Post-apocalyptic literature, TV, and movies have been very popular recently. It is hard to find a copy of the “The Handmaid’s Tale” in bookstores. I think the show was amazing, and so do the people at the Emmys. This type of art is often very critical of religion. It works because we can definitely imagine “religious” people doing the things we read about/see in the “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Religion is not necessarily a bulwark against violence, terror, and oppression. We just have to read the paper to know this.
This summer, though, I read another post-apocalyptic classic that paints a different picture of religion. In “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, first written in serial form in the late 50’s, there is a devastating nuclear war in the distant past, and the world is in a dark age. In most of the book, a small desert monestary is preserving scientific knowledge (that they don’t quite understand). They are also keeping moral knowledge alive. The monastery is the foundation and spark of what again will become civilization. Religion is the preserver of truth in a time of violence and deprivation in this work.
In “A Canticle for Leibowitz” this religion is Catholic (and the book does engage a bit with Judaism). This got me thinking about today. God willing our leaders will be wise and prudent so that there will not be some nuclear devastation. I have been thinking about, in our pluralistic time, what is religion preserving and teaching society? All religion, because I think that we have to be in this together. And then I was thinking, what can other religions teach us, the Jews? I want to focus just on what I think we can learn from Christianity and Islam (these are the two religions that the Jewish world has the most historical contact and engagement with), and then what I think Judaism can teach the world.
One word at the outset. Rabbis from the middle ages have been debating what the Jewish view of Christianity and Islam should be because if it is decided that they are idolatry, there are a bunch of biblical prohibitions on interacting with idolaters. For the most part, it has been decided that Christianity and Islam are monotheism. (Islam especially (for monotheism) and Christianity has done a great service to the world in spreading the Bible, even though they have a sequel.) Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes, “Maimonides makes clear that whatever erroneous doctrines Christianity (or Islam) may teach does not undercut their fundamental contribution ‘to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord.’”
In various ways, Jews have always engaged in the ideas of these two religions (usually in refutation), and what I want to do is pick out one thing from each tradition that can enhance our understanding of Judaism. What I am not going to do is say that “all religions are the same and can’t we all get along.” Yes, there are very important differences. What I want to show is that there are important similarities, and that concepts in another religion can help us think about ours so that we can live Jewish lives of meaning in conversation with others.
So, let’s start with Christianity. We can learn a lot from Christianity—love, universalism, salvation, God’s grace. These are all concepts in Judaism that we don’t always like to talk about because we think they sound Christian—ahavah, b’rit b’nei No’ach, yeshua, chen v’chesed. So, I want to pick a concept that you might think cannot be Judaized. Incarnation. Classical Christianity believes that God literally made Himself (I said “him” on purpose) human in the form of the real human Jesus of Nazareth. Now, hold on a second, don’t worry, I am not here to say that we should believe in that. I should have my rabbinic ordination taken away if I said something like that. I want to explore what incarnation could mean in a Jewish context because I think it can teach us something very meaningful.
Greenberg: “Obviously, many Jews will argue that closing the biblically portrayed gap between the human and the Divine, between the real and the ideal, by incarnation is idolatrous or at least against the grain of the biblical way. But even if incarnation is contradictory to some biblical principles, the model itself is operating out of classic biblical modes—the need to achieve redemption, the desire to close the gap between the human and the Divine . . .” Greenberg continues that Jews can take from the Christian idea of God’s incarnation in Jesus the very Jewish notion that God needs human emissaries on earth to live out the covenant and bring the world closer to redemption. The late Jewish thinker Michael Wyschogrod even argues in his work “The Body of Faith: God in the Jewish People” that for the Torah, God is incarnate in the whole Jewish people. Christians believe in one incarnation, and according to Wyschogrod, God is in all of us (just Jews). He writes, “The Christian proclamation that God became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is but a development of the basic thrust of the Hebrew Bible, God’s movement toward humankind . . . [A]t least in this repect, the difference between Judaism and Christianity is one of degree rather than kind.”
This Biblical God is not a philosophical abstract, but a real being in whom one can have a relationship. In the Hebrew Bible God takes on human form (called a malach) in many stories—Abraham and the visitors, to the 70 elders, Samson’s parents, etc. And, right at the beginning we are told that we are created in the image of God. I think our ancestors took this literally, and I think that we can take it very seriously. When we look into the face of another—our loved ones, the homeless person at the corner of Eglington and the Allen, a person in a foreign country, we are looking at the face of God. We then know that we are obligated to that person.
I think another important lesson from this way of looking at incarnation is that our bodies are primary. There is no such thing as a disembodied Jewish soul. Judaism is a religion of ensouled bodies with embodied souls, or as Alan Morinis teaches, you don’t have a soul, you are a soul. The Biblical scholar Benjamin D. Sommer writes, “One can imagine a platonic study circle populated by philosophers who have a mind but no body or a church full of certain kinds of Protestants who have only a soul . . . There could be no such beit midrash or beit k’nesset. It makes sense that the traditional Jewish belief in an afterlife involves not just immortality of the soul but resurrection of the body: if we only have souls in the future, then we will no longer have Torah, for one learns Torah with one’s mouth and throat, and one lives Torah with one’s forehead, arms, shoulders, and stomach.”
We as Jews sanctify our bodily processes. The traditional blessing after relieving oneself says, “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, who formed humanity in wisdom and created us with many orifices and cavities. It is revealed and known before the throne of Your glory that were one of them to be ruptured or blocked, it would be impossible to survive and stand before You. Blessed are Your, Adonai, Healer of all flesh who does wondrous deeds.” Also, the tradition wording of the morning blessing thanking God for our soul, our embodied soul, is very incarnational: “My God, the shoul You placed within me is pure. You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me, and You guard it while it is within me. One day You will take it form me, and restore it to me in the time to come. As long as the soul is within me, I will thank You, Adonai my God and God of my ancestors, Master of all works, lord of all souls. Blessed are You, Adonai, who restores souls to dead bodies.”
God is here with us—works through our bodies. I think this is a beautiful way of thinking of God, entering into relationship with God, and living a life of holiness, but it might be taken too far. If God is in us, who is to say that I am not God? And, if I am God, who is to say that I can’t do what I want whenever I want? It might be a theology of narcissism.
So, we move on to Islam. Most forms of Islam (except maybe some forms of Sufi mysticism) see God as totally separate and with no image. A mosque would not have stained glass windows like ours (even though ours do not represent God).
A basic credal statement of Islamic theology in the Quran states: “Say, ‘It is God! The One! God is eternal neither giving birth nor having been born. Nothing is comparable to Him.’”
God is totally separate. Scholar of Islam and Reform Rabbi Reuven Firestone: “ . . . nowhere does the Qur’an suggest that humanity was created ‘in the image of God.’” God is totally ineffable. As I see it, this ineffability leads the individual to humility because of wonder and awe. Haroon Moghul, in his wonderful new memoir/meditation on what it means to be a contemporary American Muslim called “How to Be a Muslim: An American Story” says this, “ . . . a believer—one who is thankful. Shakir. In awe at the privilege of existence.”
We are privileged to be alive. It is not because of my merit that I am alive. That is humility. I see this in the way a Muslim prays. Prostration. In unison with others. (Avraham ben HaRambam, the medieval rabbi in Egypt, son of Maimonides, said that this should be how Jews pray. He even believed that the Muslim were teaching us the original ways Jews prayed. He was over ruled.)
(Talk about experience of Muslims praying at Holy Blossom
Humility—I am not the centre of the universe. God is. And I was created. Moghul: “If the world was created from nothing, and it was, then it is created in distance from God. We are not Him. We cannot be Him. We must be ourselves. Our lonely, terrified, mortal selves. Individuality demands alienation. God, many Muslim will say, created the world so that He may be know.”
Our job is to know God and have that reflected in the way we live.
Humility helps us view of the world realistically. The whole world is not about us. We are part of the community of humanity. We—individually—are not the center. This is a very important lesson at this season of reflection and repentance—this season of t’shuvah. For us to ask forgiveness; for us to right our wrongs, we need to realize that it is not all about me, me, me. For us to forgive, we need to realize that it is not all about me, me, me. Humility is needed to repair relationships, families, and communities.
As we pray in the morning service, “Many of our works are vain, and our days pass away like a shadow. Since all our achievements are insubstantial as mist, how dare we look upon ourselves as higher than the beasts? Yet, despite all our frailty, we are Your People, bound to Your covenant, and called to Your service. We therefore thank and praise You, and proclaim the holiness of Your name. Ashreinu! Mah tov chelkeinu, umah na’im goraleinu, umah yafah y’rushateinu! How fortunate we are! How good is our portion! How pleasant our destiny! How beautiful our inheritance!”
Now, you might have noticed that the big ideas that I bring from Christianity and Islam are also found in Judaism, so what can Judaism teach to the world? Pluralism. Our ancient sage, Rabbi Yehoshua proclaimed that all righteous people have a place in the World to Come. Not just Jews—and to be righteous one had to follow pretty common rules of morality derived from the story of Noah. The 14th century Provincal sage Menachem Meiri says that Muslims and Christians are “people bound by religion, which removes their religion from the category of idolatry and places them fully within the universe of moral obligation of Jews.” And, in a western world where the proportion of religious believers is getting smaller, I would include moral secular humanists.
Now, many liberal Christians no longer believe that one has to accept Jesus to be “saved,” and I think classically in Islam Jews and Christians were not technically “infidels”, a yet Islam and Christianity historically saw their religions as the only Truth. Judaism, for many sages, did not. It is only the Truth for Jews. In our age which might be compared to the Convevencia, the maybe idealized time in medieval Spain when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together, I think it our mission, as our Classical Reformers would say, the mission of Israel, to teach how we can learn from everyone, how our ideas can be a part of the marketplace of ideas, and how we can still have our own identity, practices, and story. Jews have what to teach—about taking a day off from the world, about being a minority in a world of multiple identities, about being a people and a religion, about being obligated in the presence of the other/Other.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg: “This new analysis must include an understanding of God’s pluralism–that no religion has a monopoly on God’s love. The Noahide covenant [between God and all humanity] lives; [all] faiths articulate and extend its mandate, but, in so doing, they do not have an exclusive divine mission that renders other religions irrelevant. On the contrary, they need the help of other religions to accomplish tikkun olam [repairing the world], and they can instruct and enrich the others along the way.”
Yossi Klein Halevi, in his book “At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land” writes: “The one enduring transformation that I carry with me from my journey is that I learned to venerate—to love—Christianity and Islam. I learned to feel at home in a church . . . and in a mosque . . . the cross and the minaret have become for me cherished symbols of God’s presence, reminders that He speaks to us in multiple languages—that He speaks to us all . . . [I want my children] to understand that, even as this land showed its hardest face, we can still receive inspiration from another tradition’s experience of God’s presence.”
May God’s presence in us and God’s presence in the heavens open our hearts to learn and to teach. To listen and learn from each other and from the other. To teach the world to do the same.