Reciprocity and Specialness

Several readers of my recent post on interfaith conversations raised the issue of reciprocity. If we find that people are ready to listen to us when we share our Torah values and perspectives, is it not inevitable that they will want to do the same, and invite us in to their religious lives? For many if not most people, such religious voyeurism would run afoul of accepted halachic norms. There would be no good choices. Accepting the invitation for reciprocity would be unacceptable; declining it would appear rude, small-minded, and arrogant.

There is a third way. We politely explain that we have halachic barriers that forbid us any amount of involvement with other religious belief systems. My experience – at least with people who take their own religions seriously – is that it works.

Isn’t this infuriatingly self-centered for a religion? What do we think we have – a monopoly on the truth?

Actually, we are in good company. They all make the same claim. Every revealed religion claims to be, in some form or another, the only real act in town. Which is why other people are not so taken aback as we think they are. Those who sincerely believe their own claims about specialness are simply not fazed by the equivalent claims of competitors.

Catholics believe that true salvation comes through the Church; conservative Protestants know no other way to heaven than through belief in their Savior; Mormons are quite open about parts of their sanctuary (and even knowledge about their practices) being off-limits to outsiders.

It’s no big deal.

The people in other religious groups you speak with are going to be at home with the notion of specialness. If the conversation ever gets to the point of talking about converts , you will be ahead of the game, when you are able to show that we don’t proselytize because we don’t hold an exclusive on Heaven, believing that its doors are open to all those who adhere to the seven basic laws of conduct known as the Noahide Code.

Once you are comfortable with owning up to Jewish specialness, you should have little trouble gently making the claim that we view Revelation as full and self-contained, without the need for “completion” from any other faith. We therefore respectfully decline the invitation to reciprocate.

Having come this far, I might as well address some other comments and commenters. I was not – and do not – advocating that we send legions of “kiruv” workers into the non-Jewish community. (It goes without saying that I do not advocate the kind of ecumenical dialogue between theologians so popular in some circles.) I merely suggested that we be less shy and bashful about explaining our conception of G-d, or our frequent addressing Him through tefilah (prayer) and berachos (blessings), or our understanding of hashgacha peratis (individual Divine Providence), or our sense of how a mitzvah brings one closer to Hashem. Etc. Etc. (Yes, this is all in addition to the other way of communicating the beauty of Torah, which is to be model human beings precisely because of our affinity to Torah.)

Do I believe that, reciprocally, we can learn from other faiths, as some suggested? No, I don’t – at least as far as discovering truths that we would not discover in Torah. Am I inspired by the sincerity, depth of commitment and extent of spiritual longing in many, many non-Jews I’ve met? Certainly. (I am not alone. I can immediately think of at least one place where the Chovos Halevavos points appreciatively at aspects of Sufi religious conduct.) Could I be inspired by religious art, music, drama? Undoubtedly yes. But I think that it is forbidden under the rubric al tifnu el ha-ellilim. I am not prepared to sacrifice one iota of halacha, chas v’shalom, to engage people of other communities. Neither do I believe, however, that every contact means such sacrifice. It doesn’t.

Are there risks in what I am proposing? Sure. You can’t talk about your beliefs without the expectation of hearing some of theirs. This is not a matter of reciprocity, but of practicality. Not everyone should be having this conversation, because not everyone can handle it. At the same time, it would be an error to assume that no one can handle it. It may not be for everyone, but it is not for no one. Speak to your LOR. My contention is that those who can handle it, should be handling it. There are plenty around who can.

Why should we even think of changing our stance? We avoided these conversations for hundreds of years, largely because they were usually a prelude to their burning us. But it silence was good enough for our forebears, why should we break it now? Perhaps because times have changed, in two crucial ways. American Christians are Israel’s most vocal and consistent supporters. There are still plenty of detractors and haters in many denominations. But there are also lots of folks who support Israel and Jews for reasons that flow directly from their faith. (You will find fuller treatment of this topic in an article I wrote in a recent issue of Jewish Action. ) Bederech hateva, we need them. I have no idea why HKBH seems to have chosen old adversaries as our new friends, but friends we need.

Secondly, we should note changes in the Christian world even if Israel were not a factor. I know that there are some who simply believe that all non-Jews are cut from the same cloth, but I am not among them. (See Torah Temimah, Vayikra 25:14:83 for his analysis of the famous gloss of the Be’er Hagolah about dealing scrupulously and beyond the letter of the law with non-Jews. The Torah Temimah remarks how remarkable that exhortation is in the light of the incredible suffering his neighbors inflicted upon him and all Jews in his region. All that he experienced did not change “the constancy of his spirit and straightness of his heart to all those who are created in His image.”) Those who believe that HKBH created antisemitism as an irrational reality common to the hearts of many ought to be able to believe that He could cure this irrationality at certain times and places. The simple fact is that there are many Christians out there – even those who can’t figure out how we could possibly be saved without sharing their beliefs – who still admire and respect Judaism. There are also millions of people for whom the key beliefs that irrevocably separate us from Christianity are not at all so clear. These are people who very much want a relationship with the One G-d, and do pick up little pieces of the puzzle from their interaction with Jews. In a world in which belief in G-d is mocked and denigrated, many non-Jews recognize that traditional Jews have tenaciously held on to something of value. There has probably not been such an openness to this in two thousand years. Is there nothing of value in showing people part of the truth, even before they find themselves able to accept all of it? When Moshiach comes, will the rest of the world be smitten with the truth in one sitting, or will people make small, incremental gains even before he comes, gains that we can help bring about, at least on the scale of our personal interactions with others?

Take the roughly half of all major figures of earlier times who held that the diluted unity of G-d implicit in a Trinitarian conception was not forbidden to non-Jews. Now add the millions of people who will yell from the rooftops that they believe in a One G-d, and to whom – to try to put it gently – the nature of a triune conception of G-d is as much of a mystery to them as it is to me. Are we not left with lots of people for whom moving closer to G-d, addressing Him more regularly and with more meaning, is something positive? I remember a trip to the Gulf Coast I took after Katrina. I was picked up early in the morning by a very bright and sincere Protestant friend, who took me to his home. I asked him for a half hour alone in a private room, so I could daven shacharis (recite the morning prayers). He sheepishly asked if I would mind terribly if I prayed in his living room, where he and his wife could watch. I agreed, and they sat absolutely silently from beginning to end, after which they made three (accurate) observations about Jewish prayer which they appreciated. Did it get them closer to G-d? I suspect so, but I can’t prove it. Did it put Hashem’s Torah in a better light? Without doubt.

To me, that makes the conversation worthwhile.

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10 comments to Reciprocity and Specialness

  • Miriam

    What were the observations?

  • Baruch Horowitz

    Because we have an opportunity that we have not had in the past, we should indeed be outward-focused, and try to realize “s’hyhei sheim shomayim misaheiv al yadcha”; there are different ways of doing that for different people. I agree that “those who can handle it, should be handling it. There are plenty around who can.”

    Even those who can not interact as intensely as others with the non-Jewish world, at the very least, should concentrate on indirectly giving people reason to appreciate Judaism, and be concerned about kiddush Hashem and chillul Hashem.

    Practically, it is easier to be aware and concerned of the effect of one’s actions on the outer environment if one views the world at large in a positive way. Because many of our communities emphasize insularity and inner-focus, we need to be careful not to forget the outward goal of giving the world reason to respect Hashem’s nation. As one gadol has recently stated, “Our philosophy asserts that every human being is created in the image of the Lord and the primacy of integrity and honesty in all dealings without exception”.

  • Baruch Horowitz

    “I can immediately think of at least one place where the Chovos Halevavos points appreciatively at aspects of Sufi religious conduct”

    Can Rabbi Adlerstein give the perak(im) where this is mentioned?

  • SM

    Good post. If you are publicly Jewish – kippah, hat, tzitzit, sheitel, etc then inevitably people judge your community by your conduct.

    Talking to sincere people sincerely is always helpful and I agree that you don’t have to move towards their beliefs (or they to yours) in order for such talks to be fruitful. We have to ask ourselves what we want from talking. Understanding, respect, an appreciation of what we share and a comprehension of what we disagree about? All of that is achievable.

    I think the time to walk away is when they want to convert you or undermine you. People have to recognise that conversation only goes so far As my Rabbi says, you have to know where it’s at – the minute you don’t then conversATion becomes conversion.

  • Shawn Landres

    Let me push a bit. The academic study of religion can trace its routes, inter alia, to applied research in the service of Christian missionary work. The argument was that they couldn’t convert them unless they first understood them (whoever “they” were). And much that is good and bad resulted. An example of the more or less good: SIL International, formerly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics, has cataloged and preserved nearly 2,000 languages (many hitherto unknown) all for the ultimate purpose of printing Christian New Testaments in those languages. But in the meantime, SIL has saved countless indigenous languages and dialects, and its staff have contributed in major ways to the field of linguistics.

    So knowledge acquisition can be justified if the purpose is proselytizing. Clearly, one can justify quite a bit in the name of religious outreach. But the vast majority of Jews have abandoned proselytizing. So on what other basis can we justify the acquisition of knowledge about other religions? From a sociological perspective, I doubt that anyone seriously would question the value of familiarity with multiple faiths, ethnicities, traditions, etc. But what about a Torah perspective, as understood by R’ Adlerstein and others?

    This is not about practicality or diplomacy. This is about whether there is a clear positive moral value to knowing the religious other.

  • Steve Brizel

    I think that this is a great post. The more that one reads on this issue, the more evidence supports the conclusion that those who argue the loudest and the longest for wide open ecumenical dialogue simply are not just uncomfortable with chosenness-they deny it outright.

  • Chaim

    Chovos HaLeVavos is full references to Sufism. See Diana Lobel’s recently published “A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue.”

  • Yoel B

    I’ve been wondering lately if, particularly with evangelicals, their religion isn’t getting pretty close to the Sheva Mitzvot b’nai Noach and whether describing the USA as “Noachide” might not be more accurate than as “Christian.”

  • akiva

    > Chovos HaLeVavos is full references to Sufism

    Not surprising — a lot of early Jewish Philosophy drew VERY heavily on earlier Islamic philosophical/sufi texts.

    When exchanges of ideas take place the end result is usually a better, stronger, more thought out and defendable position.

  • One Christian's perspective

    I’ve been wondering lately if, particularly with evangelicals, their religion isn’t getting pretty close to the Sheva Mitzvot b’nai Noach and whether describing the USA as “Noachide” might not be more accurate than as “Christian.”

    Comment by Yoel B

    Yoel I would venture to say that all evangelicals are Christian but not all “Christians” are evangelicals. There is a very specific verse in the NT that identifies who are Christians. The scope is very specific and very narrow. BTW – Christianity is NOT something one is born into or attained by church attendance. The church visible is made up of authentic Christians and those who simply call themselves Christian – which is what I did for years. In all honesty, I had never heard of a Noachide except from Jewish sites. Most of my Christian friends have not heard of Noachides. To say the USA is a Christian nation is wrong. We may have been founded on Judeo-Christian values but we are a nation of many faiths/beliefs of which Christianity is but a part.