Chapter One

WHICH SIDE IS GOD ON?

And God created man in His image, in the image of God he created him: male and female he created them. — Genesis 1:27

“Behold I am the LORD, the God of all flesh.” — Jeremiah 32:27

IN MARCH 1942, THREE MONTHS AFTER THE JAPANESE ATTACKED PEARL HARBOR, Joe Louis, the famed “Brown Bomber” and heavyweight champion of the world, spoke at a Navy Relief Society dinner at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Explaining why he had recently enlisted in the Army—and as a private at that, having turned down an officer’s commission—Louis proclaimed, “We’re on God’s side.” 1 Louis emphasized America’s position as a nation of goodness fighting the evils of Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

Louis’s remark was widely hailed. It turned a common phrase upside down to present not only a sense of unwavering purpose but of humility. Those who believe in the righteousness of their cause often exclaim that “God is on our side,” leaving their opponents in defenseless opposition to God’s will. While less boastful, the champ’s statement still drew a clear line separating the Axis nations from the United States and its allies. No one could question which side represented morality and goodness—at least, if they were Americans, Britons, Frenchmen and even officially atheistic Russians. Yet Japanese, Germans and Italians believed that they were on God’s side and, conversely, that God was on theirs. Who was right?

A century earlier, in 1862, Abraham Lincoln pondered the difficult issue of human alignment with God’s will. In autumn, with the Union continuing to suffer battlefield losses, Lincoln wrote what appears to be something of a meditation: “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for, and against the same thing at the same time.” (Safire, 114)

Lincoln, whose determination to preserve the Union remained unshakable, expressed considerable doubt rather than certainty regarding the issue of God’s intentions. Claiming to know God’s will, Lincoln wrote in so many words, is just that—a claim. Moreover, Lincoln pointed out, neither party in a dispute may be on God’s side. Such reservation rarely finds expression in today’s highly polarized world in which not only condemnations of others but the slaughter of innocents in the name of God occur with bloodcurdling frequency. The inevitable question arises: How can any nation or group truly know that it is on God’s side? Yet many religious leaders and their followers endlessly promote a challenging mantra: “What I believe is right. If you do not believe what I believe, you are wrong. There is one way and only one way—and that is my way.”

How shocking—and shockingly familiar—such words have become, whether spoken outright or couched in more polite terms. On the global stage, the theology of exclusive religious truth fuels today’s various jihads waged by Islamists with venomous fury against fellow Muslims and “nonbelievers” in the West. Within the United States, claims to exclusive religious truth, sometimes stated with subtlety but with no less surety, underlie deep divisions within American society as some conservative Christians seek to impel, or even compel, others to live according to their own specific beliefs.

Must religious differences based on Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures lead us to further mistrust and violence? If we glance at these texts cursorily and refuse to engage in their complexity, the answer most likely will be yes. But a deeper look at the Hebrew Bible—the foundation text of both the Christian Bible and the Quran—offers us another path. The stories of “God’s others” can show us that no one religion, denomination or sect can rightly claim exclusive religious truth. Many paths to God exist.

Much has been made over the last decade of the “clash of civilizations” famously posited by Samuel Huntington. However one wishes to define “civilization”—as a religious, ethnic, cultural or political entity or, perhaps more accurately, as an entity defined by all of these factors—a sense of difference, of “us and them,” has gravely altered our world since September 11, 2001. Yet each of the Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—holds sacred that all human beings are created in the image of God. This shared belief should inform us that we have far more in common than we realize.

Universalism And Particularism: Can 31 Flavors Co-exist?

Wishing for mutual respect does not ensure its implementation. Certainty exercises a seductively powerful appeal. Certainty makes us feel more comfortable with ourselves, more at ease in a world in which not everyone thinks and acts as we do. Conversely, doubt threatens our place in the world and makes us uneasy. To true believers, doubt is anathema. They know that they, and they alone, are on God’s side and thus adhere to a universalistic point of view: Every human being should accept their religious truth, since other beliefs inherently lack legitimacy.

Consequently, those who follow a universalistic religion and claim exclusive truth worship a particularistic God. Their God grants favor only to those who follow a single set of rigidly circumscribed beliefs and practices. Thus true believers do not acknowledge different beliefs simply as being different. They condemn them as wrong. Claimants to exclusive religious truth divide the world into “us” and “them.” Because “they” betray God’s intentions and threaten the righteous, “they” must be converted, contained or eliminated.

What induces so many people to adopt such hostile stances towards others’ beliefs rather than dismiss them and go about their business? If my neighbors’ beliefs are different from mine, can I not simply ignore them and, if necessary, my neighbors, as well? Surely my neighbors’ beliefs have no impact on me as long as my neighbors refrain from forcing me to profess or adhere to them.

In a perfect world, the matter would be resolved in much the way people approach their preferences for ice cream. If I like vanilla and others prefer chocolate, strawberry or banana cream pie, they can freely enjoy their favorite flavors without provoking or fearing a confrontation regarding our “differences.” My partiality to vanilla—or peach or green tea—may hold no appeal to a chocolate lover, but we pose no perceived threat to each other.

Religion entails a very different frame of reference. It addresses adherents’ beliefs in essential truths rather than inconsequential preferences. Such beliefs inform us about the nature of God, how God expects us to live in this world and, for many of faith, how to define and prepare for the next world. As a result, Jews, Christians and Muslims—in spite of good-faith efforts—often encounter difficult questions in regard to each other that reinforce universalistic perspectives and pose potent obstacles to mutual understanding and acceptance.

Cognitive dissonance becomes the order of the day. Jews cannot believe, as they traditionally do, that prophecy and revelation ended in 586 BCE with the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and that Jesus is the Son of God, who brought new prophecy to Israel.2 Christians cannot conceive of Jesus as God’s final revelation and accept Muslims’ belief that revelation continued—and concluded—with Muhammad. In turn, Muslims have great difficulty reconciling the Quran as God’s ultimate revelation, which corrects the errors of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, and draws Muslims back to the original monotheism of Abraham, and that Jews and Christians are right to reject it. Given distinct views of the opening and closing of the gates of revelation, all three religions cannot possibly be right—if right is an outcome upon which we insist. As Mr. Lincoln might advise, two must be wrong and all three may be in error.

Even when we confirm our rightness—or righteousness—we may be left uneasy. Obviously, we would not hold an incorrect religious belief. Doing so would affront God. Just as obviously, we would believe as others do if they could demonstrate the rightness of their position. The fact that we do not serves as proof that they cannot demonstrate the rightness of their positions. In effect, what we believe is right and worthy by definition. Logically, other beliefs are false.

Here lies the rub. Other religions or streams or sects, through their very existence, torment us. They profess their beliefs—false as they may be—even while we clearly demonstrate by our very faith that we possess the Truth. This suggests the potential weakness of our beliefs and practices. If we possess and profess Truth, it only stands to reason that everyone else should accept it. Yet others, resisting our best efforts, persist in rejecting the Truth.

Such rejection leads to another conundrum. If we take a more liberal position and simply dismiss others as different or merely irrelevant, do we betray ourselves? Do we transform our relationship with God into nothing more than a preference for any of thirty-one—or more—perfectly acceptable flavors? Can we accept a free-market approach to religion that views difference as a good and necessary challenge that ultimately can strengthen, rather than weaken, our beliefs? Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Britain, answers affirmatively. “The test of faith,” he proposes, “is whether I can make space for difference.” (Sacks/Dignity, 201)

This test poses no small challenge. External professions of belief may mask significant internal struggles. We may wonder, consciously or, more likely, subconsciously, whether we are wrong about the most important issues that we will ever confront. Quite possibly, the more we profess our faith—like whistling in a dark graveyard to conceal our fear—the less faith we may actually have. The more we struggle within ourselves, the more we may condemn others.

Common Roots, common Ground

The stories of “God’s others” offer a unique capacity to bring adherents of the three Abrahamic faiths more closely together. Again, we must acknowledge that meaningful differences of opinion exist. Because each religion has developed its own interpretations of the biblical text, let us not address these differences from a position of naiveté. Jews do believe that revelation ended with the destruction of the First Temple. Christians do believe that what they term the Old Testament points to Jesus as God’s continuing—and final—revelation as well as a new covenant with Israel.3 Muslims venerate Jesus as a great prophet but deny his divinity while believing that the Quran offers humanity God’s newest—and final—revelation.

Difficulties stemming from varying beliefs regarding the opening and closing of the gates of revelation likely will never disappear. Yet let us not abandon hope that religious enmity can at least be further reduced if not overcome. A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published in June 2008 concluded that 70 percent of Americans believe that members of other religions can attain eternal life. When some evangelical Christians objected, Pew repeated the survey in August. Sixty-five percent of respondents again averred that members of other religions—any religion—could go to the next life. (Blow) Of course, thirty-five percent indicated that adherents to other religions would not attain eternal life.

We can do more. While dogma is not easily cast aside, Jews, Christians and Muslims of good will all revere the words of Leviticus 19:18, “Love your fellow [neighbor] as yourself.” Our challenge is to arrive at a more inclusive definition of “neighbor” and admit that, “we are all different just the same.” I explore possible—and I believe practical—approaches to this challenge in the concluding chapter, Beyond Tolerance.

“God’s others” offer an important premise for reconciliation and peace by revealing God’s multi-faceted relationships not with just a single nation but with all humanity. To be sure, the Bible, from the Jewish perspective, serves primarily as a religious and political history of Israel. The biblical narrative takes us from God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah to their descendants’ evolution into a clan, a people enslaved, twelve populous tribes emerging into freedom and finally a nation rising, falling and ultimately rising again with its return from Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE. Significantly, however, the Bible does not introduce Abraham until the end of chapter 11 of its first book, Genesis. And only at the beginning of chapter 12 is Abraham’s critical role as God’s prophet made known.

What fills the first eleven chapters of Genesis? The biblical text focuses not on Israel, which does not yet exist as a people or a nation, but on creation. A single God establishes the world and everything within it. From His creative efforts flow the development of human culture and the nations of the world. These early chapters introduce us to a host of pre-Israelites: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, a list of their long-lived progeny, Noah, Noah’s descendants, who form the seventy known nations of the world, and the builders of the Tower of Babel. We may be disappointed—but not surprised—that most of the first twenty generations of humanity continually turn away from God, presenting what Abraham Joshua Heschel terms “a story of failure and defiance.” (Heschel, 561) These chapters set the stage for the appearance of Abraham and Israel since, as Heschel notes, God did not abandon man but rather searched the earth for someone through whom humanity would be blessed—and found Abraham.

It bears emphasizing that by including these pre-Israelites rather than beginning with Abraham, the Bible pointedly reminds us that all human beings trace their origins to a single Creator and a single set of parents. We are all one family no matter how distantly related. The Mishnah—the Oral Law traditional Jews believe God gave to Moses on Sinai along with the written Torah, passed down through the generations and edited towards the end of the second century CE—sheds important light on this matter. God created all humanity out of Adam/Eve so that no one could say that his ancestor was greater than anyone else’s. (Sanhedrin 4:5) Regrettably, we often act like children clamoring for our divine Parent’s total attention at the expense of our siblings. As adults, however, we come to know that parents can love all their children, even if in different ways.

As this underlying biblical theme of the oneness of creation and humanity becomes clearer, we discover a new set of individuals of whom we may never have been aware. Yes, many people know something, no matter how sketchy, of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, David, Solomon and Esther. But a host of non-Israelites also fills the Bible’s pages. They, too, encounter God. While not all are heroes—just as Israel produces its share of villains from Korach to Ahab—they have much to teach us.

That “God’s others” must be taken into account reflects Judaism’s self-definition as a particularistic religion revering a universalistic God. Jewish tradition understands Judaism to be the right and proper religion only for Jews. The commandments given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai following the Exodus from Egypt bind all Jews for all time—but no one else. In turn, because Judaism is only for Jews, God gives the land of Canaan to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—but only Canaan. (God promises to remove the seven Canaanite peoples in due time yet pockets of Canaanites remain in the land.) The Canaanites must forfeit their land not because they are polytheists, which does displease God, but because of what they do. Their actions, not their beliefs, condemn them. Therefore, professions of monotheism alone do not suffice for Israel. The Bible makes clear that Israel, despite its chosen status, can claim no exemption from the same punishment decreed against the Canaanites if it fails to act correctly. Through Moses, God explicitly warns the Israelites tarrying in the wilderness: “So let not the land spew you out for defiling it, as it spewed out the nation that came before you” (Lev. 18:28).

Of great importance, God never commands Israel to conquer peoples outside Canaan and spread a single religion to the surrounding region. To a great degree, Israel moves in the opposite direction, separating itself from the nations. As Reuven Firestone notes, “It is likely that a number of social practices that emerged in the Bible, such as strict dietary laws, did so, at least in part, in order to separate Israelites from social interaction with other peoples. The religion of the Bible certainly would not have placed such an emphasis on separation if it had been interested in mission.” (Firestone, 118)

The biblical narrative assigns to Israel only a defensive position regarding its neighbors’ religions. As Firestone emphasizes, “Israelite chosenness included no theology or political ideology of mission or conversion, and it generally left others to practice whatever religion they wished as long as it did not impact negatively on the religious or political independence of Israel.” (Firestone, 119)

Thus the Bible portrays God as the universalistic God of all humanity, accepting particularistic modes of monotheistic worship by different peoples. As Jonathan Sacks so eloquently observes: “Biblical monotheism is not the idea that there is one God and therefore one gateway to His presence. To the contrary, it is the idea that the unity of God is to be found in the diversity of creation.” (Sacks/Dignity, 53)

True, Jews proselytized in the ancient world. The Mishnah (Avot 1:12) quotes Hillel: “Be a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them near to the Torah.” But Hillel does not encourage militant efforts at conversion. Rabbi Chaim Stern points out, “The desire of the Pharisees to draw ‘all people’ near the Torah is a corollary of love, and means: bring them to a fuller knowledge of God.” (Stern, 20) With some exceptions, Jews have not emulated the conversion fervor of Christians and Muslims, who historically believed their religions to be universalistic and incumbent upon all peoples. 4 One notable exception took place in the second century BCE when John Hyrcanus conquered the Idumeans (Edomites), of whom the villainous Herod was a descendant—reinforcing the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for”—and brought them into Judea’s political sphere. Jews in the Greek and Roman eras lacked the military might with which to support attempts to convert the majority of non-Jews surrounding them. Following two disastrous rebellions against Rome, many Sages opposed proselytes, suspecting that their conversions were motivated by ulterior or impure motives.

Nonetheless, many non-Jews, known as God fearers, frequently worshipped or studied in synagogues. A number, including some of the Roman elite, converted to Judaism. They did so not through compulsion but by observing Jewish life and finding Jewish values worthy of emulation and adoption.

Ultimately, any active seeking of converts to Judaism had to be abandoned in 315 CE when the emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the state religion of Rome, issued an edict declaring Jewish proselytizing a crime. A century later, Jewish proselytizing became a capital offense. The realities of living in the Diaspora of both Christian Europe and the Muslim world, where seeking converts invited great danger, reinforced Jewish particularism.

It follows that the biblical requirement that Israelite monotheism be practiced only by Israelites left other peoples to maintain and develop their own religious expressions with the hope that they would, of their own free will, come to recognize the One Creator. The only requirement imposed by God on the rest of the world, as the Sages deduced from Genesis, consists of adhering to the Noahide laws given after the Flood. These seven basic laws—as opposed to the 613 commandments by which traditional Jews are bound—are enunciated in the first chapter of this book, Monotheism: Humanity’s Natural Religious State.

A First Step

Whether a study of “God’s others” will lead us to a more open approach to our fellow human beings remains to be seen. Segments of the Muslim world remain at war with each other and with the non-Muslim world. Ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel seek to retain control over lifecycle events such as marriage, divorce and burial to the exclusion of other Jewish streams. In the United States, many conservative Christians continue to oppose liberal religious and secular groups. At the same time, what appears to be a growing atheist movement seeks not simply to moderate religion’s impact on society but to prove religion totally false and valueless.

Sadly, those who claim exclusive religious truth are not prone to modifying their beliefs regardless of the case presented to them. Moreover, even the most moderate and open Jews, Christians and Muslims may, from time to time, find themselves uncomfortable with “the other” and speak or act in ways that hurt rather than heal. Nonetheless, I believe that understanding the role played by “God’s others” can bring to light more complex truths often displaced or dismembered in the cause of a simple, “pure” faith. In this regard, it is worth remembering that all three Abrahamic religions adhere to monotheism and follow the commandment not to worship idols. As Rabbi Elliot Dorff, one of Judaism’s leading ethicists, warns, absolutism in itself is “tantamount to idolatry.” (Dorff/Right, 59)

In acknowledging non-Israelites who encounter God in the Hebrew Bible, we restore ourselves to the religious intentions we publicly profess but too often privately cast aside. God’s Others serves as a call to remember God’s proposal to His heavenly court as He engages in the process of creation: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). We must recognize all human beings as bearing God’s image and being worthy of our acceptance as they are. Wrestling with our prejudices in the biblical text, no matter how difficult this may be, can help us take meaningful steps towards achieving what armies, security services, police, technology and the untold billions of dollars behind them have failed to accomplish. They can help cool the rhetoric of intolerance and hatred, and reduce the violence it so often produces. “God’s others” demonstrate that we are all children in a single family, each entitled to our own special relationship with our Creator/Parent and to respect.

1 This famed remark was not lost on Bob Dylan, who wrote the song “With God on Our Side” in 1963 during the Cold War just prior to full-scale American military involvement in Vietnam.

2 I use the increasingly adopted BCE, the abbreviation for Before the Common Era—and CE, for the Common Era—in place of tracking time by any one religion’s calendar. BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini) are Christian terms.

3 The concept of supersession, attributed to St. Paul through his mission to the Gentiles, has been the subject of no little debate. James Carroll, a former Catholic priest, examines Church history and acknowledges the reality of supersession, writing bluntly, “When the priest at the consecration says, ‘This is the cup of the New Covenant,’ he is pronouncing the Old Covenant superfluous. Its job, after Jesus, is to leave the sanctuary. The Jew’s job is to disappear.” (Carroll/Constantine, 50)

4 Islam exempts Jews, Christians and other monotheists from the requirement of conversion. The Quran establishes dhimmi status for these monotheists, both protecting and restricting them in return for payment of a special tax, the jizyah. However, sura 3:85 lends itself to the interpretation that only Islam is the acceptable religious practice for humanity: “He that chooses a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him and in the world to come he will be one of the lost.” Whether the Quran accepts or rejects non-Muslims is open to interpretation. As always, one may cite specific verses to support virtually any opinion. Religions, however, tend to define themselves more by the actions they inspire than by the beliefs they espouse.

Read the Story of Rahab, Harlot of Jericho, Protector of Israelite Spies