“At inter-religious conferences, at first you find Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics and Protestants together ‘over here’ and Jews ‘over there’. But as we get down to the nitty-gritty of what religion and life are all about, you find Orthodox Christians and Jews together ‘over here’ and Roman Catholics and Protestants ‘over there’.” The preceding is a quote from Father Thomas Hopko (of blessed memory+) who certainly attended more than his share of conferences. “Of course”, he added, “we and the Jews have a ‘slight disagreement’ and about the identity of the Messiah!” His point: Most Roman Catholics and Protestants see religion as something external to be conformed to and obeyed, whether it be the Bible or the Pope. However, most Jews and Orthodox Christians see religion as interior, planted within us, more a way of living than a doctrine or a law. (This despite the occasional lapses of the Jews into legalism. We Christians have had such periods too.) Also, many modern western Christians, Protestants and now even some Roman Catholics, approach religion first as individuals (“me and Jesus” as someone put it) while most Jews and Orthodox Christians still approach it first as a community, something we do together – though I sometimes wonder how long that will last in today’s individualistic western culture.
As we talk about Judaism, first let’s distinguish 4 things: 1) Old Testament Judaism, which is our roots. The Old Testament is part of our Christian Bible. Without them we cannot understand ourselves, who we are. 2) New Testament teaching about the Jewish nation. 3) Jews as people. 4) Today’s nation of Israel, about which many Orthodox feel strongly for good reason – especially the Palestinians at my church. So do I. So please don’t misunderstand when I say good things about Judaism and about Jews as people, as I will.
Old Testament Judaism
Let’s begin at the beginning of Jewish history, which is our history. I am no historian, so if I say something inaccurate, please correct me.
Jews are descendants of Abraham and Sarah. About 4000 years ago this wealthy Semite lived in what was even then the ancient city of Ur of the Chaldees in southern Iraq. (The ruins of Ur still exist, except for portions which were destroyed after both Saddam Hussein and the US military used it for strategic purposes in the Second Iraq War. The Ziggurat to the right survived.) There Abraham (then called Abram, “high father”) had visions of God – whoever that was, Abram didn’t yet know – calling him to take his wife Sarah, his family, servants, flocks and all he had and go to what is now the Holy Land. Sarah must have thought he was out of his mind. There in another series of visions God renamed him Abraham (“father of a multitude”) and made with him a covenant that if he and his descendants would be faithful to him, “I will make you a great nation… in you all the tribes of the earth shall be blessed”. (Genesis 12) “I give you and your descendants all the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession”. (Genesis 17) Thus the Jewish claim to the Holy Land today. Also, “You shall be father of many nations: kings shall come from you.” (Genesis 17) and again “I will bless you, and… I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heaven and as the sand on
the seashore; and your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies. In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed…” (Genesis 22) These prophecies were written while the Jews were a tiny insignificant people – as on the world scene they always were, even at their prime during the days of King David. Yet amazingly it happened. Today nearly 3 billion people consider themselves heirs of Father Abraham, whether physically or spiritually. What was prophesied to Abraham came to pass.
Judaism is named after Judah, Abraham’s great-grandson, 1 of the 12 sons of Jacob, the patriarchs of this people who called themselves God’s ” chosen people”. It has been said: How odd of God to choose the Jews. Why them out of all the nations on earth? Some Jewish scholars have said God called everyone; only Abraham answered. Perhaps. I will not go through Old Testament history. I’ll say only that out of this little tribe of Jews came unique world-changing ideas without which our modern world would not exist.
What the Jews gave to the World
In much of what follows now I am stealing from Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews – well worth your reading. *
* I know that some Old Testament scholars complain that Cahill is a “popularizer”. Yes, he is. Like C.S. Lewis, his books are actually readable, with few footnotes. Cahill’s even have pictures! That’s why I like him. Does he make an occasional mistake? Yes. So do the scholars. Many Biblical scholars are reputable, of course. But others are off the wall. For example, some years ago the “Jesus Seminar”, composed of New Testament scholars both Protestant and Roman Catholic, presented a program here in Milwaukee to share their version of the Holy Gospels. In it the words Jesus actually said were printed in red, those he possibly said were in grey, and the many he certainly never said were in black. Are we to believe that these men, 2000 years later and living in very different culture, knew better than Matthew and John who had walked with Jesus? than Mark and Luke who had known those who had? Really…?!
Pardon me for “chasing a rabbit”. Back to the subject.
From the Jews came:
(1) Monotheism: belief in one God, the Creator of all. They came to this slowly. At the time of Moses, the rule was “Thou shalt have no other gods but me”, as if there might be others. But long before the great Greek philosophers were beginning to suspect that there was one god, a unifying spirit within the universe, all the Jews had long known there is one God the Creator of the universe. Even if some of them didn’t like it.
(2) The concept of universal human brotherhood. If all people have one source, if all of us are children of Adam and Eve (no matter how one understands this story), all made in the image of the one Creator, then we are all one family, and we must look at all people as our brothers and sisters. This idea is certainly taking a long time to sink in. You’d think after a few thousand years all Jews and Christians and Muslims would take this for granted. Why don’t we?
(3) The belief that Creation, both spiritual and material, is good, not indifferent or evil. This is the theological/philosophical basis out of which eventually came the development of modern science and technology.
(4) The concept of progress. Ancient peoples believed history was cyclical. “What goes around comes around” again and again. (And of course there’s some truth in that. Lately we seem to be reliving the recent past, since by the time 75 years or so have gone by, the younger generation doesn’t remember or learn from the lessons of their grandparents, and so here we go ‘round again – to the horror of us old timers who do remember.) But at least now we all believe that things can improve, that the future need not be not just a rerun of the past. This idea of progress is now built into us – even if it’s often twisted out of shape. This also came from the Jews: the idea that the world and we are moving towards some destiny, that God works in history, that we are going somewhere.
(5) The integration of religion and morality. The earlier Babylonian Code of Hammurabi hinted at this, but the Jews were the first to take it and run. In most ancient religions gods or spirits had no connection with how you lived. All you needed was to offer them the proper sacrifices – or in the case of the eccentric Greek gods just stay out of their way! Ethics was a separate matter for the good of tribe or society. In Judaism these two – worship and morality – were inextricably, continually united. God is good, and he demands goodness of his people. The Ten Commandments sum it up: “You shall worship me alone”, and “Here is how I command you to behave.” “You shall be holy to me: for I the Lord am holy,” (Leviticus 20:26)
(6) The belief that God can work through sinners, even through our enemies. Notice first how the Old Testament treats its heroes. Most nations tend to idealize their great ones. (Some of our leaders even idealize themselves!) But the Old Testament tells not only of Jewish heroes’ virtues but also of their sins, and says that God can work through sinners. King David is a prime example. God doesn’t let human sin stop him. (This is no excuse for electing scoundrels, but at least it gives us some hope when we do.) Then the Old Testament goes on, shockingly, to say that God can work even through our enemies. The prophets, one after another, proclaimed that the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile of the Jews was God’s just judgment on their sins. There is nothing like this anywhere in the ancient world and very little in the modern. Just let an American politician today dare to suggest that God might be working through the opposing political party! let alone through Muslims. But the Old Testament is not about us good guys versus those bad guys. It’s about God working with, and often despite, human beings who each have within us both good and evil.
(7) The Messiah – the hope found throughout the Old Testament for the coming of the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed King and Priest who would be sent from God to set all things straight. This desire is now built into much of mankind, often in a secular way. Those who have not accepted Our Lord Jesus Christ, as we know and love him in the Holy Orthodox Church, still keep searching for a messiah: some person or system or philosophy to save the world or make the nation great again. Look: In recent times people have put their faith in an infallible Bible, an infallible Koran, an infallible Pope, in Communism, in Hitler, in unbridled capitalism, in a “promised land” in the Middle East – and more. And you can see how sooner or later this has led to chaos, sometimes disaster. For they are putting their hope in that which cannot possibly fulfill the role. The true and only unfailing Messiah has already come, conquering not only life but death by his death, fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies.
How did this little tribe of Jews know all these things that would reshape the world? The Jews said God had revealed it all to them. Do you have a better explanation?
What the Jews gave to Christianity
The Jews are our fathers and mothers in the faith, the foundation of Christianity. The one God of the Jews we now know as one God in three Persons. The moral life is now our way to become like Christ our God. We believe God is moving in history, leading us now not towards some property in the Middle East but toward his eternal Kingdom.
Most important, the Jews gave us the Messiah.
On the night after his resurrection our Lord Jesus Christ taught his disciples,“’These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’ And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:24-25)
Therefore on the day of Pentecost, after the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, how did the Apostle Peter begin the first Christian preaching? (Acts 2) By quoting the Old Testament: Peter lifted up his voice and said: “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem,… This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh… And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
Peter then proclaimed the resurrection by quoting Psalm 16: “For David says concerning him: ‘My flesh also will rest in hope. For You will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; You will make me full of joy in Your presence.’ Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet [he spoke] concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses… For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.”’He continued, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2)
Next Week: Judaism, Part Two – 1) New Testament teaching about the Nation of Israel, 2) Modern Judaism. Then Week after Next: “The Real Santa Claus”.