Reciprocity and Specialness
Several readers of my recent post on interfaith conversations raised the issue of reciprocity. If we find that people are ready to listen to us when we share our Torah values and perspectives, is it not inevitable that they will want to do the same, and invite us in to their religious lives? For many if not most people, such religious voyeurism would run afoul of accepted halachic norms. There would be no good choices. Accepting the invitation for reciprocity would be unacceptable; declining it would appear rude, small-minded, and arrogant.
There is a third way. We politely explain that we have halachic barriers that forbid us any amount of involvement with other religious belief systems. My experience – at least with people who take their own religions seriously – is that it works.
Isn’t this infuriatingly self-centered for a religion? What do we think we have – a monopoly on the truth?
Actually, we are in good company. They all make the same claim. Every revealed religion claims to be, in some form or another, the only real act in town. Which is why other people are not so taken aback as we think they are. Those who sincerely believe their own claims about specialness are simply not fazed by the equivalent claims of competitors.
Catholics believe that true salvation comes through the Church; conservative Protestants know no other way to heaven than through belief in their Savior; Mormons are quite open about parts of their sanctuary (and even knowledge about their practices) being off-limits to outsiders.
It’s no big deal.
The people in other religious groups you speak with are going to be at home with the notion of specialness. If the conversation ever gets to the point of talking about converts , you will be ahead of the game, when you are able to show that we don’t proselytize because we don’t hold an exclusive on Heaven, believing that its doors are open to all those who adhere to the seven basic laws of conduct known as the Noahide Code.
Once you are comfortable with owning up to Jewish specialness, you should have little trouble gently making the claim that we view Revelation as full and self-contained, without the need for “completion” from any other faith. We therefore respectfully decline the invitation to reciprocate.
Having come this far, I might as well address some other comments and commenters. I was not – and do not – advocating that we send legions of “kiruv” workers into the non-Jewish community. (It goes without saying that I do not advocate the kind of ecumenical dialogue between theologians so popular in some circles.) I merely suggested that we be less shy and bashful about explaining our conception of G-d, or our frequent addressing Him through tefilah (prayer) and berachos (blessings), or our understanding of hashgacha peratis (individual Divine Providence), or our sense of how a mitzvah brings one closer to Hashem. Etc. Etc. (Yes, this is all in addition to the other way of communicating the beauty of Torah, which is to be model human beings precisely because of our affinity to Torah.)
Do I believe that, reciprocally, we can learn from other faiths, as some suggested? No, I don’t – at least as far as discovering truths that we would not discover in Torah. Am I inspired by the sincerity, depth of commitment and extent of spiritual longing in many, many non-Jews I’ve met? Certainly. (I am not alone. I can immediately think of at least one place where the Chovos Halevavos points appreciatively at aspects of Sufi religious conduct.) Could I be inspired by religious art, music, drama? Undoubtedly yes. But I think that it is forbidden under the rubric al tifnu el ha-ellilim. I am not prepared to sacrifice one iota of halacha, chas v’shalom, to engage people of other communities. Neither do I believe, however, that every contact means such sacrifice. It doesn’t.
Are there risks in what I am proposing? Sure. You can’t talk about your beliefs without the expectation of hearing some of theirs. This is not a matter of reciprocity, but of practicality. Not everyone should be having this conversation, because not everyone can handle it. At the same time, it would be an error to assume that no one can handle it. It may not be for everyone, but it is not for no one. Speak to your LOR. My contention is that those who can handle it, should be handling it. There are plenty around who can.
Why should we even think of changing our stance? We avoided these conversations for hundreds of years, largely because they were usually a prelude to their burning us. But it silence was good enough for our forebears, why should we break it now? Perhaps because times have changed, in two crucial ways. American Christians are Israel’s most vocal and consistent supporters. There are still plenty of detractors and haters in many denominations. But there are also lots of folks who support Israel and Jews for reasons that flow directly from their faith. (You will find fuller treatment of this topic in an article I wrote in a recent issue of Jewish Action. ) Bederech hateva, we need them. I have no idea why HKBH seems to have chosen old adversaries as our new friends, but friends we need.
Secondly, we should note changes in the Christian world even if Israel were not a factor. I know that there are some who simply believe that all non-Jews are cut from the same cloth, but I am not among them. (See Torah Temimah, Vayikra 25:14:83 for his analysis of the famous gloss of the Be’er Hagolah about dealing scrupulously and beyond the letter of the law with non-Jews. The Torah Temimah remarks how remarkable that exhortation is in the light of the incredible suffering his neighbors inflicted upon him and all Jews in his region. All that he experienced did not change “the constancy of his spirit and straightness of his heart to all those who are created in His image.”) Those who believe that HKBH created antisemitism as an irrational reality common to the hearts of many ought to be able to believe that He could cure this irrationality at certain times and places. The simple fact is that there are many Christians out there – even those who can’t figure out how we could possibly be saved without sharing their beliefs – who still admire and respect Judaism. There are also millions of people for whom the key beliefs that irrevocably separate us from Christianity are not at all so clear. These are people who very much want a relationship with the One G-d, and do pick up little pieces of the puzzle from their interaction with Jews. In a world in which belief in G-d is mocked and denigrated, many non-Jews recognize that traditional Jews have tenaciously held on to something of value. There has probably not been such an openness to this in two thousand years. Is there nothing of value in showing people part of the truth, even before they find themselves able to accept all of it? When Moshiach comes, will the rest of the world be smitten with the truth in one sitting, or will people make small, incremental gains even before he comes, gains that we can help bring about, at least on the scale of our personal interactions with others?
Take the roughly half of all major figures of earlier times who held that the diluted unity of G-d implicit in a Trinitarian conception was not forbidden to non-Jews. Now add the millions of people who will yell from the rooftops that they believe in a One G-d, and to whom – to try to put it gently – the nature of a triune conception of G-d is as much of a mystery to them as it is to me. Are we not left with lots of people for whom moving closer to G-d, addressing Him more regularly and with more meaning, is something positive? I remember a trip to the Gulf Coast I took after Katrina. I was picked up early in the morning by a very bright and sincere Protestant friend, who took me to his home. I asked him for a half hour alone in a private room, so I could daven shacharis (recite the morning prayers). He sheepishly asked if I would mind terribly if I prayed in his living room, where he and his wife could watch. I agreed, and they sat absolutely silently from beginning to end, after which they made three (accurate) observations about Jewish prayer which they appreciated. Did it get them closer to G-d? I suspect so, but I can’t prove it. Did it put Hashem’s Torah in a better light? Without doubt.
To me, that makes the conversation worthwhile.