Faith & Interfaith
To the Editor:
As an Orthodox Jew professionally involved in interfaith dialogue, I have struggled with several of the problems that Meir Soloveichik raises about religious pluralism [“Of (Religious) Fences and Neighbors,” March]. Rabbi Soloveichik argues for the fundamental value of believing in the exclusive truth of one religion over the possibility that there may be truth in other religions as well. But his conclusion is forgone because of his (debatable) premise that “religions by definition disagree as to the truth.”
Rabbi Soloveichik also maintains that, even while rejecting the notion of pluralism, one need not sacrifice fruitful relations with communities of other faiths. In so doing, he portrays pluralism as a defensive response to diversity rather than a positive embrace of it. Thus, for him, the theological frameworks for pluralism advanced by rabbis like Irving Greenberg, David Hartman, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and James Rudin result from their discovery “that warm relations between faiths requires surrendering one’s exclusive claim to truth.” But these thinkers do not run to pluralism to escape dealing with religious differences. Pluralism for them is linked to the belief, articulated by traditional Jewish texts, that “the voice of God reaches the spirit of man in a variety of different ways.”
I am not arguing on behalf of pluralism, and I certainly see, the formidable risks that it poses to a person of faith—relativism, watered-down theology, and muted passion. But to say, as Rabbi Soloveichik does, that a “defining feature of any faith is its claim to be truer than any other,” is to commit the very offense that he feels a religion should always avoid—to undermine people’s right to define their own faith. This must also include faith that is pluralistic.
Ari M. Gordon
American Jewish Committee
New York City
To the Editor:
I am grateful to Meir Soloveichik for bringing to my attention Maria Johnson’s thoughtful and deeply personal Strangers and Neighbors: What I Have Learned About Christianity by Living Among Orthodox Jews. But I am somewhat puzzled by his discussion. At times he recognizes the unique circumstances that have made Johnson’s relations with her Orthodox neighbors possible—circumstances of which Johnson herself is well aware. But he also seems to view the friendships described in her book as a model for interfaith relations. He writes that the book contains a wealth of insight “on the question of how best to achieve amicable relations among adherents of different faiths”; its author “does honor to the cause of religious understanding in a democracy.”
If it is indeed Rabbi Soloveichik’s intent to hold this book up as a model, it would be helpful for him to clarify what he means. As Johnson is acutely aware, there is a glaring asymmetry in her relations with her Jewish neighbors. Her own Christian belief has been enriched, she believes, by sharing in the ritual life of the Jews in her midst. This has been possible because for her—an unconventional Catholic with a biblical education—Jewish ritual life, despite its strangeness, is for the most part doctrinally irrelevant. But she knows the route she has taken is a one-way street, and, with an admirable degree of understanding, does not expect reciprocity. “My [Jewish] friends,” she writes, “can’t set foot in a church, and I would no more invite them to come to midnight Mass, or even to our Easter egg hunt, than I would invite them over for cheeseburgers.” It is her understanding that her Jewish neighbors’ reluctance to engage with her in any way on the subject of Christianity is the fruit of bitter historical experience. She wishes she could discuss theology with them, but accepts the fact that they do not want to.
Rabbi Soloveichik winds up his discussion with the remark that Strangers and Neighbors “helps remind us” of the truth of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s position on interfaith relations: that it is “both impertinent and unwise for an outsider to intrude upon . . . the way in which a faith community expresses its relationship to God,” and that the best course of action is one of “non-interference and non-involvement in something which is totally alien to us.” But this does not seem to be Johnson’s own position, certainly not in principle.
New York City
To the Editor:
Meir Soloveichik’s incisive analysis cuts through the fuzzy idealism of liberal theologians who in different ways suggest that all religions are variations of one central truth. Indeed, if a religion cannot claim exclusivity of its truth, then its adherents have no reason to be faithful exclusively to it, and certainly no reason to give their life for it.
Rabbi Soloveichik sees the intimate friendship between the Catholic family of Maria Johnson and their Orthodox Jewish neighbors as a more authentic model for interfaith relations. The Johnsons participate in Jewish rituals, “sympathize” with their friends’ “deep love for Torah,” and yet hope that in the end of days they will come to recognize Jesus.
But Rabbi Soloveichik scants the practical long-term consequences of such a relationship. One does not have to be a sociologist to foresee that close interfaith friendships, with “the children . . . in and out of each other’s houses,” increases the probability that the religious fences he wishes to be upheld will collapse in intermarriage and the like.
Indeed, the rabbis of the Talmud and the codes of Jewish law instituted rules prohibiting Jews from eating the wine and bread and cooked food of a Gentile precisely because they foresaw where such fraternizing might lead. One wonders about Rabbi Soloveichik’s enthusiasm in the light of their caution.
Kfar Sava, Israel
Meir Soloveichik writes:
Ari Gordon disagrees with my assertion that proponents of “pluralism” like Rabbis David Hartman and James Rudin believe that “warm relations between faiths requires surrendering one’s exclusive claim to truth.” He appears to have ignored the first half of my article. As I noted, Rabbi Hartman suggested to the columnist Thomas Friedman that we in the West must choose between “pluralism, . . . the idea that my faith can be nurtured without claiming exclusive truth,” and a religious totalitarianism like the Taliban’s. Rabbi Rudin demanded that the Catholic Church revise its traditional messianic dogma if it wished to achieve “an important step forward” in Jewish-Christian relations. The clear implication in both cases is that dispensing with claims to exclusive religious truth is essential for interfaith amity.
Mr. Gordon also disputes my assertion that the defining feature of a religion is its claim to be truer than any other. He further accuses me of undermining “people’s right to define their own faith” pluralistically. Well, people obviously have a right to believe whatever they want. But the fact remains that a “religion” that believes that several religions are equally true is not a religion in the traditional sense. Nor, indeed, is it intelligible in the traditional sense. Jesus cannot be the divine being that Christians assert he is as well as the misguided mortal that Jews believe he was. Milton Himmelfarb once quipped that “syncretism” is a polite word for mishmash; if “pluralism” means embracing the belief that Jesus is the son of God, and also not the son of God, then it is a euphemism for incoherence.
Miriam Bodian suggests that Maria Johnson’s experience of Jewish ritual, friendship with a Jewish family, and desire to converse casually about religion with Jewish friends would be considered an “intrusion” by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. But Rabbi Soloveitchik never wrote any such thing, nor did I give any indication that he did. He did write that no good can come of demands by representatives of distinct faith communities for changes to the theological doctrines of other communities, and that such demands would inevitably result from communal interfaith dialogue of a theological nature. He further argued that those who dismiss the deep differences dividing faiths misunderstand the very nature of religious faith. It is this last point that Johnson in her own way understands astutely, and expresses eloquently.
I thank Shlomo Spiro for his thoughtful letter. He is right that the rabbis instituted rules regulating social interaction with non-Jews, but this does not preclude a degree of fellowship with them. As Rabbi Soloveitchik once noted, Abraham describes himself in Genesis as both “a stranger and a neighbor”: the Jew’s observance of the Torah sets him apart and safeguards his identity; at the same time, he is open to engaging those who are different from himself. Maria Johnson offers one possible expression of this idea in her account of friendship with Orthodox Jews, a tale aptly titled Strangers and Neighbors.