Interfaith Relations – A Story on the Task at Hand

Adapted from a story originally published in Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition.

One day the owner of a garden assembled the gardening staff and said to them: “Tomorrow I am going on a journey.  My journey may be of long duration; it may be short.  I do not know when I shall return.  But here are some instructions to follow in my absence.  Take care of my garden.  Its fruits are yours to enjoy.  When I return, and if you have done well, I shall reward you greatly.”

The next day the owner left.

Weeks passed into months, and the months turned into years.  Eventually the workers began to disagree on the interpretation of the owner’s instructions.  Some maintained:  “This is what the owner meant” while others insisted:  “This is what the owner intended.”  And each group worked the garden as it understood the task at hand but the work continued nonetheless.

As time went on, the groups of workers found it harder and harder to agree on what needed to be done.  They didn’t even understand that they were all tilling the same soil.

The argument raged on persistently, no side convincing any other, none gaining the advantage over the other.  Eventually the argument became so heated that it consumed everyone’s attention and they began to fight over whose interpretation of the instruction was right. Work in the garden ground to almost a complete halt.

Finally a third group arose and spoke to the contending sides: “Brothers, sisters! Does it matter whether the owner returns or not? Have we not been given this wonderful garden to care for and its produce to enjoy?  While you argue this way and that, the garden is going to ruin.  If the owner returns and sees that we have worked well, we shall be rewarded as promised.  In this case we should continue working together. And if the owner never returns, then we shall have this garden and all its fruits as a reward in itself.  In this case too it is to our advantage to continue working.

Who knows what the future will hold?  But let us cease this arguing to and fro.  Let us return to our work at once.  From either standpoint, our reward is in our continuing the work on the garden.”

Interreligious Understanding:  A Jewish Perspective

I           On Judaism

The first thing one should know about Judaism is that it is not a religion in the accepted sense of the term, but rather a unique combination of a religion-based culture and an ethnicity.  It is both a spiritual way of life and a sense of peoplehood.  These factors, combined with a religious/historic attachment to the Land of Israel, a common language, Hebrew, and a shared sense of history worldwide, create a singular sense of identity among Jews that is surely mythic after a millennium of dispersion around the world, but real nonetheless, to its adherents.

There has been a great deal of confusion about whether Jews are a religion, a people, or even a race, but most of the confusion stems from the fact that a) they were long viewed as foreigners/outsiders by the indigenous peoples of Europe, and b) its “daughters”, Christianity and Islam, truly universal religions, chose to see the Jews primarily as a religion, whose beliefs they had superceded.  However, until the French Revolution, Jews considered themselves and, more important in terms of how they were treated, were regarded by their non-Jewish neighbours, as resident aliens, a nation in exile.

In 19th century, when Jews in Europe first began to receive civil rights in modern nation states, the price of admission into those societies was the renunciation of that corporate sense of peoplehood that had sustained the Jews for so many centuries in exile.  And it was precisely at the time when Jews began to be truly accepted as equal citizens in European societies that racial anti-Semitism was born: the bizarre notion that Jews were a distinct race unto themselves, the antithesis of white European Christian nations and their national values (regardless of the fact that these were locked in conflict with one another).

This myth of the Jewish race and its transference of race-hatred and racial conflict to the Jewish people reached its apogee with the Nazi-led “war against the Jews”, a war which was waged by one of the most technologically advanced modern states against unarmed and (at least initially) unsuspecting civilians.  The Holocaust, in turn, led many Jews to view the promises of equal civil rights with some skepticism and to return to a more traditional sense of identity, which included eschewing Europe to “return” to the Land of Israel.

Central to the spiritual path of the Jewish people, i.e. that which is commonly called Judaism, is the Covenant, “Brit” in Hebrew, between God and the Jewish people.  The terms of this Covenant are spelled out in Judaism’s sacred books:  first in the Tanakh (i.e. what Christians call the “Old Testament”), then in the Talmud (the classic compilation of rabbinic law, lore and ethics), and in later rabbinic works down to our own day.  The Covenant not only spells out the nature of the relationship between God, the world, and the people Israel, but also specifies the moral and ritual practices that Jews traditionally observe as God’s commandments.  Through righteous living, in accordance with the will of God and in faithfulness to the Covenant, the Jewish people hopes to bring closer God’s rule of peace and justice here on earth.  This strong sense of common purpose, combined with an equally strong sense of peoplehood and an ages-old attachment to the Land of Israel, has enabled the Jews to survive as a distinct (and unique) group despite a world-wide dispersion, small numbers, and great vicissitudes.

In the modern world, there are a number of different streams of Jewish thought, but the basic division has to do with one’s perception and observance of the divine laws.  Traditional Jews (Orthodox and Hasidic) believe that God authored both the Written and Oral Laws (the Tanakh and the Talmud) and they observe the commandments as dictated by rabbinic rulings down through the ages.  On the other hand, liberal Jews (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and others) believe in divine inspiration as the source of the sacred books, but also interpret and practice the customs and traditions based on modern scholarship, contemporary relevancy, and personal conscience.  Despite these differences, the impetus for unity remains strong among all Jews and the lines between the various schools of thought are fluid.  Concern for Jewish survival around the world (and the state of Israel in particular) reinforces a shared sense of spiritual purpose, something that, however interpreted, the Jewish people shares not only among its members, but indeed with all of humankind.

II          A Jewish Perspective on Interreligious Understanding

Traditionally Jews believed that God “chose” their ancestors in order to make an eternal Covenant with them and to give them the Torah (the first five books of the Tanakh).  In our day, it might be more accurate to say that the ancient Jews perceived God as having chosen them because we now know that the ancient Jews were not alone in believing themselves to be God’s chosen people.  But the notion that God relates to human beings by covenanting with them was and remains central to the Jewish worldview, even to this day.  Not only do many Jews still choose to follow the laws of the Covenant in some form or another but, from around the time of the common era (i.e. based on the Christian counting), Jewish sages postulated a larger, more inclusive covenant between God and all humanity.  This is called the Noahide Covenant after Noah, the patriarch of the Biblical flood story and the second Adam to all who came after him.

While the terms of the Jewish Covenant traditionally require Jews to observe 613 Commandments as God’s “holy people”, the other nations of the world have just 7 to observe under the Noahide Covenant: prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, incest and adultery, theft, and eating flesh from a living animal, as well as an injunction to establish legal systems.  Closely related to this concept of a universal covenant between God and humanity, is the concept of the “righteous of the nations of the world” which holds that, regardless of belief, non-Jews who live righteously also will merit a place in the World-to-Come.  In the Jewish way of thinking, how one chooses to live one’s life is more important than what one believes; moral practice supercedes theology.  In the end of time, according to traditional Jewish thought, God’s justice will be visited on every individual and every nation, and those who have followed God’s way—whether the way of Torah for the Jews, or the path of any other religion as long as its adherents follow the Noahide Covenant—will dwell in peace in the divine presence.

Consequently, in terms of interreligious understanding, there has always existed—at least in potential—the possibility for interreligious cooperation based on each religion’s teachings concerning the moral life.  Each faith has its version of the “Golden Rule” and, were its adherents to follow these teachings, our world would be much closer to God’s kingdom than it ever yet has been.  The next step in the process of interreligious understanding after practicing what one’s faith teaches is to create opportunities to share with people of other religions the spiritual motivation for moral behavior in each of our faith traditions.  Trust is built up by observing that people of other faiths practice similar values regardless of the theological foundation.  We have found that by providing opportunities for interfaith volunteer service in our community, we not only enable people of diverse faiths to practice their religion’s teachings about helping others in need, but simultaneously create a forum in which to share the motivation with others.

There is one last step of interreligious understanding that may be aspired to, namely to recognize that all that we think we know about God is just that: only our thinking.  What God actually is, is beyond our ability to know.  What our faiths teach about the divine is only what our predecessors have gleaned of the matter, not its reality.  For Jews, this too has roots in traditional teachings.  Even the greatest of the prophets, Moses, was refused a request to “see God face to face”.  Instead, on that occasion and on other occasions as well, the Torah has God say:  “I will be what I will be; I will do what I will do.”   In fact, in Jewish tradition, God’s unpronounceable and unutterable personal name, YHVH, is a compound of the present and future tenses of the verb “to be.”  That, we are taught, is what we know about God:  Be-ing is.  Although it is the traditional aspiration of each Jew to feel God intimately, the key thing, at the risk of being repetitive, is to live according to God’s teachings, to follow the terms of the Covenant.

Personally, I imagine God like some multi-faceted gem and I consider each of our faiths as being able to describe at best but a few of its facets.  What people have done for too long is argue over whose view is true (or truer).  What is needed is for us to understand that we would know more about how humanity views the divine if we shared our perspectives and added them together in order to create a fuller-faceted understanding of the gem.  In order to do so, we must be willing to overlook the theologies that for centuries have divided us, in order to make common cause—an alliance of spiritual people committed to doing what is right and good, according to each of their faith traditions, who are interested in learning from one another and working together to improve our world: healing the environment, and bringing peace and justice to their communities.