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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.

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