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  • "Rushing in Where Angels Fear to Tread":Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Rabbinical Council of America, Modern Orthodox Jewry and the Second Vatican Council
  • Yigal Sklarin (bio)

Writing in the September 1964 issue of The Jewish Horizon, the official literary organ of the Religious Zionists of America (Hapoel-Mizrachi), Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik published a letter expressing his thoughts and feelings on the developments that had transpired over the past three years between the Vatican and the Jews during the Second Vatican Council. "They should say chatanu (we have sinned) for rushing in where angels fear to tread," he wrote in reference to those Jews who had participated in theological dialogue with the Church.1 The evocation of this provocative imagery served as his admonition of the actions of certain individuals and organizations that had served as ambassadors over the previous three years for the Jewish people to the Vatican.

Between the years 1961–1965, at the Vatican Council, the Catholic Church began to reevaluate its stance towards the Jews. Ultimately, Nostra Aetate, In our Time, would be proclaimed by the Council as an attempt to radically alter the relationship between Christians and Jews. While Jews would definitely be affected by the pronouncement, would they have an influence on its proclamation? To whom did Rabbi Soloveitchik direct his passionate criticism in 1964? Why did he feel the need to employ such severe language?

Scholarship has been sparse, and at times questionable, in the discussion and elaboration on Modern Orthodoxy's view of, and participation in, the Second Vatican Council. Arthur Gilbert, in the first history written on the Vatican Council and the Jews, entitled, The Vatican Council and the Jews, written in 1968, makes no reference to Rabbi Soloveitchik's or the Rabbinical Council of America's (RCA) initial involvement or stance on Jewish participation in Vatican II. Rather, he writes only about their reactions to Council proceedings.2 Jonathan Sarna in American Judaism: A History, mentions Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel's involvement as an advocate for the American Jewish [End Page 351] Committee (AJC), yet provides no description of any other religious denominations' contributions and participation in the Council.3

Two recent scholars have addressed Rabbi Soloveitchik's involvement and participation in the Second Vatican Council. Their presentation paints a vague and ambiguous picture. Reuven Kimelman in Modern Judaism and Edward Kaplan in the recently published biography of Dr. Heschel, Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972, both write, Kaplan explicitly and Kimelman implicitly, that Rabbi Soloveitchik had conflicting and contradictory feelings towards the role of Jews in Vatican II; that Rabbi Soloveitchik advocated one policy to the public, yet privately adhered to different beliefs. Publicly, Rabbi Soloveitchik opposed Jewish involvement and dialogue with the Vatican. Privately though, he encouraged and participated with Jewish leaders and Vatican officials.4

Although Kimelman and Kaplan's presents Rabbi Soloveitchik's involvement, participation and reaction to the Second Vatican Council as contradictory or vague, in truth Rabbi Soloveitchik's engagement with the Vatican was very clear and definitive. By analyzing Rabbi Soloveitchik's own writings, public articles and private correspondences, as well as the words of his close students, this article will discern Rabbi Soloveitchik's authentic opinion. I argue that Rabbi Soloveitchik presented a uniform, yet multi-faceted approach to the Jewish involvement in Vatican II. He was not disingenuous or ambiguous; rather he presented a subtle and complex approach. Moreover, in understanding Rabbi Soloveitchik's own opinion, one sees how greatly he influenced the members of the RCA and how his views manifested themselves in many of their pronouncements.

In evaluating Rabbi Soloveitchik's position, this article will first provide a brief background of the Council and the historical context in which it came to exist. Second, it will document and detail many of the issues that arose within the Church as the development of a statement regarding the Jews was being formulated. Finally, it will describe how the Modern Orthodox Jewish community, specifically focusing on Rabbi Soloveitchik's influence, reacted and dealt with the Council's progress.

Origins of the Second Vatican Council and the Jewish Question

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII called for an...


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