Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

Religious Moderation Can Defeat Religious Extremism — and the Hebrew Bible Is the Key

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 2006

by Bruce Feiler,  
William Morrow/Harper Collins,  
405 Pages,  

In today’s world, religious divisions appear to be growing. Fundamentalists within the Islamic world have launched a jihad of terror against those they perceive as their enemies in the West. Jewish fundamentalists reject any compromise with Palestinians, declaring that God bestowed the entire Land of Israel upon the Jewish people in perpetuity and it would be going against God’s will to withdraw from such territories. Christian fundamentalists join their Jewish colleagues in rejecting territorial accommodation, arguing that the Battle of Armageddon and the second coming of Christ will only occur when the Jews once again control the Holy Land.  

There are many commentators who speak of a coming “clash of civilizations,” and argue that religious divisions are so deep that a peaceful resolution of such starkly contrary worldviews is unlikely. Religion, they believe, is tearing us apart.  

A contrary and far more hopeful view — that religion can, in fact, bring us together — is presented by Bruce Feiler in his important new book, Where God Was Born. In fact, he believes that the Hebrew Bible contains the basis for such hope.  

Ten Thousand Miles  

The author of two previous best-selling books about religion, Walking The Bible and Abraham, Feiler, who is himself from a Reform Jewish background, traveled ten thousand miles through the heart of the Middle East — Israel, Iraq and Iran — to decide whether Islam, Christianity and Judaism have enough in common to bring their adherents, at least those not wedded to a fundamentalist vision, together.  

Feiler takes readers to biblical sites not seen by Westerners for decades, and uncovers little-known details about the common roots of the three Abrahamic faiths and affirms the importance of the Bible in today’s world. He discovers that at the birth of Western religion, all faiths drew from one another and were open to coexistence. He discovers that the Bible argues for interfaith harmony and urges that moderates in all religious communions take back the Bible and use its powerful voice as a beacon of shared ideals.  

Feiler describes his journey:“I would begin my quest with the second half of the Hebrew Bible, at the moment when the children of Israel, sprung from Adam and Eve, descended from Abraham, and freed by Moses, face their harshest challenge. ‘Conquer the Promised Land,’ God says to Joshua, Moses’ successor, at the start of the books of the Prophets. A former spy, Joshua is one of only two Israelites (the other is Caleb) whom God deems righteous enough to survive the forty years in the desert. ‘Destroy the pagans who live on the land,’ God commands. ‘Seize the future for yourselves and for me.’”  

Personal Dimension  

There is a very personal dimension to Feiler’s travels and his religious search: “Exploring the world through the prism of the Bible has allowed me to understand my surroundings in a way I never thought possible. Interfaith problems are rooted in Abraham; the first war in Iraq was between Cain and Abel. For years, I ran decisions through the part of me rooted in my hometown in Georgia and the part grounded in my Ivy League education. Now I also ran them through the Bible and the lens of meaning provided by the ancient stories. But nagging questions remained. The hardest one I was asked about my earlier journeys through the Bible was how they had effected my faith. I was raised as a fifth generation Jew in the South in one of the oldest synagogues in the U.S. Religion was a matter of rote and pride, not a matter of conviction. But my journey grounded me, I often said. I discovered in myself a molecular attachment to the land. My bond with the Bible moved from my head to my feet.”  

Traveling in the desert, Feiler reports, “drew me closer to God but further away from organized religion. I love the text, but not necessarily what human institutions have done in its name. Manipulation, exclusivism, hatred and violence are undeniable outgrowths of biblical monotheism ... September 11 at first deepened that conviction. My animosity toward religion seemed bolstered by the new reality, as violence in the name of faith now imperiled the world. ... But the alternative — radical secularism — deemed equally dangerous and unappealing. The bloodiest wars of the twentieth century were fought for secular ideologies, including socialism, fascism and communism ... So is there a middle ground? I wondered. Is there a place where faith and tolerance can live side by side? In short, is religion just a source of war, or can it help bring about peace?”  

In the Hebrew Bible, Feiler shows us, religion evolves over time. Not until the first millennium B.C.E. do the Israelites begin to refine the basic tenets of biblical monotheism — worshiping in the Temple, reading the Bible, celebrating Shabbat. “The latter parts of the Bible,” writes Feiler, “portray this evolution as messy at best. Here, in a glorious sweep that heralds God’s kingdom on earth, Joshua parades the Ark into Israel, David unites the tribes in Jerusalem, and Solomon builds his House of the Lord. But here also, in a vivid portrait of the moral decay that shadows that kingdom, Jeremiah decries the ethical rot of the people. Isaiah weeps over their exile to Babylon, and Ezekiel dreams of their return to Zion. In this graphic interplay, the Bible seems to be saying that godliness and godlessness are in perpetual tension ... The central challenges of our time — the relationship between individuals and God, faith and reason, theocracy and democracy, church and state, were born in the centuries between Moses and Jesus.”  

Conquering the Land  

When Moses gathers the tribes at the end of his life, he warns them that conquering the land will not end their challenges; it will begin them. And he cautions them that God will punish failure to obey his laws by ripping them from the land. “The Lord will scatter you among all the peoples from one end of the earth to the other.”  

“This reality,” writes Feiler, “sets up the question that defines the rest of the Hebrew Bible: Which is more important, living on the land or living a life of God? For me, this question was acute. So much of my rediscovery of the Bible was about reconnecting to the land. But for the Israelites, occupying the land involves a vicious slaughter of men, women and children. One overlooked legacy of Israel’s God is the beastly violence he continually demands. If you love the lessons of the Bible — particularly its legacy of ethics and morality — it’s sometimes hard to love the stories of the Bible. The life of God is not always a life of peace and light.”  

Neither, Feiler argues, “is life on the land. Jews often claim that, according to the Bible, God promised this land to Abraham; we were here first, and our claims should have precedence. The land is vital to Judaism. But the Bible delivers a very different message. It says living on the land is not the most important thing; living on the land while obeying God is the most important thing. The land is secondary to living a virtuous life. Faced with a choice, the people of Israel should choose the values of heaven over the virtues of earth.”  

Visiting Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, Feiler asked his guide if the church had any symbols recognizing David’s importance to Bethlehem: “She led me down a narrow set of stairs to an underground chapel. A small marble altar is tucked into the wall, with eighteen wooden icons dangling from its mantel. Embedded in the marble hearth is a fourteen-point silver star that marks the spot of Jesus’ birth. A Latin inscription reads ‘Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary.’ ‘The star has fourteen points,’ she explained, ‘because there are fourteen generations between Jesus and David’. ‘And fourteen more between David and Abraham.’ We smiled at this shared bit of knowledge. The holiest spot in Bethlehem shows the deep roots between Judaism and Christianity; both believe the blood of David runs through the messiah.”  

Story of David  

The story of David, Feiler believes, holds “an important reality check for Jews, which I, for one, was uncomfortable to learn. The upside of being a small people ... is that Jews have long considered themselves more tolerant than their fellow monotheists. Others may claim to be universal faiths; Jews are content with being a leading-edge minority. Yet David proves that Israelite religion was not always satisfied with being small. In its frisky, adolescent years, before being slapped back to size by the Assyrians and Babylonians, the Israelite nation, too, wanted to assert its power, and its way of life, on its neighbors. Even in the Jews’ own story — the Bible — David is the first king to impose his religion on others. Jews must be careful before accusing others of tyrannical behavior when their story blazes the trail. Long before Constantine, David makes the first play to establish monotheism as the universal faith of the Near East.”  

In the end, Feiler notes, “David brings the Israelites the geopolitical power they must have to survive in the region, but he stops short of bringing them the moral clarity they need to become a shining example to the world. To achieve that, the children of Israel must generate a national identity grounded not in the behavior of their leaders but in the conduct of their people. They must form a religion.”  

When Solomon decides he needs a temple, the location chosen is one which, Feiler declares, “superimposes Solomon’s religion over the Canaanite faith that preceded it. When David first dreams of building a temple, he selects a location, the threshing floor of Araunah the Jedusite ... In antiquity, a threshing floor was generally located in a high place, where bedrock was exposed and wind could blow the chaff from the wheat as it was winnowed. Because food was believed to come from the gods, Canaanites often built prayer niches at such sites to honor the spirits of fertility ... David’s decision to erect God’s Temple on a Canaanite holy place is consistent with the ancient practice of co-opting pre-existing sanctified places. The message they hoped to send was ‘My God is stronger than yours.’ Though Christians and Jews would later complain that Muslims co-opted their sacred spot by building the Dome of the Rock over the ruins of the Temple, the truth is, David did the same thing first. The first lesson of the Temple Mount is that religious rights and wrongs cannot be refereed by claiming first dibs. If they could, Jerusalemites today would be worshiping the god of bread.”  

No Religion Is Unique  

The final lesson of the Temple, in Feiler’s view, is “that no religion in the Ancient Near East is unique. The English word temple is the most common translation for the Hebrew word hekal, which is related to the Akkadian, Ugaritic and Canaanite words meaning ‘great house.’ While the English word connotes a public structure, the Hebrew connotes a residence, as in a dwelling place for the deity on earth. The same connotation applies to another word commonly used to describe the Temple, bet elohim, House of God.”  

After visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem and observing Orthodox Jews at prayer, Feiler was not certain about the symbolic value of the remains of the Temple: “The question for me ... was whether the wall had become too fetishized. Has the bickering over every speck of limestone detracted from the larger spiritual meaning of the Temple, which is a spot where God dwells close to humans and humans strive to be closer to God? By focusing so intently on the physical structure of the Temple, rather than on the covenant with God it was meant to embody, Jews risk equating their faith with a totem, which is the essence of the paganism they tried to transcend.”  

As he visited various holy sites, Feiler came to the view that, “Land is not the only destination. Being in a sacred space does not guarantee that one will act more nobly. History is also replete with examples — the rebellious Israelites at Mount Sinai, the marauding armies of the Crusades, the suicide bombers of today — that show you can be in a holy place and still not be holy ... I was learning that I could no longer rely on the once familiar pillars of my religious identity: King David, the Temple, the Western Wall ... the lessons were clear. I must sever my attachment to the land. I must end my devotion to a physical symbol. I must look beyond stones. In elevating the prophets, the Bible speaks directly to the challenges of our time, and what it says is surprising. God cares more about how we behave than about how much territory we control. God believes that secular leaders cannot provide moral deliverance. God directs us to turn away from power and embrace the part of our community — and ourselves that is vulnerable.”  

“Still, Small Voice”  

What men and women should do, he suggests, is “listen instead for what the prophet Elijah experiences as the ‘still, small voice’ of God, the soft murmuring sound in our most wounded places that yearns for goodness and aches for forgiveness ... For some reason this message of tenderness is rarely taken from the Bible anymore. More take confidence, arrogance and the authority to impose their faith on others. Yet most people in the text who do that, like David and Solomon, do not end as noble figures. Even dramatic victories, like Joshua’s, are quickly followed by periods of moral murkiness. The heroes are the ones — like Abraham, Moses, or the newly minted prophets — who look critically at power, and even at God, and keep their gaze on the moral foundation of life on earth.”  

Ever since he came up with the idea of retracing the Bible, Feiler tells us that he “had longed to visit Iraq. The land between the Tigris and Ephrates rivers, the Cradle of Civilization, has been known since antiquity as Mesopotamia and gave birth to the earliest empires in history from Sumer to Babylon. The Garden of Eden was rooted here, the Tower of Babel was conceived here, the first alphabet was scripted here, the day was carved into twenty-four hours here, and some of the greatest stories ever told were first uttered here, from the epic of Gilgamesh to the saga of Abraham.”  

Slowly, Feiler came to the view that, “You can’t understand religion today without understanding the prophets. Abraham may have been the first to realize there is only one God. Moses may have delivered God’s blueprint for social conduct to his chosen people. David may have unified those people into a singular political entity in God’s chosen land. But the prophets — divinely elected spokespersons who enraptured the Ancient Near East in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. — were the first to unite the strands of monotheism in Israelite history with hints of social justice in Mesopotamian history to create a comprehensive belief system that offered the bounty of a single, universal God to all the people of the earth, no matter their class, region or background. The triumph of monotheism in Western history owes more to the prophets than to any figure in the Pentateuch, The hope for reconciliation among feuding monotheists today may also hinge on these stirring, sometimes opaque, but unfailingly invigorating figures.”  

Decline in Moral Authority  

The most famous prophets arise in the centuries after Solomon in direct response to the decline in moral authority of the kings. As the wandering tribes of the desert become the settled people of the land, society became polarized. Landowners and nobility amassed great wealth. The needy were often oppressed and there was increasing licentiousness. “The prophets’ history-altering breakthrough,” states Feiler, “was to suggest that this carefree, heartless social condition violated God’s vision for humanity. The proper worship of God involves the proper treatment of fellow human beings ... Their arrival marks a fundamental shift in the biblical narrative: away from the mighty and toward the meek ... By diminishing the importance of monarchs, the prophets return the attention of the Bible to where it was in the first chapters of Genesis, on all humanity, rendered in God’s image.”  

Prophecy reached its peak during two calamitous periods in Israelite history, the eighth century B.C.E., around the fall of the Northern Kingdom; and the late seventh century B.C.E., during the destruction of the Southern Kingdom. The first period is captured by Amos, a shepherd who linked Israel’s moral collapse with the rise of the Assyrians to the north. Jeremiah, meanwhile, adopts the revolutionary position that Judah had brought defeat on itself and it was God’s idea that the people lose their land. “He struts around Jerusalem,” writes Feiler, “a yoke about his neck, quoting God, ‘I herewith deliver all lands to my servant, King Nebuchadnezzar.’ My servant? God is so committed to the idea that Israel shall abide by his laws or not his land that he actually commandeers a foreign leader to destroy his holy city. Not since God wiped out thousands at Sinai has his vengeance been so unforgiving.”  

The message of the prophets is that not only will salvation come from destruction, but it depends upon destruction. Though God removed man and woman from Eden, he never deserted them. Though he cast the Israelites into Babylon, he did not forsake them. Now, though he dispatches the Israelites into Babylon, he did not forsake them. He did each of these for the Israelites’ good.  

Story of Abraham  

Feiler visited the city of Ur in Iraq, which is central to the story of Abraham. He notes that, “The notion that Abraham began his journey toward the Promised Land near the same place the Israelites were later banished from the Promised Land suggests the stories share an underlying connection. The importance of exile in Israelite life began long before Babylon ... For me, Abraham’s connection to this soil suggests that biblical writers wanted to root the Israelites in the birthplace of civilizations, both to plant their origins in the earliest moments of human history and to suggest that Abraham’s one God supplanted the multiple gods of Mesopotamia. Also, Abraham appears to have been an alien during his time in Ur ... The idea that the forefather of the Israelites was an outsider reinforces the idea that the Israelites are always apart from their surroundings. In Genesis, Abraham is described as a ‘stranger and a sojourner’; in Exodus, Moses is described as a ‘stranger in a strange land’; in Jeremiah, the Israelites are described as living among strangers. The message of this repetition transcends time: Wandering is a natural state for Israel. Being in exile is positive.”  

The initial golden age of Babylon arose with Hammurabi, who reigned from 1792 to 1750 B.C.E. Some cuneiform tablets link Hammurabi with King Amraphel of Shinar, who appears in Genesis l4, a contemporary of Abraham. The Code of Hammurabi afford revolutionary protections to women and its preamble contains one of the earliest declarations of human rights. Marduk, the ruling god of Babylon, calls Hammurabi “to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule ... and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind.”  

“The roots of Western humanity,” states Feiler, “show their earliest glimmers in the writings of Mesopotamia. Viewed from these riverbanks, two of the most lasting innovations of the Bible —the 613 laws of Moses and the moral paeans of the prophets — appear less as unprecedented creations and more as evolutions of ideas emerging in the region over thousands of years. That these notions reach their fullest expression in biblical writings that date from the Exile, when the Israelites return to Mesopotamia, makes the influence of the earlier ideas even harder to ignore. The Bible, too, is a child of Iraq. Its true innovation was to take beliefs first carved in stone and, as Jeremiah says, inscribe them on human hearts.”  

Universal Judaism  

The exile in Babylon, in many ways, represents the beginning of genuinely universal Judaism. “The biggest challenge the Israelites faced in the exile,” Feiler points out, “was answering the question Where is God? During the monarchy, the Israelites had believed that God dwelled in his house in Jerusalem and promised that the House of David would reign forever. If so, what happened to God when his house was sacked and David’s heir deported? Did God exist anymore? Here the prophets made their most profound contribution to Western religion. Ezekiel, writing during the Exile, declared that God’s real presence was not to be confused with his temporary presence on earth ... God is not exclusively a figure of the land, he’s also a figure of the wilderness. He’s a figure of all lands. God is everywhere.”  

This simple idea changed the world:“It meant the god of the Israelites did not reside just on a mountaintop in Jerusalem — he could live along the banks of the Euphrates, on the shores of the Nile, or alongside any river or mountain, anyplace in the world ... The towering significance of what happened by the rivers of Babylon is that the Israelites did not merely weep; they set about redefining what it meant to worship God. They invented Judaism ... the sine qua non of this revolution was the elevation of text to the core of the faith ... With no access to sacred sites, sacred text became Israel’s lifeline to its past ... Once the Israelites established themselves in Babylon during the Exile and became Jews, they never really left ... In the centuries that followed, Jewish learning thrived in Mesopotamia and gave birth to a book that in many ways would overshadow the Torah as the core text of Judaism. The Talmud, or ‘learning,’ is an authoritative record of rabbinic discussions about Jewish law, ethics, rituals, customs and history.”  

Feiler began to wonder if the second half of the Hebrew Bible, because its stories are shared by all but claimed by none, might offer fertile common ground for Jews, Christians and Muslims: “The figure of the prophet transcends the Abrahamic faiths. Christianity embraces the Hebrew prophets; in the Gospels, Jesus even refers to himself as a prophet. Islam believes there are l24,000 prophets, and the Koran lists by name 25, including David, Solomon, Elijah, Ezekiel, Jonah and Zechariah. Both Christianity and Islam quote the Hebrew psalms. War fills the second half of the Hebrew Bible, as does chaos and depravity. But the enduring images from these books come from their call to justice, their direct expression of the human need for God, their vision of a world with freedom for all ...”  

Many Faiths  

Feiler met with men and women of many faiths during his travels. Imam al-Ubaidy, the spiritual leader of the 14th of Ramadan Mosque in Baghdad, expressed a view which was common to many thoughtful believers, “If Jews, Christians and Muslims go back to our roots, we will be in peace. We don’t need to find one person. We don’t need to agree on everything. We need to find our principles — peace, love, justice, and tolerance. We need to realize the future belongs to God, not to us.”  

Iraq surpassed Feiler’s expectations: “From the elemental notion that humans were made in God’s image, through the revolutionary idea that God is everywhere, to the radical concept that God embraces his enemies, many of the most transformative concepts of biblical religion were born on this land. For that reason, Iraq felt very comfortable ... The most immediate lesson of Iraq at the start of its eighth millennium is that political power is fleeting. The greatest empires in the world once stood here. Today they are in ruins.”  

Another lesson Feiler took away from Iraq is that the roots of religious violence in this soil are inextricable from the roots of religion itself. From the opening chapters of Genesis, in which Cain murders Abel, to the vengeful cries of Psalm 137, in which blood-thirsty Israelites imagine bludgeoning their enemies, chaos lives alongside these rivers just as much as order. Every day I felt the underlying sense that civilizations could give way to inhumanity any moment.”  

Visiting the reported site of the Tower of Babel, Feiler extracted this message for today: “When humans try to create one language — when one group of people tries to impose an artificial order on the world — God views this as a hubristic attempt to usurp his powers and slaps down the arrogation. God insists on diversity. He demands that humans accept their differences. In rejecting the Tower of Babel, God rejects fundamentalism, the idea that one way of speaking is the only way of speaking and can be imposed on others at will, God’s solution is a cacophony of voices, living side by side.”  

Role of Cyrus  

Visiting Iran caused Feiler to look further into the role of Cyrus, who crossed the Tigris and, according to Herodotus, dammed the Euphrates to parch Babylon. The Persians then entered without a battle and local residents greeted Cyrus by spreading green branches before him. Cyrus flung open the city gates and told captives, including the Jews, that they could return to their homelands. “Cyrus conducted himself with more compassion toward his subjects, more respect toward his victims, and more tolerance toward other faiths than any leader before him in history,” writes Feiler. “He instituted a policy of placating the gods of his subjects rather than carting off their statues, as the Elamites, Hittites, Assyrians and Babylonians had done ... No group benefited more from Cyrus’s magnanimity than the Jews, and no document heralds his greatness more than the Bible. Cyrus is mentioned by name twenty-five times in the Hebrew Bible and is alluded to many times more. The Book of Ezra is dedicated almost entirely to trumpeting his patronage.”  

The idea of universality continued to grow, “Universality is hinted at in the story of Abraham — ‘all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you’ — but the idea that his life would lead to righteousness and contentedness for everyone would have been far-fetched to him, as well as to Moses, Joshua, David and almost any other Israelite leader. By the sixth century B.C.E. this idea was no longer absurd. The epoch of rival nation-states had given away to one of sprawling empires. A unified world was now imaginable ... The Bible pays tribute to the policy of tolerance in the Book of Ezra ... It seems reasonable to conclude that God in Isaiah knows of Cyrus’s respect for different faiths when he chooses him to be his anointed one. The lesson here is transcendent: Even those who believe in other gods can still, by acting morally, be part of God’s world.”  

Preferred Life in Babylon  

When Jews had the opportunity to return to Jerusalem, some did, but the majority preferred life in Babylon. Some went to Egypt and others to Persia. “The consequences of these migrations cannot be overstated,” states Feiler. “In Babylon, early Jews had shifted the definition of God from being a deity attached to a specific piece of geography to one universal in his reach ... Instead of being triumphalist and forcing others to lick their feet, as Isaiah had prophesied, Jews would become pluralists, content to live as religious minorities in others’ kingdoms. Being a light to the nations did not mean imposing their will on others; it meant, among other things, being a shining example of coexistence ... By 200 B.C.E. Jews were living and worshiping in the ancient equivalents of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Phoenicia, Turkey, Cyprus, Crete, Greece, Italy, Libya, Egypt and Ethiopia. Diaspora was central to the future of Western religion first because it broadened the popularity of the God of the Israelites, ensuring that his influence would survive even after his new home in Jerusalem was again destroyed. Second, the Diaspora provided a broad-based population familiar with the Hebrew scripture, which later facilitated the lightning spread of Christianity.”  

His travels in Israel, Iraq and Iran changed Feiler’s mind about religion and its ability to lead the world in a more peaceful and tolerant direction, “Now I felt somewhat differently,” he writes. “One gift of my journey was discovering that the Hebrew Bible tells a more subtle story of the origins of monotheism than I had been led to expect. Land is not the focal point of the story; walls are not its core. At the center of the biblical model is a moral relationship between humans and God ... The Hebrew prophets were the first spiritual leaders to think globally, to conceive of God as transcending national borders and of humanity as a single moral entity. The idea of a global village began in Babylon ... God knows what he requires of humans, Micah declares: ‘only to do justice and to love goodness and to walk humbly with your God.’ In presenting this new ideal, the prophets show that the relationship between God and humans is not static, it evolves.”  

As an American Jew, Feiler believes that the Hebrew Bible makes clear that, “Diaspora Judaism is not secondary Judaism. It is coequal ... As a Jew, I take from the final books of the prophets the positive message I had been craving in my upbringing, Judaism can be a living alternative to triumphalism ... At a time when violent fundamentalists of all Abrahamic faiths try to impose their views on rivals, Jews and non-Jews, can reach back to the base text for all three traditions and declare, ‘There’s another Way.’”  

Religious Moderation  

The first conviction Feiler takes from his journey is that the only force strong enough to take on religious extremism is religious moderation: “Religion can be saved only by religion. And in that battle one of the greatest weapons of all may be the Bible ... Fundamentalists of all stripes cite text as the inerrant foundation of their convictions. After more than a year of traveling through some of the most extreme places of religious fundamentalism, I determined that the Hebrew Bible, at least, cannot be read as endorsing the idea that one group of people has exclusive claim to God. In fact, from Creation to Jonah to Second Isaiah the text explicitly endorsed the opposite idea, that God embraces any people who share his moral vision no matter their identity. Religious extremists cite the Bible continuously as advocating their beliefs. Religious moderates can, and must, do the same.”  

The prophetic tradition, Feiler believes, is a key to expressing that moderate and universal religious vision. “Before setting out on my journey,” he writes, “I viewed the prophets as giant nags, disembodied hands of God, suspended in air, wagging their fingers ... Now, I view them as open hands, beckoning us to take responsibility, reminding us that God can’t do it alone and that each of us must help create a just and moral world. The prophets’ chief legacy is an ecology of change. They locate within each individual the power to influence the community as a whole. They evangelize initiative.”  

Beyond the entwined biblical roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Feiler finds hope in the shared story of the “great belief systems” that emerged during the Atial Age — including Buddhism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism and Greek philosophy — particularly the way they “took ideas from other cultures, rituals from rival faiths, and even notions about their deities from competing gods.”  

“Interaction and Accommodation”  

Bruce Feiler hopes that we will go back to this time of “interaction and accommodation”: “The great religions were not born in isolation from one another; they cannot survive in isolation from one another.”  

He concludes that God is most interested not in land or kingdoms but in relationships with people and that no “one group of people has exclusive claim to God.” The best way to maintain a relationship with God, he believes, is to live a moral life, to “redeem ourselves.” He finds the prophetic vision of the Hebrew Bible pointing in precisely this direction.  

Bruce Feiler’s religious journey deserves careful consideration. His hope is that religion can bring us together rather than divide us. And he finds precisely this message in the Hebrew Bible. The very future of a peaceful and harmonious world may depend upon the realization of that vision.

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.