Human (Im)Perfection: Jewish Views on Christianity and Islam 6 October 2017
Although basic religious values are eternal; religious communities are affected by a world that has increasingly changed over the last few centuries, and the rate of change is still increasing. I begin this essay about Jewish views of Christianity and Islam with the traditional medieval, orthodox, view of Rabbi Moses Maimonides, before turning to present views that are less antagonistic.
Moses Maimonides, was a twelfth century scholar, philosopher, physician and legal expert. Born in Muslim Spain in 1135, he lived most of his life in Egypt, where he was the personal physician of Saladin. His views of Islam and Christianity in one sentence are: the former is a fine religion for gentiles, the latter sadly is not, because it is considered Trinitarian, and idol worship in Orthodox Jewish law.
Maimonides’ opinion, stated in his letter to the Jews of Yemen (Yemen Epistle), is that both Christianity and Islam come from Judaism, and the difference between both gentile religions and our own is like the difference between a statue and a real person (Yemen Epistle).
Moreover, both religions are well aware of our special relationship with God, which they reject, so the more God loves us, the more the gentiles hate us (Yemen Epistle).
However, Maimonides views Christianity and Islam, as necessary preparations for the coming of a future Messiah; and the universal worship of the one God that will follow.
In his 14 volume legal opus Hayad Hachazaka, Maimonides states that thanks to both these religions “the world has become full of the ideas of the Messiah, the ideas of the Torah and the ideas of the commandments, so that these have spread to faraway islands and to many faint hearted nations, and they now discuss these ideas, and the commandments of the Torah.”
Nevertheless, Maimonides considers both Christians and Muslims to be semi-heretics, mostly because of their supersession, replacement, doctrines regarding the Torah and the status of the Jewish People.
These assertions by Maimonides are expressed in the abstract, without references to their halachic implications in Jewish law. In Jewish law both Islam and Christianity are far better than the pagan religions; yet neither of them are equal to the whole truth of God’s only Torah.
Legally, Maimonides says that Christians are idol worshippers. In his interpretation of the Mishnah, tractate Avoda Zara 1:3, he writes: “Know that this Christian nation, who proclaim their claim of a divine/human messiah, are all idol worshippers and (celebrating) their holidays is forbidden, and regarding religious issues as we deal with them as we would with pagans.” And he adds Mishnah, tractate Avoda Zara 4: “Therefore one must know that every Christian church altar is like a pagan house of idolatry without any doubt.”
Also in Hayad Hachazaka, the laws of forbidden foods, the uncensored version (Hilchot Maachalot Asurot 11:7) states: “The Christians are idol worshippers and their regular wine is forbidden to be consumed” by Jews, since it could have been used as a libation in their pagan worship.
On the other hand, Maimonides defends Islam against the Christian accusations of his day, which argued that the Kaaba stone in Mecca, and some of the rites performed during the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage, were rooted in idol worship. In his Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte, Maimonides states clearly: “These Ishmaelites are not idol worshippers in the least; [paganism] has been long since cut off from their mouths and their hearts; they worship the one God properly and without any blemish.”
Maimonides also wrote: “It is permitted to teach the (Torah’s) commandments to Christians and to attract them to our religion, but it is not permitted to do the same with Ishmaelites,”.
This is because the Christians never denied the authenticity of any part of the Torah, they merely added their gospels to our Hebrew Bible, but they and we both believe in the Torah’s sanctity; and in the fact that the present Torah is an accurate representation of the original Torah delivered to the Jews by God through Moses.
Most Muslims, on the other hand, insist that wherever the Qur’an’s version differs from what is in our Torah, it is because at best Jews made a mistake in copying our texts, or, at worst, falsified our texts. Therefore, argues Maimonides (Rambam’s responsa, Blau, answer 149) that while discourse with a Christian could lead to his understanding of his mistaken reading about a divine/human messiah, and so could benefit from the explanation, even if he didn’t convert to Judaism – a Muslim will just think our explanations are based on an erroneous text.
In addition, since they are pure monotheists they have no need to convert to Judaism. Therefore, Jews should follow the same advice the Qur’an (29:46) gives to Muslims:
“Do not argue with the People of the Scripture except in the best way, except for those who commit injustice among them, and say, “We believe in that which has been revealed to us, and (what was) revealed to you. And our God and your God is one; and we are in submission to Him.””
To summarize: while Maimonides considered both Islam and Christianity to be stepping stones in humanity’s path to true Divine enlightenment, Maimonides did not view the two of them equally. Maimonides recognized a higher capacity for abstract, imageless, worship in Islam, while Christianity remained mired in Trinitarian, iconic, man/God paganism.
Debating what our Torah and Prophets meant is permitted with Christians, who accept its prophetic validity, but not with Muslims, who mostly see parts of it (for example David’s adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11-12:25) as a textual error at best, and a forgery at worst.
However, since Muslims are pure monotheists, any discussion Jews have with Muslims in modern times should be, not to disprove or deny the holiness of the other’s Scripture; but to find a common ground of respect for both of our Holy Scriptures, in accordance with the advice of Prophet Muhammad to his own followers, as related in a Hadith by Abu Huraira: “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. God’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in God, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever was revealed to you.’ “
Following Muhammad’s teaching I too neither believe nor disbelieve in the Qur’an. I do respect the Qur’an very much as a kindred revelation, first given to a kindred people, in a kindred language. In fact, the Arab people, the Arabic language and the Qur’an’s theology are very close to my own people, language and theology.
Of course, more than 80% of Muslims in the world today are not of Arab descent. But Arabic is the sacred language of all Muslims, as Hebrew is the sacred language of all the world’s Jews, and the tradition that Arabs and Jews are cousins is widely accepted.
This makes the present conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis especially tragic. It is very important to realize that the conflict is a political one and not a religious one. There can be no religious conflict between religions like Judaism and Islam because neither of them declare that their scripture is the only one given by God.
The strong support that the Qur’an gives to religious pluralism is a lesson that is sorely needed by religious fundamentalists of all religions in the world today. It should also be a decisive guide to political and political-religious leaders to avoid maximum claims of self-righteousness; and instead humbly seek to find ways to share with, and care for, other nations, peoples and religions.
I think of myself as a Reform Rabbi who is a Muslim Jew. Actually I am a Muslim Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because I am a Reform Rabbi. As a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham – the first Muslim Jew, and I submit to the covenant and its commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. As a Reform Rabbi I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should modify Jewish law and tradition as social and historical circumstances change and develop.
I also believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice by adding an increasing number of restrictions to the commandments we received at Mount Sinai.. These are lessons that Prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century.
Although most Jews today are no longer Orthodox Jews, if the Jews of Muhammad’s time, had followed these teachings of prophet Muhammad, Reform Judaism would have started 1,400 years ago. (In the U.K. Reform Jews are called Liberal Jews. Reform Jews in the U.K. are what we in North America call Conservative Jews.)
So how can I explain to a Muslim that a prophet like King David could engage in adultery? The basic answer is that the Hebrew Bible often uses the actual life struggles of the prophets of Israel, as both their message; and as a warning of the way that God wants us to live. Prophet David is not only a prophet; he is one of the exalted few like Abraham, Moses and Jesus; who is a messenger of God who brought a holy book (Zabur/Psalms) that was destined to become basic to both Judaism and Christianity. Most of the 150 psalms in Prophet David’s collection of poems and hymns come out of the joys, and the sufferings, of this great but flawed spiritual hero.
The Hebrew Bible however, does not teach that great leaders, or even prophets of God are perfectly righteous and never sin. Only God should be described as sinless. Every human being, even the most highly religious, needs to struggle throughout their lives to overcome moral challenges. And since power tends to corrupt, we can see today how leaders, even religious leaders, can engage in violence or sexual molestation, or be involved in excusing or covering up other peoples sins, and then say they did it for the sake of God.
To understand the perspective of the Hebrew Bible about spiritual heroes, I will share parts of a sermon about who is a Jewish spiritual hero based on Genesis 28:10 – 32:3 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein. He writes: “Abraham is our first forefather, the progenitor of the Covenant, and yet we do not call ourselves “Bnai Avraham”, the children of Abraham.“We are “Bnai Yisrael”, the children of Israel/Jacob.
Jacob? Why Jacob? Jacob is our least likely spiritual hero. He is manipulative, conniving, and amoral. He exploits his brother’s weakness to take his birthright. He uses his father’s blindness to steal a blessing. Having succeeded in shattering the family, Jacob offers a bribe to God: “Jacob made a vow, saying: ‘If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house — the Lord shall be my God…I will set aside a tithe for You.” (Genesis 28: 20-22) What sort of spiritual hero is this?
How poorly these Jacob stories compared with the epic heroes of other religions. You can read of a spiritual hero born of immaculate conception and living a life perfect and untouched by sin. His life from beginning to end is a masterwork of moral wisdom. Or we read of a hero who begins mortal, even sinful, but through grace or will, finds his way to a state of perfect wisdom, perfect action, perfect peace and calmness, returning after death to our world again and again only to bring others along the path toward self-perfection.
“Jacob is a different kind of spiritual hero. He is not born whole or good. He is not born with a divine character. Nor does he ever achieve a perfection of character or spirit. Jacob is not a hero because of what he is. He is a hero because of what he is becoming. The Jacob narratives chronicle the growth of a soul, the development not of a saint, but of a repentant sinner. They portray a process of learning, of change, of struggle, of defeat and renewal. This dynamic is the power of the narrative. And in this process, the hand of God is revealed. Like his dream, Jacob’s life is a “ladder, set on the ground, with its top reaching into the sky, and the angels of God going up and down on it.” (Genesis 28: 10-19)
“In pagan myths we read of heroes battling demons, dragons and devils in mythical lands, storming the heavens to steal the secrets of the cosmos. Again, Jacob is a different kind of hero. What is the setting of Jacob’s struggle? A place far more dangerous: The family. Jacob will be hunted by his brother, deceived by his uncle, manipulated by his wives, and finally devastated by the murderous jealousy of his sons. In each encounter, Jacob will be defeated. But each defeat deepens him, bringing him closer to wholeness, to wisdom and opens him to love.
“The Jacob narratives hold out the promise that any life, any soul, any character can be rescued, elevated, purified, ennobled, saved. These stories reflect a spirituality of journey. God is not found only at the journey’s end, but in each step, especially the painful and fearful steps.
Spiritual perfection is not a quality one is born to, nor an awakening at the end of arduous meditation. Rather, each step has its own revelation. To open oneself to the love of a partner. To make peace with a brother. To mourn and then to rise and live again. God is present in each step, each choice, each moment. “Remember,” God assures Jacob as he begins his journey, “I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15)
I would add that Jacob, David and even Moses (who killed an Egyptian guard who was beating a Jewish slave Qur’an 28:15-16) are heroes of the greater Jihad to achieve self- discipline and self-improvement.
As both Islamic and Jewish tradition teach: “A strong man is not one who physically overpowers others. A strong man is one who controls himself when angry.” (Related by Al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawood and Ahmad) as well as: “Who is a strong man? He who conquers his impulses; as scripture says, ‘One who is slow to anger is better than a strong man’.” Ben Zoma in Avot 4:1.
No human being is perfect. The battle is won not by those who can’t sin, but by those who can, do, and are able to truly repent by changing so much that they never repeat a similar sin.