Almost all religions are exclusivist. They teach that their truth is the only truth, and that other religions are false and, by omission or commission, passively or actively, evil. But to what extent do they require that their adherents impose their beliefs on others? That great intellectual achievement of Western society, that religion is a matter of personal conscience and outside the ambit of the state or of other individuals, is a purely political concept, and tells us nothing about theoretical religious doctrine. Of course there is a wide gulf between theoretical religion and practical religion, and the practicalities of living among others in a heterogeneous civil society mandates some degree of tolerance. But there are definitely differences between religions in this matter; what does a religion's theological doctrine on tolerance of or respect for other religions tell us about that religion? I'm not claiming that this discussion will tell us everything about a religion. But it does focus our attention on one aspect of what it means to be faithful to that religion.
There are really several aspects to this question. We find differences in applying this concept to members of the same religion who have sinned, to minority non-co-religionists who live in a state that defines itself as being "of religion X," and to non-co-religionists who live outside the borders of the religious state.
Another question: among those religions that hold that their beliefs should be imposed on others, what is the motive for that imposition? There are four distinct possibilities:
- 1. As charity, for the spiritual benefit of the other (to save him from burning in Hell, to save a lost soul, etc.).
- 2. As service to god. Just as sins are offensive to god, so too are sinners; unbelievers are by definition sinners and should therefore be eliminated. (You could also call this punishment, or Ubi'arta Hara Mikirbecha, but I think the way I put it is sharper.)
- 3. Shared liability. Any sin that we could prevent, but don't prevent, has been committed because of our inaction. It is our fault that it occurred, and to some extent it is as if we did the sin.
- 4. To protect the true religion, because the existence of non-believers can engender doubt in the minds of the servants of the true god. (Before we got married, my wife met a very sincere woman who told her she should light candles for Shabbos even before she gets married. My wife said that in her family, they don't light until they get married. The other person said "But the Rebbe says you should." My wife answered, "My rebbe, Reb Moshe Feinstein, said I shouldn't." The other, with a perplexed look of utter confusion, said, "There's another Rebbe?????")
I don't mean the items in this list to be mutually exclusive. One, or two, or all of the reasons might apply.
David Rohde, in an article he wrote for the New York Times (October 19 of 2009), described his seven month`s as a captive of the Taliban. He wrote
Citing the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam, he said it was every Muslim’s duty to try to stop others from sinning. If one person in a village commits a sin, those who witness it and do not stop him will also be punished by God.
Pressing me to convert, one commander ordered me to read a passage of the Koran each day and discuss it with him at night. He dismissed my arguments that a forced conversion was not legitimate. He and the guards politely said they felt sorry for me. If I failed to convert, they said, I would suffer excruciating pain in the fires of hell.
At one point, a visiting fighter demanded to know why I would not obey. He said that if it were up to him, he would take me outside and offer me a final chance to convert. If I refused, he would shoot me.That is pretty forthright, but you can't really prove anything from an ignorant man-child with a gun who is emulating a morally stunted illiterate.
The Christians have changed their overt behavior over time, generally from proselytization by force to earnest evangelism. Even in the earliest years, there were some moments of tolerance: In the year 633, The fourth council of Toledo declared that
“men ought not be compelled to believe (or rather pretend to believe) because God will have mercy on those on whom He will have mercy, and whom He will He hardeneth. Man fell by his own free will in listening to the tempter, and suffering himself to be misled by the wiles of the serpent, and so he could only be converted by his free acceptance of the Christian faith.”
Hindus and Buddhists really don't care a fig for what others do or don't believe; The pluralism they espouse, I think, bespeaks a theological blurriness, and they're kind of embarrassed about the whole thing. Islam has gone through various stages, from the formative stage of violent forced conversion, to a long and wonderful period of tolerance, and back to nuts again.
What do we Jews believe? Can we do the Torquemada thing, too? Certainly, we have a mitzva of rebuking and educating people who are not being mekayeim mitzvos. But intimidation is much more effective. As a certain mobster once said, "You can get a lot more done with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone." More seriously, it's obvious that if we did go along this path, we could never replicate what the Spanish did during the Inquisition. We don't have that kind of bloodiness in our national makeup. But I want to talk about both theory and practice.
This has a lot to do with the Aseres Yemei Teshuva. It's so very hard to modify our behavior! Breaking habits to the extent that we can be confident we will never revert is practically quixotic. Judging from those poor people who have their stomachs banded, and who manage to regain all their weight, succeeding at permanent behavioral change is vanishingly rare. On the other hand, it's easy to force other people to do the right thing. We've all seen the morbidly obese person hectoring a diabetic to undertake a spartan lifestyle, and we've all seen smokers curling their lip in disdain at the sight of a person like them lighting up in public. If we've despaired of doing teshuva ourselves, can we at least make our friends and neighbors do teshuva? Not only is it easy to make other people do the right thing, it is also very enjoyable. It provides a sense of superiority and rectitude at no personal cost.
The Gemara in Sanhedrin 16 brings the first passuk in Shoftim, Devarim 16:18, to show that we are required to establish a system of justice that is empowered to enforce all religious law, including matters of public morality, transgressions of prohibitions, and refusal to fulfill religious obligations. This empowerment is absolute, and the means of enforcement is left to the judges' discretion. This rule primarily pertains only to the official court system operating within Israel or other areas of Jewish autonomy. Can individuals take the law into their own hand? What obligation do we have regarding non-Jews? What obligations do we have regarding Jews outside Israel,, or outside areas of self-government?
(By the way, although the Nesivos would allow you to hit someone who was talking during davenning, you are not allowed to embarrass him in public, to be malbin panav. So take him outside and then smack him.)
So, as it turns out, it's only the She'iltos and the Nesivos in CM (self-contradicted by the Nesivos in his Chavos Daas in YD) that give a blanket hetter for individual vigilantism for aveiros. The Maharshal limits it to individuals who are Muchzak B'kashrus. Everyone agrees that Beis Din can impose and enforce religious requirements.
Going back to the beginning of this post, the question remains: Does this concept, that we, either as individuals or as a society, impose our beliefs upon others by force, apply only to fellow Jews, or even to non-Jews?? I say that this would depend on whether you learn this halacha from, on the one hand, hochei'ach, which is specific to Amisecha, or Areivus, which is only lanu ulvaneinu- for Jews, or, on the other hand, from Arur. I also pointed out that there were three possible motives for proselytization: charity, destruction of evil, and elimination of bad examples from the public forum. These three possibilities are also implied respectively by the dinim of hochei'ach, arvus, and arur.
In practical terms, Judaism never ever was interested in imposing its beliefs outside of its home grounds. While we certainly believe that it would be in the gentiles' best interest to adopt our theology, we never, ever, took a step to force this doctrine on others, even when we were a dominant power. Maybe that says something about the calm confidence of Judaism. We have nothing to prove to ourselves or to others. If you want to join us in our Avodas Hashem, you're welcome. If not, have a good life.
Eli, in the comments, quotes Avishag Hashunamis, who said (Sanhedrin 22a) חסריה לגנבא נפשיה לשלמא נקיט, that a certain person's profession of piety was merely a way of hiding his impotence.
Still and all, I maintain that there are real and true and fundamental distinctions between the behavior of the Jews and that of other nations, such as our excess of mercy, despite historical figures like Leizer Kaganovich. Our behavior towards people of other religions, I believe, is another example of our unique character, even if it was not always strictly observed.
And here's an interesting yedi'ah. The Rambam in 8 Melachim 10 says that Moshe Rabbeinu received a commandment from Hashem to impose the Seven Noachide Mitzvos on all mankind. However,there's a fascinating discussion from R Dovid Pardo in his pirush on the Sifrei, in Ki Seitzei, on passuk 21:14, where he states that the Ramban there holds that the requirement of imposing the seven mitzvos on gentiles only applies to those gentiles that choose to live among us in Eretz Yisrael. We have no obligation or interest in going outside of our borders and imposing our beliefs on the gentiles. He brings that the Ra'avad also holds like that, and that despite the literal meaning of the Rambam, it could be that the Rambam agrees with this.
On another note: I recently came across something from the Breslevers, and since they are just now coming back from Uman, I found it to be an interesting window into what they're all about. I'm just putting the link here, and you'll have to translate it yourself.