Finding Our Place in a Universalistic Age

By :  JTS Alumni Posted On Jul 6, 2018 | Speaking of Text: The Jewish Bookshelf | Interreligious Philosophy

By Rabbi Juan Mejia (RS ’09), Coordinator for the American Southwest, Be’chol Lashon 

Elijah Benamozegh, Israel and Humanity (1863), translated by Maxwell Luria (Paulist Press, 1995)

Israel and Humanity is the magnum opus of Italian rabbi and polymath Elijah Benamozegh. Born in the cosmopolitan city of Livorno in Italy in the early nineteenth century (only one year before JTS´s founder Rabbi Sabato Morais was born in the same city), Rabbi Benamozegh was a distinguished community leader, printer, kabbalist, and public intellectual both in Jewish and non-Jewish circles. In his erudite but extremely approachable and poetic treatise, Israel and Humanity, Benamozegh presents a bold and refreshing view of Judaism vis-a-vis other religions (with special emphasis on Christianity). Instead of falling into apologetics and triumphalism, Benamozegh is willing to delve deep and shine a light on the strengths and beauty of other religions, while extolling Judaism´s gifts.

Basing himself on kabbalistic and midrashic sources, he posits the existence of a primal universal religion which he calls “Hebraism.” Given that all world religions stem from this common proto-religion, there can be a fruitful dialogue between the faiths enabled by their shared parentage. The mission of Judaism is to be the preeminent guardian of this shared background; through its particularism, it is tasked with reminding the world of the universal and primordial truths that we all share. Benamozegh follows this exercise in the fields of theology, religious anthropology, and jurisprudence, articulating—for the first time—a revolutionary inclusive rereading of the Noahide covenant that expands to embrace the sincere practitioners of other world faiths.

Benamozegh’s book is not a critical or historical account of the development of religions, but rather a bold religious humanistic re-mapping of the relationship between Judaism and other faiths, between Jews and Gentiles. By mining deep into the Jewish sources, he emerges with a theory that eschews both the triumphalist vision of the fundamentalist and the relativistic skepticism of the Modern age. It is a refreshing forgotten classic for anyone interested in interfaith dialogue or those of us who wonder about the specific worth and mission of Judaism in an increasingly universalistic worldview.