and other Christian churches has opened its doors to such mutually beneficial dialogue in the past 40 years, and through deliberations such as this conversation, Jews are bringing their rich traditions and insights to the service of the world.

I believe a deeper understanding of the Rav’s essay and his life’s witness will only help us to achieve the healing of humanity that we seek, for Rabbi Soloveitchik spares no subtlety in describing the difficulties that lie ahead. Being personally committed to fostering understanding between Jews and Christians, I hope the Rav’s wisdom will continue to guide us in our questioning as we enter into a new age of mutual respect, dialogue and friendship.

[1] The Second Vatican Council, Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), 1965, #2.

[2] Pope Pius IX, Syllabus of Errors: Appendix to the encyclical Quanta Cura, 1864.

[3] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Confrontation,” 1964. Included with permission at the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning website, www.bc.edu/research/cjl.