Rabbi Wise’s Study Corner 1/28/2015: The Observant Life

Thanks to all who braved the weather to learn together this past Shabbat morning. We looked at Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky’s chapter on Interfaith Relations. At our lunch and learn, most of our attention was focused on the definition of idolatry and the status of other religions. While there isn’t much debate about Islam, which is clearly monotheistic, Christianity and the Eastern religions required deeper evaluation.

I was struck by the opinion of Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri (Provence, 13th century), who argued that we should define gentile idolatry in terms of ethics, rather than ritual. “…Meiri evaluated non-Jewish cultures less by how they worship in their shrines and more by how they act in society. While ancient idolaters ‘were polluted in their deeds and foul in their traits,’ Meiri wrote, ‘nations bound  by the ways of religion, which are innocent of such foul traits, and indeed which punish such behavior, doubtless are not the subject of such laws at all.'” (The Observant Life, pp. 736-37). This more limited definition of idolatry thus creates a more expansive realm for interfaith cooperation. As I said on Shabbat morning, I endorse this more open approach to interfaith dialogue, as long as the religious rituals of one faith community are not used to exclude or create discomfort for another. In practical terms, I won’t subject my Christian or Hindu colleagues to reciting the Shema’, so I would expect that they not ask me to pray in the name of the Trinity or in the presence of idols.

In other words, Rabbi Kalmanofsky is correct to elevate the Meiri’s definition of monotheism to make ethics primary. But while we might forgive another faith community’s ritual though it smacks of idolatry, we should not be expected to compromise our monotheistic standards for the sake of interfaith harmony.

Two thoughts that I didn’t communicate on Shabbat morning. One, there’s plenty in the Jewish tradition that can be marshaled to construct a narrative that erects walls between Jews and others. Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchik chose this approach in forbidding his modern Orthodox disciples to participate in interreligious dialogue, and clearly the Haredi world seeks insulation from the larger secular, Gentile society. It requires a conscious decision to choose the pragmatics of a Rabbenu Tam (12th century) or the Meiri’s pluralistic understanding of a foreign religion. Rabbi Kalmanofsky argues for making just such a conscious decision.

Second, the comfort and security of a given Jewish community will determine which sources to call upon when constructing a narrative on interfaith relations. The less secure communities are in their relationship to the host society, the less they will engage in dialogue with representatives of other religions. Conservative Judaism, it should be argued, is not so insecure that it can’t seek to build bridges with other faith communities. In fact, such dialogue can strengthen our Jewish identities, as we go proudly into the world and celebrate our tradition and peoplehood.

For further reading, I recommend this essay by Professor Reuven Kimelman of Brandeis University:


Until next time!

Rabbi David Wise