“In a word, we belong to the human society and, at the same time, we feel as strangers and outsiders. We are rooted in the here and now reality as inhabitants of our globe, and yet ,we experience a sense of homelessness and loneliness as if we belonged somewhere else.”- (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Confrontation, 1964)
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s definitive position on matters of interfaith dialogue with other faith communities was articulated many years ago in his brilliant 1964 essay Confrontation. His follow up 1967 Addendum is a critical secondary piece which both amplifies the original work and fleshes out additional issues and nuances.
Far from being dated (“it was suitable for the times”) as some Jews foolishly maintain (usually those who are involved in these halachically problematic associations), it is remarkably timeless. And it has never been more relevant or essential. Confrontation is not relegated to the theologically problematic fumbling and machinations of the Vatican in 1964.
The Rav may be gone but his Torah is eternal, and the challenges of Confrontation are greater than ever. His words resonate through the works he left behind. And the message needs to be thundered down upon our collective heads. Because our age lacks wisdom and courage.
And the Brother Esau of today is a far cry from previous incarnations. His visage is of a generous “aw shucks” evangelical with a big wallet and an even bigger smile which belies his theological intent. The challenges and dangers of Confrontation are greater than ever. Interfaith dialogue is no longer the sole domain of the reform and conservative movements, or the fringe left of center of a tiny cadre of orthodox radicals. Today prominent Jewish ORTHODOX names are present on this stage in one form of another.
These are all examples of failed encounters.
Confrontation’s enduring significance transcends the immediate issue of interfaith dialogue on matters of faith. A failure to appreciate the overall theological framework explains why so many Jews today refuse to recognize few if any boundaries in this arena.
As we have seen in many of today’s interactions, many of the people who engage in one arena slip into the theologically problematic issues of another. Even among those who initially refrained from evangelical discourse and kept interactions relegated to accepting evangelical donations; the slippery slope towards participating in Torah sessions in Knesset with evangelicals such as Dean Bye of “Return Ministries & Aliyah Return Center” is ever present.
(For a recent expose on Dean Bye, read Judy Lash Balint’s, “Jewish Agency partnership with Canadian evangelical group prompts furor over missionary activity” (JNS), where she references the advocacy efforts of Beynenu Director, Shannon Nuszen and Rabbi Toviah Singer, to expose the evangelizing efforts of Dean Bye and his associates.)
As it did back way back then, Confrontation represents a pillar of sophisticated sanity & stability for Jews in Israel and the diaspora when it comes to addressing the issues of theological encounters.
It represents and defends a dignified committed Jewry which maintains and retains our halachic separatism, while still respecting the collective and individual path of non-Jews to find truth on their own path.
It does not negate our own beliefs nor accept the unacceptable. It respects the human condition and the lonely path of all man. It neither demonizes, tokenizes, nor patronizes the gentile.
Understandably, the Rav’s 1964 essay and 1967 Addendum became the standard for many Jewish activists and leaders advocating in the arena of counter-missionary work. Unfortunately, in a shallow age of social media, Jewish leadership today often mimics the worst criteria of secular Judaism’s standards for leadership. As Rabbi Meir Kahane often pointed out years ago, Jewish leaders are often selected because of their ability to fundraise.
“Where’s the Beef?”
In many orthodox circles today, it is not always Torah wisdom or even common sense that earns one a communal position. Often it mirrors the vulgar pragmatism of locating funding for various projects. This is particularly so when it comes to fundraising for Israel. With the amount of money being generously doled out today by evangelicals, including for religious Jewish Interests in Israel, if you are unable or unwilling to fundraise from evangelicals, you will likely not have a job. Gone are the days where a fundraiser can stand up and say I am only collecting from Jews.
This explains why many kipah wearing Jews today turn to the evangelical coffers. It is extremely easy to raise money from evangelicals. It is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. All that is required is the ability to shoot fish in a barrel. Because evangelicals give and they rarely ask why. The why is unimportant. The why is merely a bridge to cross.
The trade off is apparent. If they are dealing with big government, the price is a missionary center somewhere in Israel or a “museum” in Jerusalem. On more localized levels, it is a pathway into Jewish communities where free agrarian labor allows them to plant roots in a cloistered community while pruning, and to build bridges for “restoration” rather than replacement.
Counter-missionary activists today have the unpleasant job of trying to stop the bleeding by pointing out certain necessary unpleasantries. It pits them against powerful religious interests who have been feeding from the evangelical trough for years. And it endangers the material benefits many Jewish communities obtain.
From open missionaries advocating aggressive missionizing, to the clever relational evangelists who plant seeds, prune vines, and have the patience and discipline to wait till next jubilee. The separation between militant messianics and “respectable” restorationists is a hairs width.
And yet it is hard to wean off the latter group, since they smile so nicely and give of themselves so freely. For many the answer is the cold pragmatism where ends justify the means, even if those means will assure problematic ends. As many of them see it, why be such a farbissine idealist in such a harsh country where things cost more, and people are pay less? Not to mention the often-crippling regulations and taxes of Israel’s bloated bureaucracy and government.
Counter missionary advocates who value moderation and restraint (or at least understand and appreciate the concept even theoretically) rely on the Rav’s wisdom as a logical foundation.
Unfortunately, the Rav’s wisdom is lost on many who do not care. Most have never read “Confrontation” nor care to. Few understand it. Some would denigrate it. Many do.
Yet the Rav’s positions are essential because they provide the framework to address the specific issues within the original essay as well as logical extensions of those principles.
As far as Israel goes, this covers alliances with evangelicals which manifests itself in the following associations:
- Interfaith services/convocations/prayers/days of worship
- Interfaith conferences & events
- Interfaith joint Torah study sessions or programs designed to teach Torah to evangelicals.
- Accepting free evangelical labor/ charity/donations
Despite the perceived rigidity of the Rav’s position by many religious Jews who no longer respect (or understand) the necessity for theological fences, “Confrontation” was never a rigid position. Only a radical would make this claim. Years ago it was perceived as lenient in many circles, compared to other great halachic authorities such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein.
Unworthy of Confrontation
And that is a critical point I wish to raise. Confrontation is necessary but there is an alternative. And considering where the nation is today, I believe we should highlight the alternative.
Perhaps Confrontation is inadequate today for entirely different reasons. If Jews today lack the sophistication, discipline, and self–restraint required for adhering to the guidelines presented by the Rav, then perhaps the alternative is not more leniency, but a more rigid system which recognizes the weakness of these people and provides additional restraints and fences.
Perhaps we need to be like Jakob who resides in the tents. The tents of insularity and protection for those ill equipped to venture out where there might be beasts. Many of our finest Jews live this way and they have retained their individual communities since time immemorial.
If Jews today are unable or unwilling to engage with the world with proper halachic discipline, as evidenced by their increasing unbridled alignment with evangelicals, the only alternative is to eschew the challenges of centrism & embrace the more hard-line approach of the Rav’s contemporaries.
Several months ago, I had an online interaction with a rabbi who has become known over the years for radical interfaith activities. I’m talking about one of the most aggressive proponents of interfaith prayer and Torah study on the scene today, whose associations include relationships with missionaries such as Jim Garlow (formerly of the missionary Skyline Church) and other aggressive evangelicals on the scene.
I initiated the exchanges by merely sharing on his wall an article I wrote months back on “relational evangelism”, which describes the most successful tactics of today’s missionaries. Primarily by discussing the current tactic of developing and forming personal relationships with religious Jews, to draw near to them.
He didn’t appreciate my article and he responded quickly by calling my article silly and ‘lacking an understanding of the complexities involved’. And by denigrating “The Jewish Press”.
Insults do not bother me. I am seasoned. When you write about such matters long enough, you develop the skin of a 50-year-old pair of alligator shoes.
What bothered me?
- The thing that truly irked me was his unwillingness to address the article’s points.
- He denigrated the expertise and input of righteous converts who were once active evangelicals themselves who contributed to the article.
- He purported to know better than those who were once evangelical leaders themselves.
That requires a degree of chutzpah that is not common even among Jews.
He refused to engage in discussion and proceeded to block me on Facebook. In an attempt to deflect real issues, he selectively dispersed distorted excerpts from Rambam (including from censored texts which have long been corrected) and Rav Moshe Feinstein (of blessed memories); as an imagined defense of his own interfaith activities of interfaith prayer and Torah study.
Neither of these great Torah sources were appropriate for his arguments, which becomes apparent to anyone who reads them. The precise nature of those texts and the subjects they address are too nuanced to be addressed on this article. They will be the subject in Part II, God willing. It is unnecessary to name the personage and he shall remain anonymous.
For now, it need only be said that Rav Moshe Feinstein’s approach on interfaith issues was stronger than Rav Soloveitchik’s position in “Confrontation”. Whereas Rav Soloveitchik made allowances for meetings unrelated to theological discussion but were deemed necessary for societal welfare (ex. general issues of societal interest in Chicago) halachic responses of Rav Moshe forbid such meetings even when there is no theological dialogue or discussion.
Perhaps it is time to turn to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s rulings on such matters. He was far stricter in his words when he described Jews who engage in interfaith dialogue of any sort. Consider the following:
From the American Jewish Archives: Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 3 Number 43
“Two Responsa Concerning the Prohibition Against Attendance at a Meeting with Christians on Matters of Rapprochement in Faith and Association with Them”
I (19 Adar I, 5727 – March 1,1967)
“In regard to the matter wherein you promised to attend a gathering on 23 Adar I, 5727 (March 5, 1967) where Catholics and Protestants will assemble together with Jews who are members of the Synagogue Council of America as well as rabbinical colleagues from the Rabbinical Council of America. Even though what you will discuss there will be non theological in nature it is clear and simple that such participation constitutes a grave violation of the prohibition against appurtenances to idolatry….
And one should also consider this [drawing near] as falling under the category of prohibition against the “the one who entices (Ha- meisit) and the one who leads astray (Ha-madiah).For even though you and the other Orthodox rabbis (rabbanim)who will go there will surely be cautious about what you say, and will also not behave obsequiously toward the priests and their faith, as is the wont of the Reform and Conservative rabbis who by definition fall under the category of those who entice and lead astray, nevertheless, many people will learn from your example and they will attend the sermons of missionaries and the like. Similarly, you should not even send a letter there expressing what you might be prepared to discuss, for all contact with them assists them in their most evil plot.”
Try to appreciate the harshness of his words, where he refers to Jews who engage in such behavior as a mesit and a madiach, (the enticer and the one who causes people to stray). I leave it to the reader to look up in the Talmud or the Rambam what the Torah says about such individual. Rav Moshe was a great ohev Yisrael and yet he chose to use such harsh terms.
The Hour Is Frightening
Esau is a wolf devouring sheep. For the first time in history, he is aided by men who bear the title “orthodox rabbi” or Orthodox Jews. This chillul Hashem has to stop!.
Many Jews are aiding our spiritual enemies. All Evangelicals are missionaries. There are no safe evangelicals, only clever ones. To believe otherwise is to recognize the existence of omnivorous predatory carnivores in nature.
To the extent that an organization reforms and opposes evangelism they will cease to identify as such. They will sever ALL ties with missionary organizations like “First Fruits of Zion” or the Messianic “Brahm Center” which offers “Torah Classes” in Israel. The failure to do so is an indication that nothing has changed for them, save for their self-awareness and the understanding that they need to couch harsh theology in duplicitous terms.
Their lecture circuits will strip all evangelical congregations and messianic synagogues from the itinerary. Gone will be all references of “restoration” which means the same thing as replacement theology, as I have explained in previous articles.
Those Jews who perpetrate the myth of non-missionizing evangelicals, will have to answer for their sins against the Jewish people. It is an egregious lie and every knowledgeable Jewish convert from evangelism knows this. There is extraordinary arrogance in the behavior of Jews who lecture righteous converts (former evangelicals) on what evangelicals believe!
The failure of rabbis and lay Jews to adhere to classical halachic boundaries, shows they lack the common-sense and discipline to interact at all with the non-jewish world in such endeavors. In such encounters, they invariably lose.
So, I have a suggestion. In accordance with Rambam’s rule where one adopts an extreme position to fight a prevailing tendency, I call for a return to reason, & a process that is necessary to temper oneself. The goal of course is to eventually find the “golden mean”.
The evidence shows that the Rav’s disciplined position is beyond the reach of such arrogant men. Nor do we have men of his pedigree today (or even remotely in the same arena) to guide such people even if they were receptive to listening. And they are not.
If Jews cannot abide by Confrontation than complete separation is in order. Perhaps one day such individuals will develop the wisdom and discipline to slide to the healthy middle. (Perhaps in Eretz Yisrael where other laws come into play there is no such middle ground, particularly if one follows the halachic argument that ‘our hands may be stronger than theirs’ today.)
I want to reiterate that this is a Jewish problem. We are a sovereign-nation in Israel. Religious communities in Israel have complete control over who comes into their communities. If the leaders of these communities choose to embrace evangelical wolves and the den of interfaith associations, they, or others within and outside their communities will be eaten as sheep.
Who let the wolves in the gates? Jewish wolves, or foolish sheep?
The first to be eaten are always the most vulnerable. Those who encourage such associations often denigrate the concern of those who worry about the vulnerable. How terribly unJewish? The vulnerable among us always demand our attention.
Personally, Hayovel Ministry poses no personal theological danger to me or my loved ones. But Judaism is more than our narrow self-interests. The danger to me is not the barometer of significance. The danger to the greater Jewish community is all that matters.
Many religious communities and Jews fancy themselves impervious to such threats. They often deride the notion that people may fall prey. So much for the kiruv ethos!
That may indeed be so. But there are plenty of sheep who are tired and exhausted in one form or fashion. And they may be straggling behind and struggling with life. They may become prey.
Many of today’s religious Jews are unworthy of the challenges of Confrontation. Many rabbis are either ignorant of the problem or unwilling to fight. Many are willfully blind or even worse.
Some don’t care about what Rav Soloveitchik wrote in the 60’s. They are unworthy of any encounter or confrontation because they are often poor representations of yahadut themselves. Their words and actions betray as much, often with vulgar clarity.
I love and revere the teachings of Rav Soloveitchik, but I am not maintaining that his position is the only halachic one, only that his theological writings are essential for any halachic discussion. On such matters, I personally tend to lean towards a Reb Moshe, but I appreciate the nuance of the Rav’s position. (Personally, I feel is more appropriate for the diaspora than in Israel where such issues raise many complicated halachic problems, running the gamut from prohibitions relating to the prohibition of “Lo T’Chaneim” (showing them favor) and many other halachic issues.
In short, I am not arguing that one adopts the rigid positions of Rambam (strict) over the Raavad (more lenient). I am bothered that people ignore both and find solace in either their distorted readings of the Meiri, or in adopting positions in the name of the Meiri that Rambam, Raavad, and Meiri would all find outrageous.
Spiritual terror is the equal of physical terror. Just as we have physical wolves in Israel today, who represent an Am Lak (an Arab/Islamic Amalekite nation which laps up blood), we also have evangelical wolves and Jewish sheep.
One question cannot be ignored. With so many wolves on the scene today, including many who wear the dress of lambs (or Tzitzit!) where are the Jewish sheepdogs? If we lack a Soloveitchik today, and we surely do, we surely need ideological sheepdogs to protect the flock.
*Please see “Revisiting “Confrontation” After Forty Years: A Response to Rabbi Eugene Korn” by Dr. (Rabbi) David Berger for a analysis of “Confrontation” and its continued relevance. There is no one more expert in these matters today, with the requisite temperament and Torah/academic knowledge to tackle this subject. He is (as was Rabbi Walter Wurtzburger of blessed memory upon the death of the Rav), the most qualified person today to opine on such matters; and the one most equipped to articulate the Rav’s authentic positions on these matters.