Meir Soloveichik on Interfaith Dialogue

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.

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