Orthodox Judaism and Jewish-Christian Dialog
In recent decades a concept that was historically more suited to Christianity than the
critical tradition of rabbinic Judaism, has become commonplace within the Orthodox Jewish
community – namely the idea of "da’at Torah", indicative of an ex
cathedra authority of Torah scholars, not only impervious to verification or analysis but
even viewing the latter as a form of impiety.1
Paradoxically this virus has even infected modern Orthodoxy or centrist Orthodoxy (as
some prefer to describe it) which in the past had prided itself on its greater intellectual
rigor. A striking example of this is in the U.S. where the person of the late Rabbi J. B.
Soloveitchik has acquired almost iconic stature, especially as the institution with which he
was so closely identified, Yeshivah University, is the main single "producer" of
U.S. Orthodox rabbis. Accordingly strictures attributed to "the Rav" have acquired
the status of "holy writ" in the life of modern or centrist Orthodoxy in the U.S.2
This is the case regarding the position Rabbi Soloveitchik outlined in his now famous
article published in Tradition (Vol.6 no.2, spring/summer 1964, 528) dealing with
Jewish-Christian relations, in which he made a distinction between social and political
issues of mutual concern (on which Jewish-Christian cooperation is encouraged) and
theological dialog (which is frowned upon). What lay behind the need to make this
distinction has been open to different interpretations. The late Rabbi Prof. Pinchas Peli
claimed that Rabbi Soloveitchik told him explicitly that his concern was but to ensure that
only those rabbis well educated enough to engage in theological dialog with Christians be
encouraged to do so.3 Moreover, many disciples attest to the
fact that Rabbi Soloveitchik himself participated in a number of interfaith dialogs.4
However Rabbi Soloveitchik’s concerns are made quite explicit in the article in
Tradition. While he does question the very possibility of the dialog across a theological
divide, his profound concern relates to what he views as the imbalance in the relationship
of "the few and weak vis-à-vis the many and the strong" and appeals to friends
within the Christian "community of the many" to respect "the right of the
community of the few to live, create and worship in its own way in freedom and with
dignity". Thus – not unrelated to his own profound sense of alienation in the world,
so central to his existential philosophy – Rabbi Soloveitchik reveals that his concerns
are inextricably bound up with past tragic Jewish experience within Christendom and the
danger that dialog will simply be a polemic if not conversionary tool.5
It is noteworthy that he wrote his article before the promulgation of Nostra Aetate
and the most radical changes within the Christian world towards Jews and Judaism and one
might wonder whether he held the same position in their wake.
Indeed, this position of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s was critiqued forcefully by the late
Israeli Orthodox Professor Zvi Yaron6 for failing to recognize
not only the changed status of the Christian world and the fact that in modern secular
society, all religions are minorities; but above all, the changed condition of the Jewish
people after the establishment of the State of Israel. Indeed Yaron suggests that
Soloveitchik’s use of the term "faith community" (which Yaron considers to be an
"utterly new" term in Jewish usage), is precisely employed to avoid the full
implications of Jewish statehood! Yaron not only rejects Soloveitchik’s reservations, but
describes Jewish-Christian dialog as a "Mitzvah" – a religious duty!
Other Orthodox thinkers have questioned Rabbi Soloveitchik’s view of the
"theological impossibility" of genuine Jewish-Christian dialog. British Rabbi
Norman Solomon expounds upon the theology of Paul van Buren to affirm that maintaining those
absolute particularities of one’s faith, "need neither stop the conversation . . .
nor commence browbeating", as "there are still ways to ‘walk together’. . .
(and) one can (even) attempt to ‘unpack’ the (other’s) mystery even if this leads to
some uncomfortable questions."7
Rabbi David Hartman has also taken issue with "the Soloveitchik line" declaring
that "revelation in history is always fragmentary and incomplete" and that
interfaith dialog is an imperative to "help one realize that one’s own faith
commitment does not exhaust the full range of spiritual options and that no human being can
transcend the limitations of human finitude and comprehend the infinite reality of
Long before I discovered Hartman’s writings on the subject, this perception served as
the basis for my own journey into the vineyard of interfaith dialog, which itself was a
product of my Jewish concern for and commitment to social justice as a religious leader in
South Africa. In encountering the religious "other", I began to understand that it
is in fact idolatrous for any one religion to claim that it can encapsulate the totality of
the Divine; and that if the daily encounter with the Divine involves the human encounter –
with those created in the Divine Image; then that experience of the Divine in the other is
at its most intense when the other is conscious of the Divine Presence in his/her life9
and thus the respectful and non-proselytizing encounter is in fact a religious experience in
As a European and an Israeli I had been unaware of "the Soloveitchik line"
until after I became Chief Rabbi of Ireland and was already deeply immersed in
Jewish-Christian relations both in the field and in academia. However when I learned of it,
it seemed to me to be very questionable, precisely from a Jewish viewpoint. The very idea of
"theology" as something set apart, is debatable from a Jewish perspective.
Precisely because Judaism sees everything in relation to the Divine, even the discussion of
the weather between believers, is a theological discussion. It seems to me to be quite
artificial to make a distinction between social and political issues on the one hand and
theological on the other. Indeed as a religious Zionist, I would present issues relating to
Israel as a most glaring example of such inextricability! In fact it seems to me that this
is what the prophet Malachi indicates in Ch. 3 v. 16 when he describes Divine approval (and
record) of the very conversation of believers.
Accordingly I find the ultra-Orthodox position against dialog altogether, to be far more
intellectually respectable than what I view as a very questionable distinction between
social and political on the one hand and theological on the other. We may choose to place
limits upon the character and scope of interfaith dialog, but it is inevitably theological,
almost by definition. Indeed this is implicit, if not explicit, already in Rabbi Menachem
HaMeiri’s description of Christianity and Islam as "peoples bound by the ways of true
religion";10 in the words of Rabbi Moses Rivkes (Beer
Hagolah) recognizing the biblical and theological connections between Christianity and
Judaism;11 in Rabbi Yaacov Emden’s description of
Christianity as a "knessiyah leshem shamayim, shesofah lehitkayem" (i.e. a
congregation for the sake of Heaven that is of enduring destiny. See Ethics of the
Fathers Ch.4 mishna 11);12 and in the writings of Rabbi
J.B. Soloveitchik’s own uncle Rabbi Eliahu Soloveitchik in his work, Kol Koreh.
Contained within these views of Christianity is another – arguably even higher –
imperative for advancing Christian-Jewish relations beyond those aforementioned (and the
legitimate needs of "defense"), which to my mind demonstrates no less forcibly
just how "theological" interreligious cooperation on social issues is. Any
recognition of shared commitment to God’s presence revealed both in Creation and in
History and to His word revealed in the Hebrew Bible, places special responsibility upon us
towards those who also affirm it; making us, whether we like it or not, partners in the
pursuit of the Universal Kingdom of Heaven on earth in keeping with that Biblical vision.
This might be a particularly difficult idea for many Jews to digest, primarily for
historical reasons. However, the fact that all too often so-called Christian behavior
towards Jews made a mockery of the Christian gospel, should not blind us to the content of
the latter that espouses what Rivkes describes as "the main principles of
religion" that emanate from the belief in God as Lord of the Creation and of the
Accordingly the very fact that that message has been perverted in the name of
Christianity, should precisely itself be of concern to us as Jews. For the desecration of
those values distances us and our world from the ultimate Messianic vision, just as their
espousal brings us closer to it. What I am advocating here may sound very strange to Jewish
ears! However, we should consider it seriously if we are to be loyal to our supreme charge.
If Christianity is acknowledged to espouse beliefs and values that the Jewish people believe
to be amongst those fundamental teachings that it brought to the world and for which it was
elected; and as Judaism aspires for their recognition and fulfillment in the whole world;
then their desecration, especially by those claiming to represent these beliefs and values
among the Gentiles, must be our Jewish concern. Such a "chilul HaShem",
desecration of the Divine name, demands our attention too. The positive image of
Christianity as a bearer of such values, is relevant to our own holy task of Kiddush
HaShem, sanctifying God’s name.
Moreover, in that desecration that has been perpetrated in the past in the name of
Christianity, not only have we suffered so greatly as a people, but the image of our own
testimony and purpose has been perverted as well. By correcting this distortion; by
restoring and promoting the image and glory of our Torah through dialog and joint
co-operation, we rectify the desecration of God’s Name and sanctify it instead. This
sanctification of the Divine Name amongst the nations is a pre-eminent religious
responsibility, fundamental to Israel’s purpose and destiny.13
Thus through working together towards goals that we share, we not only are stronger than the
sum of our different parts in working for common goals and a substantially shared hope for
the establishment of a world that lives in accordance with God’s "moral ways,"
but we are also partners in the principle biblical charge itself "to sanctify God’s
Name" in the world.
- See L. Kaplan and M. Sokol’s articles in Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy, The Orthodox Forum Series: publ. Jason Aronson, 1992.
- As opposed to Europe, for example.
- Lecture at the Jerusalem Rainbow Group, Winter 1988 - a position confirmed by Rabbi Prof. D. Hartman.
- Testimony from both the abovementioned rabbis and Rabbi Y. Rubin of Jerusalem.
- Indeed the abovementioned comments of Rabbis Peli and Hartman make additional sense in this light.
- Face to Face, the Interreligious Bulletin, Vol II Winter/Spring, 1977. "An Orthodox Jewish Israeli Views Interfaith"
- "The Context of Jewish-Christian Relations", Jewish-Christian Relations, Vol. 24. No. 1 & 2, Winter 1991.
- "On the possibilities of Religious Pluralism from a Jewish viewpoint", Immanuel No. 16, Summer 1983.
- It seems to me that this is the fuller meaning of the words of Rabbi Akiva in the Mishna - Pirkei Avot, Ch. 2, m. 14.
- Bet HaBechirah, Avodah Zarah 2b, 22a, 2ba; Bava Kama 113b: Bava Metzia 27a.
- Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 15b: Choshen Mishpat, 425.
- Seder Olam Rabba, 33-35, Sefer HaShimush 15-17.
- Exodus ch. 32 v. 12; Numbers ch. 14 v.13-16; Deuteronomy ch. 9 v. 28; Ezekiel ch. 36 v. 22-23; Genesis Rabbah 49, 16; Yalkut, Deut ch. 6 v. 5; Seder Eliahu Rabbah ch. 26; Tosefta Bava Kama ch. 10; Maimonides Hilchot Eduyot ch. 1, halachah. 2