In one sense, Judaism has been rather tolerant of dissent. Virtually any page of Talmud reports conflicting positions that have happily co-existed over the centuries. The Talmud even transmits the teachings of its most well-known heretic Elisha ben Abuyah, although it ascribes them to Acher, ‘Other.” A heavenly voice resolves a legal dispute between Hillel and Shamai by declaring, “Both these and these are the words of the living God.”* But as the conclusion to the preceding story of Rabbi Eliezer illustrates, dissent is not always tolerated so easily. All objects that Rabbi Eliezer had ruled were clean were burnt in a fire and his colleagues excommunicated him. The excommunication was revoked only on his deathbed.
Jewish history has seen its share of heresy and schism. A few examples:
- A heresy that began in the early centuries of the Common Era and runs through rabbinic literature over more than 500 years involved the question of whether there were “Two Powers in Heaven.” Some scholars believe that rabbinic polemics on this theme helped articulate the boundaries between rabbinic Judaism and Christianity.*
- In the eighth century a movement known as Karaism (from the Hebrew mikrah, “Scripture”) developed in Babylon and spread through the Near East. Karaites denied the legitimacy of rabbinic Judaism and sought to revert to religious practice as described in the Bible. After several centuries of bitter conflict, the group splintered from Judaism.*
- In Europe, Maimonides (1134-1205) was attacked over his philosophic rationalism and his attempt to integrate Judaism and Greek philosophy. In the initial phase of a conflict that would simmer for centuries, Maimonideans and anti-Maimonideans excommunicated one another.
- The Jewish community of Amsterdam handed out the same punishment in 1656 to Baruch Spinoza for his “wrong opinions” and “evil ways.”*
- During the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Eastern Europe, opponents of Hassidism accused Hassidic rabbis of subverting Judaism, directing their followers away from sober world of Torah study into ecstatic forms of worship and near deification of their leaders.
- Toward the end of the 18th century, the Gaon of Vilna, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, issued a ban on Hassidim – expelling them, denying the authenticity of their adherence to dietary laws, forbidding intermarriage with them, participating in business or even assisting at their burials.
The growth of Reform Judaism in Germany during the 19th century engendered vitriolic reactions from traditionalists and a growing rift between these segments of the community. Nowadays, especially in Israel, a grave fault line runs between the ultra-Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. The ultra-Orthodox have parlayed their electoral strength into a crucial swing vote, which has enabled them to deny legitimacy to Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis in Israel. For example, the state does not recognize marriages or conversions performed by non-Orthodox rabbis.
Given the divergent approaches to Scripture and different polities among the churches, it follows that various communities handle dissent in different ways. Of course, what constitutes “dissent” is contested as well. The prophetic tradition of Israel bears witness to the right and responsibility to challenge religious authorities when they are not living by the covenant, just as those authorities challenge the people to live in fidelity to God’s call.
It may also be that those who dissent leave or are forced out from the community, which partially explains the proliferation of denominations in the United States. How to keep unity in a community is a very complex challenge.
It is crucial that each church establish clear and just procedures for adjudicating dissent. Due process is a right too often ignored by powerful religious authorities.
Since there is no papacy in Islam, the process of interpreting the law is very democratic, especially in the Sunni world. Legal experts in the Sunni community have always accused the other of being wrong, astray and sinful, but beyond that they have had no power. It was only through the state that a person or a group of people were excluded from the faith, or in some cases the violation was so grave that the Muslim community as whole regarded a person or a group of people as out of the faith. In most cases people would differ in religious matters but would pray together in the same mosque and would not let their differences separate them.
Who is a Muslim in the traditional sense? Most Muslims agree that a person must believe in the unity of one God, the angels, the holy scriptures, all prophets including Jesus as a prophet and Muhammad, the seal of all prophets and the hereafter, along with the pillars of Islam. Those individuals or groups who reject any one of the above are not considered Muslims. In recent Muslim history, when Bahá’u’lláh (for detail see, see: http://bahaullah.com or see: http://www.bahai.org ) declared himself to be a prophet in Iran, his claim was soon rejected and he and his followers were not considered Muslims. Similarly when Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani,( for more details see:http://www.alislam.org/topics/messiah/index.php) of the Subcontinent of India and Pakistan, declared himself to be the prophet in Islam, his claim was rejected and he and his followers known as the Ahmadiyya Community were declared non-Muslims. The same is true of the Nation of Islam, whose members were not accepted as Muslims from its very beginning.
As long as people follow the basic beliefs and tenants of Islam, there may be controversies among them, but it would be hard to label one or the other as non-Muslims. For example, the Wahhabi sect of Islam (for more detail see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wahabi) called the Shi`a non-Muslims, but their call was rejected by the majority. However, the dispute continues between the Wahhabis and the Shi`a.