Sunday 3 September 2023

444) R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik and R. Abraham Joshua Heschel on inter-religious dialogue

R. Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)
R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993)


This article explores two very different approaches to inter-religious dialogue. On the one hand, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), a leader of Modern Orthodox Judaism and Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, did not promote Jewish-Christian dialogue on the other hand, R. Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), a professor at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America did engage in inter-religious dialogue. 

Both came from important rabbinical families. R. Soloveitchik came from a line of outstanding Lithuanian Talmud scholars and R. Heschel was the grandson of the Apter Rebbe and went by the same name ‘Avraham Yehoshua’ as his illustrious grandfather who was buried next to the Baal Shem Tov. 

R. Soloveitchik and R. Heschel were friends. Both rebelled against their family traditions of not engaging in secular studies and went to study at the University of Berlin, emerging with doctorates in Philosophy in the early 1930s. Both were admirers of Kierkegaard and were interested in Existentialism (Kimelman 2004:2).[1] 

However, by 1964 they took opposite sides in the burning debate over whether Jews were permitted to dialogue on religious matters with Christians. 

Soloveitchik, Heschel and Pope John XXIII

Pope John XXIII was the first to make a move. Between 1958 and 1960, he began to eliminate “from Catholic liturgies several expressions prejudicial to the Jews (Kimelman 2004:4). He reached out to the Jews and wanted to engage with their designated representatives. R. Soloveitchik and R. Heschel were among the important appointed representatives of the Jewish community but soon became the major spokesmen and negotiators. 

“[O]n December 8, 1960, R. Soloveitchik declared before rabbis of the various denominations, convened by the World Jewish Congress, that he opposed the presence of Jews as observers or with any formal status at the Ecumenical [inter-religious][2] Council.” 

Thus, from the outset, R. Soloveitchik opposed inter-religious dialogue with Christians. R. Heschel, however, took a different position: 

[O]n November 26, 1961 (moved from November 25, which fell on the Sabbath, to allow for R. Heschel’s presence), R. Heschel played the central role in a meeting with Cardinal Bea [the representative of Pope]”[3] (Kimelman 2004:4). 

R. Heschel began to take an active role, sending Cardinal Bea three of his books for the Cardinal to peruse as evidence of the “strong common spiritual bond between us.” Then R. Heschel made some bold recommendations to the Pope: 

“1. That the Council brand anti-Semitism as a sin and condemn all false teachings, such as that which holds the Jewish people responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus and sees in every Jew a murderer of Christ.

2. That Jews be recognized as Jews … and that the council recognize the integrity and the continuing value of Jews and Judaism.

3. That Christians be made familiar with Judaism and Jews.

4. That a high-level commission be set up at the Vatican, with the task of erasing prejudice and keeping a watch on Christian-Jewish relations everywhere” (Kimelman 2004:5). 

Although opposed to inter-religious dialogue with Christians, R. Soloveitchik was also intensively involved in discussions with the Pope’s representatives. In 1962, R. Soloveitchik met with Monsignor Johannes Willebrands. Then, a year later, in 1963, R. Heschel chaired a delegation of Jewish leaders who met privately with Cardinal Bea in New York. The Catholic Church was about to make some official and historical changes to the way they had previously perceived  Jews. 

In 1964, the Vatican Council prepared its new declaration which was to be known as Nostra Aetate (“In our Time”). Some issues still needed to be worked through and in September (Erev Yom Kippur) that year, R. Heschel met with Pope Paul VI and the two sticking points of references to 1)“Deicide” (Jews killing the Christian G-d), and 2) the conversion of Jews to Christianity, were discussed. 

R. Heschel dramatically describes how he witnessed and partook in a historical moment for both Jews and Christians: 

“And I succeeded in persuading even the Pope ... [H]e personally crossed out a paragraph in which there was reference to conversion or mission to the Jews.”[4] 

But R. Soloveitchik was more circumspect. Earlier in 1964 R. Soloveitchik told the Rabbinical Council of America that discussions between Jews and Christians should only be on nonreligious matters, not issues of faith and dogma. Additionally, the Church should not speak about brotherhood with Jews but should limit its references to condemning antisemitism only. There appeared to be an Orthodox/non-Orthodox divide on the Jewish side, although R. Heshel had a respected Orthodox rabbinic ordination (Kimelman 2004:7). 

Then, later in 1964, R. Soloveitchik delivered his symbolic, provocative and powerful address on Jewish-Christian relations, which became known as “Confrontation.”[5] In it, R. Soloveitchik specified four preconditions for any dialogue between Jews and Christians. 

(1) Jews must be acknowledged as an “independent faith community endowed with intrinsic worth to be viewed against its own meta-historical backdrop without relating to the framework of another (i.e. Catholic) community.”[6]

(2) The Jewish “singular commitment to God and….hope for survival are non-negotiable and not subject to debate or argumentation.”

(3) Jews should not pressure Christians to alter their doctrines because Christians could just as well pressure Jews to alter their doctrines. Rather, all reappraisals should come from within each group because “noninterference is a sine qua non for good will and mutual respect.”[7]

(4) Jews and Christians must both allow each other “the right to live, create, and worship God in its own way, in freedom and dignity.” (Kimelman 2004:7-8). 

R. Soloveitchik’s Point (3) on “noninterference” appears in stark contrast to R. Heschel who convinced the Pope to physically cross out a paragraph referencing “conversion or mission to the Jews.” 

R. Heschel’s views are straightforward. He was open to negotiation and reconciliation, and he effectively helped shape papal policy on an unprecedented historical level. R. Soloveitchik’s views, however, are a little harder to understand because, as we shall see, by considering other factors, he was not just acting as a strict traditionalist as it may appear at first glance. 

Attempts to contextualise and understand R. Soloveitchik

We will examine three ways to try and understand the approach of R. Soloveichik: 

1) R. Soloveitchik’s understanding of history and contemporary Christianity

Reuven Kimelman explains that R. Soloveitchik certainly did not regard Christianity as a ‘political’ enemy of the Jewish people. Not many are aware of the fact that he delivered his famous address, “The Lonely Man of Faith” (which became his signature book by the same title) not to his students in yeshiva, but to a Catholic audience at St. Johns Seminary in Brighton Mass, 1964! 

Kimelman understands R. Soloveitchik’s and R. Heschel's different approaches in terms of where they positioned themselves on the timeline of Jewish history. Kimelman (2004:10) explains the reason for R. Heschel’s advocacy as follows: 

As physical isolationism is no longer a socio-political reality, so spiritual isolationism, for R. Heschel, is no longer a moral option.” 

By contrast, R. Soloveitchik positioned himself in an earlier time where previous forms of interaction between Jews and Christians had always taken the uncomfortable format of a debate or disputation where Jews were often not willing parties in the ‘debate.’ History has many unfortunate examples of forced ‘debates.’ On this interpretation, it was not an Orthodox/non-Orthodox difference of opinion between two rabbis. Instead, R. Heschel took a “contemporary” approach while R. Soloveitchik took a “pre-modern” approach. 

R. Soloveitchik did not seem to trust the alleged shift in Christian-Jewish relations. He remained fixed on the historical reality that Jews had never been able to debate fairly with Christians. R. Soloveitchik could address the Catholic  St. Johns Seminary, but he was not open to debate. Debates reminded him of classical one-sided disputations of the past. 

R. Soloveitchik had reason to be cautious. In her book “How Catholics Look at Jews” (New York: Paulist Press, 1974) Claire Huchet-Bishop reveals what young Catholics were taught about Jews as recently as the 1960s. This was at the same time as R. Soloveitchik espoused his anti-dialogue position. 

1. The Jews are collectively responsible for the crucifixion and they are a “deicide people”;

2. The Diaspora is the Jew’s punishment for the crucifixion and for their cry, “His blood be upon us and upon our children”;

3. Jesus predicted the punishment of his people: the Jews were and remained cursed by him, and by God; Jerusalem, as a city, is particularly guilty;

4. The Jewish people as a whole rejected Jesus during his lifetime because of their materialism;

5. The Jewish people have put themselves beyond salvation and are consigned to eternal damnation;

6. The Jewish people have been unfaithful to their mission and are guilty of apostasy;

7. Judaism was once a true religion, but then became ossified and ceased to exist with the coming of Jesus;

8. The Jews are no longer the chosen people, but have been superseded as such by the Christians. 

2) R. Soloveitchik’s theological barrier

According to Angela West,[8] R. Soloveitchik was bothered by a pressing theological restriction. When R. Soloveitchik presented his “Confrontation” to the  Rabbinical Council of America in 1964, it was not a halakhic ruling in a formal sense but a recommendation, advisory or series of “guidelines”: 

“These guidelines allow that Jews and Christians can discuss social and ethical problems together, but …not discuss matters theological… As he sees it, one faith community cannot be equated to the ritual and ethos of the other, so it is therefore futile to try to find common denominators between them… He fears that interfaith dialogue would pose a risk to the minority community - of finding itself obliged to express its faith in the theological language of the other.” (West 2014:96-7). 

R. Soloveitchik says this in his own words: 

“The confrontation should occur not at a theological but at a mundane level. There, all of us speak the universal language of modern man. (Soloveitchik 1964: 18)[9] 

R. Jonathan Sacks[10] sees R. Soloveitchik as describing religion as ‘privacy of faith.’ Furthermore, R. Soloveitchik maintained that Judaism speaks of a “Halachic Man,” and that the Jewish religion does not fit familiar models of Western religiosity because of its distinctive attitudes to Halachic observances. In this sense, it has no common ground with other faiths with which it can communicate. Taking this even further, in his recently published posthumous work entitled “The Emergence of Ethical Man” (Soloveitchik 2005) we may find the real reason why he discouraged inter-religious debate. 

Perhaps unpopularly, R. Soloveichik viewed contemporary Jewish thought (as distinct from Halacha) to be based on medieval philosophy and therefore on Greek and Arabic thought. These more philosophical sources were, therefore, alien appendages to Judaism. Judaism was practical and Halachic.  This explains why he was reluctant to engage with the Church because he was similarly reluctant to engage in extra-Halachic Judaism. Put plainly, for R. Soloveitchik, Judaism in its essence did not have the bells and whistles of an alien philosophy, psychology and mysticism  it's primary concerns were Halachic: 

“This contrasts with the understanding of the Church fathers and also the Jewish medieval philosophers who were seeking a way for human nature to escape or transcend the natural…[R.] Soloveitchik may have felt that these differences of perception were so profound as to be virtually unbridgeable in ordinary interfaith dialogue” (West 2014:101). 

On this view, R. Soloveitchik maintained that the “Christian view of transcendence…was similar to that held by many modern Jews [who were also looking for transcendence]” (West 2014:102). But Judaism was essentially for the Halachic Man, not the Transcendent man. 

According to R. Jonathan Sacks, R. Soloveitchik was not opposed to secularism (he had, after all, studied philosophy at university) but he was opposed to secular life as he saw it in suburban Jewish America, where Jews were seeking transcendence over Halacha. Looking for transcendental meaning in pragmatic Halacha was a ‘corruption’ of Judaism. Looking for peace of mind in a construct of ‘meaningful Halacha’ was not confronting the reality of Judaism. Maintaining such an approach, R. Soloveitchik made: 

“an act of choice…against the stream of his culture” (Sacks 1990: 279). 

R. Sacks compared R. Soloveitchik to a modern-day R. Yochanan ben Zakkai “rejecting both apocalyptic and gnostic responses” (West 2014:103). R. Soloveitchik was not looking for apocalyptic messianism or gnostic mysticism. He was looking for a pragmatic, private form of Halachic Judaism. 

This was something hard enough to explain to his fellow Jews who were looking for transcendence in all directions – it was even harder to try to explain this to the Church. 

In keeping with this notion, the declaration adopted by the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), who had based their position on R. Soloveitchik, read : 

"To repeat, we are ready to discuss universal religious problems. We will resist any attempt to debate our private individual (faith) commitment.”[11] 

(Interestingly, the RCA was quick to endorse the ‘no’ to inter-religious dialogue but slow to endorse the ‘yes’ to collaboration on common interests.) 

West then take this one step further. There was something else R. Soloveitchik could not express or discuss with the Church and it, too, was directly related to pragmatic Halacha. Although Judaism proposes many moderate models for categorising Christianity, nevertheless, in its most acute formulation (which R. Soloveitchik may have adopted here), Christianity is regarded as Avodah Zara, a form of Idolatry. 

This sharp and unsettling characterisation and accusation of idolatry was not only levelled against Christianity but even, in some non-mystical rabbinic formulations, against the mysticism of Kabbalah itself. There are rabbinic statements that Kabbalah is an even more corrupt system than Christianity because Christianity has only three entities (i.e., the Trinity), whereas Kabbalah speaks of ten entities (the Ten Sefirot). Both Christianity and Kabbalah are considered Avodah Zara in this conceptualisation. [17] 

“One can immediately see that embarking on theological discussion when one suspects that the faith of one's dialogue partner is idolatrous is probably not the most auspicious basis for interfaith dialogue! And if one fears that the alien spirit might even have crept into one's own faith community in certain respects, then the matter becomes even more complicated” (West 2014:104). 

This may explain why R. Soloveitchik, the Halachic Man, said ‘no’ to Jewish-Christian dialogue on matters theological. But R. Heschel, perhaps because he was a mystic and came from a Chassidic background,  adopted a very different approach by recognising the common need for transcendence. 

3) R. Soloveitchk was careful not to issue a ‘psak’ (a binding Halachic ruling)

A third interpretation of R. Soloveitchik, this time by Eugene Korn, is most enlightening.[12] Korn notices the anomaly of a resolution adopted by the rabbinate although not presented in the typical form of a traditional rabbinic ‘psak’ or legal ruling. Firstly, it is written in English and not Hebrew. Secondly, it lacks the important Talmudic references and precedents necessary for a Halachic ruling. There are also no references to the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Law) and other legal sources “even though they had much to say regarding Christianity;” and the terms ‘assur’ (forbidden) and ‘mutar’ (permitted) never appear (Korn 2005:292). 

R. Soloveitchik’s “Confrontation” can be contrasted against the formal ‘teshuvah’ (legal opinion or ruling) by another Halachic decisor, R. Moshe Feinstein which also concerned the question of meeting Catholics for interfaith dialogue. Instead of the twenty-five pages by R. Soloveitchik, R. Feinstein dealt with the matter succinctly in two short paragraphs. He simply ruled that interfaith dialogue violates a Torah commandment and such enterprises were absolutely prohibited for Jews to engage in. 

Also significant is that soon after R. Feinstein's 1967 responsum, “he beseeched R. Soloveitchik to sign a statement formally "declaring an absolute and clear prohibition" for Jews to participate in interfaith dialogue. There is no evidence that R. Soloveitchik ever responded to R. Feinstein's request” (Korn 2005:294). 

Korn makes that point that in the absence of a formal ‘psak’ or responsum issued by R. Soloveitchik, even when requested to do so by a renowned Halachk decisor, it seems that although he expressed extremely poignant if not controversial ideas, he never intended to prohibit such discourses from taking place in the future. 

Importantly, Korn notes that: 

“religious dialogue is no experience for those lacking deep faith, who have little knowledge of their tradition, or who have political or social goals that eclipse theological integrity. Hence such dialogue is best left to professionals steeped in theology, history, and tradition. Well-intentioned laypersons and clergy without the requisite skills may achieve only the polite ‘trading of favors’ or a dangerous syncretism [combining different beliefs][13] that R. Soloveitchik feared and that both Judaism and the Church must resist” (Korn 2005:309). 

On this view, R. Soloveitchik was able to portray his set of beliefs and opinions as relevant to his times and situation. But he actively refrained from concretising them into timeless dictates of Halacha. He left open the possibility for review and reflection should circumstances change. As Korn sees it: 

“If the analysis presented here is correct, the prime issue for Jews is not whether they should engage in theological dialogue but, rather, who should participate, how the dialogue should be structured, what the pace of the dialogue should be, and what the fruitful subjects are that do not threaten the integrity of each side's beliefs” (Korn 2005:309). 

Summary of the three approaches to R. Soloveitchik

We have examined three ways to understand the approach of R. Soloveichik:

1) One way is the interpretation taken by Reuven Kimelman that suggests that R. Soloveitchik was reacting to the realities and perceptions of his time coupled with the fact that inter-religious debates in history never ended well for Jews. 

2) The other way is the interpretation suggested by Angela West that R. Soloveitchik may have had an impenetrable theological restraint that could not allow him to debate with a religion that was technically defined as Avodah Zara or Idolatry

3) The third interpretation is that of Eugene Korn who notes that because R. Soloveitchik did not present his view within the formal legal format of a ‘psak,’ he may have allowed for a more pliable approach in the future, should the need arise.

We finally turn to the simpler but equally profound approach of R. Heschel. 

R. Heschel’s approach 

R. Heschel employs a fascinating interpretation of a verse in the Torah to support his  approach. According to Numbers 23:19: 

“There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations.” 

This verse is ubiquitously quoted to support Jewish isolationism, both physical and spiritual. But R. Heschel points out that these words were not spoken by G-d but by “the gentile prophet Balaam,[14] In other words, only a perverse interpretation of the Torah allows Jews to have zero interactions with other nations. Reminiscent of Maimonides’ view that non-Jewish faiths are necessary for humankind to prepare for a future messianic existence, R. Heschel writes: 

“A Christian ought to realize that a world without Israel will be a world without the God of Israel. A Jew ... ought to acknowledge the eminent role and part of Christianity in God’s design for the redemption of all men.”[15] 

Even after R. Heshel’s passing in 1973, he continued to make an impression on Pope Paul VI, who while addressing thousands at the Vatican, quoted the writings of R. Heschel. This is thought to be the first time a Pope made a public acknowledgement of a non-Christian in an address. 

The Pope’s groundbreaking engagement with R. Heschel did not just affect Catholics, but even as recently as 2003, a statement by the Christian Scholars Group reads: 

“Christians should not target Jews for conversions….Christian worship that teaches contempt for Judaism dishonors God.”[16] 

The Pope’s message thus seems to have filtered in some ways to all Christians. 


Contextualisation and framing of ideas and settings surrounding the events of the 1960s allow for a better understanding of the various trends and currents that were tugging in all directions. R. Heschel and R. Soloveitchik responded in very different ways according to what they considered the most appropriate approaches to the reality of the times. 

One could say that R. Heschel’s response created the space for enlarging the radical shift in papal policy towards Jews, with the Pope symbolically and dramatically deleting policy in the presence, and under the persuasion of R. Heshel. 

We can also conclude that it seems feasible that R. Soloveitchik, by not going the typical route of issuing a rabbinic ‘psak’ (legal Halachic ruling), built in the possibility for future inter-religious dialogue if and when the time is ripe.

Further Reading


Kotzk Blog: The Retraction of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks


[1] Kimelman, R., 2004, ‘Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Abraham Joshua Heschel on Jewish-Christian Relations Reuven’, The Edah Journal, 4:2, 1-21. 

[2] Square brackets are mine.

[3] Square brackets are mine.

[4] A Conversation with Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel,” Dec. 20, 1972, NBC transcript, pp.12-13.

[5] A Treasury of Tradition, 1967, Hebrew Publishing Co., New York, 55-78.

[6] A Treasury of Tradition, 1967, Hebrew Publishing Co., New York, 71-72.

[7] R. Soloveitchik continues; “We must always remember that our singular commitment to God and our hope and indomitable will for survival are non-negotiable and non-rationalizable and are not subject to debate and argumentation” (A Treasury of Tradition, 1967, Hebrew Publishing Co., New York, 730. 

[8] West, A., 2014, ‘Soloveitchik’s “No” to Interfaith Dialogue’, European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, vol. 47, no. 2, Berghahn Books, 95-106. 

[9] Soloveitchik, J. B., 1964, 'Confrontation', Tradition : A Journal of Orthodox Thought, 6, no. 2, 5-29.

[10] Sacks, J,. 1990, Tradition in an Untraditional Age, Valentine Mitchell, London.

[11]  Rabbinical Council of America, "Statement on Interfaith Relation- ships," Rabbinical Council of America Record, February 1966, reprinted in Nathaniel Helfgot, ed., Community, Covenant and Commitment: Selected Letters and Communications (of) Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Jersey City, 2005), 259-261. 

[12] Korn, E., 2005, ‘The Man of Faith and Religious Dialogue: Revisiting "Confrontation"’, Modern Judaism, vol. 25, no. 3, Oxford University Press, 290-315. 

[13] Square brackets are mine.

[14] Union Seminary Quarterly Review 21 (January, 1966), reprinted in No Religion Is an Island, eds. Kasimow and Sherwin, 3-22.

[15] Union Seminary Quarterly Review 21 (January, 1966), reprinted in No Religion Is an Island, eds. Kasimow and Sherwin, 8.

[16] Annual Report 2003 Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at Boston College, 8-9.

[17] An early example of this is Maimonides  (1135-1204), who writes:

“If…someone believes that He is one, but possesses a certain number of essential attributes, he says in his words that He is one, but believes Him in his thoughts to be many. This resembles what the Christians say: namely, that He is one but also three, and that the three are one” (Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, Translated by Shlomo Pines, The University of Chicago Press, 1963, 1:50, 111.)

 Another example of this approach is that adopted by R. Yitzchak ben Sheshet Perfet (1326-1408) known as Rivash, who fundamentally objected to the Sefirot (She’elot uTeshuvot haRivash, no. 157. He held that the Sefirot were an even more elaborate division of the Godhead than the Christian Trinity because instead of three, the Kabbalists now had Ten divisions, and he pointed out that when the Kabalists pray they turn to the different Sefirot.In some instances, Kabbalists believed that the Sefirot prayed to the First Cause (Shapiro 2004:43). Even the prophetic Kabbalist, R. Avraham Abulafia (1240-1291) was able to find common ground with the rationalists by opposing the idea of the Sefirotic division of the Godhead and also comparing the Sefirot to the Trinity (Shapiro 2004:40). [Shapiro, M.B., 2004, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, London.]


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  2. Thank you, another amazing writeup!