July 21, 2024
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M’pnai Darchei Shalom: Interfaith Dialogue in Modern Times

The election of a new pope raises again the question of the stance of the Orthodox world on interreligious relationships, particularly the relations between Christians and Jews. The question, specifically: In which arenas can Jews engage with Christians, and which areas are off the table?

What can Jews and Christians talk about?

To this deceptively simple question there is no simple answer.

Historically, relations between Christians and Jews were defined by theology—“teachings of contempt,” charges of deicide, “the wandering Jews” and so on, as articulated by early Church councils as central to the development and contouring of Christian theology. It is important to remember that anti-Judaism was a crucial dynamic in the shaping of the new religion, and was part of the justification for the Christian assertion, “We are Verus Israel, the true Jews.” The term-of-art is supersessionism: Christianity superseded Judaism; Christians were now the new, true Jews.

The turning point was, of course, the Second Vatican Council, convened by Angelo Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, culminating with Nostra Aetate, issued in 1966 by Pope Paul VI, which addressed the range of interreligious relationships. Nostra Aetate addresses evolving relationships between Muslims and Jews. The fourth section of NA is the “Jewish” section, which repudiated antisemitism and the charge of deicide, and which asserted that, from the Catholic perspective, Judaism has legitimacy as a faith-community.

But what have Christian-Jewish relations looked like for Jews? How have we Jews approached Christian-Jewish relations? More precisely, what are the differences in the ways in which our movements do interreligious?

Each movement has had its own approach to relating to Christians, each based on its own interpretation of halakha. Within the Orthodox world, there are two approaches. The mainstream Orthodox view of interreligious is based on a landmark address by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, subsequently published in 1964 in Tradition as “Confrontation,” in which Rabbi Soloveitchik laid out the guidelines for interfaith activity: DO interact and engage with Christians on matters that improve and enhance societal and conditions—war and peace, civil rights, social and economic justice, anything that comes under the rubric of tikkun olam—indeed, in the “public world of humanitarian cultural endeavors, communication among the various faith-communities is desirable and even essential.” But on issues that go to nature and essence of the faith-community—theology and theological dialogue—Rabbi Soloveitchik asserted a forthright “No.”

The Modern Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) adopted Rabbi Soloveitchik’s guidelines as policy for the Modern Orthodox world. Agudath Israel of America, representing the more sectarian “yeshiva velt,” for its part, took a much harder line: no interreligious activity at all, even on social justice issues. At the other end of the continuum, the Reform movement’s stance was that everything is on the table—and ought be on the table—including theology.

Whither interfaith dialogue? The answer to this question lies in the very word dialogue, which, in the interreligious arena, means discussion of issues—usually theological—over which there is little or no agreement. So we are not talking about Rabbi Soloveitchik’s “improving conditions of the world”; we are talking about the nature of the respective faith-communities. There has been healthy discussion within the Orthodox over theological dialogue world during the past decade. Indeed, there are significant voices calling for revision or rescission on the part of the Orthodox on the ban on interreligious theological dialogue.

Let us first understand Rabbi Soloveitchik’s view. First, purely theologically, to Soloveitchik true confrontation with God is possible only within the covenant or faith-community. This is not, by the way, a halakhic matter; there is no halakhic impediment to talking theology with non-Jews. The Jew confronts other—the “I-You” relationship, in Buber’s locution—through the covenantal faith community uniquely afforded him through the covenant God made with the Jews at Sinai. As Rabbi Soloveitchik put it, the “curtain of communication” falls when we engage as Jews in the confrontation unique to our faith-community. This confrontation, asserted Soloveitchik, is untranslatable to others and is not discussable. The content of our revelation cannot be the topic of conversation between Jews and non-Jews.

Second, as a practical matter, Rabbi Soloveitchik, writing in 1963 and 1964, was carrying the baggage of 2000 years of Christian supersessionism and conversionism, and he held the view—a legitimate view, at the time—that the Catholics were using Vatican II as the latest in a long line of conversionist vehicles. In the public address that later evolved into the essay “Confrontation,” Soloveitchik expressed his concerns about Vatican II, specifically with respect to overtures made to Jews, being used as a vehicle for old-fashioned proselytization. After all, the discussions were unprecedented, and Rabbi Soloveitchik was very sensitive to the issue. In other words, the Holy See’s motives, in Soloveitchik’s eyes, may not have been emollient or benign.

Go back to the question of the sanctity and exclusiveness of our confrontation: “The content of our revelation cannot be the topic of conversation between Jews and non-Jews.” Can’t it be? Ask contemporary Jewish thinkers. The conditions that informed Rabbi Soloveitchik’s expression in 1964 no longer obtain today. 2013 is not 1963. Whilst the theological underpinnings of “Confrontation” may yet be valid, so much has happened in the Church—“the six ‘R’s,” according to one Church theologian: the repudiation of Catholic antisemitism, the rejection of deicide, repentance after the Holocaust, review of teaching about Jews and Judaism, recognition of Israel, and rethinking of proselytizing Jews—that make the theological issues pale. Now the rejection of antisemitism and deicide require very little conceptual and philosophical development. The main challenge today is not clarification of these points, but their broad promulgation and implementation in the Catholic community. That has happened, for the most part, thanks mostly to the efforts of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II. Likewise, with respect to issues such as Israel (although this is a highly-nuanced area, not for this discussion). These are the issues, not theology, argue those who call for revision.

It is clear that a different concept of dialogue has emerged. Dialogue today does not attack the foundations of the other faith. It satisfies all of Rav Soloveitchik’s four conditions for theological engagement, namely, acknowledgment of the Jewish people as a vital faith-community; non-negotiability of the Jewish commitment to God; mutual non-interference with the faith of the other; and agreement that each community “has the right to live, create, and worship God in its own way, in freedom and dignity.” The Church has in numerous ways agreed with these pre-conditions. Dialogue today is not the antagonistic confrontation of Jacob and Esav of which the Rov spoke in 1964 in “Confrontation.”

The countervailing position has best been expressed by historian David Berger. “It is clear,” says Berger, “That Rabbi Soloveitchik assumed he was dealing, on the eve of Nostra Aetate, with a thoroughly supersessionist Catholicism whose adherents were interested in converting Jews.” But “Confrontation” is not exhausted, argue Berger and others, by depicting it as a warning against engaging in old-fashioned disputation. The call for dialogue in 1963 was not framed in disputational terms; that’s precisely why Rabbi Soloveitchik had to caution against it. The issue in “Confrontation,” and in the Rabbi Soloveitchik’s stance, is explicitly communicating a faith, not demonstrating the truth of a position. Says Berger, “The personal experience of a faith cannot be communicated.” So the argument goes.

For the record, as of today, there has been no formal revision of the RCA position on interfaith talks.

By Jerome Chanes

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