Overview: Attitudes Toward Non-Jews

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In the Middle Ages, much of the discussion about non-Jews focused on whether Muslims and Christians were idolaters. Muslims were generally not considered idolaters, but opinions about Christianity varied. For many, the apparent worship of the cross and the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation seemed idolatrous. Others accepted that Christianity was monotheistic. Still others accepted an innovative idea, shittuf, the notion that worshipping something associated with God was forbidden for Jews only; thus, for gentiles, Christianity was not idolatrous.

A few medieval authorities--including Maimonides--addressed Hinduism as well; for these scholars, it was a prime example of an existing form of idolatry.

In the early modern period, when political emancipation seemed to promise Jewish acceptance into the general culture, some Jewish thinkers adopted new attitudes toward non-Jews. Moses Mendelssohn, the father of the Jewish Enlightenment, warned against being quick to judge people of other faiths--including Hindus.

The second half of the 20th century brought vast changes in Jews' relations with non-Jews. Social and professional interaction in pluralistic, democratic environments cultivated grassroots tolerance. Religious dialogue followed suit, and there has been extensive Jewish-Christian and even Jewish-Buddhist dialogue in recent years.

Indeed, the Jewish confrontation with Eastern religions--Buddhism in particular--is one of the most fascinating religious phenomena of our time. Many Jewish baby boomers, like others of their generation, have been attracted to Buddhist practices. Participants in the Jewish Renewal movement--with the encouragement of their leader, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi--have explored and embraced some of these practices. For many, the fact that Buddhism does not have a traditional deity makes it possible to conceive of someone being both a Buddhist and a Jew.

Still, many Jews continue to harbor suspicions toward non-Jews. As has been true throughout history, when Jews feel welcome and respected, they tend to maintain positive feelings toward their non-Jewish neighbors; in hostile environments, their feelings differ. In addition, the nature of Jewish learning is such that classical and medieval Jewish texts are constantly studied. The many instances of less-than-sympathetic attitudes toward non-Jews in these sources inevitably have their effect on Jewish communal discourse and consciousness.  

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