ESAV & CONFRONTATION
Rabbi David Walk
Fifty years ago Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik delivered an address to the Rabbinical Council of America on Jewish Christian dialogue. This speech was later printed in Tradition Magazine and became the official position of the RCA. This speech has had long lasting repercussions. In it the Rav distinguished between discussions about social issues which affect all of society and theological dialogue which touch on the religious philosophy of that belief system. Rabbi Soloveitchik permitted the former and prohibited the latter. This address remains the guideline for many orthodox rabbis, but many others have felt that new realities in both the world and Christianity have rendered the Rav's position obsolete, and, therefore, there are many rabbis who call themselves disciples of Rabbi Soloveitchik who feel free to enter into the kinds of dialogue which he forbade. A decade ago many Jewish and Christian scholars gathered to debate this seminal work. Even though there were rabbis who defended the work of Rabbi Solveitchik, it seems that the Rav posthumously (He had died eleven years earlier.) lost the debate before it even began, because the symposium was held under the auspices of Boston College, a Jesuit university, and everyone seemed to be discussing religious philosophy with anything that moved. However, that doesn't mean that the Rav has no company on this subject, because there are periodic visits by Roman Catholic Cardinals to Yeshiva University and a number of rabbis sit glumly mute throughout the proceedings.
Before I get to this week's real topic, I want to make one more point about the Rav's position on theological interfacing with non-Jews. On numerous occasions the Rav spoke at non-Jewish events and presented profound issues of Jewish philosophy. The Rav also quoted Christian theologians relatively often. It seems that the Rav was against theological dialogue but permitted theological monologue. It is permitted to present our position to others, but we shouldn't engage in debate about our principles.
Phew! Now I can finally get to my issue of the week. The Rav, at the end of this famous article, buttresses his position by quoting and explaining the momentous meeting between Ya'akov and Esav in this week's Torah reading. He believes that anyone representing Judaism before Christian auspices should follow the instructions which Ya'akov gives to the ambassadors which he sends to Esav. The Rav explains, 'Our approach to and relationship with the outside world has always been of an ambivalent character, intrinsically antithetic, bordering at times on the paradoxical. We relate ourselves to and at the same time withdraw from, we come close to and simultaneously retreat from the world of Esav.' With that in mind the Rav said that Ya'akov is warning his agents that Esav will ask three questions: When my brother, Esau, meets you, he will ask, 'Whose servants are you? Where are you going? Who owns these animals? (Genesis 32:17) The Rav relates that we can't answer the first two questions. The first one wants to know toWhom we have dedicated our lives and destiny, and that is not a topic open to discussion with representatives of another belief system. Similarly, the next inquiry wants to know our 'ultimate goal and final objective'. Again this is not an area we care to discuss with others. However, the third question about the animals is really asking, 'Are you ready to contribute your talents, capabilities and efforts toward the material and cultural welfare of general society? Are you willing to pay taxes, to develop and industrialize the country?' That we can answer strongly in the affirmative. As Rabbi Soloveitchik put it, 'We are determined to participate in every civic, scientific, and political enterprise. We feel obligated to enrich society with our creative talents and to be constructive and useful citizens.'
The Rav strongly believed that 'This testament handed down to us by Jacob has become very relevant now in the year 1964. A millennia-old history demands from us that we meet the challenge courageously and give the same answers with which Jacob entrusted his messengers several thousand years ago.'
A year later Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel delivered an address at the Union Theological Seminary in which he answered Rabbi Soloveitchik. In this speech he declared: No religion is an island. We are all involved with one another. Spiritual betrayal on the part of one of us affects the faith of all of us. Views adopted in one community have an impact on other communities. Today religious isolationism is a myth. For all the profound differences in perspective and substance, Judaism is sooner or later affected by the intellectual, moral and spiritual events within the Christian society, and vice versa. And he concluded: Rabbi Israel Lifschutz of Danzig (1782-1860) speaks of the Christians, "our brethren, the gentiles, who acknowledge the one God and revere His Torah which they deem divine and observe, as is required of them, the seven commandments of Noah... What, then, is the purpose of inter-religious cooperation? It is neither to flatter nor to refute one another, but to help one another; to share insight and learning, to keep alive the divine sparks in our souls, to nurture openness to the spirit of the Psalms, reverence for the words of the prophets, and faithfulness to the Living God.
Rabbi Heschel welcomed what the Rav dreaded. My heart agrees with Rabbi Heschel while my mind sympathizes with the Rav. The Rav didn't trust Christianity, whose agenda for two thousand years was to convert us. But I feel that times have changed and much of Christianity has turned over a new leaf. These days I welcome interfaith cooperation even when it includes an exchange of ideas. But the Rav's warnings continue to ring in my ears. Any Christian who has ever muttered the words 'conversion' or 'mission to the Jews' must be excluded from any serious religious discussions. The spirit of Esav still exists, but thank God is less pervasive than it once was.