When I speak in churches, I often say that Christianity has it mostly wrong about the Pharisees. In the Jewish orbit, it’s something that we rarely think about—but we should. The early rabbis who re-created Judaism in the form that we know were the direct successors of the Pharisees. In other words, we are the heirs of the Pharisees.
Yet in common speech, “pharisaic” denotes hypocrisy, self-righteousness, or obsession with rules. The term Pharisee derives from the Hebrew root l’faresh, to interpret. Originally, it described Jews of approximately the first century CE who believed that the Torah should be studied for its underlying principles rather than solely as a rule book for ritual practices. Although they were highly concerned with ritual purity, they emphasized ethical teachings over ritual for its own sake.
Their opponents, the Sadducees, focused on careful adherence to the rules, mostly in Leviticus, for con-ducting sacrifices in the Temple. When Rome destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, those sacrifices became impossible and the point of view of the Sadducees became irrelevant to Jewish life. It was the Pharisees and the early rabbis who refashioned Judaism as a religion that did not depend on specific sacrificial practices in a specific place—a Judaism built around prayer, study, and mitzvot.
Paradoxically, Christianity also has its roots in the rabbinic tradition, not in the rituals of the Sadducees. Over the centuries, however, the term “Pharisee” became a club used by Christians to beat Jews—often figuratively and sometimes literally.
Rabbi Jeff Salkin wrote about this recently in a column for the Religion News Service. He raised this issue after Mayor Pete Buttigieg used the term “Pharisee” to criticize Vice-President Mike Pence. Rabbi Salkin does not think that Buttigieg is anti-Jewish.
He writes that the term embodies “subtle and unexamined religious perceptions—Judaism as a religion of law vs. Christianity as a religion of love; Judaism as a “separatist” faith” and that it is “so ingrained in the way that so many people think, that it has become unconscious.”
I don’t think that we can eliminate this from almost two thousand years of Christian thought, but I think that we should speak up when the occasion demands it.
Sadly, however, the kind of hypocritical obsession with rules that it denotes still exists in Jewish life. There are so-called religious Jews who may keep strict kashrut and pray together three times a day, but who have no qualms about sheltering child molesters and domestic abusers, mis-educating their children, or cheating the government.
Or those who vituperatively criticize other Jews. As (Orthodox) Rabbi Bob Carroll says, we should all be at least as careful about what comes out of our mouths as about what goes in. We may choose to ignore it when other Jews merely call us bad Jews, and usually that is best. But should we keep quiet about immoral or criminal behavior carried out in the name of Judaism? Sometimes we fear that speaking out would give fodder to anti-Semites. Yet if we are silent, are we complicit?