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.

35 comments:

Mar Gavriel said...

Interesting.

I often get into discussions with friends, in which I talk about certain concepts, such as substitutionary atonement, and my friends say: "No, that's not an authentically Jewish concept. Whatever Jewish sources believe it are really borrowing from Christianity."

And I respond: "Mind you, I don't like the idea of substitutionaty atonement any more than you do. But how can you call the Chasidei Ashkenaz not authentically Jewish? They were a very important group in their own day, and much of the editing of our liturgy is due to them. And if they borrowed concepts from Christianity, or Christians borrowed the concepts from them, what difference does it make? We know that we're Jews, and they're Christians, and we reject the divinity of Jesus, and they don't."

And my friends will say: "Well, substitutionary atonement was never the mainstream view in Judaism."

And I say: "Mainstream? Most Jews today are totally secular! Acceptance of the Torah isn't 'mainstream' Judaism today, and that proves absolutely nothing."

Mar Gavriel said...

PS: How do you like the new picture on my profile?

Q said...

I'm in agreement with your thesis, that there are many significant general differences between Judaism and Christianity, but I don't think that any of them could be called essential differences.

Shira Salamone makes several distinctions between Judaism and Christianity. Writing from the Christian side of the fence, I think her analysis is quite insightful and there's truth in each of the points that she makes.

But it's strange for me to see someone work so hard to distinguish the two religions. I say that because, over the past sixty years, Christian scholars have been working very hard to show the commonalities between Judaism and Christianity. And they have reevaluated the history of both religions to bring them closer together.

Re Judaism: Christian scholars for centuries caricatured Judaism as guilty of the worst kind of legalism and self-righteousness. In the past few decades, particularly since the seminal work of E.P. Sanders, published in 1977, scholars have rediscovered that God's grace is as fundamental to Judaism as it is to Christianity. Sanders coined the term "covenantal nomism" to emphasize that Jewish law observance (nomism) must always be understood as taking place within a covenant of grace. As Sanders sees it, this is not far removed from the Christian demand for obedience within a covenant of grace centered on Jesus.

Moreover, the Dead Sea Scrolls have lead to a new recognition of the degree of diversity present in second temple Judaism. It's clear that some of the emphases of Christianity also featured prominently at Qumran, the Dead Sea Scrolls community. Christianity began as a sect within Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls have made it easier to see how that was possible.

Working from the other direction, scholars have also reevaluated the degree of diversity within the first several generations of Christianity. It is clear that the Gospel of Matthew was written for readers who still observed the law of Moses. What we know about James (Jesus' brother, who became head of the Church in Jerusalem) suggests something very similar: James and his group continued to observe the food laws and circumcision, and they held that faith by itself is not sufficient to save anyone; that faith must be completed by works.

Moreover, there is some evidence that James (unlike Matthew) held to a low christology. That is, he did not regard Jesus as divine, and it isn't clear whether he regarded Jesus' death as salvific.

With such diversity in each of our respective faiths at that point in history, there was undoubtedly a considerable degree of overlap. Some early Christians saw Jesus as a prophet like Moses, the person Moses himself had predicted, who set out to reform Judaism. In their view, Jesus did not set out to supplant Judaism with a new religion.

After the destruction of the Temple, Judaism underwent its profound reformation at Jamnia, which consolidated a certain stream of Judaism as normative. Meanwhile, a "liberal" stream of Christianity began to spread among the Gentiles — liberal in terms of its shift away from the law of Moses. Christological titles also shifted:

• away from "Son of David" (quite prominent in the Gospel of Matthew);
• away from "Messiah" (the Greek term, "Christ", was reduced to a second name rather than a title); and
• with a reinterpretation of "Son of God" (no longer as in the Hebrew scriptures; a title which meant "God's vice-regent" came to mean "God incarnate").

2,000 years later, we have two quite distinct religions.

I think the differences are substantive, just as Shira Salamone maintains. But it grieves me to see that some Jews feel a need to underline the differences between our respective faiths, rather than celebrating the fact that we also have a great deal in common.

Mar Gavriel said...

But it's strange for me to see someone work so hard to distinguish the two religions.

We Jews work so hard to distinguish ourselves from all other religions (not just Christianity), because one of the fundamental symbols of Judaism IS that we are distinguished.

Kiwi the Geek said...

Wow, thanks for your lengthy insight, Q and elf. I'm also much more focused on similarities than differences, in general. This discussion is also taking place at my blog, so visit there to get even more information. I'll be linking here also.

Mar Gavriel said...

Now that I have seen Q's post, I want to make it clear that I do not at all endorse the views promulgated in that post. Although there may be a two-way exchange of concept flowing between those two religions (and all others, for that matter), by no means can I view them as "two halves of the same thing", or anything like that. Chas ve-sholôm.

elf said...

Q said:
But it's strange for me to see someone work so hard to distinguish the two religions.

Mar Gavriel responded:
We Jews work so hard to distinguish ourselves from all other religions (not just Christianity), because one of the fundamental symbols of Judaism IS that we are distinguished.

I'd like to offer a more mundane explanation. Modern "Western" Jews are a small minority in a Christian society, so many Jews perceive any blurring of the boundary between Judaism and Christianity as a potential threat to the continued existence of Judaism. It does not help that the most prominant strem of "messianic Judaism," Jews for Jesus, is a missionary group whose primary mission is to convert Jews to Christianity. Christians have no reason to feel similarly threatened by Judaism. To the extent that modern Western Christians fear for their continued existence, the perceived threat is usually secular society or new-age spiritualism, not any other "mainstream" religion.

As my post suggests, I think that this attitude on the part of Jews is generally uncalled for. However, I also think that to a certain extent, Christians simply have to accept that this is the way things are.

Your specific points, Q, are good ones. It was learning about second temple Judaism that really opened my eyes to the artificiality of many of the boundaries that we Jews erect between ourselves and Christians.

elf said...

Another point: Because Christianity is an outgrowth of Judaism, Christians can acknowledge the truth and rightness of Judaism while maintaining that Christianity is a more complete form of truth. A Jew who accepts the truth of Christianity, however, becomes something fundamentally different.

elf said...

Hey, Kiwi -- I actually added the discussion on your blog to my post earlier in the day, but I just realized that I forgot to update it. Fixing now...

elf's DH said...

It does not help that the most prominant strem of "messianic Judaism," Jews for Jesus, is a missionary group whose primary mission is to convert Jews to Christianity.
... Almost there. The liberal Jewish community's negative reaction towards J4J and other forms of "Messianic Judaism" can be traced back to how MJ defines itself in opposition to Judaism. Their tactics involve presenting a very negative charicature of Judaism to the least educated Jews (to some extent, the same community), and presenting their alternative as the real Judaism. It is very in-your-face. That, and the major MJ movements are funded by Protestant Christian groups, effectively blowing their cover as grassroots movements within the fold of the Jewish community.
MJ excites the Jews' collective conscience over the history of Christian attempts to convert them.

Mar Gavriel said...

Another important point:

Christianity is not an outgrowth of what we know as Judaism today. It (or rather, its Jewish component) is an outgrowth of certain Jewish groups of Second Temple times, and not even the ones that fed into today's Judaism(s).

elf said...

DH: Everything you've said is certainly true of Jews for Jesus, but I'm not sure that it is true of all segments of "Messianic Judaism" or "Christian Judaism." (I guess we can't find out by asking them, though...)

Mar Gavriel said...

There apparently "MJ" groups that consider themselves more "Jewish" than J4J. My ex-girlfriend became very involved in some of these groups, yet she kept insisting that she didn't like J4J, because they were an inherently external group.

If I understand correctly, though, about half the people who were involved in these supposedly "more Jewish" MJ-groups were actually not Jewish by any definition; if we limit the definition of Jews to "people halakhically Jewish", the percentage of gentiles was probably much higher. So how ingrown can they be?

Dovid said...

I must say that this is my favorite of all your posts. And, unbelievably, I agree with every one of your points.

Often, in conversation with 'misnagdim,' I am told that Chabad is too close to Christianity for comfort. But when we try to get the discussion into the details, the problem with "sharing beliefs with Christians [sic]" isn't an ideological problem, but just a matter of, "they believe it, so how can we?" Well, that's hardly a valid argument, considering that there are so many beliefs fundamental to both religions that we share...

Q said...

• Mar Gavriel:
By no means can I view [Judaism and Christianity] as "two halves of the same thing", or anything like that.

I agree with you. My point is fundamentally historical. There was a brief time, prior to the destruction of the temple built by Herod, when both Judaism and Christianity were more diverse than they are today. At that time, there was a significant degree of overlap between the two faiths. But since then, the two faiths have followed divergent paths, resulting in the significant differences that exist today.

The question you're touching on is much more difficult - how exactly should we define the relationship between them as they exist today. I think Shira Salamone's position is that the two faiths are utterly alien to one another. I disagree. I accept that they are two faiths, not one; but the historical connection means that they have a common heritage of core beliefs and mores.

• Elf:
It does not help that the most prominant strem of "messianic Judaism," Jews for Jesus, is a missionary group whose primary mission is to convert Jews to Christianity.

I understand why Jews are sensitive on that point. The history of Judaism has always been a struggle for survival, and you aren't going to appreciate evangelistic Christians who constitute another sort of threat to the survival of your faith.

I'm not for conversion, from Judaism to Christianity or vice versa. I'd much rather we learned to "live and let live" — and more than that, to look at the differences between our faiths sympathetically, in order to learn from one another, while remaining within our own faith traditions.

I'd like to see more of that mindset; but, as you say, it's a lot easier for Christians to adopt it than it is for Jews, because of your increased vulnerability.

fleurdelis28 said...

Great post.

notwithstanding a few rabbinic texts that suggest that life in this world is "better," the general thrust of premodern Judaism has been the opposite.

Well, and the parts of the Tanach in which there doesn't seem to be another world (at least not that's brought in for the purposes of comparison). Christianity has also, in certain times and places, been very caught up in the this-world end of things.

Kiwi has suggested that this aspect of Christianity is mainly a product of modern America, and I suspect that she is correct.

I've heard persuasive, though not definitive, arguments from several sources that this is a product of Protestantism and the Reformation. Either way, though, it's certainly a product of modernity. Catholicism is totally collective, quite possibly moreso that Judaism.

I believe that Judaism tends to emphasize individual responsibility, whereas 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. [This wasn't your point, but I'm going to join you in disputing its significance anyway]

Isn't this at least partly a function of Original Sin, though, rather than just a sort of "we are all too inherently depraved to function on our own"? In which case the implications for individual responsibility are somewhat less clear. Obviously, Judaism differs from Christianity in not having an idea of original sin (though we sort of reproduce it in the "everything bad that happens to the Jews is due to the sin of the Golden Calf" version of history), but its presence in everyone's sin column means that everyone has an insurmountable starting handicap, which could require external help even as we still have a responsibility to help ourselves. And I mean, there are certainly Christian theorists who have felt that our virtues are just incapable of outweighing our flaws* -- but I don't think vicarious atonement is universally interpreted as "you can never be good, so you might as well just give up and beg for mercy," as opposed to, say, "look, God paid off your student loans for you, so now let's see how you can balance your budget when given a fair chance."

* And Jewish, as you note, and as is manifestly apparent in a lot of our liturgy. We may even come closer to saying things like "we are all too inherently depraved to function on our own" straight-out.

Valke said...

I'll just address one issue here, regarding your response to the statement that "Judaism tends to stress the here and now."

I disagree with your disputation to the extent that, while there are plenty of medevial sources for the jewish hereafter, it is generally agreed that these were in response to both the spread of christianity and the fact that Jews at the time had nothin in the "here and now" to look forward to. There is very little in Tanach that stresses the hereafter and much that stresses the here and now.

Further, the concept of the hereafter in Judaism is very different from the Christian concept of heaven or the Islamic concept of Paradise. And finally, it cannot be disputed that Judaism today focuses, almost exclusively, on how we are to behave in this life, both toward each other and toward God. This is true to a greater or lesser extent throughout all the jewish movements.

Mar Gavriel said...

And finally, it cannot be disputed that Judaism today focuses, almost exclusively, on how we are to behave in this life, both toward each other and toward God. This is true to a greater or lesser extent throughout all the jewish movements.

This is simply false. There are lots of Jewish movements today, as in the past, that make a huge deal about a future age, whether after death or in the future of this earth. Not least among them are the religious Zionists, who make a whole hoo-ha about how the State is going to lead to the Messiah.

And the Jewish liturgy is filled with pleas for the Messianic Age.

elf's DH said...

valke -
I disagree with your disputation to the extent that, while there are plenty of medevial sources for the jewish hereafter, it is generally agreed that these were in response to both the spread of christianity and the fact that Jews at the time had nothin in the "here and now" to look forward to. There is very little in Tanach that stresses the hereafter and much that stresses the here and now.

Modern Judaism is not a fundamentally Biblically-based religion. It's a religion based on the rabbinic tradition. In that tradition, otherworldly salvation is very important, and makes one of the (if not *the*) primary reason(s) for adhering to the religion. The literal Torah basis for reward and punishment is a (mostly collective!) reward and punishment in this world. Rabbinic Judaism reinterpreted the whole idea to include individual reward and punishment in the afterlife. The solution works on two problems: (1) the reason for obeying the mitzvot and (2) the observation that bad things happen to good people and vice versa.

Kiwi the Geek said...

no amount of personal atonement could earn a person entry into heaven if Jesus had not died for the sins of humankind.

Isn't this at least partly a function of Original Sin, though


Yes. I think technically, original sin is the reason we're innately wicked and unable to avoid sin. But from the moment a baby is born, she's already sinful, before she has the chance to actually commit sin. However, Christians disagree on the eternal destiny of a child who's too young to repent. I think Catholics believe the act of baptism saves the child, while many evangelicals believe there's an "age of accountability" before which the child is automatically forgiven if she dies.

fleurdelis28 said...

I think technically, original sin is the reason we're innately wicked and unable to avoid sin.

Hmm. That makes sense, but how were Adam and Eve in the garden any different from us in that respect?

I think Catholics believe the act of baptism saves the child, while many evangelicals believe there's an "age of accountability" before which the child is automatically forgiven if she dies.

Last I discussed it with someone, the official Catholic position seemed to be "technically, unbaptized babies are unsaved, but we hope and suspect that that's not really how God handles the matter." I think this has recently been changed, but I'm not sure how or to what.

Q said...

From the moment a baby is born, she's already sinful, before she has the chance to actually commit sin.

That's the position of the Roman Catholic Church, and it may also be the position of some mainline Protestant denominations — those which practice infant baptism — but I'm not sure about that.

Evangelical Christians baptize people only after they're old enough to understand the Gospel and make a profession of faith. They don't interpret original sin the way you've described it; in fact, it isn't a preoccupation among evangelicals.

To them, every human being is born with a tendency to sin. It is a direct result of Adam's sin. But, in the evangelical view, there is no personal guilt until the person is old enough to understand the implications of what s/he is doing. Therefore evangelicals don't worry that a child who dies is at risk of being condemned.

The full theological implications of the belief are not clear to me. Frankly, I don't think evangelicals have thought it through. For example, is Christ's sacrifice still required to save those children? How about a child born into a non-Christian household — are they also in the clear?

I don't know the answers to those questions. But there is one text in the New Testament that speaks of children being sanctified by the faith of a believing parent. That's where I would start if someone told me they were anxious about the spiritual condition of a child.

Kiwi the Geek said...

Evangelical Christians baptize people only after they're old enough to understand the Gospel and make a profession of faith.

True. Baptism is entirely based on the individual's decision.

in the evangelical view, there is no personal guilt until the person is old enough to understand the implications of what s/he is doing. Therefore evangelicals don't worry that a child who dies is at risk of being condemned.


I wouldn't say it's a preoccupation, but some evangelicals do believe in original sin, just not in the power of infant baptism to do anything about it. And there are some who worry about the destiny of a baby who dies. I have no idea what the percentages are or which denominations believe what, but there are a huge variety of evangelicals, from ELCA to Southern Baptists to Assemblies of God. I don't know enough about theology to really make a case one way or the other, but somehow I can't imagine God refusing mercy to an aborted baby. I have kind of a baseless idea that maybe young children's destiny is based on what they would have done had they lived, which God is certainly capable of knowing.

That makes sense, but how were Adam and Eve in the garden any different from us in that respect?

God made Adam and Eve perfect; they had no sin nature. Once they sinned, that tendency was passed on like a genetic disorder to all their descendants. Paul says that sin entered the world through Adam. (He doesn't blame Eve, which is a whole 'nother ball of wax.) Original sin is passed through the father. Genetically, Jesus had no earthly father, which is why he was capable of being perfect.

I think this explanation is all correct, but I wouldn't stake my life on it.

elf said...

Hmm, lots of interesting comments. I'll respond to a few.

Mar Gavriel wrote:
There apparently "MJ" groups that consider themselves more "Jewish" than J4J.

I didn't mean to differentiate between these groups on the basis of their "degree of Jewishness." The issue that I was addressing is that J4J was created essentially as a tactic for getting Jews to accept Jesus. Given this reality, it makes sense for even pluralistic Jews to reject the movement.

But what if there are individuals or groups that belive in the saving power of Jesus and celebrate Jewish holidays, etc., for reasons other than proselytism? Is there any reason to regard such people with any greater degree of animosity than that with which we regard other professed Jews with whom we differ on fundamental matters of faith?

Dovid wrote:
Often, in conversation with 'misnagdim,' I am told that Chabad is too close to Christianity for comfort.

I've also argued against this anti-Chabad polemic (which, BTW, has been exploited by David Berger, though he claims that it is not the crux of his argument).

Q wrote:
There was a brief time, prior to the destruction of the temple built by Herod, when both Judaism and Christianity were more diverse than they are today. At that time, there was a significant degree of overlap between the two faiths. But since then, the two faiths have followed divergent paths, resulting in the significant differences that exist today.

Very well put.

I'd much rather we learned to "live and let live" — and more than that, to look at the differences between our faiths sympathetically, in order to learn from one another...I'd like to see more of that mindset...

Do you ever read the Velveteen Rabbi? :)

Fleurdelis28 wrote:
Well, and the parts of the Tanach in which there doesn't seem to be another world (at least not that's brought in for the purposes of comparison).

The basic concept of the netherworld (Sheol) throughout most of the Jewish Bible seems to be shared with other Near Eastern cultures: it is a place underground where we all go after death. There aren't many details about Sheol in the Bible, but it is clear that people don't look forward to going there, so it probably isn't a very nice place. It also is not a place where the righteous are rewarded and the wicked punished. (I think that DH described the development of the latter idea fairly well.)

I've heard liberal rabbis (and liberal laypeople, who apparently heard this from their liberal rabbis) assert that the concept of the afterlife is not really "Jewish." This is absurd. Many features of the Jewish understanding of the afterlife as it developed were taken from Hellenistic and Christian theology, but, with the possible exception of Kohelet, the existence of a life after death was never in serious doubt until the modern period.

You do, however, highlight an important point: The Jewish Bible tends to focus on this world, only occasionally alluding to the afterlife and the cosmic realm in general, while most contemporanous literary and religious texts had a strong cosmic focus. Christianity has also been heavily theological in its focus, beginning (I think) with the Gospel of John. One might say that while Jews have spent most of our religious history parsing the details of proper behavior, Christians have spent most of theirs parsing the details of theology. (This is Vatke's point, if I understand it correctly.) However, it is undeniable that a particular theology (including belief in the afterlife) stands behind Jewish discussions of behavior, and I have heard that most Christian theological disputes throughout the ages have had practical implications. The difference lies in what is discussed and what is left largely unspoken.

David said...

You are a relativist: you like some of your relatives some of the time.

elf's DH said...

But what if there are individuals or groups that belive in the saving power of Jesus and celebrate Jewish holidays, etc., for reasons other than proselytism? Is there any reason to regard such people with any greater degree of animosity than that with which we regard other professed Jews with whom we differ on fundamental matters of faith?

I don't immediately doubt the sincerity of individuals who join "Messianic Jewish" organizations. I'm not convinced that such such an animal exists among the organized MJ movements.

Mar Gavriel said...

I've heard liberal rabbis (and liberal laypeople, who apparently heard this from their liberal rabbis) assert that the concept of the afterlife is not really "Jewish."

Yup. Gotta love those ammarotzem (or עמי ארצות, in Hebrew).

fleurdelis28 said...

I've heard liberal rabbis (and liberal laypeople, who apparently heard this from their liberal rabbis) assert that the concept of the afterlife is not really "Jewish." This is absurd. Many features of the Jewish understanding of the afterlife as it developed were taken from Hellenistic and Christian theology, but, with the possible exception of Kohelet, the existence of a life after death was never in serious doubt until the modern period.

Does the Sheol idea really fit into the conception of 'life after death' that we talk about, though? It strikes me as being less of a religious concept and more of a 'yup, that's the way the world's built', with no particular reason given except that that's just how it is. It doesn't seem to be presented with any more religious significance than the fact that the earth is spread out upon the waters. If its existence, like the latter idea, has fallen out of our shape-of-the-world equation -- and I haven't heard anyone anytime recently argue for an idea of a vaguely unpleasant generic afterlife that we all have to deal with regardless of our merit and that seems to have no purpose at all -- does that mean it's automatically been replaced with something else in Comprehensive Jewish Thought? And is a more messianic and utopian idea actually its legitimate intellectual successor? Sheol doesn't fulfill any of the intellectual justifications I've heard for why there logically ought to be an afterlife.

elf said...

Fleurdelis28: I think that your description of the biblical concept of Sheol is generally correct. One could certainly make the argument that the concept of an afterlife is not an integral aspect of Judaism. However, one cannot reasonably argue that Jewish tradition excludes or rejects belief in an afterlife. One way or another, Jews have always believed in life after death, and that belief has been a feature of Jewish religion for millenia.

Rachel said...

Coming to the party late -- somehow I missed this post when it first went live. Anyway: thank you for this thoughtful and cogent contribution to this ongoing conversation. I'm with you pretty much entirely. :-)

Shira Salamone said...

Sorry to come so late (March 7) to the party, but I think it's important for all of you fine folks to know that this conversation actually originated not on my own blog, but with a series on The Jewish Connection that began with this post. I encourage you to have a look.

Shira Salamone said...

Actually, Elf is right about GoldaLeah having been first up with her post "Your G-d is not my G-d." Elf already provided the link to that one in her own post.

elf said...

Thanks, Shira. I saw the Jewish Connection series, but none of Kiwi's questions seemed directly relevant to this discussion. I'm still slightly confused about the connection between the series and your post...

Kiwi the Geek said...

On the Jewish Connection, I mentioned "Jewish Christians" in the comments and PsychoToddler said "Ain't no such animal". That's how all this started.

elf said...

That explains it. I didn't read the comments.