Judaism, Christianity and Religious Pluralism

by Eugene Korn

“Why was Adam created alone? [I.e. Why did all humanity emerge from one person?]… To tell of the glory of The Holy One, for when a person mints many coins from the same die, all the coins are identical.

But while the King of Kings, The Holy One, mints all persons from the same die, no person is identical to another.”

Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5[1]

  1. Introduction

The above rabbinic statement acknowledges that human diversity is an undeniable empirical fact. Further still, it insists that our diversity is not merely a de facto reality, but a theological desideratum that testifies to the uniqueness and glory of the Divine. And the diversity the Mishna extols is not limited to differences in physical appearance, but includes all dimensions of human personhood.

Yet does this affirmation of diversity also extend to theological pluralism, i.e., the acknowledgement of a plurality of valid religions? Is the multiplicity of religious belief a value to be permanently celebrated or a lamentable condition to be naturally overcome at some point in the future? Or is religious uniformity among the goals of the eschaton, when human life will be mysteriously and supernaturally transformed? These are the more crucial and complex questions.

Similar to the Christian and Muslim thinkers who shaped their respective religious traditions, Jewish prophets, rabbis, philosophers, poets and pietists also prized theological agreement and endowed it with a powerful thrust throughout Jewish thought. In the words of the prophet Zechariah, “The Lord shall be King over all the earth; and in that day shall the Lord be One, and His name one.” (Zech. 14:9) In practice, Jewish religious life, too, affirms “Lex orandi, lex credendi” (“The law of praying [is] the law of believing”). The Aleinu prayer that religious Jews recite thrice each day proclaims, “We place our hope in you, Lord our God, that we may soon see your glory when …all humanity will call on Your name….and all the world’s inhabitants will realize that to You every knee must bow and every tongue must swear loyalty.”

In the face of these potent visions of religious uniformity, it is not self-evident that the idea of religious diversity functions as a serious Jewish desideratum. Can traditional Jews see the Image of God in the face of the religious Other? In our contemporary world where Western people interact daily with others of different faiths, the above questions are of momentous theological, moral and social significance.

I will approach the broad question of how Judaism regards religious diversity and the religious Other by considering the following more specific questions:

  • Does Judaism manifest a fundamental position of tolerance, pluralism or indifference toward other faiths and their worshippers?
  • Is the endorsement of tolerance and religious pluralism an ideal or merely a pragmatic concession?
  • Does Christianity have a unique place in Jewish theology?
  • What are the limits of legitimate religious diversity?
  • Is religious uniformity a value to be actively pursued in history or an ideal reserved only for the end of history (the eschaton)?
  • If religious uniformity is an ideal, what are legitimate methods for achieving that consensus?

 

  1. Preliminary Clarifications

Before analyzing these questions, I would like to make a number of preliminary observations about the nature of Jewish theological, legal and philosophic traditions.

  1. When referring to Judaism or Jewish tradition, I have in mind sacred Jewish Scriptures and their rabbinic commentaries, the Talmud and the corpus of post-Talmudic rabbinic commentary on the legal, moral and theological Talmudic passages, medieval and modern Jewish philosophical writings as well as the living experience of the Jewish people throughout history. This is a vast field consisting of many voices, and rarely is there unanimity on any given issue. The Jewish intellectual religious tradition is a culture of dialectics and disagreement where dissent is present on issues both large and small. Even axiomatic principles and foundational texts often give rise to diverse and conflicting interpretations.

Consider the following example that, as we shall see, has extensive implications for our study: Is Mosaic revelation (what Jews call “Torah,”[2]) directed exclusively at Jews or is it ideally a divine code for all humanity?

One popular rabbinic source announces, “The Torah was given in a free place [the desert of Sinai], for had the Torah been given in the land of Israel, the Israelites could have said to the nations of the world, ‘You have no share in it.’ But now that it was given in the wilderness publicly and openly, in a place that is free for all, everyone wishing to accept it could come and accept it”[3] This rabbinic statement posits that the Torah was given in the desert to demonstrate that it is not exclusively applicable to Jews. On the contrary, the giving of the Torah in no-man’s land was a clear signal that the Torah was intended for all peoples. Implicitly, then, “Torah is available to all those who come into the world. It remains in place, available for anyone to take it. Torah is the litmus test for all humanity, not just Jews.” [4]

Conversely, the talmudic authority Rabbi Yohanan declared that “a non-Jew who studies the Torah deserves death, for it is written, ‘Moses commanded us with the Torah, [it is] the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob’ (Deuteronomy 33:4)—it is our inheritance, not theirs;” and R. Simeon ben Lakish taught that “a non-Jew who keeps a day of rest deserves death”[5]

These are two absolutely incompatible rabbinic positions. Which is correct? Is God’s revelation to the Jewish people universal or limited only to that people? The answer is “both,” depending on time, context and inquiry. Jewish tradition and theology are in their essence dialectical and pluralistic, with few absolutely categorical truths: “These and these are the words of the living God,”[6] in rabbinic parlance.  One should hesitate, therefore, to infer conclusions simplistically from isolated scriptural verses or individual rabbinic pronouncements. Understanding Jewish teachings demands working diligently to ferret out normatively accepted positions from minority or non-normative claims.

  1. Closely related to the above methodological point is the fact that neither Jewish theology, nor law nor philosophy are apodictic deductive disciplines that yield logically necessary conclusions. Conclusions and rulings are influenced by historical experience, time and place. In other words, Jewish theology places a premium on the lived experience of the Jewish people rather than on dogma or theoretical first principles. As our human experience and conceptions of the Divine evolve, so does Jewish theology progress. One highly relevant example for our study is how Jewish law understood and evaluated Christianity over time. In the first and second centuries, Jewish Christians were considered “minim”—intolerable heretics. After Christianity broke from Judaism and became primarily a gentile religion, rabbis considered Christian belief in the trinity and incarnation to be unacceptable violations of the belief in the One Creator of the universe because those beliefs violated pure monotheism and divine incorporeality. But during the late Middle Ages rabbis living in Christian Europe staked out a position that Jewish law required only Jews to believe in pure monotheism, and validated belief in the trinity for Christians because the triune Christian conception included the true Creator of heaven and earth. This position became normative Jewish teaching for European Jews from the late Middle Ages into modernity, primarily because of the social, economic and political changes in relations between Jews and Christians.[7] In other words, the normative Jewish theological and legal position shifted. In fact, very few positions in Judaism are absolute dogma that are immune to reconsideration and change.[8] The debate about what constitutes core unchangeable belief in Judaism is robust, yet few maintain that recognition of other religions, tolerance and legitimate religious pluralism are included in this small subset.[9] On the contrary, attitudes to gentiles and their faiths are among the subjects in Jewish tradition most influenced by the fluctuating Jewish experience with gentiles throughout history.
  1. Unlike the Christian tradition, formal law (halakhah) plays the dominant role in rabbinic thought, with philosophy and theology playing secondary roles. While law does not exhaust rabbinic tradition (as the Augustinian and other harsh patristic polemical portraits of Judaism incorrectly asserted), theological principles and concepts are frequently derived from case law or legal categories, rather than the reverse, Hence legal analysis is often an indispensable method of entry into key Jewish theological, philosophic and ethical ideas.
  • The Jewish Covenant

 Judaism is a covenantal faith. At its foundation, Judaism is the expression of the biblical covenant between God and the Jewish people. The sacred pact was initiated with Abraham (Genesis 12-15) and was in turn later bequeathed to Isaac, Jacob and their progeny. The family covenant later blossomed into a national covenant when the Israelite nation experienced the exodus from Egyptian slavery and accepted Mosaic revelation at Sinai (Exodus 19-20). Since that revelation, the starting point of rabbinic theology has been that each Jew is bound by the 613 divine commandments of the Mosaic covenant, whose details are defined by Jewish law. Indeed, responsibility to this covenant and the sense of “commandedness” is the traditional definition of Jewish identity. The most prominent sign of male Jewish identity is circumcision, whose original Hebrew term is “berit”—covenant.

As we have seen, some rabbinic speculation pointed in the direction of this covenant (Torah) having relevance for all humanity, but in practice Jewish tradition limited the obligations of the Abrahamic/Mosaic covenant to the Jewish people. At best, the Torah of Moses might apply to all humanity only in the distant messianic era, after history as we know it has ended. But prior to the eschaton, the Jewish covenant remains particularistic: The Torah addresses the Jewish people uniquely, and the nation of Israel is singularly elected by God. The biblical prophets and the talmudic rabbis poetically conceptualized the covenant as an intimate partnership between God and the Jewish people, and the private and exclusive nature of the relationship is why Isaiah, Zechariah, Jeremiah and Hosea repeated use of the metaphor of marriage when referring to the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people.

 

Judaism has taken much unkind and unfair criticism—primarily from Christian polemicists and Enlightenment rationalists—for its particularist conception of the biblical covenant. It was, to use Kierkegaard’s phrase, “a scandal of particularity.” Those critics were seduced by “Plato’s ghost,” who insisted that truth was universal, so that what is true for one person must be true for all persons at all times.[10] Judaism resisted the urge to universalize the biblical covenant, and it is precisely the particularistic nature of the Sinai covenant that provides Jewish theology and law with the logical opening for acknowledging valid non-Jewish religions and conceptions, i.e. theological pluralism. Because it is particular to Jews, the covenant created space for other modes of human-divine contact, and for different theological conditions that bestow dignity and legitimacy upon the gentile Other.

Universalism exhibits an ambivalent logic. Universal theological schemes possess the virtue of providing all people with the possibility of a relationship of love, grace, salvation before God. However, universal doctrines are also imperialistic. By their very nature they deny valid alternative schema, thus easily leading to delegitimization of those not subscribing not submitting to the universal vision. They seek to eliminate differences by imposing one faith, one regime or one empire on all humanity. As such, they are the logical converses of pluralism and often the natural opponents of tolerance. Isaiah Berlin notes:

“Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals and groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth…It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right, have a magical eye which sees the truth, and that others cannot be right if they disagree. This makes one certain that there is one goal and only one for one’s nation or church or the whole of humanity, and that it is worth any amount of suffering (particularly on the part of other people) if only that goal is attained—even “through an ocean of blood to the Kingdom of Love” as said Robespierre. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and I daresay leaders in the religious wars of Christian vs. Muslim or Catholics vs. Protestants sincerely believed this: the belief that there is one and only one true answer to the central questions which have agonized mankind and that one has it oneself—or one’s Leader has it. This belief was responsible for the oceans of blood. No Kingdom of Love ever sprang from it, nor could it.”[11]

From Paul onward, Christian theology universalized the biblical covenant, expanding the original biblical view from the descendants of Abraham to all humanity. Concomitants of this universalizing logic were the insistence on one universal redemptive covenant and Christian belief as the exclusive way to theological truth. Thus “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus”: those standing outside Christian belief were locked out of eternal salvation. Perhaps more critically for our study, those extra Ecclesiam were deemed inferior and barely tolerated in this world also.[12] Jews experienced this in their flesh as the only non-Christians in medieval Europe: Christians considered Judaism blasphemous and illegitimate, and saw Jews as unbelievers to be treated as social and spiritual outcasts. Jewish stubbornness and “blindness” to universal Christian truth were grounds for imposing humiliation, discrimination, conversion and physical persecution upon them. Some of this hostility was defended on the grounds that it expressed love and concern, for without conversion to Christianity, Jews were “lost.” In other words, the claim of universality by the Church led directly to a denial of legitimate religious pluralism in principle and only minimal toleration in fact.

  1. The Noahide Covenant

In addition to the Mosaic covenant, a universal covenant known in rabbinic language as the Noahide covenant is a core element of Jewish theology. The necessity of this covenant is eminently logical, since a cardinal Jewish theological and moral principle is that God created every human being in the Image of God (Heb: Tselem Elokim, Latin: Imago Dei). Hence all humans are endowed with intrinsic dignity and spiritual capacities. If so, the Creator of all humanity could not possibly restrict divine love to one people. Rather, God must in some way relate to all His[13] children with love and responsibility. The God of the first eleven chapters of the Bible, the Creator of the cosmos, cannot be an ethnic, tribal God.

The Bible (Gen. 9) relates that after the great flood God established a covenant with Noah and his descendants, i.e. all humanity. According to Jewish teachings, this covenant contains exactly seven commandments: the six prohibitions against murder, theft, sexual wildness, idolatry, eating a limb of a live animal (symbolizing cruelty and disdain for life) and blasphemy, as well as the one positive injunction to establish courts of law to justly enforce those six prohibitions to ensure that people do not live in a pre-civilized brutal and chaotic Hobbesian jungle.[14] The rabbis understood blasphemy in this context to mean intolerance directed toward any true religion teaching about the universal Creator. Thus the Noahide covenant is the vehicle that enables non-Jews to stand responsible before God, and it is the theological principle that grants them social, moral and theological legitimacy in Jewish thought.

It is important to note that technically the Noahide covenant does not require a gentile Noahide to believe in God.[15] The obligations associated with this covenant are primarily, if not exclusively, moral. At most, Noahides might be required to believe in a generic creator who implanted a moral order in the world and who ensures punishment to people who violate that order.[16] That is, Noahides might be required to believe in a transcendent authority, that “God is”, but not in any more specific theology or particular way to worship God.

The rabbis thus subscribe to a double covenant theory. Jews have a covenant of 613 commandments (Heb: mitzvot) and all gentiles are members of the covenant of seven Noahide commandments. Importantly, each covenant is theologically valid for its respective adherents, and Noahides are not expected to convert to the Jewish covenant or Judaism. All gentiles who live faithfully by these basic laws of civilization are considered to be worthy gentiles, ‘benei Noah’ (children of Noah) in rabbinic parlance.[17] Their covenant is independent and authentic, and observing the Noahide covenant is a valid way of life in the eyes of both God and the rabbis.[18]

In sum, we may say that Jewish theology divides humanity into three categories: Jews, righteous Noahides whose valid beliefs dictate that they obey the moral Noahide commandments, and pagans whose beliefs do not respect the Noahide obligations and were therefore deemed illicit.

  1. Judaism and Christianity[19]

It is helpful to reconsider the patriarch Abraham and God’s covenant with him. Was Abraham a Jew or simply a righteous Noahide? For most Jews schooled in the biblical genealogy of Abraham through Moses and in traditional rabbinic interpretation (midrash), the answer is clear: Abraham is the first — perhaps the paradigmatic — Jew.

Yet we can ask the question differently in legal and theological terms: Did Abraham stand under the 613 Sinaitic commandments given to Israel or only under the seven Noahide commandments? When we pose the question this way, it is apparent that the majority of rabbinic biblical commentators did not see Abraham as an Israelite, since they believed that he was not obligated in, nor did he observe, the Sinaitic commandments.[20]

Yet Abraham was no mere Noahide. To be precise, according to most Jewish biblical authorities Abraham was a theological Noahide: He observed the fundamental moral Noahide laws as well as a few other individual behavioral commandments, such as circumcision. Abraham’s uniqueness lay in his recognition of the One Creator of Heaven and Earth, in his understanding of the theological foundation for the Noahide laws[21], and in his giving public witness to these beliefs. This is the meaning of Abraham repeatedly “calling the Name of the Lord,” throughout Genesis[22]. This gesture was testimony to all around him that God exists, and it was a public prayer that proclaimed God’s continuing involvement with his children. The Abrahamic covenant, then, was the seed for the covenant at Sinai, but was far from identical with it.

This insight is relevant to the question of whether Jewish thought can understand Christianity in covenantal terms. Are there authentic grounds for a new theological relationship in which Jews see Christians as participating in a common covenant with them? If are so, what are the boundaries of this commonality? The answers to these questions may well determine whether Jews and Christians can understand each other with greater theological appreciation and forge an active partnership to build a better future together on the basis of a common religious mission.

At the advent of modern times, some rabbis understood the special nature of Christianity. Here are some examples of these opinions that expressed a new theological recognition of Christianity:

  1. Moses Rivkis (17th century Lithuania):

The gentiles in whose shadow Jews live and among whom Jews are dispersed are not idolators. Rather they believe in creatio ex nihilo and the Exodus from Egypt and the main principles of faith. Their intention is to the Creator of Heaven and Earth and we are obligated to pray for their welfare. [23]

Rabbi Jacob Emden (18th century Germany):

The Nazarene brought a double goodness to the world. . . . The Christian eradicated avodah zarah, removed idols (from the nations) and obligated them in the seven mitsvot of Noah so that they would not behave like animals of the field, and instilled them firmly with moral traits. . . . Christians and Moslems are congregations that (work) for the sake of heaven — (people) who are destined to endure, whose intent is for the sake of heaven and whose reward will not be denied.[24]

 Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany):

Judaism does not say, “There is no salvation outside of me.” Although disparaged because of its alleged particularism, the Jewish religion actually teaches that the upright of all peoples are headed toward the highest goal. In particular, they have been at pains to stress that, while in other respects their views and ways of life may differ from those of Judaism, the peoples in whose midst the Jews are now living [i.e., Christians] have accepted the Jewish Bible of the Old Testament as a book of Divine revelation. They profess their belief in the God of heaven and earth as proclaimed in the Bible and they acknowledge the sovereignty of Divine Providence in both this life and the next. Their acceptance of the practical duties incumbent upon all men by the will of God distinguishes these nations from the heathen and idolatrous nations of the talmudic era. [25]

Before Israel set out on its long journey through the ages and the nations, . . . it produced an offshoot [Christianity] that had to become estranged from it in great measure, in order to bring to the world — sunk in idol worship, violence, immorality and the degradation of man — at least the tidings of the One Alone, of the brotherhood of all men, and of man’s superiority over the beast. It was to teach the renunciation of the worship of wealth and pleasures, albeit not their use in the service of the One Alone. Together with a later offshoot [Islam] it represented a major step in bringing the world closer to the goal of all history.[26]

Note that these later rabbinic authorities judge Christians positively because of their beliefs. That is, unlike most earlier medieval rabbis, they appreciated Christians because of the influence of Christianity on their behavior and belief. Implicitly then, these authorities are making theological statements regarding Christianity, not merely Christians.

On the Christian side, Catholic and Protestant theologies have always insisted that Christianity is the heir to the Jewish covenant. The church is part of the unfolding history of Israel — indeed, it is “the new Israel.”[27] Unfortunately, for many Christians this has meant replacing the old Israel. Christians see themselves as the contemporary recipients of the divine blessing given to Abraham and members of the covenantal chain from Abraham to Moses that culminated in the new covenant established with the blood of Jesus.[28] In other words, Christians see themselves as the contemporary chosen people, not merely people following the Noahide covenant.

This is an unacceptable thesis for Jewish theology, and traditional Jewish thinkers have consistently maintained that Jews and Christians do not share the biblical covenant. Of course, both are obligated by the Noahide covenant, but Jews do not identify themselves as Noahides.

Jews have resisted acknowledging the Christian claim for historical and theological reasons. But the matter cannot remain settled with this denial, for as the rabbis cited indicate Christianity is closer to Judaism in history, mission, and content than, for example, an Asian religion that might fulfill the Noahide commandments. For whatever reasons, God has closely intertwined Jews and Christians historically, and Judaism and Christianity theologically. For Judaism, then, Christians cannot be mere Noahides. Christianity must stand theologically somewhere between the Noahide religion and the Judaism of the Sinai covenant.

We have seen that medieval and modern Jewish biblical commentators understood Abraham’s covenantal mission as teaching the world about God and bearing witness to his moral law. And in the philosophic eyes of Maimonides, spreading the knowledge of the One God of Heaven and Earth throughout the world was the primary vocation of Abraham.[29]

It is interesting to note that this understanding of Abraham’s mission is exactly how the above cited rabbis describe the mission and historical impact of Christianity. According to Rabbis Rivkis: (Christians believe in creatio ex nihilo and the Exodus from Egypt and the main principles of faith. Their intention is to the Creator of Heaven and Earth”); And to R. Emden: “The Christians removed idols (from the nations) and obligated them in the seven mitsvot of Noah so that they would not behave like animals of the field, and instilled them firmly with moral traits….The goal of [Christians and Muslims] is to promote Godliness among the nations and to make known that there is a Ruler in Heaven and Earth”; And to R. Hirsch: “The peoples in whose midst the Jews are now living [i.e., Christians] have accepted the Jewish Bible of the Old Testament as a book of Divine revelation. They profess their belief in the God of heaven and earth as proclaimed in the Bible and they acknowledge the sovereignty of Divine Providence. . . . Their acceptance of the practical duties incumbent upon all men by the will of God distinguishes these nations from the heathen and idolatrous nations of the talmudic era….Judaism produced an offshoot [Christianity]…in order to bring to the world — sunk in idol worship, violence, immorality and the degradation of man — at least the tidings of the One Alone”.)[30]

In effect, these rabbis viewed Christianity as playing a role in the covenant of Abraham. If so, Jews can view Christians as partners in that covenant.[31] This may be a common assumption in Christian theology, but it is a new claim for Jewish theology. It means that Christianity qualifies as an Abrahamic religion covenantally, not merely historically.[32] Jewish thinkers have always assumed that gentile nations could be genealogically descended from Abraham, but no gentile could be within the particular covenant that God made with Abraham. That was reserved for the Jewish people alone.

Thus Christianity has a unique status within Jewish theology and the Abrahamic covenant, and Christians are more than mere Noahides. Jews and Christians can see each other as sharing Abraham’s covenant. They can understand themselves to be working toward the same spiritual goals of sacred history, but under different systems of commandments and with differentiated functions.

The change in Christian thinking about Jews and Judaism that occurred after the Holocaust has significant implications for the Jewish understanding of Christianity and its relationship to the covenant. This is possible because Jewish theology is neither dogmatic nor derived exclusively from theoretical “first principles.” Jewish theology is vitally influenced by the experiences of the Jewish people through history. As God’s living witnesses, Jews understand God and divine providence mediated through their experiential reality as a people.

After the moral and physical devastation of the Holocaust, a number of Christian thinkers understood where the traditional hard supersessionist teachings led directly to Christian complicity in the Final Solution and indirectly to Auschwitz.[33] Christians developed more tolerant teachings about Jews and Judaism in soft supersessionist teachings maintaining that God’s covenant with the Jewish people was never revoked, that Judaism continued to occupy a role in salvation history, and that Jews were not a rejected people.[34] This seems to be the dominant position today of the Catholic Church as a result of Nostra Aetate and the theological approach to Judaism that has grown out of the Second Vatican Council. Major Protestant churches have followed suit, and a number of Evangelical theologians make a similar argument.[35] In most of their views, however, Christianity and the new covenant remain the highest fulfillment of the old covenant, and Jewish conversion to Christianity is still a theological desideratum — for God, the church, and for Jews themselves. Yet soft supersessionism, which now appears to be normative in many official Christian theological circles, decreases the urgency and imperative nature to convert Jews.

Rightly understanding that Christians are closer to Judaism than are Noahides, the prominent non-supersessionist Catholic theologian, Mary Boys, has suggested to me that Christians should somehow be seen as having stood with Jews at Sinai. Yet it is difficult to see how Jews (or even contemporary non-supersessionist Christians) can logically understand Christians as partners in the Sinaitic covenant when they are not obligated to observe all the Sinaitic mitsvot, without at least part of the Sinai covenant being superseded.[36] As obvious illustrations, the Sinaitic Decalogue prohibits making images of God and requires Sabbath observance on the seventh (and not the first) day of the week—two commandments that Christianity does not observe.

Churches long ago lost their temporal power and their capacity for physically threatening the Jewish people, and the recent emergence of soft supersessionist and non-supersessionist theologies renders Christian theology less threatening to Judaism and to Jewish covenantal integrity. These recent Christian theologies remove or at least significantly lessen the Christian theological attack on the continuing integrity of the Jewish covenantal mission in history. Understanding this, Jews need not be defensive about adopting a positive new theological approach to Christianity. Jewish and Christian theologies are no longer engaged in a theological duel to the death, and Jews need not fear a sympathetic covenantal understanding of Christianity that is true to the Bible, Jewish thought, and values.

The new covenantal relation requires that Christians and Jews give up intense rivalry in their pre-eschaton activities and that they begin to view each other as partners in carrying out God’s covenant instead of striving in the here and now to triumphantly convert the other.[37] Surely in our pre-eschaton days, God has more than enough blessings to bestow upon each of his covenantal children.

The formal theological problem of the unacceptable status of the trinity and incarnation according to Jewish law was resolved by the late medieval rabbinic distinction between what Jews are required to believe about God (absolute monotheism) and what is permitted for gentile belief (belief in the One Creator of the universe with additional associated elements).[38] The significant covenantal points for us are that (1) Jews may view Christianity as having a unique covenantal status, and recognize that it is far closer to Judaism theologically than are general Noahides, and (2) Judaism can accept legitimate differing Jewish and Christian beliefs about God, as well as Jews and Christians retaining their differences in worship and their fidelity to their respective faith communities. While Jews and Christians can view each other as partners in God’s covenantal mission, nevertheless there are limits to theological pluralism: Acceptance of the trinity and incarnation, and conversion to Christianity remain strictly prohibited to Jews.

  1. Idolatry as the Limit of Tolerance

Prima facie, Judaism’ double covenant theology creates a wide opportunity for acknowledging the legitimacy of religious diversity, the validity of non-Jewish religious forms and respect for gentiles, all without Jews sacrificing the primacy of their unique status in God’s economy or their particularistic Jewish theological convictions.

Yet a thorny problem lurks behind this simple picture. It turns on defining the criteria for violating Noahide commandments, and more specifically what constitutes the Noahide prohibition against idolatry. Jewish Scriptures, the Talmud and Jewish law all insist upon intolerance toward idolatry and its worshippers—frequently to the point of annihilation.[39] The definition of idolatry and the delineation of who falls within the idolatrous domain is thus the key to determining Judaism’s acceptance of the religious other and the limits of legitimate religious pluralism.

Throughout the Bible idolatry represents the morally and spiritually intolerable, and numerous religious texts require its destruction. So harshly did the sacred Jewish Scriptures assess idolatry that they teach that God commanded the Israelites to “let no [idolatrous] soul remain alive” (Deut. 20:16) upon entry to the Promised Land.[40] In later rabbinic legal, ethical and theological discourse too, idolatry represented the line where tolerance ends and where intolerance is warranted.[41] The covenant of Noah allowed for theological pluralism and practical tolerance, yet only within limits.

The Hebrew term most frequently employed for idolatry in rabbinic and Jewish legal literature is “avodah zarah,” literally “foreign worship”. Technically, avodah zarah means all worship deemed illicit by Jewish law, both in its idolatrous and non-idolatrous manifestations.[42]  While often identified with the pagan idolatry that the Bible so loudly condemns, it is in fact a wider category that also includes non-pagan but still illegitimate worship.

Rabbinic thinkers understand the category of avodah zarah and who falls under the rubric of an intolerable idolator differently. Fundamentally, two competing conceptions are dominant in Jewish thought, and both are inferred from biblical texts. Jewish Scriptures sometimes describe idolators as people who worship celestial bodies, stars and trees[43] (i.e. any finite physical object) because they mistakenly understand them to be divine, while other times the Bible portrays idolators as people or cultures with abominable immoral practices.[44] The first more cognitive conception was emphasized by rabbis with philosophic bents, most prominently the 12th century polymath Maimonides, who lived in Spain and Egypt. As the greatest Jewish legal authority in Jewish history, Maimonides exerts a prodigious influence over the Jewish canon. And as rationalist philosopher steeped in the metaphysics of Aristotle, he understood idolatry as any conceptual error that identifies God with something that is in fact not divine[45], specifically anything that is physical, plural, has emotions or is subject to change.

Maimonides thus considered not only ancient sun worship, star worship and polytheism to constitute idolatry, but also judged Christianity to be idolatrous because of its doctrines of the incarnation and the trinity. He considered Christians who held these beliefs to be idolators and subject to all the same strictures of alienation and intolerance as were the biblical Canaanites and other ancient pagans. Maimonides was consistent: He considered Jews who harbored personalistic conceptions of God, i.e. that God has human emotions of anger, love and regret, to be worse offenders than gentiles who believed that God was physical.[46] By contrast, Islam’s conception of Allah is free of any corporeal dimension and insists on absolute monotheism (similar to Judaism in that respect). Hence Maimonides considered Muslims to be observant Noahides and Islamic theology regarding God to be legitimate.

It is clear that Maimonides’ biography influenced his legal views. He never lived with Christians and learned about Christianity only from books. Except for his brief stay in Crusader Palestine, he resided all his life in Muslim societies. It was thus not difficult psychologically for him to so categorize Christianity and see Christians as the intolerable Other. Nor did he have to grapple in his society with the practical difficulties that Jewish law would impose on Jewish interactions with Christians should Christians be legally considered to be idolators.

Rabbi Menachem Meiri, who lived in 13th century Christian Provence, emphasized the other biblical identification of idolators as primitive immoral pagans with abominable ethical, religious and sexual practices. He conceptualized idolatry in moral terms: Idolatry is cultic worship whose primary character is the absence of moral demands upon its worshipers. It is any religion that does not impose on its adherents the fundamental ethical restraints against murder, theft, sexual wildness, lawlessness, that is, the foundation of orderly civilized society.[47] Thus according to Meiri, even polytheists and corporealists who subscribed to fundamental moral values could belong to the domain of valid believers. The Torah requires pure monotheism of Jews, but not of gentiles.  Meiri had no theological or practical problem with Christianity or any other civilizing religion of which he could possibly be aware. In fact, he relegated illegitimate idolatry of his day to the far flung corners of the earth—i.e. only to places where no Jews lived. In doing so he consigned Judaism’s mandatory intolerance of idolators to the realm of theory alone.[48]

Thus Jewish limits of tolerance, diversity and theological pluralism will vary significantly depending on how “foreign worship” is understood. In practice, while a number of contemporary religious Jews claim to accept Maimonides’ harsh ruling against Christianity, this is merely rhetorical since no Jew consistently follows Maimonides’ ruling in practice.[49]

Both the Bible and Jewish law affirmed the residency and civil rights of gentiles in an ideal Jewish polity governed by Jewish religious law. The Bible denotes such a person as a “ger toshav” (resident alien) and repeatedly warns Jews not to oppress or take advantage of this stranger in their midst.[50] Under Jewish law, Jews have rigorous religious obligations to support and sustain this gentile stranger economically, and ensure that he not dwell “close to the border [due to danger of an enemy attack] or in an unseemly place; rather, he should reside in a goodly dwelling in the midst of the Land of Israel, in a place where his business or artisanship can prosper.” [51] This is the rabbinic expansion of Jewish civil obligations toward the religious Other that is derived the biblical commandment, “He [the gentile] shall dwell in your midst, in whatever place he will choose, in any one of your cities, wherever it is beneficial to him; you must not taunt him.” (Deut. 23:16).

It is important to note that the insistence on legitimate religious diversity in Jewish society and the religious obligations devolving upon Jews to protect the safety, dignity and economic health of the religious Other in their midst obtain in the ideal Jewish polity, where Jews are sovereign. This indicates that acceptance and protection of the gentile is not a practical concession to realpolitik, but an obligatory value that religious Jews must implement when they possess political power and social dominance. While the status of “ger toshav” is technically applicable only in the Jewish homeland under Jewish sovereignty, the concept is rich in general implications for the values of pluralism, tolerance and obligations toward the religious Other in Judaism. The Bible, Jewish law and the Talmud could have constructed the ideal as a monolithically Jewish polity in which there was no religious diversity and no need to extend recognition or protection of gentiles. Pointedly, they did not.

Who qualifies as a “ger toshav,” with rights of residency and protection in this ideal Jewish polity? The Talmud decided that it is any non-Jew who forswears idolatry and accepts the ethical requirements of the Noahide commandments.[52] Given that this status is a civil and social one, it is reasonable to assume that the renunciation of idolatry required of the resident stranger is achieved by his commitment to obey the fundamental moral responsibilities required for membership in a stable and just society—i.e. Meiri’s conception of idolatry. Testing the stranger for the purity of his metaphysical understanding of God (i.e. Maimonides’ understanding of idolatry) makes no sense in this context. It is more logical for the residency requirement to provide warrant that the would-be resident be a law-abiding civilized member of Jewish society than that he be a sophisticated theologian.

Similarly it would seem that in our pluralistic modern and post-modern societies where people of different Abrahamic and Asian religions interact regularly, where theological ideas play a less significant role than in the past, where democracy is a dominant ethos, where atheists exhibit social and moral responsibility no less than believers, and where the concept of universal human rights is an intrinsic part of our Western worldview, Meiri’s conception of idolatry as behavior bereft of civil and moral restraint stakes out the proper conception of Jewish tolerance of the Other and its limits.[53] This conception grants legitimacy to anyone committed to ethical principles, social responsibility, compassion for others and improving the world that God created for his creatures to flourish. In practice most Jews— religious and secular, lay and rabbinic—adhere to this policy, whether conscious of Meiri’s theory or not. In a word, it has become Judaism’s normative approach today.

 

VII. The Afterlife and the Messianic Era

Thus far I have analyzed Jewish law and theology’s approach to religious diversity in the empirical world as we know it. What of the afterlife, i.e., eternal salvation? Who is entitled to such exalted status? The reward of eternal life is a fundamental principle of Judaism, but unlike Christian theology, Jewish religious thought devotes little time to soteriology, eschatology and the nature of life after death. Its focus is life on earth and the responsibilities of Jews while alive in this world. Also unlike Christians, Jews do not talk of “eternal salvation,” rather of “a share in the world to come.”  Nor is this is purely a distant metaphysical concern. In all theological traditions, as in Judaism, earning eternal afterlife is an indicator of what is understood to be a meritorious life in this world, both for ourselves and others.

Yet there are significant Jewish texts that speculate about the after-life. The talmudic and medieval rabbis paid some gentiles the ultimate theological compliment by teaching that “righteous gentiles have a share in the world to come.”[54]  Again it was the 12th century rabbi-philosopher Maimonides who set the normative Jewish position on this question. He ruled in accordance with the talmudic opinion that righteous gentiles do participate in the world to come, and rejected the rival opinion that such salvation was confined to Jews.[55] Even after accepting this broad principle, two critical questions remain: (1) what earthly life qualifies a person to gain “a share in the world to come”? and (2) what, if any, religious belief is required to merit this eternal life? If theological belief is necessary and that required belief is the acceptance of all Mosaic revelation at Sinai, then de facto the only gentiles with a share in the world to come would be those few who subscribe to Orthodox Jewish theology. Thus potential universal salvation could easily be denuded of its breadth—in other words, “Extra Synagogam nulla salus.”

A few Jewish particularists took this extreme position based on an idiosyncratic reading of a key Maimonidean text on the question[56], yet nothing suggests that Maimonides himself subscribed to this restrictive particularist view. He was a philosophical and theological universalist who believed that metaphysical knowledge was necessary for eternal life and that this knowledge was not contingent on any particular national history. While Jewish tradition gives Jews some advantage over others because of their possession of divine revelation, Maimonides taught that true knowledge of God is a rational capability that is open to any dedicated human being.[57] This is also the position of modern Jewish rationalist philosophers, foremost among them Moses Mendelssohn.[58]

Most rabbinic thinkers were not as metaphysically oriented as was Maimonides, and hewed close to the explicit requirements of the Noahide covenant. They insisted that gentiles merited eternal life when they scrupulously commit themselves to the moral life of social responsibility and restraint required by the seven practical Noahide commandments.[59]

In other words the majority rationalist Jewish position regarding salvation is close to Meiri’s ethical interpretation of idolatry and the Noahide covenant. It is important to understand, however, that whether we accept Maimonides’ metaphysically oriented requirement of eternal salvation or Meiri’s more ethical conception, the “world to come” is a religiously diverse community. The difference lies primarily in the density of its population: Maimonides’ world to come was a sparsely populated realm of metaphysically sophisticated Jewish and gentile souls (i.e. intelligences), while Meiri’s was a more populous diverse community of beings who had lived a morally committed and ethically responsible life.

What of the messianic era, not the eternal metaphysical realm of the after-life, but the culmination of sacred history when the divine covenant is fulfilled?[60] This conception is actually more significant for our study, since Jewish thinkers have understood the messianic era to represent the ideal state of human affairs of our social and religious orders. The messianic ideal also highlights the relationship between the theological mission of the Jewish people and the rest of humanity.

The central paradox of the Bible is that the universal God of creation enters a covenant with a particular people (the Jews) that is ideally situated in a limited particular geography (Canaan/Israel). The tension between the universal God and the particularist covenant is resolved by the covenant’s universal mission. The Bible insists that the purpose of God’s election of the Jewish people is for it to serve all humanity, since at the first moment of covenant God tells Abraham, “You shall be a blessing….Through you [and your progeny] all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 12:2-3). The Jewish covenantal mission is delineated further when God informs Abraham that to fulfill his covenantal mission he is to “instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just” (Gen. 18:19).

So essential is this universal covenantal telos, that the Pentateuch reiterates it four additional times to Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob as heirs to the covenant.[61]

Later the Bible indicates that Jewish covenantal mission connects to humanity when it demands that the Jewish people be “a kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6), i.e. the entire Jewish people is charged with the priestly function of bestowing divine blessing upon the other nations of the world.[62] Later still, this universal mission is repeated in different formulation by the Jewish prophets: “I will make you a light of the nations, that My salvation may reach the ends of the earth.” (Isa. 49:6). Thus, the world was not created for the Jewish people, but the converse: the Jewish people were created for the world.[63] It is this universal dimension of the Jewish covenant that rescues the coherence of the biblical narrative, bridging the disparity between the cosmic concern in the Bible’s first eleven chapters and the intensely particularistic focus on the Jewish people dominant throughout the remainder of the Hebrew Bible.[64]

Rabbinic authorities understood these covenantal goals of blessing and instruction to refer to bearing witness to and informing all humanity of the one transcendent Creator as well as to demonstrating commitment to the divine ethic of righteousness and justice—what one prominent rabbinic authority has termed “ethical monotheism.”[65] Abraham was primarily a model and teacher, and the rabbinic stories contend that he converted others through rational persuasion and living the life of compassionate ethical witness. Significantly, however, Abraham’s faith was not the particular faith of Judaism, but a more generic faith in the single Creator of the universe and His moral law.[66] Since Abraham lived generations before the Mosaic revelation that provides the foundation for Judaism as we know it today, technically Abraham was a theological Noahide, not a Jew commanded by the particularistic law given to Moses at Sinai.[67]

Abraham is the prototype of covenantal responsibility in Jewish tradition. His model together with the independent validity of the Noahide covenant are the primary reasons that for nearly all of Jewish history, Jews eschewed attempts to convert others to Judaism. There simply was no theological need to do so. Even today, there is a distinct aversion to proselytizing gentiles.  However Jews do have the religious obligation to influence gentiles toward the universal Noahide moral code without any hint of making them Jews.[68]  In this way the rabbinic theology of religious diversity entails a sensitive dialectic between the Noahide and Mosaic covenants: From the Noahide covenant emanates the responsibility to maintain concern for the welfare of all human beings and to teach ethical commitment whenever possible, and from the particularistic Mosaic covenant emerges the aversion to forcing upon others unique Jewish religious requirements and commitments.

The Jewish prophets provide a stunning picture of what human society will look like when the Jewish covenantal mission is achieved. Isaiah, Micah, Amos, Zechariah and Jeremiah portray the messianic era as a human society committed to ethical monotheism, one shorn of violence and suffused with harmony, peace and human flourishing. This ideal is at once both unified and diverse: All peoples have come to accept the moral authority of the God and fundamental moral values, yet the diverse nations of humanity retain their separate religious identities and worship the one Creator of the universe in their own ways. Micah’s vision explicitly states this pluralism as part of this messianic ideal:

It shall be in the end of days that the mountain of the Lord shall be established on top of all mountains and shall be exalted above the hills. And (many) peoples shall stream onto it. Many nations shall come, and say, ‘Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us His ways and walk in His paths. For the Torah shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’ They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore. But every man shall sit under his vine and his fig tree; and none shall make him afraid….For let all people walk, each in the name of his God and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.” (4:1-5)[69]

Maimonides too sees this idyllic messianic picture as the culmination of Jewish covenantal life.[70] Whether Maimonides believed that all people will subscribe to the same theological truths and religion at that time is subject to scholarly debate[71], yet even those who claim that Maimonides envisaged religious unity in the messianic era understand that for him this ultimate universal religion would be a theologically pure worship unlike any specific religious form of worship today. This unity will be achieved by teaching fundamental theological truth, not by forcing particularist forms of religion or ethnic religious policies upon others. If there is conversion, it is neither to any single church, synagogue, mosque or ashram, nor to one particular liturgy, but to commitment that allows for non-idolatrous differences in worship and practice. [72]

VIII. The Open Future

The biblical principle that all persons are created in the Image of God, the rabbinic doctrine of the Noahide covenant with all humanity, and the particularistic Mosaic covenant together provide the legal and theological framework for the normative Jewish attitudes regarding religious diversity. These Jewish theological elements naturally give rise to an approach of tolerance toward the non-idolatrous religious others. We may go further still: the category of ger toshav, the alien resident in a Jewish polity whom Jews are obligated to sustain and protect, establishes the basis for more than mere toleration. It is the theological and legal foundation for Jewish engagement with and responsibility for the gentile Other.

Of course there are perils to unbounded particularism also. A particularistic covenant can lead—and at times has led—to arrogance and narrow chauvinism. If Jews are uniquely loved and elected by God, as the particularistic Mosaic covenant asserts, Jews can come to regard gentiles as theologically and ontologically inferior, as mere background noise to the central biblical drama played out in religious history between God and the Jewish people. Such particularism leads not to the unmitigating pressure on the Other that so often characterizes theological universalism, but to its opposite—indifference and hostility.

The key to constructive religious pluralism is a sensitive dialectic that navigates carefully between the poles of particularistic and universalistic theological claims. This dialectic accepts my universal concern for all people and particularism’s virtue of not absolutizing my own faith, which allows me to accept the differences of others. This dialectic balances the two opposing religious sensibilities, with each pole exercising a constraint on the other.

Only today can Jews truly test this dialectic. When Jews were a weak minority scattered throughout Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East for nearly two thousand years, they rarely practiced active intolerance toward the majority gentile populations in whose midst they lived, be they Christians or Muslims. Yet as an important Jewish thinker already noticed in the 10th century, perhaps it was only because they lacked the means to do so.[73]  Were exilic Jews pluralists out of religious principle and Jewish teachings, or were they tolerant only due to the exigencies of historical conditions over which they had little control?

Tolerance as a virtue and pluralism as a principal can be demonstrated only with the ability to exercise control and intolerance. The sovereign and majority status of approximately half of all Jews in the world today in the State of Israel is now testing the Jewish commitment to tolerance and acceptable religious diversity on moral, political and social levels. As a pluralistic democracy, Israel is legally committed to the rights of non-Jewish minorities. Yet neither pluralism nor tolerance is an absolute value, and the proper limits of those values is being vigorously debated today among Israeli politicians and religious authorities alike. At stake is whether the sovereign Jewish majority in Israel can express its national integrity without falling prey to a narrow chauvinism that overlooks the dignity, equal rights and religious integrity of non-Jews and their beliefs.

The new Israeli conditions of independence, majority status and national sovereignty create the possibility for both liberal pluralism and particularism to express themselves. Yet under this freedom, narrow particularism runs unchecked among some insulated and hypernationalistic Israelis. Counter to national Israeli values and  policies, at times these extremists have denied the legitimacy of religious pluralism, advocated restricting the freedom of Israeli gentiles and limiting their residency rights, and even physically assaulted those in their midst—all on allegedly theological grounds.[74] Tragically, God’s particularist covenant with the Jewish people that grants it election and title to the Land of Israel has led these particularists to deny the universal human equality endowed by the Image of God, the rights of resident aliens and the legitimacy of religious diversity that the Noahide covenant entails.

As we have seen, absolute universalism can easily lead to a harmful doctrine of forced imperial inclusion, while the opposite ideology of extreme particularism can also evolve into a troublesome doctrine of religious exclusion. The latter one-sided parochialism leaves the God of all creation and the universal mission of the Jewish people in the deep background. Its proponents are led to absolutize the Jewish covenant for everyone on the Land and support a policy of religious imperialism and intolerance. The most extreme Jewish particularists have seized on elements of Jewish mysticism (kabbalah) and begun to advocate ethnic superiority, maintaining that Jews are ontologically superior to gentiles—in contradiction to the biblical and Jewish rationalist theological tradition.[75] They come morally close to the very anti-Semitic universalist enemies who victimized Jews in the medieval and modern diaspora. Thus “les extremes se touchent.”  Importantly, the prominent contemporary Jewish theologian, Irving Greenberg, has defined contemporary idolatry as all absolute monistic theological doctrines—whether universalist or particularist—that deny religious pluralism. They are idolatrous both because they mistake the finite for the infinite Divine and because they inevitably lead to conflict, destruction and death.[76]

This phenomenon points to another truth about religion. No religion is intrinsically pacifistic or tolerant; nor is any religion violent and intolerant in its essence. Each religion’s sacred texts and theologies at times counsel peace and tolerance, and at other times display intolerance and hostility. Which is essential and which marginal? What are the limits of its tolerance?

While mostly tolerant and accepting of diversity today, Christianity in the Middle Ages was intolerant of religious diversity. Islam was largely tolerant and comfortable with religious pluralism in some countries during the 10th-12th centuries, but today its Middle East varieties commonly exhibit intolerance and violent extremism. While Jews were largely pacifistic and tolerant in exile and continue to be so today, the phenomenon of Jewish intolerance has begun to rise in Israel. Religious intolerance and violence has stained, and continues to stain, religious Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu and even normally pacifist Buddhist communities. Thus, while at a particular time some religions tend more than others toward intolerance, extremism and violence, there is no “essential nature” of any faith—only the actions, thoughts, and testimonies that a living community of believers manifests at a given time in history. It is not sacred texts or theology that define a religion’s essence or its character; rather it is how the believing community interprets, prioritizes and lives the meanings of those sacred texts and theologies that defines that community’s religion.

 In light of this truth it is clear that there is no single permanent Jewish theological position on religious diversity and tolerance of the Other. At times Jewish particularism emphasizing gentile otherness and an expansive definition of idolatry that frowns on legitimate religious diversity may gain ascendency. At other times a more open universalistic position may prevail that is built around the ideas of all people created in the Image of God, the Noahide covenant and Jewish obligations toward the ger toshav. In the best of times a dialectic balance operates, one that sustains Jewish identity and helps shape a constructive theological respect for diversity and acceptance of the Other. Like God Himself, who the Bible names, “I will be Who I will be” (Ex. 3:14), the future of Jewish theology is not determined. The responsibility for its future is in our human hands.

The nature of emerging Jewish doctrines toward religious diversity will depend greatly on the quality of Jewish relations with gentile religions, persons and nations. When Jews feel oppressed and victimized, the former particularistic motif will naturally gain prominence. When Jews experience more security, tolerance and acceptance, they will feel sufficiently secure to open themselves to principled theological diversity and mutual religious appreciation. At those times, Jewish thinkers and rabbis may begin to tackle the challenges that contemporary pluralistic life poses for Jewish theology and ethics.

Will Jewish theological tradition be used creatively to refashion the legal category of ger toshav to all peace-loving gentiles both inside and outside of a sovereign Jewish polity, emphasize the intrinsic dignity and equality of each person derived from his divine image, reformulate Jewish theological categories to better understand Asian theologies and their believers, and develop a positive appreciation of ethical secularism?

Out of the ideals of tolerance, de jure pluralism and appreciation of human difference a bold comprehensive Jewish theology of religious diversity awaits us. This theology will encompass Jews, Christians, Muslims, Asian believers and ethical secularists; it will be borne of freedom, principle and independence. While new in application, this understanding will reflect the ancient dream of the Jewish patriarchs, biblical prophets and traditional rabbis alike. It is the covenantal dream of peace attained, moral values implemented and harmony lived among all God’s human children.

*Much of this essay except for the specific treatment of Judaism’s understanding of Christianity appears in my “Extra Synagogam Salus Est? Judaism and the Religious Other” in Religious Perspectives on Religious Diversity, Robert McKim, ed. (Brill, 2017)“

[1] The corpus of Mishnaic literature forms the foundation of rabbinic Judaism, and was redacted in approximately 200 C.E. The Mishna, together with the expanded discussion on Mishnaic topics known as Gemara that was redacted in approximately 500 C.E, is the basis of the oral and normative rabbinic legal traditions that extend from the late second Temple period until today.

[2] Literally “teaching” and commonly but improperly translated as ‘law’ from the Greek ‘nomos’.

[3] Mekhilta De-Rabbi Ishmael, Ba-Hodesh.

[4] Marc Hirshman, “Rabbinic Universalism in the Second and Third Centuries,” Harvard Theological Review 93 (2000):101-115. For other rabbinic statements implying this, see Sifrei, Numbers 119.

[5] Babylonian Talmud (henceforth BT), Sanhedrin 58b-59a. It is undetermined whether “deserves death” is to be taken literally, or is only hyperbole, meant to signify harsh condemnation. Such rhetorical hyperbole is common in rabbinic statements. Whether literal or only hyperbole, it was, of course, never practiced.

[6] BT, Eruvin 13b. Another bold rabbinic expression of Jewish pluralism and its problematics is: “This one prohibits and this one permits. How, then, can I learn Torah?….All the words have been given by a single shepherd, one God created them, one Provider gave them, the Lord of all deeds, Blessed be He, has spoken them. So make yourself a heart of many rooms and bring into it the words of the House of Shammai and the words of the House of Hillel.” (Tosefta, Talmud Sotah 7:12)

[7] See Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, (Schocken, 1962) Ch. X and Eugene Korn, “Rethinking Christianity” in Jewish Theology and World Religions, (Littman Library of World Civilization, 2012), 203-204.

[8] Minority opinions in Jewish law were preserved and studied because under different circumstances or eras, they might become normative opinions to be followed. (Mishneh Eduyot, ch. 1)

[9] For an extensive treatment of the debate on the content of Jewish dogma, see Marc Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004) and Menachem Kellner, Must a Jew Believe Anything? (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006).

[10] I owe this formulation of Plato to Jonathan Sacks, Dignity of Difference, (Continuum, 2002) 49.

[11] Liberty (Oxford University, 2002) 345.

[12] The early Church father, Irenaeus (died A.D. 202), explained the original import of the principle: “[The Church] is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account we are bound to avoid them… We hear it declared of the unbelieving and the blinded of this world that they shall not inherit the world of life which is to come… Resist them in defense of the only true and life giving faith, which the Church has received from the Apostles and imparted to her sons.” (Against Heresies, Book III). After the Second Vatican Council and its document, Lumen Gentium, the Catholic Church accepted a more expansive interpretation that allowed salvation to some outside the Church. Today the official Catechism reads, “This affirmation is not aimed at those who, through no fault of their own, do not know Christ and his Church: Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.” Catechism of the Catholic Church, 847. See also Daniel Madigan and Diego Sarrio Cucarella, “Thinking outside the box: developments in Catholic understandings of salvation” in Religious Perspectives on Religious Diversity, Robert McKim, ed. (Brill, 2017).

[13] I use the masculine “His” in reference to God as a linguistic convention only, not wishing to imply any gender or gender preference to God. In the Jewish theology God transcends gender, although in attempting to understand God Jewish literature has found it helpful to ascribe to God traits traditionally associated both with masculinity (e.g., authority and punishment) and femininity (e.g., compassion and nurturing). This has significant pedagogical implications: Imitatio Dei would demand, then, that human beings also strive to develop a combination of personality traits as an ideal religious and ethical model. According to Jewish mystical thought, in the eschaton all these traits will merge into a perfect unity — both in God and in His creatures.

[14] Tosefta Avodah Zarah 8:4 and Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Melakhim 9:1. For full explication of the Noahide Commandments, see David Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2011) chs. 1-8.

[15] Maimonides may have thought that theological knowledge was necessary, but the content of that knowledge is in question. See Steven Schwarzschild, “Do Noahides Have to Believe in Revelation?” Jewish Quarterly Review 58 (1962), and Eugene Korn, “Gentiles, The World to Come and Judaism: The Odyssey of a Rabbinic Text,” Modern Judaism, October 1994.

[16] The rabbis who formulated the concept of the universal Noahide covenant believed that one could not lead a coherent moral life without believing in a divine authority who punished the guilty and rewarded the innocent. Like other pre-moderns, a secular ethic was unthinkable.

[17] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah (henceforth MT), Laws of Kings and their Wars, 8:10.

[18] Noahides are accorded positive status in this worldview. According to some rabbinic opinions gentiles who faithfully keep the Noahide commandments are even regarded by God as more beloved than Jews who violate the fundamentals of their covenant of 613 commandments.

[19] For a full analysis of this topic, see my “The People Israel, Christianity and the Jewish Responsibility to History” in Covenant and Hope, ed. Robert W. Jenson and Eugene Korn (Eerdmans, 2012)

[20] See commentaries on Genesis 26:5 by Rabbis David Kimkhi (Radak), Obadiah Seforno, Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides), Abraham Ibn Ezra, Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), and Chizkiya bar Manoach (Hizkuni). All found in Torah Chaim Humash (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Hamakor Press, 1986). See also Maimonides, MT, Laws of Kings 9:1. For a contemporary expression of this position by a traditionalist rabbinic authority, see Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Abraham’s Journey, ed. David Shatz, Joel B. Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler (Jersey City, NJ: Ktav, 2008), p. 58. These interpretations comport well with the biblical text, which indicates that the patriarchs violated some of the Sinai commandments, and they eliminate the need for historical anachronism. (How could Abraham observe Passover in commemoration of the exodus from Egypt, which was yet to occur?) They have no reason to ascribe prophetic powers to Abraham to enable him to know later biblical or postbiblical Jewish history. As such, they are more rational than the minority view of the talmudic sages R. Nahorei (Kiddushin 82a) and Rav (Yoma 28b) and the medieval commentator, Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac (Rashi).

[21] None of the Noahide laws require theological commitment.

[22] According to the talmudic sages and later authorities Abraham established the practice of (morning) prayer. See BT, Sanhedrin 26b, and Maimonides, Laws of Kings 9:1. This is also the way that medieval rabbinic biblical commentators understood “calling the name of the Lord.” For Rashi, it was an act of prayer and for Nahmanides it was public proclamation of God’s existence. (See their respective commentaries on Gen. 12:8.)

[23] Gloss on Shulhan Arukh, Hoshen Mishpat, section 425:5.

[24] Seder Olam Rabbah 35-37; Sefer ha-Shimush 15-17. See also Commentary on Ethics of the Fathers 4:11.

For a fuller explanation of R. Emden’s position, see Harvey Falk, “Rabbi Jacob Emden’s Views on Christianity,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 19, no. 1 (Winter 1982); and Moshe Miller, “Rabbi Jacob Emden’s Attitude Toward Christianity,” in Turim: Studies in Jewish History and Literature, vol. 2, ed. M. Shmidman (New York: Touro College Press/Ktav, 2008), pp. 105-36.

[25] The Collected Writings, vol. 7: Jewish Education, “Talmudic Judaism and Society” (New York: Feldheim, 1984), pp. 225-27.

[26] Nineteen Letters on Judaism, edited and annotated by Joseph Elias (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1995).

[27] Unfortunately, for many Christians this means replacement of the old Israel, but apparently not for Paul. See Romans 11:17-24, 29. I thank my colleague Gerald McDermott for pointing my attention to this text. More on replacement theology and supersessionism later in this essay.

[28] This is the formulation of Irenaeus of Lyon, in Heresies III.11.8, found in Irenaeus of Lyons, trans. Robert M. Grant (New York: Routledge 2007), p. 132. More recently, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos put it this way: “Abraham is the father of faith, but in a chain of salvation in which the Messiah is expected. And the Messiah has arrived.” See Boys, “Does the Catholic Church Have a Mission ‘with’ or ‘to’ Jews?” p. 9

[29] MT, Laws of Idolators 1:3; Book of Commandments, positive commandment no. 3; Guide of the Perplexed III: 51.

[30] It is because Hirsch believed that the fulfillment of God’s covenant as spreading the reality of God throughout the world constituted the telos of sacred history that he could claim that Christianity [and Islam] “represented a major step in bringing the world closer to the goal of all history.” See his commentary on Exodus 19:6.

[31] The contemporary Jewish theologian Steven Schwarzschild and the noted contemporary Maimonides scholar Menachem Kellner have argued that Maimonides believed that some theologically advanced gentiles were included in the designation “Israel” as “Israel of the Mind.” See Kellner’s Maimonides’ Confrontation with Mysticism (London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006), ch. 7. This idea strengthens the idea that non-Jews could also be members of the same covenant God made with the Jewish people. Of course, however, Maimonides would not have included Christians in that category because of their belief in the trinity, a belief tantamount to idolatry for Maimonides.

[32] Old-new problems remain with this claim, foremost among them that circumcision was an obligatory sign for members of Abraham’s covenant. How uncircumcised Christians could be members of the covenant needs to be addressed. Title to the land of Canaan, which was promised to Abraham’s covenantal descendants, is less problematic, as that can be understood as limited to the biological descendants of Isaac (see Gen. 21:10-12).

[33] David Novak makes the useful distinction between “hard supersessionism” and “soft supersessionism” in “The Covenant in Rabbinic Thought,” in Two Faiths, One Covenant, ed. Korn and Pawlikowski, pp. 65-80.

[34] Nostra Aetate (1965) is the most famous articulation of this soft supersessionist teaching. For Protestant statements, see Boys, Has God Only One Blessing?

[35] Documented in Boys, Has God Only One Blessing?

[36] Indeed, Josef Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) asserts the supersession of the Sinai covenant in the very same passage in which he insists on Christian participation in that covenant. See Ratzinger, Many Religions, pp. 70-71.

[37] It seems that the Roman Catholic Church is still working out how this dialectic canbe achieved in practice, and is caught in what some scholars have called a “contradictory pluralism” and a “bipolarity of tendencies” entailed by its soft supersessionism, and its struggle to work out a coherent theology about Jews and the need for their conversion to the Church after Nostra aetate and the Second Vatican Council. See Boys, “Does the Catholic Church Have a Mission ‘with’ Jews or ‘to’ Jews?” Boys documents the “bipolarity” of official Catholic documents and statements regarding the need for converting Jews. The issue has become even more controversial since 2008, with the 2009 statements of the USCCB on this issue regarding evangelization toward Jews and its place in Catholic-Jewish dialogue and relations. See USCCB’s “Note on Ambiguities of RCM” and USCCB’s subsequent revision of “Note”.

[38] For this distinction see the commentary of the Tosafists on the Babylonian talmudic tractate Sanhedrin 63b, s.v. “assur.”

[39] Since the demand to exterminate the Canaanite and Amalekite nations appears repeatedly and insistently in the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Samuel, and because King Saul lost his kingship due to his failure to execute this this commandment literally, the harsh requirement of annihilation was understood literally by Jewish legal tradition. Rabbinic tradition largely avoided the practical problems of this legal demand not by interpreting it figuratively, but by rendering the commandment inoperative. See the following footnote.

[40] This refers to the seven idolatrous Canaanite nations inhabiting the land. The biblical accounts of the actual conquests found in the Book of Joshua reiterate that his army did not leave any idolatrous Canaanite alive when possible. There is extensive discussion in Jewish literature of the moral problematics of this command. See The Gift of the Land and the Fate of the Canaanites in Jewish Thought, Katell Berthelot, ed. Menachem Hirshman and Josef David, (Oxford U., 2014) as well as Avi Sagi, ”The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem,” Harvard Theological Review 87,3 (1994): 323-346, and Eugene Korn, “Moralization in Jewish Law: Genocide, Divine Commands and Rabbinic Reasoning,” The Edah Journal (May 2006), found at  http://www.yctorah.org/images/stories/about_us/edah%20journal%205_2.pdf.

[41] See the trenchant analysis of idolatry and its function in Idolatry by Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margolit (Harvard University Press, 1994)

[42] For further elaboration, see Korn, “Rethinking Christianity” op. cit, p. 201.

[43] e.g. Deut. 4,12,16

[44] e.g. Lev. 18; Deut. 12

[45] This is why Maimonides placed the laws regarding idolatry in his great legal code, Mishneh Torah (MT), in the Book of Knowledge (Sefer Madda).

[46] The Guide of the Perplexed, I:36

[47] See his commentary on the Talmud, Beit ha- Behirah, B.T. Sanhedrin 57a and Avodah Zarah 20a.

[48] How Meiri would assess modern moral atheists is an important and complicated issue. I am convinced that Meiri required belief in and submission to a transcendent God because like nearly every other thinker in the Middle Ages he assumed that any moral code lacking a punitive and rewarding divine authority could not be sustained. Nor is this idea confined to the Middle Ages. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky claimed that “without God, all is permitted.”

[49] See Korn, “Rethinking Christianity” op. cit. p. 197.

29 Ex. 22:21, 23:9; Lev. 19:33; Deut. 24:17, 27:19.

[51] BT, Gerim, 3:3,4.

[52] Ibid., See also Maimonides, MT, Laws of Kings and their Wars, 8:10

[53] While Meiri thought that idolatry was found only in the far flung corners of the earth, today that is not so.  A Muslim or Jewish terrorist–-should not be tolerated because of his behavior, even though his theology may be monotheistic. See also Alon Goshen-Gottstein “Concluding Reflections” in World Religions and Jewish Theology, op. cit.

[54] BT Sanhedrin 105a and Maimonides, MT, Laws of Repentance 3:5, Laws of Testimony 2:10 and Laws of Kings and their Wars, 8:11. For an extended discussion of salvation for righteous gentiles, see Schwarzschild, op. cit. and Korn, “Gentiles, The World to Come and Judaism: The Odyssey of a Rabbinic Text,” op. cit.

[55] Maimonides, MT, Laws of Kings and their Wars, 8:11.

[56] See Korn, “Gentiles, the World to Come as and Judaism,” op. cit.

[57] MT, Laws of Jubilee 13:13; Guide of the Perplexed I; 1-2 and III: 51. For full explanation of this point in Maimonides, see Menachem Kellner, “We Are Not Alone” in Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, (London School of Jewish Studies/The Michael Scharf Publication Trust of YU Press, 2012),139-154; Maimonides’ Confrontation With Mysticism (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2006), 229-264; and his forthcoming volume, “Gam Hem Keruyim Adam-Ha-Nohkri Be-Einei Ha-Rambam (“They also are Called Adam: The Gentile in the Eyes of Maimonides”) (Bar-Ilan U., 2016).

[58] See Alexander Altmann, Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study (University of Alabama, 1973) 217-218.

[59] See, for instance, Rabbi Abraham Kook, Letters, Vol. 1, p. 100 (Hebrew).

[60] While some early rabbinic opinions identified the messianic era with the afterlife, Maimonides sharply distinguished between the two. Owing to his prodigious influence, most post-Maimonidean rabbinic opinions accepted his distinction.

[61] Gen. 18:18; 22:18;26:4; 28:13-14

[62] See Eugene Korn, “The People Israel, Christianity and the Covenantal Responsibility to History,” in Covenant and Hope, op. cit, 45-172.

[63] Naftali Zvi Berliner (Netziv), Commentary on the Torah (Ha-emeq Davar), Introduction to Exodus

[64] For further elaboration on the paradoxical particularistic/universalistic character of the biblical covenant see Jon D. Levenson, “The Universal Horizon of Biblical Particularism,” in Ethnicity and the Bible ed. Mark R. Brett (Brill, 2002), 143-169

[65] Shlomo Riskin, “Covenant and Conversion: The United Mission to Redeem the World” in Covenant and Hope, op. cit. 99-128.

[66] Maimonides, MT, Laws of Idolatry 1:1-3, Laws of Kings and their Wars 9:1, Book of Commandments, positive commandment 3.

[67] This is a critical, but not widely appreciated point. It is however, the consensus of the majority of medieval Jewish biblical commentators. See commentaries on Genesis 26:5 by Rabbis David Kimkhi (Radak), Obadiah Seforno, Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides), Abraham Ibn Ezra, Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), and Chizkiya bar Manoach (Hizkuni). See also Maimonides, MT, Laws of Kings 9:1. For a contemporary expression of this position by a traditionalist rabbinic authority, see Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Abraham’s Journey, ed. David Shatz, Joel B. Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler (Ktav, 2008), 58; for further elaboration of Abraham as a theological Noahide, see Korn, “The People Israel, Christianity and the Covenantal Responsibility to History,” op. cit., 155-156.

[68] Maimonides, MT Laws of Kings and their Wars 8:10 and Riskin, op cit.

[69] The parallel passage in Isaiah 2:1-4 does not include “For let all people walk, each in the name of his God and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.”  I also note that a number of Jewish commentators interpret the final verse of this passage differently. See commentaries of Rabbis Shlomo Yitzhaki (Rashi) and David Kimchi (Radak) on Micah 4:5, who interpret the verse not as de jure pluralism but as de facto toleration of all who accept ethical monotheism.

[70] End MT, Laws of Kings and their Wars, 12:5.

[71] See debate between Menachem Kellner and Chaim Rapoport on this question in Meorot, Vol. 13 (2008), found at http://www.yctorah.org/content/view/436/10.

[72] Maimonides maintained that pure monotheism without hint of ethnic or Mosaic ritual was the ideal form of religion and that Mosaic ritual was a result of contingent (and therefore probably temporary) historical circumstances. (MT, Laws of Idolatry 1:3) In addition, he believed that contemplation constituted a higher form of worship than verbal prayer. Hence we can assume for him this silent meditation would be the common form of worship in the ideal messianic era.

[73] Yehuda Halevi, The Kuzari I: 113-115.

[74] In 2009 Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, two religious extremists, published Torat Hamelekh (“The Teaching of the King”) (Yeshivat Od Yosef Hai, 2009), which justifies killing innocent gentiles in war. In 2010, a number of Israeli nationalist rabbis wrote a public letter prohibiting selling Israeli land to gentiles. In 2015 Jewish nationalists set fire to the Church of Loaves and Fishes in the Galilee, claiming it to be a house of idolatry. And frequent incidents continue today of Jewish religious extremists defacing church properties in the ancient part of Jerusalem and assaulting Armenian priests living there.

[75] One example is the mystic Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg, who has a significant following including Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur (see previous note). His racial theory of Jewish ontological superiority is directly opposed to the rationalist strain of Jewish thought and ethics, again most clearly exemplified by Maimonides. See note 36. For more on Ginsburg, see Don Seeman. “God’s Honor, Violence, and the State” in Plowshares into Swords? Reflections on Religion and Violence – Essays from the Institute for Theological Inquiry. ed. Robert W. Jenson and Eugene Korn, (Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, 2014), Kindle edition. Much of the impetus for the assertion of Jewish ontological distinctiveness and superiority comes from the medieval foundational text of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar and its subsequent commentators in the kabbalistic tradition.

[76] “This pseudo-infinite cannot contain the infinity of life (or of human dignity). In fact, we know that idolatry is the god of death and that it creates a realm of death….All human systems (even those that are given by divine revelation) that claim to be absolute, exercise no self-limitation and leave no room for the other turn into idolatry, i.e. into sources of death…It is no accident that Nazism which sought perfection and eliminated all restrictions and limitations created a realm of total death—the kingdom of night….All political systems and all religions that allow themselves to make unlimited absolute claims are led to idolatrous behaviors. They often generate death-dealing believers…All social systems that “other” the other and absolutize their own host culture turn idolatrous and then degrade or destroy others.” Irving Greenberg, “Pluralism and Partnership” in For the Sake of Heaven and Earth (Jewish Publication Society, 2004), 210.

Share this article