Back in the old days, America’s religious checkerboard came in only two colors – Jewish and Christian. This was never true, of course, but we liked to think it was. The perception left room for an effective throw-away line that made inter-group cooperation possible: “We all worship the same G-d, after all.” I’m not sure if this was ever true, but by now it is not even a useful fiction. Ironically, the presidential aspirations of Mitt Romney are creating doubts about whether there is room for all of us to stand under the same theological umbrella. As far as I am concerned, the first ones to get pushed out into the rain are the Islamofascists.
Terry Mattingly is one of America’s most influential religion writers. He recently wrote about Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s Mormonism coming up as an issue in his possible bid for the Republican presidential nod in 2008. Commenting on Mormon beliefs about gay marriage, Romney had a memorable response. “Mormons believe that marriage is between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman.”
But the real issue, says Mattingly is not polygamy, but polytheism. He links to a longer analysis of Mormon belief seen from an evangelical perspective. According to this view, Mormons believe in many gods, each presiding over a different world. Moreover, gods were once human, and became gods through a process called exaltation. What emerges is that many Protestants see the Mormon conception of G-d as so different from their own, that they do not regard them as monotheistic at all. (Having met quite a few Mormons who are among the loveliest people around, I caution readers against accepting all of this at face value without hearing their response.)
I find this fascinating, for a number of reasons. First of all, it makes my relationship with Christians much easier. It has never been easy or pleasant to explain to Christian friends why Jews regard the Christian triune understanding of G-d as running clearly afoul of G-d’s Oneness, at least according to the standard expected of Jews. (Medieval authorities disputed whether non-Jews were expected to maintain as pure an understanding of monotheism according to the Noachide Code.) I now have an analogy that hopefully will work. Just as many Christians see Mormon belief in gods who were once human as a hopeless distortion of divinity, Jews see the very possibility of G-d becoming flesh (and therefore less than infinite and limitless) with the same objection. This should help them at least understand our position, which in my experience, few have ever heard.
Even more interesting to me is the opening up of discussion that is often sealed up tightly. Just what does it mean to say that one believes in G-d? How different can conceptions of G-d be for people to still think they share a G-d concept? Furthermore, from the standpoint of Jewish law, how much can you bend your understanding of G-d before you cross the line into idolatry or worse?
Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 1:36) argues that those who believe in the corporeality of G-d are worse than idolaters. The latter deny the existence of the real G-d when they worship their icons. They merely believe that the stone or wood form in front of them represents some agent or intermediary force which is important to human affairs, thus detracting from the exclusivity of our worship and service of Hashem. Yet, idolaters are called “enemies” and “adversaries” of G-d. How much more objectionable is it to make false statements about G-d’s very nature, such as attributing the limitations of form and substance to Him?
If a person declares his belief in the One G-d Who created Heaven and Earth, but then adds that he believes that G-d is a frozen green doughnut, does he still believe in the Jewish G-d? I think not. The two parts of his statement amount to an oxymoronic belief.
What about other incompatibilities? When are they simple errors, and when do they become blasphemy? If someone were to champion today the position of Ralbag that G-d does not know about our choices, would we regard him as simply wrong according to the near-consensus of Jewish thinkers, or would we call him a non-believer? In other words, can you maintain that the perfect Unity of G-d does not allow for any knowledge to be beyond or outside of Him, and then turn around and say that there are some things that He just can’t get a line around?
What if you maintain that G-d is absolutely good – but in the same breath argue that He loves evil? Doesn’t that assertion put you so far out of the box, that you can’t be said to believe in the same G-d worshipped by traditional Jews?
Let’s make the question still more difficult. What if you maintain that G-d is omniscient, perfect, an absolute Unity, and completely good – but you perform, command, and applaud the most barbaric and despicable activities in the name of that same G-d. Not as the exception, but as a rule. Aren’t G-d’s commandments a refraction of what He is? If He commands people to love death, to blow up busses and trains at rush-hour, to fly planes into buildings, and to pack ball-bearings into the suicide bombing kits of young terrorists to inflict maximum pain and damage, can He really be the same G-d that the rest of us know?
Many Christians I know do not even acknowledge the question. They categorically assume that those Muslims do not worship the same G-d as they do. What about us?
Rambam did not have much use for Christian theology, even though he had no personal reason to dislike Christians. He had every reason to hate Muslims (they ruined significant parts of his life), but still wrote that Muslims believe in a true monotheism. Traditional Jews (including at least two Israeli Chief Rabbis I am aware of) avoid stepping into Christian worship sanctuaries. I have heard that many do not have the same reluctance to walk into a mosque, although I have not investigated this thoroughly. I have some recollection of a psak to soldiers of the IDF that they could even use a mosque to pray. Behind this is the perception that Islamic monotheism is on target. (I know about the Ran who claims that Muslims worship Mohammed. I don’t know what to make of it. I asked a Muslim scholar friend about it, and he told me that there were non-mainstream groups at times that turned Mohammed into an object of veneration and worship, but they disappeared in time.)
Should we be reassessing this thinking? If some varieties (pretty widespread, according to my Muslim sources) of contemporary Islam are so thoroughly invested in the promotion of what the rest of us regard as evil, should we suspect that the deity they worship is closer to the Devil than the true G-d?
Jews don’t “do” theology too much, far less than practitioners of less demanding religions. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch once quipped that the difference between Judaism and its competitors is that the latter adhered to a religion made up by Man to describe G-d, while Judaism was made up by G-d to describe Man. (I like pointing out to students that one of the briefest chapters in Derech Hashem is the chapter about G-d!) We would much rather think about how to serve Him than about what His inscrutable nature is like. Recent trends, however, may make us bring sharper focus on basic theology, and come to disturbing conclusions about forms of Islam and their incompatibility with monotheism.