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8. Judaism in world perspective


i) Exclusivist and universalist emphases.

The biblical tradition out of which Judaism emerged was predominantly exclusivist ("no other gods"). The gods of the nations were regarded as "no gods" and their worshippers as deluded, while the God of Israel was acclaimed as the sole lord of history, and the Creator of heaven and earth. The unexpected universalist implications of this exclusivism are most forcibly expressed in an oft-quoted verse from Amos (9:7):

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"Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel?" says the Lord. "Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?"

Here the universal rule of the God of Israel is unmistakably proclaimed. Yet in the same book (3:1-2), after referring to the deliverance from Egypt--an act recognized as similar to that occurring in the affairs of other peoples--the prophet, speaking for God, says: "You only have I known of all the families of the earth." Thus the exclusivism has two focuses, one universal, the other particularistic. The ultimate claim of the universalistic position is found in Malachi 1:11: "For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations." This, however, in no way negates the special covenantal relationship between God and his people; indeed, it is this universalistic theme that underscores that special relation. To interpret Judaism's stance toward other religious systems in any other way is to fail to do justice to its inner dialectic. It is neither a bland latitudinarianism that admits any or all viewpoints and practices, nor a fanatical intolerance but rather a subtle interplay of affirmation and rejection. The latter is directed primarily against the worship of finite things or aspects--idolatry--the basic failure of the peoples who are the objects of the same divine solicitude as is Israel. If the religions of the nations are rejected because of their failure fully and truly to know God, the peoples themselves are not. Living under the covenant with Noah, their fulfillment of such responsibilities provides for their acceptance, for they are not expected to live within the realm of Torah (see also Relations with other religions below).

ii) Relation to Christianity.

Judaism's relation to Christianity is a complicated one because of the close historical interconnections between them. From a Judaic standpoint, Christianity is or was a Jewish "heresy" and as such may be judged somewhat differently than other religions. Its claims over against Judaism as the true fulfillment of the covenant and, thus, as the true Israel have given rise throughout the centuries to polemics of varying intensity. The rise to power of the church and the embodiment of its anti-Judaic sentiments and attitudes in the political structures and processes of Christian nations made sharply negative Jewish responses inevitable. Nevertheless, during the Middle Ages Jewish thinkers attempted to avoid designating Christianity as idolatry and even to argue that, in a special way, being derived from Judaism, it was fulfilling--at least on the moral plane--the divine purpose.

In modern times the relation has undergone changes necessitated by the newer situations into which the Jewish community has moved. This does not mean that the polemical-apologetic stance has come entirely to an end. The rejection of Judaism as a living religion by Christians continued and continues, argued not so much on dogmatic as on scholarly grounds. The Jewish response to this has often been countercriticism. Beyond this, however, there has been a growing inclination within the Jewish community to respond to the development of an affirmative theology of Judaism in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches by providing a theology of Christianity within Jewish thought. Occasional formulations in this direction have appeared, but it is far too early to know exactly what will emerge. At the same time, it must be noted, there are those who see no need for such a movement, arguing that the failure of the Christian churches in recent years to respond adequately to the tragedies of Jewish existence precludes any real engagement of one with the other.

iii) Relation to Islam.

The emergence of Islam in Arabia in the 7th century CE brought Judaism face to face with a second religious movement that derived some of its ideas and structures from the older tradition. In this case, as in that of Christianity, the new religion claimed a special relation with Judaism. Muhammad held that the faith he proclaimed was none other than the pristine religion of Abraham, the father of Ishmael--progenitor of the Arabs--as well as of Isaac, from whom the people of Israel descended. That religion had been distorted both by Judaism and Christianity; and Muhammad, the "seal" of the prophets, had been called by God to restore it to its purity. The confrontation between Judaism and Islam, as that with Christianity, was coloured by political and social considerations both before and after Islam moved out of Arabia to build a world empire (including the conquest and settlement of Palestine). During the subsequent period, the intellectual development of the Islamic world and the emergence of theologians and philosophers of the highest order challenged Judaism and had considerable influence on the rise of similar thinkers within that community. Given the strong monotheism and the anti-iconic attitude of Islam, many of the questions that arose between Judaism and trinitarian and iconic Christianity were not an issue between Judaism and Islam. The crucial point of dispute here was the nature of prophecy, given Muhammad's claim concerning his culminating role in the prophetic tradition. The medieval period thus saw polemics directed against that claim and, as in the case of the theological work of Moses Maimonides, More nevukhim (The Guide of the Perplexed), an exposition of the nature of prophecy that, without directly dealing with Muhammad's claim, may be understood to undercut it. Nonetheless, Islam, too, was understood to contribute to the fulfillment of the divine purpose. From the late medieval period onward, the intellectual engagement between the two religions diminished with the general decline in the Turkish Empire that then embraced the Muslim world. In modern times it has not yet been renewed for many reasons. Once the political problems in the eastern Mediterranean between the State of Israel and the Arab world have been meliorated, the contiguity of the two communities suggests an inevitable renewal of conversations on the religious as on many other levels.

iv) Relations with other religions.

Judaism's encounters with religions other than Christianity and Islam have been in large measure limited to the past. In the Hellenistic world, it confronted and rejected the varieties of syncretistic cults that grew up. Within the Sasanian Empire it was forced to deal with Zoroastrianism, but the outlines of its response have not yet been entirely disentangled from the literature of the period. In the modern world, particularly in the most recent period, it has come face to face with the religions of the Middle and Far East, but beyond a few tentative explorations nothing tangible has appeared. What seems certain is that, considering the growing interest in and exchange between East and West, Jewish thinkers will not be able to rest with older formulations concerning the nature of other religious systems. Without compromising its own faith or falling into an uncritical relativism, Judaism may indeed in the future seek a new way of understanding and relating to the varieties of religious systems facing it on the world scene.


i) Its historic role.

Given the relationship between Judaism and Christianity--the dominant religious force in the development of Western culture--the role of Judaism in that development was significant. Although the church drew from other sources as well, its retention of the sacred Scriptures of the synagogue (the "Old Testament") as an integral part of its Bible--a decision sharply debated in the 2nd century CE--was crucial. Not only was the development of its ideas and doctrines deeply influenced, but it received as well an ethical dynamism that constantly overcame an inclination to withdraw into world-denying isolation. It was, however, not only Judaism's heritage but its persistence that touched Western civilization. The continuing existence of the Jews, even as a pariah people, was both a challenge and a warning; and ultimately, at the beginning of the modern era, their liberation from the shackles of discrimination, segregation, and rejection was understood by many to be the touchstone of all human liberty. Until the final ghettoization of the Jew--it is well to remember that the term "ghetto" belongs in the first instance to Jewish history--at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, intellectual contact between Judaism and Christianity, and thus with Western culture, did not cease. Jerome translated the Hebrew Bible into Latin with the aid of Jewish scholars; Luther, into German with the aid of commentaries beholden to Jewish authors. Jewish thinkers mediated the remarkable intellectual achievements of the Islamic world to Christian Europe and added their own contributions as well. Even heresies within the church found, on occasion, their inspiration or prototype in Judaism.

ii) Its present role.

In the modern world, while the influence of Jews has increased in almost every realm of cultural life, the impact of Judaism has diminished. The reason for this is not difficult to find. The Gentile leaders who extended emancipation to the Jews at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries, while eager to grant political equality to the individual Jew, did so with the implicit and explicit requirement that conformity through reforms of Judaism be agreed to. With the transformation of Judaism into an ecclesiastical institution, largely on the model of German Protestant churches, its ideas and structures took on the cast of its environment in a way quite unlike what had ensued in its earlier confrontations with various philosophical systems. Indeed, for some, Judaism and 19th-century European thought were held to be not merely congruent but identical. Thus, while numerous contributors to diverse aspects of Western culture and civilization are to be found among Jews of the 20th century--scientists, politicians, statesmen, scholars, musicians, artists--their activities cannot, except in specific instances, be considered as deriving from Judaism as it has been sketched above.

iii) Future prospects.

Two events of the 20th century have, however, confronted Judaism in such ways as to suggest that its wrestling with them and their profound challenge to it may presage a new role and a new influence for Judaism: "Auschwitz" and the establishment of the State of Israel. The premeditated murder of some 6,000,000 European Jews by the Nazis for no other reason than that they were Jews, has shaken Jewish thinkers to their very core. Indeed, so traumatic was this event, that for almost two decades following it, no substantial attempt was made to plumb its meaning. At the same time, the reappearance of the State of Israel, viewed for the most part from outside the Jewish community as nothing more than a political event, has set in motion an entirely different chain of theological inquiry. These two happenings have clearly, but in as yet unpredictable ways, begun to work and to move within the thought of contemporary Judaism. Out of this working and moving there may emerge an inescapable spiritual impact upon Western culture and civilization, which have, as yet, resolutely refused to face the realities these fateful occurrences represent. If contemporary Judaism is able to say what they mean, however haltingly, it will have renewed its potent relationship to the Western world, and, given the nature of contemporary society, established a similar bond with the Eastern world as well. (L.H.S.) (see also Index: Holocaust)


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