Sunday, February 26, 2006

Standing on One Foot

The modern world can be bewildringly complex, so there is a tendency among religiously affiliated individuals to want their religions to come in neat little packages. People want to be able to turn to a religious leader, or a book, for clear answers to fundamental questions: What do we believe? How do we behave? And, above all: What makes us different from everyone else?

For Jews living in a predominantly Christian society, the question "what makes us different?" is sometimes answered by charicaturing Christianity and reducing Judaism to a series of platitudes. Even Jewish pluralists who are willing to concede an infinite number of legitimate "Judaisms" tend draw the line at "Jewish Christians," or "messianic Jews," as though the only certain thing about Judaism were that it isn't Christianity. I'm no fan of "messianic Judaism," but using it as a whipping boy belittles both Judaism and Christianity. Both religions have long and complex histories, and if we are honest, we will be forced to admit that our paths have often crossed and overlapped in complicated ways.

I am raising this subject now because of a conversation that has been going on at several blogs, including Go West, Young Jew, On the Fringe, and Cute Little Blog regarding the differences between Judaism and Christianity. I posted this commnet on On the Fringe (please read the original post first):

Together, you've identified many significant general differences between Judaism and Christianity, but I don't think that any of them could be called essential differences. The boundaries between religions can be very blurry. Personally, I don't see any use in deciding what ultimately qualifies as "Judaism" and what does not. I know that I do not believe that salvation is attained through faith in Christ, and I know that I do not believe that the future will bring the restoration of a Jewish theocratic monarchy along with temple sacrifice. From a practical standpoint, what difference should it make to me which of these beliefs is "Jewish" and which is "Christian"?

I tend to agree with Mordecai Kaplan's assertion that the primary differences between religions reside in their symbol systems rather than their dogma. In terms of beliefs, a Unitarian Christian shares more with a Reconstructionist Jew than with an evangelical Protestant, but the Unitarian worships on Sunday and invokes Jesus in prayer, while the Reconstructionist worships on Saturday and invokes the biblical ancestors. Of course, even with respect to symbol systems there are fuzzy boundaries (Seventh Day Adventists worship on Saturday, for example). "Messianic Jews" are a particularly interesting case, since their beliefs derive mainly from Christian tradition, but their symbol system draws heavily on Judaism as well as Christianity. On the whole, I would say that "Messianic Jews" are more Christian than Jewish, but I don't think that one can draw a rigid line.

A few comments on some of your specific points:

I believe that Judaism tends to emphasize *this* world, whereas Christianity tends to emphasize the next

I've heard this many times, but I suspect that it's more a product of modern apologetics than historical truth. We moderns tend to be skeptics; even if we belive in that which cannot be verified by scientific observation, we'd rather not make it the focus of our existence. However, rabbinic and medieval Judaism placed a very strong emphasis on the next world, and, notwithstanding a few rabbinic texts that suggest that life in this world is "better," the general thrust of premodern Judaism has been the opposite.

I believe that Judaism tends to emphasize the group—notice that our central prayer, the Amidah, is written entirely in the plural—whereas Christianity tends to emphasize the individual.

Kiwi has suggested that this aspect of Christianity is mainly a product of modern America, and I suspect that she is correct. I would also argue that the collective orientation of Judaism is a product of the premodern world rather than any essential feature of Judaism. This is why the Reform movement, which has always sought to be in keeping with modernity, tends to emphasize individual autonomy.

I believe that Judaism tends to emphasize deeds, whereas Christianity tends to emphasize faith or thought.

There is definitely some validity to this, but it is often overemphasized (mainly by Jews). Nearly all streams of Christianity throughout history have emphasized right behavior, even when that would seem to conflict with their dogma.

I believe that Judaism tends to emphasize individual responsibility, whereas the the belief in vicarious atonement is at the very heart of Christian dogma. ...according to Christian dogma, no amount of personal atonement could earn a person entry into heaven if Jesus had not died for the sins of humankind.

Again, yes and no. Psalm 130 states, "If you keep account of sins, O Lord, Lord, who will survive? Yours is the power to forgive so that you may be held in awe." These verses imply that repentence alone is insufficient for humans to attain salvation; we also need God's superhuman mercy. This is an important tenet of rabbinic Judaism and is functionally very similar to the Christian idea of atonement through Jesus.

Judaism and Christianity had totally different responses to pagan human sacrifice. Judaism replaced it with animal sacrifice, and, later, with prayer. Christianity replaced it with a one-time “human” sacrifice, followed by the symbolic “human” sacrifice of the sacrament/holy communion (hope I’m using the correct terminology)."

This is more a matter of "symbol systems" than beliefs. As it stands, I don't think that this statement is true. (I admit that in this regard I've been heavily influenced by Levenon's Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son.) It probably isn't accurate to say that animal sacrifice "replaced" human sacrifice in Judaism, since those who practiced human sacrifice among Israel's neighbors also practiced animal sacrifice, and even maintained the practice (adopted by Jews) of substituting an animal for a human. Those verses in the Bible that condemn human sacrifice never state that animal sacrifice is to take its place, since animal sacrifice is a given whether human sacrifice is practiced or not. Similarly, the crucifixion can't be regarded as a replacement for human sacrifice, since there was no human sacrifice in second temple Judea. Jesus was a one-time, anomolous human sacrifice, yes. But a replacement? No.

Also (just to play Devil's advocate), one can't necessarily differentiate between Judaism and Christianity by saying that we have different ideas about what took the place of sacrifice. Rabbinic Judaism includes both the idea that prayer took the place of sacrifice and the idea that righteous deeds (gemilut chasadim) took the place of sacrifice. Some Jewish texts even imply that the death of martyrs has taken the place of animal sacrifice -- a notion that seems uncomfortably "Christian" to modern Jews. If a "Messianic Jew" were to add the crucifixion to the roster of "things that have taken the place of sacrifice" in Judaism, it wouldn't necessarily conflict with the others.

Mind you, symbolic sacrifice is a vast improvement over the real thing.

I share this belief, but I must concede that the thrust of rabbinic Judaism is quite the opposite. AFAIK, Maimonedes was the only premodern Jewish thinker to even suggest that prayer might be superior to sacrifice, and even he stated that animal sacrifice would be restored in messianic times.

Anyway, thanks for carrying on this thought-provoking discussion.

I hope that my readers don't all come to the conclusion that I am a complete relativist. I think that it is important for individuals to try to figure out what we do and don't believe, and those of us who affiliate religiously should try to figured out how those beliefs fit into the religious tradition to which we are heirs. I simply don't think that it is worthwhile, or even possible, to come up with bottom-line defnitions of those traditions, or to refashion Jewish or Christian history in our own image.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Holocaust Cartoons

The Associated Press reports:
A prominent Iranian newspaper says it is going to hold a competition for cartoons on the Holocaust to test whether the West will apply the principle of freedom of expression to the Nazi genocide against Jews as it did to the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.
I think someone's missing the point. The Iranian press can't test the limits of freedom of expression because Iran does not have a free press. Yet more evidence that a large segment of the Muslim population isn't simply opposed to freedom of expression -- they actually don't understand the concept.

Fortunately, this isn't true of all Muslims. What a tragedy, though. Eleven dead over a few cartoons.