ORTHODOXY IN AMERICA
I was deeply touched by the article “Unbroken Faith” (by Bayla Sheva Brenner [spring 2016]), which featured profiles of familes who helped build Orthodoxy in America. The opening sentences of the article corrected the widely held misconception that Torah Judaism’s story in this country began in 1945, a misconception I have spoken and written about. Unfortunately, efforts to give those generations of stubbornly frum American Jews the recognition they deserve is sometimes viewed as an attempt to minimize the mesirus nefesh of those who suffered through the Holocaust and rebuilt Torah-true families in America. This is not the case. We need to recognize the generations of frum Jews in America who endured a different form of mesirus nefesh, and who are too often overlooked.
My family descends from grandparents on both sides who came to the US in the early 1920s and wrestled with many of the same trials to remain frum. We too have our own stories to tell. I offer my profound hakaras hatov to Ms. Brenner for presenting the story of “the other mesirus nefesh” of frum Jews in the twentieth century.
I enjoyed “Unbroken Faith—The Bienenfeld Family.” I am descended from the original Yaakov Bienenfeld’s brother, Rabbi Shlomo Zali Bienenfeld, who was a dayan in Warsaw. Rabbi Shlomo Bienenfeld also has many frum descendants in America that include ba’alei teshuvah, as well as prominent Gerrer chassidim in Israel. As a ba’al teshuvah, it is fascinating to find out that I am related to so many distinguished talmidei chachamim and yirei Shamayim.
CONFRONTING INTERFAITH DIALOGUE
In his erudite review-essay of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s The Living Tree: Studies in Modern Orthodoxy (spring 2016), Dr. David Berger critiques Rabbi Riskin’s advocacy of theological interaction with Christians as “based on a tendentious and indefensible reading of [Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s landmark essay] ‘Confrontation.’” Dr. Berger thus invokes the large question of the nature of the Jewish relationship with other faith communities, especially the Christian.
In the interreligious arena, dialogue means discussion of issues that come under the rubric of theology, over which there is little or no agreement. For the Orthodox world, the bearing around which the debate over dialogue turns is, of course, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s “Confrontation.” Yes, engage with other faith-communities in “improving conditions of the world,” counseled Rabbi Soloveitchik, but any discussion that goes to the core of the faith community—for example, theology—is off the table. “Confrontation,” which appeared in Tradition in 1964, was a direct response to the Vatican II discussions going on at that time that led to the watershed document Nostra Aetate.
On the question of discussion with non-Jews about the nature of respective faith-communities there has been healthy debate within the Orthodox world. Indeed, there are significant voices calling for revision or rescission on the part of the Orthodox on the Rav’s ban on interreligious theological dialogue.
To the Rav, true confrontation with God is possible only within the covenant or faith-community. As the Rav put it, the “curtain of communication” falls when we engage as Jews in the confrontation unique to our faith-community. This confrontation, asserted Rabbi 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.
Rav Soloveitchik, writing in 1963 and 1964, was carrying the baggage of 2,000 years of Christian supersessionism and conversionism, and he held the view that the Catholics were using Vatican II as another vehicle for conversion of Jews.
But what about the exclusiveness of our confrontation? “The content of our revelation cannot be the topic of conversation between Jews and non-Jews.” Can it not be? Any number of contemporary Jewish thinkers raise this question.
The conditions that informed Rabbi Soloveitchik’s expression in 1963 no longer obtain today. Whilst the theological underpinnings of “Confrontation” are yet valid, much has happened in the Church to make the theological issues pale. As one church theologian has put it, “the six ‘R’s”—the repudiation of Catholic anti-Semitism, the rejection of deicide, repentance after the Holocaust, review of teaching about Jews and Judaism, recognition of Israel and rethinking of proselytizing Jews—are a reality. It is true that the rejection of anti-Semitism 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. This indeed happened, for the most part, thanks mostly to the efforts of Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, in the 1990s. Likewise with respect to issues such as Israel, although this is a highly-nuanced arena deserving of its own discussion. These are the issues, not theology, argue those who call for revision.
Dialogue today does not attack the foundations of the other faith. Indeed, all of Rav Soloveitchik’s four conditions for theological engagement—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”—have been met. The Church has in numerous ways agreed to these conditions. Dialogue today is not the antagonistic confrontation of Jacob and Esau of which the Rav spoke in 1964 in “Confrontation.”
The countervailing position, that “Confrontation” ought not be rescinded, has best been expressed by Dr. Berger. “It is clear,” says Dr. 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 Dr. 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 Rav Soloveitchik had to caution against it. The issue in “Confrontation,” and in the Rav’s stance, is explicitly communicating a faith, not demonstrating the truth of a position. As Dr. Berger pressed the argument, “The personal experience of a faith cannot be communicated.”
To Dr. Berger, “Confrontation” is yet a done deal, and no rescission, or even revision, of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s protocol is called for. Nothing could be further from reality.
Two final points: First, the Rav himself and other Orthodox thinkers indeed learned from Christian theology. We need only take a peek at Rabbi Soloveitchik’s footnotes in Halakhic Man and elsewhere in his writings. So it turns out that core theology is not incommunicable. Indeed, there are parallels and insights that may be exchangeable between faiths.
Second, in the contemporary world Judaism and Christianity both are in need of chizuk in confronting aggressive secularism and radical Islamism. Might not dialogue enable each to help the other, and perhaps
Fellow, Center for Jewish Studies
CUNY Graduate Center
RABBI DR. DAVID BERGER RESPONDS
The evaluation of Rabbi Riskin’s discussion of “Confrontation” in my review was formulated with such brevity that I can begin my response by reproducing it almost in its entirety:
Essentially, [Rabbi Riskin] argues that Rabbi Soloveitchik was opposed to theological dialogue only under conditions that no longer apply given the changed attitude toward Judaism among Catholics, evangelicals and many mainstream Protestants. I responded at length to the Hebrew version of this essay.1 In my view, Rabbi Riskin’s argument is based on a tendentious and indefensible reading of “Confrontation” and is refuted by a simple fact. Rabbi Soloveitchik provided guidance to the RCA and OU with respect to interfaith dialogue even after the bulk of the changes to which Rabbi Riskin refers had already taken place. This guidance decidedly followed the principles set forth in “Confrontation.”
I am not prepared to say that this ends the discussion. Rabbi Riskin is not precluded from maintaining that the acute challenges facing Israel require cultivating Christian supporters even through the means of theological interaction, but this argument should be made without turning Rabbi Soloveitchik into an unwilling ally.
Mr. Chanes essentially reproduces Rabbi Riskin’s arguments without dealing in any substantive way with the points that I made in the Hebrew article to which I referred. He does cite a few assertions from my response to an article that had a major influence on Rabbi Riskin,2 but his presentation does not convey my arguments adequately. Let me then attempt to provide at least a taste of those arguments.
Rabbi Soloveitchik, as Mr. Chanes reports, affirmed that matters of religious faith cannot be communicated. This is a notoriously problematic assertion, and in an effort to explain the Rav’s intention, I suggested, in the formulation cited by Mr. Chanes, that he meant that “the personal experience of faith cannot be communicated.” (In the Hebrew essay, I added another point that cannot detain us here.) This was not proffered as my own reason for reservations about theological dialogue.
I went on to note that key elements of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s presentation go beyond the issue of incommunicability. These include some of the very conditions that Mr. Chanes and Rabbi Riskin consider inapplicable today. I then asserted that in my view, elements of the Rav’s concerns remain relevant and can even be characterized as prescient. It is this essential part of my argument that makes no appearance in Mr. Chanes’s letter.
The issue on which I laid greatest emphasis was the prospect raised by the Rav that theological dialogue would lead to “the trading of favors” with respect to matters of faith. Far from having been rendered irrelevant, this dynamic has indeed developed, and it persists to this day. Here are two examples.
On September 10, 2000, a declaration entitled Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity was published in the New York Times. Written by four distinguished theologians and eventually signed by nearly two hundred rabbis and scholars, it is a thoughtful and largely impressive document. I wrote a few paragraphs posted and endorsed by the OU and RCA explaining why I did not sign, and later elaborated in an article.3 The first reason I provided was that the statement “implies that Jews should reassess their view of Christianity in light of Christian reassessments of Judaism.” Indeed, a prominent Catholic ecumenicist welcomed Dabru Emet by asserting that “the dialogue will be stymied if Christians affirm a theological bonding with Jews . . . without an acknowledgement of such bonding from the Jewish side.”
The most recent manifestation of this tendency is an “Orthodox Rabbinic Statement on Christianity” issued by Rabbi Riskin’s Center and now signed by fifty-eight rabbis.4 In “accepting the hand offered to us by our Christian brothers and sisters,” the signatories endorse the alleged view of Maimonides “that the emergence of Christianity in human history is neither an accident nor an error, but the willed divine outcome and gift to the nations.” Two of these formulations (“nor an error” and “gift to the nations”) are profoundly misleading characterizations of Maimonides’s view and almost surely result from an impairment of judgment driven by a desire to affirm an appreciation of Christianity analogous to Christian affirmations of the value of Judaism.
In the articles noted, I underscored the ambiguities that can exist in defining theological dialogue, and I do not regard participation in such dialogue even on a communal level as a deviation from Orthodox Judaism. I do regard it as perilous and unwise, and I am certain that it is inconsistent with the guidelines and intention of Rabbi Soloveitchik.
1. “Emunah bi-Reshut ha-Yahid,” Makor Rishon: Musaf Shabbat, 16 November 2012. The easiest way to access this article is through a Hebrew Google search under emunah bi-reshut ha-yahid.
2. “Revisiting ‘Confrontation’ After Forty Years: A Response to Rabbi Eugene Korn,” in David Berger Persecution, Polemic, and Dialogue: Essays in Jewish-Christian Relations (Boston, 2010), 385-391. Available at www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/texts/center/conferences/soloveitchik/Berger_23Nov03.htm.
3. “Dabru Emet: Some Reservations about a Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity,” in Persecution, Polemic, and Dialogue, 392-398. Available at www.ccjr.us/dialogika-resources/documents-and-statements/analysis/286-dabru-emet-berger.