On Interfaith Dialogue

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There is an excellent discussion in the “comments” section of The House of Hock regarding interfaith dialogue. The question revolves around Rav Soloveitchik’s claim, in his famous essay “Confrontation”, that religious experience is very personal and cannot be communicated through dialogue. While this would rule out interfaith dialogue, it also seems to rule out intrafaith dialogue, a seemingly ludicrous proposition. The following is Dr. David Berger’s resolution of this dilemma, one that I believe to be entirely correct.

Great thinkers do not write transparent nonsense. They do sometimes engage in rhetorical hyperbole, and the more obvious it is that the literal understanding of a hyperbolic assertion cannot be intended, the more an author has the right to rely on the reader to understand this. But one must also be careful not to denude the rhetoric of all meaning, to the point where it says something so removed from its presumed intent that the formulation misses the point entirely…

The entire thrust of “Confrontation”‘s inspirational rhetoric about the private character of the religious experience is incommensurate with an interpretation that sees it as a straightforward injunction against trying to “prove” your faith; the issue is explicitly communicating an experience, not demonstrating the truth of a position. In other words, though the existential character of R. Soloveitchik’s stance correctly noted by Dr. Korn is indeed inimical to the notion that religious positions can be definitively proven, the larger argument is that the personal experience of faith cannot even be communicated. What can be communicated is intellectual apprehension of faith. The problem is that such communication is pitifully inadequate.

This, I think, is the real thrust of R. Soloveitchik’s position. Of course many elements of religious doctrine, of the content of religious belief, can be conveyed. The assertion that the great encounter between God and man cannot be communicated, applied in the same breath even to individuals of the same faith, cannot mean that no theological discourse is possible. It means that the deepest levels of the faith experience are inaccessible to outsiders, and Rabbi Soloveitchik applies this to a collective of believers as well as to individuals. Thus, as much as theological propositions can be conveyed, as much as even religious emotions can be partially expressed, that which ultimately commits a person to God or a faith community to its particular relationship with God remains essentially private, leaving not only a lonely man of faith but a lonely people of faith—a nation that dwells alone.

Since Rabbi Soloveitchik believed that untrammeled interfaith dialogue presumes to enter into that realm, he declares it out of bounds. Even though dialogue among believers concentrating on social issues has a religious dimension, it does not presume to enter that innermost realm, and its value therefore outweighs its residual dangers…

Rabbi Soloveitchik worried that theological dialogue would create pressure to “trade favors pertaining to fundamental matters of faith, to reconcile ‘some’ differences.” He argued against any Jewish interference in the faith of Christians both on grounds of principle and out of concern that this would create the framework for reciprocal expectations…

It is precisely friendly theological discussion and not religious disputation that generates these dangers, all the more so when the discussion is formalized as a theological encounter not between individuals but between communities.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, 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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