Shaya Cohen -


Judaism: Playing Nicely with Other Religions?

The Torah seems to contradict itself. On the one hand, we are commanded to tear down idols (inside the Land of Israel) and never to engage in idol-worship. On the other hand, we have several key examples not only of G-d talking to prophets who are not only not Jewish, but are (like Laban and Bilaam) actually our enemies. It seems complicated. Precisely how are Jews supposed to interact with those of other – even pagan – faiths?

Well, it seems pretty clear that at least to some extent, Jews can learn from those of other faiths.

Avram wins his battle, and Malchi-Tzedek notices:

And Melchizedek, King of Salem (Wholeness) brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him, saying, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, source of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.”

Avram not only shares with Maclhi-Tzedek – he seems to learn from him, because Avram soon after echoes the words of Maclhi-Tzedek:

Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I swear to G-d, God Most High, source of heaven and earth …”

The odd thing is that the words for “G-d Most High” are not found in the Torah anywhere else – except in a verse by Bilaam, a non-Jewish prophet. (Num. 24:16) The expression is not Torah Judaism. But Avram can still echo it.

What can we make of this? It seems pretty clear that Avram and Maclhi-Tzedek found common ground despite the differences that must have existed between them. We don’t have a problem with non-Jews having a relationship with G-d!

Malchi-Tzedek, we note, did not come to Avram until Malchi-Tzedek perceived a clear physical miracle. That is in the nature of paganism: the only things that are real for pagans are the things they can perceive. So the god of the Torah becomes real to them when – and only when – they see an open miracle.

Moses’ father-in-law, Yisro (Jethro), is also a pagan priest. And he acts just like Malchi-Tzedek: he perceives the physical miracle of the Exodus, and comes to pay tribute to the event (just as Malchi-Tzedek had done). Neither pagan priest was interested in hidden miracles, or communications with G-d or personal growth. Instead, they recognized and paid homage to open displays of power.

The Malchi-Tzedek/Yisro approach is, in many ways, the antithesis of Judaism, which stands firmly against Might Makes Right. Ours is a faith that believes in the importance of ideas and influence, not displays of force or coercion.

And yet: Moses finds common ground with Yisro. Yisro (like any good polytheist) offers a sacrifice to the G-d of the Israelites. They break bread together. Moses even gratefully takes the good advice that Yisro offers.

I think this offers a model for Jewish interactions with other faiths. As and when there is common ground, we are happy to interact! But we draw the line at proselytization: we do not expect or demand that others should do as we do. But we reject any attempts to lead us astray, toward other gods. And specifically in the Land of Israel – not elsewhere – we are bound, as a condition of living in the land, to destroy all idols. G-d’s House: G-d’s Rules.

[an @iwe and @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]

Comments are welcome!

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