Just a Thought: Jewish exclusivity

As believing Jews, we must ask if other faith communities have any truth or validity?

May 9, 2013 14:39
4 minute read.

Bible 521. (photo credit: Courtesy)

As believing Jews, we must ask if other faith communities have any truth or validity? Must we believe that everything besides Judaism is avoda zara (idolatry)? The first thing that comes to mind in trying to answer this question is the Rabbinic teaching that states: “If someone tells you that there is hochma [wisdom] among the nations, believe them! But if someone tells you that there is Torah among the nations, do not believe them! (Eicha Rabba 2:13).

The use of the term “Torah” here obviously does not mean the Torah as we have it, but true theology. This text seems to repudiate any notion of the nations having any type of Torah. But does this apply only to the pagans of yesteryear alone, or does it include Christianity and Islam, which have in fact embraced the God of Israel through their teachers Jesus and Muhammad? Franz Rosenzweig, almost a century ago, introduced an idea of a “dual covenant” shared by Jews and Christians alike. Even as late as a decade ago, outgoing UK chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks created much controversy in the Orthodox world for implying that there were truths to be found in other religions, in his book The Dignity of Difference. He was forced to retract the position and make the necessary changes in newer editions of the book. Was Sacks’s treatment justified? It is safe to say that the religions we today call the Eastern Religions would not qualify as Torah in any sense of the word. Normative Judaism would reject that there is any true theology to be found among the Asian religions. Yet, it seems that these religions do have what to teach, and this would fall under hochma.

Whether these are meditative techniques or other wisdom, they may be true, and it may even be a good idea for Jews to adopt some of these practices – but they do not contain Torah, even in the broadest sense of the word.

Judaism does recognize that there are saintly people among the other nations of the world. Some of the greatest moral teachings come from non-Jews. Religious ideas of other faiths are frequently quoted by many of the greatest Jewish thinkers. As Louis Jacobs says in Principles of Jewish Faith: “The claim of Judaism, as implied in the ninth principle [of Maimonides], is not, then, that there is no truth in any other religion, but that the fullest revelation of God is contained in the Torah.”

Thus, it would seem that the truths imagined to be in other religions would not be in any way superior, or even add to the truth of Judaism. Rather, the truths in other religions would have to be the same truth as Judaism, but clothed in different language, metaphor and ideas.

The story is told in the Babylonian Talmud (Menachot 29) of Moses going up to heaven to receive the Torah. The angels are angry about the Torah being given to mere mortals and seek to kill Moses. Moses finds refuge behind God’s throne and is prompted by God to answer the angels. He then proceeds to tell the angels that in the Torah it is written, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt.”

Moses then asks the angels if they were ever in Egypt, and demands: “It says, ‘Don’t steal.’ Do you have any possessions to steal? ‘Don’t murder!’ Is it possible for angels to commit murder? ‘Don’t commit adultery!’ Can you commit adultery?” At this point the angels realize they are bested and allow Moses to descend with the law to the people.

The obvious question is, of course: “Didn’t the angels know what was written in the Torah? How could Moses have defeated them like that?” The answer is “No!” The angels did not know what was written in Moses’s law because the Torah the angels had was a different Torah. Their Torah was the word of God as translated to angels. The mistake of the angels wasn’t their ignorance of the text, but that they believed Moses was taking down the angels’ Torah for man’s use.

That would have been impossible. Once Moses explained that the version he was carrying was the one intended for humanity, on the level of man, the angels acquiesced and even befriended Moses as a peer.

The same may be true with religion. Just like the Israelites needed to hear the Torah in Hebrew addressed in a way that met the needs of their particular history, perhaps Islam does contain truths that are best heard by the Arabs in Arabic taught by the Koran, while Europeans needed to hear the truths of God through the parables and stories of the life of Jesus.

Rosenzweig once wrote that “perhaps Jesus is the way for one to approach God. But we [the Jews] have no need of him as we are already with God!” ■

The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-highschool yeshivot and midrashot.

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