Muslims, Christians, and Jews: The Dream of Coexistence

The term coexistence, as it is used at the present time, implies a willingness to live at peace, and perhaps even in mutual respect, with others. It might therefore be useful to begin with a glance at the notion of “otherness,” which, no doubt as a result of the conspicuous failures of coexistence—religious, national, racial, social, ideological—in our century, has received a good deal of attention of late.

The two most articulate peoples of eastern Mediterranean antiquity, the only ones who have retained both their voices and their memories, have left us two by now classical definitions of the other—the barbarian and the gentile, “barbarian” meaning not Greek, “gentile” meaning not Jewish. Both of these terms, in classical usage, contain at least an element of hostility, in which the notion of the other easily changes into the somewhat different but closely related concept of the enemy. Yet both of these notions—barbarian and gentile—represent a considerable advance on what went before.

The urge to define and reject the other goes back to our remotest human ancestors, and indeed beyond them to our animal predecessors. Both the Jewish and Greek definitions represent an immense change, in that the barriers which they raise are permeable. They are not impenetrable barriers, and in this they are different from the more primitive and universal definitions of identity and otherness based on birth and blood. They can be crossed or even removed by the adoption, in the one case of a language and culture, in the other of a religious belief and law. It was not easy, but it was possible, and already in classical antiquity we confront the phenomenon of Hellenized barbarians and Judaized gentiles, even indeed of Hellenized Jews and Judaized Hellenes, either directly or through the more spectacularly successful Jewish heresies.

The Jewish definition of identity and otherness, by religious belief and practice, was adopted by both the successor religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which for fourteen centuries have shared—or rather contested—the Mediterranean world. The three religions have an immense heritage in common—from the ancient Middle East, from Greco-Roman antiquity, from Jewish revelation and prophecy. Yet their mutual perceptions and reciprocal attitudes differ enormously.

The Jewish perception of the religious other is different from that shared by Christians and Muslims, and, in this respect, brings Judaism closer to the religions of eastern and southern Asia—in that, while Jews claim that the truths of their faith are universal, they do not claim that they are exclusive. Judaism is for Jews and those who care to join them. But, according to a well-known Talmudic dictum, the righteous of all peoples and faiths have their place in paradise. The rabbis relate that before the ten commandments given to Moses there were seven commandments revealed in the time of Noah, and these were for all humanity. Only two of them, the bans on idolatry and blasphemy, are theological; all the rest, including the prohibition of murder …

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Letters

Tolerance Among Muslims, Christians, & Jews: An Exchange October 22, 1992

Khomeini’s Forerunners June 25, 1992