Cardinals in the Beis Midrash II

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In further to the discussion about the officially sanctioned visit of cardinals to Yeshiva University’s beis midrash, I thought the following analysis of R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s position by Prof. Lawrence Kaplan is worthy of note. This is taken from Prof. Kaplan’s article in Judaism 48:3 (1999), provocatively titled “Revisionism and the Rav; the Struggle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy”. (My citation of Prof. Kaplan’s views should not be taken as my agreement with his analysis)

First excerpt:

Because R. Meiselman misunderstands the Rav’s position regarding universalism and singularism, he also misunderstands and misrepresents the Rav’s stance on interfaith dialogue. R. Meiselman, referring to the Rav’s essay “Confrontation,” claims that “When Pope John XXIII opened dialogue with the Jews, the Rav viewed this as a serious danger to Judaism, and declared that no such dialogue pursued…. Despite the opposition of a few Orthodox rabbis the Rav’s position carried the day and almost without exception no dialogues have been conducted between Orthodox rabbis and the Catholic Church.” [32] But, as is well known, the Rav, with his delicate balance between universalism and singularism, never opposed interfaith dialogue. What he opposed, as he states in “Confrontation,” was interfaith theological dialogue. [33] He always, however, approved of interfaith dialogue about matters of general ethical and social concern. Again, this position comes out with particular force and clarity in the Rav’s position paper, “On Interfaith Relationships:” “We are…opposed to any public debate, dialogue or symposium concerning the doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of our faith vis-a-vis ‘similar’ aspects of another faith community…. 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… Civil Rights, etc., which revolve about the religious spiritual aspects of our civilization. Discussion within these areas will, of course, be within the framework of our religious outlooks and terminology” (emphases added). [34]

In this connection, it is worth citing another “insider” view. The past president of the Rabbinical Council of America, Rabbi Bernard Rosensweig, who worked closely with the Rav on matters of communal policy, writes in his article “The Rav as Communal Leader”: “The RCA remained loyal to the guidelines which the Rav had set down [concerning interfaith dialogue] and distinguished between theological discussions and ethical-secular concerns, which have universal validity. Every program involving either Catholic or Protestant churches in which we participated was carefully scrutinized…. Every topic which had possible theological nuances or implications was vetoed, and only when the Ray pronounced it to be satisfactory did we proceed to the dialogue.” [35]

So much for R. Meiselman’s claim that, in accordance with the Ray’s position, “almost… no dialogues have been conducted between Orthodox rabbis and the Catholic Church.”


(33.) “Confrontation,” pp. 23-24.

(34.) “On Interfaith Relationships,” p. 79.

(35.) Bernard Rosenzweig, “The Rav as Communal Leader,” Tradition 30.4 (1996): 214-215. In this connection, the following story, related by a long time confidant of the Rav, the distinguished rabbi and philosopher, Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger, may be of interest. An RCA committee was once reviewing possible topics for an inter-faith dialogue. One of the suggested topics was “Man in the Image of God.” Several members of the committee felt that the topic had too theological a ring, and wished to veto it. When the Rav was consulted he approved the topic and quipped, “What should the topic have been? Man as a Naturalistic Creature?!” Cf. “On Interfaith Relationships,” p. 80.

Second excerpt:

With reference to the problem that Rabbis Greenberg and Hartman discern with regard to the Rav’s position regarding interfaith theological dialogue, even if we grant that their objection is valid, this does not constitute a sufficient reason for not taking the Ray at his word. But, in point of fact, I would argue that the problem they raise may be resolved if we look at the Ray’s more nuanced discussion of this matter as found in “On Interfaith Relationships.”

In this article the Rav’s description of the boundary between permissible and forbidden interfaith dialogue differs subtly but importantly from his description of that boundary in “Confrontation.”

As we saw earlier, the Rav in “On Interfaith Relationships” was “opposed to any public debate, dialogue or symposium concerning the doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of faith,” aspects belonging to “the private world of faith.” He, however, supported “communication among the various faith communities” in “the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavors,” on topics which “revolve about the religious spiritual aspects of our civilization.” But it is important to note how the Rav understood this distinction. The Rav in this article is careful never to speak of “the secular orders” or “the secular sphere.” He speaks of “the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavors,” of “areas of universal concern,” of “socio-cultural and moral problems.” Most important, he speaks of “universal religious problems.” For, as the Rav emphasizes: “Discussion within these areas will, of course, be within the framework of our religious outlooks and terminology….As men of God, our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and terminologies bear the imprint of a religious world outlook. We define ideas in religious categories … incomprehensible to the secularist…. In a word, even our dialogue at a sociohumanitarian level must … be grounded in 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” [54].

In sum, the line between permissible and impermissible interfaith dialogue is not between interfaith dialogue in “the realm of faith” and interfaith dialogue in “the secular sphere.” It is between two types of religious interfaith dialogue. The Rav, that is, was opposed to interfaith religious theological dialogue “concerning the doctrinal, dogmatic or ritual aspects of faith,” for those aspects represent the individual, unique, and private side of religion, but he supported interfaith religious humanitarian dialogue concerning sociocultural and moral issues, for such dialogue was grounded in religious categories and values that represent the universal and public side of religion. [55]


(54.) “On Interfaith Relationships,” pp. 79-80.

(55.) In truth, I believe that even in “Confrontation” the Rav had this distinction in mind, though his imprecise language blurred his point and left his argument in that essay open to the criticism leveled against it by Rabbis Greenberg and Hartman. He got it just right the second time around. To be sure, the distinction the Rav draws in “On Interfaith Relationships” may also be called into question. But while it is possible to charge the Rav’s discussion in “Confrontation” with being inconsistent, such a charge, in my view, can not be brought against his discussion in “On Interfaith Relationships.”…

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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