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  • Is Theological Pluralism Possible?
  • Richard Claman (bio)


A number of recent writings concerning Jewish theology have argued, in effect, that a pluralistic respect for the religious views of others—which certainly sounds like a good thing—requires that we must abandon theology! The argument, in outline, is as follows:

  1. 1. The religious beliefs of others (perhaps referring just to other Jews, or perhaps also including adherents of other religions) are worthy of some respect; mere tolerance is not enough. (To illustrate the distinction quickly: a traditional Orthodox justification for tolerance toward non-Orthodox Jews is that the latter fall within the halakhic category of persons who were kidnapped as children by heathens, and hence are not responsible for their present errors of belief.1 Plainly, such a justification is not respectful.)

  2. 2. There cannot, however, be pluralism at the level of theology—for if one accepts that there exists one God, then, how could two inconsistent statements about God both be true?

  3. 3. Therefore Avi Sagi (advocating pluralism among Jews)2 and David Hartman (advocating pluralism across religious boundaries)3 conclude that, to maintain a pluralistic respect for others’ views, it is necessary for Judaism to abandon theology and instead to understand all seemingly theological statements about a God out there as really constituting assertions only as to our different communal motivations in pursuing a (Jewish/halakhic) way of life.4

Similarly, Or N. Rose—representing what Elliot Cosgrove labels as a common theme of many of the contributions to Cosgrove’s recent edited [End Page 49] collection of essays about theology—writes that, to maintain a pluralistic respect for adherents of other religions, it is necessary to abandon any contention that Judaism is in any sense superior to other religions.5

Now, I too am an advocate of the type of pluralism described at (1) above.6 However, I also believe in some sense that I am entitled to assert—and indeed, that it is necessary that we as Jews be able to assert—the meaningfulness of theological discourse, and in particular the especial meaningfulness of Jewish theology. (See below, “Why We Need Both Pluralism and Theology.”)

And so, it would appear that the assumption that theological pluralism makes no sense, as set forth at (2) above, needs to be reconsidered. Rather than try to argue for the theoretical possibility of theological pluralism, I will try simply to offer a metaphoric framework for pluralistic discourse in regard to theology. (See below, “A New Metaphor for Theological Pluralism.”)

I then seek to further develop that metaphor (see below, “An Application”). To do so, I draw upon one of the oldest texts of Jewish mysticism (Sefer Yetzirah, perhaps 3rd century c.e.), as providing a framework for approaching one important contemporary theological problem: whether the Shoah should be understood to present a qualitatively different challenge of theodicy.

(A note to the reader who views the overall problem as just identified [and the dilemma as posed by Sagi] as somehow misdirected, and is satisfied rather with the traditional notion that the other nations all share in the Noahide covenant, with its sheva mitzvot b’nei No·aḥ,7 and we Jews simply have been blessed with a further covenant: I find this position insufficient, for two main reasons. First, this Noahide model demands that we ignore the actual motivations and beliefs—including theological beliefs—that have led others to adopt the seven commandments.8 Accordingly, this model provides for tolerance, but not respect, for others. Second, I suggest that we should not start our theological inquiry with a precondition that the Jewish conception of God must make sense also to adherents of any other religions or belief-systems. Part of the attraction, I suggest, of the Lurianic myth—e.g., of God “withdrawing into the Divine” to make room for the world, but the process of creation then being disrupted by the unanticipated “shattering of the vessels”—is that these are so distinctive, and so reflective of our particular Jewish history and worldview.9 My hope here is to propose a [End Page 50] model that will incorporate the positive features of the Noahide model, but without its limitations.)

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