A prominent leader of interfaith dialogue is calling for a reexamination of the decades-old Orthodox ban on theological discussions between Christians and Jews.
In proposing a reassessment of the ban, Eugene Korn, an Orthodox rabbi who recently resigned as the Anti-Defamation League’s director of interfaith affairs, is taking on no less a figure than the late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the religious leader of Modern Orthodoxy for much of the 20th century. Known to his legion of followers as “The Rav,” Soloveitchik came out in 1964 against theological dialogue with the Catholic Church. Korn, who plans to make his pitch at a symposium at Boston College this Sunday, said that in light of the advances in Jewish-Christian relations during the past four decades, Soloveitchik’s prohibition ought to be reassessed.
“Because of the changes in Catholic doctrine about Jews and Judaism, it’s worth reexamining Rabbi Soloveitchik’s position,” Korn told the Forward. Referring to the Hebrew word for rabbinic law, he added, “I contend that it wasn’t a halachic position of Rabbi Soloveitchik, but a policy decision.”
Korn pointed out that Soloveitchik’s views, published in an article titled “Confrontation” in the Orthodox journal Tradition, were laid out before the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra Aetate, the groundbreaking declaration repudiating the notion that Jews were collectively responsible for the killing of Jesus and denouncing antisemitism. In the decades since, the church has gone even further, taking several steps to recognize the theological legitimacy of Judaism.
Now, in the seemingly new context of Catholic-Jewish geniality, Korn said he is posing the possibility that “carefully defined” discussions can occur around themes common to Jews and Christians such as “the covenant, the nature of the Bible that we share, the issue of the image of God, the issue of living out a holy tradition.”
The Boston College event, titled “Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik on Interreligious Dialogue — 40 Years Later,” which is scheduled to take place two miles from where Soloveitchik lived, will be one of the first times in recent history that the issue will be debated in the Orthodox community.
The academic discussion may seem to have little practical significance for the larger Orthodox community — after all, Soloveitchik supported interreligious dialogue on political, social and moral issues. But the dispute over theological dialogue was responsible for the demise of at least one important body devoted to interreligious affairs: the Synagogue Council of America, a 70-year-old interdenominational body that was disbanded eight years ago in large part because Conservative and Reform religious leaders insisted on conducting religious dialogue with Christian clergy.
One expert on Soloveitchik supported the idea of reopening the debate on the issue. “I’m not sure the ruling should be changed, but the question should certainly be raised,” said Rabbi Jacob Schacter, dean of the Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute, a Modern Orthodox think tank in Boston. Schacter said that any debate on the issue would hinge on whether Soloveitchik meant for his pronouncement to be set in stone or was contingent on the unique reality of his time. “If his intention was forever, it’s forever,” Schacter said. “If his intention was not, then I think there’s something to talk about because times have changed.”
Schacter said that regardless of which view Soloveitchik held, the sage’s view was interpreted as a strict edict by Modern Orthodoxy’s main clergy group, the Rabbinical Council of America. “What remains to be seen is whether going forward segments of the Orthodox community continue to feel bound by it or not,” Schacter said.
Korn does not appear to have strong backing from leaders in the community and faces stiff opposition from the top interfaith representative of the RCA, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld,. Schonfeld consulted at length with Soloveitchik on Jewish-Catholic relations before the sage’s death. A former RCA president and the current chair of its interreligious affairs committee, Schonfeld opposes any departure from Soloveitchik’s ruling.
“I think it’s wrong,” Schonfeld said. “Rabbi Soloveitchik gave us very clear, explicit instructions for the Orthodox community.”
Schonfeld said that he functions as a “watchdog” at meetings between the RCA and Christian clergy to make sure they don’t stray into the forbidden territory of theological exchange. Referring to Soloveitchik, Schonfeld said, “All he had to say was ‘I’m opposed to it,’ and for us it’s like the Ten Commandments.”
Schonfeld said that until as late as 1980, he continued to receive instruction from Soloveitchik forbidding religious discussions with Christian clergy or leaders of any other religion. He said that if Soloveitchik were alive today, “he would’ve been much more forceful than he was. His mind was made up. It was inflexible, and so is mine.”
At least one Orthodox scholar scheduled to speak at the Boston College symposium, which is sponsored by the Catholic school’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, Rabbi David Berger, expressed reservations about Korn’s push for a reexamination of the issue.
“While changes taking place are real, welcome and significant, some of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s concerns have not been rendered irrelevant by these developments, and in some cases, those concerns have been confirmed by the passage of time,” said Berger, a professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Berger said that he has been present at dialogues where Christians have argued that Jews should reassess “the theological standing of Christianity.” Berger warned that “friendly theological dialogue” could engender such problematic “religious reciprocity.”
Korn retorted: “The idea that dialogue has to lead to relativism is a false idea. Both Orthodox Jews and faithful Catholics consider relativism a result we have to be on guard against.”