Three Approaches to Dialogue

letter-447577_1280

R’ Meir Soloveichik, always a source of food for thought, offers some gourmet nibbles in the current issue of Commentary (subscription only; not online). In what is ostensibly a book review, Soloveitchik offers some plain and compelling talk about interreligious dialogue, an expose of the non-orthodox thought of some nominally Orthodox figures, and yet another glimpse into the wisdom of his grandfather’s brother. zt”l.

The book is the work of Maria Johnson, an Oxford-trained Catholic theologian at University of Scranton, who becomes close with some of the fervently Orthodox families in her neighborhood. Strangers and Neighbors: What I Have Learned About Christianity by Living Among Orthodox Jews represents to Soloveichik a better alternative to two older views on the encounter of Judaism with other faiths.

One of these demands that Christians elide parts of their belief and Scripture that grate on the sensitivities of others. In response to the 2003 Pontifical Biblical Commission (headed by Cardinal Ratziger, since elevated to the papacy), Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee suggested that Christians should declare that “the messiah’s identity remains unknown, and Jesus, whom Christians believe to be the messiah, is not waiting at the end of days for Jews to recognize the ‘error of their ways.’” The weakness of this approach is fairly obvious. Christians would have every right to ask for reciprocity, and ask Jews to give up tenets of their faith that create conflict with Christian belief. Orthodox Jews who understand that faith is not something to be bargained away or negotiated will be quick to draw back from such an approach.

A second approach is to minimize conflict by declaring that all differences in essential beliefs are chimerical. Each religion only possesses part of the truth, but never exclusivity. Thus, David Hartman of Jerusalem’s famous line: “G-d speaks Arabic on Fridays, Hebrew on Saturdays, and Latin on Sundays.” Irving Greenberg, probably the person most associated with the conflation of all belief into one mega-faith, has asked, Why is it necessary for Jews (or other religions) to insist that the truth of their historical experience with God . . . negates Christianity’s claims?” Much earlier, Abraham Joshua Heschel paved the way for this approach with these words:

The ultimate truth is not capable of being fully and adequately expressed in concepts and words. . . . Revelation is always an accommodation to the capacity of man. No two minds are alike, just as no two faces are alike. The voice of God reaches the spirit of man in a variety of ways, in a multiplicity of languages. One truth comes to expression in many ways of understanding.

Soloveichik does not have us suffer too long with these episodes of spiritual adventurism. He deftly, if politely, goes for the jugular. If each of the faiths has only part of the truth, for what purpose did our ancestors give up their lives rather than renounce the beliefs more important to them than life itself? Once again, the Orthodox Jew will be quickest to understand that the serious Christian or Muslim as well views his beliefs as ultimate truth, not a clever choice on a cosmic game show. As Soloveichik sums it up, “an interfaith dialogue that seeks to minimize the sheer magnitude of religious differences is theologically self-defeating, and again hardly for the Jewish partners alone.”

Having dismissed both the regnant notions of interfaith dialogue – either by repudiating controversial dogma, or denying that it all makes much of a difference – Soloveichik cannot resist pointing out that the approach of his illustrious relative, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l, is at least as relevant today as it was at the time of its composition. In a 1964 talk that remains the position paper of Orthodoxy regarding interfaith theological dialogue, Rav Soloveichik opined that “Standardization of practices, equalization of dogmatic certitudes, and the waiving of eschatological claims spell the end of the vibrant and great faith experience of any religious community.” Attempting to bring faith communities closer together by diluting the strength of their beliefs would be destructive to the faiths of both. This was not the way to go.

Is there no way, then, in which Jews can instruct, enlighten and draw closer those of other faiths? To [present day] Soloveichik, Maria Johnson’s experience points to an alternative that demands no diminution of pride or certitude of belief. As she and her family spent more and more time with their new observant friends, they began to see a side of Judaism they were not aware of.

Sometimes,” she writes candidly, “it looks plain nuts.” On the whole, though, this “strange vigilance about light-switches and spoons and the like” has brought her friends to a relationship with God that is unique. Even as they approach the Torah “with a deep sense of obligation, responsibility, and awe,” it is clear that “they also love it, deeply. They obey it because they love it, and they make time in crowded lives to read books and take classes and look for ways to hew more closely to the law, to shape their lives more minutely by its precepts, to be more authentically Jewish as they obey more intimately.”

This was a revelation. Paul had taught that the Law was a kind of slavery. In modern times, C.S. Lewis, the most gifted spokesperson for 20th century Christianity, simply didn’t get it when it came to understanding the role of halacha. Faced with Dovid’s words in Tehilim extolling the beauty of the Law, Lewis confessed that he could not understand “how they could be, so to speak, delicious, how they exhilarate.” Perhaps they had to be dutifully obeyed, but what could be cherished about them? Lewis concluded that Dovid must have been looking at the degradation of the surrounding idolaters. Compared to them, even Torah looked good!

Johnson, however, has learned to appreciate how the constant focus on G-d’s Will does bring people closer to Him. Somewhat unsatisfactorily, according to Soloveichik, she balances that truth with the opposing lessons in Christian Scripture. She becomes aware of the nobility of traditional Judaism without feeling compelled to renounce her own faith. There will be no Yated column on the conversion to Judaism of Professor Johnson, but that does not terribly disturb Soloveichik. It is a better outcome than subjecting authentic Judaism to the depredations of Rudin, Hartman et al.

The author’s sole conclusion seems to be that his great-uncle’s decades-old formula for intergroup relationships (and his dismissal of theological dialogue) was not only accurate but also prescient. It continues to define the expectations one faith community can have of another:

[it remains] both impertinent and unwise for an outsider to intrude upon . . . the way in which a faith community expresses its relationship to God….Non-interference with and non-involvement in something which is totally alien to us is a conditio sine qua non for the furtherance of good will and mutual respect.

In other words, we will make no demands upon each other to revise the nature of our faiths, or to try to shove several of them into the same theological shoe-box. What we can expect and demand of each other is to allow room for others to live in dignity and self-determination in our open society, maintaining an undiluted belief and practice, while according others the right to the same.

My own experience with many different faith groups tells me that we can and should expect even more. My sole quibble with Soloveitchik is that he does not extend the line further yet. Maria Johnson’s experience could be seen as an isolated one, but it need not be. It is up to the rest of us to encourage this kind of exchange, in which non-Jews not only see the refinement of the character shaped by Torah values (halevai!), but learn something about Torah’s universal truths.

The Meshech Chochmah notes the seeming contradiction in the verse that promises that we will become a “treasure among the nations,’ while simultaneously asserting that “the entire earth is Mine.” If everything – all places and all peoples – are truly His, in what way is one people any different? What room is left for Jewish specialness? Rav Meir Simcha argues that the earth belongs to Hashem in the sense that societies around the globe recognize and pay lip service to the existence of G-d. What they don’t always do is take His existence seriously enough. The constant preoccupation with responding to His Will as expressed in halacha is a lesson to the rest of humanity of how to serve G-d if He is to mean more than a pillar to lean against in times of crisis. We are the cherished few who ultimately teach the rest of the world how to deepen their commitment to G-d.

We deliberately do not proselytize. Our job is not to turn non-Jews into Jews. On the other hand, it may well be our job to showcase our spiritual tools and gifts, at least to those who are curious about them. My own experience – with the entire gamut of Christian denominations – is that serious believers are astounded by the organization and richness of the Siddur; by the efficacy of Shabbos as a day of connecting with Hashem; by the profundity of rabbinic interpretation of their own favorite Bible stories; by the nuance and complexity of Gemara and the ease with which halachic decisors can extrapolate from an old document to cutting-edge medical, technological and bioethical issues. We need not push ourselves on others, but in our interactions with non-Jewish neighbors and coworkers, we might well think of becoming less reticent about sharing, and more confident articulators of, Hashem’s Torah values and practices. In many cases, we will be met with appreciation and respect, rather than derision and rejection.

They do not convert, but they do come to see Torah much more clearly as a gift of G-d’s Wisdom. This, I believe, is the very stuff Kiddush Hashem is made of. In the process, they also take away a bit more comprehension of Who G-d is. Perhaps it will lead to conscious or even subconscious wrestling with the notion of G-d’s Oneness, and what that really means.

Minimally, however, it means Jews making new friends among people who sincerely appreciate expressions of real devotion to G-d in a world that disparages such belief. We can do this without compromising our own beliefs at all, and without antagonizing others. To me, it sounds like a win-win proposition.

You may also like...

30 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Some non-Jews with allergies to milk products look for “pareve” on food labels.

  2. Ephraim says:

    A Muslim co-worker of mine offered me a chocolate that didn’t have a hechsher. I told him I couldn’t eat it because chocolates often contain gelatin, among other possibly non-kosher ingredients. He asked what the problem was with gelatin and so I told him it is made from the bones and cartilege of animals, sometimes non-kosher ones, possibly including pigs. He did a Google search on gelatin and found there is the strong possibility that in addition to not being kosher it also is not halal.

    So he decided to stop eating products with gelatin, and thanked me for letting him know.

    A small thing, perhaps, but a kind of inter-faith dialogue.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    “I hope I’ve made myself clear.
    Comment by David Farkas — March 21, 2007 @ 12:16 pm”

    Clear, yes, but your claims are not well-supported. Ask any Posek.

  4. David Farkas says:

    Bob, it’s true that oral Torah is an essential part of the core for some issues. Shabbos, for example, comes to mind. We beleive simply staying home from work does not adequately fulfill the Biblical commandment to rest on Sabbath. But there are more – many more – areas where that is not true.

    The Torah speaks dozens of times of the need to be compassionate to the stranger, the ger, the widow, and the orphan. In fact, no less a giant than R.Shlom David Luzatto stated that the concept of compassion/chemla is a prime root of the Torah. (The Rambam said it was uprooting idolatry). So here we have an enormous aspect of the Torah which is unaffected by oral law. Yes, here and there you will find a talmudic discussion on the area, but in the main, the written word stands on its own.

    The same is true of the corpus of civil law. As the oral law itself teaches, the Torah only wanted to establish a justice system; the details are but commentary, all based upon “minhag tagrim”. So here again, we have another major aspect of written Torah that is unaffected by oral law.

    I hope I’ve made myself clear.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    David Farkas said, “…But that stems from what I believe is an over pre-occupation with oral Torah…”

    If he believes the above as a result of contact with non-Jews, that is an example of the problem. Orthodox Jews believe that the Oral Torah is an essential part of the core, not an add-on.

  6. a k says:

    re 24.Comment by David Farkas — March 20, 2007 @ 12:26 pm

    “But is it not true that both Judaisim and Christianity share much in common? Reading the Torah alone, isn’t there an awful lot in common? More similarities than differences?… Everything comes back to the 5 books, and on those core issues, as I say, there is more agreement than not.”

    Would you believe that your analysis be equally valid regarding Jews for J, or the Sadducees who rejected the Oral Law? If not, why is it valid for mainstream christianity?

    Kol Tuv

  7. David Farkas says:

    Well, there IS a certain overlapping of religious imperatives. I agree there is a pitfall where one feels the internal need to profess relative religion. But is it not true that both Judaisim and Christianity share much in common? Reading the Torah alone, isn’t there an awful lot in common? More similarities than differences?

    Once you get to oral torah issues, or the idea that faith alone is redemtive, we can agree to disagree. But on core issues like belief in God, honesty, charity, deceny – we are in agreement. I know some would say that “reducing” Judaism to these principles mischarachterizes the religion (what God wants of Man, if you prefer). But that stems from what I beleive is an over pre-occupation with oral Torah. Everything comes back to the 5 books, and on those core issues, as I say, there is more agreement than not.

  8. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “What is the difficulty of Jews being astounded by the lived faith of Christians?”

    I don’t have any difficulty with that. If I happen to hear a preacher on the subway, although I may be uncomfortable by the non-Jewish message, I certainly agree with the “you must repent!”, aspect. I was referring to the pitfalls of changing our theology in response to another, “synthesizing” it with another theology, or saying that Judaism doesn’t represent absolute truth, cv’s.

    The doorman where I once worked was a Christian who was actively involved in lobbying on behalf of Israel. Once or twice he would tell me of the Biblical programs(i.e., Tanach) that he had heard on the radio, so I did have brief conversations on the subject(such encounters can also be an inspiration to some of us on the need to be conversant in Nach, b’zman hazeh !) . I agree that one needs to be careful in such conversations about feeling the need to concede that all religion is relative, a la the quote from Heschel on pluralism, and the same goes regarding conversations one might have with another Jew who follows a non-Orthodox philosophy.

    Another type of interaction is to explain the source of one’s positive behavior in the context of Torah beliefs, as Mr. Feurstien did when he explained what motivated him to keep workers on the payroll following the fire at Malden Knitting Mills(Agudah’s spokespeople also do similar things, although each case is different). I think the latter type of interaction is also what Rabbi Adlerstien is referring to in “becoming less reticent about sharing [Torah values and practices with non-Jewish neighbors and coworkers]”. I would agree with anyone that the former, more theological, interaction, such as my conversation with the doorman, is not for everyone, and potentially runs into problems regarding reciprocity or blurring lines.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding Rabbi Adlerstein’s other point, “There IS a common agenda of religious communities, beyond specific legislative items like aid to parochial schools. All of us have an interest in resisting the cultural elements that mock all belief, all religion…”:

    Of course, we still have our mission to spread goodness and good ideas by example. We have always found ways to do this without fraternizing with non-Jewish theologians.

  10. Bob Miller says:

    To my earlier comment “We can’t dance around our total rejection of avoda zara in any form”, Rabbi Adlerstein replied, in part, “Absolutely true. We must also remember, however, that when earlier sources dealt with the question of which is worse – idolatry or atheism, the ones I know about all clearly saw idolatry as the lesser of the two evils.”

    OK, then! We can’t dance around our total rejection of any form of atheism or idolatry.

    If a Gadol (let’s leave aside “who is a Gadol?”) says we need to make an ad-hoc alliance to advance a common legislative goal that may arise, that’s fine, but, when we do so, we should not flatter such allies or their belief systems.

  11. David Farkas says:

    What is the difficulty of Jews being astounded by the lived faith of Christians? I feel religiosuly strengthened by listening to a good Christian sermon on radio, by spending time with devout Christian friends. So, yes, there should be reciprocity between Jews and Christians.
    I don’t believe Rabbi Adelerstein advises us asking our Christian friends over for Saturday services. Were that the case, we would have a legitimate hypocrisy concern when we get invited to mass. I think that’s what is bothering some of the posters here. Rather, he is saying we should be proud to discuss our religious heritage, just as Christians should be proud to do the same.

  12. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Regarding Shawn’s comments #16,

    I think that there can not be reciprocity regarding Jews learning from the theologies of other faiths, just as Torah Judaism can not learn from the philosophies of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. That is why, while we hope that non-Jews will see something positive in Judaism and that this is the goal of kiddush shem Shomayim, we can’t actively facilitate exchange regarding theology, because we can not reciprocate and learn from the other theologies.

    However, there can be some reciprocity regarding learning proper behavior, as opposed to philosophy and theology. The gemera uses a non-Jew as an illustration for the paradigm of honoring parents. IIRC, Rabbi Berel Wein is quoted in Vintage Wein(perhaps exaggerated a bit) that the middos and personality of a Jamaican cook in his yeshivah was so outstanding, that he would make him Rosh Yeshiva if he knew how to learn a blatt gemera!

    To examine this issue more broadly, while there was some interface between secular wisdom and Torah according to the Rambam(for which he was criticized for bending the lines), matters of religious philosophy and theology are certainly a different matter, as per Rav Soleveitchiks’s Confrontation. I think that the basic difference even according to the Rambam would be Torah b’goyim al t’aamin, that Torah must go through the Divine process of Mesorah(I am wondering if Rabbi Adlerstien is aware of the commentary of R. Yoseph ibn Aknin in Shir Hashirim quoting R. Hai Gaon regarding learning information concerning possible technical interpretations, clearly a different matter; I assume that the difference between today’s approach for parshanus, is that we are not on the level as reshonim or geonim to properly draw lines in these matters).

  13. Norman Kabak says:

    “serious [non-Jewish] believers are astounded” by Judaism, to what extent is it appropriate for serious Jewish believers to be astounded by other faiths, without of course compromising our commitment to G-d and Torah?

    I too would like to see the obverse side of this coin. Perhaps someone would be brave enough to consider and write about it in this forum.

  14. Pinchas Giller says:

    The argument of some has been that since the Rav wrote “Confrontation,” Christianity has undergone a paradigm shift that calls for a new standard of dialogue and mutual acceptance. My experience, in receiving my PhD. in a consortium of theological seminaries, is that the same old problems will simply be recrudescent. Without “Confrontation” in front of me now, I still recall being instructed at R.I.E.T.S. that the Rav’s decision was that all religious dialoue, whether among the laity or the clergy, was unwise, and that still seems right. This would include, in my opinion, “representing” Judaism in an exhibitionistic way to one’s neighbors. And my experience, Shawn, is that when you go into the heart of the beast, it’s the same old beast.

  15. Shawn Landres says:

    R’ Adlerstein’s comments are insightful as usual. But I have a question of a different sort of reciprocity. Assuming that, as he writes,

    It is up to the rest of us to encourage this kind of exchange, in which non-Jews not only see the refinement of the character shaped by Torah values (halevai!), but learn something about Torah’s universal truths[,]

    should not Jews become familiar with the lived faith of others, such as Professor Johnson?

    If “serious [non-Jewish] believers are astounded” by Judaism, to what extent is it appropriate for serious Jewish believers to be astounded by other faiths, without of course compromising our commitment to G-d and Torah?

  16. ilana says:

    This third approach seems to be to learn about and appreciate others’ faith and practices, without formal “interfaith dialogue.” I suppose we all agree that it is very nice when non-Jews learn to appreciate us. Does RMS discuss the guidelines for our learning to appreciate them?

  17. zalman says:

    “We need not push ourselves on others, but in our interactions with non-Jewish neighbors and coworkers, we might well think of becoming less reticent about sharing, and more confident articulators of, Hashem’s Torah values and practices. In many cases, we will be met with appreciation and respect, rather than derision and rejection.”

    That might also be a better approach to our secular Jewish neighbors than triumphant preaching (or stoning).

  18. mb says:

    Why not ask R Meir Solovei(t)chik to write for Cross Currents? He seems to have much to contribute to the whole spectrum of CC readers.

    Comment by shmuel — March 16, 2007 @ 4:58 pm

    Now that is funny.

  19. shmuel says:

    Why not ask R Meir Solovei(t)chik to write for Cross Currents? He seems to have much to contribute to the whole spectrum of CC readers.

  20. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    We can’t dance around our total rejection of avoda zara in any form.

    Absolutely true. We must also remember, however, that when earlier sources dealt with the question of which is worse – idolatry or atheism, the ones I know about all clearly saw idolatry as the lesser of the two evils.

    There IS a common agenda of religious communities, beyond specific legislative items like aid to parochial schools. All of us have an interest in resisting the cultural elements that mock all belief, all religion, and propel Richard Dawkins’ books to the best-seller list. As Bob cautions, we have to be extremely careful not to aid and abet avodah zarah at the same time, but the fact that this might be difficult does not necessarily mean it is impossible.

  21. Roman Catholic says:

    JJ Ben Noach, two observations. First, imo, CWN generally flavors its reportage with its own bias. They are to Catholicism what Dei’ah ve’Dibur is to Chareidi Judaism.

    Secondly, when one digs deeper to determine the truth of the matter , it’s evident that CWN has steered the meaning of the Pope’s words in a direction that is a little different than the Pope’s voiced concern. The charge of “missionizing” further compounds the misapplication of the Pope’s address. As I read the text of the Pope’s presentation, I see that he advocates that Catholics hold onto their doctrinal standards (of belief and practice), much as Rabbi Adlerstein is advocating for Jews above. The interfaith dialogue pitfall for Catholics has been one of relativizing our faith to accommodate others. The trend with many Catholics in the last couple of decades has been toward behaving as if all religions are pretty much the same. At that point, what Catholicism has to teach about belief and mores, in so far as it diverges from the pan-religious mean, falls by the wayside, with gooey, limp spirituality taking its place.

    I think it’s possible for a Catholic to not compromise his or her Catholic identity, belief and practice when engaged in dialogue with other faiths, and yet avoid proselytizing. However, the one that can judge if that’s true would be folks like Rabbi Adlerstein who come into contact with individuals of other faiths. Rabbi, any thought?

  22. Bob Miller says:

    We can’t dance around our total rejection of avoda zara in any form.

  23. Miriam Shear says:

    This is very enlightening and thought provoking. The dictum of “There is wisdom amongst the nations” should encourage peoples of all faiths to use their inherent wisdom to foster more understanding and respect. Can we start with ourselves?

  24. NLG says:

    B”H

    Thank you for posting this. It is invaluable in guiding me to resolution of something I’ve been struggling with since I first encountered Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s argument on the issue.

  25. Nachum says:

    R’ Meir and R’ Yosef Dov spell their last names differently. :-)

  26. Larry Lennhoff says:

    If each of the faiths has only part of the truth, for what purpose did our ancestors give up their lives rather than renounce the beliefs more important to them than life itself?

    So that the part of the truth that Jews hold does not go out of the world? Seems like a good motivation to me. Furthermore, if each religion is partially correct that means it may be partially wrong. I suggest that the portion of any religious understanding that holds ‘convert or die’ to be a morally accepted choice to offer is mistaken. Thus, to accept the convert portion of a ‘convert or die’ offer is not to change one partial truth for another, but to exchange partial truth for complete error.

  27. michoel halberstam says:

    Once again, Reb Yitzchock has hit it on the head. If the Jew understands that his observance of Torah Umitzvos is designed to increase his Yiras Shomayim, and to live a life guded by the principle that all human life plays itself out in the presence of G-d, it is inevitable that others, who may not understand the purpose of the Law, will understand what we are doing. Unfortunately, this is very hard to do (“V’chi Yirah Milsah zutresa hi”), and if we mess up the results can be disastrous. We should not however change to accommodate anyone since this will certainly detract for the object of achieving Yiras Shomayim

  28. Ori Pomerantz says:

    jjbennoach, so people who think we are wrong, and that we would be better off if we agreed with them, are going to tell us we’re wrong. What’s the big deal? If they aren’t offended when we tell them one of their sacraments is idoltary (the one that involves calling a cracker and a cup of wine the meat and blood of G-d), why should we be offended when they tell us we need to accept Jesus? We can argue, they can argue, but as long as it’s only words that’s OK.

  29. Steve Brizel says:

    Both R Adlerstein and R M Y Soloveitchik have stressed arguments that need to be underscored and in bold-especially when representatives of the RCC can show up at Yad VasShem and equate the Holocaust with Israeli’s security wall. How strange is it that a recent joined member of the ecumenical choir, who was never known for being averse to protest, and especially in the regalia of a concentration camp inmate, has been strangely silent on this issue. That being said, I think that RMYS’s analysis ( and IMO demolition) of botn R D Hartman and R Y Greenberg’s thesis re revelation as proof that they believe in R’L in a relativist vision, as opposed to a vision that is part and parcel of every Bircas Hamitzah and the Mussaf of RH, should have been made clearer to the average Cross Current reader.

  30. jjbennoach says:

    The ‘bearing witness to the faith’ that the Pope says Christians should bring to inter-religious dialog means ‘missionizing’, despite what some have claimed:

    http://www.cwnews.com/news/viewstory.cfm?recnum=47020

    Do not compromise doctrine in dialogue, Pope says

    Vatican, Oct. 11, 2006 (CWNews.com) – Christians can engage in inter-religious dialogue without compromising their own religious identity, Pope Benedict XVI told a crowd of 35,000 people who gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his regular weekly public audience on October 11.

    The Vatican II call to dialogue with other faiths must be “pursued with firm constancy,” the Holy Father said. However, he said, that dialogue should never cause Christians to neglect their duty “to recall, and to emphasize with adequate force, the main lines of our Christian identity.” This calls for “strength, clarity, and courage” in bearing witness to the faith, he added…