Monday, January 24, 2011

Top Ten Questions that Christians Ask Jews

The Rev. Gary McCaslin invited me to speak on this topic at the First Baptist Church of Painted Post, NY, on January 16. Here's some of what I said:

1. Are you going to have another Jewish Food Festival?
Obviously the most important question. Yes, on March 27.

2. Why is your Sabbath on Saturday instead of Sunday?
The Biblical basis for the Jewish Sabbath is the statement in Genesis that, on the seventh day, God rested. We have always understood the seventh day to be Saturday. But our liturgy also says that the Sabbath is
zecher litziyat Mitzrayim - a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt - even though we do not claim that the exodus from Egypt took place on a Saturday. While the exodus is the most important event in all of Jewish religious history, the resurrection is the most important event in Christian religious history, so it was natural for most Christians to celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday.

3. Why do the dates of Jewish holidays change every year?
The Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle - the phases of the moon - and the lunar month consists of 29.5 days. As a result, the lunar year is about 355 days. Relative to the solar year, everything moves up about 10 days each year. But many of the Jewish holidays relate to the seaons: Rosh Hashanah must be in the fall, and Passover must be in the spring. To preserve the relationship to the seasons, whenever the lunar and solar calendars become too far out of synch, an entire month is added to the year, causing everything to jump back. The Muslim calendar is also lunar but is not corrected to stay in synch with the solar calendar.

4. Is the Jewish Bible the same as the Christian Bible?
The Jewish Bible is essentially the same as what Protestants call the Old Testament (excluding the Apocrypha). If you start reading at Genesis and read through to Chronicles II, you've got it. However, because Jewish Bibles always follow the text handed down by our scribes, while Christian Bibles sometimes follow other texts, there are slight differences, plus the differences in translation that you also find among Christian editions of the Bible.

5. Do you believe in heaven and hell?
Traditional Judaism believes in an afterlife, often called the
olam habah, the World to Come, but doesn't profess to know a great deal about it. Progressive branches of Judaism tend not to emphasize any afterlife, and most of us would say that we don't know and can't know.

Traditional Judaism also believes in the bodily resurrection of all the faithful, to take place in the future when the Messiah comes. Progressive branches of Judaism also downplay, or completely disclaim, belief in a Messiah and in physical resurrection.

6. Why don’t you all go back where you came from?
This question is most often asked in voicemail at my office, usually in a message left in the middle of the night.

For me, "back where you came from" would be Ohio.

The first Jews in what is now the United States arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654 when it was still a Dutch colony. Other Jews settled soon after in Newport, Rhode Island, partly because Roger Williams had promised completely religious freedom and liberty of thought there, and Newport became one of the most important Jewish communities in the colonial and revolutionary period.

7. Do you really not “have” Christmas?
It's hard for Christians, living in a predominantly Christian country, to imagine that there is anyone living among them who genuinely ignores Christmas altogether, and it is frankly hard to ignore the secular manifestations. But many Jews do.

Others, perhaps a majority in our region, have Christians among their extended families and may celebrate with them. It's somewhat like being an American in Canada on July 1, which is Canada Day: you can enjoy the fireworks and parties even though it doesn't have the same meaning for you that it would for a Canadian.

8. What do you think about Jesus?
Jesus has no role in Judaism, and we don't think about Jesus very much at all.

9. Was Jesus a rabbi?
Jesus doesn't appear in any lists of our early rabbis, and the references to him in the Talmud, some of them veiled, are unfavorable. On the other hand, a large share of what he is reported to have taught is consistent with the teachings of our early rabbis, and so I am inclined to think that he must have been part of the same circle.

One thing that is confusing is that Christian tradition is quite negative about the Pharisees and seems to prefer the Sadducees, but the teachings of Jesus are closer to those of the Pharisees, from which the early rabbis emerged. The episode of whipping the money changers in the Temple appears to be a criticism of the Sadducees.

10. Do you believe that Christians are saved?
I really want to ask, "saved for what?" Or perhaps, "Do Christians believe that Jews are saved?"

The idea of salvation is really not central in Judaism, and we are much more concerned with life in this world than with salvation in the future. We emphasize righteous living, and the concept of being saved through faith is incomprehensible to us. In theological terms, this would be "justification by works" rather than "justification by faith," although we wouldn't use those terms.

Among modern rabbis, only Mordecai Kaplan used the term salvation very much. In his writing, however, it seems to mean whatever makes life worth living, so it's still in the here and now.

According to Jewish tradition, no one needs to be Jewish to be in good standing with God. We disapprove of polytheism, and to a Jewish mind the Trinity is hard to understand, but our rabbis have always taught that Christians consider themselves monotheists and since we are not experts on Christianity, we don't question that.

Judaism does believe that all human beings are obligated to observe the Noahide Laws, and that everyone who does is assured a place in the World to Come, whatever it is.

Monday, January 3, 2011


Are religious choices different from consumer choices? I sometimes say that my religious brand preference is “Reconservadox,” but in consumer terms that’s like having equal preference for Macintosh, Windows, and Linux computers. Nowadays people defend their operating-system preferences with the fervor that used to be reserved for religion.

The interplay between consumer choices and religious choices is, however, more subtle. Researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Duke University School of Business have explored the idea that religion and brand reliance (investing subjective worth or value in a name brand) serve a similar psychological need: the need to publically express one’s self-worth.

In one study, they asked some subjects to write an essay on “what your religion means to you personally,” and other subjects to write about “routine activities that you typically do in an average day.” Then, both groups were told to imagine a shopping trip and to choose products that they would normally buy. Offered a choice between Ralph Lauren and Target brand sunglasses, those who wrote about routine activities were more likely to choose the Ralph Lauren sunglasses while those who wrote about religion were more likely to choose the Target brand.

This effect was limited to products where the choice represented a measure of self-expression. It had no effect on choosing among purely functional products, such as batteries (Energizer vs. a store brand). Separately, they found that individuals with high religious commitments were less likely to choose highly advertised brands, but again only for self-expressive products.

It is disturbing to think that the same psychological needs might influence both religious expression and fashion choices. Is wearing a Star of David really the same as wearing a designer-brand sweater?

The question particularly concerns parents and educators because some of the aspects of Jewish religious life that are most apparent to our children have conspicuous materialistic elements. Although we teach that Hanukkah is about religious freedom, to a child it’s eight nights of presents! The Passover seder may be a long ceremony, but at the end you get a reward for finding the afikoman!

And most of all there’s the bar or bat mitzvah celebration. Lots of presents and a big party!

It’s not quite the same, of course. To receive Hanukkah presents, a child need only be present to light the hanukkiah (and not annoy his or her parents too much in the weeks before Hanukkah). Celebrating as a bar/bat mitzvah typically requires months of lessons and practice, culminating in the terrifying experience of chanting Torah and Haftarah before the congregation.

An anthropologist would recognize this as a form of trial by ordeal. In the form that is most often described, a young man in a tribal culture is expected to go out on his own for a time, perhaps to hunt and kill a lion, perhaps to survive on his own in the forest. His success in the trial demonstrates that he has made the transition to adulthood, which the tribe celebrates lavishly upon his return.

In other words, the presents and party aren’t exactly rewards for the effort. They’re expressions of our gratitude for the young person’s having survived the ordeal.

There’s one significant difference. In the kind of ordeal that anthropologists have documented, there is a serious risk of life. Although b’nai mitzvah lessons may be tedious, they’re not dangerous, and to the best of my knowledge, no young person has ever died of mitzvah-itis.

A psychologist might look at the question slightly differently. In developmental terms, the trial by ordeal isn’t so much a demonstration of the transition to adulthood as a means of bringing it about. Developmental psychologists have found that individuals on the cusp of a major life transition usually resist it, defending their old thoughts and values vigorously, and need something to push them forward. The bar/bat mitzvah ordeal serves that function.

The weeks after Hanukkah tend to be a let-down, especially when Hanukkah comes early relative to Christmas, as it did this year. Furthermore, this is a leap year in the Jewish calendar, so Purim (carnival prizes!) is late relative to the civil calendar. (We do celebrate Tu Bishvat this month, but no presents for that.) To make things even worse, the weather may keep us at home more than we’d like.

It’s an ideal time, however, to strengthen your family’s celebration of Shabbat, not least because it gets dark early and the light of the Shabbat candles is especially welcome. Don’t worry about cooking an elaborate, traditional Shabbos dinner. Just light the candles, make kiddush and motzi, and sit down to a family dinner together.

Of course we don’t receive tangible presents on Shabbat—only the Sabbath peace. Instead, we give tzedakah before lighting the candles. I strongly encourage families to make this a regular part of their Shabbat ritual. Have a tzedakah box for each child and let the child put coins in it each Friday evening. And model good Jewish behavior: even if you prefer to make charitable gifts by check or credit card, parents should have a tzedakah box and put (folding) money in it each Shabbat. Tzedakah—it’s not just for kids!

Heschel and King

The photograph above, and on the cover of our newsletter for this month, depicts Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., at a civil-rights march in Selma, Alabama, in 1962. Although Heschel was only one of many rabbis who were active in the civil-rights movement, he was the best-known and most influential.

The descendant of several famous rabbis, Heschel was born in Poland, where he studied in yeshiva and pursued Orthodox rabbinical ordination. Subsequently, he earned a doctorate at the University of Berlin and received liberal ordination from the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, where he studied with many of the most eminent Jewish scholars and rabbis of his time.

He was arrested in 1938 and deported to Poland, where he lectured on Jewish philosophy and Torah in Warsaw for ten months. In 1939–40, the president of Hebrew Union College brought him to America, and he taught at HUC in Cincinnati for five years before moving to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Heschel’s activism might be surprising, because his work as a faculty member of the Jewish Theological Seminary emphasized spirituality and mysticism, not social justice. He seems to have been somewhat underappreciated at the JTS during his lifetime, partly because critical text study rather than spirituality dominated the curriculum, and partly because his traditionalist theology had less appeal for many students than did the radical, naturalistic theology of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.

Nevertheless, it can be argued that his social activism stems directly from his doctoral thesis, an expanded version of which was published in English as The Prophets. Heschel was critical of the idea that only observance of halakha (Jewish law) really mattered in Judaism, with theology, Biblical narrative, and history taking lesser roles or no roles at all. He saw a narrow focus on observance as both contrary to authentic Jewish traditions and impractical except in isolated communities; he wanted Judaism, and Jews, to be fully engaged with the world.

In addition to his work in civil rights, and in opposing the Vietnam war, Heschel was a Jewish representative to the Vatican II conference, where he persuaded the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate or modify passages in its liturgy that demeaned Jews, or expected our conversion to Christianity. His theological works argued that religious experience is a fundamentally human impulse, not just a Jewish one, and that no religious community could claim a monopoly on religious truth.

In short, Heschel’s message is one that speaks directly to us in 2011. On one hand, he calls us to lead Jewish lives in which we are open to the Divine presence. On the other hand, he calls us equally to work for justice and to reject insularity.

Ye and We

I was probably in high school before I learned that “Go Down, Moses” wasn’t originally a Jewish song. I had learned it in model seders in re...