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When I taught an introductory religion class at Stonehill, one of my favourite texts to teach was Jon Levenson’s Commentary article, “How not to conduct Jewish-Christian dialogue.” Levenson’s article is a critique of Dabru Emet, a brief statement made by four professors of Jewish studies. Dabru Emet emphasizes the commonalities between Jews and Christians: they worship the same God, seek authority from the same Hebrew Bible, and accept the moral principles of that text.

Levenson responds: wait a minute. For Trinitarian Christians (the vast majority today and for most of Christianity’s history), Jesus is God in a fundamental sense; but for a Jew (or Muslim), to say that a man is God is an idolatry that drastically compromises God’s fundamental oneness and uniqueness. While the content of the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible as understood by Jews – may be mostly the same as that of the Old Testament, they are read in a very different light. To understand the Tanakh, Jews turn to Mishnah and Talmud; to understand the Old Testament, Christians turn to the New. As a result, the stories of the Hebrew Bible unfold very differently in each – they are even placed in a different order, so that the Tanakh culminates with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, while the Old Testament ends with a prophesy heralding the “coming of the Lord.” And this isn’t just a matter of arcane scriptural study: it affects one’s ethics, one’s idea of the good life. Jewish ethics have been traditionally focused on following God’s laws and commandments as revealed in Torah, Christian ethics on following Jesus’s example – or even more so on faith in him and his saving grace.

Now my interest in Levenson is not in the particulars of Jewish and Christian traditions, since I identify with neither tradition. Rather, what I deeply appreciate is his criticism of Dabru Emet‘s method. Such documents, Levenson argues, “avoid any candid discussion of fundamental beliefs,” and “adopt instead the model of conflict resolution or diplomatic negotiation.” The history of violence across traditions is of course long and bloody. So, in an effort to prevent such violence, one smooths the differences over to the point that they no longer really seem to matter. The traditions, effectively, no longer say anything.

I was reminded of this point when I attended the National Seminar on Comparative Religion at the University of Allahabad in 2005, celebrating the founding of a department of comparative religion. In a country racked by conflict between Islam and “Hinduism,” the presenters had the laudable goal of trying to celebrate commonalities – but often in ways that presented more harm than good. One non-Muslim presenter even said she stressed her respect for Islam by placing an idol of Muhammad beside the other statues she prayed to – apparently not realizing that Muslims have traditionally considered idolatry of any kind to be a cardinal sin, even forbidding depictions of Muhammad. She was perhaps the clearest example of something the advocates of “interreligious dialogue” so often do: she missed the point of the tradition she was dealing with.

It is of course difficult to speak of “the” point of any given tradition. And some forms of some traditions are quite compatible with this approach to interreligious dialogue. The best example I know of is Reconstructionist Judaism. As I understand it, Reconstructionists see different traditions, such as Judaism, as “civilizations,” cultures laden with history and ritual, more than beliefs or paths to enlightenment or codes of ethics. This Judaism is more of an ethnicity than a soteriology.

Such a view might similarly suit much of what is today called “Hinduism.” Vasudha Narayanan, former president of the AAR, once in its journal juxtaposed “liberation and lentils.” Raised Hindu, Narayanan associated her tradition more with cultural rituals, such as her relatives’ choosing the auspicious kind of lentil for particular festivals, rather than the philosophical and mythological accounts of liberation that were spoken of in her graduate coursework. This “lentil Hinduism” sounds a lot like the Reconstructionist account of a religious civilization. And that account does indeed seem to fit many members of such traditions, so closely associated with a particular ethnic or national group.

But, one might ask, what about the thinkers classified as “Hindu” who do stress “liberation”? They might be a minority, but they’re there. Nobody reading the works of Śaṅkara or Rāmānuja could imagine that their traditions are all about finding the auspicious lentils for the right occasion. Śaṅkara is not trying to give us a culture, a set of traditional practices that give a group its ethnic identity. Like a Buddhist, he is trying to free us from the suffering inherent in worldly life. And his path is not necessarily compatible with others.

Śaṅkara himself provides an important challenge to the advocates of Dabru Emet-style reduction of differences among traditions. For he’s often taken to be saying all paths are equally valid – but he isn’t. True, in Śaṅkara’s Advaita tradition, it doesn’t matter which god you worship; any deity can be a viable path to the ultimate. You can worship Gaṇeśa, or Krishna, or Jesus – it’s up to you. But that’s because in some respect the gods you see ultimately reveal themselves to be illusions, compared to the one ultimate truth. More importantly, the Buddhists, who don’t worship gods, are just plain wrong, and he spends a large portion of his work attacking them and explaining why.

There are real differences between – and within – traditions, and those differences matter. The life of the ideal Confucian, deeply immersed in family life and politics, is worlds away from the
life of the ideal Jain, seeking monastic liberation from all the fetters of this world. It matters a great deal which one is right – or if both or neither are right. It makes all the difference in the world. That is why I’ve defended the practice of apologetics, of attempting to convert others, even when performed by relatively ignorant people like FOX’s Brit Hume – it is ignorant attempts to convert, not attempts to convert as such, that are the problem. It may be the case, especially in places like India, that one should publicly diminish the differences between traditions for pragmatic political reasons – pretending to agree when one doesn’t, in order to reduce violence. Here finding the truth of the matter is less important than keeping people alive. But as Levenson points out, such an approach has no place in a document whose Hebrew name means “to speak the truth.”