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Some ways Jews are different from Christians

For the holidays, here are some differences between Judaism and Christianity.

But first, here are some caveats:

  • I know there are many different branches of Christianity, and there are different types of Judaism as well. I’m generalizing.

  • It will amuse my Jewish friends that I have the chutzpah to write about Judaism since I am at best an agnostic, and am non-observant except occasionally to support my wife, who is an observant Modern Orthodox Jew.

Jews are a people

You are a Jew if your mother was a Jew. Even if you despise all Jewish beliefs, you are a Jew, just as you would be an Italian even if you rejected every aspect of Italian culture. (Even the cooking? What are you, crazy?)

This is one good reason we generally have not evangelized our religion. You can’t convert to Italian. Exceptions can be made, however. So, if you go to a rabbi and say you want to convert to Judaism, he will send you away. On your third try, he’ll probably agree to start you on some instruction. If you do convert, the fiddle is that we assume your soul must have been at Mt. Sinai back at the revelation, so you were really a member of the people all along.

Note that this means that Judaism is not a religion based solely on belief. You are a Jew even if you lack Jewish beliefs — you’re probably not a particularly good Jew (as I am not), but you’re a Jew. This is way different from Christians who believe that you come to their religion by deeply accepting a set of propositions.

There is no Jewish fundamentalism

I’m taking fundamentalism as an adherence to the literal meaning of a religion’s basic text. Keeping in mind that I’m generalizing (and I’m now going to stop inserting that caveat), Jews believe something like the following:

God gave the Jews a sacred text. That text has been preserved letter by letter throughout the ages through some careful information-transmission techniques. But, that text cannot be simply read and understood, because reading a text requires human participation, and participation is always based on one’s history and situation. There is no possibility of reading without interpreting, and thus there is no possibility of fundamentalism.

Put differently, God intended this text — what Christians call “The Old Testament” — to last through the ages. The ages are historical. Therefore, the text has to be capable of being reinterpreted within each age. What made sense to people wandering through the desert 5,000 years ago doesn’t make sense now if taken exactly as written. For example, treating your slaves exceptionally well made sense then, but not having slaves makes sense now. Having multiple wives made sense then. Re-re-defining marriage so that it can be between two men or two women makes sense now (at least according to many Jews — this is still a controversial issue).

But we are not free to interpret the text any old way we want. The interpreting of the text requires many years of scholarship. Interpretations must also be done in close conversation with the history of interpretation by the revered tradition of scholars. You must cite your sources. And not to avoid plagiarism. You have to be in dialogue with those sources, using a critical methodology that has evolved over the millennia.

This mix of fidelity to a text and an ability to re-interpret it for modern times while in conversation with the continuing tradition of interpretation is what has kept Judaism alive for 5,000 years. (At least according to my interpretation :)

This enables most Jews to favor harmonizing the divine text and science. That’s why few Jews are Creationists, and many are scientists.

Judaism is not a matter of faith

The caricature of religion put forth by atheist ranters such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins is entirely wrong about Judaism. They portray religion simply as a belief in impossible things, belief against all evidence.

Now, there are elements of faith in Judaism, if only the beliefs that the Torah was given by God to Moses, and that it is a guide suitable throughout all of human history. But Jews also believe that God gave us minds and hearts so that we can progress in our understanding, and we need to apply His gifts to our understanding of the text he gave us.

Jews also believe that if forced to make a choice, it’s better for Jews to act in accordance with the Law than to believe in God, although it’s of course best to act well and to believe.

Rabbis have no special relationship with God

Rabbis are teachers and scholars. That’s it. You don’t need a rabbi in order to pray.

You do need a minion, though: ten Jewish men. Judaism is a community-based religion.

Arguments about the Torah are not signs of failure but of health

We do not think there is one right interpretation of the Torah even within any one time or community. An interpretation that does not acknowledge the wisdom of contradictory interpretations will gather little respect.

This is why Jews are argumentative.

It’s always why we make such good lawyers.

(My wife adds that Jewish thought has vacillated over time, sometimes stressing the power of differences, and sometimes aiming for a consolidation of interpretations.)

Judaism is not a universal religion

God revealed Himself to the Jews at Mt. Sinai and gave us our divine text. In that text are seven universal principles that apply to all children of Noah (= everyone). But then there are the many, many practices and rituals required only of Jews. For example, non-Jews don’t have to keep kosher or keep the Sabbath. You’re free to, of course, but there’s no reason to, unless your religion tells you to. (Jews were chosen to carry out a special burden of practice; that is what “the chosen people” means. At least as I understand it.)

About the status of other religions, there is unresolved discussion. There are inferences, for example, that God revealed Himself differently to different peoples (cf. Amos 9.7). What it comes down to is: There’s no reason for others to follow our Laws (excepting those seven biggies from Noah), and it’s not our business what others believe.

The golden rule is not enough

People looking for a universal religious core sometimes cite an anecdote about Rabbi Hillel, who lived during the time of Jesus.

Once there was a gentile who came before Shammai [a friend with whom Rabbi Hillel often disagreed], and said to him: “Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. The same fellow came before Hillel, and Hillel converted him, saying: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow, this is the whole Torah, and the rest is commentary, go and learn it.”

This is close to the Christian’s golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But there are two differences. The first is often noted by those citing Hillel: The Jewish version is cast in terms of what you should not do, rather than in terms of what you should do. But the other difference is I think more important. Rabbi Hillel does not conclude with this rule. Rather, he continues by telling Jews to study the Torah. My understanding of this is that humans are not wise enough to be able to conduct themselves according to one general rule. We need the details of the divine text, we need a community, and we need a tradition of wise but divergent interpretations with which we can engage. Life is more complex than that, and humans are too small and weak.

Of course Christians also don’t think the story begins and ends with the Golden Rule. Yet it seems to me that Judaism favors complexity in a way that few religions do. But about this we could have a good argument!

Merry Christmas to all my Christian friends!


Based on some reactions, I want to clarify three points I did not express clearly enough. First, I meant my comments about Hitchins and Dawkins to apply to their writings about all religions, not just Judaism. The idea of religion that they argue against is drawn from a caricature of Christianity, and is false about Christianity just as it is false about Judaism.

Second, am I committing exactly the same mistake I’m attributing to Ditchin’s and Hawkin’s? I was aware of the danger while I was writing this post, which doesn’t mean that I avoided it. I am even less comfortable talking about Christianity than I am about Judaism, so I tried to stay away from doing so. But the theme of the post at the very least implies some assertions about Christianity. The one that troubles me most is the unintended implication that Christianity is not complex. The fact that Christians have four Gospels to square argues against that, not to mention the history of Christian theology. So, I offered my generalization about Jewish comfort with complexity tentatively. And I’ll continue to maintain it, albeit it even more tentatively. I meant to compare not Christian and Jewish scholars and theologians, but non-scholarly believers. My point was that ordinary Jewish practice has more of the scholarly element than most other religions do. I might be wrong about that and would be happy to learn otherwise. But I certainly wasn’t intending to diminish the work of scholars and theologians in other religions.

Third, I may be using “fundamentalism” differently than others do. I meant it the way I defined it, as a type of literalism, not as a measure of the extremity of belief.

18 Responses to “Some ways Jews are different from Christians”

  1. David, we’ve talked about some of these before, so just refreshing one alternate view of Christian stuff.

    A couple of your points hinge on the idea that Christians ‘believe that you come to their religion by deeply accepting a set of propositions.’ Granted that some people may hold that position, we can falsify the generality of your portrayal simply by saying ‘infant baptism’ (the practice of which characterises a broader proportion of Christian bodies than does a requirement of ‘deeply accepting propositions’). As you say, best to believe and other stuff — in our case, you could fill in that blank different ways depending o your theology — but only relatively few require demonstrable ‘depth’ as an aspect of assent, nor ‘propositions’ as the object of faith.

    And then, there’s a lot more (and ‘different’) to Christian faith than ‘belief in impossible things, belief against all evidence’. To that extent, Hitchkins is debating a straw faith with regard to Christianity as well as with regard to Judaism. Both Jews and Christians include a lot of people who believe apparently impossible things, and believe those things on theological grounds — but neither group is constituted on the basis of believing impossible things.

    (I think you mean ‘minyan’ — at least that’s the spelling I was taught.)

    Arguments among Christians needn’t be a sign of failure, either — though schism and mutual anathemas are a pretty reliable sign that something’s gone wrong. The reports I have half-heard about problems with rigorist authorities not recognising particular people’s Judaic bona fides — are they at all comparable? I don’t remember enough to suggest.

    And the ‘Golden Rule’ — you yourself say that this doesn’t distinguish Jews from Christians, but that ‘it seems to me that Judaism favors complexity in a way that few religions do’, a different argument.

    I freely agree that you (or some other commenter) can find some Christians who believe pretty much anything you say — but on ‘how one is‘ Christian or Jewish, or how one counts ‘faith’, the Christian side of your proposed contrast wants finer tuning.

    If we were to sit down to discuss the ‘Judaism uniquely favours complexity’, it would be fun to have a good argument with you sometime!

  2. AKMA, I think of you and all you have taught me whenever I consider these issues.

    Some of your comments reflect bad writing on my part. Those are the easiest to reply to. So, by referring to Hitchens and Dawkins as “atheist ranters” I meant to signal my overall disagreement with them. As I said, they argue against a “caricature of religion” — of all religions.

    As for baptism: Good point. And yet, the differences seem real to me on this point; please tell me if I’m going wrong. So: Jews are a people defined by birth, not by a rite. And Christianity has been far more evangelical than Judaism has (although there are evangelical Jews, and at times and places Judaism has been more evangelical than it is now), which to me implies a sense that to become a Christian is to accept a set of faithful beliefs … with perhaps a baptism as a rite so signifying. No?

    As to the embrace of differences: Of course! I didn’t mean that as an absolute distinction! But some of my thinking was formed by your own struggles with feeling that you had to choose among contradictory interpretations of your text. From this came your insightful work on “differential and integral hermeneutics,” where you embrace the differences in a way that always struck me as, well, Jewish :) I have assumed that your rejection of the position that if two Biblical scholars disagree, at best one of them can be correct was not characteristic of the mainstream of Christian scholars. [Note: Your old blog pages on this topic are marked as malware by Google. Can you post where they’re available now? I’d hate to lose them from the Web.]

    Now, it is certainly the case that Jews often have to make up their minds about how to apply a law. You can’t just say “Rabbi X says we can ride a bike on Shabbos, but Rabbi Y says no, and each has an interesting argument!” You have to know if you can ride the bike. So decisions are made. But decisions about how to apply a law when you get down to the fine strokes are made by your local rabbi, and hold only for that congregation. Maybe you can’t ride your bike but the Jews at the shul across the street can. There isn’t an objective right answer, so there’s a process for coming up with an answer: you listen to your rabbi.

    For more serious issues, it can indeed get ugly. Even so, the decisions are made roughly the way I adumbrated: through a deep consultation with a history of scholarship, and with a sense that the traditional rabbis you end up disagreeing with still are some pretty great rabbis.

    As for “Judaism uniquely favours complexity,” you not only added the British “u,” my Scottish-ish friend, you also added “uniquely.” I tentatively offered that Judaism favors complexity in a way that few religions do. Not that I’m particularly happy now with even that formulation. I know too many Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist scholars, and they favor complexity like nobody’s business! And yet — yes, I’m going to reassert this — a good Shabbos lunch is one in which a bunch of Jews argue over a single word, bring out some books, look up references, site the traditional rabbis who disagree with them, and applies it to some text that no one else thought had anything to do with it. That’s not to say that no other religion engages in such arguments! It’s only to say that it’s how religious Jews spend their day off, and Shabbos is a little taste of how they hope to spend eternity. I think there is some truth in saying that as a key characteristic (a generalization!) of Judaism, the taste for making simple things complex is at least somewhat distinctive.

    Finally, thank you for correcting my spelling of minyan. Oy!

  3. No Jewish fundamentalists? Try riding a motorcycle through certain neighborhoods of Jerusalem on a Saturday and see if you change your mind. You may be lucky to SURVIVE to change it.

  4. Brett, I didn’t say there were no extremists, fanatics, and intolerant sons of bitches. I said the religion tends away from fundamentalism, and then I carefully defined what I mean by fundamentalism.

  5. When I read “Judaism is…” or “Jews are…” I cringe.

    Here, in the Holy Land, there are groups that are sure they know what Judaism is and that others don’t. It’s a struggle here.

    What does “Judaism say” about women wearing a Talis and holding the Torah while praying at the Kotel? I don’t know, but the police is called to take them away and they are beaten in the process.

    I prefer, if possible, “Judaisms are”. It fits better with what’s going on here today.

  6. David, I think we’re on complementary wavelengths (can wavelengths be complementary? Maybe ‘compatible”? ‘Non-interfering’?) on everything you said in the clarifications. Yes, Christianity has been very much more concerned to recruit, for reasons grounded in the idea of the movement (some scholars argue that Judaism used to be more that way, but I suspect they’re more concerned to show that the saying in Matthew’s Gospel (that Pharisees would cross land and sea to make a proselyte) than by evidence that looks compelling to me. I’m entirely ready to call that a genuine difference.

    As to agreement and argument, well, if you can cite the eminent A. K. M. Adam to support your case, who am I to argue? What I was thinking — before you so deftly countered my suggestion — was that for a long time, in different cultures, Christians could disagree without feeling the imperative to attain unanimity. Yes, certain issues turned out to be non-negotiable (just as certain premises about Judaic identity turn out to be non-negotiable), but there was a long time when scholars expected to arrive at varied interpretations when interpreting Scripture, and again, that state of affairs persists in some pockets. Orthodox Christians (in the taxonomic sense) learn to read the Bible through the teachings of the great theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries, a period of vast (not unlimited) imaginative scope. But you’re right that there’s a lot of pressure to be right in most quarters one would be likely to encounter, partly because the pressure to claim correctness correlates with a hunger for publicity and power. I haven’t written anything specifically focused on the need to control (or ‘controul’?) interpretation, but it’s simmering away on a back burner.

    Yes, I did bootleg in a ‘uniquely’ — not to reflect poorly on you, but to raise the stakes a little. If you want a deflationary ‘somewhat distinctive’, I’m ready to agree to that as a starting-point for discussion. It should be a good one, too, for there are a great many angles on the topic, especially when one factors in the relation of religions to temporal power and to the philosophical-cultural environment. SO we might have to make a long-running event of it — a fourteen-day philosophical-theological cruise, or an off-Broadway ‘Your Dinner with David and AKMA’ sort of deal.

    Thanks for a reminder of what bloggy conversation used to be like. As soon as mine is decontaminated, I’ll resume writing there (for the time being, I’m weary of getting concerned notes from friends who suspect that I don’t know I had a WordPress infection), and I’ll hope you drop by sometime.

  7. Your first point implies that it is possible to be both Jewish and Christian. What is your view on that?

  8. Akma, thank you for your patience. As always.

    Francesca, the two religions are incommensurable in their criteria (or so it seems to me), so I don’t know that there’s an answer external to them that has any particular power. Personally, I tend to accept people’s explicit self-definitions.

    Hanan, I understand your cringing at my attempt to point to some generalized differences, and I share your cringing at the behavior of some Jewish religious extremists. But: if one thinks there are differences between two religions, then it’s worth trying to get at those differences, isn’t it? This is different from attempting to define Judaism once and for all, which even I don’t have the chutzpah to do. And it seems to me that the differences I’ve pointed to, as generalizations, hold generally to be true. The one that most likely sticks in your craw (given the shameful example you point to) is my use of the term “fundamentalism.” I’m using it in a specific, and I think accurate, sense that has nothing to do with the ferocity and intolerance of one’s belief, but rather whether one thinks that beliefs can spring from a literal reading of a text.

  9. “Don’t do unto others as you wouldn’t have them do unto you.” I have heard called The Silver Rule — weaker but probably a lot more realistic than The Golden Rule.

  10. “You can’t convert to Italian.”

    Not even if I learn the language, go to live in Italy and become an Italian citizen?

  11. I would expect a rabbi would have some things to say when a goy wants to convert. First would be something like “are you maschuga?”. Second would be ” we can start with a briss!” Oy vey!

  12. Thank you.

  13. […] Weinberger wrote a fascinating post yesterday in Joho The Blog: “Some ways Jews are different from Christians.” It’s worth […]

  14. Based on AKMA’s comments and email from Joe Pairman, I’m adding a coda to clarify my comments about Hitchins and Dawkins and about Jewish complexity. Thanks, fellas!

  15. David, thanks for an enjoyable discussion and for taking the time to add that clarification. I see that you hadn’t meant to imply that Christianity wasn’t complex. As for the point that Judaism is more *comfortable* with complexity and ambiguity, from my limited knowledge of Judaism that does indeed appear to be so. While Christianity is complex, there seems to be more of a struggle associated with that — an idea that faith should be a simple state of being, but to achieve faith and to reconcile it with a true engagement with modern ways of thinking is not always a simple or comfortable thing. (A book I’d strongly recommend to anyone interested in this is Newman’s Grammar of Assent. Although written 140 years ago, I think it’s still a very valid discussion of Christian faith and rationality.)

    As for Richard Dawkins and the modern anti-religion movement, it’s clear to me now that you hadn’t meant that their arguments were any more valid against Christianity, but that those arguments center around faith, which is something less central to Judaism than it is to Christianity. It’s very gratifying to read your comments on these ill-founded arguments, anyway. As I mentioned in my email, Dawkins and his followers don’t seem aware that all their points against religion have been considered sincerely and deeply by religious practitioners throughout history. (Or that their idea of religion not only misses the mark for the majority of theists, but also ignores the non-theistic religions of the world!)

  16. Thanks, Joe. And I can perhaps be plainer about Dawkins and Hitchins: They’re bigots.

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