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A rabbi explores how Jews view other religions
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A rabbi explores how Jews view other religions

Rabbi Alan Brill signs a copy of his new book, Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding, at Seton Hall University March 21. Photo by Robert Wiener
Rabbi Alan Brill signs a copy of his new book, Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding, at Seton Hall University March 21. Photo by Robert Wiener

For a man who grew up in Forest Hills, a multi-ethnic area of Queens; was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi at Yeshiva University; and received a doctorate in Catholic theology from Fordham University, the subject of Alan Brill’s new book seems predestined.

Brill describes Judaism and Other Religions as “a Jewish theology of other religions,” rather than an interfaith dialogue.

The book examines a wide range of Jewish texts reflecting on other faiths, from biblical and talmudic views to contemporary approaches. At the heart of the book are questions of inclusivity. Can only one religion represent the “truth”? Is God to be found in other religions? Is there a “universal monotheism”?

“Since I tend to be an academic, I have produced a book which gave everyone resources of traditional texts that produced the ‘middle positions’ from the traditional rabbinical, medieval, and early modern texts,” said Brill, who holds the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair of Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange.

He defines that “middle position” as somewhere between pluralism, which suggests that no one religion can claim the singular truth, and exclusivism, which says all other claims about God but your own are false.

“The middle position is things like inclusivism — ‘I can find a place for you within my own religion and my own system of thinking.’ It means that either ‘we share the same God’ or ‘I can see we are both contributing to the moral climate of the world’ or ‘I can see in the end of days we are going to come together.’ It is not coming to an immediate pluralism.”

An expert on the history of Jewish mysticism, Brill became involved in interfaith work in the past 15 years, after an earlier wave of locally centered dialogue took on the benign trappings of “Brotherhood Week.”

“That was not offering comfort to people after 9/11, when they felt the extremists were coming out from every religion,” said Brill. “I think the extremists have received prominence. People have to wake up and say, ‘They are not going away.’ In the post-9/11 world it means speaking to traditional Muslims, such as imams in Saudi Arabia, and Catholic bishops.

“Therefore, they needed Orthodox rabbis who could speak to the more traditional elements of Catholicism and Islam.”

For Brill, the dialogue extends within Orthodox Judaism as much as it does to other religions. Brill has taught at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the “open” Orthodox yeshiva in Riverdale, in the Bronx, and contributed to The Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, an organization that “fosters an appreciation of legitimate diversity within Orthodoxy.”

The challenge for Orthodox Jews, he said, has been to treat other religions on theological terms — that is, taking their adherents seriously as religious believers in their own right and not merely as “non-Jews.”

In a talk before signing books at the Walsh Library at Seton Hall on March 21, Brill paraphrased words written by 16th-century rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi on Jewish relations with other faiths.

“Do not curse the Christians and Muslims as an entire phobia, as an entire religion. You are only going to be angry at those who hurt you, only at those who persecute you. Do not globalize it and make it into a bigger hatred.”

Move to moderation

In his book’s introduction, Brill writes of interfaith encounters where Christians and Muslims speak about Judaism from the viewpoint of traditional teachings while “the Jewish representative addresses the assembled from the general perspective of comparative religion, politics, or anthropology. There needs to be Jewish theologies of other religions.”

His own views were founded, he said, by growing up in a “post-Vatican II world,” after the Catholic Church’s momentous declaration that supported greater religious tolerance and renounced the teaching that Jews killed Christ.

“I grew up with kids who never said anything anti-Semitic. The fact that I went to Fordham University for my doctorate in Catholic theology only makes sense in a post-Vatican II world. I wasn’t made to feel an ‘other’ at Fordham because they were just as open to Greek Orthodox, Protestants, and anybody else who wanted to study there,” he said.

Since then he has participated in a range of interfaith encounters, from a visit by Roman Catholic cardinals to Yeshiva University in 2004, to a multi-faith conference initiated by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in 2008, to a visit to Seton Hall by eight moderate Muslim leaders from Iraq in 2009.

Brill said the interfaith dialogue is expanding beyond the Abrahamic faiths.

“There are Jews and Hindus talking and Jews and Sikhs talking. Everyone is talking to everyone now. This is an exchange of globalization,” he said. “People have got to deal with the issues. The more right-wing and violent aspects of their religions didn’t disappear.

“We need a greater rhetoric that will move people to more moderate positions.”

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