Jewish views of religious diversity

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This article deals with Jewish views of religious diversity and religious pluralism. Noahide teachings are not a form of religious pluralism, but rather a form of religious diversity.

Religious diversity is the belief that all true religions are rooted in the same fundamental truths but express themselves in diverse ways. In its strongest sense, religious diversity holds that no single religion can claim a monopoly on absolute truth. Given the diverse nature of human beings, no single religious form can completely answer the needs of all mankind. G-d has chosen to create a diversity of approaches to the divine as symbolized by the Seventy Nations or Seventy Paths.

Religious pluralism is a set of non-Noahide religious worldviews which are similar to religious diversity, but does not believe in a common foundation for all proper faiths. It holds that one's religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth, and thus recognizes that some level of truth and value exists in at least some other religions. As such, religious pluralism goes beyond religious tolerance, which is the condition of peaceful existence between adherents of different religions or religious denominations.

Within the Jewish community, there is a shared common history, a shared language of prayer and study, a shared Bible and a shared set of rabbinic literature, thus often allowing for Jews of significantly different worldviews to nonetheless recognize some level of common values and goals. In comparison with other religions this has been called Intra-religious pluralism although in fact it is a form of religious diversity.

The following information is included for reference only.

Classical Jewish views

General classical views on other religions

Traditionally, Jews believe that God chose the Jewish people to be in a unique covenant with God, described by the Torah itself, with particular obligations and responsibilities. Sometimes this choice is seen as charging the Jewish people with a specific mission — to be a light unto the nations, and to exemplify the covenant with God as described in the Torah. This view, however, did not preclude a belief that God has a relationship with other peoples — rather, Judaism held that God had entered into a covenant with all mankind, and that Jews and non-Jews alike have a relationship with God.

Biblical references as well as rabbinic literature support this view: Moses refers to the "God of the spirits of all flesh" (Numbers 27:16), and the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) also identifies prophets outside the community of Israel. Based on these statements, some rabbis theorized that, in the words of Nethanel ibn Fayyumi, a Yemenite Jewish theologian of the 12th century, "God permitted to every people something he forbade to others...[and] God sends a prophet to every people according to their own language."(Levine, 1907/1966) The Mishnah states that "Humanity was produced from one man, Adam, to show God's greatness. When a man mints a coin in a press, each coin is identical. But when the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, creates people in the form of Adam not one is similar to any other." (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5) The Mishnah continues, and states that anyone who kills or saves a single human, not Jewish, life, has done the same (save or kill) to an entire world. The Talmud also states: "Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come" (Sanhedrin 105a).

A traditional Jewish view is that rather than being obligated to obey the 613 mitzvot of the Jews, non-Jews should adhere to a list of commandments under seven categories that God required of the children of Noah, (i.e. all humanity, ten generations prior to the birth of Abraham and the origin of Judaism). According to Jewish law, to be considered morally good, gentiles need follow only these laws, and are discouraged from converting to Judaism.

According to the Talmud, the seven Noahide Laws are

  1. to refrain from bloodshed and murder Shefichat damim
  2. to establish laws, Dinim
  3. to refrain from idolatry, Avodah zarah
  4. to refrain from blasphemy, Birkat Hashem
  5. to refrain from sexual immorality, Gilui arayot (traditionally, incest, sodomy, adultery, and male homosexuality),
  6. to refrain from theft, Gezel and
  7. to refrain from the tearing of a limb from a living animal, Ever min ha-chai

Any person who lives according to these laws is known as "the righteous among the gentiles". Maimonides states that this refers to those who have acquired knowledge of God and act in accordance with the Noahide laws. In the 2nd century a sage in the Tosefta declared "the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come." (Tosefta, Sanhedrin 13)

It should be noted that prophets of the Bible, while they repeatedly denounced the evils of the idolatrous nations (in addition to their denouncing the Jews' sins), they never call the nations to account for their idolatrous beliefs (i.e. worshipping multiple deities), but only for their evil actions (such as human sacrifice, murder, and miscarriages of justice).

Classical views on Christianity

Some rabbis in the Talmud view Christianity as a form of idolatry prohibited not only to Jews, but to gentiles as well. Rabbis with these views did not claim that it was idolatry in the same sense as pagan idolatry in Biblical times, but that it relied on idolatrous forms of worship (i.e. to a Trinity of gods and to statues and saints) (see Hullin, 13b). Other rabbis disagreed, and did not hold it to be idolatry. The dispute continues to this day. (Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, Oxford Univ. Press, 1961, Ch.10)

Maimonides, one of Judaism's most important theologians and legal experts, explained in detail why Jesus was wrong to create Christianity and why Muhammad was wrong to create Islam; he laments the pains Jews have suffered in persecution from followers of these new faiths as they attempted to supplant Judaism. However, Maimonides then goes on to say that both faiths can be considered a positive part of God's plan to redeem the world.

Jesus was instrumental [or, "was an instrument"] in changing the Torah and causing the world to err and serve another beside God. But it is beyond the human mind to fathom the designs of our Creator, for our ways are not God's ways, neither are our thoughts His. All these matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth, and the Ishmaelite [i.e., Muhammad ] who came after him, only served to clear the way for the Jewish Messiah to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord, as it is written 'For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they all call upon the name of the Lord to serve Him with one consent.' (Zephaniah 3:9). Thus the Jewish hope, and the Torah, and the commandments have become familiar topics of conversation among those even on far isles, and among many people, uncircumcized of flesh and heart. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, XI.4.)

The above paragraph was often censored from many printed versions where Christian censorship was felt.

Modern (post-Enlightenment era) Jewish views

Views on dialogue with non-Jews in general

Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis engage in interfaith religious dialogue, and while most Orthodox rabbis do not participate in it, a small number of Modern Orthodox do.

Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, former Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Great Britain, describes a commonly held Jewish view on this issue:
"Yes, I do believe in the Chosen people concept as affirmed by Judaism in its holy writ, its prayers, and its milennial tradition. In fact, I believe that every people - and indeed, in a more limited way, every individual - is "chosen" or destined for some distinct purpose in advancing the designs of Providence. Only, some fulfill their mission and others do not. Maybe the Greeks were chosen for their unique contributions to art and philosophy, the Romans for their pioneering services in law and government, the British for bringing parliamentary rule into the world, and the Americans for piloting democracy in a pluralistic society. The Jews were chosen by God to be 'peculiar unto Me' as the pioneers of religion and morality; that was and is their national purpose."

Views on Jewish-Christian dialogue

In practice, the predominant position of Orthodoxy on this issue is based on the position of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in an essay entitled Confrontation. He held that Judaism and Christianity are "two faith communities (which are) intrinsically antithetic". In his view "the language of faith of a particular community is totally incomprehensible to the man of a different faith community. Hence the confrontation should occur not at a theological, but at a mundane human level... the great encounter between man and God is a holy, personal and private affair, incomprehensible to the outsider..." As such, he ruled that theological dialogue between Judaism and Christianity was not possible.

However, Soloveitchik advocated closer ties between the Jewish and Christian communities. He held that communication between Jews and Christians was not merely permissible, but "desirable and even essential" on non-theological issues such as war and peace, the war on poverty, the struggle for people to gain freedom, issues of morality and civil rights, and to work together against the perceived threat of secularism.

As a result of his ruling, Orthodox Jewish groups did not operate in interfaith discussions between the Roman Catholic Church and Jews about Vatican II, a strictly theological endeavour. However, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), with Soloveitchik's approval, then engaged in a number of interfaith dialogues with both Catholic and Protestant Christian groups.

Soloveitchik understood his ruling as advising against purely theological interfaith dialogue, but as allowing for theological dialogue to exist if it was part of a greater context. Bernard Rosensweig (former President of the RCA) writes "The RCA remained loyal to the guidelines which the Rav had set down [concerning interfaith dialogue] and distinguished between theological discussions and ethical-secular concerns, which have universal validity. Every program involving either Catholic or Protestant churches in which we participated was carefully scrutinized.... Every topic which had possible theological nuances or implications was vetoed, and only when the Rav pronounced it to be satisfactory did we proceed to the dialogue."

An RCA committee was once reviewing possible topics for an inter-faith dialogue. One of the suggested topics was "Man in the Image of God." Several members of the committee felt that the topic had too theological a ring, and wished to veto it. When the Rav [Soloveitch] was consulted he approved the topic and quipped, "What should the topic have been? Man as a Naturalistic Creature?!"
(Lawrence Kaplan, Revisionism and the Rav: The Struggle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy Judaism, Summer, 1999)

The basis for Soloveitchik's ruling was not strictly legal, but sociological and historical. He described the traditional Jewish-Chistian relationship as one of "the few and weak vis-à-vis the many and the strong", one in which the Christian community historically denied the right of the Jewish community to believe and live in their own way. His response was written in the light of past Jewish-Christian religious disputations, which traditionally had been forced upon the Jewish community. Those had as their express goal the conversion of Jews to Christianity. As recently as the 1960s many traditional Jews still looked upon all interfaith dialogue with suspicion, fearing that conversion may be an ulterior motive. This was a reasonable belief, given that many Catholics and most Protestants at the time in fact held this position. Reflecting this stance, Rabbi Soloveitchik asked the Christian community to respect "the right of the community of the few to live, create and worship in its own way, in freedom and with dignity."

Many traditional rabbis agree; they hold that while cooperation with the Christian community is of importance, theological dialogue is unnecessary, or even misguided. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits writes that "Judaism is Judaism because it rejects Christianity, and Christianity is Christianity because it rejects Judaism." (Disputation and Dialogue: Readings in the Jewish Christian Encounter, Ed. F.E. Talmage, Ktav, 1975, p. 291.)

In later years, Solovetichik's qualified permission was interpreted in a progressively more restrictive fashion. (Tradition:A Journal of Orthodox Thought, Vol. 6, 1964) Today, many Orthodox rabbis use Soloveitchik's letter to justify having no discussion or joint efforts with Christians at all.

In contrast, some Modern Orthodox rabbis such as Eugene Korn and David Hartman hold that in some cases, the primary issue in Confrontaton no longer is valid; some Christian groups no longer attempt to use interfaith dialogue to convert Jews to Christianity. They believe that the relationship between Judaism and Christianity has reached a point where Jews can trust Christian groups to respect them as equals. Further, in most nations it is not possible for Jews to be forced or pressured to convert, and many major Christian groups no longer teach that the Jews who refuse to convert are damned to hell.

In non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism, most rabbis hold that Jews have nothing to fear from engaging in theological dialogue, and in fact may have much to gain. Some hold that in practice Soloveitchik's distinctions are not viable, for any group that has sustained discussion and participation on moral issues will implicitly involve theological discourse. Thus, since informal implicit theological dialogue will occur, one might as well admit it and publicly work on formal theological dialogue.

Views on Jewish-Muslim dialogue

Many Jewish groups and individuals have created projects working for peace among Israelis and Arabs, most of which have as one of their goals overcoming religious prejudice.

The viewpoint of Conservative Judaism is summarized in Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism. This official statement holds that

"As Conservative Jews, we acknowledge without apology the many debts which Jewish religion and civilization owe to the nations of the world. We eschew triumphalism with respect to other ways of serving God. Maimonides believed that other monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Islam, serve to spread knowledge of, and devotion to, the God and the Torah of Israel throughout the world. Many modern thinkers, both Jewish and gentile, have noted that God may well have seen fit to enter covenants with many nations. Either outlook, when relating to others, is perfectly compatible with a commitment to one's own faith and pattern of religious life. If we criticize triumphalism in our own community, then real dialogue with other faith groups requires that we criticize triumphalism and other failings in those quarters as well. In the second half of the twentieth century, no relationship between Jews and Christians can be dignified or honest without facing up frankly to the centuries of prejudice, theological anathema, and persecution that have been thrust upon Jewish communities, culminating in the horrors of the Shoah (Holocaust). No relationship can be nurtured between Jews and Muslims unless it acknowledges explicitly and seeks to combat the terrible social and political effects of Muslim hostility, as well as the disturbing but growing reaction of Jewish anti-Arabism in the Land of Israel. But all of these relationships, properly pursued, can bring great blessing to the Jewish community and to the world. As the late Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, "no religion is an island."

Views on dialogue with non-monotheists

A small number of modern Jewish theologians such as Yehezkel Kaufman and Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz have suggested that perhaps only the Israelites were forbidden to worship idols, but perhaps such worship was permissible for members of other religions. (Yehezkel Kaufman, "The Religion of Israel", Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960; J. H. Hertz, "Pentateuch and Haftorahs" Soncino Press, 1960, p.759). Most Jewish theologians disagree, saying that the original meaning of the text was to condemn idolatry in total. However, a growing number of Jewish theologians question whether Hindus and Buddhists today should be considered idolaters in the Biblical sense of the term. Their reasons are that modern day Buddhists, Hindus and others (a) do not literally worship "sticks and stones", as the idolaters in the Tanakh were described doing. Their beliefs have far more theological depth than ancient pagans, and they are well aware that icons they worship are only symbols of a deeper level of reality, (b) they do not practice child sacrifice, (c) they are of high moral character, and (d) they are not anti-Semitic. As such, some Jews argue that not only does God have a relationship with all gentile monotheists, but that God also maintains a relationship with Hindus, Buddhists and other polytheists.

Intra-religious pluralism

The article on Relationships between Jewish religious movements describes how the different Jewish denominations view each other and interact with each other.

See also


  • Hananya Goodman, ed. Between Jerusalem and Benares : Comparative Studies in Judaism and Hinduism. Delhi, Sri Satguru Publications, 1997+
  • Robert Gordis The Root and the Branch, Chapter 4, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962
  • J. H. Hertz, Pentateuch and Haftorahs Soncino Press, 1960, p.759
  • Lawrence Kaplan Revisionism and the Rav: The Struggle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy Judaism, Summer, 1999
  • Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, Oxford Univ. Press, 1961, Ch.10
  • Yehezkel Kaufman, The Religion of Israel, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960
  • Judaism and the Varieties of Idolatrous Experience Bary S. Kogan in Proceedings of the Academy for Jewish Philosophy Ed. David Novak and Norbert M. Samuelson, University Press of America, 1992
  • Eugene Korn The Man of Faith and Interreligious Dialogue: Revisiting 'Confrontation' After Forty Years
  • D. Levene The Garden of Wisdom, Columbia Univ. Press, 1907/1966
  • National Jewish Scholars Project, Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity
  • Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, The Rabbinical Assembly, NY
  • Bernard Rosenzweig, The Rav as Communal Leader, Tradition 30.4, p.214-215, 1996
  • Joseph Soloveitchik Confrontation Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, 1964 volume 6, #2
  • Disputation and Dialogue: Readings in the Jewish Christian Encounter, Ed. F.E. Talmage, Ktav, 1975, p. 291
  • Emory University class: Introduction to Religion: Judaism and Hinduism

External links