Friday, November 16, 2007

Religious Pluralism in the 12th Century

Know then ... nothing prevents God from sending into His world whomsoever He wishes, since the world of holiness sends forth emanations unceasingly ... Even before the revelation of the Law He sent prophets to the nations ... and again after its revelation nothing preventing Him from sending to them whom He wishes so that the world might not remain without religion ... Mohammed was a prophet to them but not to those who preceded them in the knowledge of God ... He permitted to every people something which He forbade to others, and He forbade to them something which He permitted to others, for He knoweth what is best for His creatures and what is adapted to them ... He therefore sends prophets in every age and period that they might urge the creatures to serve Him and do the good, and that they might be a road-guide to righteousness ... Not one people remained without a law, for all of them are from one Lord and unto Him they all return...

-From Bustan al-Ukul (The Garden of Wisdom) by Nathanael ibn al-Fayyumi, leader of the Yemenite Jews of the 12th century and, interestingly, the father of the addressee of the Rambam's famous Iggeret Teiman. [See here, pages 103-109]


This is very notable as a stunning statement of religious pluralism. In this view, God sends out prophets to different peoples with different levels of religious instruction as appropriate for their level of progress or inherent natures. And this is happening all the time - a continuous revelation.

A little philosophical tweaking here and there and we see a common theme of theology across many different peoples where the superficial religious traditions of a people are key to their identity and uniquely appropriate for them, but are without fundamental differences in the underlying truth common to all religious traditions.

20 comments:

zach said...

This is gevaldig. Certainly at odds with the Rambam who felt that the only religion for the umos haolam is b'nai Noach and that everything else is considered an innovation that is assur.

GoingGoingGone said...

Wow. I would love to see more such statements. Do you think he would also feel that God sends to each religion what they need in that specific time - for example, Reform or Conservative Judaism's updates to the religion to address the new time in which we live?

Baal Habos said...

Orthoprax, this opens a new Pandora's box. Firstly, as GGG observes. Furthermore, if there is no absolute truth, why would the Jewish nation be permitted to accept converts from other faiths? Mohammed is the Prophet of Muslims and now they forsake Islam for a religion which only prays three times a day instead of 5. How does a theology like that allow for any switching and if it allows for some switching, why can't I opt out, if I believe I found a different truth?

Nevertheless, it's quite enlightened. I'm guessing that statements like that are issued by those who have some level of doubt about the exclusivity of their own relagion. They come to Little Foxling's understandning of "We all believe. How do I know that Jews are correct and Muslim's are wrong". So to answer that question they acknowledge that there is no exclusionary truth. It's a slippery slope. For those in 1200's that was the end of the slope because the Torah was acknowledged by all. For us, the slope is further down.

XGH said...

Rav Kook said a very similar thing.

Jeff said...

A powerful text. To me this infers that traditional judaism had extremely far reaching beliefs and interpretations even way back then. As I have issues with seeing the classical rabbis as infallible, I see this as more of a philosophical thought to ponder than proof of religious pluralism.

I'd like to say that as GGG points out it's a possible divine justification of reformed judaism, but I see it more as a historical precedent for divergent thought and for reform judaism (not that I really think precedent is necessary - it's just nice to know!)

Orthoprax said...

Zach,

"Certainly at odds with the Rambam..."

Oh, without question:

"After him arose the Madman [Mohammed] who emulated his precursor [Jesus] since he paved the way for him. But he added the further objective of procuring rule and submission, and he invented his well known religion [Islam]. All of these men purposed to place their teachings on the same level with our divine religion. But only a simpleton who lacks knowledge of both would liken divine institutions to human practices. Our religion differs as much from other religions for which there are alleged resemblances as a living man endowed with the faculty of reason is unlike a statue which is ever so well carved out of marble, wood, bronze or silver. When a person ignorant of divine wisdom or of God's works sees the statue that superficially resembles a man in its contours, form, features, and color, he believes that the structure of the parts of a statue is like the constitution of a man, because he is deficient in understanding concerning the inner organization of both. But the informed person who knows the interior of both, is cognizant of the fact that the internal structure of the statue betrays no skillful workmanship at all, whereas the inward parts of man are truly marvellously made, a testimony to the wisdom of the Creator, such as the prolongation of the nerves in the muscles and their ramifications, the branching out of the sinews and their intersections and the network of their ligaments and their manner of growth, the articulations of the bones and the joints, the pulsating and non-pulsating blood vessels and their ramifications, the setting of the limbs into one another, the uncovered and covered parts, every one of these in proportion, in form and proper place.

Likewise a person ignorant of the secret meaning of Scripture and the deeper significance of the Law, would be led to believe that our religion has something in common with another if he makes a comparison between the two. For he will note that in the Torah there are prohibitions and commandments, just as in other religions there are permitted and interdicted acts. Both contain a system of religious observances, positive and negative precepts, sanctioned by reward and punishment.

If he could only fathom the inner intent of the law, then he would realize that the essence of the true divine religion lies in the deeper meaning of its positive and negative precepts, every one of which will aid man in his striving after perfection, and remove every impediment to the attainment of excellence. These commands will enable the throng and the elite to acquire moral and intellectual qualities, each according to his ability. Thus the godly community becomes pre-eminent, reaching a two-fold perfection. By the first perfection I mean, man's spending his life in this world under the most agreeable and congenial conditions. The second perfection would constitute the achievement of intellectual objectives, each in accordance with his native powers.

The tenets of the other religions which resemble those of Scripture have no deeper meaning, but are superficial imitations, copied from and patterned after it. They modelled their religions upon ours in order to glorify themselves, and indulge the fancy that they are similar to so and so. However, their counterfeiting is an open secret to the learned. Consequently they became objects of derision and ridicule just as one laughs and smiles at an ape when it imitates the actions of men."

-Maimonides, Iggeret Teiman

This was written in response to the rising syncretististic urgings of a high profile Jewish-turned-Muslim apostate in Yemen.

Though, keep in mind, Maimonides also addressed the letter thusly:

"To the honored, great, and holy Master and Teacher, Jacob, wise and genial, dear and revered sage, son of the honored, great, and holy Master and Teacher, Nathaniel Fayyumi..."

That "great, and holy Master and Teacher" is the same person he implies was an ignoramus.

Orthoprax said...

GGG,

"Do you think he would also feel that God sends to each religion what they need in that specific time - for example, Reform or Conservative Judaism's updates to the religion to address the new time in which we live?"

I'm not certain, but I doubt it since he doesn't seem very keen on updates to a people's already established divine order.


Baal,

"How does a theology like that allow for any switching and if it allows for some switching, why can't I opt out, if I believe I found a different truth?"

I'm not sure. It likely frowns on conversion either way, but given the political situation in Yemen, there probably weren't very many people converting to Judaism anyway. I haven't read the entire book, but I didn't see anything that talks about conversion.

"For those in 1200's that was the end of the slope because the Torah was acknowledged by all."

Yes and no. It's interesting, but it seems the high profile apostate at the time, readily used the equivalency of Islam to Judaism argument and suggested syncretization.

Anonymous said...

"This was written in response to the rising syncretististic urgings of a high profile Jewish-turned-Muslim apostate in Yemen."

From what I've read it wasn't just an apostate. It was a would-be messiah who claimed to reconcile Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Maybe Nathaniel Fayyumi's sentiment was typical of this developing enviroment.

Anonymous said...

rabbi jonatan sacks,,wrote exactly the same thing in his book,a couple of years ago,but was forced by the chareidim in israel to retract.to me it made a lot of sense,after all here we have g-d almighty creating billions and billions of human beings,and he reveals the one and only true religion,to only one half of one percent of his creation,does that realy make sense,always had trouble accepting it

alex said...

A couple of questions on this fascinating quotation:

Could it be that R' Fayyumi felt some sort of pressure from his Muslim surroundings to write what he wrote? (I'm not suggesting it was; I'm just curious.)

What was the word that R' Fayyumi used that is translated as "prophet"? Does it necessarily mean "one who God literally speaks to" or simply "a man or woman who is charismatic enough and moral enough to be able to spread a pretty decent message."

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

"It was a would-be messiah who claimed to reconcile Christianity, Islam and Judaism."

To be specific, I believe he merely claimed to be the precursor to the Messiah, like Elijah.


Alex,

"Could it be that R' Fayyumi felt some sort of pressure from his Muslim surroundings to write what he wrote?"

Of course there was pressure, but since the basic Muslim approach around the time was "convert or exile" I'm not sure what kind of pressure there would be to write this kind of symapthetic view of Islam.

"What was the word that R' Fayyumi used that is translated as "prophet"? Does it necessarily mean "one who God literally speaks to" or simply "a man or woman who is charismatic enough and moral enough to be able to spread a pretty decent message.""

Neither. There is a complex kind of evolutionay supposition behind the religious philosophy at the time. Within different classes of things, the objects are found along a spectrum with those at the ends with qualities like the objects in the next class.

One kind of gold is the most superior mineral and is "very closely related to plants because it grows like them." The palm tree is most superior plant because it is like animals since it fertilizes male to female. The ape is the most superior of the animals because it is most like a man. And among man, the most superior type is the prophets who are like angels.

These prophets are people constitutionally created with an inherited base of divine knowledge.

See pages 50-51 from the book.

Miri said...

"How does a theology like that allow for any switching and if it allows for some switching, why can't I opt out, if I believe I found a different truth?"

Actually, the principle in theory makes no statement about the individual, only about a people as a whole. While this approach may not focus on conversion, it doesn't exclude the idea either; there is room to say that an individual might fit better with a form of truth other than that into which he was born.

alex said...

me: "Could it be that R' Fayyumi felt some sort of pressure from his Muslim surroundings to write what he wrote?"

O.P. Of course there was pressure, but since the basic Muslim approach around the time was "convert or exile" I'm not sure what kind of pressure there would be to write this kind of symapthetic view of Islam.

I'm not trying to rebut your overall idea, but I'm a little puzzled. If the approach was "convert or exile," how come there were Jews in Yemen until the 20th century?

alex said...

I'd love to see how the recipient of the Iggeret Teiman reacted when he read that particular quote you quoted. Happen to know?

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

" not trying to rebut your overall idea, but I'm a little puzzled. If the approach was "convert or exile," how come there were Jews in Yemen until the 20th century?"

I must confess that I am no expert on Jewish-Muslim relations in Yemen in 800+ years ago, but it seems that the purging of Yemen was an idea promoted every now and again by Muslim leaders until cooler heads prevailed and the Jews were permitted to stay. In the mid-1160s (when the Bustan was written), this guy, Abd-al-Nabī ibn Mahdi, took power and was threatening the Jews in Yemen in exactly the way I described. The Jews were saved when Saladin conquered the nut in 1174 and reduced the persecution.


"I'd love to see how the recipient of the Iggeret Teiman reacted when he read that particular quote you quoted. Happen to know?"

Beats me. I don't think much of anything of Jacob's writings has been preserved to modern day.

Sadiq Alam said...

on Religious Pluralism from Gandhi's wisdom and Quranic appreciation

here

Anonymous said...

>>This is very notable as a stunning statement of religious pluralism.

Yeah, I guess its a lovely sentiment if you really want to see that in Judaism. Mohammed a prophet? That's simply silly. He was a madman and killed people who didn't accept his way. Hurray religious pluralism.

Orthoprax said...

Anon,

I'm not sure why that'd _more_ silly than Israelite prophets, who also tended to kill people now and again.

Have you ever read Nach?

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

Nice post, but whoah; so many comments! I can't even read them all yet!

but I do want to put in my two cents, which is that 1. Everyone was and is entitled to their opinion. It is obviously foolish to think that "everyone wore shtreimels in the old days", or that traditionally all Jews were what we would consider to be 'orthodox'. So this opinion doesn't necisaraly represent orthodox opinion.

2. I actually pretty much agree with it though, and always had such a stance. It all depends obviously in how you define a 'prophet' and how you define 'being sent by G-d'. The Rambam himself has some negative opinions -obviously- about Christianity, but the majority is positive though. He is well known for having said that the reason G-d *sent* the Christians is to spread monotheism and biblical idealism throughout the world. And he does say the same thing about Muslims. They *are* doing our job -that hassidim read every day but overlook; it's not f---in' 'hoydi' ok! it's King David's message to his and all generations of monotheists; "Give thanks to the LOR"D, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done.Sing to him, sing praise to him;tell of all his wonderful acts." Who is fulfilling this? Not the Jews. they're too busy taking peoples money. It's the other two main monotheistic religious that are taking away our job! But they were sent by G-d. We 'beleive' nothing happens outside of G-d's wil.

עבד

Pierre Sogol said...

This concept is no longer confined to the 12th Century. R. Yoel Finkelman has penned a reading of Rambam that is not far from this notion;
http://www.mhcny.org/pdf/Holidays/Shavuoth/3.pdf