Famously, Judaism does not want everyone to be Jewish. Our vision of a perfect world includes other religions and we even discourage conversion. But more and more lately, perhaps in consonance with a rise in introspection regarding “tolerance” in general, I have seen non-Jews view this open-mindedness with suspicion and even outright contempt. “Surely,” they insist, “you don’t believe those other religions to be as true as Judaism, or you’d convert.”
Good point. A Jew obviously values Judaism, and if he or she takes it seriously, they clearly don’t hold Christianity, say, to be as correct, even if they do hold it to be valid. To an outsider (and even to a Jew who has not really thought about it) this seems like confusion at best or PR sophistry at worst, a dishonest and condescending “pat on the head” to non-Jews.
There are several ways to square seeing other religions as “valid” but not as true as Judaism, and some are more honest than others.
Many today would, I suspect, instinctually reach for the pluralist panic button, that very Jewish invention that declares (through a bullhorn, protest sign, or bumper sticker) that society is better when we allow the mutually-exclusive claims of various faiths to coexist. Pluralism is quite the leviathan to fry, and to properly dismiss it we’d need to deal with relativism[i], perennialism[ii], interfaith relations[iii], the role of Judaism in a diverse and/or secular society[iv]…suffice it to say that the issues are complex and would require in-depth discussion. However, most of that discussion would miss the point entirely. Our question is in the main religious and philosophical, a matter of truth that could reasonably exist in a world consisting of a single human being trying to choose the right path. The more practical concerns of pluralism are of secondary importance if truth is our priority. If at all possible, we must try to find an internal solution that prioritizes the truths within Judaism and hope that correct social results will follow.
Another approach that misses the mark is to double down on the practical, rather than ideological, essence of Judaism. Clearly, our religion is more one of orthopraxy, correct action, than orthodoxy, correct thinking, what with the Rabbinical disagreement over even the very foundations of Jewish belief. If, indeed, “the action is the main thing,” what does it matter if other religions believe in different prophets or (in our view) false messiahs? Actions are what matter! Unfortunately, aside from not really solving the problem—we still believe it’s “better” to put on Tefillin than (l’havdil!) taking the eucharist—this approach ignores what few orthodoxies are fundamental to Judaism. For example, the first two of the Ten Commandments seem rather important, and though we may riotously disagree on the precise nature of G-d there is no question it’s important that Tefillin are for, or at the bare minimum signify, Him.
The best answer, instead, stems from an acknowledgment that Jews do believe in certain truths, and that we believe in them to the exclusion of others. In what sense, then, are other religions “correct”?
The first clue lies in the Seven Noahide Laws, which Judaism holds apply to all of humanity. The difference between these seven and the Jewish 613 is not quantitative but qualitative as well. Though some, such as David Hazony and Dennis Prager, see the Ten Commandments as the recipe for a successful civilization, the Rebbe sees that as the role of the Noahide Laws[v]. After all, the Ten Commandments and the experience at Sinai are the birth of Judaism, where G-d refers to Himself specifically as the redeemer from Egypt. Morality and G-d’s moral law, on the other hand, predate the Sinaitic event by the Torah’s account. The Noahide Laws serve as the rules that make order out of human chaos, that transform the jungle of homo homini lupus into a sustainable civilization and, as such, constitute Judaism’s clearest statement of universal human morality.
And the first of the Noahide Laws is the belief in G-d.
How, one wonders, can the non-Jewish code begin with a decidedly religious command? If the entire world is meant to believe in the G-d of the Jews, how “tolerant” of other religions are we, really? And if this god they must believe in is not our god, how do we really attribute validity to their religions?
This brings us to the second clue, which is that Judaism is not a religion in the typical sense of the word. We have already mentioned how we value orthopraxy over orthodoxy. But in fact even orthopraxy is secondary to the Jewish identity, as is race, nationality, and even theism itself. While there is a defined Jewish religion, Jews can be atheists, non-practicing, or even, in some respects, converts to other faiths, while still remaining Jewish. Judaism is not just a set of actions or beliefs but an essential state acquired by inheritance; I am Jewish because my mother is Jewish. More broadly, we are all Jewish because we or our parents converted, at Sinai or later, and the Jewish conversion process is a merging of stories, the joining of fates within the Jewish mission and the Jewish narrative. To be Jewish is an immutable identity because things that have already happened are immutable; the past is immutable. You cannot undo being born to your mother or taking an oath at the foot of the mountain.[vi]
The Noahide Laws and the intrinsic nature of Judaism bring each other into clear focus. Judaism holds that our G-d, creator of heaven and earth, belongs to all mankind, but that the Jews have a special relationship with him based on the covenant made at the mountain. In turn, this means that the covenant at the mountain, if it introduces a new truth, introduces it not universally but particularly as part of the Jewish story.
More simply: There are two truths about the one G-d. He is both the Creator of heaven and earth and He who took us out from Egypt, and these are different not only contextually but to their very core.
The G-d who creates heaven and earth is, in the eyes of Judaism, a fundamental pillar of creating a lasting civilization, Jewish or otherwise. He is the G-d that the Rambam says we can know, the first existence who needs no others but upon whom all others depend. This G-d can be reached by logic and is the possession of all humankind; He can be presented in argument, puzzled over, contemplated through positive or negative theology. When we say we respect other religions, we respect them inasmuch as they grasp this widely-available truth, at it could be argued the majority of them do.[vii]
On the other hand, the G-d of the exodus from Egypt is He who made a personal covenant with a certain group of people, that unchangeable covenant of the past. The G-d accessed through the covenant is personally bound to us and us to him beyond his involvement in the world’s creation. Our relationship with him is based on faith, forged in the crucible of Egypt by great miracles and hardened at Sinai by a G-dly choice from beyond the veil. The circumstances transcended reason and the laws of nature, and it formed the foundation for all time of our tribe’s relationship with G-d.
So, do Jews believe our religion is “more true” than other religions? Yes, and we would never forfeit our unique relationship with G-d, on pain of no longer being Jewish. Is it therefore false and condescending to say we value other religions?
Not at all. Because the unique truths of Judaism are not something we’re in a position to share. Reason can be shared; faith cannot.[viii] I believe Tefillin are true, but they’re true because they reflect a choice of G-d to care about them conveyed to us through a prophet thousands of years ago. You can possibly doubt that occurrence; you can certainly doubt what it meant; you are not part of the tribe that witnessed it. Our experiences are fundamentally our own, and, beyond what is the common inheritance of all minds, we cannot expect the world the understand them. It is in the shared collective present that we all participate. Heaven and earth were made for all men, and their G-d can be argued for rationally, experienced universally, and shared. Ultimately, we have a subjective and objective relationship with the creator, and the latter belongs to everyone. It is this common ground that we value, and beyond it we have no hopes of convincing others anyway.
True, we do believe that the G-d of the Jews is also the G-d of the universe, but we cannot argue it and we cannot share it. Like all matters of faith, it is a digital switch; it is either on or off, a 1 or a 0, something that happened or did not. It is simple and therefore ineffable and it is not created by us but has happened to us by no personal merit of our own.
Ultimately, much of the truth of Judaism is intimately tied up with being Jewish, which is not a choice we make[ix]. And being Jewish is itself a mysterious matter that precedes our choice, something that happened in the moment between exile and redemption. If billions of G-d’s human beings have not yet hung still in that moment, devoid of all velocity, alone with the creator, we can still celebrate with them the impossible creation, the something from nothing we all call home.
[i] That no one’s more correct than anyone else, which I’d be willing to bet a shiny quarter no one has ever believed.
[ii] That deep down we all believe the same thing, a rather lazy assumption powerfully tested by every major religion and way of life. For a short and (from the Jewish perspective at least) perceptive book on the subject, try God Is Not One.
[iii] When we find out that a Jew not acting like a Jew, a Christian not acting like a Christian, and a Muslim not acting like a Muslim turn out to all be exactly alike.
[iv] Other than works of genius like the New York bagel or the script for Annie Hall.
[vi] And metaphysically, it is these experiences (and also those of the forefathers) that convey to us the Pintele Yid, the Jewish spark that constitutes the deepest and most permanent part of the Jewish soul.
[vii] There is even a laxer standard for the gentile’s affirmation of G-d’s unity, as shittuf, the attribution of causative agency to intermediaries or emissaries, is permitted to the non-Jew. For a treatment of the shared G-d of many Eastern and Western religions, you cannot beat the excellent The Experience of God.
[viii] This is, on the view of the Kabbalah, why G-d bothers to create reason at all, an unchanging objective reality beyond subjective experience. Without an objective reality (accessed by the intentional mind through reason) G-d would forever be separate from his creation; it is specifically the objective reality that is shared. This is also why few aspects of Judaism are purely subjective and most are at least in some way accessible for understanding to the non-Jew; it is through the objective aspects of Judaism that we meet G-d outside of ourselves, as is his deepest desire.
[ix] We even say this is true of converts, who are retroactively revealed to be lost Jewish souls.