This article is part of Torat Chovevei, a Community Learning Program led by Yeshivat Chovevei Torah with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The goal of the program is to connect communities to YCT through the medium of Torah learning. All topics discussed weave relevant contemporary issues together with Torah and non-Torah sources in monthly home-based learning groups (chaburot). These groups are guided by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff, Rebbe and Director of Community Learning at YCT. For further information about Torat Chovevei, and how your community can get involved, please contact Rabbi Resnikoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although the written Torah suggests in various places a violent relationship with other religions- particularly those that involve avodah zarah (best but incompletely translated as “idolatry”)- we find in the Sages a mixed bag of how we should treat other religions. Some sources seem to suggest that violence was reserved for the biblical epoch while others indicate that as long as avodah zarah continues, our violent attitude to it does as well. In the modern sources we find a tendency to demand that interfaith interactions be about practicalities rather than sharing theologies. However, in modern times, it seems possible that sharing beliefs for the purpose of mutual understanding and perhaps even learning about our own faiths through contrast could constitute an important practical benefit.
While still waiting to enter the Land of Israel on the banks of the Jordan, The Children of Israel are given instructions regarding the remnants of the peoples whom they will eventually drive out.
What is the reason God doesn’t want us investigating the activities of the Canaanite nations? Is this the same reason he demands that we destroy every remnant of their religion?
How generally should we understand these commandments? Are they specific to the just-conquered Canaanite nations or are they an outline of what our attitude should be to other religions?
What value is being reinforced by these פסוקים? What importance do they have for us today?
|אֵ֠לֶּה הַֽחֻקִּ֣ים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֘ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּשְׁמְר֣וּן לַעֲשׂוֹת֒ בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֩ נָתַ֨ן יְקֹוָ֜ק אֱ-לֹהֵ֧י אֲבֹתֶ֛יךָ לְךָ֖ לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ כָּל־הַיָּמִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם חַיִּ֖ים עַל־הָאֲדָמָֽה. אַבֵּ֣ד תְּ֠אַבְּדוּן אֶֽת־כָּל־הַמְּקֹמ֞וֹת אֲשֶׁ֧ר עָֽבְדוּ־שָׁ֣ם הַגּוֹיִ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֛ם יֹרְשִׁ֥ים אֹתָ֖ם אֶת־אֱלֹהֵיהֶ֑ם עַל־הֶהָרִ֤ים הָֽרָמִים֙ וְעַל־הַגְּבָע֔וֹת וְתַ֖חַת כָּל־עֵ֥ץ רַעֲנָֽ וְנִתַּצְתֶּ֣ם אֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתָ֗ם וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־מַצֵּ֣בֹתָ֔ם וַאֲשֵֽׁרֵיהֶם֙ תִּשְׂרְפ֣וּן בָּאֵ֔שׁ וּפְסִילֵ֥י אֱלֹֽהֵיהֶ֖ם תְּגַדֵּע֑וּן וְאִבַּדְתֶּ֣ם אֶת־שְׁמָ֔ם מִן־הַמָּק֖וֹם הַהֽוּא. לֹֽא־תַעֲשׂ֣וּן כֵּ֔ן לַיקֹוָ֖ק אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶֽם כִּ֠י אִֽם־אֶל־הַמָּק֞וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַ֨ר יְקֹוָ֤ק אֱ-לֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ מִכָּל־שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֔ם לָשׂ֥וּם אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שָׁ֑ם לְשִׁכְנ֥וֹ תִדְרְשׁ֖וּ וּבָ֥אתָ שָֽׁמָּה:||These are the statutes and the ordinances, which ye shall observe to do in the land which the LORD, the God of thy fathers, hath given thee to possess it, all the days that ye live upon the earth. Ye shall surely destroy all the places, wherein the nations that ye are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree. And ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and ye shall destroy their name out of that place. Ye shall not do so unto the LORD your God. But unto the place which the LORD your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put His name there, even unto His habitation shall ye seek, and thither thou shalt come.|
|כִּֽי־יַכְרִית֩ יְקֹוָ֨ק אֱ-לֹהֶ֜יךָ אֶת־הַגּוֹיִ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתָּ֥ה בָא־שָׁ֛מָּה לָרֶ֥שֶׁת אוֹתָ֖ם מִפָּנֶ֑יךָ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֹתָ֔ם וְיָשַׁבְתָּ֖ בְּאַרְצָֽם: הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֗ פֶּן־תִּנָּקֵשׁ֙ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֔ם אַחֲרֵ֖י הִשָּׁמְדָ֣ם מִפָּנֶ֑יךָ וּפֶן־תִּדְרֹ֨שׁ לֵֽא-לֹהֵיהֶ֜ם לֵאמֹ֨ר אֵיכָ֨ה יַעַבְד֜וּ הַגּוֹיִ֤ם הָאֵ֙לֶּה֙ אֶת־אֱ-לֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה־כֵּ֖ן גַּם־אָֽנִי: לֹא־תַעֲשֶׂ֣ה כֵ֔ן לַיקֹוָ֖ק אֱ-לֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּי֩ כָל־תּוֹעֲבַ֨ת יְקֹוָ֜ק אֲשֶׁ֣ר שָׂנֵ֗א עָשׂוּ֙ לֵא-לֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם כִּ֣י גַ֤ם אֶת־בְּנֵיהֶם֙ וְאֶת־בְּנֹ֣תֵיהֶ֔ם יִשְׂרְפ֥וּ בָאֵ֖שׁ לֵֽאלֹהֵיהֶֽם: אֵ֣ת כָּל־הַדָּבָ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֤ר אָנֹכִי֙ מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם אֹת֥וֹ תִשְׁמְר֖וּ לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת לֹא־תֹסֵ֣ף עָלָ֔יו וְלֹ֥א תִגְרַ֖ע מִמֶּֽנּוּ:||When the LORD thy God shall cut off the nations from before thee, whither thou goest in to dispossess them, and thou dispossessest them, and dwellest in their land; take heed to thyself that thou be not ensnared to follow them, after that they are destroyed from before thee; and that thou inquire not after their gods, saying: ‘How used these nations to serve their gods? even so will I do likewise.’ Thou shalt not do so unto the LORD thy God; for every abomination to the LORD, which He hateth, have they done unto their gods; for even their sons and their daughters do they burn in the fire to their gods.All this word which I command you, that shall ye observe to do; thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
According to the following sources, how must we contextualize the commandments we read above? What is their purpose? Who do they apply to?
What is the difference between the approach taken by the Talmud and the approach taken by the Sifre quoted about the proper attitude to other religions?
Is it necessary to say that these sources would refer to modern religions as well as ancient? What distinctions might we make?
Sifre on Deuteronomy Ch. 60, 61
|את כל המקומות אשר עבדו שם, מגיד שהיו כנענים שטופים בעבודה זרה יתר מכל אומות העולם.
אשר אתם יורשים אותם את אלהיהם, מפני מה אתם יורשים את אלהיהם שלא תעשו כמעשיהם ויבואו אחרים וירשו אתכם.
יכול אף מצווה לרדוף אחריהם בחוצה לארץ תלמוד לומר ואבדתם את שמם מן המקום ההוא, בארץ ישראל אתה מצווה לרדוף אחריהם, ואין אתה מצווה לרדוף אחריהם בחוצה לארץ.
|“All the places wherein…served their gods.” This teaches that the Canaanites were more awash in idolatry than any nation of the world.
“[the nations] that ye are to dispossess…” Why are you dispossessing their Gods? So that you will not act as they acted and others will not come and dispossess you.
Perhaps you are even commanded to chase after them outside of the Land? The Torah says, “and ye shall destroy their name out of that place,” In the Land of Israel you are commanded to chase after them but you are not commanded to chase after them outside of the land.
Sifre on Deuteronomy, Ch. 81
|פן תנקש אחריהם, שמא תמשך אחריהם או שמא תדמה להם שמא תעשה כמעשיהם ויהיו לך למוקש. אחרי השמדם מפניך, מפני מה אני משמידם מפניך שלא תעשה כמעשיהם ויבואו אחרים וישמידו פניך.
פן תדרוש לאלהיהם לאמר, שלא תאמר הואיל והם יוצאים בטגא אף אני אצא בטגא הואיל והם יוצאים בארגמן אף אני אצא בארגמן הואיל והם יוצאים בתולסין אף אני אצא בתולסין ואעשה כן גם אני.
|“Be not ensnared to follow after them…” lest you be pulled after them or lest you resemble them, lest you act like their acts and it becomes a stumbling block for you. “After that they are destroyed from before thee…” Why am I destroying them before you? So that you will not act like their acts and others will not come and destroy you.
“And that thou inquire not after their gods, saying…” That you should not say, ‘since they are going out in a toga, I will also go out in a toga. Since they are going out in purple, I will also go out in purple. Since they are going out in trousers, I will also go out in trousers.’ “Even so will I do likewise.”u, that shall ye observe to do; thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 37a
|אבד תאבדון את כל המקומות אשר עבדו שם וגו’ – מה עבודת כוכבים מיוחדת שהיא חובת הגוף, ונוהגת בין בארץ בין בחוץ לארץ, אף כל שהיא חובת הגוף – נוהגת בין בארץ בין בח”ל.||“Ye shall surely destroy all the places…” Just as [destruction of] idolatry is singular in that it is a requirement of a person’s body, and it applies both in the Land and outside of the Land, so everything that is a requirement of a person’s body applies both in the Land and outside of the Land.
Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 45b
|מה ת”ל ואבדתם את שמם מן המקום ההוא? לכנות לה שם. יכול לשבח? לשבח ס”ד? אלא, יכול לא לשבח ולא לגנאי? ת”ל: שקץ תשקצנו ותעב תתעבנו כי חרם הוא, הא כיצד? היו קורין אותה בית גליא – קורין אותה בית כריא, עין כל – עין קוץ
||What does “and ye shall destroy their name out of that place” teach us? To call them names. Perhaps names of praise? Praise?! Rather neither praise nor insults? The Torah teaches us “thou shalt utterly detest it, and thou shalt utterly abhor it.”(Deut. 7:26). How? If it was called Beit Galya (the house of revelation) call it Beit Karya (the house of destruction). If it was called Ein Kol (the wellspring of everything) call it Ein Kotz (the wellspring of thorns).
How is the attitude of Rav Moshe different from the attitude of the Meiri? What level of authority does Rav Moshe carry for us compared to the Meiri? Is there any way to synthesize between these two positions?
Meiri, Avodah Zara, 22a
|וכבר התבאר שדברים הללו נאמרו לאותם הזמנים שהיו אותם האומות מעובדי האלילים והיו מזוהמים במעשיהם ומכוערים במדותיהם כענין האמור בקצת כמעשה ארץ מצרים אשר ישבתם בה לא תעשו וכמעשה ארץ כנען וגו’ אבל שאר אמות שהם גדורים בדרכי הדתות ושהם נקיים מכעורים שבמדות הללו ואדרבה שמענישים עליהם אין ספק שאין לדברים הללו מקום להם כלל||It has already been explained that these things were said about those times when those nations were worshiping idols and they were polluted in their behavior and ugly in their character a little like what the Torah says, “Do not behave like the behavior of the Land of Egypt where you dwelt and like the behavior of the Land of Canaan…” But the other nations, who are restrained by the ways of religion and they are clean of ugliness in character and, on the contrary, punish (ugliness of character), there is no doubt that these things do not apply to them at all.
Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:53
|בענין אחד שפרנסתו להיות מורה בבתי הספר של המדינה בדברי ימי היונים והרומים אם מותר לספר בדתיהם כ”ח ניסן תש”כ. מע”כ ידידי הנכבד מהר”ר יהודה פרנס שליט”א…
…כשצריך ללמד בהקורס שלו עניני דתיהם והבליהם, צריך לדבר בלשון שיבינו שהם עניני שטות והבל איך שדבר הבל זה עשו ודבר הבל זה אשר אפילו קצת בן דעת ימאס בזה וכהא שאמר ר”נ במגילה דף כ”ה כל ליצנותא אסירא בר מליצנותא דעכו”ם דשריא. ובאופן זה מותר, וגם אפשר יביא קצת תועלת מזה שיבין מזה שאף עתה יש כמה דברים שאף שמחזיקים הרבה בנ”א שהם באמת הבלים ודברי שטות ואין ללכת אחר הדברים שמחזיקים אף רוב עולם בעינים סתומות, כמו שהיו הרבה דורות שטעו בדברי הבל ושטות כאלו שהיו מליוני מליונים בנ”א ורק עם ישראל שהיו מתי מעט הבינו האמת וקבלו התורה ושמרוה בכל הדורות ומסרו נפשם עליה וכל העולם שחקו עליהם ובזו אותם ועתה יודעים כל אוה”ע שהאמת היה עם ישראל בזה, ואפשר יבינו שגם עתה הוא כן, ואף שודאי אין לנו לדרוש בפני אוה”ע בדבר דתם שמחזיקים היום מצד שלום המדינה שבחסד השי”ת אנו שרוים בצלה בשלום ושלוה ואנו מצוים להתפלל בשלומה מ”מ לדרוש על הבליות העמים הקדמונים הוא דבר טוב שיביא תועלת ממילא.
|About someone whose job it is to be a teacher in a public school, when teaching about the times of the Greeks and the Romans, is it permitted to tell about their religions?
…When he needs to teach in his class about their religions and idols, he should speak in a way that it is understood that they are nonsense and absurdity: How they did this absurd thing and this absurd thing that anyone who has a little bit of understanding would be disgusted by it. And it is like what Rav Nachman said (T.B. Megillah 25a), “All mockery is forbidden except for the mockery of idolatry.” And in this way, it is permitted. And it is even possible that there will be some benefit from this for one will understand from this that even now there are some things that even though many people believe them, they are actually absurdities and nonsense. And one shouldn’t follow blindly after the things that most of the world believes as many generations who erred in things of absurdity and nonsense—there were millions of people like that. And only the People of Israel, who were the vast minority understood the truth and accepted the Torah and kept it for all of the generations and gave their lives for it and all of the nations laughed at them and mocked them and now all the nations of the world know that the truth was with Israel in this. And perhaps they will understand that even now it is so. And even though we certainly should not criticize the nations of the world about their religions that they believe in today in order to maintain the tranquility of the state in whose shadow we live by the kindness of God in peace and harmony. And we are commanded to pray for its tranquility. In any case, to criticize the absurdities of the ancient nations is a good thing that will bring additional benefit.
Are modern militant Islamists fulfilling our biblical commandments?
Based strictly on what we read in this week’s parsha, how should we understand the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas? Positively or negatively?
Based on the other sources we’ve seen, what might be added to our initial evaluation based simply on the words of the Torah?
What place do values like preserving the cultural history of others or respecting other’s beliefs hold in this conversation?
Over World Protests, Taliban Are Destroying Ancient Buddhas
By BARRY BEARAK
Published: March 4, 2001
|NEW DELHI, March 3— The Great Buddhas of Bamiyan priceless artifacts that 800 years ago survived the wrathful cannon fire of Genghis Khan — are being steadfastly destroyed bit by bit with hammers, spades and explosives, Afghanistan’s Taliban militia stated officially today for the first time.
”The head and legs of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan were destroyed yesterday,” Mawlawi Qudratullah Jamal, the Taliban’s minister of information and culture, told reporters in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. ”Our soldiers are working hard to demolish the remaining parts. They will come down soon.” He said he anticipated no difficulties: ”It is easier to destroy than to build.”
Last Monday, Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban’s supreme leader, issued a surprise edict that ordered the destruction of all statues. ”These idols have been gods of the infidels,” declared the mullah, a one-eyed recluse who is better known in Afghanistan as Amir-ul Momineen, the commander of the faithful.
The Taliban, who practice a stern interpretation of Islam, have controlled most of the nation since 1996 — and hold about 90 percent now. They have become notorious for many of their dictums, among them the head-to-toe sheathing of women, the refusal to provide education for girls, and the imprisonment of men who trim their beards.
But until this week, statuary had been spared.
”It is not a big issue,” Mr. Jamal said today of the ban. ”The statues are objects only made of mud or stone.” But most of the world has reacted otherwise.
Afghanistan has been a crossroads of Europe, India and China. Great conquerors have come through its mountains, as have traders, ideas and religions. Islam supplanted Buddhism more than 1,000 years ago.
While most of Afghanistan’s art treasures have been looted over the years, many objects of value remain. Certainly, no one has been able to carry off the towering Buddhas of the city of Bamiyan, which is about 90 miles west of Kabul. The mammoth figures are hewn from sandstone and embedded in a cliff.
One is 175 feet high, the other 120 feet. Both are at least 1,500 years old, and are considered among the greatest pieces of early Buddhist art.
After Mullah Omar’s announcement, people from all over the world have been arguing for the statuary’s reprieve. Preservationists have voiced outrage, museums have made offers. Buddhists have pleaded for religious tolerance.
Muslims have argued that the Taliban are mistaken in their narrow interpretations of the Koran.
Today, Mr. Jamal, the information minister, effectively told the world to mind its own business. However much the uproar, the ”implementation of the decree will not be delayed,” he said. Besides, the world ”knows that they cannot have a say in this” because other nations are ”not kind” to Afghanistan.
Indeed, only three countries — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government.
But even those three have been disapproving this past week. Pakistan has protested the decree. Unesco’s Arab group, which includes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has described the demolition plans as ”savage.”…
”What kind of people would destroy the heritage of mankind?” asked Rakhaldas Sengupta, 75, a retired archaeologist in New Delhi…
”The Buddhas have lived through great damage and still survived,” said Mr. Sengupta. ”Some things can be restored. But if they are brought down in chunks and then ground into bits, what will be there left to do?”
Based on the following teshuva, can a synthesis be made between Rav Moshe and the Meiri? Can we live with it?
Why does Rav Moshe restrict this dispensation to the greatest Torah scholars? How is such a status determined? How do we weigh ourselves in this question? How seriously do we need to take Rav Moshe’s restriction?
Rav Moshe says that it is not our place to criticize the nations of the world for their religions because שלום המדינה, the tranquility of the State where we live by the kindness of God. What might he say about the Bamiyan Buddhas? What if Jews were in control of Afghanistan? What repercussions does this have regarding Israel?
Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:111
|בענין קריאה בספרי ע”ז להבין ולהורות…מע”כ ידידי הנכבד מהר”ר יהודה פרנס שליט”א.
בדבר מה שהביא מהמאירי פ’ חלק על קריאה בספרים חיצונים שלהבין ולהורות ליכא איסור שה”ה על ספרי ע”ז, הוא אמת…ואולי ילפינן זה מלמוד עניני כשוף שנאמר לא תלמד לעשות אבל אתה למד להבין ולהורות בסנהדרין דף ס”ח. ואולי מהא דסנהדרין צריכין לידע גם עניני כשוף וגם הבלי ע”ז כמפורש ברמב”ם רפ”ב מסנהדרין כדי שיהיו יודעין לדון אותם ואם לא היו קורין בספריהם איך היו יודעין דאין לומר שהיו לומדין מהעובדים שזה אסור אף כדי להבין ולהורות כדאיתא בשבת דף ע”ה דמן גדופי שהוא מין האדוק בע”ז אסור ללמד אף להבין ולהורות עיין שם. עכ”פ הדין אמת דלהבין ולהורות ליכא איסור. אבל מצד היתר זה אין להתיר אלא לגדולי הדור בתורה וביראת שמים ולא לסתם בנ”א.
|About reading the books of idolatry in order to understand and to practice…
About what you brought from the Meiri about reading external books, that for the purpose of understanding and teaching there is no prohibition, and so too for books of idolatry, this is true… And perhaps we learn this from the case of witchcraft as it says, “Do not learn in order to practice but you may learn in order to understand and to teach.”(T.B. Sanh. 68a). And perhaps this is because the Sanhedrin needs to know about witchcraft and the absurdities of idolatry as it says in the Rambam (Laws of Sanh. 2:1) in order that they will be able to judge them. And if they did not read their books, how would they know? For we cannot say that they learned from the idolaters for this is forbidden even in order to understand and to teach as it says in (T.B.) Shabbat 75a that it is prohibited to learn from a practitioner of idolatry even for the purpose of understanding and teaching. In any case, the ruling is correct that for the purpose of understanding and teaching there is no prohibition. However…only the greatest scholars in Torah and fear of Heaven should be permitted and not average people.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soltoveitchik, Confrontation, Tradition 1964, vol. 3 #2
|Our approach to and relationship with the outside world has always been of an ambivalent character, intrinsically antithetic, bordering at times on the paradoxical. We relate ourselves to and at the same time withdraw from, we come close to and simultaneously retreat from the world of Esau. When the process of coming nearer and nearer is almost consummated, we immediately begin to retreat quickly into seclusion. We cooperate with the members of other faith communities in all fields of constructive human endeavor, but, simultaneously with our integration into the general social framework, we engage in a movement of recoil and retrace our steps. In a word, we belong to the human society and, at the same time, we feel as strangers and outsiders. We are rooted in the here and now reality as inhabitants of our globe, and yet we experience a sense of homelessness and loneliness as if we belonged somewhere else. We are both realists and dreamers, prudent and practical on the one hand, and visionaries and idealists on the other. We are indeed involved in the cultural endeavor and yet we are committed to another dimension of experience. Our first patriarch, Abraham, already introduced himself in the following words: “I am a stranger and sojourner with you.” Is it possible to be both at the same time? Is not this definition absurd since it contravenes the central principle of classical logic that no cognitive judgment may contain two mutually exclusive terms? And yet, the Jew of old defied this time-honored principle and did think of himself in contradictory terms. He knew well in what areas he could extend his full cooperation to his neighbors and act as a resident, a sojourner, and at what point this gesture of cooperation and goodwill should terminate, and he must disengage as if he were a stranger. He knew in what enterprise to participate to the best of his ability and what offers and suggestions, however attractive and tempting, to reject resolutely. He was aware of the issues on which he could compromise, of the nature of the goods he could surrender, and vice versa, of the principles which were not negotiable and the spiritual goods which had to be defended at no matter what cost. The boundary line between a finite idea and a principle nurtured by infinity, transient possessions and eternal treasures, was clear and precise
STATEMENT ADOPTED BY THE RABBINICAL COUNCIL OF AMERICA AT THE MID-WINTER CONFERENCE, FEBRUARY 3-5, 1964
|We are pleased to note that in recent years there has evolved in our country as well as throughout the world a desire to seek better understanding and a mutual respect among the world’s major faiths. The current threat of secularism and materialism and the modern atheistic negation of religion and religious values makes even more imperative a harmonious relationship among the faiths. This relationship, however, can only be of value if it will not be in conflict with the uniqueness of each religious community, since each religious community is an individual entity which cannot be merged or equated with a community which is committed to a different faith. Each religious community is endowed with intrinsic dignity and metaphysical worth. Its historical experience, its present dynamics, its hopes and aspirations for the future can only be interpreted in terms of full spiritual independence of and freedom from any relatedness to another faith community. Any suggestion that the historical and meta-historical worth of a faith community be viewed against the backdrop of another faith, and the mere hint that a revision of basic historic attitudes is anticipated, are incongruous with the fundamentals of religious liberty and freedom of conscience and can only breed discord and suspicion. Such an approach is unacceptable to any self-respecting faith community that is proud of its past, vibrant and active in the present and determined to live on in the future and to continue serving God in its own individual way. Only full appreciation on the part of all of the singular role, inherent worth and basic prerogatives of each religious community will help promote the spirit of cooperation among faiths.
It is the prayerful hope of the Rabbinical Council of America that all inter-religious discussion and activity will be confined to these dimensions and will be guided by the prophet, Micah (4:5) “Let all the people walk, each one in the name of his god, and we shall walk in the name of our Lord, our God, forever and ever.”
The following article seems to fly in the face of our beliefs as laid out by our sources. Is it possible to bracket these parts and consider the rest of the article as within the realm of discussion?
What would Rav Moshe say about Dr. Thatamanil’s overall approach? What critiques might he have offered? What might he have agreed with? What would the Rav have said?
Considering the range of sources we’ve seen so far, how might we consider and evaluate Dr. Thataminil’s ideas? What might we change? What might we accept whole cloth?
Binocular Wisdom: The Benefits of Participating in Multiple Religious Traditions
By Professor John Thatamanil
|I am a Christian theologian who loves Buddhism.
Unlike some who turn to Buddhism because of trauma from a toxic or inadequate version of Christianity, my love for Buddhism is not a product of alienation. My religious family of origin is not ideal — no family is — but my first Christian home, the Mar Thoma Church, and now the Episcopal Church, have done right by me. They both convey to me a progressive, justice-seeking, and reflective Christianity, one that never demands that I sacrifice intellect in order to embrace faith.
So why the fascination with Buddhism?
I am drawn to Buddhist traditions not to correct felt deficits in my own tradition, but to deepen my experience of the world by entering into another way of understanding and living. I seek a new kind of wisdom that our age requires.
In an older era, a person was accounted wise if he or she attained to a practical mastery of one tradition. Think St. Francis of Assisi. But our age requires also (not instead of) a new kind of wisdom: the capacity to see the world through more than one set of religious lenses and to integrate into one life, insofar as possible, what is disclosed through those lenses. Think Mahatma Gandhi. His theory and practice of nonviolent resistance integrated ideas and practices drawn from Jainism, Christianity (Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in particular), and, of course, Hinduism.
For lack of a better phrase, I call this binocular wisdom, an extension from binocular vision, vision generated by both eyes, the only kind that yields depth perspective.
We need the depth perspective of binocular wisdom for many reasons. First, increasingly many among us incorporate into our lives religious practices drawn from more than one tradition. Christians who do vipassana meditation or yoga are increasingly the norm. What is less common is reflection about the meaning of multiple religious participation. Few ask how, for example, the Buddhist wisdom that drives vipassana and Christian wisdom enacted in the Eucharist might be held together.
We also need this kind of wisdom because interfaith marriages are becoming routine. A great temptation here is to downplay religious matters for fear of conflict. Or, the most insistent parent is permitted to win: all right, the kids can go to church and not synagogue. But might this kind of double life be a source of promise and not a divisive problem? We need binocular wisdom to pull this off.
And, of course, we also need binocular wisdom to address the vast global crises of our time such as the growing gap worldwide between the rich and the poor and ecological problems that no tradition can navigate alone. Christian teaching about the natural world as God’s good creation when taken together with the Buddhist quest to end self-seeking desire promises more than either tradition can offer alone.
How might such wisdom and integration work?
Let’s begin with a small example: “Life hurts.” That is my working, albeit non-standard, translation of the Pali phrase sabbham dukkham, the First of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, which is customarily translated, “All is suffering.” The latter is the more accurate translation, literally speaking, although it suggests that neither pleasure, satisfaction, nor contentment is possible in life. That is a manifestly mistaken reading of Buddhist wisdom. One need only spend a few minutes around Tibetan Buddhist monks or enter a vast lecture hall in which the Dalai Lama is speaking to feel in one’s bones the profound joy that marks the lives of advanced practitioners.
So, what does the First Noble Truth show me as it is lived out in practice?
To say that life hurts is to name a truth that most of us spend every waking moment avoiding. Through mindfulness practice which, counter-intuitively, is the practice of leaning into life’s hurts rather than running away from them, I am coming to see daily just how much time I spend in futile attempts to evade regular visitations of pain. The memory of a lost love, the sudden intrusion into mind of some personal failing, the nagging anxiety of the undone task — mindfulness practice helps me to recognize and abandon my unrealistic quest either to avoid or to anesthetize myself from these jabs of hurt that visit me, often many times a minute.
By holding my aversion to pain in gentle, compassionate, and attentive regard — another way to understand mindfulness — I gain a measure of liberation (the standard translation of “nirvana”) from the conditioned, even addictive patterns that drive my behavior. Still more, the practice of compassionate regard is happily addictive, and it bleeds over into my disposition toward others. I am reminded that others too are making their way through twinges, jabs, and outright blows of suffering. The irritations, failings, and even the flat out nastiness of others are not about me but the disturbing fruit of unaddressed hurt.
What does this practice mean for my Christian life? As my own vipassana teacher, Gordon Peerman, an Episcopal priest who is also an advanced Buddhist practitioner, loves to say, “Buddhist practice enables me to operationalize the Christian calling to love my neighbor.” That sounds exactly right to me because it is confirmed in my experience.
I am no saint. But I am now somewhat less prone to irritation when my tween daughter insists on winning an argument. That is no advanced accomplishment on the road to mystic vision, but it is a lovely gift on the way toward a gentler life, a life that is all the more Christian for being Buddhist.