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Jewish views of religious pluralism

This article deals with Jewish views of religious pluralism.


Classical Jewish views

Classical views on other religions in general

The Jewish belief that only their religion was wholly true did not preclude a belief that God has a relationship with other peoples. Instead, Judaism held that God had entered into a covenant with all mankind, and that any person had the ability to have a relationship with God, even if they were not a Jew. The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) speaks of prophets outside the community of Israel.

Based on the Hebrew Bible's statements that gentiles can be prophets, some rabbis theorized that "God permitted to every people something he forbade to others...God sends a prophet to every people according to their own language." This is the view of Nethanel ibn Fayyumi , a Yemenite Jewish theologian (12th century). (Levine, 1907/1966)

Jews believe that God chose the Jewish people to be in a unique covenant with God; the description of this covenant is the Torah itself. The Jews were chosen for a specific mission; to be a light unto the nations, and to have a covenant with God as described in the Torah.

Rabbinic literature contains many statements illustrating the belief that God is God of all peoples, not just of the Jews. Moses calls God "God of the spirits of all flesh" (Numbers 27:16). The Mishnah states that "Humanity was produced from one man, Adam, to show God's greatness. When a man mints a coin in a press, each coin is identical. But when the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, creates people in the form of Adam not one is similar to any other." (Mishnah, Sanhedrin, 4:5)

The Talmud contains a list of seven commandments that Jews believe God required of the children of Noah, i.e. all humanity. These are:

(1) to establish laws, (2) to refrain from idolatry, (3) to refrain from blasphemy, (4) to refrain from sexual immorality, (5) to refrain from bloodshed and murder), (6) to refrain from theft, and (7) to refrain from the tearing of a limb from a living animal. Jewish law holds that gentiles need follow only these laws to be considered moral. There is no demand for others to convert to Judaism; these laws implicitly allow non-Jews to have their own religions.

Many rabbis hold that the second law implicitly is a positive commandment to believe in God; however some historians argue that this is not the original meaning of the verse. The rabbis spent more time defining and prohibiting idolatry than they did describing God and demanding belief in a specific theology.

One sage in the Talmud states "Whoever denies idolatry is called a Yehudi (Jew)." (Babylonian Talmud, Megilla, 13a). In the second century a sage in the Tosefta declared "the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come." (Tosefta, Sanhedrin 13)

Rabbi Norman Solomon holds that three concepts underlie the Hebrew Bible:

  • Universality - The book of Genesis stresses the unity of humanity. King Solomon's dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem stresses that it is to be a religious center for all mankind. The Psalms (especially Psalm 117) extol all the nations of the world to join in the worship of God, without demanding that others convert to Judaism.
  • Non-exclusiveness - Non-Israelite Biblical characters such as Melchizedek, Jethro and Na'aman recognize the God of the Bible, without being members of the Israelite faith or community.
  • Demarcation - While God cares for all humanity, that does not mean that God considers all forms of worship acceptable. The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) repeatedly states that the practice of idolatry is abhorrent to God, whether practiced by Jew or gentile.

Classical views on Christianity

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

Maimonides, held by Jews to be the most important theologian and halakhist (legal expert) of his age, explained in detail why Jesus was wrong to create Christianity and why Muhammad was wrong to create Islam; he laments the pains Jews have suffered in persecution from followers of these new faiths as they attempted to supplant Judaism. However, Maimonides then goes on to say that both faiths help God redeem the world.

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

Modern (post-Enlightenment era) Jewish views

Views on dialogue with non-Jews in general

Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis engage in inter-faith theological dialogue ; a small number of Modern Orthodox rabbis engage in such dialogue as well. Most Orthodox rabbis do not engage in such dialogue.

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

The German-Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) taught that "According to the basic principles of my religion I am not to seek to convert anyone not born into our laws....We believe that the other nations of the Earth are directed by God to observe only the law of nature and the religion of the Patriarchs...I fancy that whosoever leads men to virtue in this life cannot be damned in the next."

Views on Jewish-Christian dialogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ground Rules for a Christian Jewish Dialogue

Conservative Rabbi Robert Gordis wrote an essay on "Ground Rules for a Christian Jewish Dialogue"; in all Jewish denominations, one form or another of these rules eventually became more or less accepted by parties engaging in Jewish-Christian theological dialogue.

Robert Gordis held that "a rational dialogue conducted on the basis of knowledge and mutual respect between the two components of the religio-ethical tradition of the Western world can prove a blessing to our age." His proposed groundrules for fair discussion are these:

(1) People should not label Jews as worshipping an inferior "the Old Testament God of Justice" while saying that Christians worship a superior "God of Love of the New Testament." Gordis brings forth quotes from the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) which in his view prove that this view is a misleading caricature of both religions that was created by selective quotation.
(2) He holds that Christians should stop "the widespread practice of contrasting the primitivism, tribalism and formalism of the Old Testament with the spirituality, universalism, and freedom of the New, to the manifest disadvantage of the former." Gordis again brings forth quotes from the Tanakh which in his view prove that this view is a misleading caricature of both religions, created by selective quotation.
(3) "Another practice which should be surrendered is that of referring to Old Testament verses quoted in the New as original New Testament passages. Many years ago, Bertrand Russell, whose religious orthodoxy is something less than total, described the Golden Rule 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself' as New Testament teaching. When the Old Testament source (Leviticus 19:18) was called to his attention, he blandly refused to recognize his error."
(4) Christians need to understand that while Judaism is based in the Hebrew Bible, it is not identical to the religion described in it. Rather, Judaism is based on the Bible as understood through the classical works of rabbinic literature, such as the Mishnah and Talmud. Gordis writes "To describe Judaism within the framework of the Old Testament is as misleading as constructing a picture of American life in terms of the Constitution, which is, to be sure, the basic law of the land but far from coextensive with our present legal and social system."
(5) Jews must "rise above the heavy burden of historical memories which have made it difficult for them to achieve any real understanding, let alone an appreciation, of Christianity. It is not easy to wipe out the memories of centuries of persecution and massacre, all too often dedicated to the advancement of the cause of the Prince of Peace.....[It is] no easy task for Jews to divest themselves of the heavy burden of group memories from the past, which are unfortunately reinforced all too often by personal experiences in the present. Nevertheless, the effort must be made, if men are to emerge from the dark heritage of religious hatred which has embittered their mutual relationships for twenty centuries. There is need for Jews to surrender the stereotype of Christianity as being monolithic and unchanging and to recognize the ramifications of viewpoint and emphasis that constitute the multicolored spectrum of contemporary Christianity."

Gordis calls on Jews to "see in Christian doctrine an effort to apprehend the nature of the divine that is worthy of respect and understanding" and that "the dogmas of the Christian church have expressed this vision of God in terms that have proved meaningful to Christian believers through the centuries." Gordis calls on Jews to understand with tolerance and respect the historical and religious context which led Christians to develop the concepts of the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, the Passion, and the Resurrection, even if Jews themselves do not accept these ideas as correct. Similarly, Gordis calls on Christians to understand with tolerance and respect that Jews do not accept these beliefs, since they are in contradiction to the Jewish understanding of the unity of God. (Source: "The Root and the Branch", Chapter 4, Robert Gordis, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962)

Recently, over 120 rabbis have signed the Dabru Emet ("Speak the Truth"), a document concerning the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. While affirming that there are substantial theological differences between these two religions, the purpose of Dabru Emet is to point out common ground. It is not an official document of any of the Jewish denominations per se, but it is representative of what many Jews feel. Dabru Emet sparked a controversy]] in segments of the Jewish community. Many Jews disagree with parts of it for a variety of reasons.

Views on Jewish-Muslim dialogue

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

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

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

Views on dialogue with non-monotheists

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

Intra-religious pluralism

Intrareligious pluralism refers to relationships between different denominations within the same religion.

Most of Haredi Judaism views all forms of non-Orthodox Judaism to be misguided, not authentic, and even heretical. Haredi Jewish groups such as Agudat Yisrael, the National Council of Young Israel , and the Satmar Hasidim teach that no cooperation or religious dialogue is permitted with non-Orthodox Jewish organizations for any purposes. No religious dialogue is allowed with non-Orthodox Jewish individuals except for the sole purpose of converting a person to Orthodoxy. On the other hand, there has been a growing debate within the Orthodox Union in America about the success of the Chabad-Lubavich outreach program. Many Orthodox groups are now thinking of adopting such practices to bring other non practicing Jews into the fold of Orthodoxy.

Many Modern Orthodox rabbis, including a few in the Rabbinical Council of America and in the United Kingdom's United Synagogue, hold that in certain instances it is permissible for Orthodox Jewish groups to cooperate with non-Orthodox Jewish groups, and that there is no problem with Jews of any denomination engaging in honest religious dialogue.

All of the non-Orthodox denominations, including Conservative Judaism, Reform Judaism and Reconstructionist Judaism teach that all Jewish denominations, including Orthodox, should work together, and that there is no problem with Jews of any denomination engaging in honest religious dialogue.

See also

Religious pluralism, Christian-Jewish reconciliation


Robert Gordis The Root and the Branch, Chapter 4, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1962

J. H. Hertz, Pentateuch and Haftorahs Soncino Press, 1960, p.759

Lawrence Kaplan Revisionism and the Rav: The Struggle for the Soul of Modern Orthodoxy Judaism, Summer, 1999

Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, Oxford Univ. Press, 1961, Ch.10

Yehezkel Kaufman, The Religion of Israel, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960

Judaism and the Varieties of Idolatrous Experience Bary S. Kogan in Proceedings of the Academy for Jewish Philosophy Ed. David Novak and Norbert M. Samuelson, University Press of America, 1992

Eugene Korn The Man of Faith and Interreligious Dialogue: Revisiting 'Confrontation' After Forty Years

D. Levene The Garden of Wisdom, Columbia Univ. Press, 1907/1966

National Jewish Scholars Project, Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity

Emet Ve-Emunah: Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism, The Rabbinical Assembly, NY

Bernard Rosenzweig, The Rav as Communal Leader, Tradition 30.4, p.214-215, 1996

Joseph Soloveitchik Confrontation Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, 1964 volume 6, #2

Disputation and Dialogue: Readings in the Jewish Christian Encounter, Ed. F.E. Talmage, Ktav, 1975, p. 291

:Goodman, Hananya, editor. BETWEEN JERUSALEM AND BENARES : COMPARATIVE STUDIES IN JUDAISM AND HINDUISM. Delhi, Sri Satguru Publications, 1997 +  

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Last updated: 05-15-2005 22:25:51