Common Knowledge 11.1 (2005) 48-55
A Response to Rabbi Steinsaltz
In the present context and for the present audience, the contribution to this symposium by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz may appear somewhat conservative: a welcome to non-Jews to practice their faiths (including faiths with which Jews have had unhappy relations historically) without concern that Judaism disapproves of them. It should be noted, then, that this article by Rabbi Steinsaltz—one of the most prolific talmudists of our time—is, understood in its Orthodox Jewish context, extraordinary if not absolutely exceptional. While making no concessions to modern liberalism or even ecumenism, and while characteristically identifying his position with that of the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz reassesses current world religions, including the various forms of Hindu and Buddhist religion, as adequately monotheist, adequately nonidolatrous, and at least adequately ethical to qualify as compliant with the Noahide laws.
I do not myself believe that the talmudic approach that Rabbi Steinsaltz takes is the best one for our age, and certainly not the one calculated to lead to more (and better) than "recognition" of other world religions. The talmudic approach defines itself as led by law; it does not seek to lead law—Jewish law—toward what may be its ultimate purpose. Talmudic argumentation is not calculated, in other words, to lead to the providential culmination of history insisted on by Isaiah and other Jewish prophets. Hence my task here is like that of David Katz when, in 1992, he responded to a Common Knowledge article of Cardinal Lustiger's on the Holocaust. Though wishing in some respects that Cardinal Lustiger had gone further, Katz also pointed out how, in the context of the archbishop's ecclesiastical role, he had gone very far indeed toward a reconciliation of Judaism and Christianity. While beginning, then, by pointing out that Rabbi Steinsaltz's article represents an approach so open-minded that it would not be followed by more than a few Orthodox rabbis currently, I also want to argue that other grounds for discussion of non-Jewish religions need to be found and developed in the Orthodox Jewish world. I want to argue, essentially, outside the context in which Rabbi Steinsaltz and any other talmudist will naturally and comfortably argue. Eventually Judaism must inquire after the purpose of the Noahide laws on metalegal—one might even say prophetic—grounds, rather than on the grounds of tradition and law. I must add that, in my view, the prophetic does not contradict the talmudic approach: prophecy underscores the tradition's theological, rather than legal, purpose. The Talmud tends to look inward, focusing on a community bound by its premises, while prophecy often looks extramurally (and upward). A Judaism that does not equally teach Talmud and prophecy is a Judaism impoverished of half its ancient riches.
By invoking prophecy, I mean to recall the symbolic role of Israel as it appears in the Bible. The people of Israel were the first recipients of monotheism. Their national duty was to carry the burden of knowing God. As Ilana Pardes has shown, that burden was carried with irksome difficulty and ambivalence. The Jews were called upon to break idols and deny idols and ridicule the makers and worshippers of idols, as the psalmist says: "Their idols are silver and gold, / The work of men's hands. / They have mouths, but they speak not; / Eyes have they, but they see not. . . . / They that make them shall be like unto them" (Psalm 115). All the same, this nation of iconoclasts continued to commit idolatry itself. Bibli-cal idolatry—it should be clear—represented a crisis. Idolatry in Israel thwarted the divine plan for an ever widening revelation. Israel was to be the vehicle of revelation, the son representing incarnate the existence of the Father in heaven. It was in this context, the context of a mission endangered, that the injunctions against gentile religions were carried into normative talmudic Judaism. In the Mishna and Gemara, stringent laws ensure that Jews will have no contact with pagan ritual objects. Jews are even now forbidden to drink wine from the cup of a gentile for fear that the wine may have been...