In line with our recent discussion of religious diversity, I’d like to examine a particular contemporary view of religious pluralism in light of talmudic and midrashic sources — one attributed to Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks. As we shall see, this is timely because it related to last week’s Torah portion.
In R. Sacks’ controversial book The Dignity of Difference, a book written primarily for a non-Jewish audience, R. Sacks proposes that in today’s world we need to celebrate the many different religions in the world. We have to recognize that God "speaks" to different societies in different ways, and see the unique truths that emanate from these multiple religions.
Click here to read moreAfter much criticism in the Orthodox community, R. Sacks issued a revised version of the book in which he specified that the Noahide laws are universally binding, removed references to evolution and pre-history that were anyway unnecessary for hsi point, and emphasized the element of human interpretation in religion.
Nevertheless, Dr. Marc Shapiro published a discussion of this controversy in The Edah Journal (link) and argued that R. Sacks’ critics were essentially correct: R. Sacks made theological suggestions that have no grounding in traditional sources, namely that idolatrous religions are acceptable and were directed by true prophets of God.
Daganev writes: "What religious truths are we talking about? Lent for example, seems like a good religious truth, (sacrificing some material thing for a set period of time) even though the exact lent practice is not in the Torah."
Yaacov Dovid Shulman posts: A relevant teaching by Rav Kook (rough translation):
"In regard to the disputes between religions, each one of which claims that it is true…
"Every religion has some Godly value and spark, and even idolatry has a good spark, due to the minimal ethics within itself.
"But the levels rise upwards, just as the chain of animals begins from the lowest creatures until man, who is the greatest and most significant. So do the values of religions begin from the low step of a small awareness of some ethical tendency until the perfection of prophecy of the master of the prophets, may he rest in peace. And between these are many levels.
"That being the case, there is no contradiction here at all.
"And in truth it is possible that the majority of religions are good in accordance with the state of their people–that the people that is lowly in terms of the perfection of its soul in ethics and the ability to attain Divinity in a pure way needs its religion to be lowly as well, in accordance with its character.
"But the full Divine power was revealed in the choicest of all nations, the nation of Hashem, God– something with no precedent and no equal. ‘Has any god attempted to take a nation from the midst of a nation with miracles, with signs and with wonders and with war, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm and with great awesome things, as all that Hashem your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?’ (Devarim 4:34).
The source is Kevazim Miktav Yad Kadsho, pp. 132-133.
NEIL POSTS: 1. I personally think you have misunderstood R’ Sacks as much as his critics. And to say some of his views were "unintentional" is utterly wrong. Clearly, you are right to say that R’ Sacks doesn’t believe they were prophets but neither is he saying anything so tepid as that religions have value so far as they follow Noachide laws.
On the contrary, his point is that you CAN’T have a relationship with G-d through the Noachide laws alone. The ONLY kind of relationship is a particular one. To understand his view requires a) knowing what he means when he talks about a covenental relationship b) understanding what he means when he says that Judaism is the counterpoint to Plato.
He shows that is a very secular (philosophical) way of thinking to ask whether Judaism contains the whole Truth or whether there is Truth Judaism doesn’t contain. You can’t even ask the question you ask in Jewish terms! Anyway, that’s too long to explain here. The best thing to read is the "Faith" lectures on his website, and particularly the one on "The Chosen People"
2. DO you really believe that G-d can only communicate the truths of religion through prophecy? That’s dubious.
3. Of note is the following quote from 20 rabbis and 30 Hindus that says exactly the same as him. The rabbis included Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, Chief Rabbi David Rosen, Rabbi Dr. Singer and R’ Dr. Sperber:
"Their respective Traditions teach that there is One Supreme Being who is the Ultimate Reality, who has created this world in its blessed diversity and who has communicated Divine ways of action for humanity, for different peoples in different times and places."
Shlomo writes: "Luckily we had the Christians and Muslims to learn from, otherwise we never would have known the value of sacrificing material things for set periods of time."
Emes writes: God is interested in all of mankind and is accepting of a multiplicity of religious expressions by mankind with two provisos. 1)For Jews that expression is limited to the Torah and its requirements becuase the Jews entered into a specific covenant through the avos and Sinai 2) for non-Jews the expression is bounded by the Noachite laws. If the religion advances that goal of adherence to the 7 mitzvos Bnei Noach , it is proper to be viewed as God speaking to those religious groups. I believe that this is all that R Sacks meant.
EJ posts: "There must be ten plus views that have already been stated in the post and comments. Is there any way other than the citation of proof texts from chazal and different rabbinical books to decide which of these many views are correct? Is there anything in the world that would help decide the case one way or the other, or is the discussion limited to how can Rabbi X say this when Rabbi Y says that?"