Inclusivity versus Exclusivity in Judaism and Vedanta

In his concluding address to the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, on 27 September 1893, Swami Vivekananda no doubt shocked some in attendance by asserting “if anyone here hopes that this unity will come by the triumph of any one of the religions and the destruction of the others, to him I say, “Brother, yours is an impossible hope.” Do I wish that the Christian would become Hindu? God forbid. Do I wish that the Hindu or Buddhist would become Christian? God forbid…The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or a Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.”

In his own gentle way, Vivekananda was issuing a rebuke of sorts to the overwhelming Euro-American, Protestant Christian ethos of this otherwise laudable gathering.  For the vast majority of those assembled, it would be quite right for him to assert that the Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, particularly with the expository “God forbid.”  But to turn things around and proclaim that the Hindu or a Buddhist is not to become a Christian, particularly with the expository “God forbid”, would be to their ears something akin to blasphemy.

To their minds, while there might be some good to be found in the other religions of humanity, Christianity subsumed them all because it was the pinnacle of human faith.  Consider the words of Rev. Dr. Barrows, the Presbyterian convener of the Parliament: “The Parliament has shown that Christianity is still the great quickener of humanity, that it is now educating those who do not accept its doctrines, that there is no teacher to be compared with Christ, and no Saviour excepting Christ…The non-Christian world may give us valuable criticism and confirm scriptural truths and make excellent suggestion as to Christian improvement, but it has nothing to add to the Christian creed.”  This is the traditional Christian attitude towards other faiths: the only way to God is through Jesus and the church established in his name.

In contrast to this exclusivist point of view, Swami Vivekananda, citing the Gita, proposed that “Whosoever comes to Me, through whatsoever form, I reach him; all men are struggling through paths which in the end lead to me.”

One might have thought that, since the Jewish religion is both the mother and sister faith of Christianity, it would share the traditional Christian perspective on other religions, but this is hardly the case.  Judaism’s point of view is more accepting of other religions than either Christianity or Islam, its sibling faiths.

The prophets of ancient Israel were unequivocal in their denunciation of the worship of false gods and their images, especially when it came to the practices of the Children of Israel, who were expected to remain true to their god, YHVH (or Yahweh, as scholars speculate the Name was pronounced).  However, by the beginning of the Common Era (i.e. time according to the Christian counting), the Jewish faith was interpreted and transmitted by the rabbis.  From the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem down through to the present day, rabbis were, and are, the Jewish people’s communal and spiritual leaders, authorized to teach and judge halacha, or Jewish law, the all-encompassing Jewish way of life.

When it came to the issue of relating to other religions, the rabbis held a point of view radically different both from their prophetic antecedents and from their Christian counterparts.

The rabbis defined the divine-human relationship in terms of a covenant (brit, in Hebrew).  Just as there exists the Mosaic Covenant with the people Israel, so too there exists an Abrahamic Covenant with both the children of Ishmael, the Arab nation, and the children of Isaac and Jacob, the Jewish nation. But the rabbis also envisioned a third, more universal covenant, called the Noachide Covenant, named for Noah, who, after the Flood, became the father of all humanity.  This covenant was their attempt at stating a universal code of morality, a measure by which all humanity could be judged regardless of what they believed.

The Noachide Covenant consists of seven commandments: to establish a legal system, and to refrain from blasphemy, idolatry, sexual immorality, bloodshed, theft and eating the flesh from a living animal (Bablyonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a).

How non-Jews behaved according to the Noachide Covenant was the crucial factor for the rabbis as it was taught in the Yalkut Shemoni:  “the Divine Spirit rests upon a non-Jew as well as upon a Jew, upon a woman as well as upon a man, upon a maidservant as well as a manservant.  All depends on the deeds of the particular individual”.

By the late 12th century, the great rabbinic sage Maimonides wrote: “Know that the Lord desires the heart, and the intention of the heart is the measure of all things.  That is why our sages say, the pious among the gentiles have a share in the World-to-Come…every man who ennobles his soul with excellent morals and wisdom based on faith in God certainly belongs to the men of the World-to-Come.”

So, for Swami Vivekananda, whose focus was on the spiritual, any path that a person took in search of the divine was legitimate; for the rabbis, whose attention was on practice, any person who followed basic ethical behavior merited the same heavenly rewards as did a pious Jew.  In the end, however, the rabbis would have agreed completely with the Swami’s parting words:

If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world, it is this: It has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character.

Over a hundred years later, the people of our world still struggle to realize this essential human truth.