Sunday, June 8, 2008


Rabbinic Talmudic Judaism at its finest hours has been pluralistic within its own community and with its neighbors of different religions. At its worst, Judaism has been xenophobic , each community within thinking its minhag (tradition) was the only way to God, and belittling not only other Jews, but other religious groups living around Jews.
It is quite clear that true Judaism is pluralistic from its earliest times in Babylon in 586 BCE and in its preceding religion, Hebrewism from 3500 years ago. The Talmud ,via the Rabbis of the Tosefa period, clearly state that ''the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come,'' (Talmud Bavli Tractate Sanhedrin 105a)  just as the Rabbis in the same tractate in Mishna 10:1 state ''all Israel has a share in the world to come.''
Belief in religious  pluralism means that one believes that their religion is not the exclusive source of Divine truth. It is a belief that there are many ways to connect to the Divine. It is quite different than religious tolerance spoken about in legal terms in the United States.
All Jews will share enough common history, values and literature to agree on some things, while at the same time, have enough differences to disagree on other things. If Judaism, as part of its core beliefs, believes that all religions are beloved by God well enough to share in His eternal After Life, which implies that we can live in peace and harmony in this world, than Judaism can be pluralistic to those within its own community.
With Shavuot starting at sundown tonight, we are taught many spiritual concepts. We are taught that we are not the chosen people, but that we chose Torah, only after God offered it to many other nations, who rejected it.  We are taught that Torah was given on Sinai, no man's land, so that it belongs to all of humanity, not just the Hebrews or Jews. We are taught via Judaism and the Talmud, that God is a universal God, and has a relationship with all mankind, not just Jews.
Moses refers to "God of the spirits of all flesh" in Numbers 27:16, not just Jewish flesh. And the Tanach identifies prophets who existed outside of the Hebrew community. "God permitted to every people something he forbade to others...[and] God sends a prophet to every people according to their own language," states Rabbi Nethanel ibn Fayyumi.
"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)  Indeed Rosh Ha Shana, which many incorrectly call the "Jewish" new year, is, according the Talmud, the new year of the world and all humanity, as it celebrates Adam's and Eve's birth and the completion of the creation. It is in the 7th month of the Jewish calendar, Tishrei.  The Jewish new year is in the first month, Nissan, which is its liberation from slavery and the beginning of its peoplehood. It is also called Passover.
Talmud Yerushalmi Tractate Sanhedrin states that anyone who kills or saves a single human, not just Jewish, life, has done the same saved or killed  an entire world. The Talmud also states: "Righteous people of all nations have a share in the world to come" (Talmud Bavli Tractate Sanhedrin 105a).
A righteous gentile, and this was written during the time of paganism and not Christianity, was one who followed 7 simple rules and not the Jews 613 mitzvoth. They are called the Noahide laws. They are:
  1. to refrain from bloodshed and murder Shefichat damim
  2. to establish laws, and courts of justice Dinim
  3. to refrain from idolatry Avodah zarah
  4. to refrain from blasphemy, Birkat Hashem
  5. to refrain from sexual immorality, Gilui arayot (traditionally, incest, bestiality, adultery)
  6. to refrain from theft, Gezel and
  7. to refrain from eating a limb torn from a still living animal, Ever min ha-chai
Note that no where is anything required about belief in God. It is about ethical behavior. Biblical Prophets denounced the evils of the idolatrous nations. They denounced the Hebrews and Jews sins. Yet they never chastise the neighboring religions for their idolatrous beliefs such as worshipping multiple deities. The Prophets only chide them for their evil actions such as human sacrifice.
While Maimonides of 12th Century Egypt and Spain decries Christianity's and Islam's cruelty to Jews and constant attempts at forced conversions, he states: 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 Muhammad who came after him, only served 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 Jewish hope, and the Torah, and the commandments have become familiar topics of conversation among those even on far isles, and among many people, uncircumcised of flesh and heart. (Maimonides, Mishnah  Torah, XI.4.)
In other words what Maimonides was saying with all the grief the Jews were getting from Christians and Moslems, these same thorns in the Jews' side did worship the same God and have the same foundation, including the Ten Commandments, as the basis of their religions and would some day live in peace with Jews and each other sharing their commonality and not concentrating on their differences.
Moses Mendelssohn of 18th century Germany wrote: "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 ...I fancy that whosoever leads men to virtue in this life cannot be damned in the next."
We all need to understand that while Judaism's base text is the Hebrew Bible, Judaism  it is not identical to the religion described in it. That religion is Hebrewism and co- existed with Judaism during the Second Temple days. Rather, Judaism is based on the Bible. This Bible, (Tanach) is only truly understood through an understanding of the Mishnah and Gemorah which we call the Talmud. Rabbi Robert 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."
True Judaism was pluralistic not only to its neighbor religions but to those within its own community. It accept the idea that other nations would have their own Prophets who would have the same relationship God had with Moses. Our Torah states in its very last paragraph in Deuteronomy Chapter 34, verse 10: " Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom God knew face to face." This implies according to the Talmud, that while Moses was the chief prophet ''in Israel," other nations and people's were free to have their own prophets as well, who had a relationship with God.
Happy Shavuot!
Rabbi Arthur Segal