Confronting “Confrontation:” Understanding the Rav’s Approach to Interfaith Dialogue

BY: Jake Friedman

For the YU student searching for answers to a question of Halakhah, Hashkafah, or lomdut (analytic Talmud), the teachings of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav, are not just highly regarded because of his erudition and authority, but because the Rav was the paragon of the Torah u-Madda ideal. While the Torah u-Madda credo seems to mean something different for every student in Yeshiva University, approaching a problem through the Rav’s perspective provides the feeling of continuity with the paradigm established by a great exemplar of the Torah u-Madda tradition.

To discuss the Rav’s outlook on Jewish identity in its entirety would demand a prohibitively expansive familiarity with his thought, but I will still venture to deal with one of its aspects: Jewish identity as set forth in the Rav’s essay, “Confrontation.”[i] There, the Rav lays out his conception of Jewish identity vis-à-vis other faith communities. His schema of the dual identity of the religious individual at once opens many avenues of interfaith collaboration and forcefully closes others. With the help of past scholarship on “Confrontation” and records of the Rav’s correspondence on this issue, I hope to set forth a plausible reading of his article that clarifies which types of interfaith dialogue the Rav disallowed, which types he welcomed, and which types, if any, escaped discussion entirely.

The Rav addressed the Rabbinical Council of America on the topic of participation in the Second Vatican Council at its Mid-Winter Conference in 1964. During his address, the Rav read portions of “Confrontation,” which had been prepared for publication in Tradition.[ii]

“Confrontation” comprises two main sections.[iii] In the first part, the Rav expounds, as he is wont to do, on the differences between the portrayals of man in the first and second chapters of Genesis. The Rav intends his binary reading of Genesis as a model for the dual responsibility of the religious individual and as a guide to the proper approach to interfaith dialogue. In the second part of “Confrontation,” the Rav develops the particulars of applying this model, and he introduces the practical considerations to be taken into account in approaching interfaith dialogue, specifically between Jews and Christians.

Emerging from his discussion of Genesis, the Rav sees the mission of a religious individual as having both public and private elements. Parallel to the confrontation between Adam and nature, the religious individual owes service to humanity; social justice, scientific advancement, and the safeguarding of ethical practices should be of utmost concern to any human being who acknowledges his responsibility to God.[iv]

A second confrontation – between Adam and Eve – parallels the relationship that every religious person maintains with adherents of other faiths. Just as Adam’s relationship to Eve was elevated beyond his relationship with the rest of nature by virtue of his acknowledging the unbridgeable existential gap between him and her, so every faith community must acknowledge and respect the impossibility of syncretization that stands between them. This acknowledgment of separateness, the key to a subject-subject relationship, as the Rav calls it, is the fundamental requirement for successfully undergoing the second confrontation.[v]

The Rav enumerates four conditions to safeguard the subject-subject relationship necessary for successful interfaith dialogue:

1. “We are a totally independent faith community. We do not revolve as a satellite in any orbit.”[vi] Jews must not concede at all to the notion that their covenant with God has been superseded.[vii] This refusal should be recognized by all participants as an ongoing point of disagreement between the faith communities, not an issue to be ironed out by apologetics or revisionism.

2. “The logos, the word in which the multifarious religious experience is expressed does not lend itself to standardization or universalization […] The confrontation should occur not at a theological, but at a mundane human level. There, all of us speak the universal language of modern man.”[viii] Because the theological language of the respective faith communities expresses religious sensations too intimate to be comprehended by those of another faith, dialogue must remain in the realm of the “secular orders.”[ix]

3. “Non-interference […] is a conditio sine qua non for the furtherance of good-will and mutual respect.”[x] No Jew must ever suggest changes or emendations to Christian rituals or texts, and the converse is a requirement as well.

4. Any response to Christian overtures that even hints toward a willingness to compromise the fundamental matters over which millions of Jewish martyrs were sacrificed is an affront to their memory. To willingly equivocate where they stood firm demonstrates utter insensitivity to the “sense of dignity, pride, and inner joy” that their memory ought to inspire.

Opinions of what the Rav meant by his remarks in “Confrontation” diverge drastically from one another. Both the traditionalist and more modernist wings of Modern Orthodoxy have read their own positions on interfaith dialogue into “Confrontation.”

These readings both share as their starting point generalizations about the Rav’s personality.[xi] Modernist readers portray the Rav as an unrelenting modernizer who was “willing to compromise his traditionalism in the name of secular philosophy.”[xii] These readers claim that the Rav was truly in support of theological interfaith dialogue and that “Confrontation” represents a mere hiccup on the Rav’s path toward modernity.[xiii] They consider the Rav’s apparent disapproval of interfaith dialogue to be an effort to retain an appearance of traditionalism in order to satisfy his psychological misgivings about the incongruity of his modern stance and his traditional heritage.[xiv] Traditionalist readers describe the Rav as absolutely parochial, unwilling to discuss universal issues or entertain the notion of interfaith relationships.[xv] They construe “Confrontation” as though it were a blanket prohibition on all forms of interfaith dialogue.[xvi]

There seem to be three issues that make it difficult to reach a conclusive interpretation of “Confrontation.” First, the Rav could have presented his decision in the classical, straightforward style of a pesak Halakhah (halakhic decision) rather than the complex philosophical argumentation that he chose. Grappling with his nuanced metaphors and guidelines has proven difficult for scholars. Second, the Rav’s premise, oft-repeated in “Confrontation,” that the language of faith is private and inexpressible seems to be contradicted by his own serious engagement with the works of Kierkegaard, Otto, Barth, and other Christian thinkers, whose influences are evident in “Confrontation” itself, as well as in other of the Rav’s writings. Third, the Rav’s distinction between the theological realm and the realm of “secular orders” is obfuscated by his own footnote ad loc.:

“The term ‘secular orders’ is used here in accordance with its popular semantics. For the man of faith, this term is a misnomer. God claims the whole, not a part of man, and whatever He established as an order within the scheme of creation is sacred.”[xvii]

Now, if those things commonly known as secular are actually sacred, where is the common ground on which to conduct non-theological dialogue?

A complete treatment of “Confrontation” must account not just for the particulars of the Rav’s argument, but also for the Rav’s choice of biblical source material and the nuances of the metaphor he employs. A combination of R. Shalom Carmy’s remarks in “Orthodoxy is Reticence”[xviii] and R. Meir Soloveichik’s remarks in “A Nation Under God: Jews, Christians, and the American Public Square,”[xix] provides one such complete treatment.

R. Carmy takes up the task of explaining the apparent inconsistency between the Rav’s personal involvement with the literature of Christian theologians and his proscription against theological interfaith dialogue. R. Carmy insists that the Rav intended “Confrontation” as a binding pesak forbidding theological interfaith dialogue. However, R. Carmy also describes a type of dialogue approached with “dignity, humility, courage and reticence,”[xx] which is the type in which the Rav himself engaged, and in which, with due care and reserve, we might also strive to engage.

This explanation does more than just reconcile the Rav’s behavior with the text of “Confrontation;” it also faithfully responds to the Rav’s choice of metaphor. His choice to describe dialogue by way of the marital union of Adam and Eve is critical, highlighting that it is criminal to flout the intimate union of husband and wife, and it is holy to honor it. Similarly, to approach theological interfaith dialogue with abandon is religious promiscuity; to seek to engage the religious other in a context of care, modesty, and sensitivity is a sublime aspiration. The dignity afforded to the interaction by relating on a personal level rather than on an impersonal, institutional level makes all the difference in the world.

Comments in the Rav’s personal correspondences also reflect the opportunity for theological dialogue at the personal level. In regard to meeting with Christians to discuss matters of changing doctrine, the Rav comments that he refuses to send a delegation to the Vatican, but he does say the following: “If we want to help the process along, we should not be dealing with the official representatives of the Church, but rather with liberal lay Catholics.”[xxi] The difference he stresses here between religious universalism and discerning personal relationships between devotees of separate religions is the touchstone distinction between allowed and prohibited interfaith dialogue.

R. Carmy’s comments solve two of the issues stated above that make reading “Confrontation” difficult. He accounts for the essay’s peculiar style and also shows that a second “Confrontation” interfaith relationship is possible, or, as I argue, even ideal. R. Meir Soloveichik’s interpretation solves the last issue: in what way can the “secular orders” be sacred and yet remain unaffected by the prohibition against theological dialogue? R. Soloveichik draws our attention to a passage from an open letter to the Rabbinical Council of America published by the Rav in 1964:

“When, however, we move from the private world of faith to the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavors, communication among the various faith communities is desirable and even essential. We are ready to enter into dialogue on such topics as War and Peace, Poverty, Freedom, Man’s Moral Values, the Threat of Secularism, Technology and Human Values, Civil Rights, etc., which revolve about religious spiritual aspects of our civilization. Discussion with these areas will, of course, be within the framework of our religious outlooks and terminology.

Jewish Rabbis and Christian clergymen cannot discuss socio-cultural ethicists in agnostic or secularist categories. As men of God, our thoughts, feelings, perceptions and terminology bear the imprint of a religious world outlook. We define ideas in religious categories and we express our feelings in a peculiar language which quite often is incomprehensible to the secularist. In discussion, we apply the religious yardstick and the religious idiom. We evaluate man as the bearer of God’s likeness. We define morality as an act of imitato Dei, etc. In a word, even our dialogue at a socio-humanitarian level must inevitably be grounded in universal religious categories and values. However, these categories and values, even though religious in nature and Biblical in origin, represent the universal and public – not the individual and private – in religion. To repeat, we are ready to discuss universal religious problems. We will resist any attempt to debate our private individual commitment.”[xxii]

R. Soloveichik highlights the fact that the Rav referred to the collective of Jews and Christians as “men of God.”[xxiii] While many have argued whether Christian worship constitutes avodah zarah (idolatry), the Rav unflinchingly places Jews and Christians in a common category. The possibility of belonging to the same religious group as Christians is allowed for by the existence of a universal and public sector of religion. Judaism works with religious concepts that belong to the world, universally, not merely to the Jews.[xxiv]

This distinction between the public and private realms of religion reconciles the paradox of the sacred and secular orders. There is a universal, secular realm, even within the field of religious ideas. And while the responsibility to regard these matters attentively is a sacred duty, the scope of their significance is universal.

The universal significance of these matters explains why Jews and Christians ought to collaborate, employing their common language of biblical values, to combat secularism. Matters of morality and justice never belonged exclusively to the Jewish people; even if their upkeep is a matter of Jewish responsibility, these concepts rest in the reshut ha-rabbim (public domain) of the religious world. Jews, and members of any other faith who choose to recognize their duty, are charged with the responsibility of improving the moral, technological, and political character of the world. If Christians recognize the morality of the biblical ideal of marriage or sanctity of life, then we stand united with them on common ground against those who would deny the existence of the norms or ideals we believe must be upheld by all of humanity. By joining together to uphold these values, Jews respond to the calling of the first confrontation; we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our brethren, working to mold the natural order to a divine norm.[xxv]

By examining the comments of both Rabbis Carmy and Soloveichik, the practical application of the full, double-confrontation philosophy has been expounded. R. Carmy affirms the possibility for authentic second-confrontation interfaith relationships, and R. Soloveichik details the sacred nature of first-confrontation relationships. Read in this way, the importance of “Confrontation” and the Rav’s prescience can be seen clearly. The carefully composed rhetoric of this work contains a timeless guideline for checking the propriety of our relationships with individuals and communities of other faiths.

Jake Friedman is a senior at YC majoring in Philosophy and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Confrontation,” Tradition 6,2 (1964): 5-29.

[ii] Ibid., pp. 5-9.

[iii] My paraphrase cannot do justice to the penetrating language of the Rav’s original composition. In fact, as I will later argue, the Rav’s position cannot be adequately conveyed by a list of premises without attention to the nuance of his metaphor. I strongly urge the reader to take up his or her own study of this marvelous text.

[iv] Soloveitchik, p. 20.

[v] Ibid., p. 19.

[vi] Ibid., p. 21.

[vii] This idea is called Supersessionism, which is a Christian interpretation of New Testament claims, viewing God’s relationship with Christianity as being either the “replacement,” “fulfillment,” or “completion” of the promise made to the Jews (or Israelites) and Jewish proselytes. (“Supersessionism,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, available at:

[viii] Soloveitchik, pp. 23-24.

[ix] Ibid., p. 24.

[x] Ibid., p. 25.

[xi] Lawrence Kaplan, “Revisionism and the Rav: The Struggle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy,” Judaism 48 (1999): 290-311, available at:;col1.

[xii] Daniel Rynhold, “The Philosophical Foundations of Soloveitchik’s Critique of Interfaith Dialogue,” Harvard Theological Review 96,1 (2003): 101-120, at p. 102.

[xiii] David Singer and Moshe Sokol, “Joseph Soloveitchik: Lonely Man of Faith,” Modern Judaism 2 (1982): 227-272, at p. 255. Cited in Rynhold, p. 102.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Moshe Meiselman, “The Rav, Feminism and Pubic Policy: An Insider’s Overview,” Tradition 33,1 (1998): 5-30, at pp. 27-28. Quoted in Kaplan, p. 297.

[xvi] Ibid., quoted in Kaplan, p. 298.

[xvii] Soloveitchik, p. 24, n. 8.

[xviii] Shalom Carmy, “’Orthodoxy is Reticence’ – Taking Theology Seriously,” Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, Boston College, available at:

[xix] Meir Soloveichik, “A Nation Under God: Jews, Christians, and the American Public Square,” Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence, and Fear of God, ed. by Marc D. Stern (New York: Yeshiva University Press; Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2008), pp. 321-347.

[xx] Carmy, p. 3.

[xxi] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “On Jewish Participation in the Vatican II Ecunemical Council of 1962 (a),” in idem, Community, Covenant, and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications, ed. by Nathaniel Helfgot (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2005), p. 248.

[xxii] Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “On Interfaith Relationships (a),” in ibid., pp. 260-261. Cited in Soloveitchik, pp. 325-326.

[xxiii] Soloveichik, p. 326.

[xxiv] Ibid., p. 331.

[xxv] Ibid., pp. 331-335.