Interfaith relations

How should Jewish people understand relations between ourselves and peoples of other faiths?

For some people there is an innate conservative tendency to view peoples from other faiths as totally wrong, lacking in ethics; if we strictly hold to this worldview then we withdraw from the larger group of humanity, and become a lone island unto ourselves. When we believe such a thing we can feel protected, warm, even superior to others.

For others, there is a liberal tendency to assume that everyone is the same. In this view, we all ultimately worship the same God, and have the same ethics. When we believe such a thing we can feel inclusive, warm, even superior to others.

But we must not uncritically accept this view. All peoples certainly don’t all have the same beliefs. In just the last century millions of own Jewish relatives have fled violent ethnic cleansing and killings from across the middle east and North Africa, and millions more perished in Christian Europe.

I thus would like to offer a thoughtful and nuanced view on how we as Jews can approach interfaith discussion:

Christian-Jewish Relations

from Emet Ve’Emunah אמת ואמונה Statement of Principles of Conservative Judaism


From the time of the earliest settlement of Israelite tribes in the land of Canaan, Jews have always lived in close proximity to and in contact with people of other faiths and nationalities. This has been equally true in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora. Historically, the attitude which a Jewish community has taken toward gentiles has generally depended on the nature of the relations which that community had with its immediate neighbors.

The Iberian Jews, during their “Golden Age,” had a fairly positive attitude toward the Muslims among whom they lived, while the Jews of the Rhineland, martyred during the Crusades, produced some bitter anti-gentile rhetoric. Yet throughout Jewish history, in all eras and in all lands, there has been a prodigious amount of cultural influence and borrowing, an exchange which has gone in both directions and has benefited both Jews and gentiles.

Jewish culture has been able to grow and develop — and this has been the greatest positive feature of the Diaspora —because of the recognition that our rejection of another people’s faith does not entail a rejection of its entire civilization. Although we often have lived in tension with the nations of the world, our Bible developed and adapted some of their myths, our Talmud drew upon their vocabulary and institutions, our poetry used their metres, and the State of Israel has benefited from many aspects of world culture. Conversely, what we have created, in the realms of religion, philosophy, law, social institutions, the arts, and science, has been freely appropriated by the rest of the world.

The contemporary age has not departed from this historical trend. North American Jews enjoy the unprecedented blessing of full participation in the political life of free nations, and consequently their opportunities for fruitful exchange with other faiths and cultures are manifold.  In the United States, Jews have a good deal in common with other religious groups, since we share a fairly recent immigrant history with many of them, and since we are all, as religious groups, set at arm’s distance from the official organs of political power in this constitutionally secular nation.

Common agendas have been fairly easy to formulate in such a setting, and thus North America has seen a very healthy proliferation of programs for interfaith dialogue and cooperation. In the Land of Israel, despite the obvious tensions between Jews and Arabs, there have been mutual influences between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures in the Middle East. Its expansion into the realm of Islamic-Jewish dialogue, is devoutly be wished.

As Conservative Jews, we acknowledge without apology the many debts which Jewish religion and civilization owe to the nations of the world. We eschew triumphalism with respect to other ways of serving God. Maimonides believed that other monotheistic faiths — Christianity and Islam — serve to spread knowledge of, and devotion to, the God and the Torah of Israel throughout the world.

Many modern thinkers, both Jewish and gentile, have noted that God may well have seen fit to enter covenants with many nations. Either outlook, when relating to others, is perfectly compatible with a commitment to one’s own faith and pattern of religious life.

If we criticize triumphalism in our own community, then real dialogue with other faith groups requires that we criticize triumphalism and other failings in those quarters as well. In the second half of the twentieth century, no relationship between Jews and Christians can be dignified or honest without facing up frankly to the centuries of prejudice, theological anathema, and persecution that have been thrust upon Jewish communities, culminating in the horrors of the Shoah (Holocaust).

No relationship can be nurtured between Jews and Muslims unless it acknowledges explicitly and seeks to combat the terrible social and political effects of Muslim hostility, as well as the disturbing but growing reaction of Jewish anti-Arabism in the Land of Israel. But all of these relationships, properly pursued, can bring great blessing to the Jewish community and to the world. As the late Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, “no religion is an island.”

Theological humility requires us to recognize that although we have but one God, God has more than one nation. Our tradition explicitly recognizes that God entered into a covenant with Adam and Eve, and later with Noah and his family as well as His special covenant with Abraham and the great revelation to Israel at Sinai. It is part of our mission to understand, respect, and live with the other nations of the world, to discern those truths in their cultures from which we can learn, and to share with them the truths that we have come to know.

from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, The Rabbinical Assembly, and The United Synagogue of America, 1990

Ground rules for a Jewish Christian dialogue

Rabbi Robert Gordis writes that “a rational dialogue conducted on the basis of knowledge and mutual respect between the two components of the religio-ethical tradition of the Western world can prove a blessing to our age.”

His proposed ground rules for fair discussion – Ground Rules for a Christian Jewish Dialogue

Dabru Emet

…Throughout the nearly two millennia of Jewish exile, Christians have tended to characterize Judaism as a failed religion or, at best, a religion that prepared the way for, and is completed in, Christianity. In the decades since the Holocaust, however, Christianity has changed dramatically. An increasing number of official Church bodies, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, have made public statements of their remorse about Christian mistreatment of Jews and Judaism. These statements have declared, furthermore, that Christian teaching and preaching can and must be reformed so that they acknowledge God”s enduring covenant with the Jewish people and celebrate the contribution of Judaism to world civilization and to Christian faith itself.

We believe these changes merit a thoughtful Jewish response. Speaking only for ourselves — an interdenominational group of Jewish scholars — we believe it is time for Jews to learn about the efforts of Christians to honor Judaism. We believe it is time for Jews to reflect on what Judaism may now say about Christianity. As a first step, we offer eight brief statements about how Jews and Christians may relate to one another:

National Jewish Scholars Project DABRU EMET A Jewish Statement on Christians And Christianity

The International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ) is an umbrella organization of 38 national groups in 32 countries world-wide engaged in the Christian-Jewish dialogue. Jewish-Christian Relations

Can Jews and Christian pray together with integrity?

Christians and Jews: Praying Together with Integrity


Jewish thoughts on Christian Passover seders

Relations with people from other religions

Scriptures of major world religions

Do Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

Non-Jews in Jewish law today

Religious pluralism is a set of religious world views that hold that one’s religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth, and thus recognizes that some level of truth and value exists in other religions. As such, religious pluralism goes beyond religious tolerance, which is the condition of peaceful existence between adherents of different religions or religious denominations.

Jewish views on religious pluralism (Wikipedia)

In his book, “God is not One,” Stephen Prothero argues that persistent attempts to portray all religions as different paths to the same God overlook the distinct problem that each tradition seeks to solve.

Delving into the different problems and solutions that Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, Yoruba Religion, Daoism and Atheism strive to combat, God is Not One is an indispensable guide to the questions human beings have asked for millennia—and to the disparate paths we are taking to answer them today.

For example:

Islam: the problem is pride / the solution is submission

Christianity: the problem is sin / the solution is salvation

Buddhism: the problem is suffering / the solution is awakening

Judaism: the problem is exile / the solution is to return to God

Developing interfaith cooperation with Muslims

Robert Kaiser writes

Here in the United States, Canada, and the UK, both Jews and Muslims are small minorities compared to the much larger Christian population. We could develop ways to help each other, such as helping our families and children observe our holidays; helping create access to kosher and halal foods, etc.

Why is this an issue? Whether in public schools, colleges, or in business, Christians don’t worry about religious holiday observance. These nations follows the Christian Gregorian calendar, which has the Christian Sabbath on Sunday, Federal holidays for Christmas and Easter. Many school districts have long had Good Friday as an official school vacation day.

But we Jewish and Muslim people have holidays which don’t fall on that schedule. Muslims have Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, while we have Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and the high holy days.

While in theory we Jews and Muslims have the right not to go to public school on those days, to take our families to synagogue to observe, in practice that is not often the case. In some high schools and colleges many students report that teachers pressure our children to be in class on those days, sometimes violating federal laws.

This is an area where the Muslim and Jewish community could productively work together to raise awareness and support each other. We can develop ways approach such schools with the aim of protecting our families’ rights to observe our faith, while simultaneously being a full and equal member of society.

Developing interfaith cooperation with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and other faiths

There is understandable skepticism about interfaith dialogue. Historically many supposedly interfaith opportunities turned into a place where other groups tried to proselytize Jews into leaving our faith, and joining their faith.

So to be clear, interfaith by definition should mean learning about each other, finding ways to become friends with each other, and finding areas of common ground in our society where we can work together. Together we can help work on fixing societal problems – hunger, homelessness, poverty, illiteracy, sickness. Habitat for humanity, for example, is a wonderful model.

Interfaith discussions about theology are different, because one group always feels pressured to change what they say or do when they encounter another group.

Relations with pagans and neo-pagans

Why are Jews against pagan or Christian proselytizing?

Idolatry: The boundaries of Judaism

The Ten Commandments – You shall have no other gods vs neopaganism

Some liberal theologians construct false images of common ground by saying that all religions ultimately are monotheistic. But is that necessary for good interfaith relations? Why not just have intellectual integrity and say “Not everyone is monotheistic, and that’s Okay, most people are good people nonetheless.” We can be friends with – and deeply care about the life of – any decent person, whether they are a monotheist, polytheist, atheist, or agnostic.

View of Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:

The supreme issue is today not the halacha for the Jew or the Church for the Christian – but the premise underlying both religions, namely, whether there is a pathos, a divine reality concerned with the destiny of man which mysteriously impinges upon history; the supreme issue is whether we are alive or dead to the challenge and the expectation of the living God. The crisis engulfs all of us. The misery and fear of alienation from God make Jew and Christian cry together.

Jews must realize that the spokesmen of the Enlightenment who attacked Christianity were no less negative in their attitude toward Judaism. They often blamed Judaism for the misdeeds of the daughter religion. The casualties of the devastation caused by the continuous onslaughts on biblical religion in modem times are to be found among Jews as well as among Christians.

On the other hand, the Community of Israel must always be mindful of the mystery of aloneness and uniqueness of its own being. “There is a people that dwells apart, not reckoned among the nations” ( Num. 23:9 ), says the Gentile prophet Balaam. Is it not safer for us to remain in isolation and to refrain from sharing perplexities and certainties with Christians ?

Our era marks the end of complacency, the end of evasion, the end of self-reliance. Jews and Christians share the perils and the fears; we stand on the brink of the abyss together. Interdependence of political and economic conditions all over the world is a basic fact of our situation. Disorder in a small obscure country in any part of the world evokes anxiety in people all over the world.

Parochialism has become untenable. There was a time when you could not pry out of a Boston man that the Boston state house is not the hub of the solar system or that one’s own denomination has not the monopoly of the holy spirit. Today we know that even the solar system is not the hub of the universe.

The religions of the world are no more self-sufficient, no more independent, no more isolated than individuals or nations. Energies, experiences and ideas that come to life outside the boundaries of a particular religion or all religions continue to challenge and to affect every religion.

Horizons are wider, dangers are greater … No religion is an island. We are all involved with one another. Spiritual betrayal on the part of one of us affects the faith of all of us. Views adopted in one community have an impact on other communities. Today religious isolationism is a myth. For all the profound differences in perspective and substance, Judaism is sooner or later affected by the intellectual, moral and spiritual events within the Christian society, and vice versa.

We fail to realize that while different exponents of faith in the world of religion continue to be wary of the ecumenical movement, there is another ecumenical movement, worldwide in extent and influence : nihilism. We must choose between interfaith and inter-nihilism. Cynicism is not parochial. Should religions insist upon the illusion of complete isolation ? Should we refuse to be on speaking terms with one another and hope for each others failure ? Or should we pray for each other’s health, and help one another in preserving one’s respective legacy, in preserving a common legacy ?

No religion is an island, Union Theological Seminary Quarterly Review 21:2,1, January 1966




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