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Perspectives from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism

An introduction to Jewish Spirituality by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner



  What Do Our Neighbors Believe?  

JUDAISM Christianity | Islam
What does the religion teach about people who follow other faiths?

by Howard Greenstein

In Jewish tradition all people, regardless of race, religion or ethnic origin, are equally God’s children, equally precious as human beings, equally deserving of justice and mercy from any human agency or institution. Differences among individuals are a consequence of their personal performance. No person is inherently better than any other.

Judaism is virtually oblivious to race. Although traditional sources trace the origins of the Jewish people to the patriarchs of Israel, and although biblical evidence exists of early exclusionary practices by Israelites, kinship is never linked entirely to blood descent. Under existing provisions of Jewish practice, any person who chooses to join the Jewish people and to follow the Jewish faith enjoys equal status with every Jew who was born into the Covenant. No one is excluded any longer from membership because of racial or ethnic differences. The standards for entry into Judaism are admittedly demanding, but they are entirely a matter of theological, moral, ritual and educational preparedness.

Although the requirements may be stringent, conversion to Judaism is not a precondition for salvation in this world or the next. One of the Talmudic rabbis stated explicitly, “The righteous of all the world have a share in the world-to-come” (Tosefta: Sanhedrin 13:2). One chooses to become a Jew not for the purpose of achieving eternal rewards, but for the purpose of building a better world. Any decent human being may expect whatever rewards accrue to a life of justice and goodness in this world or the next.

In some ways it is even easier for a non-Jew to achieve lasting reward than it for a Jew. Eligibility for the world-to-come requires a non-Jew only to follow the seven commandments of the Covenant that God consummated with Noah. That Covenant embodies for Judaism the fundamental precepts that should govern all civilized society. It includes prohibitions against

  1. idolatry
  2. incest and adultery
  3. bloodshed
  4. the profanation of God’s name
  5. injustice and lawlessness
  6. robbery, and
  7. inhumane conduct, such as cutting a limb from a living animal.

In addition, Talmudic literature is filled with legends about heathens who supposedly “acquired the world-to-come” by single acts of extraordinary compassion or courage. By contrast, a Jew is expected to observe as many of the six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Torah as may apply to him/her if s/he seeks assurance of eternal life.

The recognition among Jews that others possess sufficient spiritual merit for divine approval is a unique distinction unparalleled in any Western religious tradition. It helps to explain the approach to conversion among many rabbinic authorities who will accept Jews by choice who are sincere and determined, but will not actively or aggressively seek them. Indeed, Halakah (Jewish law) instructs a rabbi to discourage potential proselytes and to yield only if they persist in their request.

A more recent development of liberal Jewish attitudes toward non-Jews, especially in a democratic setting, is a recognition that every religious discipline contributes to the totality of spiritual truth. The quality of the whole human enterprise is better and brighter precisely because of the differences among peoples and civilizations. One culture stimulates another and encourages a continuous process of reassessment and renewal. Every religion challenges every other; each contributes some insight or value that the others cannot fully grasp or understand. Unfortunately, the reality of the human condition does not make this proposition easy to apply, but that misfortune does not make it any less true.

For the Jewish people the contribution of Judaism is endowed with a special distinction of its own. The dictates of reason are an essential component in its formulation of faith. Its ethical idealism is imperishable but practical. Social justice is the heart of its message. Physical and spiritual reality is blended in a clear but gentle balance. Its legacy of language and literature, its ritual pageantry, dedication to freedom of conscience and reverence for life are all crown jewels of the human spirit.

At the same time, most liberal Jews will not pretend that Judaism has exhausted every measure of truth and goodness in the universe. Some have developed better insights into mysticism, others have concentrated more intently on the quest for peace, while still others have created more dramatic and inspiring rituals. Most religious faiths, therefore do not compete with one another, but complement one another. Most possess their own share of truth and merit and have a right to thrive and flourish.

Out of its own unique contribution, every major faith ensures that the world is far better served with a multiplicity of beliefs than it could be out of rigid uniformity. Indeed, diversity is the pre-requisite for all creativity. The world could not endure without it.

Copyright ©2006 Howard Greenstein

Howard R. Greenstein serves as Rabbi of the Jewish congregation of Marco Island, Florida. He has previously served congregations in Florida, Ohio, and Massachusetts. Greenstein has been a Lecturer at the University of Florida, University of North Florida, and Jacksonville University. He is the author of Judaism: An Eternal Covenant (1983) and Turning Point: Zionism and Reform Judaism (1981).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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