I. Controversial Book
In line with our recent discussion of religious diversity, I'd like to examine a particular contemporary view of religious pluralism in light of talmudic and midrashic sources -- one attributed to Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks. As we shall see, this is timely because it related to last week's Torah portion.
In R. Sacks' controversial book The Dignity of Difference, a book written primarily for a non-Jewish audience, R. Sacks proposes that in today's world we need to celebrate the many different religions in the world. We have to recognize that God "speaks" to different societies in different ways, and see the unique truths that emanate from these multiple religions.
After much criticism in the Orthodox community, R. Sacks issued a revised version of the book in which he specified that the Noahide laws are universally binding, removed references to evolution and pre-history that were anyway unnecessary for hsi point, and emphasized the element of human interpretation in religion.
Nevertheless, Dr. Marc Shapiro published a discussion of this controversy in The Edah Journal (link) and argued that R. Sacks' critics were essentially correct: R. Sacks made theological suggestions that have no grounding in traditional sources, namely that idolatrous religions are acceptable and were directed by true prophets of God.
II. Noahide Covenant
I don't think that R. Sacks was saying that. Regarding the issue of idolatry and polytheism, R. Sacks clearly mentions the Noahide covenant three times in even the original edition of the book: pages 20, 54, and 57. Furthermore, the seed for these ideas comes from chapter 8 of A Letter in the Scroll, an earlier book of R. Sacks'. Indeed, a close read will show full paragraphs taken almost verbatim from there for the later book. In that chapter, at precisely the point where he discusses the value of multiple religions, R. Sacks writes very clearly: "To arrive at this unique vision of monotheistic religious pluralism, Judaism had to contain not one religious vision but two. There is the covenant with all humanity through Noah, and the covenant with one particular family, that of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants" (pp. 98-99).
I think it is very hard to claim that R. Sacks did not have the Noahide prohibition against idolatry in mind when writing this book. Presumably he interprets it broadly and, like so many other authorities, allows within this covenant for the worship of God and other deities (i.e. shituf).
III. Gentile Prophecy
However, that isn't really what I want to discuss here. My target here is the idea that non-Jewish religions are the result of God "speaking" to Gentiles. Dr. Shapiro thinks that this refers to non-Jewish prophecy. I don't think it does, but before we go there let's address non-Jewish prophecy. In a long paper titled "Judaism and Other Religions: An Orthodox Perspective" (link), Dr. Alan Brill lists a number of possible views on other religions and provides sources for them. There were few things with which I take issue in the essay, but relevant for our discussion is his category "Universalism Position #2 - Revelation" which means that Gentiles also received revelation. He quotes the medieval author of Gan Sekhalim as saying this and then quotes R. Sacks as presumably agreeing. Dr. Brill also includes R. Samson Raphael Hirsch in this category although the quote from Nineteen Letters does not seem to be sufficient for inclusion.
Can a Gentile achieve prophecy? The answer is that the Gemara (Berakhos 7a) explicitly states that he cannot, based on a passage in last week's Torah portion:
Moshe asked three things of God and they were granted to him... 2) He asked that the Divine Presence should not rest upon the Gentiles and it was granted to him. As it says, "So we shall be separate, Your people and I[, from all the people who are on the face of the earth]" (Ex. 33:16).It seems clear from here that after Moshe's request in the Desert, there cannot be any Gentile prophets (keep in mind that after Malachi, Jews also cannot achieve prophecy). Another talmudic passage (Bava Basra 15b) seems to understand the above verse as meaning that Gentiles cannot receive prophecy after Moshe's death, which was later than the request. (See at length Ephraim Urbach, "Rabbinic Exegesis About Gentile Prophets and the Balaam Passage" [Hebrew], Tarbitz [25:1956])
However, perhaps we can say that the passage speaks about the resting of the Divine Presence. If that is a higher level than prophecy, then perhaps Gentiles can achieve prophecy but not the resting of the Divine Presence. I seem to recall a dispute between the Abarbanel and the Rambam on whether prophecy is higher than the resting of the Divine Presence or vice versa, I believe discussed by the Abarbanel in his commentary to Moreh Nevukhim (I know, not a very helpful citation; sorry).
IV. Revelation Alternative
On the other hand, there are different versions of this passage quoted in other sources. R. Menachem Kasher (Torah Shelemah Ex. ch. 33 n. 99 vol. 22 p. 30) quotes a Midrash Aggadah that has Moshe asking that the Divine spirit (ru'ach ha-kodesh) be removed from Gentiles. This version would seem to mean that the cannot be any revelation to Gentiles at all.
Additionally, Rashi is of the view that Bilam was not a prophet but still received revelations from God. How? Rashi (Ex. 33:17) writes: "But the words of Bilam were not by means of the resting of the Divine Presence but 'when asleep with eyes uncovered.' For example, 'To me a word was stolen' (Job 4:12) -- through an intermediary." In other words, Gentile "prophets" like Bilam and Iyov received their revelations through an intermediary rather than through prophecy. (For more on whether Bilam was a prophet, see my comments here: link - PDF)
It could be said that some Gentile nations received Divine revelation in that manner that served as the basis for their religions. The problem, though, is that while this is possible to say within the Jewish tradition, there is no significant precedent for saying it.
V. The Chief Rabbi's View
However, I don't think that R. Sacks was saying that at all. He wrote: "In the course of history, God has spoken to mankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, Islam to Muslims" (p. 55). This does not necessarily mean that God literally spoke to Christians and Muslims, i.e. through prophecy. It could simply mean that God providentially directed the founding of those religions. This is not a radical idea but something that the Rambam wrote in his Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Melakhim 11:4). That, in itself, is not particularly controversial, even if it is not universally accepted.
Dr. Shapiro rejects this interpretation of R. Sacks' view: "Maimonides sees their truth as provisional, and this is hardly identical with Sacks's understanding." I don't know where Dr. Shapiro sees this distinction.
It seems to me that the real controversial view in the book is that it can be read as saying that there is truth in other religions that cannot be found in Judaism. Passages that say that no single religion contains all of the truth imply that Judaism is lacking, for example: "In heaven there is truth; on earth there are truths. Therefore, each culture has something to contribute. Each person knows something no one else does." (pp. 64-65)
I think that this was unintentional; since the intended audience of the book non-Jewish, the author focused on other religions. Or perhaps he really meant that not all truth can be found in the Torah. It makes me uncomfortable to speak of religious truth that is not in the Torah but I can't find a specific reason to fault it (see this post: link).
In the revised edition of the book, that passage reads: "The divine word comes from heaven but it is interpreted on earth. The divine light is infinite but to be visible to us it must be refracted through finite understanding. Truth in heaven transcends space and time, but human perception is bounded by space and time." I'm not sure if that changes anything.