Variety as Virtue

Week Two: CBB’s interfaith text study, “In the Wilderness, Toward the Caravan.”

This week, Jewish congregations read from the Book of Numbers (AKA Bamidbar [“In the Wilderness”]), 4:21 – 7:89. The portion includes a 76-verse recounting of offerings brought to dedicate the Israelites’ desert sanctuary: Twelve identical offerings are brought on twelve successive days by twelve different leaders; with the exception of the leader’s name and the day of the festival, each of twelve offerings is identically described, letter by identical letter. But the portion also includes detailed instructions meant for groups of Israelites with specific roles, both temporary and lifelong.

Why the uniformity? Why the variety?

Diversity of Communities

An oft-quoted verse of the Qur’an (5:48) declares that diversity is a fundamental choice of God:

Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ.
–Asad translation

In an article entitled “Living Together: Shared Space,” CBB advisor Imam Dr. Abduljalil Sajid cites this verse, among others, to suggest that Islam has a “pluralistic vision” which is sometimes overlooked:

The Holy Qur’an not only conveys a message of peace, respect, tolerance, justice, freedom and compassion; it provides mankind with a global framework for co-operation and a charter for inter-faith dialogue. It repeatedly stresses that all peoples on earth have had their prophets and messengers, and that multiplicity of every kind — religious, cultural, or ethnic — is part of God’s magnificent design: “And among His wonders is…the diversity of your tongues and colours” (The Holy Qur’an 30: 22)…

This means that prophetic guidance is not limited to any one community, period, or civilisation. So Muslims — if they are true to their faith — do not claim a monopoly of the truth, or a monopoly of revelation….

In this view, diversity of religious expression is not an accident to be tolerated — or corrected — but a value with which God chose to imbue the world, one we are to protect and relish.

Diversity in Hospitality

In September of 2010, the Mennonite Central Committee of the United States issued an open pastoral letter asking Mennonites and related Christian communities to focus on hospitality, concluding:

…The Bible tells us to extend hospitality (Hebrews 13:1-2; 1 Peter 4:8-10). Sharing in meals and conversation can be a radical act, and a powerful counteraction to violence. Let us follow Jesus by showing hospitality to neighbors near and far.

The verses from Hebrews stress that hospitality should be offered to diverse individuals: “Keep on loving each other as brothers. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.”*

The verses from 1 Peter —

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.
— 1 Peter 4:8-10*

— insist on diversity from the one offering hospitality, focusing on each giver’s particular gifts.

Another passage in the New Testament elaborates on the idea of “different gifts”:

Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.”
— Romans 12:4-6*

In this view, diversity is an essential representation of God’s multi-faceted nature, as well as a requirement for a functional community.

*All New Testament citations from The NIV Study Bible.

Diversity of Intention

Numbers Chapter 7, as noted above, seems to champion uniformity: twelve identical offerings on twelve successive days by twelve similarly introduced leaders. Some commentaries do celebrate the sameness, suggesting, e.g., that this demonstrates equality between the tribes. But one alternative explanation focuses on hidden diversity. The medieval commentary Numbers Rabbah suggests that each leader had a different reason for bringing his gift:

True, the outward form of the practice was indistinguishable, one from the other. But, for each prince, the meaning was wholly and completely unique. Commentators through the years have attempted to describe what the meaning of each gift was for each particular prince. There is one theme that appears throughout these explanations: within each gift, each prince brought something of his own history and aspirations.
— Rabbi Elliot Kleinman, “His Own Unique Gift,”
The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary.

“The sacred is not to be found in the appearance of the act of spirituality but in the spirit we bring to the act,” Kleinman concludes. In this view, diversity of intention is an essential element in even the most repetitious of acts.

Uniformity in Diversity

Even where uniformity might seem apparent, diversity — in intention, in hospitality and in communities’ religious expression — is celebrated in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. However, the Qur’an (above, 5:38) says that, in the end, “[God] will make you truly understand” apparent differences. And, in the meantime we also recognize, and yearn for, a uniformity, even where diversity seems apparent: Imam Sajid writes, “True global cooperation will not be possible until we recover an awareness of the ecumenical, ecological and ethical principles that are at the heart of every spiritual tradition.”

(Virginia A. Spatz, 5/30/11)


1 thought on “Variety as Virtue

  1. Pingback: Does Common Ground Require Agreement? | News from Clergy Beyond Borders

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