Project Genesis

Judaism and Non-Jews

Diversity and Multiculturalism

Question: I am seeking biblical text that describes the Jewish view of diversity and multiculturalism. I assume there’s some information that discusses the importance of respecting those from other cultures.

Answer: This is a subject of such complexity that I couldn’t possibly do it justice in a few short paragraphs. Nevertheless, I’ll certainly try to offer some introductory ideas.

While there are clear Biblical sources requiring respect, protection and support for “strangers” living within Jewish communities (Levit. 25:35), it wouldn’t be honest to equate them with any modern definition of “multiculturalism”, as Torah law actually only extends those protections to non-Jews or converts who share our basic world-view. And, while robust legal protection (see Shulchan Aruch Yore Deah 348) is extended even to idolaters (who dwell, in the Torah’s hierarchy of merit, on the very lowest rung), that can hardly be considered “cultural respect.”

If anything, the Torah’s preference for cultural isolation has more often led to a policy of exclusion – sometimes even violent (Deut. 20:11 et. al.).

Still, the legal or moral prescription appropriate for one particular historical situation is not necessarily similarly fitted to another. There have been times in which moral differences between Jews and their neighbors are overlooked so that common interests can be cheerfully and lovingly pursued. An obvious case in point would be the productive relationship between King Solomon and the Tyrian-Phoenician king, Hiram (I Kings 5: 15 et. al.).

Was Solomon’s effort contradictory with historical precedent? I doubt it. Rather, choosing an appropriate approach for a particular generation and community is less the result of explicit Biblical passages than of the subtle assessment of the relationship between risk and benefit played against a tapestry made up of the entire corpus of Torah literature. If, as in Solomon’s case, the Jews find themselves in a position of cultural strength, or, as in the case of contemporary Jews throughout much of the Western World, we are in any case heavily integrated with larger general communities, then managed association and careful, sincere mutual respect are appropriate.

I know this is far from a complete treatment of the subject, but I hope that it will be of some use.

With my best regards,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton

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