Monday 15 June 2015

052) The Chief Rabbi's Retraction

While walking through a Modern Orthodox institution recently, I was chatting to a colleague who noticed I was holding a copy of the book; ‘To Heal a Fractured World’, by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Being a great admirer of Rabbi Sacks, I was rather taken aback when he asked why I was reading such ‘controversial literature’. Intrigued to find out what was so contentious about the man, I discovered that in 2003, Rabbi Sacks was pressured into retracting and deleting sections of his book; ‘The Dignity of Difference’. Apparently, his own Beth Din said that parts of the book were “inconsistent with basic Jewish beliefs.” And Rabbi Elyashiv said it was “contrary to our faith in the Holy Torah”, and was unfit to be brought into the home.

What did Rabbi Sacks say that brought about such scathing attacks?

In the ‘censored’ version, he wrote; “G-d is universal, religions are particular...G-d has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims... G-d is greater than religion...He is only partially comprehended by any faith...He exists in my faith, but also in yours.”
The sentence; “No one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth”, has been deleted.

Some felt that he had gone too far in accepting the ‘validity’ of other religions.
I can understand why some felt he had gone too far. There are some major and fundamental differences between Judaism and other faiths. Many of these differences are theologically and philosophically irreconcilable.

However, as an intellectual exercise, and in the interest of freedom of (Torah) expression, take a look at some very different perspectives on other religions, by some of our leading rabbinical thinkers.

The Rambam


Rabbi Moshe Maimonides (1135-1204) writes that in general, both Christianity and Islam pave the way for universal acceptance of Mashiach. As a result of the emergence of both these religions; “the world has become full of the ideas of Mashiach, Torah and commandments, which have spread to distant lands and nations.”[1]

Notwithstanding this broad and sweeping statement, the Rambam considers Christianity to be a form of Idolatry. He says this in a number of different places[2], and is quite outspoken in his reference their houses of worship as “pagan houses of worship without any doubt”.
His view on Islam is very different; “The Ishmaelites are not idol worshippers at all and they worship the singular G-d properly and without blemish.[3] As a consequence of this view, Jews and Muslims have often shared the same houses of worship.

Then, in a surprising and dramatic turn around, the Rambam adds a caveat: When it comes to social and religious interaction with members of both faiths, he says; “It is permitted to teach the commandments to Christians and to attract them to our religion, while one should not do the same with Ishmaelites.” This is because Christians accepted the authority of the Torah and never denied its authenticity. Whereas Muslims, he says, although their books describe the giving of the Torah to the Jews, consider every point of difference between them and Jews to be a either a falsification of, or mistakes in, textual transmission on the part of the Jews, and that they (the Muslims) indeed have the correct tradition.

The Rambam’s view is clear albeit rather paradoxical: Christianity is Idolatry. Islam is Monotheistic. Yet, theologically, Christians may be engaged with in preference to Muslims because of their acceptance of the basic authority of the Torah. Yet overall, both are indispensable in terms of core principles and preparation for Mashiach.

Concerning his oft quoted and oft misunderstood statement that “the pious of the nations have a share in the world to come” -  this is only when they declare their commitment to uphold the seven Noachide laws[4] before a Jewish Beit Din.[5] This, not being a common practice, puts a very different pragmatic spin on the popular perception of this famous statement, and is indicative of the Rambam’s uncompromising stance on the matter.


The Rashba[6] , holding a similar view to the Rambam, says that Moslems are not idol worshippers, but; “all other gentiles are considered to be idol worshippers”


Rabbi Menachem Ha Meiri (1249-1315)[7], on the other hand has probably the most radically liberal view on Christianity and Islam that is to be found in all of Torah literature.  He posits that the notion of idolatry has absolutely disappeared from society (barring what he refers to as some fringes or ‘extremities’ of civilization). Idolatry, in his view has essentially become extinct, and replaced by more developed religions, with Christianity and Islam both falling under the broad banner of monotheistic religions. He refers to them as ‘umot ha-gedurot be-darcei ha-datot’, or ‘nations restricted by ways of religion’, as opposed to the idolaters of old who thrived on total anarchy.[8]

Jewish law does contain several references to inequality between Jews and non-Jews. For example; If a Jew’s animal damages the property of a Gentile, the Jew is not liable. But if a Gentile’s animal damages the property of a Jew, the Gentile is liable. According to the Meiri, the ‘non-Jews’ in such examples of asymmetry in Jewish law, are specifically the ancient idolaters, who lost their rights to be protected by the very laws they sought to undermine.  He says of the ancient pagans; “All these people possess no religion and submit to the fear of no divinity”. Contemporary Gentiles, however, were to be treated no different from Jews, because their religions gave them a sense of law and order.

He continues; “Discriminatory rules such as this were instituted in times when those Gentiles were devout in their idolatry. But now their idolatry has come to an end in most places, and there is accordingly no need to be stringent with them as in the old regulations.”[9]

In a similar vein, the Meiri offers a remarkable explanation in his commentary to a text in the Gemora; “A Notzri (Christian) may not be traded with”. He says; “This refers (not to Christians but) to the (idolatrous) nation of Nevuchadnetzer , the Babylonian King.”[10]

Commenting on the Gemora in Bava Kama, he says; “All the people who are of the nations that are restricted by the ways of their religion and worship the divinity in any way, even if their faith is far from ours, are excluded from the principle of inequality. Rather, they are like full-fledged Jews with respect to these matters, with no distinction whatsoever.”[11]

Regarding the mitzvah of returning lost property, which only has to be performed to “your brother”[12], and not to Gentiles, the Meiri says; “The reference is to everyone who is ‘restricted by the ways of their religion’.”[13] Accordingly, the Meiri regards contemporary non-Jews to fall under the category of ‘achicha’, your brother, and ‘re’ehu’, your peer.

Again, commenting on Bava Kama, he says; “All those who follow the seven laws of Noah are treated in our courts as we are treated in theirs, and we do not accord ourselves favourable treatment. It goes without saying that the same applies to nations restricted by ways of their religion.”[14] Amazingly, here the Meiri seems to regard contemporary non-Jews as having a higher status than those who merely observe the seven Noachide laws.

As demonstrated, the Meiri differs spectacularly from the view of the Rambam. So much so that some simply couldn't accept his radically tolerant outlook and insisted that he wrote these commentaries specifically for the censors in order to appease the non-Jews. The Chatam Sofer[15], for example, wrote about a Meiri text; “It is a mitzvah to wipe it out, for it did not emerge from his holy mouth.”[16] The implication here is not just that the Meiri wrote to appease non-Jews but that his views on that issue were outright forgeries.

The interesting thing though is that the Chatam Sofer never gave any reasons for his sweeping statement[17]. And he never saw the writings of the Meiri on Bava Kama first hand, because he only quoted them through secondary sources (such as the Shita Mekubetzet in the above example). Also, he couldn't have been familiar with the Meiri on Avodah Zara (where the “nations bound by religion” concept was formulated), because it was only published in 1944, more than 100 years after his passing. Yet, notwithstanding all this, from then on, the views of the Meiri regarding non-Jews lost much of their credibility.[18]

R Moshe Isserless


Rabbi Moshe Isserless[19] explains that in Jewish Law, the Trinity is considered to be “Shituff” or “partnering” G-d with another being. For a Jew, “Shituff” would be absolutely forbidden. The question is whether or not it is forbidden for a non-Jew.  The poskim (halachik authorities) are divided on this issue. As we have seen, the Rambam holds that it is forbidden even to a non-Jew, to the extent that if he practices “Shituff”, he is considered an idolater. The Ramo, however takes a different view. He maintains that partnering G-d with another being is permitted to non-Jews.[20]

The Maharal of Prague


The Maharal[21], taking a similar tack, writes; “Anyone who accepts upon himself to worship the First Cause, falls into the category of a ‘ger toshav’[22] (a resident stranger), who is not discriminated against by the laws (as in Bava Kama 4,3).”


In a similar vein, R Moshe Rivkes[23], commentating on the Shulchan Aruch, says that the discriminatory laws were only directed towards the “idolaters of earlier times, who believed in neither the Exodus from Egypt nor Creation ex nihilo. But concerning contemporary gentiles...since they believe in the Exodus, Creation ex nihilo, and other fundamentals (these laws do not apply), since their intent is to the Creator.”

R Zvi Hirsch Chayes

One of the first rabbinic authorities to actually acknowledge the Meiri as a source text, was R Zvi Hirsch Chayes[24]. Fascinatingly, he is the only commentator in the Vilna Shass to hold a Ph.D. He writes; “Christians, who believe in religion...Torah from Heaven and in the existence of G-d, are absolutely regarded by us as ‘gerim toshavim’, and the seven Noachide laws are built into both Christian and Moslem legal systems.”[25]


About fifty years later, the Torah Temimah[26] writes that the discriminatory laws; “ not apply to those nations who observe the seven Noachide laws, and these are most of the contemporary nations, which are regarded as Jews in regard to these matters.”[27]


R Chalfon Moshe HaCohen[28] ruled that; “The bans[29]  only applied to the idolatrous nations of ancient times. But today, when idolatry has ceased to exist in almost all parts of the world, and all the Gentile nations believe in the Creator...we make no distinction with regard to Jew and Gentile in these matters.”

R Avraham Yitzchak HaKohden Kook


The first Askenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, declared that Moslems and Christians living in a Jewish society, are to be treated as ‘gerim toshavim’, with full civil liberties, just like Jews.[30] He wrote; “The fundamental view is the Meiri’s. Nations bound by descent customs between man and his fellow, should be considered ‘gerim toshavim’.[31]


According to a 10th Century text from Tanna De'Vei Eliyahu (ch 9); "I call heaven and earth to witness that whether man or woman, whether servant or maidservant, whether Gentile or Jew, the Holy Spirit rests upon a person according to his deed".


It is well known that throughout our history, some sensitive texts had to be emended because it was feared that the original texts would fuel anti-Semitism. However, no absolute certainty exists as to exactly which texts were emended.  We have taken a look at many texts spanning a period of almost a thousand years. Some may have been written for ‘appeasement’.  But by the same token, some must have been the authors genuine interpretations.

If one does accept the authority of even just some of these texts, the questions beg; 
Would our modern day ‘censors’ who confronted Rabbi Sacks, similarly want all these texts to be retracted retroactively?  
Would these views also be branded as “inconsistent with basic Jewish beliefs” and unfit to be brought into the home?

Submitting to the fact that our traditional opinions on other religions do differ significantly and dramatically, surely we must also submit that they all still exist within the broad framework of Torah thinking. One could find many reasons to take umbrage to what Rabbi Sacks wrote. But one could also, surely, make an argument that the Chief Rabbi was drawn to his way of thinking, by much textual precedent.

I can also understand, as Rabbi Norman Bernhard used to say, that; “There is salvation outside of the synagogue.” He told me he chose the term ‘salvation’ deliberately, because of its non-Jewish connotation. Non-Jews have no need for Judaism and can and should perfectly function within their own belief systems. If another religion is relevant to another creed, why can that religion not be valid for THEM? 
In this sense, could one not also understand the context and tenor of the Chief Rabbi’s pre-censored statements - remembering that he was communicating with an international readership, including people of diverse creeds, many of whom respectfully consider him to be a leading thinker of our times? 
He was speaking as a representative of Judaism to the widest of audiences, and was taking full advantage of his honed ability to wax lyrical.

In the final analysis, considering that Rabbi Sacks was speaking Hashkafa (theological philosophy), writing to ‘appease’, to create tolerance in an age of intolerance, and not to formulate or pasken Halacha (religious legalities)  -  was his punishment not perhaps a little disproportionate to his ‘crime’?

[1] Yad Hachazakah.
[2] Hilchot Avoda Zara 9,4.  Commentary to Mishna Avoda Zara 1,3. Avoda Zara 4.
[3] Letter to Obadya the convert.
[4] These seven laws are: The prohibitions of committing murder, idolatry, theft, incest, blasphemy, cruelty to animals, and the injunction to establish civil court of law.
[5] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim  8:10-11.
[6] R Shlomo ben Avraham Aderet 1235-1310, Torat HaBayit, book 5, chapter 4.
[7] The Me’iri is one of the most monumental commentators on the Talmud. Yet, interestingly, his work was largely unknown until recent times. This is why its influence has been rather minimalised because it was left out of the halachic process. Some authorities, although having great respect for him, will not rely on his teachings because of this.
[8] See “Ones possessed of Religion”, by Dr Moshe Halbertal.
[9] Beit HaBechira, Avodah Zara p 28.
[10] Ibid p 4.                             
[11] Beit HaBechira Bava Kama p 330 (Schlesinger ed.)
[12] Deut. 22,3.
[13] Beit HaBechira, Bava Metzia, p 100 (Schlesinger ed.)
[14] Beit HaBechira, Bava Kama p 122 (Schlesinger ed.)
[15] R Moshe Schreiber 1762-1839.
[16] Kovetz Teshuvot  paragraph 90.
[17] See Kotzk Blog 48) ‘Contemporary Daas Torah’; where (unlike traditional halachic rulings), according to the Daas Torah concept, no explanations are necessary.
[18] Even the the Chatam Sofer Institute which published the Responsa Anthology (1973), while quoting our abovementioned statement, added in a note; “The words of our master ‘It did not emerge from his holy mouth’, are puzzling, for the Meiri explicitly stated this view numerous times in his works.”
[19] 1520-1572
[20] Darchei Moshe 2 on Orach Chayim 156. (However see Nodah BeYehuda, who says the Ramo holds that worshiping ‘beshituff’ is forbidden to a non-Jew.)
[21] R Yehudah Loew, 1520-1609.
[22] An interesting halachik conundrum, however, is created when a gentile is considered to be a ‘ger toshav’- because the prohibition against intermarriage with them would shift from a Torah prohibition, to that of a rabbinic prohibition. This of course would be halachically untenable, (unless the distinction is made that a gentile is a ‘ger toshav’ only with regard to the discriminatory laws, but not with regard to intermarriage, which would remain a Torah prohibition.)
[23] Author of Be’er HaGolah, 1596-1671.
[24] Author of Tiferet LeYisrael, 1805-1855. Rabbi Berel Wein calls him the R Samson Rafael Hirsch of Eastern Europe, and says he was; simultaneously a talmid chacham and secular scholar. He aimed to fight the haskala with its own weapons, but because of his time and place, he came under suspicion as a maskil himself. The tragic story of this misunderstood genius is the eternal story of the Jewish people, struggling to walk the tightrope between Torah and modernity.”
[25]  Compendium of R' Chajes, P 489  (published by Divrei Chachamim, 1958).
[26] R Baruch HaLevi Epstein 1860-1941, a bookkeeper by profession, and author of the Torah Temimah commentary to the Torah and Five Megilot.
[27] Torah Temimah on Shemot 21,35.
[28] 1874-1950.A leading rabbi of the island of Djerba in Tunisia. In 1943 the Nazis came to Tunisia, and demanded that Rabbi Moshe collect 50 kilos of gold in three and a half hours and hand it over to them; otherwise they would bomb the Jewish communities of Djerba and Tunis. The next day the Allies conquered Tunisia and the Nazis were gone from Tunisia. The gold that the Jews managed to collect was not handed to the Germans. He was a great Zionist and hatched a plan to establish a League of Nations and a World Court, both of which would have their headquarters in Jerusalem.
[29] These refer to not having to return a Gentile’s lost articles and not having to return funds overpaid in monetary transactions.
[30] Iggeret 89, Mishpat Cohen 63.                
[31] Igrot ha-Raayah,89, v. 1, p. 99 (Mossad ha-Rav Kook edition, Jerusalem, 1962). 


  1. "He told me he chose the term ‘salvation’ deliberately, because of its non-Jewish connotation. Non-Jews have no need for Judaism and can and should perfectly function within their own belief systems. If another religion is relevant to another creed, why can that religion not be valid for THEM? "
    Doesn't the RaMBaM clearly state that the acceptance of the seven Noahide laws is dependent on the fact that they were given at Sinai along with the rest of the Torah, and not as stand-alone morally obvious choices? I think it's towards the end of Hil. Milachim...

    1. I believe your point, Shmuel, is consistent with with the view of the Rambam. This is also why he says that Umos haOlam only have a chelek in Olam HaBaah if they declare their allegiance to the Sheva Mitzvos Bnei Noach in front of a Beis Din i.e. connecting them, as you say, to Sinai.