Judaism: The Religion of Jesus

Although the story starts with creation, the particular story of Judaism originates with Abraham. The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) develops the concept of an “I – Thou” relationship between God and God’s people (as described by the theologian Martin Buber). Unlike the religions of their neighbors, the religion of the early Hebrews conceived of one God revealed to His people through nature and the Law (Torah). The Mosaic covenant firmly established the Hebrew people in a special relationship with God through which they are charged with spreading God’s word to all people.

By the time of Jesus, Judaism had passed through the formative experiences of the Exodus and the Exile, and was centered upon experiencing the Presence in a number of ways, including:

• Torah
• Temple
• Land
• Purity

The Judaism of Jesus’ time was not one monolithic entity but had a number of subgroups within it, including:

• The Pharisees: Committed to a scrupulous adherence to a particular understanding of Israel’s Law, as interpreted by Pharisaic scribes.
• The Sadducees: A priestly group closely associated with leadership of the Temple.
• The Zealots: Revolutionary movement to purify the land of the foreign presence (largely important after Jesus).
• The Essenes: Observed a typically celibate, communal life that valued purity.

The words and actions of Jesus show that he understood that God was acting through him to reconstitute the people of Israel around himself and bring about a renewed understanding of the covenant through inaugurating the Kingdom of God. Jesus challenged the conventional wisdom of Judaism on Torah, Temple, Land and Purity.

Jesus challenged the conventional wisdom of Judaism on Torah, for example, Matthew 5: 21-22, “You have heard it said … Thou shalt not kill…..But I say to you … Whoever is angry with his brother without cause …”. Jesus here revised the law of Exodus 20:13, “Thou shalt not kill” (thus claiming for himself the right to do that which Judaism saw as something that only God could do).

Jesus challenged the conventional wisdom of Judaism on the Temple, for example, Luke 5:20-21, “And when he saw their faith, he said unto him, Man, your sins are forgiven. And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, Who is this which speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” Here, Jesus took upon himself the authority to forgive sins, something that in Judaism is seen as that which only God can do. In his time, this authority was enacted through the Temple, e.g. Numbers 15:25, “And the priest shall make an atonement for all the congregation of the children of Israel, and it shall be forgiven them; for it is ignorance: and they shall bring their offering, a sacrifice made by fire unto the LORD, and their sin offering before the LORD, for their ignorance.”

Jesus challenged the conventional wisdom of Judaism on Land, for example, in John 18:36, Jesus answered a question regarding his Kingship not by reference to a particular place but much more expansively, “My kingdom is not of this world” His answer contrasts with and expands the gifting of land by God to Abram in Genesis 13:14-15, “And the LORD said unto Abram … Lift up now your eyes, and look from the place where you are northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward. For all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your descendents for ever.”

Jesus challenged the conventional wisdom of Judaism on Purity, for example in Matthew 15:11 where Jesus says, “Nothing which goes into the mouth defiles a man; but that which comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” His understanding contrasts the conventional wisdom of Leviticus 11:4, “Nevertheless these shall you not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof: as the camel, because he chews the cud, but divides not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.” Jesus similarly challenged such understandings through his interactions with lepers, a woman bleeding, non-Jews, and so on.

The life of Jesus bears witness to a call for Israel to follow a new path. The earliest followers of this new path considered themselves fully Jewish but sought to renew and reclaim their role as the people of God. The death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus left many unanswered questions for followers of the Way, but all of this was soon to be interrupted and thrown into chaos…

• 66 AD – Jewish insurgents begin a revolt against the Roman occupation.
• 67 AD – Roman army subdues Galilee.
• 68 AD – Nero dies, creating turmoil in Roman leadership.
• 69 AD – Different groups within Jerusalem vie for power.
• 70 AD – August: Titus (Emperor Vespasian’s son) takes and burns the Temple.
– September: The city of Jerusalem sacked and burned.

The consequences of this event were that the Temple – the center of Jewish religious life and ceremonial practice – was destroyed. Judaism – as Jesus likely experienced it – effectively ended. Rabbinic Judaism developed as Jews scattered in the face of persecution. The followers of Jesus began to separate from the Judaism of the day.

If we now move forward to the current day, we can ask what is involved in being Jewish now? The answer, according to one rabbi, is that being Jewish involves having a Jewish mother (or having a Jewish father and being raised as a Jew in some more liberal groups) OR conversion. It does not involve assent to a series of propositions and, indeed, it is possible to “be Jewish” and yet be anywhere from a secular humanist to a very traditional Orthodox Jew, and still claim the name.

Just as Judaism was not one monolithic religion in the time of Jesus, so today it expresses its diversity. There are many subdivisions within Judaism and three of the most significant are:

• Orthodox Judaism – believes that both the Written and Oral Law are of divine origin, containing the exact words of God without any human influence.
• Conservative Judaism – maintains that the Torah comes from God, but the inspired Talmud was transmitted by humans. Conservative Judaism generally accepts the binding nature of halakhah (Jewish Law), but believes that the Law should adapt to culture while remaining true to Judaism’s values.
• Reform Judaism – affirms the central tenets of Judaism (God, Torah and Israel), embraces diverse beliefs and practices. Accepts Torah as the foundation of God’s ongoing revelation, emphasizes Jewish ethics through action to improve the world.

Within this diversity of understanding of Torah and Talmud, there seems to be a general understanding that Jews do not see gentiles as bound by Torah but rather subject to the Noachide Laws, a list of seven moral imperatives which, according to the Talmud, were given by God to Noah as a binding set of laws for all humankind:

• Prohibition of idolatry: There is only one God. You shall not make for yourself an idol.
• Prohibition of murder: You shall not murder.
• Prohibition of theft: You shall not steal.
• Prohibition of sexual promiscuity: You shall not commit adultery.
• Prohibition of blasphemy: Revere God and do not blaspheme.
• Prohibition of cruelty to animals: Do not eat the flesh of an animal while it is still alive.
• Requirement to have just laws: You shall set up an effective government to police the preceding six laws.

From the discussion thus far, we can identify common ground between Judaism today and mainstream Christianity, including:

• Belief in one God
• Belief in a distinction between Creator and creation
• Hebrew Scripture and a faith that is based in history
• Morals and ethics based on Scriptural interpretation
• An understanding of sin in the world
• An understanding of covenant relationships with God

Several key questi
ons remain for Christians, however. Among these, one of significance is: “Why did only some Jews in the time of Jesus recognize him as Messiah?”

The possibilities include the observation that the expected Messiah figure was to be modeled after the ideal of King David who would lead the Jews to freedom from oppression. The idea of the Messiah being an unknown from a small town who wound up being crucified was unthinkable for many. [Note that the issue of Messiahship was not connected to resurrection or to divinity in the minds of the people.]

Within Orthodox Judaism, the Messiah – who is yet to come – is seen as a human figure who will lead humanity into a proper understanding of God and revolutionize culture.

In the earliest days following the resurrection, some of the Jews of Jerusalem saw Jesus as Messiah while others did not. But, as time passed and the Jesus movement began to include more and more gentiles, these followers of Jesus began to think more seriously about who Jesus was and is. Within a few hundred years, ecumenical councils began to refer to Jesus in terms of incarnation, and to speak of Jesus as “fully human and fully divine”.

These teachings further separated Judaism and Christianity as within Orthodox Judaism the idea that God could be “incarnate” is seen as idolatry because God cannot be represented by any physical form or image. Further, the early ecumenical councils wrestled to understand the relationship between God the Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. They formalized the Doctrine of the Trinity, which speaks of one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This notion of God as Trinity is one that Judaism does not embrace as within Orthodox Judaism the Unity of God is seen as absolutely fundamental to the nature of God.

Thus, there are several key areas in which Judaism and mainstream Christianity depart:

The question of Messiahship:

• Christianity: Jesus was and is the Messiah.
• Judaism: The Messiah is yet to come (Orthodox position).

The question of incarnation:

• Christianity: God became “incarnate” in a fully human/fully divine Jesus.
• Judaism: God cannot be incarnated in any physical form whatsoever.

The question of God’s nature:

• Christianity: God as Trinity.
• Judaism: God as Unity.

Based upon the similarities and differences between Judaism and Christianity, there are many ways in which we can seek to be good neighbors, including:

• Overcoming prejudice and antisemitism
• Resisting stereotypes
• Respecting the tradition
• Learning from the work of Jewish scholars
• Engaging in interfaith dialog
• Finding common ground to do good in the world
• Sharing the love of God

In fact, as a concrete example, Christians can start this week to respect the tradition and extend a hand of friendship. Rosh Hashanah occurs on the first and second days of Tishri (this year is the Jewish Year 5768 and Rosh Hashanah is from sunset on September 12, 2007 to nightfall on September 14). Rosh Hashanah means, “head of the year” or “first of the year.” It is the Jewish New Year, one of the holiest days of the year. It is a time to begin introspection, looking back at the mistakes of the past year and planning the changes to make in the new year. The Bible refers to the holiday as Yom Ha-Zikkaron (the day of remembrance) or Yom Teruah (the day of the sounding of the shofar). The holiday is instituted in Leviticus 23:24-25. Christians can take this opportunity to greet our Jewish neighbors respectfully on this most holy of celebrations within their tradition.

Thanks for visiting!