By Rabbi Allen S Maller
Paul Heck, a professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University writes that it was quite normal in the past for believers of different religions to view one another through the lens of polemics. Scholars of one religion composed refutations of other religions, and scholars of those religions defended and counterattacked.
Indeed, polemical discourse is usually speech animated by anger and fear. The first function of religious polemic is to vilify “the other.” Two examples among many, are worth highlighting. Matthew 23:1-39 preserves a vitriolic Christian attack on the scribes and Pharisees.
The evangelist presents Jesus unleashing a damning series of indictments against his fellow Jews. They are assailed as hypocrites (23:13,15,23, 25, 27, 29), blind guides and fools (23:16, 24), white-washed tombs (23:27), snakes (23:33), and murderers of the prophets (23:31, 34, 37). Their piety as well as their ethical conduct receive a scathing attack.
In John 8:44-47, Jesus is described in an embittered dispute with “the Jews.” In a climactic moment, “the Jews” are informed by Jesus that “their father is the devil,” “a murderer from the beginning,” “a liar and the father of lies,” and that they still “carry out the desires of their father (the devil).”
Professor Heck challenges us: We are all committed to our beliefs. We see them as truths. But how do we view the beliefs of other communities? Do we see them as allied but not identical truths, or as dangerous threats?
If we are honest, we must admit that there are good people in other communities whose religious beliefs are different from ours. What are we to conclude from this? Do we say they are good despite their false beliefs? They would say that it is their beliefs that make them good. So does any community have a monopoly over true beliefs?
If we study a religion other than our own with fairness, we see its goodness. We see that it orients the hearts of its followers to the presence of God; but from a somewhat different perspective.
Do we study other religions to show them to be wrong and so defeat them and thus pursue knowledge of other religions only in order to justify ourselves; that we alone have the truth while others do not. Most scholars in the past have studied the religious beliefs sacred texts of other religions exactly for this purpose.
The point of studying other religions cannot be to simply say that they are all the same. Rather, studying the beliefs of others can offer us a mirror to consider who we are; so we can come to a deeper understanding of the perspectives of our own community’s beliefs.
Luke 4:16-30 provides a third example of polemical discourse. In the evangelist’s account, Jesus enters a synagogue in Nazareth, reads the Haftarah from the prophetic writings of Isaiah, (which is read after the weekly reading of a Torah portion) and announces that these messianic yearnings have been fulfilled (by himself) in the congregation’s hearing. The crowd responds enthusiastically to Jesus’ message of hope.
Then the tone of the encounter changes dramatically. Jesus asserts that a prophet is not welcome in his own country and cites instances when Prophet Elijah and Prophet Elisha turned their attention to non-Jews and performed the miraculous. This shift provokes the congregation and they turn murderous.
The traditional Christian interpretation is when Jesus comes to his own people, they receive him not. So the Jews reject the Messianic challenge posed by Jesus, and God rejects the Jewish people and embraces a new people, namely, the followers of Jesus who, by the time of Luke’s writing, are increasingly gentile. Luke 4 is a polemic that justifies the shift in God’s favor from the synagogue to the church.
To this very day this passage is often used as a platform for replacement theology. From all the Church Fathers to many contemporary Christians ministers, this episode in Luke frequently provides a warrant for the belief that Christianity supersedes and replaces Judaism; because there can be only one universal unchanging truth.
Christian missionary battles against Judaism and Islam reached new heights of hostility starting in Spain in the tenth century; that led Muslims like Ibn Hazm to respond extremely fiercely in kind. Religious truth in Europe, and then in the Middle East, became a zero sum game: anything positive said about another religion was seen as weakening your own side. The goal was not to modestly try to harmonize various religious perspectives of the one and only God; but to self-righteously exaggerate religious differences, well beyond any reasonable understanding of the two sides.
In a zero sum game any value or true spiritual insight I grant to another scripture somehow diminishes my own. This view was the result of the specific influence of Aristotle, and Greek philosophy’s general emphasis on the logic of the excluded middle. Something is either true or it is false. There is no other option. If two propositions contradicted one another, one or both of them must be false. They cannot both be true.
If one believes that there is only one God who is revealed by many different inspired prophets, then we should be able to learn more about the one and only God’s will by gaining insights into our own unique revelation, and from other revelations of that one God. Since all monotheistic scriptures come from the one and only God, we should view other scriptures as potentially enriching our understanding and appreciation of our own scripture.
But in the Middle Ages almost all readers thought of revelation as a zero sum sport like tennis; rather than a multiple-win, co-operative sport like mountain climbing. This would mean that if my religion is true, yours must be false. In modern terms, light could not be both a particle and a wave. Yet we now know that light is indeed both a particle and a wave, and at the same time.
This medieval situation has not improved much in modern times. In the last two centuries university academics have written many studies of comparative religion which they claim are objective and not distorted by their religious beliefs.
Unfortunately, academics who treat other religions academically usually do not believe that other scriptures are actually Divinely inspired. Indeed, many academics do not believe that even their own sacred scriptures are Divinely inspired. They use the same kinds of explanation to understand a revealed religion that they would use to explain all secular history and literature.
As a rabbi I follow a different model.
For example, the Mishnah (an early third century compilation of the oral Torah), states, “Adam was created as an individual to teach you that anyone who destroys a single soul, Scripture imputes it to him as if he destroyed the whole world.” (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5)
And the Quran states, “One who kills a human being, unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land, would be as if he slew the whole people, and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” [Quran, 5:32]
Academics explain the similarity of the two statements by assuming that since the Jewish statement is four centuries earlier than the Qur’anic one, Muhammad must have heard it from a Rabbi or other educated Jew in Medina.
But I believe Muhammad was a prophet of God who confirms the Torah of Prophet Moses. Prophet Muhammad has no need to learn this statement from another human being. Academics might reply that the statement is not found in the written Torah; it appears in the oral Torah written by the Rabbis in the Mishnah more than 1,000 years after Moses.
But the Rabbis maintain that the Mishnah is part of the oral Torah that was passed down from Moses through many generations just as ahadith have been passed down orally through the generations. Indeed, the Quran itself introduces this statement as follows, “It is because of this that We ordained for the Children of Israel “one who kills a human being … [Quran, 5:32]
No prophet of God needs to be informed by another human what should be written in Holy Scripture. God is the source of all Divine inspiration. There are several verses in the Qur’an that mention things from the oral Torah. My perspective is that prophets and Holy Scriptures cannot in reality oppose one another because they all come from one source. Prophets are all brothers; it is as if they have the same “father” (God) and different “mothers” (motherlands, mother tongues, nations, cultures and historical eras).
All of these factors produce different rituals and legal systems, but in theology they can differ only in unessential details. Religions differ because the circumstances of each nation receiving them differ. Where sacred Scriptures differ they do not nullify each other; they only cast additional light on each other.
Allen S. Maller is an ordained Reform Rabbi who retired in 2006 after 39 years as the Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, California. His web site is: www.rabbimaller.com. Rabbi Maller blogs in the Times of Israel. His book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ (31 articles previously published by Islamic web sites) is for sale ($15) on Amazon.