The issue of interfaith dialogue is one of those hardy perennials. A recent conference sponsored by Boston College’s Center for Christian-Jewish Learning discussed the continued applicability of the ban posed on such dialogue by Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, the towering figure of Modern Orthodoxy.
Atarah Twersky, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s daughter, insisted that her father’s views never changed despite the changes in the attitudes of the Catholic Church in the nearly thirty years between the Church encyclical Nostra Aetate and the Rav’s death. While her testimony may be dispositive as to the Rav’s views, it is nevertheless worthwhile revisiting the issue, if only to understand how little such dialogue offers and the dangers it poses.
INTERFAITH DIALOGUE IS POINTLESS because it can change nothing. Halachah, or Jewish law, is the province of those with a full command of the vast halachic literature. There is no more place in the halachic process for the opinions of those lacking such a grounding, be they Jew or gentile, than there is for polling synagogue members to determine halachic practice.
Admittedly, it would be a great boon if Islamic imans could be convinced to stop issuing fatwas condoning suicide bombing. But only the most naïve would expect theological dialogue with rabbis to be the means of persuasion.
True, Catholic doctrine concerning the traditional charge of deicide against Jews has changed greatly in recent decades. (Unlike rabbis, the Pope has the power to enunciate new doctrine.) Yet here too it is doubtful that Catholic doctrine changed because of theological arguments raised by rabbis, whose area of expertise is presumably not the Christian Gospels. Rather it changed because of the Church’s guilt over its complicity in Hitler’s Final Solution and the legacy of Jew hatred based on millennia of Church teachings.
INTERFAITH DIALOGUE IS DANGEROUS because such dialogue inevitably leads to the blurring of Judaism's own message. The nature of dialogue is that one elicits concessions and compromises from the other side only by making one’s own concessions. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ comparison of interfaith dialogue to marriage counseling is highly germane, for in marital counseling both sides will be urged to make concessions.
The controversy surrounding Rabbi Sacks’ The Dignity of Difference provides an object lesson in the dangers inherent in interfaith theological dialogue. Certainly interfaith dialogue has few more enthusiastic proponents than Rabbi Sacks, who boasts of having met secretly with a leading Iranian iman and has expressed his desire to meet with Shiekh Abu Hamzu, of the Finsbury Park mosque, a Taliban sympathizer who admits to sharing the views of Osama bin Laden.
The quest for interfaith dialogue led Rabbi Sacks to attempt to construct a general theory of religion in The Dignity of Difference. The result, however, severely distorted central Jewish beliefs, and forced the Rabbi Sacks to rewrite the book after not a single British rabbi across the Orthodox spectrum could be found to defend it.
In the process of constructing his general theory, Rabbi Sacks was forced to deny the absolute uniqueness of the Revelation at Sinai. "G-d has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, through Islam to Muslims," he wrote. The price of such ecumenicism was to ignore the Kuzari’s classic distinction between Judaism and any of the other monotheistic faiths: Judaism alone of the monotheistic faiths is based on a revelation to an entire people, not on the claims of a solitary figure. Nor did Rabbi Sacks specify where, when, or how, G-d is supposed to have spoken to Christians or Moslems.
Rabbi Sacks again failed to emphasize Sinai as a unique event in human history when he blithely asserted that no faith is complete and each has some share of the truth. One wonders what a rabbi will tell a young Jew who defends his decision to marry out on the basis of Rabbi Sacks’ book: "What’s the problem? Each of our faiths has only part of the truth. Together we will possess more truth."
"The God of the Hebrew Bible lov[es] each of his children for what they are: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Israel and the nations . . ." is a lovely, politically correct thought. But it is also hard to reconcile Rabbi Sacks’ words with last week’s Haftorah reading -- "Yet I loved Yaakov; but Esau I hated . . . ‘’(Malachi 1:3) or the Torah’s description of Ishmael as a wild man, "his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him."
"Yitz" Greenberg, another long time enthusiast for interfaith dialogue, went much further towards heresy and blurring the distinctions between Judaism and Christianity. (Rabbi Sacks did eventually release a revised edition absent the offending passages.) According to Greenberg, Jesus was a "failed Messiah," just as Abraham and Moses were also "failures." Both Jews and Christians err in advancing exclusive claims of chosenness, according to Greenberg, because there is enough love in G-d "to choose again and again and again."
FINALLY, INTERFAITH DIALOGUE IS UNNECESSARY because its absence in no way prevents the development of pleasant, fruitful relations between people of different faiths. Religious people do in fact usually find large areas of commonality between them. Orthodox Jews, for instance, experience a much higher comfort level with evangelical Christians than do secular Jews, despite their eschewal of theological dialogue.
The late Cardinal O’Connor would effusively hug Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the long-time head of Agudath Israel of America, whenever they met. Under Rabbi Sherer’s leadership, Catholics and Orthodox Jews worked together productively on a host of issues concerning non-public schooling and public morality, without ever engaging in theological discussions. Indeed avoiding discussion of the chasm of belief between them fostered the ability to maintain a close alliance.
Pointless, dangerous, and unnecessary – those should be enough reasons for avoiding interfaith dialogue.