One God: Many Faiths

A Jewish Theology of Covenantal Pluralism

Eugene Korn

Center for Christian-Jewish Learning - Boston College

March 13, 2003


Rabbi Eugene Korn, PhD. is Director of Interfaith Affairs at the Anti-Defamation League and adjunct professor of Jewish Thought at Seton Hall University.


  1. Covenant and Pluralism in Tension

Judaism and Christianity are covenantal faiths. Both spiritual traditions understand themselves to be in covenantal relationship with God. For each religion the covenant constitutes the foundation of religious truth. But the covenant and the religious truth that emerges from it are in deep tension with modern pluralistic experience. The existence of alternative religious claims, and the presence of the Other challenge our convictions. Can we sense God when we behold the Other, or is the Other a threat to the validity of our covenant?

In the 12th chapter of Genesis God begins to establish a covenant with Abraham and his descendants—the Jewish people. God promises Abraham title to the land of Canaan, that he will be the father of a great people, and that "through you all the nations of the earth shall be blessed." Christianity has always seen itself as the heir to that Abrahamic covenant. To use Paul’s metaphor, Christianity is "the branch grafted on to that [covenantal] root." (Romans 11)

There are a number of fundamental characteristics to Abraham’s covenant. It establishes an intimate personal relationship between God and Abraham. It provides content, meaning and commitment to Abraham’s faith and his existential relationship with God.

It is crucial to note that like all forms of intimacy, a covenantal relations is particularistic, forming an exclusive relationship between the parties. This why the biblical prophets repeatedly use the metaphor of marriage to describe the covenant between God and the Jewish people. The sanctity of marriage lies precisely in the fact that the husband and wife are devoted exclusively to each other. Any third party entering the relationship between husband and wife degrades that holy union. In the Bible, the idea of "open marriage" is a contradiction in terms.

Like all identity forming relationships, therefore, covenants necessarily erect boundaries, and in doing so create an insider-outsider dichotomy. By virtue of their very particularistic intimacy, covenantal relations give rise to profound theological and moral problems: How does someone in covenantal relation with God regard one who is outside the covenant? Can the Other be regarded as an equal? Can he be validated? Can the Other be "saved"? Does the Other undermine my faith in the truth of my relationship with God, or can he somehow serve to strengthen my faith?

This is the problem of religious belief in a pluralistic world. Modern life saturates us with empirical plurality, i.e. it brings us into contact with diverse life-styles, a variety of faiths, and different ethics. Of course, the presence of the Other has always been a problem for religious faith, but in modernity the problem is relentless and inescapable. Can a person of deep religious commitment coexist with and even value someone outside his faith? This question is the key whether religion will flourish in the 21st century and whether peace among civilizations is possible.

Empirical plurality often leads to theological pluralism, i.e. the idea that many religions are equally valid, and ethical pluralism, that numerous ethical systems are equally true. But pluralism immediately generates a logical problem, for if all religions are "true," no one is True; and if the same act of abortion is both morally right and morally wrong, then our morals have no objective meaning. Hence pluralism frequently leads to apathy, a lack of conviction, to syncretism and a dilution of meaning. Often, tolerance is just indifference masquerading as civic virtue. Hence pluralism has a bad reputation in deeply religious communities.

John Stuart Mill said it nearly 150 years ago: It is easy to be tolerant (or pluralistic) regarding what you really do not care about. The challenge is to be able to respect our religious and moral differences while having deep conviction in the truth of our own. In other words, can we still believe in our singular covenantal faith while we are located in a pluralistic world?


II. Historical and Theological Responses

Religious communities have responded with two basic strategies to resolve this tension. One is withdrawal. It is possible to deny the existence of the Other by isolating yourself and retreating into a monolithic society, institution, or ghetto or church. By separating from the diversity of the world, one does not encounter the Other and all relationships tend to reinforce one’s own faith and convictions. This was easier to do before the Enlightenment, when communities were separated from each other by unbridgeable distances and values, and societies were often stratified along hard ethnic or religious lines. But in the shrinking world of multi-cultural modernity, the strategy of withdrawal entails becoming a sect, removing oneself (or religion or community) from God’s world, and ultimately becoming only a footnote to the larger drama of human history and culture. Withdrawal is the strategy of the Amish, good people who wish simply for the world to leave them alone to live amongst themselves. It is the response to Enlightenment by ultra-Orthodox Jews who have retreated to isolated ghettos, and I assume it is the dream of many old-world Catholics in Rome and elsewhere.

However withdrawal comes at a great spiritual cost, for it entails giving up on the biblical covenant, which demands that the covenantal partner somehow be a catalyst for "blessing for all the nations of the earth." God commands that His covenantal partner not be a ghetto people, but a major player in human culture. I believe that Pope John XXIII realized this biblical imperative and that led to Vatican II and the updating of the Church. So does Pope John Paul II who has done so much to ensure that the Church engages all people, cultures and religions. For Jews, the State of Israel that has taken its place among the family of nations constitutes a reversal of Jewish withdrawal from history and mainstream Western culture.

The second—and more common—strategic response to problem of the Other has been the urge to universalize. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks terms this "the ghost of Plato."1 For Plato, truth was by definition universal. Two plus two equals four, not only for me but for all people. Indeed it is built into the cosmic structure. Sacks puts it this way:

"It is a wondrous dream, that of Plato, and one that has never ceased to appeal to his philosophical and religious heirs: the dream of reason, a world of order set against the chaos of life, an eternity beyond the here and now. Its single most powerful idea is that truth – reality, the essence of things – is universal. How could it be otherwise? What is true is true for everyone at all times, and the more universal a culture is, the closer to truth it comes." (p. 49)

In covenantal terms, this means that when I assert that my covenant is true I imply that it must be true for all right thinking people. Hence religious truth demands that the covenant be universalized, that it be made "catholic." My church must be a universal church. Those not believing in my covenant must be brought into my faith to deserve rights and respect. Competing religions are an intolerable acceptance of error and sin. In 1493 Cardinal Nicholas Cusanus wrote a book called De Pace Fidei.2 Here is what he says: "Christ, the world’s Judge, seeing that the evil of multiple religions on earth is becoming intolerable, summons a heavenly council" in which "seventeen representatives are shown, by the divine Logos, how the religious concerns of all can be settled in the Church represented by Peter." This was the classic Christian understanding throughout the ages.

Thus, "extra ecclesium nulla salus." (There is no salvation outside the Church.) The Church transformed the particular covenant into a universal mission, and entrance into the church became a prerequisite for acceptance, validity, dignity and salvation. The Catholic Church was not the only body that strove to universalize. Plato’s ghost also haunted Enlightenment rationalists, Marxists and dominates today’s traditional Islamic believers. All strove or strive to bring the world into their ideological or theological orbit and assert their universal Truth.

Jews have always been the victims of universal schemes. Whenever someone or some group tried to conquer the world—ideologically or physically—Jewish blood ran in the streets. In Medieval Europe, Jews were the contemptible and blind outsiders who insisted on being different, the only non-Christians in the West. The Jews and their parochial covenant constitute, in Rabbi David Hartman’s phrase, "the scandal of particularity." Jews were the bone in the throats of Medieval Christendom, Enlightenment Rationalism, Russian Communism, and they still vex contemporary Islam. This is why there is such fierce opposition to the State of Israel in the Middle East. The conflict is not merely a territorial dispute. Why should an imam in Mecca or Cairo care who runs Tel Aviv? Israeli sovereignty is above all an attempt to stake out an equal claim for non-Moslems in Dar Es Islam. Never before has there been a serious assertion that non-Moslems could live in the Arab orbit independent from Moslem authority and power. In traditional Islamic culture, Jews and Christians were accepted as dhimmis, second class citizens, but the idea of Jews as first-class citizens is intolerable to traditional Moslems, and a threat to Islam.

Plato’s universalization of truth has been a moral and religious disaster not only for Jews, but for all humanity. Isaiah Berlin best describes the effect of universal ideological schemes:

"Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals and groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth…It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right, have a magical eye which sees the truth, and that others cannot be right if they disagree. This makes one certain that there is one goal and only one for one’s nation or church or the whole of humanity, and that it is worth any amount of suffering (particularly on the part of other people) if only that goal is attained—even "through an ocean of blood to the Kingdom of Love" as said Robespierre. Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, and I daresay leaders in the religious wars of Christian vs. Muslim or Catholics vs. Protestants [or I would now add, radical Islam vs. Western "infidels"] sincerely believed this: the belief that there is one and only one true answer to the central questions which have agonized mankind and that one has it oneself—or one’s Leader has it. This belief was responsible for the oceans of blood. But no Kingdom of Love ever sprang from it, nor could it."3


III. A Jewish Conception of Covenantal Pluralism

Judaism was never hypnotized by Plato’s ghost. It has kept faithful to the intimate and particular nature of the biblical covenant and not tried to universalize it. Specifically, Judaism asserts that there is one universal God, but no universal religion.4 The covenant with Abraham, reaffirmed at Sinai when the Jewish people accepted the Torah, is correct for Jews, but not obligatory for the rest of humanity.

Judaism does have a concept of a universal covenant, known as the Noahide covenant. The Bible indicates that after the flood God made a covenant with Noah and his descendants, i.e. all humanity. According to Jewish teaching, this covenant contains only seven commandments: the six prohibitions against murder, theft, sexual wildness, excessive cruelty, blasphemy and idolatry, as well as the positive injunction to live in a society under a system of laws rather than a "jungle" environment. Blasphemy here connotes the intolerance of religious teaching about the Creator of the universe. Idolatry according to some rabbinic opinions5 is any ideology that rejects the above moral obligations, which are the foundations of any civil society. Importantly, there is no explicit requirement in the Noahide covenant to believe in God. The Noahide covenant is thus primarily moral, devoid of explicit theological doctrine. Even if it were to require belief in a generic creator who implanted a moral order into the cosmos and who ensures punishment for those violating that order,6 at most Noahites would have to believe only that "God is" and that His moral authority is supreme—but no specific theology or a specific way to worship God.

By contrast, the Sinai covenant belongs to the Jewish people alone and requires a specific mode of belief and worship. Thus the covenant remains particular, focusing on a particular people (the Jews), in a specific geography (the land of Israel) and specific commandments (the 613 mitzvot). Judaism has taken much unkind and unfair criticism for the parochial nature of its covenant, but it is precisely this limitation in the Sinai covenant that provides a logical opening for acknowledging non-Jewish religious forms and conceptions, i.e. theological pluralism.

If, as Genesis 12 and other biblical passages suggest, the Jewish covenantal commitment is a paradigm for humanity, then it would seem that other peoples are also entitled to their own particular theological commitment (i.e. religion) without denying divergent religious conceptions. The particularity of Sinai logically points to the possibility of other particular theologies so long as they are consistent with the basic moral obligations demanded by the universal Noahide covenant. It forms the foundation of legitimacy for non-Jewish worship and "space" for the religious Other. It is true that the Bible terms Israel "God’s treasured people", and "the first born" of God’s children, but these are mere poetic metaphors that should not preclude similar relationships with His other children. Surely we can ask Mary Boys’ penetrating question: "Has God only one blessing?" God’s infinite nature implies no constraint on divine love or divine capacity for unique relationship with all of His creatures.

Sacks has called for the "dignity of difference." Yet a religious person yearns for more than dignity for the Other. Neutral tolerance of difference does little to nourish one’s faith. Somehow the Other needs to play a role in strengthening one’s faith and religious experience in the world. Can we see the Image of God in the face of the Other? Can another’s deep convictions somehow awaken us to God’s presence in our lives? It is the sanctity of difference that holds spiritual rewards.

There are a number of Jewish insights that alert us to the spiritual value of pluralism.

The Mishna Sanhedrin (4:5) asks an incisive question: Why did God create all humanity from the single prototype of Adam? It would have been more logical to allow separate couples to start independent lines of procreation for different genetic groups such as Caucasians, Orientals, Indians, Negroids, etc. The Mishna formulates three answers: (1) To teach that one person is the moral equivalent of all humanity, (2) so that no one can claim that his patrimony is greater another’s, and (3) to teach the greatness of God. When human beings engage in production from one template, all the creations are the same. However, God started with one template and no two human beings are identical. Though we all come from Adam, each of us is unique. The Mishna’s proposition is that human difference testifies to God’s glory. If so, religious persons should celebrate human diversity. The infinite number of human traits, attributes and perceptions mirrors the infinite creative power of God, indeed the infinite nature of the Divine. Religious dynamics should seek to appreciate human pluralities, not flatten out differences.

Theological pluralities foster epistemological and spiritual humility. Believing that only you or only your faith has the truth is not only dangerous, but arrogant. It breeds hubris and egoism. Recognizing the legitimacy of someone with a different theological orientation helps a spiritual personality recognize his finitude and fallibility, reminding him that he is a limited creature in God’s vast world. Hubris undermines the consciousness of standing before the awesome Divine Presence, and encountering the Other provides a constant check on this human temptation.

Lastly, legitimizing different theological conceptions multiplies the possibilities for discovering God in our lives. If only those in my covenant have God’s truth, then only my coreligionists reflect divinity. When we grant religious validity to all moral faiths, we can find the Image of God in all religiously sincere people. Pluralism maximizes the potential for religious blessing in our experience with all people, for they are all His beloved children. If covenants are particular, then God is found in individuals, not in a universal creed, nor in the abstract of "humanity" as such.


IV. Judaism, Christianity and the Eschaton

Although this Jewish conception of covenantal pluralism lays the groundwork for multiple sacred covenants that all moral peoples can follow, it is clear that the relationships between Judaism and Christianity and between Jews and Christians are different than between Judaism and other religions. Whatever God’s reasons, He has thrown Jews and Christians together in a long tortured history. He has given both peoples a shared sacred text (Hebrew Scriptures, or more accurately "Shared Scriptures"), and a shared spiritual patrimony. Clearly some of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity developed in reaction to each other, unlike the relationship of Judaism and Bhuddism, or of Christianity and Hinduism. And most importantly, both faith traditions share a messianic vision of history, even if the particular details of the process and agents of that redemption differ. We both work for the same goal of making the God of Abraham known in the world, "to be a blessing for all the nations of the earth." Even Maimonides—the harshest critic of Christian theology among Jewish thinkers—acknowledged that Christianity is a positive historical force in spreading the messianic idea in human culture.7

What is the Jewish vision of the eschaton, the end of days when God’s plan for humanity will be fulfilled in history? The Jewish prophet Micah describes it with stunning beauty:

It shall be in the end of days that the mountain of the Lord shall be established on top of all mountains and shall be exalted above the hills. And (many) peoples shall stream onto it. Many nations shall come, and say, ‘Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord and to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us His ways and walk in His paths. For the Torah shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.’ They shall bear their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore. But every man shall sit under his vine and his fig tree; and none shall make him afraid….For let all people walk, each in the name of his God and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever." (4:1-5)


This is a dream of peace, of security, of blessing, and of the knowledge of God. It is a vision of pluralistic harmony, where each people calls God by its own name, worships in its own way, relates to God with its own covenant, and understands God with its own particular religious insight. There is a universal God, but a multiplicity of peoples cherishing a multiplicity of religious truths, and each bears witness to the reality of God.

Both Jewish and Christian traditions teach that God yearns to enter the world. Regarding this claim there is no question. The human religious challenge is to build a world that God is able to enter, that has enough room for the Divine Presence and where multiple divine images can shine from all of His children. Christians and Jews have been enemies for nearly their entire common history. If they can create peace and blessing for each other, then peace is possible between all peoples. The reconciliation between Christians and Jews, between Christianity and Judaism, must continue for it is the key to realizing Micah’s dream.


  1. The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, Jonathan Sacks, (Continuum: London 2002).

  2. See Many Religions—One Covenant: Israel the Church and the World, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, trans. by Graham Harrison (Ignatius: San Francisco 1998) pp. 89-91. As the title of Ratzinger’s book indicates, his theology represents a prime example of universalizing the covenant.

  3. Liberty (Oxford: Oxford U. Press 2002) p. 345.

  4. See Sacks, pp. 51-55.

  5. Rabbi Menachem Ha-Meiri (13th century France) and those later rabbinic authorities who accepted his conceptualization of idolatry.

  6. Meiri believed that one could not lead a coherent moral life without a belief in a Creator of heaven and earth who punished the guilty and rewarded the innocent. Like other pre-moderns, a secular ethic was untenable.

  7. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 11:4 (uncensored version).