Do We All Believe in the Same G-d? Do Muslims?

Back in the old days, America’s religious checkerboard came in only two colors – Jewish and Christian. This was never true, of course, but we liked to think it was. The perception left room for an effective throw-away line that made inter-group cooperation possible: “We all worship the same G-d, after all.” I’m not sure if this was ever true, but by now it is not even a useful fiction. Ironically, the presidential aspirations of Mitt Romney are creating doubts about whether there is room for all of us to stand under the same theological umbrella. As far as I am concerned, the first ones to get pushed out into the rain are the Islamofascists.

Terry Mattingly is one of America’s most influential religion writers. He recently wrote about Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s Mormonism coming up as an issue in his possible bid for the Republican presidential nod in 2008. Commenting on Mormon beliefs about gay marriage, Romney had a memorable response. “Mormons believe that marriage is between a man and a woman and a woman and a woman.”

But the real issue, says Mattingly is not polygamy, but polytheism. He links to a longer analysis of Mormon belief seen from an evangelical perspective. According to this view, Mormons believe in many gods, each presiding over a different world. Moreover, gods were once human, and became gods through a process called exaltation. What emerges is that many Protestants see the Mormon conception of G-d as so different from their own, that they do not regard them as monotheistic at all. (Having met quite a few Mormons who are among the loveliest people around, I caution readers against accepting all of this at face value without hearing their response.)

I find this fascinating, for a number of reasons. First of all, it makes my relationship with Christians much easier. It has never been easy or pleasant to explain to Christian friends why Jews regard the Christian triune understanding of G-d as running clearly afoul of G-d’s Oneness, at least according to the standard expected of Jews. (Medieval authorities disputed whether non-Jews were expected to maintain as pure an understanding of monotheism according to the Noachide Code.) I now have an analogy that hopefully will work. Just as many Christians see Mormon belief in gods who were once human as a hopeless distortion of divinity, Jews see the very possibility of G-d becoming flesh (and therefore less than infinite and limitless) with the same objection. This should help them at least understand our position, which in my experience, few have ever heard.

Even more interesting to me is the opening up of discussion that is often sealed up tightly. Just what does it mean to say that one believes in G-d? How different can conceptions of G-d be for people to still think they share a G-d concept? Furthermore, from the standpoint of Jewish law, how much can you bend your understanding of G-d before you cross the line into idolatry or worse?

Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 1:36) argues that those who believe in the corporeality of G-d are worse than idolaters. The latter deny the existence of the real G-d when they worship their icons. They merely believe that the stone or wood form in front of them represents some agent or intermediary force which is important to human affairs, thus detracting from the exclusivity of our worship and service of Hashem. Yet, idolaters are called “enemies” and “adversaries” of G-d. How much more objectionable is it to make false statements about G-d’s very nature, such as attributing the limitations of form and substance to Him?

If a person declares his belief in the One G-d Who created Heaven and Earth, but then adds that he believes that G-d is a frozen green doughnut, does he still believe in the Jewish G-d? I think not. The two parts of his statement amount to an oxymoronic belief.

What about other incompatibilities? When are they simple errors, and when do they become blasphemy? If someone were to champion today the position of Ralbag that G-d does not know about our choices, would we regard him as simply wrong according to the near-consensus of Jewish thinkers, or would we call him a non-believer? In other words, can you maintain that the perfect Unity of G-d does not allow for any knowledge to be beyond or outside of Him, and then turn around and say that there are some things that He just can’t get a line around?

What if you maintain that G-d is absolutely good – but in the same breath argue that He loves evil? Doesn’t that assertion put you so far out of the box, that you can’t be said to believe in the same G-d worshipped by traditional Jews?

Let’s make the question still more difficult. What if you maintain that G-d is omniscient, perfect, an absolute Unity, and completely good – but you perform, command, and applaud the most barbaric and despicable activities in the name of that same G-d. Not as the exception, but as a rule. Aren’t G-d’s commandments a refraction of what He is? If He commands people to love death, to blow up busses and trains at rush-hour, to fly planes into buildings, and to pack ball-bearings into the suicide bombing kits of young terrorists to inflict maximum pain and damage, can He really be the same G-d that the rest of us know?

Many Christians I know do not even acknowledge the question. They categorically assume that those Muslims do not worship the same G-d as they do. What about us?

Rambam did not have much use for Christian theology, even though he had no personal reason to dislike Christians. He had every reason to hate Muslims (they ruined significant parts of his life), but still wrote that Muslims believe in a true monotheism. Traditional Jews (including at least two Israeli Chief Rabbis I am aware of) avoid stepping into Christian worship sanctuaries. I have heard that many do not have the same reluctance to walk into a mosque, although I have not investigated this thoroughly. I have some recollection of a psak to soldiers of the IDF that they could even use a mosque to pray. Behind this is the perception that Islamic monotheism is on target. (I know about the Ran who claims that Muslims worship Mohammed. I don’t know what to make of it. I asked a Muslim scholar friend about it, and he told me that there were non-mainstream groups at times that turned Mohammed into an object of veneration and worship, but they disappeared in time.)

Should we be reassessing this thinking? If some varieties (pretty widespread, according to my Muslim sources) of contemporary Islam are so thoroughly invested in the promotion of what the rest of us regard as evil, should we suspect that the deity they worship is closer to the Devil than the true G-d?

Jews don’t “do” theology too much, far less than practitioners of less demanding religions. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch once quipped that the difference between Judaism and its competitors is that the latter adhered to a religion made up by Man to describe G-d, while Judaism was made up by G-d to describe Man. (I like pointing out to students that one of the briefest chapters in Derech Hashem is the chapter about G-d!) We would much rather think about how to serve Him than about what His inscrutable nature is like. Recent trends, however, may make us bring sharper focus on basic theology, and come to disturbing conclusions about forms of Islam and their incompatibility with monotheism.

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21 Responses

  1. soccer dad says:

    The Raavad sharply disagrees with the Rambam on the subject of corporeality. The Raavad holds that one who believes that Hashem is corporeal is wrong but that it’s not kefirah and wrote something like “…better men than you …” believed that Hashem is corporeal.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Judaism is monotheistic within the context of a nation possessing an accurate Mesorah and good character traits.

    Monotheism among other nations that lack this Mesorah and these traits can be a whole other thing in practice.

  3. Aaron says:

    Do Muslims today even practice Islam as the Rambam would recognize it? Or have they crossed over into a child-sacrificial death cult of Molech that professes a male-centric pornographic vision of heaven to motivate shahids?

    What Islam is on paper means little if there aren’t at least as many anti-fanatics as there are fanatics. Until then, the momentum and tacit approval of the rest of the Muslim “bell curve” of its adherants suggest that the vast majority of Muslims are only non-violent toward us dhimmis not because the believe that peace with us is good but that they aren’t willing YET to slay or subjugate us.

    Mishlei 8:38 hints at contemporary Islam’s deeper theme: those who love death hate G-d.

    This is normative Islam, going back to 636. In July, MEMRI has a transcript where Shehzad Tanweer says, “We are 100% committed to the cause of Islam. We love death the way you love life.” Abu Hamza (the hook-handed one-eyed Neturei Karta-defended convicted hatemonger) likewise emphasized the Muslim love of death.

    Wikipedia NK entry:

    “In the UK, Rabbi Yosef Goldstein testified on behalf of Abu Hamza al-Masri of the Finsbury Park Mosque, who in recordings has called for the murder of Jews and infidels. Rabbi Goldstein testified that he and Abu Hamza had a “friendly and cordial relationship.”

  4. Moshe says:

    There are many, many Muslims who believe ideas similar to Christianity that G-d became man. The Allawites are one example. Some groups of the Druze sect are another.

  5. mycroft says:

    There are many different viewpoints about matters of faith in Orthodix Judaism-except for a universal belief in
    Revelation at Sinai. There are disputes about corporeality of God-not a very minority opinion a Baal Tosafot believed God was corporeal. To a great extent people assume the Rambam is correct because of Yogdal.
    ToI believe parpaphrase Rabbi Jeremy Weider a Rosh Yeshiva at YU who I’ve never met-but heard some shiurim of his online-“who knows how we even pasken in matters of faith-it need not be like the Ramnb-even if we pasken a certain way who says HKB”H-(God) agrees with the psak.”

  6. Ahron says:

    >“The Allawites are one example. Some groups of the Druze sect are another.”

    Moshe: I did not know those groups believed in the notion of divine corporeality. But the examples you cite really aren’t good in terms of relating to mainstream Islam. Both the Druze and Alawites are fringe minority groups at best. Alawite theology in particular is considered heretical by nearly all Islamic scholars as far as I know. And outsiders aren’t even allowed to know the Druzes’ religion or theology anyway. (Happy to be corrected on these if anyone knows differently.)

    Can it be asserted that contemporary Muslims (at least the ones who accept the fashionable death-cult doctrines) worship the One God, yet utterly distort that God’s Identity? Can one distort God’s “middos” yet claim to be worshipping the true God?

    And, if they are not worshipping the Creator….. just what are they worshipping?

  7. Barzilai says:

    Bilaam could also be said to have been aware of the monotheistic principal and to have known a great deal about the true nature of G-d. But I wouldn’t want to daven in his shul.

  8. Roman Catholic says:

    Heh. Being a Catholic with increasing familiarity with Jews has put me on a more tolerant trajectory. Because I often feel like a pork chop on a kosher deli plate when I’m in a frum context, I find myself being less judgmental of the beliefs of my Mormon relatives and acquaintances. I know that ultimately personal experience isn’t the lens by which we define theology, but I do find that the experiences color how I treat people.

  9. bag says:

    Someone is bound to ask you how Muslims killing non-believers are different than Jews killing Canaanites. What do you answer?

  10. Steve Brizel says:

    Perhaps, as RYBS seemingly mentioned in a shiur on Rosh HaShanah, RH is the Yom Tov designated for us to talk about basic elements of Jewish belief-Malchuyos, Zicronos and Shofaros. Yet, too many of use forget this message to quickly in an effort to join the interdenominational ecumenical choir.

  11. S. says:

    >Do Muslims today even practice Islam as the Rambam would recognize it?

    >This is normative Islam, going back to 636.

    Did the same person type these two statements?

  12. Ori Pomerantz says:

    May I explain my theory as to why G-d allows so many religions?

    Imagine you had a child who was, chas veshalom, paraplegic, unable to use or feel anything below the neck. How would you interact with this kid? Obviously, your interaction will be intellectual. You will tell the kid stories, ask questions, etc. To be goofy, you’d make funny noises with your mouth and tell the kid jokes.

    Now, imagine you had another child who was, also chas veshalom, retarded. This kid learns to talk at the age of four, and can’t follow the thread of a conversation for more than two minutes. How would you interact with this kid? Obviously, your interactions will be very physical. You will play catch, throw a ball, wrestle, etc.

    These kids both grew up to be good moral people, and eventually they meet in heaven. The paraplegic kid is no longer limited by his body. The retarded kid is no longer retarded. They discuss you as a parent. One says that you were very intellectual, and the other says you were very physical. They find it hard to believe they are discussing the same person.

    Compared to G-d, we are all retarded and paraplegic. We can only see a small facet of G-d. It makes perfect sense that He will show different facets to different people.

    Note: I am not saying that all religions are equally valid, or that anybody who claims to be guided by G-d really is. All I am saying is that theological differences, when they don’t affect practical morality, are mostly irrelevant. The Muslin in the next cubicle to mine who wouldn’t dream of using violence except in self-defense is closer to me than a Jewish murderer like Baruch Goldstein.

  13. YM says:

    Someone is bound to ask you how Muslims killing non-believers are different than Jews killing Canaanites. What do you answer?

    As a believing Jew, I condemn any “religion” (or any other social grouping)that encourages its members to violate the Noachide Laws. On the other hand, killing the Canaanites was commanded by Hashem, so it didn’t violate the Torah.

  14. Moderner says:

    >Someone is bound to ask you how Muslims killing non-believers are different than Jews killing Canaanites. What do you answer?

    It isn’t the Bronze Age anymore and Jews don’t kill Canaanites.

  15. bag says:

    “On the other hand, killing the Canaanites was commanded by Hashem, so it didn’t violate the Torah.”

    They say they are following Allah

    “It isn’t the Bronze Age anymore and Jews don’t kill Canaanites.”

    True, times are different and a commandment that was moral in the past might be immoral today. However, R Adlerstein is discussing God’s essence. Can we truly say that God’s mandated behavior in the Bronze Age that is so distant from His essential nature that to commit such acts today is to cast God as a devil?

  16. chaim klein says:

    I don’t understand the issue of killing Canaanites. By definition, God, who is the personification of Chesed , Tzedek et al. could not issue a command which is unethical. If one believes that it is unethical it may be the result of failure to comprehend. Despite the command to eliminate Amalakites, there is ample room to say that Amalakites who accepted the Noachide Laws would be spared ( Rambam and I am told that there is no countervaling position in the Poskim) In addition, was the command to wipe out Canaanites or was the command to kill idol worshippers? Were Canaanites given the option of submitting to the Seven Noachide laws ( Parshat Reah) or would they have been killed in any event? Does the rejection of the Noachide Laws implicitly define a particular society as being inimical to humanity and therefore, certainly if identified as such by God necessarily be more ethical than not exterminating that people? Did not one of the Canaanite nations offer their submission and become hewers of wood and drawers of water?

  17. naftali says:

    We find that G-d,despite being beyond it all in essence,is called by different names, at different times, in accordance with whatever the character of the act he is then engaged in(so to speak).This suggests that
    ,at some level and in some way, G-d takes on(so to speak) the character of his “behavior”.Accordingly,I submit that it is possible for two truly,monotheistic religions to differ as to the “object” of their devotion .

  18. Sarah says:

    bag – they SAY Allah/G-d told them to do it, which we know is not true, whereas Hashem actually did tell us to slay the Canaanites. Where’s the comparison?

  19. bag says:

    chaim they say they will spare those who accept Sharia too and they do formal forms of drishat sholom (stolen from us).
    Sarah the question is whether God is incapable of giving such a command, such that those who believe he did are worshipping a devil. Whether God did give this command is a different issue than whether it’s plausible that he could have

  20. chaim klein says:

    bag, I’m aware of the concept of Dhimmi as it appears after 640 CE, which by the way does not apply to Jews or Christians. Dhimmitude requires submission to Moslems, but permits Jews and Christians – al-Khitab” , People of the Book – to practice their own religion. Only pagans need accept Sharia Law.However, Dhimmi status is not Koranic and is not part of the agenda of those Muslims who wish to see Islam triumph. In virtually every Arab country today, Christians are being
    pressured out and the ancient protections of Dhimmi- the legal recognition accorded to minorities is largely inoperative. Saudi Arabia actually follows the model set by Mohammed in his victory over the Jews of Quarresh, when he executed them, enslaved them and exiled them. This was after making a treaty of neutrality with them and this is the process that Arafat invoked and I believe continues to be followed by those who who claim they wish to make treaties with their enemies.
    In Torah law, it is Halacha to extend peace terms before battle and if accepted it is obligatory for Jews to honor the agreement. No such thing exists in the Koran. Dhimmi was created as an expediency and is not the aim of Wahabbism or any other Islamist group.Rather total domination and forced conversion is. (They certainly would massacre all the secular professors who support them at universities, unless they converted, which they probably would. Virtually no secular value is worth dying for to secularists? What? Gonna die for the right to abort? Allow Rap music?) Finally, Moslems have no obligation to maintain their word or commitment to non-Moslems, as per Mohammed and the Jewish tribe of Quaresh ( It’s in the Hadeth- Tales of mohammed’s life which are an intrinsic part of Islam- sorta Medrashim, which teach people how to live in imitatus Mohammed. Chaim Klein

  21. bag says:

    “In Torah law, it is Halacha to extend peace terms before battle and if accepted it is obligatory for Jews to honor the agreement. No such thing exists in the Koran.”

    no that’s not so – they do the equivalent of krias shalom. That’s separate from dhimmitude which is an arrangement with people living under one’s dominion.

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