It has been forty years since my revered teacher Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, popularly known as "the Ray" by his followers in the modern wing of American Orthodoxy, presented his paper "Confrontation" to the Rabbinical Council of America. The paper was later published in the Council's intellectual journal, Tradition. Together with subsequent guidelines, the principles advanced in this essay have governed Orthodox Judaism's policy regarding "dialogue" with other religions, most notably the Roman Catholic Church. The essay's fortieth anniversary is a good time to think again about the Ray's position and how it might provide guidance for us today.
The practical conclusion of "Confrontation" is easily summarized: Jews must work together with representatives of the "religion of the many" when it comes to ethics and public policy. Moreover, "religious values, doctrines, and concepts may be and have been translated into cultural categories enjoyed and cherished even by secular man." But unlike these "cultural" manifestations of religion, the divine imperatives that characterize a faith community are incommensurate, particularistic, and incommunicable: "dialogue" with respect to such doctrines as the election of Israel, the eternal authority of the Torah, the Trinity, and the incarnation, is ill-advised and futile. Just as it is illegitimate for Jews to tailor their convictions to the expectations of the majority community, it is likewise "impertinent and unwise" for the community of the few to advise or solicit corresponding changes on the part of the "community of the many."
"Confrontation" has been the subject of more polemical revisionism than any other single essay by Rabbi Soloveitchik. Some project onto the Ray's conclusions their own unease with the Christian contribution to human spiritual culture. Others say that Jewish concerns about dialogue are no longer justified because Christianity is no longer supersessionisc They argue, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the Rav changed his mind--or would have changed his mind had he kept up with developments.
Nobody familiar with the full range of the Ray's published writings and lectures can deny that he found Christian thought helpful in working out and communicating his own ideas. It is simply impossible to follow him without considering his appreciation and critique of Kierkegaard, Otto, Scheler, Newman, Barth, Brunner, and Niebuhr, among others. He differed from other contemporary rabbinic authorities not only in the breadth and depth of his intellectual life, but also in his willingness to reveal his interests to the public. It is thus impossible to take his positive words about Christian cultural and intellectual creativity as mere politeness.
In a Boston College website symposium last year, I denied that developments in the Roman Catholic Church, or any other church, have superseded my teacher's ruling. Formal...