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"...for truth wants to be known. It exerts pressure on the knower to share his vision of it with his peers." (Isma'il R. al-Faruqi)

HomeBooksIslam and the Problem of IsraelChapter VI: Jewish Universalism and Ethnocentrism

Chapter VI: Jewish Universalism and Ethnocentrism

16 min.

A. Distinguishing the Revelation from Its Text

From the standpoint of Islam, there can be no doubt that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon were all prophets whom God had sent forth with a divine message There can be no doubt that that message was always one and the same in its essential content which consisted, above all, of the recognition of God, of His unity and transcendence, of the Day of Judgment, of the purposiveness of history, and of man’s responsibility to manage space-time as God has directed. That the prescriptive laws God had revealed to these prophets differed somewhat from the earlier revelations made to previous prophets, is granted; but it is understood as belonging to the “how” of obedience and fulfillment rather than to the essence. Equally, there can be no doubt that the Torah is God’s revelation to Moses, that it definitively summed up and crystallized the earlier revelations. To doubt these facts is kufr, or unbelief.

To acknowledge the divine source of the Torah, however, is not to assert that the book currently known as the ” Torah” is the exact and veritable text of the Torah revealed to Moses. For this, historical proof is needed; and critical history tells a completely different tale. It tells that the Torah was re-formed and re-written by scribes and priests under King Josiah in the seventh century B.C.; that it was recast by the Jewish priesthood over many centuries; that it was lost or destroyed during the Exile in the sixth century; that it was rewritten by Ezra, the scribe, in the fifth, etc. Although some early Christians, notably Marcion and his followers in the third century A.C., doubted the religious value of the Torah as handed down to them and called upon Christians to reject it, the majority of Christians accepted it and incorporated it as part of an “Old Testament” which they juxtaposed with a “New Testament” written by the apostles of Jesus. Christian thinkers then overcame the un-Christian message of the Torah by interpreting it allegorically. Marcion and his warning were forgotten, and the claim for the integrity of the Torah would have gone unchallenged were it not for God’s constant providence.

B. Two New Disciplines

It was al Qur’an al Karim, the revelation sent to the Prophet Muhammad (SAAW) which first questioned the veracity, not of the Torah as such, but of the Torahic text. By its persistent questioning, by its indictment that the rabbis were even then and there, still “reforming” and “rewriting” the Torah to suit their needs and wishes, al Qur’an has initiated a new discipline – textual criticism – and a new science — the scientific study of religion. Practically every Muslim thinker thereafter participated in the new intellectual endeavor, then was given the title of al Milal wa al Nihal (“Studies of Religions and Para-Religions”). In time, the discipline produced a number of giants, Ibn Hazm, al Baghdadi, al Nawbakhti. Of Ibn Hazm, orientalist Alfred Guillaume said that he anticipated Western Biblical critics by a whole millennium, even in the most minute of his criticisms of the Torahic text. Indeed, Western Biblical criticism began with Wellhausen, Kiihnen and Graf, who were all Islamicists well acquainted with al Qur’an’s critique of the Biblical text.

C. Universalist and Ethnocentrist Strands in Judaism

Any objective historian’s examination of the Torah reveals that it is a text composed of many strata deriving from periods separated by hundreds of years; that its compilation must have been the work of centuries, thus repudiating once and for all the Jewish claim that the text of the Torah is verbatim revelation, as well as the Rabbinic claim, that that text is integrally the one given by Moses as revelation. Any unbiased reading of the text would also reveal that two main traditions have intertwined themselves in it, intercalating their precepts within its lines. Almost every Torahic narrative or exhortation speaks, as it were, with two mouths. These traditions can best be described as “universalist” and “ethnocentrist.” They have characterised almost every passage of the Torah as well as of the other books of the Old Testament. This observation casts doubt upon the theory that the whole Old Testament is verbatim revelation, but it does not disprove that a fair part of it is in fact revelation. Indeed, such a distinction saves the revealed part and places it beyond attack thus providing a first advantage.

Secondly, the distinction accommodates the critical historian’s view that the scripture is a body of writings that came to be regarded by the adherent-interpreters as reflecting the living religious reality of their age and hence were edited, rearranged, and refined under the influence of that reality. Thirdly, the distinction is wide enough to sustain the religious faith that working with a traditional text that is unquestionably revealed, reinterpretation and edition by later prophets and scribes constitute revelation, no less than the earlier phenomenon. This last advantage accommodates the most conservative view, which cannot escape the evidence of change in widely separated revelations through time, nor demand — religiously speaking – the total absence of change. Finally, the distinction narrows down the difference between the Jewish and Islamic views. Whereas Judaism claims revelation status for the earlier as well as the later texts, Islam affirms the earlier and rejects only the later.

The universalist strand differs substantially from the ethnocentric in their conception of divinity, revelation, piety, the covenant, of the people or nation, the Day of Judgment, morality, and the place of Jerusalem and Palestine in the religion.

1. Divinity

In the universalist strand, God is One and Transcendent. He is the Creator of heaven and earth, Lord and Master, Sustainer and Judge of the universe. He is omniscient omnipotent, and merciful to all His creatures. This is amply supported by dispersed texts running from Genesis to Malachi. It is not the case that in the ethnocentrist strand, any of these predicates is denied. They are not. They are all asserted and acknowledged as true. But in addition to them, other contradictory predicates or predicates incompatible with the universalist conception of the deity, are ascribed. It is maintained that God be addressed as Elohim, a plural of “god”; The term is widely distributed throughout the whole Old Testament, pointing to an edition of the work wherein the references to God were changed to fit this appellation of the deity. that the Elohim, or many gods, have come to earth and copulated with daughters of men (Genesis 6:2); that “the gods” belong to men in such a way that Jacob could steal them away from Laban (Genesis 31:30) and Leah could cover them with her skirts and sit on them (Genesis 31:34—35). The ethnocentrist strand holds that God wrestled physically with a human and lost the battle (Genesis 32:24—30); that God is subject to passion and to pity (Genesis 9:21); that He acts unjustly and is biased in favour of a tiny segment of humanity, the Jews. The contrast is vividly painted between the universalist God Who is absolutely One and Transcendent, and the ethnocentrist god who is in every respect a “ghost” kind of god, a god of tribal animism. That is why Biblical scholars have reserved the name Judaism and Jewish religion to the later, post-Exilic manifestation, and “Hebrew religion” to the religion of the patriarchs as expressed in the Old Testament. Ethical monotheism, they claimed, is true of the latter phenomenon, whereas monolatry is true of the earlier.

2. Revelation

The universalist strand maintains that God reveals His will to humankind that they may obey it; that revelation is the law of God equally incumbent upon all; and that since the unity of God and the unity of truth are corollaries, revelation must be one and the same at least in essence; that differences in revelation from period to period or place to place always pertain to application rather than spirit of the law. Being from God, revelation is holy. Respect belongs to its spirit and letter, both of which are always public. This means that it is of the nature of revelation to proclaim and universalise itself. Its truths are never esoteric, and they can never be reached by mere eisegesis. Hence the text of revelation must be preserved along with the categories with which its meanings could be comprehended

The ethnocentrist strand, per contra, conditions the revelation of God by the advantage it provides to the ethnic entir. Taking such relation as the raison d’etre of revelation, it understands its normativeness not as universal, but as pertaining to the recipient ethnic entity alone, and hence, assumes the laws o: God to apply only to the members, not to outsiders. The latter ethnocentrism holds, may have their own revelation as it is possible for them to have their own god or gods. God is the “God of Israel,” “of Abraham,” “Isaac,” “Jacob” and their descendants. If He reaches out to the others, He does so not for their own sake but in order to vindicate, defend or avenge “His own people.” Only they are “His sons,” objects of His loving care and mercy. The others can enjoy His care and mercy by derivation from, or association with, “His people.” Obviously, for ethnocentrists, there can be in principle more than one revelation, and such revelations can be as radically varied as their recipients; for there are as many gods as there are ethnic entities. Even for an Isaiah, such other gods are weak, impotent, even nothing; but they are not not-gods. Certainly, they are lesser gods, but still gods, de jure (Isaiah 40:18ff; 41:22ff).

The necessary relation to ethnic entity justifies the eisegesis of revelation to the end of realising the advantage of that entity. In another dimension, the same relation has granted revelation status to those historical writings (Chronicles, Kings) whose sole message is the affirmation and promotion of the ethnic entity. Indeed, the relation to the ethnic entity is reciprocal: What the entity does collectively, what happens to it, the unfolding of its destiny — that is equally revelation! The ethnocentrist view does not find contradictions between its stand on revelation and universalism. It asserts both and seeks to realise whatever advantage lies in each of them.

The same necessary relationship to the ethnic identity affects the meaning of piety. Whereas the universalist view devotes all piety, all worship, and all majesty to God alone, and so orders human life as to make it possessed by the divine presence at every one of its moments, the ethnocentrist view raises the ethnic entity to the point of sharing the majesty of God, and the piety and worship of man. Thus, the religion itself is defined in terms of God, Law or Torah, and people. Devotion to “the people” becomes a corollary of devotion to God. The “Klal Israel” acquires a mystical halo because it becomes, in ethnocentrism, something numinous.

3. Covenant

Nothing illustrates this para-divine nature of the ethnic entity better than the understanding of the covenant in the two views. Under universalism, the covenant expresses the moral purpose of creation, the essence of human morality. It asserts that man, being created to the end to obey God and fulfil His will in creation, is free and capable of doing so; that whether he does or does not obey is the criterion of his moral merit. Obedience to the divine imperative will result in success in this world and blessedness in the next; disobedience, in failure and damnation. God’s covenant, being moral, is universal and applies to all human beings. It is the “arrangement” or “pattern” by which God is pleased or displeased, the former when humans obey His laws, the latter when they are oblivious to them. The covenant of universalism is always a “two-way street”: Man’s moral obligation to God and the pattern of God’s disposal of men’s affairs.

Under ethnocentrism, the covenant has lost its universal nature and consequently its moral character. It has become “the Promise” by which God has bound Himself to favour His People, and to continue to favour them regardless of their moral performance (Deuteronomy 7:6—8; Hosea 4:12). He chooses them and proffers His blessings upon them, vindicates and avenges them, defends and gives them victory, not for their morality, but simply because He has bound Himself to them, and so because they alone are His People. That they are “hard and stiff-necked,” that they have gone a-whoring after other gods, does not matter because, according to the “Prophet” Hosea, they are still the “sons” of God and God is their “Father” (Hosea 11:8-9). Where ethnocentrism is unable to explain the tragic facts of history, when God’s People have indeed suffered catastrophes, it acknowledges the event as a chastisement, a punishment inflicted for sins committed. But it can never countenance such an option on the part of God as “And if the people turn away from this call, God will exchange: them for another people who will not…” (Qur’an 47:38). To this end, ethnocentrism has invented the doctrine of “the Remnant” (Isaiah 37:32), basing God’s continued election and favouritism to the Jewish people on the claim that a small remnant of Jews have kept their loyalty and morality and thus justified the necessary favouritism (Zechariah 8:12). In fact, the theory also holds that the remnant cannot go wrong, that its virtue is always necessary (II Kings 21:14: Zephaniah 3:13). Its purpose is hence to provide another leg on which the doctrine of election stands; in case of difficulty, to play the role of a deux ex machina.

Confirming the inevitability of God’s blessing to the Jews, ethnocentrism has interpreted the covenant in material, biological and hence racist terms, and spoken of it as being “in the Flesh.” Its symbol is circumcision (Genesis 17:9-14). This is only a symbol. Its being in the flesh is understood as something innate and hereditary, utterly independent of morality. The whole moral struggle is irrelevant to it. A Jew is a beni berith (son of the covenant) even if he apostasises. As such, he remains entitled to God’s favor, to elect status. It is on this basis that the State of Israel regards every Jew in the world as its citizen, regardless of whether he has decided to join or not. Even Alfred Rosenberg had to admit, when cornered, that “race” was ultimately a question of culture and values, and only preparatorily a question of cephalic index, blondness, etc. And the modern South African apartheid advocates define “white,” “black” and “colored” in such a way as to include the Japanese in the white class, the Syrians and Egyptians in the “black,” and the Malaysians and Indonesians in the “colored.” Obviously, their need is to find a base other than the physical on which to find their discrimination. Not so with Jewish election and covenant. Moreover, the obvious racial diversity of male parents during two millennia of ghetto existence and persecution has caused the Government of Israel to define Jewishness in terms of biological maternal descendence.

4. The Jewish People, Morality and the Day of Judgment

The universalist strand regards the Jewish People on a par with other creatures of God. If their history has been different, it is because God has chosen to send His messengers to teach and am them. Hence, they stand under a greater obligation to be righteous. Those who know, who have been adequately taught and warned have far less excuse to do wrong, or even to err. They are, besides, God’s ambassadors to mankind, or to their neighbors or next of kin. They must therefore exemplify the morality they profess. Their ambassadorship would thus be actualised. The Day of Judgment, for them, is the Day on which God would reckon with every human his past deeds, and judge mankind on a standard of absolute justice. Judgment is the keystone of morality, the logical consequence of freedom and responsibility.

On the other hand, ethnocentrism’s view of the people, nation, or ethnicity is the key that determines its view of everything else. The ethnic entity is elevated to the highest level, but it is not fused with the deity nor does it take its place. It becomes a prime associate of the deity, defining and channelling God’s relation to the People. In consequence, the ethnic entity becomes the principal category on which morality, culture, law and civilization depend, and God becomes a constitutional figurehead. The entity’s priesthood assumes the role of lawmaking, governing, and determining the life of the entity on earth. Being ethnic, the entity is necessarily earth-bound and regards itself as eternal in time. It is not impressed by the Day of judgment or the hereafter. It interprets the Day of Judgment as the Day on which it will be vindicated, revenged, against its earthly enemies, rather than the Day on which God reckons with all men their moral and immoral works and passes a judgment of reward or punishment to each on the basis of his or her own works.

5. Jerusalem, Palestine

Finally, the universalist strand regards Jerusalem and Palestine as accidental to revelation. It acknowledges the previous revelations of God to the prophets inhabiting that spot of earth and keeps a memory of joy and gratitude to God for having made the inhabitants of that spot of earth the recipient or first audience, of revelation. It knows that God might have placed His revelation anywhere else; and that, had He done so, His revelation would be as normative and binding and excellent as before (Qur’an 6:124). Hence, it sees no causal relation whatsoever between the “real estate” and revelation, between the rocks of the ground and the deity. The same is true of the Kingdom of David’s history. That kingdom has no value other than that which history assigns to it. Some aspects of it may well be worth emulating, especially those in which it has proved its obedience to God and His commandments. But it is never confused with Paradise, the other kingdom that is spiritual, timeless and spaceless, a transcendent dependency of the transcendent God.

In ethnocentrism, per contra, Jerusalem and Palestine are pieces of real estate whose religious value is intrinsic to the physical aspect of their being, in addition to the spiritual memorial being recognized by universalism. Halevy, who is often quoted by the Zionists as a medieval predecessor, saw a causal relationship between the physical earth, air and water of Palestine and the divine dispensation. Actually, it should not come as a surprise that God Who has chosen a people in the flesh to be His favorite through their biological generation, that He chose a piece of real estate to be His “dwelling place” forever. Ethnocentrism was bold enough to tie the divine presence to Jerusalem. In the mouth of one of its prophets, viz., Nathan, it laid down the law that God could not be reached except in Jerusalem, that the Jew cannot worship Him unless he stands on Jerusalem’s soil (II Samuel 7:4ff; I Kings 5:17; 8:27ff). Hence, all the attachment to the eretz or soil which made any amount of it desirable as a guarantee of the connection to the Deity. Having ethnicised God by associating Him with the ethnic entity, ethnocentrism en-landed Him and restricted Him to the physical historical frontiers of Jerusalem. For it, Jerusalem is not merely an expression of values to be remembered and observed, but a continuing physical reality to be possessed. Likewise, the Davidic Kingdom is a physical, political, social, military and economic kingdom reestablished on its own land. To the universalist formula that Judaism consists of God and His law or revelation, ethnocentrism adds “and His People” or the chosen ethnic entity, and “and the physical land.” Even Martin Buber, perhaps the most spiritualised of modern Zionists, could not resist the ethnocentric appeal. He declared that between land and people, and hence land and God, there is a mysterious connection of timeless proportion. Apparently, God, in ethnocentrism is not only the god of a tribe, a god in whose nature a particular tribe is inextricably embedded. He is equally the god of land from which He is inseparable and which is equally embedded within His nature in a mysterious way that passes understanding. Such is the logic of Jewish ethnocentrism.

D. Alternating Dominance of the Two Strands

Although the universalist and ethnocentrist strands have been present in Jewish consciousness, their history has known periods in which one or the other was dominant. Certainly, the Exilic Age (609-500 B.C.), the age of Hellenistic ascendancy (200 B.C.-650 A.C.), the Islamic Period (650-1948), the West European Period of the Enlightenment (1650-1850), and the American Period (1650-1939), the Russian Communist period since 1918, are periods in which the universalising view dominated the thinking of the overwhelming majority of Jews in the territory in question. These periods had their own leaders who stand out prominently as advocates of universalism; namely, Jeremiah and Isaiah; Philo; practically all Jewish thinkers and leaders in the realm of Islam but notably Ibn Maymun, Sa’adiah and Hayyuy ibn Zakariyya; Spinoza, Lessing, Mendelssohn, Geiger; Isaac Wise, David Kaufman, Einhorn and Kohler, etc., in respective order. Equally certain, the period of David’s monarchy (990-922 B.C.), of Ezra and Nehemiah (549-440 B.C.), of the Maccabees (330 B.C.-70 A.C.), of Europe’s pre-Enlightenment ghetto-age (300-1650 A.C.), and of modern Zionism (1933 to the present are the periods in which ethnocentrism was the dominant view. Coming on the heels of the Enlightenment and in an age in which the Western world seems to have replaced God with an ethnic entity, the present rise of Jewish ethnocentrism is the strongest of all previous periods. Its phenomenon is worldwide and, so far at least, it has enjoyed the understanding and blessing of the Western nations as a sister movement whose nature is very much like their own.

From Chapter 6: “Jewish Universalism and Ethnocentrism” in Isma’il Raji al Faruqi, “Islam and the Problem of Israel”, Islamic Council of Europe (1980)


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