Meir Soloveichik on Interfaith Dialogue

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This month’s issue of Commentary includes a lengthy essay by Meir Soloveichik, in which he rejects theological interfaith dialogue. Soloveichik supports the attempts to improve interfaith relations, but suggests these interactions be limited to the social realm.

In this, Soloveichik reaffirms the position of his great-uncle, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik — the most influential figure in 20th century Modern Orthodoxy. While citing the elder Soloveitchik, Meir Soloveichik mostly appeals to a more popular work: Strangers and Neighbors: What I Have Learned about Christianity by Living Among Orthodox Jews, written by Maria Johnson, an Oxford-trained Catholic theologian. In this book, Johnson discusses her appreciation for Judaism and Jews — while holding fast to her own orthodox beliefs.

To support his position, Soloveichik takes on a few of the most renowned Jewish theologians of the last half-century: Abraham Joshua Heschel, David Hartman, and Yitz Greenberg. Soloveichik quotes Heschel in presenting a paradigmatic liberal, theological worldview shared by these three thinkers:

The ultimate truth is not capable of being fully and adequately expressed in concepts and words. . . . Revelation is always an accommodation to the capacity of man. No two minds are alike, just as no two faces are alike. The voice of God reaches the spirit of man in a variety of ways, in a multiplicity of languages. One truth comes to expression in many ways of understanding.

In other words: Absolute truth is inaccessible to humans who have finite minds and perspectives. While Heschel, Hartman, and Greenberg would defend this as both true and properly humble, Soloveichik rejects it as wishy-washy relativism:

Rabbi Greenberg insists that his approach does not “dilute Judaism’s independence or collapse the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity.� Nor, he writes, is he endorsing relativism, but rather “an absolutism that has come to recognize its own limitations.� But if this is not relativism, what is? A defining feature of any faith is its claim to be truer than any other. Proposing that it gut itself of that feature, retaining only its attachment to “the kind of life we lived along the way,� is akin to asking it to cease to exist as a faith.

Here, I think, Soloveichik is severely mistaken — and I’ll limit myself to his critique vis-a-vis Greenberg, with whom I’m most familiar.

Greenberg is a pluralist, but he is certainly not a relativist.

Soloveichik believes in an absolute: that his interpretation of Judaism is the one, true right way to view the world. But Greenberg also believes in an absolute: Humans were created b’tzelem elokim, in the image of God, meaning they have infinite value and worth. For Greenberg, the ultimate goal of life (and Judaism) is to cultivate the dignity that humans, therefore, deserve.

For Greenberg, a violation of tzelem elokim is wrong. It is not a “relatively” viable option.

Indeed, it is on this point that, in my mind, Soloveichik’s arguments crumble. For Soloveichik, it’s okay for your children to spend time with children of other religions as long as they know that their friend’s religion is ultimately wrong. Here he quotes Johnson’s approach to parenting:

I’d imagine they say what I’d say to my [own] children if the nice family down the block were Mormons. I’d say, “They’re great kids, and I’m really glad you’re friends. You’ve probably noticed that they go to a funny church and they have some odd ideas about God. If they tell you stories about an angel called Moroni or somebody called Joseph Smith and some tablets, you can just tell them that we’re Catholic and we don’t believe in that. Don’t argue with them; it’s really important to them, and we don’t want to hurt their feelings, but just between us, it’s pretty silly.�

Of course, we can — and do — associate with people who are different than us without denigrating them, but it seems utterly divorced from reality to assume that this can happen as a general rule. We’re supposed to tell our kids that everything their neighbors believe about the nature of life is “silly” and expect them to grow to respect them? Can you dignify someone’s tzelem elokim while at the same time (profoundly) looking down on the values they most cherish?

If this were possible, I think Greenberg might not have a problem with Soloveichik’s theology, but the greatness of Greenberg’s theology is that it’s deeply rooted in real human encounters. His interfaith work was inspired by his realization that Christian theology paved the way for the Holocaust. Centuries of demonizing Jews theologically, eventually led to one of the most extreme violations of the image of God in human history.

Soloveichik’s theology is based on the assumption that we can love and respect people who we think — literally or figuratively, take your pick — are going to hell. Greenberg’s is based on the assumption that we love and respect people who we value. Which is true? I know what I think.

Posted on March 27, 2007

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7 thoughts on “Meir Soloveichik on Interfaith Dialogue

  1. jethro1

    Of course, Soloveichik would include speaking with Reform and Conservative Jews as interfaith dialogue.

    Soloveichik and his ilk are modern day Judah Halevis, who believe that there is something ontologically superior about Orthodox Judaism that inheres within it. Greenberg, Heschel, even David Hartman, are more Maimonidean in their approach and hence more universalistic.

    Yitz Greenberg is a wonderful theologian, a living model of integrity to Judaism while being open to modernity and other faiths. Its too bad that he is marginalized in the Orthodox world that he loves as it moves farther and farther to the right.

  2. lornewel

    Let me see if I get your point (and Greenberg’s) about tzelem elokim. It seems you are saying that because all mankind is made in the image of God that all things that people may believe about “god” are equally valid. There is no “one true way” because we all have the same chance of being right (or wrong.) “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is one” is just as (but no more) “dignified” than Hindu belief in multiple gods?

    How about this – “If a equals b and b does not equal c, then a cannot equal c.” If humans are made in the image of the one God, then humans cannot be made in the image of multiple “gods.” People cannot hold mutiple incompatible views as true and all be correct

    It may be arrogant to say, as you attribute to Meir Solvechik, that one’s own way of understanding is the only true way, but it is not arrogant to say that there is a true way and one should try to find it and follow it.

  3. Daniel Septimus Post author

    Sorry, it may have been my fault, but you misunderstood. Greenberg certainly does not believe that everything one might believe about God is equally valid.

    For Greenberg, any “path to God” that violates humanity’s tzelem elokim (e.g. religious worldviews that encourage death and the degradation of others) is certainly not valid.

    The pluralistic foundation of his theology, therefore, comes from the belief that absolutist ideologies will often (if not always) lead to the degradation of people who do not abide by that ideology.

    My issue with Soloveichik is that he ignores this possibility. He thinks that we can believe ourselves to be spiritually/theologically superior to others and, somehow, not have that affect the way we treat those others.

  4. David79

    Soloveichik’s essay is titled “Of (Religious) Fences and Neighbors”, and he writes that the message of Maria Johnson’s book is that it is better to heed the old maxim that good fences make good neighbors than to demand that one or the other faith repudiate its claim to truth.
    I know something about fences since I have one surrounding my back yard, and there are several of them in my neighborhood. I would say of my fence that it does a real good job of keeping our dog in the yard, and I suspect that this probably is the best and most practical use of fences. Keeps the dog in. It is also clear that even with a reasonable level of maintenance, it is the nature of time and nature to rid itself of fences.
    I suppose we’ve made fences specifically for people. The Berlin Wall, for example, did that make for good neighbors? Did the Great Wall of China make good neighbors? Did the barbed wire fences around the concentration camps make good neighbors?
    I’m not so sure that old maxims are reliable.

  5. Shea613

    “Can you dignify someone’s tzelem elokim while at the same time (profoundly) looking down on the values they most cherish?”

    Absolutely. We can reject the Christian idea of a Trinity or the Hindu belief in multiple deities while at the same time dignifying their tzelem elokim. We can have Christian and Hindu friends whom we love and respect, with whom we share many values, but whose core beliefs we ultimately reject.

    “Soloveichik’s theology is based on the assumption that we can love and respect people who we think — literally or figuratively, take your pick — are going to hell.”

    This is an absurd straw man argument. No branch of Judaism believes that Christians are going to hell simply for a false belief, yet all branches of Judaism reject the idea that Jesus is the messiah and G-d-incarnate.

  6. Daniel Septimus Post author

    “No branch of Judaism believes that Christians are going to hell simply for a false belief…”

    That’s simply not true.

    Maimonides, for example, considered Christians to be idolators. Thus, they would not qualify for salvation, i.e. a share in the World to Come according to him.

    But more importantly, the facts on the ground: I witnessed serious mockery of Christian theology in the traditional Jewish schools that I was educated in. And I saw how this generated serious xenophobia.

    You can respect someone who you disagree with, but I’m not sure how long you can respect someone who you think believes in “silly” things.

    And a question for you: What does it mean that you reject their core beliefs? Do you believe that they are profoundly mistaken about the nature of reality? Or do you simply not adopt their beliefs?

  7. mgarelick

    A couple of things:

    1. It seems to me that one’s position on this matter will be influenced, if not determined, by whether one believes that, as Jethro1 phrased it, “there is something ontologically superior about Orthodox Judaism that inheres within it.” In other words, are we talking about religion or reality? If Torah is “true,” then it makes no sense to talk about whether divergent views are “valid.”

    2. Having said that, I think that Daniel’s main point — that explicit rejection of another’s core beliefs entails denial or denegration of that person’s tzelem elokim — is interesting and even admirable but not necessarily so. “Tzelem elokim” could be a free-standing principle, the bottom line esteem that we must afford another human no matter how stupid or silly. In this light, Daniel argument is valuable as a warning that we must guard “tzelem elokim” from extraneous opinions we have about particular aspects of a person.

    3. You don’t have to be Orthodox to think that Christian beliefs are absurd. So it is a daily exercise in menschlichkeit to maintain civil or even valued relationships with people whose core motivations may be rooted in, dare I say it, sheer lunacy.

    4. If tzelem elokim requires that we not privilege our own viewpoints, how do we know that those viewpoints are sustainable in the face of open inquiry? I’m perfectly comfortable remaining “Orthodox” even though I have no belief in the factual truth of Torah, but it seems that Greenberg et al. do cling to some notion that Judaism is “true.”

    And with that, back to my job.

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