|Alan Brill argues in his new book that Jews need to learn more about their own faith while encountering others.|
Teaneck resident Alan Brill’s new book, “Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding” (Palgrave MacMillan), is a sort of post-tolerance manifesto for a post 9/11 world.
The humanistic approach to tolerance in today’s Western world treats “the other” as secular without requiring any understanding of the other’s religion, argues Brill, an Orthodox rabbi, interfaith activist, and Cooperman/Ross endowed professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering at Seton Hall University in East Orange.
Jews involved in interfaith dialogue since the 1970s have mostly come from the 1960s “universal, we’re-all-one perspective” that emphasized openness over exclusivism, says Brill. He felt that today’s realities called for a look at how classical Jewish sources could bring an old/new dimension to the discussion.
“As religion has reasserted itself all over the globe post-9/11, the secular approach doesn’t work,” asserts Brill, 49. “A ‘tolerant’ position doesn’t actually encourage diversity and difference but rather a hidden sense of ‘why can’t we all be the same?’ You have to come to the table with a notion of what your own faith can bring, with a commitment to your own faith, not as a general universalist but with something to say.”
For Jews, that “something to say” is found in our traditional texts, says Brill.
Over the course of several years, he collected and examined biblical, rabbinic, medieval, and early modernist Jewish sources to extrapolate a Jewish theology of other religions.
“I am more than surprised at frequent interfaith encounters where the Catholic speaks from the official Church teachings, the Muslim speaks from traditional teachings, and the Jewish representative addresses the assembled from the general perspective of comparative religion, politics, or anthropology,” writes Brill, who was one of a few Jewish scholars invited to an interfaith conference convened by Saudi Arabian King Abdullah in Madrid two years ago. “There need to be Jewish theologies of other religions.”
This is not merely an academic exercise, Brill asserts. “What we say on interfaith topics does matter; it does lead to greater understanding, and it leads to practical change. If you can’t figure out what to say about Christians from a Jewish point of view it will affect how you relate to them. And for pulpit rabbis, how they think about or talk about other religions really affects their congregants.”
The questions he attempts to answer for readers are: If God is one, then what is the value of the other religions? Does God care only about one small people or does His plan include the wider world? How does one theologically account for the differences between religions? How do Jews think about other religions? How do we balance our multi-faith world with the Jewish texts?
“Most Jews are not remotely aware of the texts in this volume,” he writes, adding that his book “reflects an Orthodox training and erudition, but it is not limited to Orthodox thinkers.” This is not to say that his sources are obscure, but that their writings on this particular issue never got much notice. “People know these sources, but they just pass over passages like the one where [10th-century Baghdad scholar] Saadya Gaon discusses the Brahmins.”
With its hefty list price of $85, the book is currently being acquired by libraries and universities around the world -including some in China, India, and Australia. Next year, it will come out in paperback for a wider audience, defined by Brill as “anybody interested in the Jewish attitudes toward other religions, from clergy to people who want to make Jewish sense of the stories they read in the papers.” To make it accessible to gentiles involved in interfaith encounter, the book’s Jewish concepts are all explained in clear terms.
Brill is teaching in Seton Hall’s graduate department of Jewish-Christian Studies on Jewish ethics and the land of Israel in the three faiths. He is lining up a fall schedule of speaking engagements about the book, and putting the finishing touches on a second volume, to be titled “Judaism and World Religions.”
“Judaism does have something to say about other religions. That’s the big point,” he says. “It goes in many directions and has many Jewish voices.”