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The Christianization of Judaism

The Christianization of Judaism

By Rabbi Basil Herring

Many years ago, when I was fresh out of Yeshivah, living on Manhattan's West Side, and infused with youthful religious fervor, I, together with a like-minded friend, took it upon myself to spend a Sunday morning debating fellow Jews at the Sar Beth Shalom, a Church sponsored missionary group dedicated to converting Jews on, West 72nd St, and a forerunner of the Jews for Jesus organization. To say the least, it was a disconcerting experience, having to argue with Jews who had forsaken everything that I as a Jew stood for, and attempting to somehow disabuse them of their doctrinal and theological errors. Why did we do it? Because, I suppose, in our religious zeal we were convinced that these were lapsed Jews for whom we felt a certain responsibility, and we thought it important to show them the error of their ways. But one did not then, or even now, have to be particularly religious, or Orthodox, let alone a rabbi, in order to feel strongly that a Jew who believes in Jesus and goes to Church on Sunday morning is an apostate who has turned his back on Judaism. Then, as now, I was struck by the fact that even avowedly secular Jews and Jewish organizations are upset and offended by the notion that a Jew might believe in Christian doctrine. Strange, isn't it, that a Jew who might violate and desecrate every commandment in the Good Book, except those regarding idolatry or a few others, is absolutely con?vinced that another Jew who accepts the wrong messiah and identifies with the Church has betrayed Judaism in the greatest way imaginable.

Why is this so? I believe that at least part of the reason is because when all is said and done, most Jews understand that Judaism is built on the foundation of absolute monotheism, the affirmation of belief in the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob, as historically experienced by the Jewish people. Thus it is that most Jews can agree that when another Jew publicly embraces another faith, another dogma defining God in new and foreign ways, he has crossed the line, the Rubicon of acceptable Jewish behavior. By turning his back on the synagogue in favor of the embrace of the Church, such a Jew touches a most sensitive nerve in the minds of his fellow Jews. But this is not the case when a Jew turns against the commandments of God: when it comes to obeying God's will, as expressed in the Torah, people take a different attitude. They feel that as long as one affirms the Jewish faith, accepts the belief in one God, and somehow relates to Him with a measure of respect and honor, then it is not so critical what such a Jew does with the rest of the Torah, those endless and bothersome details that presume to dictate to the Jew how to live, what to do, when to curb desires, how to spend our money, and precisely how we are to obey and serve this God of Abraham. Essentially, we might say, it is the quality of faith which for so many Jews is essential, while everything else is, relatively speaking, quite secondary. Hence for them a Jew who prays to Jesus is a travesty of major proportions, but a Jew who, for instance, deliberately desecrates the Sabbath is not.

Faith Not Above Works

Now it is this conclusion that bears further analysis. Why should this be so--after all, does Jewish tradition make such a distinction between faith and works? Is there some place in the Torah a hierarchy of great or lesser violations that would place belief in God on some special pedestal? Granted the Ten Commandments affirm faith in God, but so do they mandate Shabbat observance and various other laws, rituals, and norms of social justice. What I would submit, is that not only does the Torah not put any greater emphasis on the affirmation of faith in God than it does on any other Mitzvah, but that in fact the very attempt to attach special significance to faith is a distinctly Christian idea! For, historically speaking, it was precisely Christianity that from its very inception under Paul set out to undermine the rule of law and commandment, placing faith far above works, as it ensconced the pious heart on the highest pedestal. Again and again did the Church Fathers attack the religion of law that they found in what they called the Old Testament which they replaced with their New. And it was the hallmark of the Church that it preached love instead of legislation, emotion in place of edict; and intent rather than injunction.

As opposed to such christological doctrines, and contrary to popular perceptions so common among our fellow Jews, it is not faith which distinguishes the Jew from the Gentile, but rather a way of life, an adherence and conformity to a code of behavior that stamps one a Jew, not only in the eyes of man, but even in the eyes of G- d! At least that is how our Sages understood it, when in the ancient midrash they put the following words in God's mouth:

Would that my people forsook me, just as long as they observe my Torah. for as a result of their preoccupation with the Torah, its light would bring them hack to the right way!

Petihta Eichab Rabbah 2

In other words, if forced to choose between the two, God would have us observe His Torah, and follow its commandments, for thereby are we led to a full and proper affirmation of faith in Him--not just in theory but in practice, not merely in sentiment but in application. This is not to say that what a Jew believes is not important or of no consequence--of course it is! What it does say is that the Torah and its commandments are at least as important as pure faith, for directing the Jew on the right path to God and to redemption.

Now there is a fine illustration of this subtle, but critical, point, in the context of a rather strange interlude in the book of Bamidbar.

And while the Children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Shabbat... And the Lord said unto Moses: the man shall surely be put to death: all the Congregation shall stone him outside the camp. And they brought him outside the camp, and stoned him and he died.

Numbers 15:32-36

Now the ancient Aramaic translator Yonatan b. Uziel makes the following statement: this man who collected sticks on Shabbat and incurred the death penalty, was not a wanton sinner who could care less for the express commandment against violating the Shabbat. In fact, says R. Yonatan, he acted leshem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, because he wanted to make a dramatic point that would benefit the entire people. What that point was, is explained in a rather incisive way by Rabbi Benzion Firer, by referring to a comment by the medieval commentator, R. Yaakov Baal ha-Turim. He points out that this incident of the Shabbat desecrator follows immediately on several verses that mandate stoning for any Jew who curses or blasphemes against God. This juxtaposition teaches us that this incident involving the Sabbath desecrator came on the heels of the event noted above in Bamidbar, where a man was stoned to death for cursing God's name as he fought with another Jew. If so, says Rabbi Firer, we can understand what the Shabbat desecrator did that was leshem shamayim: he wanted the people to understand that it is not only cursing or showing deficient faith and respect for God that is an abomination deserving of the ultimate punishment - it is also the nonobservance of the Shabbat that is equally reprehensible! He put his life on the line in order to disabuse the people of the facile assumption, evidently common even then, that faith and not works are the essence of the religious life. He wanted the people to avoid the pitfalls of a vacuous spiritualism, and of an Israelite religion denuded of its essential behaviors and practices, as commanded by God, and confirmed by covenant.

The point, I think, is clear. Even in the wilderness of Sinai there were Jews who adopted what was essentially a christological approach to the Torah, and enshrined their misplaced spiritualism in a pantheon of their own making. And what was true then, remains so today. Too many Jews fall prey to the selfsame delusions, as they cast off the very trappings that make for authentic Judaism. Sure we should be upset when we see young Jews embrace Christianity, but we should be equally upset when vastly more Jews of all ages cast off not only the Shabbat, but the overwhelming proportion of Jewish practices as well. To rue the one but not the other, is ourselves to admit to having embraced the distinctly non-Jewish and Christian doctrines so inimical to Judaism as it should be understood and lived.

How Carefully Do We Observe?

I think that there is a lesson here for all of us. As we consider the level of our own observance of Torah and mitvot, law and custom, we ought to consider to what extent we may inadvertently have fallen prey to such thinking. How careful are we to observe Shabbat as Jewish law requires, or do we casually take liberties with the clear prohibitions that we know to be in effect? How much do we exert ourselves to grow in observance and understanding, or do we cavalierly dismiss our shortcuts and infractions because we don't want the hassle or the bother? How often do we justify it all to ourselves by thinking that ?my heart is in the right place,? or ?what really counts is being a good person.? These are questions, of course, that each of us can answer only for ourselves. But I fear that far from giving an adequate response to them, too many of us fail to even ask the question.

Allow me to conclude with one more Torah reference. Immediately following the incident of the wood- gatherer, comes the paragraph which we read as the third paragraph of the Shema, the one that includes the commandment of zizit. What is the connection? I think that the answer is obvious: the purpose of the zizit, as the Torah here says, is:

that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of God, and do them, that you do not go about after your own heart and eyes and go astray, that you may remember and do all the commandments-- and be holy unto your God.

Numbers 15:3940

First the Shabbat, then the zizit that reminds you to observe the commandments, again and again, not to be led astray after other gods and other faiths, until finally, and only then, to become ?holy unto your God,? your God.



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