On ‘Confrontation’, by Joseph Soloveitchik


  1. Historical context of the source
  2. Source
  3. Discussion of the source
  4. Questions for discussion
  5. Selected bibliography
  6. Further reading
  7. Useful web resources

1. Historical context of the source

‘Confrontation’, a journal article written by one of the leading American Orthodox Jewish voices of the twentieth century, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (1903-1993), has been one of the most influential texts in discussion of Jewish-Christian dialogue since it was published in 1964. Soloveitchik gives a highly intellectual justification for placing limits on doctrinal discussions between Jews and Christians, while encouraging an engagement between Jewish and Christian representatives on secular issues of mutual concern. Many erstwhile disciples of Soloveitchik have referred to this as a ban on theological dialogue. In order to show why this characterization of Soloveitchik’s position is so widely asserted while the notion that Soloveitchik banned theological dialogue is equally rejected by other Jews and Christians, including enthusiastic students of his thought from both communities, we will first reflect on the historical context of the publication of this article before giving closer attention to the text itself.

In 1959, Pope John XXIII announced his desire to convene a Second Ecumenical Council of the Roman Catholic Church, in order to reformulate the Church’s mission in light of changing sensibilities and realities, within the Catholic Church and within other Churches, and in the world at large. The Council first convened in 1962, and held annual sessions until 1965, when a series of 16 documents were agreed covering all aspects of the life of the Church and its relationship with the world.

An atmosphere of excitement surrounded the decision to convene the most authoritative decision-making body in the world’s largest Christian community, and many prominent Jewish figures shared the hope that the Church would affirm an understanding of rights and freedoms that would facilitate respectful relationships between Catholics and peoples of all backgrounds. In private conversations, Jewish thinkers sympathetic to this renewal of the Church had received deliberate indications from senior prelates that the Council would also consider a condemnation of the medieval charge that the Jews killed God, and would continue to draw inspiration in its work from Pope Pius XII’s encouragement to the faithful to rediscover the Old Testament as the Hebrew Scriptures. The Cardinal charged with overseeing this work, Cardinal Bea, made private overtures to both secular and religious Jewish organisations, indicating that he welcomed constructive, if strictly private, criticism.

A nervous Jewish response nevertheless greeted the revelations of a draft text being discussed by the Ecumenical Council in 1963, published by the New York Times, which contained wording that appeared to advocate the continued aspiration that Jews be encouraged to convert to Christianity. This was condemned by many of the most enthusiastic Jewish supporters of the Council, with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describing the effect of a campaign of conversion as a ‘spiritual Auschwitz’.

Up until this point, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik had been open to attempts to influence the Church statements through private consultations, corresponding with the figures whom the American Jewish Committee engaged in this effort – Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Harvard Professor Harry Wolfson – with an eye to the submission of detailed written responses to the drafts under consideration at the Council. The source we are looking at here summarizes some of Soloveitchik’s arguments for turning against the direction he discerned in the nascent conversation between Catholic and Jewish clergy. ‘Confrontation’ indicates Soloveitchik’s belief that communities constituted by a common faith cannot be expected to adopt theological innovation imposed from the outside without serious misgivings, indeed, without serious injury.

Late in 1963 and early in 1964, Soloveitchik made clear in lectures to Jewish audiences that he considered the missionary intent of the Church to be a deeply entrenched and, most probably, an unavoidable feature of its approach to the Jews. This was reason enough to be wary of the Ecumenical Council. In February 1964, he gave an address in Yiddish to the Rabbinical Council of America, the most prominent ‘Modern Orthodox’ body, and one which Soloveitchik inspired through sustained practical leadership and by merit of having taught many of the members of the association. This speech was the basis of the text of ‘Confrontation’, and was accompanied by a grave worsening of relations with those non-Orthodox colleagues, such as Heschel and Tanenbaum, whom he now appeared to charge with an indecent enthusiasm for public rapprochement with Church leaders whose final attitude to the Jewish people, to judge by the draft document that he had seen, fell short of a fully equal and respectful partnership.

The American Jewish Committee quickly made clear that they had already received assurances that the draft which concerned Soloveitchik was no longer under consideration. The publication of ‘Confrontation’ underlined Soloveitchik’s continuing discomfort with enthusiastic public displays of rapprochement between Jewish and Christian representatives, which some have taken to be a response to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s much trumpeted meeting with Paul VI, who had been installed as Pope in 1963. Soloveitchik’s apparent anxiety about too much publicity accompanying Jewish responses to the Ecumenical Council might equally have reflected his response to the public agitation for Nachum Goldmann, President of the World Jewish Congress, to have observer status at the Council, a request which Church representatives had already rejected before the Council opened.

‘Confrontation’ was published on the request of the editor of Tradition, Walter Wurzburger, one of Soloveitchik’s closest associates, and represents the most careful communication to an American Jewish audience of his views on Jewish-Christian encounter. It is not a legal ruling, but an eloquent exhortation to American Jews to engage in dialogue with Christians while remaining aware of the unique strengths and weaknesses of their own faith community. This awareness merited an approach to dialogue based on pride and self-respect, on the one hand, and a concern not to accept pressure to welcome Catholic overtures merely because the Church no longer wished to sanction the most egregious teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism.

2. Source

Soloveitchik, Joseph B. (1964) ‘Confrontation’, Tradition 6(2), pp. 5-29.

Pdf copy of the original, accessible to public:

3. Discussion of the source

One of the most significant challenges in reading ‘Confrontation’ is the highly philosophical language in which it is couched. In this article, Soloveitchik does not state that he is deeply indebted to Christian and liberal Jewish writers for the intellectual tools that he deploys – though a survey of the terms he uses makes this clear. In ‘Confrontation’, Soloveitchik asserts that to adopt the language of another community is highly problematic, and yet this is exactly what he appears to do. Soloveitchik makes clear in the article that such a move involves costs, and it seems he is willing to live with a lack of consistency in his argument because of the gains that it brings: in writing ‘Confrontation’ in a universal philosophical language but in a decidedly Jewish publication, Soloveitchik is able to reach at least three distinct groups of reader.

The potential for confusion is not simply a product of the abstract nature of the philosophical existentialism which pervades the article. There is also a series of questions about the nature and significance of that existentialism. Soloveitchik urges the reader to bear in mind that religious communities are bound to be isolated from one another by the uniqueness of their experience, and of the means by which they communicate this experience to themselves. This classic reappropriation of the subjective is one of the core features of his argument.  Soloveitchik adopted it from Christian existentialists, and notably from the Protestant thinker Søren Kierkegaard. Still, ‘Confrontation’ identifies the location of religious experience with the community rather than with the individual, a move which is more akin to early twentieth century German religious philosophy than it is to the thought of Kierkegaard. That such communities should naturally come into conflict with one another, without presupposing any great malice between them, is also a reflection of the religious philosophy of early twentieth century German Jewish and Christian thinkers, both liberal and orthodox. A similar conclusion motivates the Christian realism of an American contemporary whom Soloveitchik evidently appreciated, the prominent ‘neo-orthodox’ Protestant Reinhold Niebuhr. ‘Confrontation’ acknowledges the ambiguities created by the uneasy coexistence of a radically personal existentialism and one in which a ‘faith community’ exerts its personality as a unit. Soloveitchik appears to acknowledge the problem, rather than to seek to evade it altogether.

His use of Adam and Jacob as ‘types’ embodying Jewish responses to perennial existential conditions again suggests an idealized framework in which the messy inter-group politics of Jewish-Christian encounter can be reduced to the relationship between individuals. Soloveitchik, who adapted the traditional account of the two ‘Adams’ quite freely to fit his purpose, was aware of the limits of such typological thinking. When it came to commenting on the most useful approach the Catholic Church might take in response to his request for respect for the integrity of Jewish tradition, ‘Confrontation’ abandons the Biblical mode altogether in favour of a series of more pragmatic recommendations.

The argument made in ‘Confrontation’ for a deliberate separation in matters close to personal faith was a common feature of the ‘neo-orthodox’ reaction against liberalism in both German Jewish and Protestant circles. The notion of ‘faith communities’ comes from this context, not from traditional Jewish terminology. The terms in which this neo-orthodox argument is constructed clearly borrow from liberal hermeneutics—the distinction between personal faith and secular orders for example—and Soloveitchik acknowledges that this does not make sense of the religious believer’s account of the nature of the world. Nevertheless, he accepts the terms, and is even more affirmative about the evidently liberal values he hopes the Catholic Church will reflect in its statements on Jews (p. 21). ‘Confrontation’ hints at Soloveitchik’s acknowledgement that there is a human sphere in which historical and objective judgements must be confronted by faith communities. In this regard, Soloveitchik is indebted not only to the neo-orthodox turn but also to more deliberately liberal thinkers such as the leading ‘neo-Kantian’ Hermann Cohen, for whom the human encounter with the objective sphere is central to a viable ethics. For Soloveitchik, it is of critical importance that both Jewish and Christian communities be equally able to acknowledge this secular sphere, for the most likely alternative is for the weaker community to attribute objectivity to the subjective views of the stronger.

Soloveitchik did not invent this combination of liberal and anti-modernist argument. Indeed, one of the reasons that his approach could strike a chord amongst his own community was the fact that it was characteristic of the approach to modern life taken by traditionalist Jewish organizations at the time. Concerned to preserve a faithful community against the pressures of a hostile modern environment, the pre-war German Orthodox rabbinate refrained from cooperation with non-Orthodox Jews in cultural affairs, within the World Jewish Congress, for instance, while embracing cooperation in spheres where common interests, such as the fight against antisemitism, could be pursued without accommodations touching on more positive aspects of Jewish identity. Soloveitchik advanced this division between the positive and negative dimensions of Jewish life in his other writings, and also in his guidance on the legitimacy of Orthodox Jewish participation in post-war Jewish institutions, from Zionist bodies to the interdenominational Synagogue Council of America (SCA). While ‘Confrontation’ was in press, Soloveitchik also instructed his colleagues to end cooperation in the SCA, whose promotion of Jewish-Catholic dialogue was public, affirmative of the progress made by the Ecumenical Council, and which inevitably blended the secular and religious orders as an extension of its ‘doubly confronted’ inter-denominational nature.

The final section of ‘Confrontation’ is far from a dismissal of theological dialogue, but rather a reminder that the conditions for that dialogue – equality and respect for each other’s integrity – did not appear to exist at the time. Soloveitchik argues in favour of communicating our otherness (pp. 20-21), an important recognition that interfaith encounter had to enter territories beyond the secular. At the time, Soloveitchik was exercised by reports of Catholic attempts to proselytize Jews, particularly in Israel. He saw Church leaders attempting to address the enmity for the Jewish people held by many Catholics, and yet did not see the same degree of clarity in the Church’s attitude to converting Jews to Christianity. ‘Confrontation’ is not a complaint about the Catholic Church – though Catholics might profitably read it to sense the grounds for his discomfort with the direction taken in Catholic-Jewish discussions at the time. The article is directed more to Jews, and particularly to Jews who were involved in Christian-Jewish discussions. To them, Soloveitchik insisted that Jews not press the Church to change its self-understanding when properly this was a task for the Church to undertake by itself, not as a result of pressure or unwarranted assumptions about the two communities’ commonalities. In this dismissal of an unnuanced universalism, Soloveitchik echoes the condemnations of ‘indifferentism’ made by the Church against the more ostentatiously liberal Christian-Jewish dialogue ventures at this time. ‘Confrontation’ assumes the defence of a theologically-respectful encounter for difference, which would have made absolute sense to most of the Jewish and Christian participants involved in high-level discussions at the time. It is written with a keen sense of the stakes for Orthodox Jews, for Catholics, and for those involved in Jewish-Catholic discussions during the unfolding of the Second Vatican Council, which it is clear that Soloveitchik has followed. ‘Confrontation’ will continue to be the subject of polemics within the Orthodox Jewish community, with some claiming the essay – and Soloveitchik’s wider legacy – as an unambiguous rejection of theological dialogue, while others claim that Soloveitchik, rather, intended to warn against a contest over the correctness of Jewish and Christian doctrines. What the essay affirms – though, as we have suggested above, it is vague for a number of reasons – is also important in understanding Soloveitchik’s purpose in committing the essay to press.

4. Questions for discussion

  1. In what respects does it make sense to distinguish theological from secular dialogue, or private from public spheres, or ethics from faith?
  2. Does Section 1 give grounds for thinking that Jewish-Christian relationships are more difficult than Jewish-Jewish relationships?
  3. Is Soloveitchik’s account (p. 18) of the position taken by avowedly Westernized or modern Jews in Section 2 accurate? Of some Jews? Does his description suggest that they are more ‘optimistic’ than Orthodox Jews?
  4. p. 25 What kind of Jewish-Christian differences might Soloveitchik be hinting that Christians desire to ‘reconcile’?
  5. pp. 26-27 Does Soloveitchik suggest here that self-knowledge can allow one to transcend even apparent logical contradictions in one’s approach to the mundane world?
  6. Are the concluding questions ‘for Esau’ theological or secular?

5. Selected bibliography

  • Alberigo, Giuseppe and J. Komonchok, (eds.) (1996–2000) History of Vatican II. 3 vols, Maryknoll, N.Y., Orbis, Leuven: Peeters.
  • Kimelman, Reuven. (2004) ‘Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Abraham Joshua Heschel on Jewish-Christian Relations’ The Edah Journal, 4(2), pp.1–21.
  • Rynhold, Daniel. (2003) ‘The Philosophical Foundations of Soloveitchik’s Critique of Interfaith DialogueHarvard Theological Review, 96(1), pp.101–120.
  • Soloveitchik, Joseph B. (1964) ‘Confrontation’, Tradition 6(2), pp. 5-29.
  • Further elaboration of the reflections on Genesis may be found in Soloveitchik’s essay ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’, a text delivered to a Catholic audience in Boston in 1965, later published in Tradition, Summer 1965 (Vol. 7, No. 2).

6. Further Reading

7. Useful web resources


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s