The following post first appeared on State of Formation:
In 1966, Commentary Magazine published a symposium of thirty-eight Jewish leaders’ thoughts, entitled The Condition of Jewish Belief. They were each asked to answer five questions, weaving together theological, ethical, and inter-religious views in a concise presentation of their beliefs. As a way of introducing myself to the State of Formation community, I thought it would make a good exercise to attempt to answer the third question they were posed:
“Is Judaism the one true religion, or is it one of several true religions? Does Judaism still have something distinctive — as it once had monotheism — to contribute to the world? In the ethical sphere, the sphere of ben adam la-chavero [interpersonal matters], what distinguishes the believing Jew from the believing Christian, Moslem, or Buddhist — or, for that matter, from the unbelieving Jew and the secular humanist?”
It is hard to me to begin to offer up my answer to this series of questions any better than Rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein did in 1966: “I believe that all the major religions are psychologically true for their believers. As such, they are deeply congruent with the needs and identities of their participants. In terms of psychological function, Judaism is no “truer” than any other religion” (pg. 196). I would extend Rubenstein’s claims to include all religions, rather than just “the major” ones (though it is unclear that he was trying to exclude them), and also claim that, insofar as there is a deeper metaphysical sense in which a religion can be true, all religions are equally true on that plane as well, and not merely “psychologically true.”
While few Jews, now as then, would argue the above point stridently, I do not think this diminishes the strong affirmative answer to the second part of the question. Jews and Judaism undoubtedly have much to contribute to the world, as the wisdom contained in Jewish tradition is unique in many ways. While I would grant that many, if not all, religions are based around similar emphases on love, service, and finding meaning in our lives individually and communally, each religious tradition has had adherents that have expressed these ideals in different ways throughout the centuries. Yes, “Love your neighbour as yourself” is essentially what Hillel and Jesus wanted to proclaim as the main teaching of the Torah (Bavli Shabbat 31a and Matthew 22:39, respectively), but they did so in their own unique ways, and Judaism and Christianity have something unique to contribute to any discussion of selfless action in the world as a result.
This extends to the sphere of ben adam la-chavero, or interpersonal relations (opposed, in Jewish teaching, to ben adam le-makom, or relations between humanity and God). Again, even if all religions — and, as the question indicates, non-religious ethical teachings — strive to uphold the same basic values in our daily dealings with other human beings, non-human animals, and the planet, the different emphases placed on a given aspect of those relationships will alter the way that people of various religious and ethical traditions might approach a specific scenario. For example, the prohibition of eating pork exists in Jewish and Islamic tradition (see, Quran 2:173 and Vayikra / Leviticus 11:7, among others), and religious Jews and Muslims do not eat pork, because Hashem/Allah forbade it.
Arriving at the same conclusion through different means, a secular vegetarian would not consume pork because of the harm inflicted on the non-human animal. Whereas the religious prohibition would also prohibit consuming food that came in contact with pork products, the vegetarian would likely have no problem with the fact that his meal was cooked in the same facility as meals containing pork.
I believe that there is much to gain by entering into dialogue with people from other faith traditions, after we have first become deeply acquainted with our own traditions, so that we can grapple with the multiple voices in our own tradition that speak to a given issue, and convey that holistic picture to others, while learning from them the complexities of their (faith) traditions. Nothing in the above ought to exclude those who do not consider themselves religious, or theists. If our goal is to live peacefully in increasingly pluralistic societies, it is incumbent upon us to reach out and make connections across lines of belief.