What makes a religion true? Where can we find, without the preponderance of physical evidence, the corporeal access to intangible Divinity? We can debate for an endless amount of time whether the conclusions that other religions make contain authentic truth or only grains of a partial truth. I generally don’t find these theology games compelling, nor do I find the quest for absolute truth to be purposeful. Other faiths may have deeper elements which are quite similar to my own theological beliefs, but in their raw particularistic form they naturally seem quite foreign to me. But there is another means to assess truth: not from the theological conclusion but from the psychological yearning, not from an objective standpoint but through subjective measures.
Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel — the Maharal — opining on the subject of the fluidity of truth, wrote:
Beit Hillel states that one should always praise the bride as being beautiful even if she isn’t and Beit Shammai objected that this violated the prohibition against lying (BT Ketubot 17a). However, in fact praising the bride as being beautiful is not a lie. Even though the bride is not objectively beautiful, the groom who chose her sees her as being beautiful. Consequently, we are not coming to praise her according to our perception but from the viewpoint of the groom (Netivot Olam 1; Netiv Emet 1).
In the above passage, the Maharal explicated a form of truth not based upon objectivity but based upon perception. By extension of that perception, we might validly believe that we don’t find objective truth in other religious groups’ faith claims nor do we expect the reciprocal view. Such reciprocity is not required for meaningful dialogue. Nonetheless, out of a respect to others, and to not trample on the precious and delicate feelings of other, we are not lying when we believe there are multiple paths on the road to absolute truth. Rather than judging critically, having the ability to respect the yearning of others as well as honoring others’ dignity in their striving to come close to God and to repair the world is essential to harmonious existence. But this not only ethical but also epistemological: the others’ yearning for God emerges from their tzelem Elokim (their inner spark of Godliness) and that grants an element of truth to the spiritual yearning.
Indeed, this is not just an option for interpersonal affairs. Striving to cultivate humility mandates that we be less certain of our views and act more charitably toward others’ views. But how do we express these ideals without forfeiting what is unique about our spiritual paths? Rabbi Dr. Yitz Greenberg, a leader of modern Jewish pluralistic thought, argues adamantly for a unique pluralistic approach to religious thought:
Pluralism means more than accepting or even affirming the other. It entails recognizing the blessings in the other’s existence, because it balances one’s own position and brings all of us closer to the ultimate goal. Even when we are right in our own position, the other who contradicts our position may be our corrective or our check against going to excess…
Relativism…is the loss of capacity to affirm any standards. But the deepest religious response is pluralism—the recognition that there are plural absolute standards that can live and function together, even when they conflict. The deepest insight of pluralism is that dignity, truth and power function best when they are pluralized, e.g., divided and distributed, rather than centralized or absolutized…. The essential difference between pluralism and relativism is that pluralism is based on the principle that there still is an absolute truth…. Pluralism is an absolutism that has come to recognize its limitations (For the Sake of Heaven and Earth, 196; 201-203).
With Rav Yitz’s views in mind, consider the thought of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s on the matter religious pluralism, particularly in regards to Judaism’s role in perpetuating a broader understanding of the world:
I think it is the will of God that there should be religious pluralism. Jewish thinking and living can only be adequately understood in terms of a dialectical pattern, containing opposite or contrasted properties… A central concern in Jewish thinking is to overcome the tendency to see the world in one dimension, from one perspective…. (Interview with Carl Stern on NBC’s The Eternal Light, 1972).
Likewise, Rabbi David Hartman, the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, discussed the implications that a pluralistic approach to religious thought would have for religious communities around the world:
The radical particularization of history eliminates the need for faith communities to regard one another as rivals. Competition between faith traditions arises when universality is ascribed to particular historical revelations. When revelation is understood as the concretization of the universal, then ‘whose truth is the truth?’ becomes the paramount religious question, and pluralism becomes a vacuous religious ideal. If, however, revelation can be separated from the chain of universality, and if a community of faith can regain an appreciation of the particularity of the divine-human encounter, then pluralism can become a meaningful part of biblical faith experiences (A Heart of Many Rooms, 165).
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook wrote movingly on how Jews should perceive and understand ideas that, while seemingly contradicting Torah on the surface, actually contribute and strengthen Torah thought by pointing to the underlying foundations of spiritual development and growth:
…This is an important rule in the struggle of ideas: we should not immediately feel obliged to refute any idea that comes to contradict something in the Torah, but rather we should build the palace of Torah above it. In so doing we reach a more exalted level, and through this exultation the ideas are clarified. And thereafter, when we are not pressured by anything, we can confidently also fight on the Torah’s behalf (Iggerot Hareayah I, 163-164).
One of our most important tasks in life is to “expand the palace of Torah,” as Professor Tamar Ross explicated (based upon a teaching of Rav Kook). In the words of Maimonides, we are to “accept truth from wherever one may find it” (Introduction to the Mishna, Pirkei Avot). We add glory to the Torah when it expands to include new paradigms. We add glory to the Torah through the evolution of ideas in society (such as certain versions of pluralism, feminism, democracy, capitalism, empiricism, or, indeed, any system of social organization). We add glory to the Torah by being in awe of the manifold paths people take to find holiness. We should seek to learn (both openly & critically) from others very different from ourselves and not be afraid of a genuine encounter with them and their truths.
The Jewish people have much to offer to the world. But moreover, we have the obligation to seek and accept truth wherever we may find it. Though the Jewish people have a unique covenant with God and particular ethical obligations that we must follow, such a mandate doesn’t mean that we have to be a decidedly exclusive or elitist people. We don’t have to shun the truth and value of others and their religious beliefs in order to prop our beliefs. Embracing the diversity that our world has to offer is an intellectual necessity and a spiritual imperative. Contributing to other faith discourses and expanding to the truths of others lets our hearts expand. And in time, our souls as well.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of ten books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews.