Rabbi Sacks’ Religious Pluralism: A Halakhic and Hashkafic Defense

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by R. Gil Student

I. Revelations

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, educated and inspired millions with his uplifting teachings. His writings always sparked thought but sometimes they also sparked controversy. One of his most challenging ideas, the view that launched his most difficult controversy, is that of his approach to other religions. In his award-winning book, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, Rabbi Sacks offers a seemingly radical religious pluralism that not only raised eyebrows. After discussion with some colleagues, he issued a revised version of the book in which this view is rewritten and tempered. While I welcome Rabbi Sacks’ rewording if that is what he wanted, I believe that the original formulation retains its theological force without revision, and that it is fully consistent with the mainstream Orthodox Jewish theology.

Rabbi Sacks wrote (p. 55): “In the course of history, God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims.” This sentence is theologically shocking. It seems to imply a religious relativism — all religions are true and reflect direct revelation from God. Prof. Marc Shapiro characterizes Rabbi Sacks’ view as follows (“Of Books and Bans” in The Edah Journal 3:2, p. 10): “In other words, while God’s covenant at Sinai remains true for the Jewish people, other religions are expressions of alternative covenants with God, each of which represent its own truth.” I do not believe this is the correct interpretation of Rabbi Sacks’ words. Quite the opposite, Rabbi Sacks is expressing a fully traditional view but applying it in a creative way with his characteristic poetic flair. In saying that God has spoken through other religions, Rabbi Sacks was not declaring every religion to be true nor every religious text to be divine.

II. The Importance of Prophecy

In order to understand this, we need to explore what it means for God to speak to mankind. The most basic way in which God speaks to mankind is through prophecy. It is a fundamental belief of Judaism that God communicates to mankind through prophecy. Rambam (12th cen., Egypt) writes this in his list of fundamental principles (Commentary to the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:1, 6th principle) and in his code of law (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah 7:1). Rav Yosef Albo (15th cen., Spain; Sefer Ha-Ikarim 1:10) cannot even conceive of a divine religion without some form of revelation. He argues that the existence of prophecy should not be considered a fundamental principle but rather a root, an underlying sub-principle. The fundamental principle is the existence of a divine communication, a revelation that provides guidance to the world. Underlying that fundamental principle are the ideas of divine knowledge of human affairs, prophecy by which revelation is communicated to mankind and the appointment of divine messengers (ibid., ch. 15). While the modern mind can conceive of religions without revelation, Rav Albo would respond that those are human religions, not divine religions. They consist of people trying to determine what God wants from us. In contrast, he is speaking of religions that lay claim to divine sanction. Judaism asserts that the Torah of Moshe is a divine revelation and that other prophets also convey divine prophecy to mankind.

While Moshe was a prophet to the Jews, other prophets brought God’s messages to gentiles. Yirmiyahu records that God said to him: “I have appointed you a prophet unto the nations” (Jer. 1:5). Yonah is sent to the Assyrians in Nineveh and Ovadiah speaks to the nation of Edom. God spoke to gentile nations through these Jewish prophets. But even gentiles could be prophets.

III. Gentile Prophecy

It is customary in Jewish philosophy to speak of a disagreement between Rav Yehudah Ha-Levi (12th cen., Spain) and Rambam whether gentiles can serve as prophets. Rav Yehudah Ha-Levi (Sefer Ha-Kuzari 1:103) writes that the prophetic aspect of human nature went exclusively to Ya’akov and his descendants. This seems to imply that gentiles cannot be prophets. In contrast, Rambam consistently speaks of “people” prophesying (e.g. Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah 7:1) and, in his letter to the Jews of Yemen, Rambam explicitly says that gentiles can be prophets. He says that we do not reject Muslim prophets because they are gentiles, since even gentiles can be prophets. Rather, we reject them because they contradict the Torah (Iggeros Teiman, ed. Kafach, pp. 36-37). However, these views become somewhat complicated when we consider the rabbinic literature on top of which both philosophers built their approaches.

The Gemara (Berakhos 7a) says that Moshe specifically requested from God that gentiles no longer serve as prophets, and that request was granted. Clearly, prior to this request, gentiles could serve as prophets. Indeed, elsewhere the Gemara (Bava Basra 15a) lists some gentile prophets, such as Bilam, Iyov, Bildad, etc. How could Rav Yehudah Ha-Levi contradict two explicit Talmudic passages and, as we will see shortly, additional midrashim? Rav Yitzchak Shilat (cont., Israel; Bein Ha-Kuzari La-Rambam, p. 78) suggests that Rav Yehudah Ha-Levi allows for the rare exception. The prophetic trait must remain to some limited degree even among some who are not descendants of Ya’akov. Similarly, how can Rambam suggest that post-Temple gentiles (in his case, Muslims) can prophesy when the Gemara says that gentile prophecy ended during Moshe’s life? Rav Shilat (ibid., p. 80) suggests that Rambam believes that prophecy ended for gentiles in Moshe’s time but will return at some point. Because we do not know when it will return, we cannot dismiss out of hand a gentile who claims to be a prophet but rather we must examine his claim.

While the Gemara says that gentile prophecy ended on Moshe’s request, we see other views in related texts. One midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 1:12) says that gentile prophecy ended with the completion of the Tabernacle (mishkan) in the desert. Seder Olam Rabbah (end of ch. 21) says that it ended with the giving of the Torah. Rav Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi (16th cen., Turkey; Yefeh To’ar, Vayikra Rabbah 1:12) distinguishes between different types of prophecy, each of which ended at different times. Be that as it may, all the texts indicate that prophecy to gentiles ended sometime during the forty years in the Sinai desert. God used to speak with gentiles directly through prophecy but no longer does, although according to Rambam that could change. Similarly, the Gemara says that Jewish prophecy ended with the destruction of the first Temple (Bava Basra 12b; note that different texts assign the end to somewhere shortly before, during or after the Babylonian exile, all relatively within the same time period). God used to speak with Jews directly through prophecy but, likewise, no longer does. However, God has other modes of communication with people.

IV. After Prophecy

Even after prophecy ended, God still has ways to communicate to people. Among the methods are ru’ach ha-kodesh and bas kol, both of which consist of some form of divine inspiration. Rabbinic literature seems to use a variety of similar terms inconsistently, which makes them harder to define. The resting of the Shekhinah on someone seems to refer sometimes to prophecy and sometimes to a lower level of divine inspiration. According to the latter interpretation, this should also be included in the list of ways in which God speaks to people (on these issues, see Rav Reuven Margoliyos’ introduction to his edition of Responsa Min Ha-Shamayim). More mystically oriented people tend to see these types of communications as semi-prophetic phenomena while those less mystically oriented tend to see them as forms of inspiration. Be that as it may, what is important for our purposes is that God still speaks to people even after prophecy ceased, whether through lesser forms of prophecy or divine inspiration. The end of prophecy did not mean the end of divine communication with mankind. Even more important is the passage in Seder Eliyahu Rabbah (ch. 9): “The sky and the earth testify on me that whether a Jew or a gentile, a man or a woman, a servant or a maid, everything is according to the action he does so too ru’ach ha-kodesh rests on him.” According to this passage, God speaks to both Jews and gentiles through semi-prophecy or divine inspiration.

Another way in which God speaks to people is through dreams. The Gemara (Berakhos 57b) says that dreams are one sixtieth of prophecy. We have to limit that statement to specific dreams, because some dreams are explicit prophecy and others emerge from our subconscience. However, there exist dreams that constitute a divine message delivered to us through an angel (Berakhos 55b). As we look through the Bible, we see divine dreams given to Jews and gentiles alike. Yosef had two dreams (Gen. 37), as did Pharaoh (Gen. 40). Ya’akov had divine dreams (Gen. 28, 31) as did Lavan (Gen. 31). God speaks to both Jews and gentiles through their dreams. In today’s age of hyper-communication, there is more room to attribute dreams to our active and distracted minds (see Rav Simcha Rabinowitz, Piskei Teshuvos, 220:1). However, the phenomenon of divine dreams existed in the past and might still exist today, to some extent.

V. God’s Presence in Our Lives

Rav Avraham Grodzinski, the late spiritual guide of the Slabodka yeshiva, describes how God speaks to people through suffering (Toras Avraham, p. 27ff). In biblical times, prophets rebuked people, informing them of their misdeeds and exhorting them to improve. In later years, scholars imbued with ru’ach ha-kodesh performed a similar function. Now that those phenomena are gone, how are we supposed to know when we have acted improperly? From where do we obtain rebuke? The Gemara (Berakhos 5a) says that if someone finds himself suffering, he should inspect his ways to see if he has sinned. God punishes us “measure for measure” so that we can learn from our suffering what we have done wrong and correct it. The Mishnah (Sotah 9a) says that Shimshon sinned with his eyes and therefore the Phillistines gouged out his eyes. Rav Grodzinski instructs us to look carefully at all of our suffering, small and large, in order to understand its spiritual source. The wicked Titus blasphemed and suffered from a gnat that entered his brain through his nose (Gittin 56b). Maharsha (ad loc.) explains that this was a measure for measure punishment. Titus sinned through his speech, a power which entered Adam through a divine breath into his nose (Gen 2:7; Onkelos, ad loc.). God speaks to us through our suffering, both Jew and gentile.

Suffering is a specific manifestation of divine providence, God’s guidance of the world. A religious person will find God’s presence in his life, in the good and the bad he experiences. God is not only the address to which we send our prayers but also a force in our everyday lives. We find a debate among Jewish thinkers about divine providence over gentiles. Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:51) distinguishes between a person with high spiritual-intellectual achievement, who attains individual providence, and all other people who do not. Nowhere in his discussion (ibid., 17, 18, 51) does Rambam distinguish between Jew and gentile. He only distinguishes between people who achieve a high knowledge of God and all others. Rav Ovadiah Seforno (16th cen., Italy; commentary to Lev. 13:47) seems to follow Rambam but says that most Jews and all gentiles do not attain individual divine providence but rather are subject to nature and the heavenly spheres (he accepts astrology, unlike Rambam who rejects it). According to Seforno, gentiles do not receive individual divine providence. Rambam leaves open the possibility. From a more kabbalistic perspective, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (18th cen., Italy; Derekh Hashem 2:4:8) offers a middle ground. He writes that gentiles receive national providence in that God directly guides each nation. However, they do not receive individual providence from God but from an angel, who guides each individual.

According to Rambam, gentile religious philosophers receive individual providence. According to Ramchal, every nation receives divine providence and every individual gentile receives providence from an angel. It seems that there is ample room to say that God speaks to gentile nations through providence, however that is manifested.

VI. Religions and Divine Speech

We have seen that God speaks to people in many ways. The highest, most direct way is through prophecy but there are other ways, as well. We have also seen that God speaks to Jews and gentiles. Even though God has a special relationship with the Jewish people, He still cares about and maintains a relationship with gentiles. When Rabbi Sacks says that God speaks to gentiles, he is not saying anything controversial. God used to speak to Jews and gentiles through prophecy and other sub-prophetic means. Those seem to have disappeared. But even today, God speaks to people through divine providence.

However, Rabbi Sacks says that God speaks to gentiles through their religions — “through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims.” Does this mean that he believes that all religions are true? There are two levels on which to discuss this claim.

The first is the difference between what God says and what people hear. Moshe’s prophecy was clear and unambiguous, and the Pentateuch was directly dictated. Other, lesser prophecies were given together with their interpretations (Moreh Nevukhim 2:45). As the centuries passed from the Sinai revelation, prophecies became less clear. We can see a progression of decreasing clarity through the Bible, culminating in the perplexing prophecies of Zechariah and Daniel. Prophets gave their message but people may not have understood them completely or correctly. The sub-prophetic means of communication require even more interpretation. Dreams are even less clear. Many interpreters misunderstood Pharaoh’s dreams until Yosef explained them convincingly (Gen. 41). God can speak to man through dreams but man can misunderstand the message, sometimes partially and sometimes completely. It is even more difficult to accurately diagnose the message of our suffering and other circumstances. Man can interpret God’s speech with a genuine effort, but his understanding will always be limited by his knowledge and abilities. Even when God speaks to Christians and Muslims, they filter the message through their own experiences and knowledge. They may understand some aspects of the divine message while misunderstanding other aspects. They may correctly understand the need to pray to God but misunderstand the proper methods of prayer or the nature of God. The texts considered sacred by those religions may have begun with a divine message — whether prophecy, divine inspiration or dream — that was refracted through a thoroughly human perspective. That is a possibility but not one that I take seriously. More likely, those religious texts reflect human attempts to create a religion that reflects their wholly human (mis)understandings of the divine message. God can speak to gentiles through their religions with those religions only partially reflecting the intended message. Again, this is possible but not something I consider likely.

It is also possible that those religions are complete human fabrications and yet still represent a divine message. Through the tools of providence, God could be guiding humanity to an ultimate goal, using those religions as tools to bring people closer to truth. Those religions are a step from the chaos and paganism of the ancient world to the pure monotheism of the future world. These religions orient people toward family, community and stability, and to some degree toward the Bible. If this is the case, then God speaks via divine providence to Christians through Christianity and Muslims through Islam. This can be true even if the religions contain some beliefs that will eventually be seen to be false. Divine providence guides humanity through history, using these religions as an important step toward the culmination of history. Judaism is completely true. Other religions are false but may contain some truths, useful ideas and values that propel mankind toward an ultimate, divinely planned goal.

VII. Medieval Attitudes to Other Religions

This latter view may seem radical but it is important because it is the explicit view of Rambam. In Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Melakhim 11:4), Rambam writes (Touger translation):

Nevertheless, the intent of the Creator of the world is not within the power of man to comprehend, for His ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts, our thoughts. Ultimately, all the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth and that Ishmaelite who arose after him will only serve to prepare the way for Mashiach’s coming and the improvement of the entire world, motivating the nations to serve God together as Tzephaniah 3:9 states: “I will transform the peoples to a purer language that they all will call upon the name of God and serve Him with one purpose.”

Rambam says that despite the deep theological problems with Christianity and Islam, they still serve as part of God’s plan. This might seem like a bold statement by Rambam but really he was preceded in this to some degree by Rav Yehudah Ha-Levi (Kuzari 4:23), who wrote (Korobkin translation): “These gentile nations [Christians and Muslims] are therefore a preparation and prelude to the anticipated Messiah, the fruit. They in turn will all be transformed into the fruit when they acknowledge him and the tree will thereby be consolidated.” Ramban (Nachmanides, 13th cen., Spain) echoes these ideas in his Derashas Torah Temimah (Kisvei Ramban, vol. 2, pp. 143-144), in which he quotes the above passage from Rambam and restates them in his own words.

Centuries later, Rav Tzvi Hirsch (Maharatz) Chajes (19th cen., Ukraine) quotes these statements by Rambam and Rav Yehudah Ha-Levi in the introduction to his responsa (Responsa Maharatz Chajes in Kol Sifrei Maharatz Chajes, vol. 2, p. 608). Maharatz Chajes explains the lengthy Jewish exile as part of a divine plan to spread Torah beliefs throughout the world, even if they are accepted only partially by gentile nations. After quoting Kuzari and Rambam, Maharatz Chajes adds: “You see that the view of these two princes of Torah is also that these nations and religions are means and preparations in order to establish the world in the kingdom of God (lesaken olam be-malkhus Shakai), to prepare them so they are worthy to accept the purity of the faith in the aspect of the true (divine) unity.” Despite its impressive pedigree, this entire approach seems quite startling, which explains why Rabbi Sacks faced such opposition and is certainly why Rambam feels the need to proactively defend his view by quoting the verse, “His ways are not our ways, nor are His thoughts, our thoughts” (Isa. 55:8).

There exists a historical process in which these religions are a step toward the culmination of history in the Messianic Era, when complete truth will be accepted by all. Put differently, divine providence arranged for Christianity and Islam to serve as a step toward the Messianic Era, when the adherents of those religions will be ready to take the step to full acceptance of God as defined by Judaism, i.e. to become Noahides in the truest sense. As discussed above, divine providence is one way in which God speaks to humanity. Therefore, according to Rambam, Ramban and Rav Yehudah Ha-Levi, we can say that God speaks to gentiles through Christianity and Islam. If we stop here, we have already found ample precedent for Rabbi Sacks’ theory of religious pluralism. Christianity and Islam are part of God’s plan, devised by divine providence in order to push the world toward the ultimate truth of Jewish theology that will be universally accepted in the Messianic Era. Christians and Muslims must learn the partial truths of their religions in order to become part of that historical process. However, perhaps we can go further.

VII. Idolatry and Divine Providence

Note the particular significance of Rambam’s statement in that he views Christianity and Islam differently. Rambam considers the Christian concept of trinity to be polytheistic. He writes in his commentary to the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 1:3-4) and in uncensored versions of Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Avodah Zarah 9:4) that Christians are idolators. In contrast, Rambam considers Muslims to be monotheists (ibid., Hilkhos Ma’achalos Asuros 11:7). Others disagree. Commentators and halakhic authorities discuss at length whether Tosafos consider Christianity to be less-than-full idolatry. Meaning, Christians worship God and something else (either saints or other parts of the trinity). If so, that qualifies as shituf, which according to this opinion is forbidden to Jews because it is not our monotheism but is permitted to gentiles as worship of God. Worship of God is required by the covenant with Noach; monotheism is part of the Ten Commandments, the covenant at Sinai. Whether or not Tosafos said this, many others have. The medieval thinker and Bible commentator, Rav Yitzchak Arama (Akedas Yitzchak, ch. 88) writes this explicitly. Rav Moshe Isserles and Rav Shabsai Kohen rule this way, as well (see Pischei Teshuvah, 147:2; see also the Shakh commentary on Dayenu, s.v. ilu nasan lanu es mamonam). Many other halakhic authorities and commentators believe this to be true, as well (e.g. Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson, Responsa Sho’el U-Meshiv, rescension 2, vol. 1, no. 51; Rav Ya’akov Ettlinger, Responsa Binyan Tzion, no. 63), although this is hotly debated by others (e.g. Rav Yechezkel Landau, Noda Bi-Yehudah, rescension 2, Yoreh De’ah, no. 148). According to these lenient authorities, it is less surprising to see two religions that halakhah permits for gentiles to be considered a step toward the Messianic Era.

However, Rambam does not agree with these authorities. Even though Rambam considers both religions to contain serious falsehoods, he sees Christianity as worse because it rises to the level of idolatry. And yet, as we saw above, Rambam still believes that both of these religions prepare the way for the Messianic Era. This means that, according to Rambam, even a religion that is classified as idolatry can still be considered a manifestation of divine providence, a platform through which God speaks to humanity. Perhaps other religions that are classified as idolatry are also part of the divine plan.

Rambam (Hilkhos Melakhim, ibid.) says that the reason Christianity and Islam serve as part of the divine plan is that: “The entire world has already become filled with the mention of Mashiach, Torah, and commandments.“ Ramban, in his Derashas Torah Temimah (ibid.), says this a bit differently. He explains that Christians and Muslims modeled their their own religious laws based on the Torah, albeit differently and only partially. This contrasts with the religions of people who never saw or heard of Jewish practices, who — Ramban says — are like beasts. By now, centuries later, Christianity and Islam have reached nearly every corner of the earth. Even those who refused to convert, were influenced by the Torah through Christianity and Islam. The Western World, which until recently was profoundly Christian, deeply influenced all the cultures it touched. Perhaps those religions and cultures, also, serve as part of the divine plan.

We can ask, according to Rambam, why does God use these foreign religions, even atheism? If He wants the broad population to be ready for the Messianic Era, certainly Judaism — or the Noahide covenant — prepares them better than these false religions. Perhaps the answer lies in Rambam’s explanation for the sacrificial services. Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:32) writes that prayer is a higher level of worship than animal sacrifices. Why are we Jews obligated in animal sacrifices, at least when the Temple in Jerusalem is standing? Rambam explains that the Jews in ancient times needed animal sacrifices in order to ween them away from idolatry. It was a concession for human nature. Of course, this raises many questions and is subject to criticism by Ramban (Lev. 1:9) and others. Be that as it may, perhaps a similar reason explains why God makes use of other religions for gentiles. Of course, there is a world of difference between the biblical commandments of animal sacrifice and foreign religions — the two should not even be mentioned in the same breath. But perhaps we can borrow the general idea that God weens mankind away from paganism gradually. Maybe the broad population of the world is not yet ready for the full truth of the Torah, even the Noahide covenant.

Every nation has its own culture and mindset. Some people may be receptive to monotheism but not the Torah’s vision of it. Others may be open to God but not exclusively. And others may not yet be ready for God but may be receptive to biblical values that exist within their religion. God uses these religions to ween the world away from paganism and other harmful ideologies. In other words, these religions — despite their profound deficiencies — contain useful elements, partial truths, that in some ways benefit society in general.

VIII. Which Is Worse: Idolatry or Atheism?

More to the point, we see today how atheism and secularism break down community and family, and raise uncertainty about everything in life, including gender. These are biblical concepts of family, community and identity that once seemed obvious but now are being preserved mainly by religious communities, including non-Western religions. Even idolatrous religions can preserve basic biblical notions and institutions. The rampant hedonism of ancient pagan religions differs from the traditionalism and institutionalism of many contemporary non-Western religions. These religions speak to the unique cultures around the world, preserving certain important societal and personal elements that would otherwise fall away. Is it impossible to suggest that these religions also prepare the way for the Messianic Era?

Rav Eliyahu Ben Shmuel of Lublin (18th cen.; Responsa Yad Eliyahu, no. 83) was asked about a messenger to deliver a get (religious divorce document) who converted to another religion on the way and afterward delivered the document. Is the divorce valid? Among the authorities and precedents he cites, Rav Eliyahu quotes a responsum of Rav Shabsai Be’er (17th cen., Italy; Responsa Be’er Esek, no. 77). Rav Shabsai Be’er distinguishes between someone who converts to another religion and someone who abandons religion altogether. The former, he argues, still qualifies for levirate marriage but the latter is completely lost and invalid. Rav Eliyahu rejects the specific proofs but considers the argument independently: which is worse, an atheist or an idolator?

Rav Eliyahu considers a Shabbos violator to be an atheist, based on Rashi’s comment that the two are inherently tied (Chullin 5a s.v. ela). Many have argued that this equation no longer applies in the modern era but that is a different discussion. Rav Eliyahu then quotes the Gemara (Shabbos 118b) which says that an idolatrous Jew who observes Shabbos is forgiven of all his sins. From this Rav Eliyahu deduces that it is better to be an idolator than to be an atheist. He repeats this conclusion in another, unrelated responsum (no. 11).

IX. Other Religions and Traditional Values

From Rav Eliyahu’s responsa, we see that even false religions have some value for a person. They are better than atheism. This fits in with our previous suggestion. Even religions that are categorized within halakhah as idolatry still may have a place within the divine plan. An atheist can travel a long distance from societal norms; he need not have any allegiance to anything traditional. In contrast, an idolator may violate and reject many sacred laws and beliefs, but at least he has a limit, a barrier restraining his divergence. We live in a time of disintegration of society and collapse of values due to atheism and secularism. More than ever, we see the surprising fact that an idolator can be an ally to some Torah values. Perhaps this, too, would fall under the view of the Rambam et al that some other religions serve as part of God’s plan and actually constitute a tool of divine providence, God’s guidance of the nations.

Note that this does not go as far as Rav Menachem Meiri’s position. Meiri (14th cen., Provence; Beis Ha-Bechirah, Avodah Zarah 26a) argues that any civilized religion that provides boundaries of etiquette and propriety cannot be categorized as idolatry (see Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, p. 114ff). He then radically rewrites a plethora of laws and practices regarding other religions. We are suggesting something much more modest. Namely, that these religions are classified as idolatry but nevertheless have imbued some values from the Torah and therefore serve as a step toward the Messianic Era. This is something Rambam says explicitly about Christianity, which he considers idolatry. We are suggesting that it applies to other religions, as well, which protect society from the chaos of atheism and secularism.

If this is true, then God not only speaks to Christians through Christianity and through Islam to Muslims, but through almost any civilized religion to its adherents. These religions are means by which God guides humanity toward the end of history. If this is true, then Rabbi Sacks’ religious pluralism can serve as a broad guide to understanding a world in which Orthodox Jews find themselves allied with traditionalists of a variety of faiths against the destructive forces of secularism.

Even though Rabbi Sacks applied it brilliantly for a new era, his religious pluralism does not break new theological ground. It need not necessarily go further than Kuzari, Rambam and Ramban. It could be suggested to extend it further, in which case it would still be less extensive than the approach of Meiri. Regardless, Rabbi Sacks eloquently and poetically showed us a way to move society forward productively together with other religions without sacrificing our own beliefs and practices.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

14 comments

  1. What is the mareh makom for Rav Eliyahu Ben Shmuel of Lublin (18th cen.)’s teshuvah? I didn’t see you mention the name of his sefer or where this teshuvah is?

  2. With all due respect, while Reb Gil’s attempted defense of Rabbi Sacks is certainly well-intentioned, I opine that they fall short of their goal. Although the gist of the above thesis is certainly true – and not as novel or shocking as R. Gil imagines it to be – it is impossible to read it into Sacks’ words. It is clear that Sack’s intention is not simply that those elements of Judaism which are common to other religions are what he sees as valuable – rather it is their unique qualities which reflect sources other than Judaism. I would encourage the honest reader to at least read the quotations cited in Shapiro’s article. This was evident to Sacks’ critics.

    Consider: “[God] is only partially comprehended by any faith” (p. 65) i.e., including Judaism. If the validity in other religions is only that which they borrowed from Judaism, what are Jews lacking that they need other religious perspectives in order to comprehend God?

    “Can I, a Jew, hear the echoes of God’s voice in that of a Hindu or Sikh or Christian or Muslim…. Can I do so and feel not diminished but enlarged? What then becomes of my faith which until then had encompassed the world and must now make space for another faith, another way of interpreting the world?” (pp. 17-18.) According to Reb Gil, a Jew doesn’t need to make space for “another way of interpreting the world,” rather to acknowlege the obvious truth that our interpretation has been partially borrowed. Rabbi Sacks disagrees.

    And this goes on and on.

    I can definately appreciate what drives fans of Rabbi Sacks to attempt to save his reputation, but the truth is more important than Jonathan Sacks. So is Judaism.

    As a postscript, anyone who feels that the Meiri’s ecumenicalism is a position to be taken seriously (as it undoubtedly was by prominent modern poskim) is encouraged to read R. Dovid Zvi Hillman’s article on the matter in the first issue of צפונות, available of Otzar ha-Chochmah and HebrewBooks. He demonstrates that Meiri’s statements were not intended as anything other than PR.

    • Thank for the reference to R. Hilman’s article. It is very interesting, but, be-mechilat kvodo, I do not find his arguments very convincing. His historical and philological claims need a lot more support. At best he has “demonstrated” that it is possible that the Meiri should not be taken at face value.

    • Maaseh Uman: Thank you for your thoughtful and respectful response. You clearly have thought about this at length and read the book critically. I don’t believe that the quotes you bring (or other quotes in the book) undermine my explanation.

      1. No human can fully understand God. No religion can fully explain God. That is a major theme in Jewish philosophy, particularly in Moreh Nevukhim.

      2. Hearing God’s voice in other religions is precisely what Kuzari, Rambam and Ramban did. Even if we see those religions as part of God’s plan, and respect that religious gentiles are taking, that does not detract from our religion and our mission as Jews.

      3. Different nations have different ways of reaching out to God. They should be doing it within the Noahide framework. Many are not and are not yet ready for that. Rather, they each have their own mutually contradictory partial truths. We can learn from those religions what God wants from people in general in the world and what God wants from us.

      4. Thank you for the reference to R. Hillman’s article. I posted a summary of the article many years ago link. At the time, I found it stimulating and almost convincing. Over time, I realized he is mixing together different quotes from Meiri to create an impression of something so extreme that he obviously could not have meant it. When I separates the different sugyos and look at Meiri’s views in each sugya independently, I found R. Hillman’s arguments much less convincing.

  3. While it’s an intellectually stimulating attempt, is not intellectually honest. By quoting only one problematic sentence, conveniently ignoring context, you risk misrepresenting his opinion.

    Consider more context:

    The radical transcendence of God in the Hebrew Bible means nothing more nor less than that there is a difference between God and religion. God is universal, religions are particular . . . In the course of history, God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims…

    “no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth; no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical, and artistic expressions of mankind… In heaven there is truth; on earth there are truths… God is greater than religion; He is only partially comprehended by any faith.”

    While I genuinely admire your sophisticated thesis and attempt to justify his views, isn’t it quite apparent that his passionate belief in tolerance and equality overshadowed other core values?

    • I find it strange that you think it is acceptable behavior to come to my website and call an essay on which I obviously spent a lot of time intellectually dishonest. Did your mother never teach you any manners? Did your rabbeim never teach you to try to understand other people’s views? Or, for that matter, to read carefully? Feel free to disagree but do so with a spirit of generosity.

  4. Hi Gil,
    Important post, which brings valuable sources.

    But I think you are conflating various strands of thought among the rishonim. The idea that idolatry may be better than “atheism” is to my knowledge first and certainly most forcefully argued by the Ramban in Toras Hashem Temimah. This is a direct attack on the Rambam. For the Ramban, the mechanistic natural philosophy of Aristotle (which, though it acknowledges a “prime mover” is very much the forerunner of modern scientific atheism) is much worse than simple idol worship. This is the exact opposite of the Rambam’s position, who sees the war against avodah zara (which as Josef Stern has cogently argued, is directed at superstitious beliefs current among believing Jews of his own day- and ours- no less than against the idolaters of the time of the Torah) as the central purpose of Judaism, and the Greek philosophy as a critical tool in pursuing that pursuing that war. This debate continues to this day, and in some ways underlies the split between Modern Orthodox and Chareidism.

    As such I think you need to distinguish between the approach of the Rambam and the one you attribute to the Yad Eliyahu, though R. Sacks z”l may have been drawing on both trends.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you that Rambam would probably reject the idea that atheism is better than polytheism or idolatry. However, as you conclude, others find that idea legitimate. Similarly, Rashi and Mahari Kara to Jer. 2:13. There is no reason we need to be pure Maimonideans.

      • I agree that there is no reason to be a pure Maimonidean and that indeed there a very good reasons not to be one. I think we need to balance Maimonidean and Nachmanidean approaches on these matters, recognizing that both of them are rooted in scientific and philosophical assumptions that are no longer viable. But I think in making a case on such an important and controversial subject, it is important not to mix and match for mutually exclusive sources. This is especially the case in defending R. Sacks z”l. I am not sure that this list of sources does in and of itself constitute a defense of R. Sacks’ position, which I think is more extreme than any any one of the sources you cite.

  5. I appreciate your demonstration that the seemingly creative hashkafos of Rabbi Sacks are compatible with authentic Halacha. No doubt he would want to be part of this project if only he had been given the time.
    I would like to challenge, however, what seems to be a premise of this essay: That we Jews have the truest way of serving G-d (within the limits of human reason), and we await the day all gentiles will align themselves with the objective truth. Meanwhile, we must figure out how accommodating and appreciative we can be of those of have one foot stuck in truth and one in falsehood.

    Rabbi Sacks taught that religion lies outside the realm of objective truth. Religion belongs to the realm of intersubjectivity- relationships between persons.

    G-d and the Jews uphold an interpersonal relationship, a covenant, like a husband and wife. But just as a spouse can commit to others- as a neighbor, coworker, or parent- so too our G-d forms authentic relationships with Christians, Muslims, and others. A scheduled 6:00 dinner with one’s wife does not falsify the after hours meeting with one’s boss, while it still causes tension. Similarly, while competing theological claims cause tension, they do not falsify each other.

    The idea that religion is not simply aligning oneself with “truth” lies at the heart of his insistence that religion and science are naturally compatible. The idea that religion is humanity’s attempt to relate to the essence of being as if It were a loving father lies at the heart of his plea for all religions to simply reinterpret any “hard text” which calls for violence against another.
    “Arrogance is the belief that you are better than others…Pride is simply knowing that each of us is different and being at ease with that fact.” (A Letter in the Scroll, p214)
    May we all have pride in our Judaism and the wonderful ideas of Rabbi Sacks.

    TL:DR ignore me and watch/read Rabbi Sacks speak for himself:
    https://www.rabbisacks.org/videos/truth-and-translatability-making-space-2/

    • Rabbi Sacks was speaking to the world. You can’t inspire the world with the message, “Your religion is full of falsehoods but God wants you to follow it any way.” Instead, he wisely spoke about how people should follow their current relationships with God because that is what God wants.

      However, that does not resolve the problem – which religion is true? They contain mutually contradictory claims so they can’t all be true. In practice, we need to put this question aside because it is not productive. Judaism, the Hebrew Bible, values something beyond that. From the worldview described in this essay, gentiles should put it aside rather than veer into atheism and instead focus on building their relationship with God because that is what is important.

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