Most college students have at one time or another asked, ‘If there is only one God why are there so many religions?’ A good question that I as a Rabbi have often been asked.
This is my answer. The Qur’an declares that Allah could have made all of us monotheists, a single religious community, but didn’t in order to test our commitment to the religion that each of us have been given by God.
“If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (God’s plan is) to test you in what He has given you: so compete in all virtues as in a race. The goal of you all is to (please) Allah who will show you on the truth of the matters in which you dispute.” (Qur’an 5:48)
This means that religious pluralism is the will of God. Yet for centuries many believers in the one God have chided and depreciated other monotheistic religions, and some monotheistic believers have even resorted to forced conversions, expulsions and inquisitions against other monotheistic believers even in their own religions.
How did this intolerance come about, and how can we eliminate religious intolerance from the Abrahamic religions.
Greek philosophy, with its requirement that truth must be unchanging and universal, influenced most teachers of sacred scripture during Roman and early Medieval times to believe that religion was a zero sum game; the more truth I find in your scripture the less truth there is in mine.
Instead of understanding differing texts as complementary, they made them contradictory and declared the other religion’s sacred text to be false.
If religion is to promote peace in our pluralistic world we must reject the zero sum game ideology and develop the pluralistic teachings that already exist within our sacred scriptures. After all “all prophets are brothers. They have the same farther (God) but different mothers (mother tongues, motherlands and unique historical circumstances that account for all the differences in their scriptures).
“Narrated Abu Huraira: Allah’s Apostle said, “Both in this world and in the Hereafter, I am the nearest of all people to Jesus, son of Mary. Prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one.” (Bukhari, Book #55, Hadith #652) Prophets are brothers in faith, having different mothers. Their religion however; is one”. (Muslim, Book #030, Hadith #5836)
Anyone who studies the Hebrew Scriptures from a Rabbinic Bible is struck by the number of different commentaries that surround the few lines of the Biblical text on each page. Most religions that have a sacred scripture have editions that come with a commentary. Occasionally they have an edition with two or three commentaries. The standard Jewish study Bible usually comes with at least 5-10 different commentaries.
All of this traces back to a verse in the Book of Psalms: “One thing God has spoken; two things have I heard” (Psalms 62:12) and its gloss in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 34a). In other words, multiple interpretations of each verse of Scripture can be correct, and the word of God, even if they contradict one another. The term for this concept of pluralistic interpretation is; Shivim Panim LaTorah (each verse of Torah has 70 different facets)
The earliest source for the term Shivim Panim LaTorah is in an early medieval text, Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 13:15-16. The term was used by the rationalist Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (died 1167) in his introduction to his Torah commentary and, a century later by the mystic Rabbi Nachmanides (died 1270) in his Torah commentary on Gen. 8:4. It also appears several times in the basic text of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar. That this concept was used both by rationalist and mystical Torah commentators indicates how fundamental it is to understanding the meaning of Divine revelation. Indeed, the concept, though not the exact wording, also appears in a post Talmudic midrash Otiot d’Rabbi Akiba as “Torah nilm’dah b’shiv’im panim”- Torah is learned through 70 faces/facets.
Of course, we know of no verse that has 70 different interpretations; yet. After all, if we knew all 70 glosses to a verse we would understand it as well as it author; which is impossible. Also what would be left for future generations of Biblical scholars to do. But, most verses have at least three or four different glosses. Jewish tradition recognizes four general types of interpretation. P’shat; the plain simple meaning. Remez; the allegorical metaphorical meaning. De-rash; the moral educational meaning. And Sod; the mystical hidden meaning.
For example: what kind of a tree was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:17 and 3:6). Most people think it was an apple tree. They have no idea why, or what that interpretation is supposed to mean. The Rabbis offer four different interpretations of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; and each of them provides insights into the meaning of the Torah’s account of what makes humans special and what it means to be “like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5)
Rabbi Yose said it was a fig tree for as soon as they ate from it their eyes were open and they covered themselves with fig leaves. (Genesis 3:7) This is the simplest explanation and has the most textual support but it doesn’t tell us why figs represent morality.
Rabbi Judah bar Ilai said they ate from a grapevine i.e. wine (alcohol) represents good and evil because humans have the free choice to use wine to sanctify the Sabbath or to become an alcoholic.
Rabbi Meir said it was a wheat tree i.e. wheat was the first crop to be domesticated and thus is a good metaphor representing the beginning of farming and then urbanization and civilization. Settled life is a great test of social morality because nomads can always split apart if they can’t live together, but settled people must develop an ongoing legal system and abide by it.
Rabbi Abba said it was an etrog tree. An etrog, used for Sukkot-harvest festival, is called a goodly tree and it is good to thank God for the harvest (Leviticus 23:39-42). Gratitude is a spiritual personal value transcending ethics, involving attitude, personality and feeling. The etrog, according to the Rabbis is special because its outside (bark and wood) tastes the same as the inside of the fruit. Thus a good religious person should be the same inside and outside.
These four ways of interpreting a sacred text illustrate the four kinds of Midrash. The plain meaning of Rabbi Yose. The moral lesson pedagogic way of Rabbi Judah bar Ilai who wants to teach people that many things like the grapevine are capable of being used for good or evil purposes. They are not intrinsically good or evil. We can choose how we use them, so we make them good or evil. (Sex, money and meat eating are other examples.)
Rabbi Meir. who was reputed to know dozens of fox fables, thinks social morality is the primary sign of humanity. Farming brings about relatively dense settlements, property disputes, government and economic hierarchies. All of this calls for a just legal system. Thus wheat is a good metaphor.
The forth way is the personal insight, mystical psychological way of Rabbi Abba. The etrog is part of the citrus family. Unlike an orange, a lemon or a grapefruit an etrog has no commercial value. Jews give it a high value (each one costs 50-100 times what a lemon costs) for spiritual reasons. So too does morality have a spiritual value much greater than simple humanistic ethics.
Because there are 70 different aspects to every verse in the Torah, there is a special blessing that should be said when one sees a crowd of Jews, that must contain within it, a large number of Jews with different ideas and opinions from our own; ” One who sees a crowd of Jews should say: Blessed is the Sage of Enigmas; for their opinions are not similar one to another, and their faces are not similar one to another.” Talmud Berakhot 58a
We are all created in the image of the one God; and yet due to God’s greatness, we all look and think differently from one another.