Who holds the keys to true salvation? In recent years, Jewish interfaith leaders have been carefully parsing new statements of Christian theologians on the subject, raising objections when the Vatican or Evangelical leaders declare that everlasting salvation can come only through belief in Jesus.
More recently, militant Islamic clerics have labeled those who don’t believe in Muhammad and Allah as infidels.
But a new flap involving England’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks raises a different question: What does Orthodox Judaism say about religious pluralism and the salvation powers of non-Jewish faiths.
The issue arose this week after the controversial Rabbi Sacks, who is Orthodox, capitulated to other British Orthodox rabbis on his religious right who charged that his new book is heresy, apparently for saying that Judaism does not hold the only truth.
Rabbi Sacks’ book, “The Dignity of Difference,” states that “God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims.”
The book also posits that “no one creed has a monopoly on spiritual truth; no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind.
“In heaven there is truth; on earth there are truths,” Rabbi Sacks writes. “God is greater than religion; He is only partially comprehended by any faith.”
According to London’s Jewish Chronicle, those ecumenical sentiments were enough to set off Rabbi Yossi Chazan, spiritual leader of one of Manchester’s largest Orthodox congregations.
In a Rosh HaShanah sermon, he publicly questioned whether Rabbi Sacks’ views amounted to heresy, implying the book had gone too far.
Rabbi Chazan soon galvanized support for his position, leading to a showdown with the chief rabbi.
It came last week, the Chronicle reported, when Rabbi Sacks and Chanoch Ehrentreu, head of London’s Bet Din, flew to Manchester for a private meeting with Rabbi Chazan and other rabbis.
Rabbi Chazan has declined to discuss the meeting.
But Rabbi Sacks issued a statement saying that he “heard the concerns” of the Manchester rabbis “that one or two sentences might be misunderstood.”
Rabbi Sacks said he “will make the appropriate amendments in the next possible edition.”
Rabbi Sacks also explained that the book was intended for a non-Jewish audience, and said he made a mistake to have it excerpted in the Jewish Chronicle.
Which leaves the questions: What was so bad about what Rabbi Sacks wrote?
And what does traditional Judaism say about the validity of other faiths?
Rabbi David Ellenson, a scholar of Orthodox Jewish thought, said the rabbis’ objections to Rabbi Sacks’ interfaith comments are actually contrary to Judaism’s own traditions, citing passages from the Talmud and other rabbinic sources.
“There is no notion within Judaism that salvation cannot be obtained outside the precinct of the Jewish religious tradition,” said Rabbi Ellenson, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
So why the heresy charge?
“I believe there has been a fear among these forces that any concession of this type [of validating other faiths] entails a surrender to the forces of assimilation in the modern world,” he said. “There is a conscious attempt at counter modernization among these forces.
“The tradition is fairly broad and open on these issues, but the fear by some that openness to the modern world will foster Jewish assimilation has led these persons to restrict the openness. In order to protect the tradition, there are stringencies in both the realm of practice and belief that represent a narrowing of the very tradition that is defended.”
Rabbi Ellenson said that traditional Judaism has a notion of two covenants: “one is a universal covenant that God established with all of humanity through Noah, and the other a particularistic one established through Abraham and Sarah with the Jewish people.” (The Noahide laws consist of seven commandments, including prohibitions against adultery, murder, idolatry and blasphemy.)
He said there is much precedent for the Sacks flap.
“The type of criticism that has been leveled at Rabbi Sacks and the response that he has issued has precedent in the history of Orthodox Judaism in the modern world, when struggles like this have emerged between more centrist and more counter-modernist forms of Orthodox Judaism.”
According to Rabbi David Berger, professor of Jewish history at Brooklyn College and an expert in the field of interfaith theology, “There is a way to salvation outside of Judaism proper, namely by observing the Noahide covenant, but whether a person can be saved by observing the Noahide laws via another organized religion is a separate question.
“Some traditional Jews,” Rabbi Berger continued, “would maintain that a moral or ethical Muslim or Christian would qualify, though this does not mean Christianity or Islam are to be classified as true religions.”
Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, an Orthodox rabbi who runs the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding in Connecticut, says he agrees with the book’s statements about religious pluralism.
“I agree with the chief rabbi: We don’t have the absolute truth all the time, and there is more than one truth.
“If God has conveyed to Christians another ethic, where do I get the chutzpah to say that we claim He never spoke to anybody else? The Torah doesn’t say He will never talk to another person ever again.”
Rabbi Ehrenkranz also cited the Talmud stating there are Jews who are not going to heaven.
“I don’t know what they want from him,” he said of the critical British rabbis. “They may be religious people, but that doesn’t mean they are educated people.”
Rabbi Sachs is no stranger to controversy. Last month, he angered many in England by stating, in an interview in The Guardian newspaper, that certain policies of the government of Israel were immoral.