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Who Is Right: Jewish Perspectives on Pluralism and Exclusivism

Nadia Siritsky
Summer 2006

(This talk was presented as part of an interfaith panel for the 2004 Festival of Faiths in Louisville, Kentucky.)  
Around the world, we are witness to a struggle for power between the faiths over whose claim on revelation and truth is most legitimate. This struggle is not new, and it certainly is not confined to our neighbors. Both strands of thought have found their home in Jewish thinking from Biblical times until today. Current concerns over Jewish continuity fuel this debate within our own ranks. Both perspectives must be acknowledged within our tradition, we must take ownership of the dynamics that animated them, and then make a conscious choice as to which direction we as a people wish to embrace.  
The Exclusivist View  
Much of early biblical text shows a decidedly universalistic slant:  
• Malchizedek — the high priest of God who speaks with Abraham.  
• Our forefathers’ often repeated interactions with Egyptian pharaohs who recognized the truth of their God.  
• Moses’ non-Israelite wife who is the one who encourages him to obey the commandment of circumcision.  
• Moses’ father-in-law Jethro who played a significant role in guiding Moses’ leadership.  
These are just a few examples of this early openness which potentially forms the foundation of our faith.  
Religious exclusiveness begins to emerge when the Israelite religion became blended into nationalist identity. When religion and politics seek to merge, intolerance tends to emerge. The exclusivist view begins to gain some ground as Israel sought to consolidate her power and identity. Later writers looked at Solomon’s liaisons with foreign women, which were precisely the political alliances which forged peace between Israel and the neighboring countries, and these later writers, writing at a time when Israel’s existence was again being threatened, condemned Solomon.  
This trend toward religious intolerance as a strategy for building and strengthening national identity during turbulent times finds its greatest expression in the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah. As Judah fell to the reign of the Persian Empire, the power shifted within the kingdom. Issues of legitimacy and authority, control of the Temple and its considerable resources played themselves out in the prevailing ideology of its time. Two strands of thought emerged as the nation became polarized: tolerance and intolerance. I will speak shortly about Amos and the line of Israelite and later Jewish thought which preserved the open and universalistic approach that are the foundation of our biblical text.  
Energy of Fear  
But the reality is that fear is a powerful energy, that emerges out of chaos and seeks to rigidly impose order. Binary thinking is characteristic of a regime of fear. Biblical examples can be brought in from the later prophets which preach an us against them mentality, where everything and everyone is either good or bad. Hosea preached right before the destruction of the Northern Kingdom in 722 BCE: he preached against intermarriage and sought to consolidate power and identity. Ezra and Nehemiah similarly fought against intermarriage when they returned from the their Babylonian/Persian exile around 445 BCE. This was the tool by which they consolidated their power, and restored order to the priesthood. Apocalyptic prophecy, fantasies of revenge and the restoration of order and justice suddenly appear in the writing of the later prophets, in Ezekiel and Daniel.  
Social and economic conditions during Persian and later Roman rule were awful. Poverty was rampant, and with the growing trend of urbanization, an increasingly large number of people lived in poverty. No longer connected to the land, people increasingly felt disconnected from a biblical faith that was agriculturally dependent. As society increasingly polarized, as foreign powers became more present and influential, more and more people became increasingly attracted to the fantasies of revenge and restoration of order, justice and economic abundance articulated by the apocalyptic prophets of their time. A vilification of idolators, or as the Dead Sea scrolls put it, the sons of darkness, are characteristic of this line of thought. The theology of chosenness gained prominence, and became a symbol for all of the national unrest that had become rampant in Judah and Jerusalem. Eventually two faiths emerged, each founded upon a shared biblical history: Christianity and Judaism.  
Universalistic and Exclusive Tones  
Judaism has preserved both universalistic and exclusive tones. At different times, depending on the levels of unrest and fear, one gained prominence over the other. Judaism sought to define itself, and did so against the backdrop of other faith groups that sought to define themselves. This is typical of the process of creating self-identity. Anyone who watches a 2 or 3 year old can see this dynamic: what is their favorite word? No. Similarly, one can find prayers such as the Aleynu gain prominence in Jewish prayer books at times when Jews were condemned by their neighbors. The Aleynu prayer, the Adoration, has a variety of different versions, the most offensive of which actually thanks God for not making us like the idolators who pray to a God that cannot save them, while we pray to the one God who made everything. It is a natural human reaction to say to someone who we experience as not liking us: oh yeah! well I don’t want to play with you either!  
Similarly, we see prohibitions against behaviors which might lead to interactions with non-Jews, and which might therefore lead a Jew to question his or her own approach. These prohibitions, no less than those of the prophets of long ago, and often basing themselves upon earlier prohibitions against intermarriage for example, are part of the attempt to consolidate communal identity and are evidence of fear of loss of identity. These prohibitions may have some ramifications theologically, but tend to be more behaviorally based. In the Talmud and later rabbinic texts, rules emerge seeking to minimize contact with non-Jews in terms of eating together, drinking wine together or doing business with one another. I would argue that these rules have less to do with the Jewish faith, and more to do with fear. Social and economic insecurity are big factors in terms of how people respond to such fear based religious directives, and most of the prohibitions tended to be formulated in societies where Jews experienced the most hardship and segregation.  
These prohibitions, I believe, conflict with the foundation of Jewish theology, which I will soon talk about. When Jews were granted citizenship, and were allowed to be part of society and to actually interact with non-Jews, without fearing for their lives, it became harder to follow rules that seemed based upon the vilification of the Other. This is another principle of human nature: when people are in conflict — what do you need to do? bring them together! And so as Jews emerged from the ghetto, the strand of Judaism that had been fear based lost a lot of its momentum. Liberal Judaism emerged, and most of the prayers and behaviors which had evolved in order to make sense of a society where Jews had been relegated to ghettos, were no longer needed. Judaism was able to return to its core, which is more fluid and open. The ongoing challenge is not to return to a stance of fear and judgment in a world that seems increasingly unstable and polarized.  
The Embrace of Other Faiths  
I would argue that the openness to other faiths represents the essence of Judaism. The Bible contains a strong universalistic tendency, especially early on, as I mentioned earlier. Prophets such as Amos give voice to this openness more explicitly. God does not care about ritual observance or national/religious identity: God cares about justice and compassion. “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will not smell the sacrifices of your solemn assemblies. Though you offer me burnt offerings and meal offerings, I will not accept them. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He decries the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and declared ritual observance to be meaningless if it perpetuates social and economic inequalities. The idea of chosenness initially means that every nation and every person is chosen to fulfill his or her own unique destiny and serve God in his or her own unique way.  
Even as early as the time of Amos the concept of chosenness had been taken and corrupted and he declares: “Are you not as much mine as the children of the Kushiyyim, O children of Israel? says the Lord. Have I not brought up Israel out of the land of Mitzrayim? And the Philistines out from Kaftor? And Aram from Qir?” This represents a shift in perspective: We are chosen no less than every other nation. Each nation has their own unique relationship with God. It is like every religion is a different language, and has their own unique way of talking about what God wants and demands. But unless the ritual observance translates into an openness of heart and society, then Amos goes so far as to proclaim them lies. He declares that what God demands is a just and compassionate society. National identity and ideological values should never be chosen at the expense of the needs of the poor, the orphan, the widow and the stranger who lives in your gates.  
What is the defining story of Jewish identity told over and over and over again every Passover? The Exodus from Mitzrayim. We are told to remember that we were strangers and slaves, and to learn how to be compassionate for all those we might encounter who are just like us. Our rabbis teach us that we are supposed to think of the word Egypt or in Hebrew — Mitzrayim — the root of which is tsar which in Hebrew means narrow — as any narrow or rigid place. We should always strive to liberate ourselves and others from narrowness — be it narrowness of ideology or identity. Narrowness and rigidity come from a place of fear, and faith at its core seeks to liberate us from a stance of fear and judgment. This is the story behind the biblical and later Jewish stories regarding salvation.  
Hope for Redemption  
Let’s look at the messianic hope for redemption: the lineage of King David. Who is King David? He is the son of Yishay who is the son of Oved, who was born from Ruth and Boaz. Ruth and Boaz- they were a forbidden union ... Boaz was Israelite and Ruth was from the Moabite tribe, who were forbidden to intermarry. And who were the Moabites, they are the children of Moab, who was the child born out of the union of Lot and his daughter, after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra. Ruth herself embodied all that was marginal and outcast in society, she was poor, a stranger, and a widow. And from her, issued forth the seed of redemption: King David, whose seed both Jews and Christians believe, will lead to the messiah.  
And even further back, Boaz traces his lineage back to another problematic union between another widow, who dressed up like a harlot and seduced her father-in-law by the side of the road, in order to force him to do justice to her: Tamar and Judah. All that is forbidden and outcast in society is ultimately what will redeem us. The thrust of the story seems to be that what keeps us from experiencing redemption is our own judgmental definitions of what is good and holy, and what is not. Every biblical prohibition contains its own undoing. For example, the rules concerning the mixing of linen and wool, which is a forbidden union, are undone in that they are permissible in the most sacred of contexts, in the clothing of the priestly garb. What is the purpose of these seemingly inconsistent prohibitions? I believe that they exist, not to tell us what is right and wrong, but to challenge us, in our belief of what is right and wrong, and to demonstrate the degree of contextuality and subjectivity in those laws. In so doing, they actually point our path to a liberation from these prohibitions.  
Defining Text  
This is the foundation of the Talmud, our defining text, it is the lens through which we read the biblical text. It contains the Oral Torah, which we call the Mishnah, and records centuries of rabbis trying to understand and interpret God’s truth. Sixty tractates are devoted to trying to make sense out of conflicting laws and statements. Basically, it is pages upon pages of arguments... with no resolution. It is like watching Gone with the Wind for four hours only to discover at that tomorrow is another day. Similarly, the arguments never have a winner. At one point, when a group of rabbis were arguing a certain point of interpretation, a voice came down from heaven to declare the winner. What did God determine? “Elu ve’elu divrei elohim chayim ... These and these are both words of the living God!”  
The purpose of studying the Talmud is to learn to wrap our mind around different ways of thinking and seeing the same problems, whether they are big problems like- what is the meaning of revelation? or little problems like how long should the length of the wall of the sukkah be? The process of studying Talmud is transformative in that it stretches the mind and forces us to see the logic in conflicting points of view, and to recognize that truth can never exist as an absolute, rather it can only exist in the tension between conflicting points of view, which is to say, that truth can only exist when every different point of view is voiced and legitimized.  
In the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah, which literally means Strange Worship, and tends to refer to how to relate to non-Jews, we find one of the few explicit statements concerning this universalistic stance, which echoes the Biblical Amos. Even an idol-worshipper who is occupied in Torah, who is doing good deeds and making the world a better place, that person is like the high priest. What matters is deeds, not how you were born.  
Idol Worshipper  
Of course the word idol worshipper remains a problematic term. The twelfth century Rabbi, Hameiri, in his commentary on the second chapter of this Talmudic tractate, states that the word “idol worshipper” is an arcane term that can not apply to contemporary Muslim and Christian neighbors, and indeed no longer applies. God judges every person according to the ways of their own faiths, and one can not apply the measures of one faith to measure another. Every article of faith and behavior is to be understood contextually, and their true purpose is to help us to fix this world, and make of it a world where justice and righteousness roll down like waters.  
Rabbinic stories abound describing the messiah at the gates of the city, sitting with the outcast bandaging and unbandaging their wounds. One rabbinic text, a midrash, states that in every generation there are 72 potential messiahs- if only the rest of the world would listen to their wisdom and refrain from perpetuating their exploitation and injustice. 36 are revealed and 36 are hidden, and they are to be found in every faith and nation. An example from our own day could be the Dalai Lama for example, if everyone were to follow his teachings, there would be peace on earth. But we do not, and so we continue to await redemption.  
But the teaching is also that there are 36 hidden messiahs. This means that everyone might potentially be one of those 36, and we are commanded to try to learn from everyone that we encounter. Every person, regardless of their faith, can help us to learn, and to make this world a better place. Every person is created in the image of God, and God reveals God’s self to each of us in unique ways. And so every relationship with another person, and every interaction with another faith is a sacred opportunity to encounter a new face of God.  
The Stated Universal Quest:  
To be a True Man and Interfaith People  
Probably the first thing one needs to do is to abandon the idea there is an ideal to which everyone must ascribe. The very question, how to become “true man” -leaving aside the gender assumptions of the question, implies that there is an absolute truth to which one ought to strive to attain or embody. I would suggest that each of us examine ourselves, and discover our own truth and own it as subjective and biased by our own personal and unique experiences. We are not and cannot be responsible for anyone but ourselves, and as soon as we stop trying to impose our truths on others, we may actually have a shot at creating a less violent society.  
The idea of “interfaith people” is similarly problematic. It seems to imply a syncretistic identity, where we each become an amalgam of the other, and essentially deny the tenets and values of our own individual faiths. Psychologically, we know that this dynamic is likely to lead to a path of repression, judgment and projection. If we deny our true selves, modern psychology teaches us, that we are likely to be plagued with anxiety, dissatisfaction and emptiness. Again, we know that these feelings are likely to lead to greater social unrest, consumerism, violence and intolerance.  
Rather, I would like to suggest that the messianic image presented in Micah 4:3-5 describes a more realistically attainable goal. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Everyone will sit underneath their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of Hosts has spoken. Let all people walk in the name of his God, and we will walk in the name of Adonai, our God, forever.”  
Messianic Vision  
The messianic vision described implies social and economic security, where every person has their own vine and fig tree. It implies an active end to warfare. It implies a vision of religious diversity and pluralism. Every path leading to that which we name the Divine is holy in its own way. Everyone of us is human, and while created in God’s image, all of us is imperfect. Our understanding of God is therefore imperfect. In Judaism, we believe that no one even knows how to pronounce God’s name, whose letters we know, Yud Hey Vav and Hey, but whose vowels we don’t know. So if we don’t know how to pronounce God’s name, we are taught a lesson in humility: none of us can ever know for sure what God wants other than what is commanded of us in Deuteronomy: Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof! Justice, Justice shall you pursue!  
But I would argue that the greatest insight from the passage in Micah is contained in the words: “no one shall make them afraid”. Fear is the catalyst for intolerance. Fear emerges from injustice and breeds further injustice. A goal is to address the societal and personal issues that make us fall prey to ideologies that are fear-based. And ultimately, the biggest fears are connected to a fear of loss of identity. Every individual is programmed for survival. Imposing our beliefs on others threatens their identity and tends to point to insecurity in our own identity that would cause us to seek validation in its adoption by another.  
The reality is, that as we look at the development of those prohibitions that emerged in Jewish thought against interactions with non-Jews, they tended to emerge in periods when Jews were persecuted or ghettoized. They emerged during economically turbulent times, and they tended to abate in better times. When Jews were granted citizenship, and began to interact with non-Jews, many liberal Jews came to identify from and learn from their non-Jewish neighbors. Relationship is sacred and healing, and as the great modern Jewish philosopher Martin Buber taught us, in an I-Thou encounter with another person, we also encounter God as well. The more we learn about one another, the more we learn about God. Judaism’s purpose is not to make us better Jews, it is to make us better human beings.  
Finding Our Own Voice  
There is a rabbinic legend that relates that every one was created with their own unique letter, and it is only when we bring every letter together, and find the patterns and connections between them that we begin to see the words and phrases that together make up the Torah, which is another way of saying, that we will encounter God’s revelation only when every person finds their own voice, their own letter, and finds their own place ... Rabbinic commentary looks at the first word of the Ten Commandments: “Anochi” which means “I am”, and notes that if we all focused upon simply fulfilling that one word, we would have fulfilled all the other words. If we each focused upon our own spiritual health, we are likely to have a lot less to worry about in others. The commandment in Judaism that emerges in this, articulated most clearly by our great medieval philosopher, Maimonides, is that we should each seek our own self-actualization. If every person, in their own way, sees themselves and others as created in the image of God, then we will truly be on the road to fulfilling Micah’s messianic prophecy of peace, social and economic justice and religious pluralism.

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