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Global unity or chaos: Special report from the World Economic Forum!

by Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

September 6, 2011 | 11:38 am

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

I have returned to Switzerland this week as the Rabbinic Representative to join global partners and interfaith leaders at the World Economic Forum. Here, we continue to plan the annual gathering in Davos this winter and to think-tank the greatest moral, economic, and political issues of our time.

In conversations about global issues with interfaith leaders from around the world, the case articulated was clear: we need more inter-religious unity. I continue to be a voice in favor of difference, not at the expense of unity, but in addition. As Jews, we should all bring our particularism into the discourse since this is the wisdom we have to offer the world. I posit that there is no reason to water down our religion in the hopes of communicating with those of different faiths.

Yet, we must ask: how do we authentically honor the faiths of others as committed Jews? Certainly, tolerance of other religions was furthered in early Enlightenment. John Plamenatz, one of the twentieth century’s greatest political philosophers, explains that Milton, Locke, and others evolved in their thinking that “all men must have the one true faith” to the proposition that “faith is supremely important, and therefore every man must be allowed to live by the faith that seems true to him.” It is clear that we can find compelling arguments for deeper understanding and religious cooperation by espousing such political theory based on the goodness and autonomy of all humans outside the Jewish tradition, but is it an inherent Jewish value?

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg explains well, “Dialogue is built on the truth that the integrity and independent value of the other evokes a positive response in one’s self. Dialogue brings out the best in a group because it no longer defines itself through denigration or underestimation of the others. Each side tends to learn from the other, and incorporates some of the insights of the other without giving up its own values. The net result is a capability of meeting the needs of the other that was not recognized before.”

However, within Judaism, some would argue that particularism trumps and in fact, prevents interaction with those from other faiths. The common adage that our “responsibility begins in our home community” too often means that it ends there too. However, I emphasize, this is not a Jewish response.

There are many sources within Judaism that extol the virtues of interreligious dialogue.

I’d propose three possible Jewish theological frameworks for relationships with the Divine that can enable and encourage us to encounter the faiths of others:

1. Noahide relationships

2. All relationships originate from Sinai

3. Relationships respecting the distinct particular moral codes of others

Most basically, we may respect the truths of other nations based upon a model of Noahide relationships. The Ramah (Rabbi Moses Isserles) explained that Jewish law is one thing and Noahide law has its own distinct origin. They are to rule with their own “mishpat yosher” (just law). Maimonides explains that one who follows these laws is one of the pious of the nations of the world and has a share in the world to come (Melakhim 8:11). Rav Kook went even further and said that this can apply to the secular other as well since one who follows laws based purely on reason and not upon a belief in revelation also has a share in the world to come (Iggrot Rayah I, 89). The Torah affirms that we all share a common humanity and we can engage in a shared universalistic discourse about truth and justice and form authentic partnerships even though we have different revelations and origins of truth.

Secondly, in contrast, there is a position that Noahide laws are not distinct from Sinaitic laws. The Midrash explains that “The Noahide laws are the same as the laws the Jews were commanded at Sinai, (Bereshit Rabbah, 34:7). Engaging together with others who appear different is crucial because we actually share the same law. Jewish leadership can play a crucial role as global connector.

Thirdly, the Meiri (Beit HaBehira, B. Kama 122) explains that we can respect other faiths (i.e. not consider them idolatry) if they are bound (megudarim) by the ways of the revealed religions (datot) and morality (nimusim). This is to say that we must engage in moral and theological discourse with those of other faiths who honor the basic human dignity of all people. We can honor and learn from their particularity since we share moral commitments in spite of our theological disagreements.

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “Religion is an essential element in a human and humane social order…As systems of meaning and purpose, the great world faiths have never been surpassed. As a substitute for politics, however, they are full of danger – and that, in some parts of the world, is what they’ve become, (The Dignity of Difference, 41).” He continues to explain why political cooperation is needed in addition to religious cooperation. “Politics is the space we make for what individual religions seek to overcome – diversity of views, conflicting interests, multiplicity…the great religions fulfill the twenty-first-century imperative: ‘think globally, act locally.’ Their vision is global but their setting is local – the congregation, the synagogue, the church, the mosque,” (43).

As these sources show, we, as particularistic adherents of the Jewish faith, can connect to others as universalistic global citizens. It is my belief that we must do so through the particular lens of Judaism, not in spite of it.

The added value of religion other than our own is not something we learn by being universal or by losing or watering down our own faith but by being particular, proud and faithful participants of our own religions. Rav Kook explained that “G-d dealt kindly with his world by not putting all talents in one place, in any one man, or nation, not in one generation or even one world,” (Orot, 152). Each person, each nation, each religion has something unique to contribute to global wisdom. Our Sages remind us: “Who is wise? One who learns from all people,” (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1).

I will continue to meet with global faith leaders, but I will continue to insist that we have more to offer each other and the world when we bring our diversity to the conversation rather than check it at the door in the name of unity. It is our religious uniqueness that enables religious, rather than secular, conversation.

“Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life at the UCLA Hillel, and a 6th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Shmuly is on faculty at Shalhevet High School.

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