Salvation of Righteous Gentiles: Theology and Jewish Law
|חסידי אומות העולם יש להם חלק לעולם הבא||Righteous gentiles have a share in the world to come.|
Jewish tradition devotes comparatively little time and space to eschatology. The Talmud (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:2) records only one discussion devoted to whether gentiles are eligible for eternal life ("the world to come"), with one Palestinian rabbinic authority at the end of the first century, R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, opining, "No" and his colleague, R. Yehoshua, insisting, "Yes." This subject of this talmudic passage received relatively little Jewish attention until the twelfth century when Maimonides accepted R. Yehoshua's opinion and codified it with the above phrase. Largely due Maimonides' influence, this opinion became normative in Jewish tradition. This theological position, which can be understood to be a counterpoint to the Christian tradition of "Extra ecclesiam nulla salus" (There is no salvation outside the church), implies that righteous gentiles can attain religious truth without converting to Judaism and that for gentiles there are valid religions and covenants with God outside of Judaism.
Jewish thinkers and rabbis from the 16th through the 20th century have debated the criteria for a "righteous gentile." Maimonides himself appears to say that to qualify for this category a gentile must accept the fact of divine revelation to Moses at Sinai and accept the moral commandments of the Noahide covenant because of this revelation. That is, a righteous gentile must subscribe to basic Jewish history and theology. If so, very few gentiles would gain eternal life. Jewish rationalist philosophers (e.g. Moses Mendelssohn, Herman Cohen) and some rabbis (e.g. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel) have argued if a gentile accepts these moral rules on the basis of a philosophic awareness or natural law, such an ethical gentile would gain entry to the world to come. Moreover, they argued that this was the correct interpretation of Maimonides. Thus this principle gave rise to a philosophic and theological debate within Jewish tradition that continues to this day as to whether God requires from non-Jews correct belief or only moral commitment in life on earth and for life in the hereafter.
Whatever the criteria are for the "righteous gentile," this principle highlights the non-universalistic nature of Judaism, as salvation for gentiles is available through non-Jewish paths. This particularism opens up logical possibilities for limited theological and de jure social pluralism, not merely in "the world to come," but also in "this world."
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Text prepared and annotated by Eugene Korn