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Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Are all religions basically the same?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 78


Rabbanit Batya is the first rebbetzin in history on the payroll of the Church.  As the coordinator for the Edmonton Interfaith Housing Initiative, her job is to bring together clergy from across Edmonton and inspire them to educate their respective flocks about helping to end homelessness in the city.  While the initiative is a joint project of a number of faith groups as well as the City of Edmonton, practically speaking she receives a monthly paycheck from the Anglican Diocese, making her the first rebbetzin ever to be paid by the Church!

Many people see cooperation between religious groups as incredibly beautiful.  After all, aren’t we really all about the same thing?  Faith means being guided by Heaven to make this world a better place, right?  We’re all essentially doing the same thing, just with some minor differences in approach, right?

Following the battle with the Emorites, the Torah states, “Vaniram avad Cheshbon ad Divon (Their sovereignty over Cheshbon was lost until Divon).”
The Gemara interprets this phrase homiletically: “Vaniram” alludes to a wicked person who says “Ain Ram – there is no G-d on High.” “Avad Cheshbon” means that “The demand for a personal accounting of one’s actions is lost. Hashem responds, however, “Ad Divon,” meaning, “Just wait until the day of judgment (din) comes (ba)!”

Ever wonder how rational human beings could worship idols?  How foolish could ancient man have been?  You fashion these statues out of wood and gold and then treat them as a god?  How could they be divine when you created them yourself?  These idols should have been worshipping man as their creator, not the other way around!

Our Sages explain that idolatry went hand in hand with immorality.  Why?  What led a person who was bowing down to idols to become an exemplar of loose morals?  What is the connection between the two?

Imagine you were our patriarch, Avraham, or the prophet, Eliyahu, and you were trying to convince a person to cease their idolatrous practices and immoral ways.  What would they respond to you?  ‘You have your religion, I have mine.  Who gives you the right to judge me and my religion?  My idols have instructed me to practise my life as I do!  How dare you be so intolerant and disrespectful to another’s beliefs?’

That’s why idolatry was so popular.  It was even better than atheism.  When you debate an atheist, you’re not criticizing their beliefs – they claim to have none!  But when you debate an idolater, there’s nothing you can say to them.  The second you begin to critique their religious practices, they accuse you of intolerance.  But what exactly were their religious practices?  Whatever they wanted them to be!  They could be the most immoral people and claim that their gods instructed them to act the way they do.  When you question their morality, their response is that your definition of what is morally appropriate is simply different to their definition.  

Today we have a name for such abstruseness: moral relativism.  That’s what the Gemara means regarding the person who says “There is no G-d on high.” If there’s no Supernal Being, every religion is equal.  Idolatry was the ancient name for today’s moral relativism.  You have no right to question another person’s theology and practices and claim moral superiority, because everyone has the right to their own beliefs.  To judge another’s religious devotions is to be intolerant.  As the Gemara says “the demand for a personal accounting of one’s actions is lost,” because everyone is entitled to believe and practise whatever they want to believe and practise.

The advantage of idolatry was that you could lead your life however you wanted to, and do it all in the name of religion.  Most religions today are not that overtly depraved.  But that doesn’t make them right.  Many faith groups justify all manner of inappropriate behaviour, all in the name of religion.  Some faiths justify violence, particularly against women.  Other faiths justify alternative lifestyles or the right to determine which babies have the right to be born.  One dare not criticize, because it’s considered intolerant.  When morals are no longer determined by Heaven, but by man, that’s modern-day idolatry.

When Rabbanit Batya and I work together with other faith groups to create a better society, we are not declaring that we believe those religions to be true.  Or equal to Judaism.  When we work with other clergy members, we seek common ground to do good.  Care for the less fortunate, alms for the poor – those deeds are common to most religions and when we work together, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 

Other aspects of our respective theologies, however, are not part of the discussion.  As far as we’re concerned every other religion is absolutely false.  In fact, anybody that doesn’t believe that their religion is the absolute truth and that all other religions are false gods should probably question their faith commitment! 


Anybody can justify anything they want in G-d’s name.  You don’t need to respect opinions and beliefs that are immoral.  On the contrary, we should call out those who use G-d to justify their immoral behaviour.  At the same time, however, we must respect and work with others who are making this world a better place in the name of Heaven.  Doing so does not mean that we agree with every theological statement they are making.  May you never fall into the trap of moral relativism, but always be prepared to cooperate with those who are working to make G-d’s name great in this world!