Belief can be overrated
Ironically, the previous statement might only be addressed to those people who are not obligated to follow the dictates of the Torah. Observant Jews believe they are part of a covenant and are obliged to do what the Torah dictates as rendered by the interpreters of Jewish law. Even then, the Talmud offers the possibility of redemption by one discreet act of goodness after a life that is filled with iniquity. In life, it’s the ground game that should count.
Sometime back, I devoted several years to translating an ancient Kabbalistic work. A student asked me if this experience had made me a believer in Kabbalah. What I realized, I told him, is that whether I believed in Kabbalah or not was not going to stop the immediate mystical associations I would make every time I would read a particular name of God or encounter a verse that I had spent days deciphering in English.
If you believe in the idea of collective living but never lived on a kibbutz, how compelling is that belief? If, however, I hate the idea of collective living but in fact, live on a kibbutz, guess what? I’m a kibbutznik. Similarly, whether I believe in the mystical system or not, this was my intellectual neighborhood for four years. I guess I’m a Kabbalist even if I never consciously admitted to being a believer. Sometimes influences are much more critical than choices. Sometimes what one believes is overrated.
Mountains beyond mountains
Liberals and progressives (like me) are comfortable with the idea of universal salvation — that God’s grace is eternally present in all, and for all. We highlight our similarities; there are many paths up the same mountain. One criticism of eternal salvation is relativism.
If God’s love is eternal, unfailing, present in all, then why be a Christian and not a Jew or a Buddhist and not a Hindu? It’s more helpful, as theologian Mark Heim does, to acknowledge there are not just different paths, there are different mountains.
The fact that folks convert from one religion to another illuminates this truth: the religions are not identical. While Jews speak of tikkun olam, repairing the world, Hindus speak of nirvana, a freedom from this world. Each religion can learn and grow from the other, but they do not share identical goals.
While our differences can scare us, it’s the grace of God that I know in a unique, particular way (in my case, Jesus Christ) that opens my heart to my next door neighbors (who are Jewish) and the unique, particular, but different way that God has come to them and for them.