Judaism speaks in both a universalistic and exclusivist voice. There’s real tension between them. Consider the core traditional belief that God revealed the Torah to Israel. One early midrash asserts that the revelation was given in the desert, and because had it been given in the Land of Israel, “the Israelites could have said to the nations, ‘You have no share in it.’ But now that it was given in the desert, publicly and openly, in a place that is free for all, everyone wishing to accept it could come and accept it.”*
Another source from the same period teaches exclusivism. God offered the Torah to the nations of the world one after another. Each asked what it contained. The children of Esau rejected it because the Torah outlawed murder, the Ishmaelites because it prohibited theft. Each people explained its refusal because the Torah outlawed an element of immorality that was fundamental to its essence. When God realized that the nations of the world couldn’t live up to the most basic moral standards, God gave the Torah to Israel.* The fact that in later periods rabbinic literature equated Esau with Christendom and Yishmael with the Arab world adds to the darkness of this text.
The universalistic midrash implicitly faults Israel for potentially claiming the gift of Torah for itself alone and asserts that Torah is available to all. The exclusivist midrash argues that every nation in the world — except Israel — possesses an immutable moral corruption that ipso facto renders Torah beyond its reach.
Whether one inclines toward Judaism’s exclusivist or universal voice often depends on how one appraises the “other.” The story of Jacob and his brother Esau provides a perfect example. Jacob had had cheated Esau out of the blessing their father had intended to give his brother. Twenty years later, the brothers finally had a reunion. They embraced, wept and Esau kissed Jacob. According to ancient scribal tradition vayishakeihu, “he kissed” must be written with dots above each letter, a practice that has spawned much commentary (Genesis 33:4). The classic interpretation, attributed to a second century sage who lived through a brutal period of Roman persecution, suggests that this kiss is the exception that proves the rule. “Rabbi Simeon Bar Yohai says: ‘According to halakha [Jewish religious law], it is a well-known fact that Esau hates Jacob; however, Esau at that moment was overcome by compassion and kissed Jacob with all his heart.'”* In Rabbi Simeon’s era, Esau was equated with Rome. Nowadays, too many Jews still believe that the expression “Esau hates Jacob” embodies what Jews should expect from non-Jews.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888), one of the guiding lights of Modern Orthodoxy, took a very different view: “The word vayivku (“and they wept”) faithfully attests to the fact that what we have here is a display of pure human feeling. People can kiss without feeling anything in their heart; however, when tears burst forth at such moments, they come from the depths of the heart. This kiss and these tears reveal to us that Esau is a descendant of Abraham our patriarch and not just an uncivilized hunter – how else could he have become a ruler? The sword per se, which symbolizes pure physical force, cannot prepare mortals for such a role.* Esau gradually abandoned his sword, instilling in himself a love for humanity.”*
To believe in redemption is to know that hatred — even among brothers — can truly be supplanted by love.
The digital age makes it possible to think globally in ways our ancestors could not have imagined. But the very technologies capable of expanding our world may be used to narrow it. With the vast array of cable channels, we can select only the news shows that reinforce our ideologies. We can search the blogosphere for the like-minded, listen only to radio talk shows that give voice to our outrage, or access websites that purport to separate out “real” Christians from “unfaithful” ones. Christians are not immune to the ideological enclaves technology makes possible, and to the demonization of those who think or act differently. I find the lack of civil discourse in the churches is not only scandalous but destructive.
One of the central tensions in Christianity arises from the vast divide between those who, believing that only Christians will be saved, are intent on converting others and, in contrast, those who work to foster religious pluralism. As my participation in this project indicates, I believe it is crucial that Christians contribute to the development of religious pluralism. Pluralism supersedes mere tolerance because it requires the pursuit of understanding; it demands an encounter of commitments and a respect for difference flowing from the knowledge of one’s own tradition.* I believe that the fate of the 21st century may turn on whether the world’s religions can “make a space for those who are not its adherents, who sing a different song, hear a different music, tell a different story.”*
David and Mary have described universalistic and particularistic voices within their traditions. Islam also includes both pluralistic, inclusivist and exclusivist tendencies. All prophets in Islam came from God. The Qur’an says: “Say: ‘We believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and, their descendants, and that which has been vouchsafed to Moses and Jesus; and that which has been vouchsafed to all the [other] prophets by their Sustainer: we make no distinction between any of them. And it is unto Him that we surrender ourselves’” (2:136). The Qur’an called Christians and Jews and People of the Book (Ahl al Kitab) in many places.* Muhammad called all the prophets as his brothers. As narrated in Abu Huraira, “Allah’s Apostle said, ‘Both in this world and in the Hereafter, I am the nearest of all the people to Jesus, the son of Mary. The prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one.’”*
When it speaks inclusively, the Qur’an sometimes blames Jews and Christians for allowing their own desires to change the true revelation from God. The Qur’an says: “Woe, then, unto those who write down, with their own hands, [something which they claim to be] divine writ, and then say. ‘This is from God,’ in order to acquire a trifling gain thereby; woe, then, unto them for what their hands have written, and woe unto them for all that they may have gained!” (2:79). The Qur’an says in another verse: “Among those of the Jewish faith there are some who distort the meaning of the [revealed] words, taking them out of their context…” (4:46 ). The Muslim belief that the Qur’an is the most authentic scripture because it was preserved as it was revealed tends to strengthen an inclusivist view of Islam.
Just as many Jews and Christians believe that theirs is the only true religion, some Muslims believe the same about Islam. To make their point, they quote this verse from the Qur’an: “Behold, the only [true] religion in the sight of God is [man’s] self-surrender unto Him [Islam]; and those who were vouchsafed revelation aforetime took, out of mutual jealousy, to divergent views [on this point] only after knowledge [thereof] had come unto them. But as for him who denies the truth of God’s messages – behold, God is swift in reckoning!” (3:19). Thus some Muslims believe that all other religions are invalid after the revelation of the Qur’an. There is a difference of opinion among scholars on the application of this verse. Scholars like Muhammad Asad, Fazlur Rahman and Mahmoud Ayoub believe that the verse refers to all monotheistic religions as a true religion of God as Islam means submission to one God. Others say that the verse is about the religion of Islam revealed to Muhammad. Still others claim that this verse pertains only to the hereafter and life in heaven.
Whether one sees it as a pluralistic or inclusivist or exclusivist religion, all Muslims should agree that in this life Islam stands for justice and equal treatment for all people.
Note: Translation of the Qur’anic verses and many of the Hadith translation with references were taken from Islamicity.com; some translations of and references to the Hadith were taken from ahadith.co.uk.