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Judaism and Christianity by Professor Joseph Fulda
Judaism and Christianity by Professor Joseph Fulda

Volume 4 , Issue 1

As a teacher and scholar in a secular environment. I am often approached by colleagues, students, and other associates for a discussion of the fundamental differences in ethos between Judaism and Christianity. What follows in this essay is a response that I hope others who are observant can use when called upon to explain their faith and, indeed, themselves. It is imperative to remember throughout this discussion that we speak of the ethos of the two religions, not the practices of their institutions and adherents, an entirely different matter. We examine the two religions from three perspectives, philosophical theology, moral theology, and religious authority in canon law.


Perhaps the most important problem in philosophical theology is characterizing man's relationship with God. In both Judaism and Christianity, it istaken for granted that man's soul partakes of God's divinity, though how and to what extent is subject to debate.

In Christianity, the central theological tenet is that man partakes of God's divinity by identification, symbolized in the Roman Catholic faith with the ritual Mass at which the consuming of the wine and wafer become part of the Divinity by transubstantiation. Protestants refer to this as consubstantiation, more often, as merely symbolic and today the Mass is not nearly as central in the Protestant denominations as in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths. However, even those Christian denominations that do not regard communion as literal, believe with all Christians that identification with God reaches its high point with God's having a human son, a Divine human son. All Christians are supposed to identify with the man- God who in human form suffered on their behalf and who redeems them from sin as both Man and God. The suffering and redemption of Christ is the basis of the prayer said before partaking of the wine, regarded as His blood, and the wafer, regarded as His flesh, and are implicit in all the rites and symbols of the Christian religion. The cross, for example, memorializes the crucifix on which Christ suffered, while the name Jesus is said to derive from the Hebrew for salvation, yeshua.

Judaism. in contrast, regards identification with God as impossible and attempts at such, as worthy of punishment with the severest of sanctions. One of the central tenets of our faith is Ain Lo D' mut HaGuf V' Aino Guf ? neither in reality nor in symbolism can man and God be considered identifiable. Even Moses, by another of the principles of faith the greatest prophet of all time, was not permitted the direct knowledge of God from a frontal gaze: Such knowledge, he was told, would prove fatal to any mortal, even one as great as he. The earliest attempts at identification with God in Gan Eden and Migdal Bavel ? the Tower of Babel ? were repudiated and punished. Later when B'nai Yisrael contributed their gold to build a god-calf and thus to identify more closely with a God made from their own. they merited complete destruction and only the intervention of Moses and God's Midat HaRacharnim ? attribute of mercy ? prevented total annihilation. Even so, no one from the generation that had built the calf would live to see Klal Yisrael's entrance into the Holy Land. Much later in Jewish history. several of the of the sainted Tanaim went to Pardeis and only one, R. Akiva, returned. in body and mind. Today, we are advised not to learn Sod ? the secret teachings of the Zohar and other sources ? until age forty.The gemara in Chagigah explains in the chapter entitled Ain Dorshin ? Do Not Expound ? that most of what comprises "philosophical theology" may not be discussed, except using indirection and only to the carefully chosen few. Hence, identification with God is prohibited far, far beyond the Christian rites. Anything that might even lead one that direction isproscribed. Hence the character of this discussion has been entire­ly negative: what is not, cannot be, should not be done.

The only way a man can partake of God's divinity in Judaism is by his neshama ? Divine spark ? partaking of God's commandments through the agency of his guf. In addition, we are taught to emulate God's attributes: for example, Ma Hu Rachum, Af Ata Rachum ? Just as He is merciful, so you be merciful.


The moral philosophy that undergirds a religion ? moral theology ? asks the eternal question posed by philosophers, theologians, and, in their daily conduct, everyone: How do I live the life that is good, the life that God wishes me to live, the life for which I was created?

Judaism answers that question by pointing to Law. Our religion contains the most comprehensive law known to man, governing every facet of life with do's and don't's from maturity through old age; civil law, criminal law, family law, ecclesiastical law. The Torah contains numerous statements calling for purity of heart and mind, but it is the 613 Divine commandments ? righteous behavior? that are primary. In other words, Judaism posits that righteous behavior will lead to purity of heart and mind. A typical example of this view is Chazal's statement, Mitoch SheloLishma, Bo Lishma ? the observance of a mitzvah for earthly reasons will eventually lead to its observance for its own sake ? i.e., because it is good.

This "behaviorist' view of law is not unique to Judaism. Secular government has been described as having a similar shaping power. No one says it better than Dr. George F. Will in Statecraft as Soulcraft: "It is generally considered obvious that government should not, indeed cannot legislate morality. But in fact it does so, frequently; it should do so more often; and it never does anything more important. By the legislation of morality I mean the enactment of laws and implementation of policies that proscribe, mandate, regulate, or subsidize behavior that will, over time, have the predictable effect of nurturing, bolstering or altering habits, dispositions and values on a broad scale." This is exactly what we mean when we speak of Mitzvot Ma' aseiot.

This understanding of Judaism's moral theology can also be used to answer one of the most difficult passages in Jewish law

Mackin O'to ad Sheyomer "Rotzeh Ani"

He is to be whipped (for refusing to follow a Rabbinical decree) until he says "I want (to observe)." Of what use, everyone asks, is a forced "I want"? If I may be permitted to suggest an answer, Chazal are concerned with the observance of their decrees and the statement that he now wants to go along with the decree, while Shelo Lishma is ? behaviorally ? correct. He will now obey and that is the object. Perhaps the difficulty of the passage has been aggravated by translating Rotzeh with "want"; perhaps "will" is fairer to a clear understanding of its meaning and intent. As we have seen by this one example, the study of moral theology, like the study of Law, can aid us in following and understanding God's will. In this respect, moral theology is quite different from philosophical theology.

Christianity, in marked contrast, has, today, little need for homes lined with tomes of canon law, for there is little regulation of behavior properly called law. The focus of Christianity is on qualities of heart and mind: love, charity, grace, forgiveness, tolerance. Many of these are central to Judaism also, but it is Chris­tianity that posits that the right thoughts and feelings are primary and that righteous behavior will follow, whereas Judaism insists that behavior shapes our inner life and that we cannot hope for purity of heart and mind without precedent of deed.

It is well to look at the quality that Christianity considers most important in order to see this difference clearly: love. While Judaism commands only that one "Love thy neighbor," Christianity goes further and commands "love thine enemy." The Torah makes no such emotional demand, but it does prescribe behavior that may root out Sinat Chinam. In Exodus 23:4-5, we are commanded "Should you happen upon the ox of your enemy or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him. Should you see the donkey of one you hate crouched under its burden, shall you not assist him in its removal? Surely you shall remove (the burden) with him (the one hated)." Clearly HaKadosh Baruch Hu does not will us to hate a fellow Jew (except under certain circumstances rarely met even by an evildoer), but instead of asking the impossible. He asks us to behave as if it were possible; eventually, it may become possible once more.

Likewise, Divine forgiveness requires more action in Judaism than it does in Christianity, though the various denominations differ greatly in the degree of commitment required to obtain Divine expiation. All require confession (most only to God), some require regret, and I am told that Roman Catholicism requires undertaking not to commit the sin again. Judaism, however, goes beyond Vidui. Charata, V' Kabalah L' Habah ? confession, regret, and an undertaking for the future (not to sin again). It requires Amidah B'Tshuva ? steadfast in penitence ? as made clear by a subsequent opportunity to commit the sin with all its temptations which is, nevertheless, resisted. Sometimes Divine expiation can be granted only after suffering is visited upon the sinner ? Yisurim; in Christianity, suffering was done once for all time.

Both Christians and Jews can see this difference in approach in the questions about kashruth asked by the former of the latter, most notably "Is it food blessed by Rabbis?" to which the answer is that spiritual qualities do not determine kashruth, rather the actions taken ? ingredients prepared, methods of preparation and the like ? determine whether something is or is not kosher.

I do not want to end this discussion of moral theology with the reader coming away with an overstated case. So let me add here some of the numerous qualifications that should be made. We can observe that in orthodox Judaism and orthodox Christianity alike, matters of sexual morality are understood, clearly, as both feeling and deed. (Even here, though, as a matter of law, Judaism does not see "adultery in the heart" as adultery. Second, while Christianity proscribes this, my rebbe, Rabbi S. Danziger, pointed out that in the famous passage in K' riat Shema, the qualifier Asher Atem Zonim Achareihem is added ? that despite thought and feeling, Lo Taturu.) Then, too, charity, revered by both faiths, is a matter of both deed and spirit. Chasidism, a powerful movement within Orthodoxy, places more stress on feeling and spirit than the Law requires, with the intention of thereby strengthening the Law ? behavior can be shaped by thoughts and feelings in an effective way, the Chasidim believe. Finally, and most important, kavana focused intention towards HaKadosh Baruch Hu ? is a critical component of many of the mitzvot and one of the main ways in which our actions ? our outer life ? shapes our inner life of heart, mind, and soul.


In interpreting canon law, there are three possible roads. The first and simplest is to have no authority of an institutional nature govern the interpretation of Scripture. This is the route taken by several of the more liberal Protestant denominations. It is also possible to vest such authority in a hierarchy that culminates in an infallible head. This, of course, is the Catholic position, in which the Pope is regarded as "vicar of Christ on Earth" and infallible on matters of canon law. It is not surprising that Catholics have this view, given the fact that church canon law deals almost exclusively with the relationship of individuals to the Church; still it is a difficult position to defend and it has been part of formal Catholic doctrine for less than two centuries. Before departing for a discussion of the Jewish road, it would be remiss of us to omit mention of the fundamentalist Protestant denominations. They take none of the three positions; literalism obviates the need for interpretation. Of course, this position is -the hardest to defend, and is quite different from liberal Protestant churches who admit the need for interpretation but allow each individual to come to terms with God based on his own understanding of Scripture.

Judaism is different. We need interpretation and we are not content to leave the Law which touches everything we do up to individual tastes. Nor, however, can we accept the election of a virtual prophet every few years. The Rabbinical scholars determine the interpretation of Divine Law as a matter of Divine Law ? there are verses in Chumash which the gemara explains as granting this authority: Deuteronomy 17.:10-11 and 32:7. Yet although the Rabbinical sages are to be followed as both trustees of the oral law and its interpretation of Scripture and as guardians of the law empowered to make additional laws for various specified reasons, no one, least of all the Sages themselves, considers them infallible. The most striking illustration of this is in the Aggada of Baba Metzia 59b. R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua were debating a halakha and the majority decided that R. Yehoshua was correct. R. El iezer then gave every possible argument, but the majority was not persuaded. He then called upon a carob tree to prove him right and it jumped 100 ells. Then he called upon a spring of water to testify on his behalf and the water began to run backwards. Finally he asked for the walls of the Beit Medrash to fall and they began to shake and only our of respect for R. Yehoshua did they not collapse. None of these signs persuaded his colleagues. Finally, he asked for a Heavenly voice to come down and the voice responded in R. Eliezer's favor. Nevertheless, the Court stood by its position, and R. Eliezer was bound by it. The grounds for this are clear: The Rabbinical authorities' words are definitive and binding ? right or wrong. Fallible though they may be, their word is law. The gemara explains that the Bat Kol ? Heavenly voice ? could be ignored since the Torah had already been given and it includes the injunction that matters of law are decided by a majority of the Court, not by Heaven. This middle road does notelevate ordinary men to Prophets, while fully dealing with the problem of interpreting Scripture and understanding God's will as to how we should live. 171


I should like to acknowledge discussions with Rabbi Saul Berman, Esq. on Mitzvot Ma' Aseiot and Church canon law, Professor B. Thompson on Protestantism, and Lieutenant Patrick Vincent on Roman Catholicism. I wish to dedicate this paper to my mother and teacher, Mrs. Naomi Fulda, who at an early age taught me the tenets of faith.


1. The question as to whether what is good is God ? beloved or whether what is God-beloved is good was first posed by Plato in the Euthyphro. Philosopher Michael Levin solves the dilemma brilliantly and in a manner consistent with Jewish thought in The International Journal for Philosophy and Religion, 25(1989): 83-97.

Joseph S. Fulda, C.S.E., Ph.D. is the author of over 100 pieces that have appeared in scientific journals, journals of opinion, law reviews, and newspaper op-ed pages.



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