One of the main differences that separates Judaism from the other major monotheistic religions - Christianity and Islam – is the matter of exclusivity. The rabbis of the Talmud long ago reiterated the traditional Jewish position that “the righteous of the nations of the world all have a share in the World to Come.” This meant immortality of the soul and heavenly reward once one passes on from this life.
One need not be Jewish to gain holiness, immortality and heavenly eternal reward. I have always been reminded of the famous advertisement so popular in New York City decades ago which loudly proclaimed: “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy Levy’s rye bread.” Well, immortality and heavenly reward aren’t rye bread but you get the idea I am trying to communicate.
The seven Noahide laws, which for all practical purposes form the basis of Western civilization, are the guidelines for determining “the righteous of the nations of the world.” Because of this sense of non-exclusivity, Judaism allows for tolerance and diversity in a world of different faiths, societies and peoples. (One should always be sophisticated enough to differentiate between the behavior of Jews and Judaism itself.)
Our father Avraham was so named because of his ability to be the “father of many nations.” Judaism and the Jewish people were meant to be the catalyst for bringing the ideas of monotheism, goodness, concern for others and the recognition of the universality of the Creator to all of humankind. To a large extent, it has succeeded in this mission for, as I mentioned above, its worldview has become pretty much that of Western civilization.
The Jewish people are very small in number, especially as compared to other major faiths in the world that count their adherents in many many hundreds of millions. The Torah told us in advance that we were destined to be small in numbers. “I have not chosen you because of your great numbers for you are the smallest of all peoples,” God told us in the book of Dvarim. Being small in numbers and obviously never aspiring to be the majority faith in the world, for God had foreclosed that option to us at the dawn of our nationhood, Judaism could never take the position that all of the other billions of humans were automatically doomed to eternal damnation and destruction.
Our understanding of the God of Israel, the all-merciful and gracious One, would not countenance such an attitude towards His creatures. Our very meagerness in numbers forces us to accept the religious axiom that “the righteous of all nations have a share in the World to Come.” This is part of the Godly statement that we will always be the smallest of all peoples and therefore bound to be the most tolerant and least proselytizing of all faiths. (Again, please don’t confuse Jews and their behavior with Judaism.) An openness towards others – darkei shalom, the ways of peace and harmony – have been the hallmarks of Judaism’s attitude towards “the righteous of all nations.”
Unfortunately all of this has been in sharp contrast with the exclusivity that the theological doctrines of Christianity and Islam force upon their adherents. Without belief in Jesus or Mohammed, as the case may be, no matter how “righteous” one may be in terms of personal behavior, one is automatically doomed. Because of this exclusivity doctrine, Jews throughout history have been eternal outsiders and infidels, doomed from the start of life to damnation if they did not convert to the true faith.
This religious belief lies at the heart of anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews and Judaism by both major faiths throughout our long and bloody history. Many times, the persecution of Jews and the banning of Jewish ritual and practice was perversely seen as somehow being a favor to those persecuted, for it would hurry them along to the baptismal fount or to don the fez and to their eternal reward. Realistically speaking, there is little likelihood of these religious doctrines of Christianity and Islam undergoing radical modification in the foreseeable future.
Jews like to project their own feelings of tolerance and liberalism on others as well. But not recognizing the fundamental difference between Judaism and the other monotheistic faiths – exclusivity of belief versus righteousness of behavior – only serves to widen the gulf of misunderstanding between “us” and “them.” A clear appraisal of the true situation and a recognition of the fundamental differences in world view can help us deal with our fellow neighbors in the world in a more honest and open fashion. Pretending that there are really no major differences between the faiths only increases the tensions, enmities and dangers for all concerned.