Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Friday, August 27, 2004
When Commentary came out with its piece about Christian understanding of Islam and the dangers of an ill-thought ecumenical attitude (a strange thing for Commentary to write - much more a First Things kind of piece) I intended to respond with some thoughts about the proper Jewish approach to ecumenical dialogue. But I never get around to it. Well, I'm going to try to sketch them now, albeit more briefly than I intended.

The traditional Jewish approach is to say: don't bother. All Jews want from other faiths is to leave us alone. We have no reason to try to comprehend them within our own religious framework, and we don't care what they think about us so long as they let us worship as we please. In the fullness of time, God will send the Messiah and everyone will acknowledge Him, but there's nothing we need to do to help bring that time other than follow His commandments faithfully.

I don't buy such a limited view, because I've bought into a progressive idea of Messianism that has origins in various places including the writing of Rav Kook (though I think Kook's singular focus on the Land of Israel is misguided, and his intellectual heirs have taken his thought in a disastrous direction). I believe, in other words, that the Messiah will come only when he is no longer needed; that we should prepare the way by repairing the world - not only obeying the commandments (which, admittedly, I myself don't always do) but changing the world through our actions to make it a more Godly place; and the obligation not to "force the end" I interpret as an obligation to anti-utopian thinking, an obligation not to try to create a crisis that necessitates divine intervention on the side of right, or to throw pragmatic considerations out the window when making decisions, rather than an obligation to be a quietist, which is how it has traditionally been understood. Anyhow, I don't see how I can believe that and yet think there is no obligation to have some kind of relation with other peoples and other faiths.

So how should dialogue proceed, in my view? I think Jews should seek three things from other faiths in dialogue: recognition that Judaism is a valid religion in and of itself; the rejection of idolatry; and the embrace of basic ethical values. In return, I think Jews should offer an open mind about what constitutes idolatry, and a willingness to articulate the validity of other faiths inasmuch as their are efficacious in bringing people closer to God and live ethical lives.

Judaism has an idea that is akin to natural religion, embodied in the seven Noahide laws. But Judaism also does not deny the validity of non-Jewish prophecy. Indeed, Bilam, Jethro and Job in the Bible are all non-Jews who receive divine communication, and Ishmael and Esau receive divine blessings. Revelation, then, is not limited to the Jewish people in Judaism. It may well be that God spoke to Muhammad, and to Siddartha Gautama, and to Joseph Smith. I don't know, and I think Jews can be agnostic about this going into inter-religious dialogue.

Why not ask other religions to be agnostic about Judaism, then? I actually think that's perfectly fine, in that, if another faith concludes that Judaism could be perfectly valid, nothing more is required. But this approach won't work with Christianity or Islam, because these faiths demand universal conversion. A Christian can't say, "maybe the Buddhists have an equally-valid vision" and so decide not to have missions to the Buddhists. The same holds for the Jews. With respect to the two universal monotheistic faiths, Judaism has to have an acknowledged place to be secure.

From Christianity, I think what Jews should seek is recognition that Judaism continues to be salvific. This is precisely what the Catholic Church has articulated in recent years: God's covenant with historic Israel is still operative, and if Jews seek salvation that way, they shall find it. Reconciliation between the people of Israel and the Church will be accomplished in the fulness of time, and Christians need not reject any of their own beliefs about the terms of that reconciliation.

What Jews should offer in return is an open mind and a willingness to engage with Christian ideas rather than simply concluding that they are idolatrous. This is a big issue in Judaism. The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation sounds to Jews pretty much like the definition of idolatry: the worship of a human being. Religious Jews should, in dialogue with Christians, be willing to evaluate Christian explanations of this doctrine on their own terms. I think a persuasive case can be made that Trinitarianism, while nothing Judaism can endorse (obviously) can nonetheless be deemed non-idolatrous. This would be a big concession by institutional Judaism (not that there is such a thing, mind you). But it's one that rabbis committed to inter-religious dialogue should consider making. After all, the Christians deserve something in exchange for real doctrinal evolution on their part to recognize Judaism as a living religion. I think this is the least we could do in exchange.

Islam is tougher, because the process has barely begun and the politcal context for such a process is terrible. But the Quran contains verses affirming God's various promises to Israel, including the promise of the Land of Israel. I don't think it's inconceivable for a more liberal Islam to come to the conclusion that there was a revelation to the Jews as a people, and that, while the Quran is the final and ultimate truth, existing outside of history, nonetheless the Jewish revelation is genuine, and has not been maliciously twisted by the Jews as some Muslims sometimes claim (again, on the basis of other verses in the Quran that say we did just that). I've read things by liberal Muslims asserting, basically, that Islam is something pure and high, above all the sectarian differences that divide peoples, but that all true religions - not only Judaism and Christianity, but also a variety of faiths not based on revelation, like Hinduism - partake of the truth of Islam without having realized the whole. And, indeed, the Islamic sects like Sunni and Shia Islam similarly are partial understandings that partake of the truth without being the whole of it, or while having fallen away from it in some ways.

Now, obviously, a Sunni Muslim is not going to say, "I have only a partial, fallen-away version of the truth." But that same Sunni Muslim could conclude, philosophically, that "some of what I believe is tradition rather than revelation. Revelation is permanent, ahistoric and absolute. But its meaning is not obvious, and tradition is the means of interpreting that meaning. Jews had a true revelation, and they have their own, valid tradition for interpreting it. So do I, but while theirs is particularistic, mine is universal - Jews may embrace it; all nations may embrace it; and, in some form and in the fulness of time, all nations will embrace it. But God doesn't change his mind, so his revelation to the Jews must still be valid as well, even if the Quran and the tradition I follow based on it is grander."

Apart from this, Islam already affirms that the righteous of all nations will get into heaven, not only Muslims, and even righteous pagans will get into heaven. That, in some ways, is more generous than Christianity for much of its history, and is more in line with Jewish teaching on the topic.

What can Judaism offer Islam in return? Again, the main thing is the agreement that God may have spoken to Muhammad. We can't, after all, say that He did. But we should be able at least to say that we can't say He did not. And to the extent that Islam is in harmony with natural religion as understood through the Noahide laws - and there's no reason it couldn't be - Jews can affirm that Islam is an efficacious religion.

Islam, of course, is not idolatrous. Nor does it present the problems of conflicting interpretation that bedevil Christian-Jewish dialogue. But otherwise, the struggle to find common ground is similar. Traditionally, Jews believed they had to actively assert the falsehood of Christianity, because if Christianity were true then Judaism would necessarily be false. Now that many branches of Christianity affirm that Judaism is a living and efficacious religion, Jews can approach Christianity in a different spirit, and attempt to evaluate whether it is a valid religion (for non-Jews, of course) or not, and as I've said I think a good case can be made that it is valid. Similarly with Islam: Islam has, historically, asserted that Abraham and Moses were given the Quran, not a separate revelation, and were Muslims, and to the extent that Jews claim to have a distinct and particularistic revelation they are falsifying what their own prophets said. If this ever changed, and Islam affirmed that the Jewish tradition is a valid understanding of God's revelation, inasmuch as it is truly based on an authentic revelation, then Jews could evaluate the validity of Islam without concern that Islam invalidates Judaism.

Of course, beyond these key points of mutual validation to the degree such a thing is possible, the real fruit of inter-religious dialogue is greater understanding both of God and of human understandings of Him. Understanding of foreign traditions generates resonances that can improve understanding of our own tradition. And we may have a great deal to teach others as well. Moreover, even the most hard-core monotheist cannot deny that such a vastness as God can surely be understood many ways. Inter-religious dialogue is one way to appreciate that vastness. The real differences between religions, as much as what they have in common, are valuable for a religious person to explore. A climate that makes this possible without fear is a good thing.

Is there a point to all this? I hope so. I don't think you engage in inter-religious dialogue because you want to obscure the differences between religions, nor as a sneaky way of corrupting other religions and weakening them, nor out of pure politics. I believe that at the end of days, everyone will worship at God's holy mountain, and shall acknowledge Him as the only King. I do not, however, believe that the nations shall be abolished, nor that Israel shall be the rulers of the world, nor that the nations will have to adopt Israel's particularistic stringencies. (Indeed, a case can be made that many of those very stringencies will vanish in the Messianic age; there's a lot of conflicting ideas on this question which I'm not going to go into here.) So what must I believe? Either that the world is almost wholly dark, and that most of the traditions by which people know God will have to be obliterated before the Messianic age. Or that the world has a great deal of light mixed with the dark, with many traditions that have a genuine connection to the divine, albeit mixed with errors that will need to be corrected, as even my own tradition has. As a tempermental matter, I'd rather be an optimist on this question. And if I take the optimistic view, that means that inter-religious dialogue has a real, Messianic purpose.