Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Confronting Confrontation

In a 1986 lecture, recently placed online, Dr. Michael Wyschogrod critiqued R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik's classic essay on interfaith dialogue, Confrontation. R. Soloveitchik writes that Jews may dialogue with Christians on secular matters but not on theological issues. Dr. Wyschogrod disagrees with R. Soloveitchik because the latter's distinction is ultimately impossible.

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.
To a believing Jew, nothing is secular. All values are ultimately based on theological concerns. Therefore, Dr. Wyschogrod argues, R. Soloveitchik's distinction is meaningless.

Dr. David Novak continued this critique in his 1989 book Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification (pp. 6-9). Novak writes:
If this is the case, then Jews are precluded from bringing into any discussions of public morality with non-Jews their theologically informed views of the nature of the human person and society. All these views involve theology.
I find this critique to be absolutely correct. In fact, so obviously right that it must be wrong. In response to Dr. Eugene Korn's critique of Confrontation, Dr. David Berger wrote the following:
Great thinkers do not write transparent nonsense. They do sometimes engage in rhetorical hyperbole, and the more obvious it is that the literal understanding of a hyperbolic assertion cannot be intended, the more an author has the right to rely on the reader to understand this.
I think this approach applies equally to Dr. Wyschogrod's and Dr. Novak's criticism of Confrontation. Their critique is that R. Soloveitchik made an obviously meaningless distinction that, in practice, precludes all interfaith dialogue. Considering that this essay is one of the most important writings of a brilliant thinker, and the simple fact that R. Soloveitchik guided the RCA in interfaith dialogue for decades after writing Confrontation, we can only conclude that this critique is simply based on a misunderstanding of R. Soloveitchik's intent.

So what did R. Soloveitchik mean? Confrontation was delivered at the 1964 mid-winter conference of the RCA. Consider the following letter from R. Soloveitchik dated November 1964, originally printed in the RCA Record and recently reprinted in Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications (pp. 259-260):
In the areas of universal concern, we welcome an exchange of ideas and impressions. Communication among the various communities will greatly contribute towards mutual understanding and will enhance and deepen our knowledge of those universal aspects of man which are relevant to all of us.

In the area of faith, religious law, doctrine and ritual, Jews have throughout the ages been a cmomunity gudied exclusively by distinctive concerns, ideals and commitments. Our love of and dedication to God are personal and bespeak an intimate relationship which must not be debated with others whose relationship to God has been molded by different historical events and in different terms. Discussion will in no way enhance or hallow these emotions.

We are, therefore, opposed to any public debate, dialogue or symposium concerning the doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of our faith vis-a-vis "similar" aspects of another faith community...

We would deem it improper to enter into dialogues on such topics as:
1. Judaic monotheism and the Christian idea of Trinity.
2. The Messianic idea in Judaism and Christianity.
3. The Jewish attitude on Jesus.
4. The concept of the Covenant in Judaism and Christianity.
5. The Eucharist mass and Jewish prayer service.
6. The Holy Ghost and prophetic inspiration.
7. Isaiah and Christianity.
8. The Priest and the Rabbi.
9. Sacrifice and the Eucharist.
10. The Church and the Synagogue -- their sanctity and metaphysical nature, etc.
UPDATE: In other words, the problem is direct discussion of theological matters, not dialogue about issues that emanate from values with theological bases. The distinction is not complicated at all. We can talk about HOW to help relieve the burden of poverty without discussing the theological underpinnings of WHY we want to do so. There is no "how" in regard to talking about pure theology, such as the topics listed above.

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