The Jewish tradition encompasses nearly 4,000 years of world history and, in that time, has undergone several major evolutions. What is known today as Judaism is really the product of 2,000 years of rabbinic interpretation and should be properly called Rabbinic Judaism to distinguish it from its earlier Biblical forms. Academically, then, all denominations of rabbinic Judaism, whether this is admitted or not, are interpretive traditions and not literal Biblical traditions. The rabbinic tradition itself recognizes this fact when it discusses written revelation, namely the Bible, and oral revelation which is taken to mean the rabbinic interpretations of the Bible. Both the written and oral traditions are viewed as representing the will of God. The Jewish understanding of Judaism, and its place in the modern world, however varied that understanding might be, has evolved not merely from Biblical text alone, but from the rabbinic tradition of interpretation of that text as well.
What is of some interest, then, is how a religion that views revelation as an ongoing process between God and humans can say anything at all about the ultimate will of God or, for that matter, what God’s plan is for the individual adherent of the faith. The simplest answer, that it cannot, is too simplistic. Traditional rabbinic Judaism believes that the answer to this question lies not merely in the reading of the revealed word, the Bible, but in constant dialog with the text; that is to say through the study and interpretation of the text. Since the words are holy writ, they are unchangeable; the words are given by God. But, since humanity evolves, the meanings behind these words must be discovered afresh in each generation. And, the best guide on this quest for understanding is the tradition itself. Since each generation is the product of the generations immediately preceding it, the greater part of the Jewish understanding of the text is inherited from the immediately preceding generations. Small changes to the tradition reflect evolution while massive wholesale changes represent departures from the tradition. However, even small incremental changes to the tradition as a whole are subject to geographical, political, and social factors which govern the widespread communities in which Jews live. This situation has been so ever since the destruction of the 2nd Temple in the year 70AD.
Religious tolerance, in the Jewish sense, between various Jewish denominations, and for other faiths as well, becomes an acceptance of the variance in human condition which is so apparent throughout God’s creation. If the diversity in thought and religious expression is understood as a reflection of the differences in God’s relationship with various groups, then no group can claim the possession of ultimate divine truth. The best for which any group can hope is a loving relationship with the Creator as expressed through the symbols and rituals which are most meaningful to that group. Viewed in this fashion, Judaism is not a competing faith or revelation in the marketplace of religions, but rather, a path of salvation and a relationship with God that is appropriate for the Jewish people. If God chooses a different path or relationship with some other group, that is God’s prerogative. Or, as expressed in the lyrics of a Protestant hymn composed by George Rawson in the 1850s, “We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind, by notions of our day and sect, crude partial and confined.”
As noble a thought as this is, we might still ask if such a notion is supported in the Biblical text or in the rabbinic tradition of interpretation. The answer, from a Jewish perspective, is clearly affirmative. For example, if we consider the story of Creation, the final verse of Genesis, chapter 1, is quite revealing: “And God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good...” If, as the Jewish tradition assumes, God did indeed create everything, then God must be the architect responsible for all religions: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and others. And, if God is the creator of all those faith systems, as the Genesis verse indicates, they must all be very good. Perhaps, then, the whole point of the Creation narrative is diversity.
Similarly, the Tower of Babel, an episode found in chapter 11 of Genesis, relates the tale of a group of people that journey to a pleasant valley where the proceed to settle and try to build a tower that reaches up into the Heavens. Ultimately, their plans are thwarted by God who mixes up their speech so that no one can understand what the other is saying. The punishment here is revealing; by creating people who speak different languages, God creates people with different outlooks and understandings of the world around them. Perhaps the great sin was not in trying to build the tower, which does not really explain the punishment, but in the unanimity exhibited by the people all of like mind. Speaking in one voice, as it were, would be considered a great blessing to some. Yet, if everyone were to think, believe, act, and speak in the same manner, the richness of God’s creation is somehow diminished. As Jews, we limit not the word nor the power of God.
God’s love of diversity, and its testament to God’s power of creation, is a theme that is given considerable attention in the rabbinic literature as well. For instance, the Talmud asks why Adam, the 1st human being, was created as a single individual. Among the several answers offered, we learn that since Adam was the progenitor of all people, Adam was created singly for the sake of peace among people; that none should say to his fellow, “My father was greater than your father...” and to proclaim the greatness of the Holy One Blessed Be He. For a man stamps many coins from one mold and they all resemble one another. But the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed Be He, has stamped every man from the mold of Adam, the 1st man, yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore, each and every one must say, “For my sake the world was created.” These comments seem to tie an awareness of the richness in God’s creation to the variance in the human condition. If people are different, then their varying relationships with God must be divinely ordained and therefore, as taught in Genesis, very good.
The rabbinic world view of diversity, however, must not be taken to illogical extremes. The sophomoric view that all theologies and faith systems are equal is not what the rabbis try to imply. The rabbis preached from the outset that there is minimum standards by which a group can be judged. Any group following these seven rules are judged to be a righteous nation, regardless of why or how the have come to observe these laws. This minimal set, the Noahide Laws, include, among other things, the prohibition of murder, theft, and sexual immorality, as well as the establishment of a justice system to adjudicate infractions of the other laws. What these laws do not demand, is an acceptance of the God of Israel, nor the religion of Israel, nor, for that matter, any specific judicial system. Islam, for example, has been considered a Noahide religion form its very inception. Muslims are construed by Jews as obligating themselves to these laws. If an individual, country, etc. violates a Noahide precept, it is not considered as a bad reflection on Islam but upon the violator. Similarly, Christianity has been regarded as a Noahide religion since the Middle Ages. Note that most people in our modern world would subscribe to these laws and probably go far beyond them. That is why it is quite newsworthy when the violation occurs.
Like its sister religions, Judaism exhibits a wide range of rituals, viewpoints, and liturgies. While the applicability of any particular flavor of Judaism is endlessly debated, all may be understood as intrinsically Jewish. To the Jew, revelation, as the word implies, is God being made manifest to human beings. While many such revelations have occurred: Sinai, Jesus, Mohammad, Sinai is that revelation which was revealed to the Jews. At the time of the Sinatic revelation, God made a covenant with the Jewish people that is legally binding upon the Jew from that day to this - and beyond into the endless future. To the Jew, the Bible, what Christians would call the Old Testament, is an account of that covenant and how it was played out among our ancestors. How the covenant works in each succeeding generation is through reverence for the tradition and interpretation of the text. Yet extremes in either interpretation or in reverence is clearly to be shunned. The rabbinic literature teaches us that (Exo.19:18) “And Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire,” can be interpreted to mean that Torah, or revelation, is fire, was given in the midst of fire, and is comparable to fire. What is the nature of fire? If one draws too near to it, one gets burned. If one keeps too far from it, one gets chilled. The only thing to do is to warm one’s self in the light.
For the Jew, then, there is no ultimate truth. The Jewish concept of truth is that truth is a moving target, redefined by many groups at many times in many places. Each group is aided in its quest for God’s truth by the specific clues with which God has so graciously endowed that group. This inheritance is revelation, but - revelation that is meant for that group, not necessarily everyone. And, because God is generous in revelation, we feel that all people may come to know the word and the truth of God as God expects them to understand it.
(peace and blessing)
ronald b. kopelman