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On Conflict and Tolerance

Prof. Shalom Rosenberg

 Part I


The Tactics of the Struggle


            We have previously discussed the distinctly Jewish nature of the experience of divine revelation.  This, to be sure, was not at all easy for Christianity and Islam to accept, and each religion adopted its own tactics in its struggle with this basic truth.


            Islam, in an attempt to rewrite history, depicted the Koran as an ancient tradition bequeathed to Ishmael by his father Abraham.  A glance at one small detail will clarify the larger picture: Islamic tradition converted the sacrifice of Isaac into the sacrifice of Ishmael.  In this manner Islam freed itself from dependence upon the Jewish tradition; it exists parallel but not beholden to Judaism.  This, of course, flies in the face of the unavoidable fact (justly stressed by the Kuzari) that the Koran is based on our Torah and explicitly continues the history of the Jewish people.  On the one hand we find abundant mention of the biblical miracles and of the chronicles of Israel:


"Behold our holy book is full of stories about Moses, may he rest in peace, and the children of Israel, stories whose veracity cannot be doubted; all that God did unto Pharaoh and that He split the sea and lead those whom He desired  through it safely ... and how He rained down upon the Jews the manna and the quail ... and how He spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai; and how He stayed the sun for Joshua ... and similarly all that happened before that: the flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorra..." (1:9)


            On the other hand, even a superficial reading will amply demonstrate that discrepancies between the Koran and the Bible abound.  For this, Moslem scholars introduced a radical solution: they claimed that the Bible was originally identical to the Koran and was distorted at a later date by the Jews.  The direct result of this assertion was the total estrangement of Islam from its roots.


            Incidentally, although Rihal notes only the shared historical background, Islamic dependence upon biblical sources is equally apparent in another field - Islamic law is clearly derived from our halakha.


            Christianity, on the other hand, battled with Judaism in a different way: not by claiming that Judaism was falsified, but by negating it altogether.  In their view, the Christian Messiah abolished the "Old" Testament.  In the words of the Rashbatz (Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran of 15th century Spain), of whom we shall have more to say at a later stage, "Because they admit that our Torah is divine and of heavenly origin, and [hence] to claim that it was altered ... is impossible ... they therefore attempted slyly to discredit our Torah by saying that it was lacking and incomplete until the advent of Jesus and his disciples."


            These widely divergent tactics not only explain the differing attitudes of Christianity and Islam towards their Jewish roots, but shed light on the Jewish reaction as well.


            Two of the Rambam's thirteen principles of faith teach us (a) that our Torah is the very one given to Moses at Sinai, and (b) that it is eternally valid.  Islam tried to turn its back on Judaism by claiming that the Jews rewrote history and distorted the Scriptures, that the Jews of today are not the Jews of old nor is the Bible of today the Bible of old.  The Koran, they claimed, is the authentic Bible.  Christianity, on the other hand, asserted that Judaism was good for its time, but after the advent of Jesus became obsolete.  These are mere theological apologetics, designed to obfuscate the very apparent Jewish source of Christianity.  These alterations find expression in numerous ways.  When a pious Pope meets with Jews and says to them, "It is my brothers that I seek," this statement contains, besides openness, a scarcely veiled claim on that Christianity is a peer and not an offspring of Judaism.  In those possessed of a less pure and less responsible attitude, we find the penetration of antisemitism into the very core of the theology and the faith.


            Therefore we must continually stress that the religions which are built upon the classic foundations of prophecy, creation, divine knowledge, and the assumption of a connection between God and man do indeed draw their sustenance from our Bible.  The clearest example of the distortion of Jewish roots can be found in the Mormon religion.  The Mormons rejected Christianity and instead identified themselves as descendants of the ten lost tribes.  The great irony lies in the fact that the Mormons and their ilk feel so close to Judaism that they deny the real Jews.  We have been witness to a similar phenomenon among the American "Black Hebrew" sect which has made its home in Dimona, Israel.


            As we shall see, Rihal had an involved theory regarding the role of the various religions in the process of mankind's collective development towards monotheism.  In the meantime, however, at this historical stage in our as-yet-unredeemed world, we must make a realistic accounting.  From a theological point of view, we easily discover a greater closeness to Islam than to Christianity.  Islam accepted both our uncompromising monotheistic beliefs, and our aversion to personification of God.  In contrast, traditional Jewish theologians sensed a deep chasm and a clear contradiction between Jewish doctrine and the Christian formulation of the Trinity and the Incarnation: "God materialized and became a fetus in the womb of a virgin from an influential family in Israel."(1:4)


            On the other hand, there are ways in which Christianity is actually closer to Judaism than is Islam.  Our meeting point with Christianity lies in the holy Scriptures, in the record of revelation.  Though the Christians rejected the Bible as a binding document, they maintained a belief in its divine character.  Islam, however, considered our Bible a forgery and renounced any association with the Hebrew text.  A significant legal ramification stems from this distinction between Christianity and Islam: the Rambam ruled that it is permissible for a Jew to teach Bible to Christians but not to Moslems, for the Moslems are not interested in the text for its own sake and are liable to abuse their knowledge in order to make a mockery of Judaism.  Seen from a historical perspective, the Rambam's ruling clearly demonstrates a dual attitude toward these two religions.  Islam shares our monotheistic beliefs, yet its categorical rejection of the Bible created a divide that runs between us until this very day.  Christianity, on the other hand, while remaining farther away from us in many of its beliefs, is capable of partially understanding the renewal of our nation and our return to the Land of Israel.  This is because, despite its hypocritical and often hostile attitude toward the Jewish people, it did not totally reject the Bible as its own religious source.  This difference between the Islamic and the Christian approaches to Judaism constitutes the key to understanding the difficulties posed by each of these religions.


The Eternal Covenant


            Our conflict with Christianity and Islam comes to the fore when the Kuzari king raises the question of the sin of the golden calf.  This historic sin has been used by Christian theologians throughout the ages as Scriptural proof of the divine repeal of the covenant.  As the Kuzari king asks, "What of the greatness [of the Jewish people] remained at the time of that sin?"(1:96)


            Rihal's answer teaches us that, paradoxically, the incident of the golden calf proves the total opposite, for even in the wake of this grave sin the chosen status of the Jewish nation remained constant.  The transgression did not nullify the covenant:


"The manna did not stop raining down for the nation, and the cloud did not stop providing them with shade, and the pillar of fire did not cease to guide them.  Prophecy remained constant and grew more powerful among them, and not one of the unique gifts that they received was repealed, except for the two tablets which Moses broke; however, he immediately prayed for their return, and they received two new stone tablets, identical to the original ones, as they were forgiven for this sin." (1:97)


            Rihal's reply reinforces the concept of a "segula" that exists beyond mere chosenness.  As the Maharal and Rav Kook were later to express it, chosenness is dependent upon man's actions, and serves as a measure of his spiritual level, while segula portrays an internal state which mutely proclaims that the Jewish nation will serve as God's messenger on earth throughout the process of world redemption.  This mission cannot be annulled.  The divine covenant with our nation and our land will last forever.


 (This lecture was translated by Gila Weinberg.)


Copyright (c)1996 Prof. Shalom Rosenberg, Yeshivat Har Etzion.  All rights reserved.


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