Meir Soloveichik: All Religions are Unique in the Same Way

In praising Mitt Romney’s Liberty University speech, Meir Soloveichik has done the impossible. He has bridged the incommensurable gap between religions, rendering knowledgeable verdicts on the status of Mormonism vis a vis Christianity. Of course, it’s slightly easier to do the impossible if you only proclaimed the thing impossible earlier in the article.

Romney used to be tepid on this point himself. In 2007 he said:

“There is one fundamental question about which I often am asked. What do I believe about Jesus Christ? I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the savior of mankind.” Romney further noted that his beliefs about Jesus may be very different from those of others, and that it is inappropriate for a political candidate to discuss doctrine.

Uch. What meaningless BS. Obviously, Soloveichik reminds us, Mitt Romney doesn’t really believe in Jesus in his kishkes.

If the intention was to strike a common chord with evangelicals, there is little evidence that Romney succeeded. By “savior” Mormons undoubtedly mean something somewhat different than evangelical Christians. Seeking commonality on the matter only emphasizes the deep divisions between Mormons and evangelicals on dogma, matters on which their respective missionaries are competing as they seek converts.

Soloveichik recieved his semihka from my alma mater, Yeshiva University. We can only conclude that he supplemented Yoreh Deah with a special elective in Toldot Yeshu, hopefully restricted to Nittel.

This excursus into Christian theology, flabbergasting on its own, gets supplemented by a lesson in the impossibility of talking about other faiths. “It is instructive to study the writings of the Orthodox Jewish Talmudist and philosopher Joseph Soloveitchik” to understand why Romney’s Liberty speech struck a chord that his previous lip service to Jesus didn’t.
OK. I’ll bite. What does Rabbi Soloveitchik, scion of the most famous Rabbinical family in Lithuania and famous for his religious-anthropological treatise Halakhic Man have to say about Mitt Romney’s speech?

During the heady days of Vatican II, Jews of less traditional denominations were eager to engage in dialogue about theological doctrines with the church, optimistic that new religious commonalities could be discovered. Rabbi Soloveitchik, in contrast, discouraged such engagement. Matters of theology, he stressed, “are personal and bespeak an intimate relationship which must not be debated with others whose relationship with God has been molded by different historical events and in different terms.” Working to find substantive common ground on these theological matters, he argued, is ultimately unproductive because Jews and Christians “will employ different categories and move within incommensurate frames of reference and evaluation.”

The Rav, in Meir’s telling, posited that different faiths are incommensurable. Contrary to the modernist claims of the phenomenology of religion, and the general feelings of ecumenicism predominant in postwar American culture, the Rav evinced a thoroughgoing parochialism. To quote from “Confrontation.”

We cooperate with the members of other faith communities in all fields of constructive human endeavor, but, simultaneously with our integration into the general social framework, we engage in a movement of recoil and retrace our steps. In a word, we belong to the human society and, at the same time, we feel as strangers and outsiders.

This feeling of “recoil” isn’t something Jews should do, for the Rav, its something Jews have. The weight of history overdetermines this Jewish feeling. As the Rav puts it:

we certainly have not been authorized by our history, sanctified by the martyrdom of millions, to even hint to another faith community that we are mentally ready to revise historical attitudes, to trade favors pertaining to fundamental matters of faith, and to reconcile “some” differences.

Meir Soloveichik’s claims that “Soloveitchik was speaking of Judaism and Christianity, but the point is equally applicable to the doctrinal differences between evangelical Christians and Mormons” is undercut by the Rav’s appeal to this historical fact. The Rav wasn’t trying to create a malleable theology of theologies, easily transposable to Mormonism and Evangelicalism. He wasn’t offering a witty retort along the lines of “all religions are unique in their own way.” He was describing a feeling of Jewish otherness and concomitantly circumscribing impulses towards dialogue in a way that was true to his visceral sense of difference.
Notwithstanding his familial relationship with the Rav, Soloveichik obviously doesn’t share the sense of Jewish otherness. It’s instructive to read Soloveichik’s recent testimony before the House. There, he proceeds to perform a rhetorical trick similar to the one deployed in this article. Soloveichik posits that Obamacare “implicitly assumes that those who employ or help others of a different religion are no longer acting in a religious capacity, and as such are not entitled to the protection of the First Amendment.” He then proceeds to offer a totalizing vision of religion based on his understanding of Orthodox Judaism.

This betrays a complete misunderstanding of the nature of religion. For Orthodox Jews, religion and tradition govern not only praying in a synagogue, or studying Torah in a beit midrash, or wrapping oneself in the blatant trappings of religious observance such as phylacteries. Religion and tradition also inform our conduct in the less obvious manifestations of religious belief, from feeding the hungry, to assessing medical ethics, to a million and one things in between.Maimonides, one of Judaism’s greatest talmudic scholars and philosophers, and also a physician of considerable repute, stresses in his Code of Jewish Law that the commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart” is achieved not through cerebral contemplation only but also requires study of the sciences, and engagement in the natural world, as this inspires true appreciation of the wisdom of the Almighty.  In refusing to extend religious liberty beyond the parameters of what the administration chooses to deem religious conduct, the administration denies people of faith the ability to define their religious activity. Therefore, not only does the new regulation threaten religious liberty in the narrow sense, in requiring Catholic communities to violate their religious tenets, but also the administration impedes religious liberty by unilaterally redefining what it means to be religious.

The equation doesn’t change. Read the Rav to understand Mitt Romney, read the Rambam to understand Catholicism. The texts are transposable and point to unchanging essences. Maybe the one who needs to stop redefining religion isn’t Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. Maybe its Meir Soloveichik.

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2 Responses to Meir Soloveichik: All Religions are Unique in the Same Way

  1. Pingback: The Virtue of Hate and the Chief Rabbi | Chakira

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