Editor’s Thoughts: The Battlefield of Belief
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has given us the Torah of truth, planting everlasting life in our midst. Blessed are You, Giver of the Torah. –Blessing after Torah Reading, ‘The Koren Siddur’
Even if we do not realize it, as Orthodox Jews we are accustomed to asserting the objective truth of our own religious beliefs. We say it multiple times a day in our prayers; we say it before and after publicly reading the Torah; and we may say it casually when discussing Judaism with others.[i]
At Yeshiva University, we are constantly exposed to and involved in intra-religious dialogue. It is something which permeates the fabric of our everyday lives, which occupies hours of our mornings, afternoons, and evenings. It is easy to get so ensconced in our own bubble that we forget there is an entire world of religions out there, each one bearing ownership to an entirely different belief system than our own. The absence of a Religion department in YU also means that many students are overwhelmingly ignorant about religions that are not Judaism—religions which dominate our country’s population.
This is unacceptable.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his famous 1964 essay Confrontation, insisted on an unwavering commitment to Jewish beliefs in the face of growing pressure to capitulate to the theological demands of others: “Only a candid, frank, and unequivocal policy reflecting unconditional commitment to our God, a sense of dignity, pride and inner joy in being what we are…will impress the peers of the other faith community among whom we have both adversaries and friends.” Rabbi Soloveitchik continued by affirming his hope that ”our friends in the community of the many will sustain their liberal convictions and humanitarian ideals by articulating their position on the right of the community of the few to live, create, and worship God in its own way, in freedom and dignity.”[ii] Famously staking out a (subtle) position against interfaith dialogue, he argued for the impropriety and impossibility of communicating the language of religious belief and theology to those outside one’s own faith.
The contemporary relevance and application of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s ideas have been considered as well as contested in more recent years.[iii] Many leaders still follow his rulings devoutly, while others like Rabbi Shlomo Riskin have advocated a more open approach to theological dialogue with other religious groups.[iv] In any case, we can discern what I believe to be a fundamental caveat underlying Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thought: once we declare that Jews have an inalienable right to feel comfortable in their own eschatological projections and other miscellaneous beliefs, surely other religions should be entitled to the same level of unabashedness in their beliefs as well. Barring any attempt to hurt others or violate basic morality, we can safely state that any and every religious group has equal right to, in Rabbi Soloveitchik’s words, “create and worship God in its own way.”
One of the central texts in our Yamim Nora’im liturgy already hints at this tension regarding how Jews should relate to other religious believers. God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, states the following about the time of salvation:
“As for the foreigners who attach themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, and to love the name of the Lord, to be his servants—all who keep the Sabbath and do not profane it, and who hold fast to My covenant—I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices shall be welcome on My altar; for My House shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”[v]
On the one hand, this ideal vision insists that foreigners will be received with open arms in the Temple of God; they too are encouraged to offer sacrifices and pray to the one true God. However, acceptance by God seems to hinge on acceptance of the covenant, perhaps employing Shabbat here as a particular example. It is not merely any non-Jew who may worship God alongside us; only “the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths” have an open invitation.
Though many have pointed to this text as evidence of a more accommodating Jewish perspective in the end-time, we must note that God’s claim that His house will be a “house of prayer for all peoples” does not quite reach the level of pluralism. Though it is not clear if the prophecy predicts that non-Jews will actually convert, the stipulation remains. In this text, it is only those non-Jews who commit to God’s covenant who may join in Temple worship.[vi] The Jewish God is welcoming, but not all-welcoming.
A trope I often hear recited among observant Jews is that “Judaism is not a proselytizing religion.” Though this may not always have been the case[vii], it is certainly true of contemporary Judaism. A religious sect that believes in its own cosmic “truth,” when combined with an attitude of non-proselytization, can lead to a number of interesting and peculiar conclusions. If we are in fact a religious sect that fundamentally believes in the certainty of its own truth, should we not be attempting to ‘show others the light,’ so to speak? Should we not be promulgating the ideal path to serving God, endowing all individuals both Jewish and non-Jewish with the requisite tools and knowledge for entrance into heaven?[viii] Perhaps we can suggest that the current trend of non-proselytization actually points to an implicit attitude of religious pluralism among contemporary Jews. Conversely, how can we possibly preach the sheva mitzvot b’nei Noah as binding over others who themselves do not accept the authority of our religious texts?
Indeed, it is undeniable that a core tenet of traditional Orthodox Judaism is belief in the divine origin of Torah and the unbroken chain of its transmission. Our question becomes the following: does believing that Judaism is “true”—in some cosmic sense of the word—mean that other religions are, by extension, “false?” Is the only way to acknowledge the potential truth in other religions by acknowledging the fallibility of our own, or can we perhaps draw some middle theological ground?
Are we really in a place to say that Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism, Shintoism, and many others are all false?
I am certainly not so bold as to delegitimize the spiritual endeavors, feelings, and beliefs of others, nor am I a historian to make truth claims that our narrative is the “correct one.” Can Judaism really require us to make any declarations of this sort at all? I leave that question for the reader to decide.
Though Judaism’s relationship to other faiths may not be a pressing issue on Yeshiva University’s own campus, modern society has made the question particularly relevant in a fresh way. A world of technology and flight means that ideas travel across continental lines quicker and more effortlessly than ever before. Instead of simply practicing whatever tradition with which one was raised, an individual is essentially free to mix-and-match whatever faith traditions s/he wishes and produce a new, hybridized worldview. Rather than functioning on a geographical and familial level, religion and spirituality have become an open market. The bounds of established, institutionalized religion have begun to fade and transform. In democratic America, religion is a personal choice.
Though we need not profess to agree with any of these developments, we cannot hide from the fact that this is the reality before us.
I am optimistic that, through the framework of Kol HaMevaser and other groups on campus, we can carry out a thoughtful and nuanced dialogue about these ideas, both within Yeshiva University and beyond its confines.
Let us not run away from these questions, questions which touch at the very foundation of what it means to be a religious believer or to identify with a faith tradition. Instead, let us approach them with the honesty and intellectual rigor that they deserve. Let us delve deeply into the realm of Judaism’s relationship to other faiths—without relinquishing the self-confidence that makes Orthodoxy what it is.
Raphael Ozarowski is a Senior at YC majoring in Jewish Studies and minoring in Psychology. He is an Associate Editor for Kol HaMevaser
[i] The traditional list of Orthodox dogmas as well as their binding nature is actually quite complicated. See Dr. Marc B. Shapiro’s excellent The Limits of Orthodox Theology for a full treatment.
[ii] Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Confrontation,” Tradition 6:2 (1964): 25
[iii] To complicate matters, we would also be loath to forget that Soloveitchik himself first gave a little lecture known as ‘The Lonely Man of Faith’ before none other than a Catholic seminary in Brighton, MA.
[iv] See Shlomo Riskin, “Is Christian –Jewish Theological Dialogue Permitted? A Postscript to Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s article, ‘Confrontation.’ CJCUC, available at http://cjcuc.com/site/2012/08/30/is-christian-jewish-theological-dialogue-permitted-a-postscript-to-rav-joseph-b-solovetichiks-article-confrontation/, Eugene Korn, “The Man of Faith and Religious Dialogue: Revisiting ‘Confrontation’,” Modern Judaism 25:2 (2005): 290-315, available at http://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cjl/texts/center/conferences/soloveitchik/Korn_23Nov03.htm as well as Marshall J. Breger, “A Reassessment of Rav Soloveitchik’s Essay on Interfaith Dialogue: ‘Confrontation’,” Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations 1:1 (2005-2006):151-169, available at http://scholarship.law.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1102&context=scholar
[v] Isaiah 56:6, NJPS Translation
[vi] It is worth noting that other prophets may point to a slightly different picture of the Messianic era. See Micah 4:1-5, Zechariah 2:15, 8:22-23, and others.
[vii] Ancient Jews did not necessarily share the beliefs of modern ones with regard to proselytization and conversion. Scholars debate the extent that Jewish proselytizing occurred during the Second Temple period. See Louis Feldman, “Was Judaism a Missionary Religion in Ancient Times?” in Jewish Assimilation, Acculturation, and Accommodation: Past Traditions, Current Issues, and Future Prospects, ed. Menahem Mor (Lanham: University Press of America, 1992), 24-37 and Martin Goodman, Mission and Conversion: Proselytizing in the Religious History of the Roman Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 116, as well as Shlomo M. Brody, “Is Judaism a Proselytizing Religion?,” Jewish Ideas Daily, available at: http://www.jewishideasdaily.com/5189/features/is-judaism-a-proselytizing-religion/
[viii] One might be tempted to mention those Chabad messengers who persuade irreligious Jews on the street to lay Tefillin. However, as is clear from this example and others, it is essential to note that nearly all modern kiruv endeavors are limited to the non-observant, rather than the non-Jewish.