Orthodox Judaism and Jewish-Christian Dialogue

Dr. Michael Wyschogrod

Michael Wyschogrod is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Baruch College of the City University of New York. 

In response to the Center's invitation to contribute to this online conversation, Prof. Wyschogrod requested that we post this paper, delivered on Jan. 28, 1986 at the mid-winter conference of the Rabbinical Council of America.  It is one of the earliest critiques of Rabbi Soloveitchik's "Confrontation." Some minor editorial revisions or comments appear in square brackets to provide updated information or to avoid date confusion.  


For several decades now, Jews have participated in Jewish-Christian dialogue. Prior to World War II, this was hardly an issue. There simply was not anywhere in the world organized and sustained contact between the Jewish community and church bodies. Here and there, individual Jews may have had personal contact with a minister, a priest, or some church personality. But this was strictly personal rather than organizational. As the situation of European Jewry continued to deteriorate under Nazi rule, such contacts became more frequent simply as a result of the urgency of the situation. Sometimes such contacts led to the saving of Jews and sometimes they did not, depending largely on the persons involved, their views of Jews, their courage or lack of it and a whole host of other considerations. One can only wonder whether the outcome would have been different if Jewlsh-Christian relations had been more developed before the Nazi period. We will, of course, never have an answer to this question. But it is possible that had there been stronger bonds between the two communities, had church leaders known more Jews as human beings, the response of the churches to Nazi crimes might have been more vigorous. It is, after all, easier to ignore pleas from strangers than from those with whom one has a long-standing relationship.

Be that as it may, the fact is that after World War II, a process of reassessment of Jews and Judaism began to make itself felt in the churches. The most visible example of this was the process during Vatican II that led, in 1965, to the promulgation of Nostra Aetate in which the Council, among other things, recognized the continuing election of the Jewish people and pronounced the teaching that all Jews are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus false. Throughout the ages this teaching had been one of the most virulent sources of anti-Semitism and while declaring it false may have been long overdue, there is no doubt that had Vatican II ignored this question, Jews would have been worse off than they are.

Theoretically, what transpired at Vatican II was an inner-Christian matter of concern to the Roman Catholic Church alone. In practice, because of the long history of Christian anti-Semitism based on the charge of deicide, the outcome of Vatican II became a matter of serious concern to the world Jewish community. Much of the original impetus toward Nostra Aetate had come from an audience that Pope John XXIII had granted to Jules Isaac, the French-Jewish author of The Teaching of Contempt and later when the declaration on relations with Judaism seemed in danger, Abraham Heschel, representing the American Jewish Committee, was received by Pope Paul VI. It is during this period that the groundwork was laid for the web of Jewish-Christian contacts that has developed over the years. These relations have been with the Roman Catholic Church, the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation and a number of other international and national Christian organizations. On the Jewish side, the participants have included the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, B'nal Brith, Synagogue Council of America, and the Israel Interfaith Association, among others.

But almost from the beginning, a certain atmosphere of controversy has surrounded this activity. There were voices raised against the Heschel visit with the Pope earlier mentioned. It was said that it was not dignified to lobby the church to forgive Jews for the crime of deicide. The more right-wing Orthodox bodies, such as the Agudath Israel, have consistently opposed Jewish-Christian dialogue in principle. Their first and almost only Jewish priority is the survival of a Torah-true Jewish people which they identify with the struggle against assimilation in all of its aspects. Guided by Balaam's words (Num. 23:9), "I see a people that dwells alone, that has not made itself at one with the nations," right-wing Orthodoxy believes that Jewish dwelling alone requires a minimum of contact with non-Jews since contact invariably brings with it the absorption of foreign values and modes of thought. Were rabbis, priests', and ministers to be seen mixing easily, the Jewish public would quickly draw the inference that such social intercourse with gentiles is acceptable. Assimilation and intermarriage cannot be far behind such a removal of barriers. This is particularly true of interaction with churches whose real motivation, in the view of many Orthodox Jews, is a missionary one: the hope to convert Jews to the true faith. [T]he press [has] reported the opinion of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading Torah authority, that all dialogue with church representatives on any topic is forbidden by the Torah. Rabbi Feinstein and other right-wing Orthodox leaders recognize that on certain issues (e.g., abortion, homosexuality, pornography, etc.) the Torah point of view and that of, for example, the Roman Catholic Church coincide. On such selected topics they have not hesitated to issue statements that parallel Roman Catholic and other positions. There is also reason to believe that, from time to time, there is contact between right-wing Orthodox groups and some church bodies to exchange views and coordinate policies. But this is done very confidentially so that no publicity results. While resulting policy statements may parallel each other, they are never issued jointly with any Christian body but only in the name of the Orthodox Jewish body without taking notice of the coincidence of view with any other organization.

While all this is true of right-wing Orthodoxy, it is not true of the Orthodoxy grouped around Yeshiva University. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations (OU) represent the rabbinic and congregational segment of the Orthodoxy that is usually not referred to as right-wing Orthodoxy. This group is sometimes referred to as cent[rist] Orthodoxy, left-wing Orthodoxy, modern Orthodoxy, or some similar expression. Committed to Torah-true Judaism, this segment of Orthodoxy does not reject modernity but is convinced that loyalty to Torah and secular education make for a good synthesis of the best in Judaism and Western culture. This is the reason that Yeshiva University includes a college, a medical school and a variety of graduate programs. This Orthodoxy does not reject all dialogue with Christian organizations, only theological dialogue. Dialogue about social and ethical issues such as poverty, war. Justice and international relations is acceptable but dialogue about specifically religious or theological issues is not. Because the RCA and the OU belong[ed] to the Synagogue Council of America (SCA) which, in addition to the Orthodox rabbinic and congregational bodies mentioned also include[d] their Conservative and Reform counterparts, and because the SCA operate[d] on a principle of unanimity, the Orthodox rejection of theological dialogue [became] the policy of the SCA. And because the SCA [was] a member of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), a coalition consisting of American Jewish Committee, World Jewish Congress, ADL, B'nal Brith, Israel Interfaith Association and SCA, the policy against theological dialogue, at least in theory, [became] the policy of IJCIC. The leverage that the Orthodox bodies thus exercise is considerable. [Note: The Synagogue Council of America disbanded in 1994 after the Orthodox representatives withdrew. It has since been succeeded, but without Orthodox participation, by the National Council of Synagogues, which does participate in theological dialogue.]

Within Orthodoxy there are then two basic positions with respect to Jewish-Christian interaction: the right-wing view that rejects all such interaction as dangerous to Jewish survival and the centrist or modern Orthodox position which rejects theological or religious contact but permits contact on social and political issues as long as these issues do not involve significant questions of faith. How is the latter position justified?

The justification is found in an article, "Confrontation," by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the dominant religious voice in American modern Orthodoxy, in the Spring-Summer, 1964, issue of Tradition, the "Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought" published by the RCA. Because this article has determined the position of modern Orthodoxy on Jewish-Christian dialogue and because of the scope and caliber of its thought. It is a piece of writing that deserves careful analysis, especially after [some time has] passed since its appearance and it is now possible to evaluate its consequences in the real world of Jewish-Christian interaction.

The article is divided into two parts, the first which deals with three images of man in the biblical creation account while the second deals directly with Jewish-Christian relations. The connection between the two parts of the article is never made explicit though there is an important connection that the reader can infer. 

The three images of man are the natural, the confronted or normative man, and the man of reciprocal confrontation. Natural man is continuous with nature, hedonistic, in pursuit of beauty and pleasure, very similar to the esthetic stage of Kierkegaard. Confronted man is the recipient of a divine norm which stands over and against him and which lifts him out of his immediacy with nature. This man "is no longer happy, he begins to examine his station in this world and he finds himself suddenly assailed by perplexity and fear, and especially loneliness." (p.10). There is a strong resemblance between Soloveitchik's second image of man and Kierkegaard's ethical stage. Finally, the third level of man is the confrontation between "two equal subjects, both lonely in their otherness and uniqueness, both opposed and rejected by an objective order, both craving for companionship." (p.14). This is man confronted by Eve, his wife. Focusing on Gen. 2:18 which speaks of Eve as ezer kenegdo (lit. a helper, against him), Soloveitchik explains that "in spite of our sociability and outer-directed nature, we remain strangers to each other. Our feelings of sympathy and love for our confronter are rooted in the surface personality and they do not reach into the inner recesses of our depth personality which never leaves its ontological seclusion and never becomes involved in a communal existence." (p.16). In short, even in the deepest and most authentic human relationship possible, only an external aspect of the personality is shared while in the core of our being, "the inner recesses of our depth personality," we remain alone.

Having sketched these three human possibilities, Soloveitchik, in the second part of his article, turns to the specifics of the Jewish-Christian encounter. The Jew, argues Soloveitchik, belongs to two communities, the human and the Jewish. "We have always considered ourselves an inseparable part of humanity...," (p.20) writes Soloveitchik, who "are committed to the general welfare and progress of mankind," and "We are interested in combating disease, in alleviating human suffering, in protecting man's rights, in helping the needy, et.cetera..." (pp.20-21). Because this is so, we are prepared to deal with Christianity with respect to the secular problems that we both face. "In the secular sphere," he writes," we may discuss positions to be taken, ideas to be evolved, and plans to be formulated. In these matters, religious communities may together recommend action to be developed and may seize the initiative to be implemented later by general society." (p.24). The Jew participates in this activity in his capacity as a member of humanity who is "committed to the general welfare and progress of mankind."

But, continues Soloveitchik, "it is important that the religious or theological logos should not be employed as the medium of communication between two faith communities whose modes of expression are as unique as their apocalyptic experiences." (p.24). "The word of faith," according to Soloveitchik," reflects the intimate, the private, the paradoxically inexpressible cravings of the individual for and his linking up with the Maker. It reflects the luminous character and the strangeness of the act of faith of a particular community which is totally (my emphasis) incomprehensible to the man of a different faith community." (pp.23-24). He concludes: "As a matter of fact, our common interests lie not in the realm of faith, but in that of the secular orders." (p.24). Having said this, Soloveitchik adds a most revealing footnote; "The term 'secular orders' is used here in accordance with its popular semantics. For the man of faith, this term is a misnomer. God claims the whole, not a part of man, and whatever He established as an order within the scheme of creation is sacred." (p.24).

But if, in fact, there is no distinction, for the man of faith, between the secular and the sacred order, then how can we prescribe cooperation about secular but not about sacred matters? If Orthodox Jewish representatives sit down with church representatives to discuss nuclear war, poverty, abortion, or any other "secular" issue, can the Orthodox Jew keep his faith out of the discussion? He can, I suppose, enumerate his position on those questions and refuse to discuss his reasons for holding those positions. But is that feasible? People have a right to know why I hold the position I do and I can only tell them by explaining my faith, my obedience to the written and oral Torah and the methods of exegesis I use to interpret these authoritative texts. It is simply not possible to split a Jew into two, demanding of him to keep what is most important about his very identity out of the dialogue. All Jewish values are ultimately rooted in revelation and to pretend otherwise is to play a charade which will convince no one. The option is whether to talk with Christians or not to talk with them. If we refuse to talk with them, we can keep theology and everything else out of the dialogue. If we do not refuse to talk with them, we cannot keep what is most precious to us out of the discussion. 

Soloveltchik is right, of course, in his belief that there is something an outsider misses about a religion. He is also right, in the first part of his article, in pointing out that even that most intimate of human relationships, marriage, a certain loneliness persists because husband and wife remain distinct persons rather than fusing into one. But this loneliness need not be kept out of the dialogue between husband and wife. Buber tells us that meeting occurs between people and that it is possible to step out of the metaphysical solipsism that shuts each one of us into a spiritual solitary confinement. Kierkegaard thought that the "single one" must remain alone before God and therefore he did not marry. But Judaism demands marriage precisely because, as Jews, we reach each other and alleviate each other's loneliness. As a people constituted by God, we find our personal continuity in the continuity of the people.

The connection between the first and second parts of Soloveitchik's article is the parallel between the lonely individual who cannot share his loneliness with his helpmate (ezer) who also remains outside of him (kenegdo) and the "Jewish people who share a common humanity with all human beings but who also remain withdrawn and alone in their faith. It is clear that it is God's will that the Jewish people remain a distinct people and that they not dissolve into the nations of the world. But this mission does not correspond to a secret religion whose tenets must not be revealed to outsiders. The Gnostic mysteries made just this demand of its initiates. But the Torah is not a secret book, a kind of Masonic mystery cult. It is an open doctrine, intended first for the Jewish people but also of vital importance to others whose salvation is intimately connected with the Torah. And this is particularly true of Christians to whom, according to Maimonides, one may teach Torah because, unlike Moslems, they accept the Jewish bible as revealed by God. But since all teaching also involves learning, if Jews are required to teach they are also required to learn, which is as good a definition of dialogue as will be found.

But even if it is clear now that the formula "secular dialogue, yes, theological dialogue, no" is not tenable, why have any dialogue at all? Why not accept Rabbi Feinstein's opinion that there ought to be no dialogue, secular or theological? The answer is simple. Not to speak to my fellow man or to my fellow faith community is not a neutral stance. Not to be on speaking terms with someone is the last stage before violence, is, in a sense, the precondition of violence. To speak with my fellow man is the natural state of peaceful coexistence. Abraham did not refrain from speaking with his fellow man. His election had as its purpose the blessing of all of humanity (Gen.12:3) which was not to be realized by imposing on Abraham a list of taboo subjects about which he was not to speak to the wanderers who took advantage of his hospitality. It is difficult for me to believe that Abraham was reluctant to discuss with visitors his love of God, God's promises to him, the trials and tribulations through which he had gone, his faith, and his hope. As descendants of Abraham, need we become more taciturn?

The most basic self-interpretation of Judaism, it turns out, is therefore at stake. True, Judaism is not a missionary religion. We do not believe it to be God's will that all of humanity become Jewish. Gentiles who lead a basically moral life have a place in the world to come. But this does not mean that Judaism is indifferent to the fate of non-Jewish humanity. The election of Israel has as its purpose the salvation of all of humanity. If gentiles are bound by the Noachide covenant, how are they supposed to learn about this covenant except through theological dialogue with Israel? The Noachide covenant is not the natural law that Gentiles are Supposed to discover by means of good thinking. It is a set of commandments (mitzvot) of the God of Israel and must be obeyed, at least, according to one reading of Maimonides' text, because they are commanded by God, otherwise obedience to them is of limited value. But how can Gentiles enter into relationship with the God of Israel except through contact with the people of Israel? The duty of Israel is to spread knowledge of the God of Abraham by word and deed and this cannot be accomplished by withdrawing behind thick ghetto walls and pretending the rest of the world does not exist. Of course there are dangers to dialogue, particularly when Jewish faith is weak and many Jews are in active flight from their God-chosen destiny. But the avoidance of all danger is not the solution:it is a repudiation of Israel's assignment.

Finally, how have Rabbi Soloveitchik's guidelines worked in the Jewish-Christian dialogue of the past [decades]? As far as I can see, they have not prevented theological dialogue. In an article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung of March 8, 1984, Dr. Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich, the European Director of the B'nai Brith and a prominent participant in the work of IJCIC, writes:

For over 15 years, the leading Jewish organizations of the world, represented by their officials and Jewish scholars, are in regular dialogue with the representatives of the Vatican and of the World Council of Churches. At these dialogues it is not only practical problems, such as anti-semitism and the absence of Vatican recognition of Israel, that are discussed. Every spiritual theme that Jews and Christians deal with must include its history, its theology, and its whole existence. That has always been so.

Any objective examination of IJCIC conference themes will prove Ehrlich right. Here are some examples, chosen pretty much at random. At its meeting of April 4-5, 1979, IJCIC and the Vatican decided that a paper should be given dealing with "the problem of transmitting absolute religious values in the context of interreligious dialogue from Jewish and Christian perspectives." At a meeting of IJCIC with representatives of the Orthodox Church in Lucerne, Switzerland, March 16-18, 1977, Prof. Shemoryahu Talmon of the Hebrew University gave a paper on "The Torah as a Concept and Vital Principle in the Hebrew Bible." At an IJCIC-Anglican Theological Consultation held in England, Nov. 26-28, 1980, one of the topics discussed was "What is the legitimacy or need of an objective Law of God beyond situational ethics?" At another IJCIC-Vatican meeting, that of April 5-7, 1978, the late Prof. Sidney B. Hoenig delivered a paper on "A Survey of Jewish Scholarship Through the Ages on Jesus and Christianity." This list could be extended almost indefinitely. It must be remembered that since IJCIC include[d] the Synagogue Council and since the Synagogue Council include[d] the Rabbinical Council of America and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, IJCIC activities ha[d] Orthodox approval since, in light of the unanimity rule in the Synagogue Council, the Orthodox organizations exercise[d] a veto over IJCIC activities.

Theology enters Jewish-Christian dialogue because Jews and Christians cannot avoid talking theology when they discuss any issue since, for religious people, God and his will is the only guide through all problems. The Vatican recognizes this when it calls its office dealing with Judaism the "Commission for Religious (my emphasis) Relations With the Jews." Any Jewish group that refused to discuss religious or theological issues would have nothing to speak about to the Vatican. And the same is true of the World Council of Churches. And this is recognized more and more in Orthodox circles. The Shalom Hartman Institute for Judaic Studies in Jerusalem, directed by Dr. David Hartman, a well-known Orthodox rabbi, announced "A Christology Seminar" from Oct. 14 to Dec. 14, 1984. This seminar is a project of the Hartman Institute's "Center for Theology," directed by Paul M. van Buren, a prominent Protestant scholar with a deep interest in Judaism.

Rabbi Soloveitchik's article "Confrontation" ended the era of Orthodox withdrawal from Jewish-Christian dialogue. If experience and logic have shown that it is not possible to separate the secular from the religious, the dialogue must continue in accordance with its inner dynamics. Such a dialogue will not hurt Judaism. My experience has been that Jews who meet religious Christians emerge strengthened in their faith and grateful for the righteous gentiles who, through Christianity, have approached the God of Israel.