Truth & Religious Pluralism
In an era of epistemic confusion and spiritual yearning, many are struggling to own their own journey and to find the language to talk about alternative journeys. The 20th century English philosopher and theologian John Hick, in Problems of Religious Pluralism (91), suggested there are three frameworks for religious truth that can be helpful:
- Exclusivism – “one particular mode of religious thought and experience (namely one’s own) is along valid, all others being false”
- Inclusivism – “one’s own tradition alone has the whole truth but that this truth is nevertheless partially reflected in other’s traditions”
- Pluralism – “the great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of, and correspondingly different responses to, the Real or the Ultimate.”
In Judaic doctrine there exists both support and contestation for each of these frameworks. The following quotes from Jewish leaders and text explore each model.
Religious exclusivism is the belief and understanding that only one religion, belief system, or religious practice is true (i.e. there is only one path to truth) and that it contains all of the truth. Some have suggested that many of the world’s greatest injustices including war, genocide, sacrifice, forced conversion, and conquest may be rooted in religious exclusivity and the belief that one’s religion alone has the sole truth. In Judaism religious exclusivity can manifest in particular understandings regarding our status as the Chosen People and from our monotheistic belief system (an example can be seen in the strongest bans against idolatry). Exclusivity, however, is not always necessarily a negative.
The great poet Ogden Nash wrote on the subject that tolerance is not always necessarily a virtuous characteristic:
Sometimes, with secret pride I sigh, “How tolerant am I!”
Then I wonder what is really mine, Tolerance or a rubber spine?
(I’m a Stranger Here Myself, 1938)
My dear teacher Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo further elaborated on the topic of tolerance, taking the position that in fact indifference is often mistaken for tolerance:
Indeed most of the time it is indifference that makes people believe they are tolerant. It is all too easy to espouse tolerance when one does not really care about values and principles, or about the moral needs of society and one’s fellow man. In contrast, the stronger our convictions, the more tolerance we can show when we make the supreme sacrifice of listening to others and respecting their beliefs that we deem as incorrect. But to put up with others because we could not care less about their principles is not tolerance. Quite the contrary, it is a rubber spine,” (Crisis, Covenant , and Creativity, 38).
Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, also encourages us to move away from “cold tolerance.” The great rabbi explains that tolerance often is the result of one’s difficulty in integrating the spiritual world into the material world:
One must carefully distinguish between a holistic perspective, which succeeds in penetrating the roots of every opinion, enabling it to appreciate every opinion for its intrinsic worth, and the cold tolerance resulting from the difficulty of integrating the spiritual world into life. The later must retreat in its confrontation with the light and energy of life.” (Letters of Rav Kook, Jerusalem, 5745, 79).
In general, the rabbis believed that the Jewish people were unique (either innately or by virtue of the Torah) and that it was our character and values that distinguished us from the gentile world and made us identifiable:
And G-d will give you mercy and will be merciful to you,” (Deuteronomy 13:18). All who are merciful to other creatures, it is known that they are from the ancestry of Abraham our father, and all those who are not merciful to other creatures, it is known that they are not from Abraham (Beitzah 32b).
The (Jewish) nation is distinguished by three characteristics; they are merciful, they are modest (or bashful), and they perform acts of loving-kindness (Yevamot 79a).
The rabbis also pointed to our religious belief as a major distinguishing factor, and the exclusive religious practices of the Jewish people. Our unwavering commitment and dedication to G-d has set us apart for thousands of years and our covenant makes us unique:
“All those who deny idolatry are called a Jew” (Megillah 13a). Jews could be identified by what they are not (original Aleinu version: mishtachavim hevel v’rik) and G-d would not only protect one’s own but punish the other (Haggadah: shfoch chamatcha).
In exclusivity, one need not engage with people of other faiths or learn with those of other denominations within one’s faith. One is confident in the truth they hold as the exclusive truth and only engages others in hope of persuading them to their camp. It should be noted that one can, of course, be a compassionate exclusivist. One believes that one has the whole truth yet still acts kindly toward others who they perceive to be misinformed.
Religious inclusivism is an approach that asserts that while one’s religion is still absolutely true, one can still learn some truths and bits of wisdom from other religions. This approach posits that Jews have much to learn outside of our own peoplehood and texts. Take for example what we can learn from the natural world, the animal kingdom in particular.
Rabbi Yochanan said: If the Torah had not been given, we could have learned about modesty from the cat, honest labor from the ant, marital fidelity from the dove, and good manners from the rooster – who first coaxes his hen and then copulates with her (Eruvin 100b).
Rashi, the medieval French rabbi and scholar, explains:
- “Modesty from the cat”: who does not place its excrement before people, but covers it up.’
- “Honest labor from the ant”: as it says (in Proverbs 6) “Go to the ant, you sluggard; Consider her ways and be wise; Who, having no chief, Overseer or ruler, Provides her bread in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest,” and one does not steal food from another.’
- “Marital fidelity from the dove”: who only mates with one partner.’
There are also several passages where the rabbis taught that one could best understand the Torah by learning from, and observing, gentiles. “Rabbi Eliezer was asked: how far does the honor of parents extend? Said he: ‘Go forth and see what a certain non-Jew, Dama, son of Nethinah by name, did in Ashkelon’” (Kiddushin 31a). It is suggested that Jews can learn their own values best at times from non-Jews. The Torah holds the truth but those same truths can be found outside of the Torah in other manifestations as well.
Another example of the inclusive framework is the proposition that the Divine sees value and favors the other. Maimonides, for example, makes clear that righteous gentiles (chassidei umot ha’olam) have a share in the world to come (Hilchot Melachim 8:11). Further, the Meiri argued that gentiles must be treated with the same ethical status as fellow Jews:
Thus, all people who are of the nations that are disciplined through the ways of religion and worship the divinity in any way, even if their faith is far from ours, are excluded from the principle [of the inequality of Gentiles]; rather, they are like full-fledged Jews with respect to their matters, even with respect to lost property and error (ta’ut) and all the other matters, with no distinction whatsoever.
This is not just an ethical principle but an epistemic one. Non-Jews can, and often do, access G-d and religious truth. Perhaps most radically Maimonides argues that Christians and Muslims help straighten the path to the Messianic age and repair the world so all of us can serve G-d together (hilchot melachim u’milchamot 11). Rabbi Yaakov Emden went further on this point (Seder Olam Rabbah Vezuta – letter written by Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) to the Council of Four Lands in Poland, 1757, translated by Rabbi Harvey Falk, 1985):
The founder of Christianity conferred a double blessing upon the world. On the one hand, he strengthened the Torah of Moshe and emphasized that it is eternally binding. On the other hand, he conferred favor upon the gentiles in removing idolatry from them, imposing on them stricter moral obligations than are contained in the Torah of Moshe. (!!) There are many Christians with noble qualities and excellent morals. Would that all Christians would live in conformity with their precepts. They are not enjoined, like the Israelites, to observe the laws of Moshe, nor do they sin if they associate other beings with God in worshipping a triune G-d. They will receive G-d reward from G-d for having propagated a belief in Him among the nations that never heard His name: for He looks into the heart.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, as an inclusivist, cautioned us from the exclusivist position, and explained that exclusivity can lead one down a dangerous path:
There is a fundamental difference between the end-of-days peace of religious unity and the historical peace of compromise and coexistence. The attempt to force the former can sometimes be the most formidable enemy of the latter…. It is time we exorcized Plato’s ghost, clearly and unequivocally. Universalism must be balanced with a new respect for the local, the particular, the unique,” (The Dignity of Difference, 10, 20).
My argument is far more fundamental, namely that universalism is an inadequate response to tribalism, and no less dangerous. It leads to the belief – superficially compelling but quite false – that there is only one truth about the essentials of the human condition, and it holds true for all people at all times. If I am right, you are wrong….teaching humanity to make space for difference. G-d may at times be found in human other, the one not like us. Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one G-d and therefore one gateway to His presence. To the contrary, it is the idea that the unity of G-d is to be found in the diversity of creation, (The Dignity of Difference, 50, 53).
Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, the great 20th century thinker, was prolifically adamant about this point that Jews must embrace not only a covenantal identity but also a human identity:
We Jews have been burdened with a twofold task: we have to cope with the problem of a double confrontation. We think of ourselves as human beings, sharing the destiny of Adam in his general encounter with nature, and as members of a covenantal community which has preserved its identity under most unfavorable conditions, confronted by another faith community. We believe we are the bearers of a double charismatic load, that of the dignity of man, and that of the sanctity of the covenantal community. In this difficult role, we are summoned by God, who revealed Himself at both the level of universal creation and that of the private covenant, to undertake a double mission – the universal human and the exclusive covenantal confrontation (Confrontation II:1).
In this thinking, there is something essential for a religious person outside of one’s own tradition that may help them understand the truth in their own tradition.
Religious pluralism takes the world view that one’s religion isn’t the exclusive source of truth and acknowledges that truth and value exists in other religions, often times leading to interfaith educational efforts, mutual respect, and harmonious co-existence. While the idea of diverse and seemingly antagonistic religions coexisting in society may sound idealistic or even ignorant, religious pluralism has a long history and development that dates from antiquity and offers an extraordinary vision of peace and mutual respect.
Peter Berger and Anton Zijderveld, in “In Praise of Doubt: How to have Convictions without becoming a Fanatic,” help explain religious pluralism:
By “plurality” we mean a situation in which diverse human groups (ethnic, religious, or however differentiated) live together under conditions of civic peace and in social interaction with each other. The process that leads to such a situation we would call “pluralization.” Our thesis here, then, can be succinctly stated: Modernity pluralizes….The situation we have called “plurality” is more commonly called “pluralism.” We eschew this term because the suffix “ism” suggests an ideology rather than (as we intend here) an empirically available social reality…..If “plurality” refers to a social reality (a reality that one may welcome or deplore), “pluralism” is the attitude, possibly expanded into a full-blown philosophy, that welcomes that reality. (Page 7)
There have been cultural situations in the past, of course. For centuries the cities along the Silk Road in central Asia enjoyed a true plurality, especially in the way different religious traditions interacted with and influenced each other – Christianity, Manichaeism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. For longer or shorter periods, similarly plural situations prevailed in Moghul India, Hohenstaufen Sicily, and Muslim Andalusia (where the notion of convivencia was an early form of pluralistic ideology). Most significant for the history of Western civilization, the late Hellenistic-Roman period shows remarkable similarities with modern plurality, not least in terms of religious diversity. It’s no accident that Christianity had its origins as a world religion in this particular milieu. But all these pre-modern cases of plurality were quite limited in scope. (Pages 9-10)
As we’ve argued before, the modern process of pluralization has been a deinstitutionalizing and existentially destabilizing force. It has enlarged out freedom of choice and thus in a sense our autonomy and self-reliance. Yet, as a visit to any modern supermarket demonstrates, we’re confronted by the Qual der Wahl (“agony of choice”) that we mentioned in the second chapter. In fact, any supermarket can be taken as a metaphor of a fully pluralized society. This pluralization has led to two opposite reactions. There is, on the one hand, a radical return to premodern certainties, such as religious fundamentalism and scientific rationalism, and on the other hand, an often equally radical celebration of allegedly postmodern contingencies, which are propagated as a relativism in which (morally) “anything goes.” (Pages 93-94).
Some rabbis have even argued that the whole enterprise of Talmudic discourse is premised on the notion of pluralism:
Rabbi Abba stated in the name of Samuel: For three years there was a dispute between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, the former asserting, “The halakhah is in agreement with our views” and the later contending, “The halakhah is in agreement with our views.” Then a bat kol issued announcing, “(The utterances of) both are the words of the living G-d, but the halakhah is in agreement with the rulings of Beit Hillel.” Since, however, both are the words of the living G-d, what was it that entitled Beit Hillel to have the halakhah fixed in agreement with their rulings?” Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beit Shammai, and were even so (humble) as to mention the actions of Beit Shammai before theirs” (Eruvin 13b).
The respect of seeing truth in another’s truth can be seen in the touching, and respectful, story of Aher (a teacher who left the tradition) and Rebbi Meir (his student who remained within the tradition):
Our rabbis taught: It happened with Aher that he was riding on a horse on Shabbat and Rebbi Meir was running after him to learn Torah from his mouth. He said to him: Meir, return from running after me for I have measured the steps of my horse and at this point is the tehum of Shabbat (Hagigah 15a).
Aher continues to count the steps to the halakhic boundary where one cannot leave on Shabbat even though that is no longer his personal boundary. He recognizes and honors his student’s epistemic boundaries while rejecting them for himself.
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 … Pluralism is not relativism, for we hold on to our absolutes; however, we make room for others’ as well (For the Sake of Heaven and Earth, 196).
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, 201-203).
Consider Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s thoughts on religious pluralism, particularly in regards to Judaism:
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….
Rabbi David Hartman, the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, discusses the implications that a pluralistic approach to religious thought would have for religious communities and 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).
Still others have suggested a more integrated, perhaps tempered, approach in the Jewish relationship to the “outside world.” Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein wrote:
The contention that a Torah hashkafah (a worldview) should sanction scientific studies to the exclusion of the humanities, as only they deal with God’s world, blithely ignores man’s position as part of that world. To the extent that the humanities focus upon man, they deal not only with a segment of divine creation but with its pinnacle. The dignity of man is not the exclusive legacy of Cicero and Pico della Mirandola. It is a central theme in Jewish thought, past and present. Deeply rooted in Scripture, copiously asserted by Hazal, unequivocally assumed by rishonim (medieval rabbis), religious humanism is a primary and persistent mark of a Torah Weltanschauung. Man’s inherent dignity and sanctity, so radically asserted through the concept of tzelem Elokim (humans created in the image of G-d); his hegemony and stewardship with respect to nature; concern for his spiritual and physical well-being; faith in his metaphysical freedom and potential—all are cardinal components of traditional Jewish thought…How, then can anyone question the value of precisely those fields which are directly concerned with probing humanity? (Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict, 245).
The famed Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook wrote a magnificent piece on how Jews should perceive and understand ideas that may contradict Torah and how our response contributes to our spiritual development and growth:
And in general, 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).
This is ultimately our goal, to “expand the palace of Torah,” as Tamar Ross wrote (based upon Rav Kook), and in the words of Maimonides, to “accept truth from wherever one may find it.” We add glory to the Torah when it expands to include new paradigms emerging through the evolution of ideas and societies (such as certain versions of feminism, democracy, capitalism, empiricism, etc.). Though our people have a unique covenant with G-d and particular ethical obligations that we must follow, halakha, this does not mandate that we be an inclusive or exclusive people that shun the truth and value of others and their religious beliefs. We must embrace the diversity that our world has to offer, contribute who we are as people and what we have to offer, and above all seek and accept truth wherever we may find it.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director 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 “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”