How Jewish Are We?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, October 2, 2005
The great historian of world religions, Huston Smith, once wrote:
“It has been estimated that one-third of our Western civilization bears the mark of its Jewish ancestry. We feel its force in the names we give our children: Noah Webster, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton, RebeccaWest, Sarah Teasdale, Grandma Moses…Michelangelo felt in when he chiseled David and painted the Sistene ceiling; Dante when he wrote the Divine Comedy; and Milton, Paradise Lost. The United States carves the indelible stamp of its Jewish heritage into its collective life: the phrase ‘by their Creator’ in the Declaration of Independence; the words ‘Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land’ on the Liberty Bell. The real impact of the ancient Jews, however, lies in the extent to which Western civilization took over the angle of vision on the deepest questions life poses.”
The Sermon by Rev. Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz:
Western civilization, Huston Smith says, owes an immense debt of gratitude to its Jewish heritage.
But how reticent many have been in acknowledging this debt. How niggardly many have been in repaying it. How vile the poison of anti-Semitism that has littered Western history!
According to St. Augustine in the fourth century, there was “no place in the order of Christian society” for the Jews. By rejecting Christ, Augustine argued, the Jews had turned down their last chance for salvation. By their very humiliation at Christian hands, Augustine said, the Jews were “proof” of the fundamental truth proclaimed by the Church: that those who followed Christ would prosper, while those who did not would be persecuted.
This self-serving doctrine was to shape Jewish destiny in the so-called “Christian” world for centuries.
The confusion which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire brought new agonies upon the Jews. For almost a millennium, things got progressively worse, so that by the year 1290, a royal edict expelled the Jews from England (they were not to return there for almost five hundred years). A century later, in 1394, France followed suit, and expelled its Jews as well.
“In this life of suffering,” one Jewish historian wrote, “there were moments when agony turned into nightmare.” In 1095, the Crusades were launched, and Pope Urban appealed to the Christian world to gird itself for battle against the Infidel, and reclaim the Holy Land of Palestine. Why go to Palestine, many Christians reasoned, when there were so many “infidel”—that is, the Jews—so much closer to home? Within a year, several of the main Jewish communities of Europe—Mainz, Worms, Speyer, Trier, Cologne—were all wiped out.
Degradation continued. Jews were barred from membership in the craftsmen’s guilds. They were also prohibited from owning or working the land. They were permitted only one profession: the lending of money (Christians were barred by scripture from becoming money-lenders). The Lateran Council of 1215, presided over by Pope Innocent III, ordered all Jews to wear a yellow badge (sound familiar?) so that they might be readily recognized (and, of course, readily abused and debased).
Then, in 1348, came the Black Death, the Plague, which would claim, in time, perhaps one-third of Europe’s population. “Who was to blame for this catastrophe?” many wondered. The Jews were, of course, came the official response. They were accused of having poisoned the wells of Europe’s main cities. All across Europe, thousands of Jews were mercilessly exterminated.
But even these earlier persecutions of the Jewish people pale in comparison to the much more recent terrors of the Holocaust. The Holocaust-- the systematic destruction of over 6 million Jewish men, women, and children—may rightfully be considered the unspeakably tragic climax of century upon century of the persecution of the Jewish people.
Yet, Judaism has survived. This week, our Jewish neighbors and friends, and those of us who live in Jewish homes, will once again assemble for the rituals of the New Year (Rosh Hashanah), culminating on Thursday with the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
When we speak of our “Judeo-Christian heritage”, we may well picture it as a sort of seamless garment, as a single, unified tradition, with the “Old Testament” of Judaism melding seamlessly into the “New Testament” of Christianity. But this in itself is an overtly Christian way of looking at it. Many Jewish observers would, of course, admit that there are common elements in both Judaism and Christianity; but they would also remind us that there are major theological and cultural differences, as well.
To the Jewish believer, God is absolutely One. Obviously, then, there is no place in Jewish thought for the doctrine of the Trinity—which, to the Jew (and to many of us) undermines the absolute, inviolable unity of God. Indeed, Judaism (like Islam) is inexorably unitarian in its theology.
To the Jews, God has no form, and they cannot fathom the traditional Christian idea that god took human form in the person of Christ Jesus. To the Jew, no human being can ever become divine, and any idea that one would is idolatry, and demeans the absolute magnificence and transcendence of God, Creator of the Universe. In Jewish scripture, even the most holy men – Moses, David, Solomon, for instance—are seen as imperfect and flawed and oh-so-very-human. But in spite of their flaws, they were able to answer God’s call, and do God’s work.
Jewish thought does not tolerate any intermediaries between God and humankind. Rather, Jews believe that all people come to know God directly and personally, through the experience of their own lives. They pray to God in their own names, and not through any holy intermediary.
Traditional Christianity also puts forth a doctrine of Original Sin, and points to the story of Adam and Eve in Hebrew scripture as its basis. Jewish teaching, on the other hand, clearly states that the sins of the fathers are not inherited by their children. To the Jew, in Adam’s fall, we did not sin all. Even the most orthodox Jew would say, I think, that the allegorical sins of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were the failings of Adam and Eve themselves, not some primordial taint upon our human nature, passed down to all of us, their descendants.
Traditional Christianity also teaches, generally speaking, that salvation is gained by faith—by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Judaism teaches that we are “saved” by obeying God’s commandments, and by striving to do works of righteousness, justice, and mercy here in this life. Moreover, in addition to being unitarian in its view of God, Judaism is also markedly universalist in its view of salvation. That is, it believes we are all in this together. “All righteous people of the world have a share in the world that is to come,” the Jewish tradition teaches. Judaism recognizes Christianity as a good and holy road to God—for Christians who truly live out its deepest ethic. Judaism also has the same view of any other religion which encourages its believers (which encourages all people) to behave ethically and justly in their spiritual quests. Jewish tradition is very clear that the circle of righteousness is not confined to Jews alone, but includes all men and women of goodwill and sacrificial spirit.
Unfortunately, many Christians have long looked upon Judaism as an outdated and antiquated “forerunner” which has now been superceded by the “new and improved” Christian model. There are also those who look upon Judaism as a less developed, inferior, brutal “tribal religion”, with a harsh system of divine judgment and punishment, lacking Christianity’s more developed and nuanced view of divine and human love and forgiveness. Jewish theologians, on the other hand, might assert that there is nothing in New Testament ethics that cannot also be found in Hebrew scripture and Jewish ethics. It regards most high Christian ethical ideals as simply later expressions and adaptations of traditional Jewish ideas.
To many Jews, Jesus is seen as a human teacher and reformer (maybe even a later Hebrew prophet). Some Jews might even have some admiration for the kid from Nazareth who suffered persecution at the hands of the Roman authorities for what he taught; who was instrumental in bringing the knowledge of God to many peoples of the world. They would remind us that Jesus wasn’t a Christian, after all; that he was a good, loyal, practicing Jew throughout his life. The essential Jewishness of Jesus (something that seems so obvious to many of us) remained obscured through centuries of Christian domination. But it is something which many traditional Christian believers (led, perhaps, by the efforts of the late pope, John Paul II) are finally coming to grasp once again.
I know that there are many point of essential Jewish teaching which resonate so clearly within the personal faiths of many of us. On that level which Huston Smith calls Judaism’s “passion for meaning”, the great Mother Faith of the West speaks to us even more deeply:
In the first words of the Hebrew Bible, we read those memorable words: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth…”
We may smile when we think of the quaint anthropomorphism (the human-centeredness) of the authors of the Genesis narratives, portraying God, it has been said, as a kind of country squire, strolling around the Garden of Eden (his plantation, as it were) in the cool of the morning,
But when we make our way through the myth and poetry and metaphor of this portrayal, we might discern that what these ancient authors were saying was that, in the final analysis, divine reality is more like a person than like a machine—that the Creation is a living organism.
The early Jews found greater mystery and wonder within the human personality than in any other manifestation of creation. Humanity is not God, Judaism teaches; there is a transcendence within Ultimate Reality which can never be breached, which far outshines our limited, human reality. But nonetheless, humanity still shares in the mystery and wonder of the divine; our eyes can shine with the image of the divine in which we are created.
“God saw everything that He had made, and behold it was good.” Much of the philosophy of the Greeks (the other great strain of our Western cultural inheritance) takes a markedly dim view of the material world. In Eastern traditions, as well (in Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance), we might also discern a somewhat pessimistic perspective on material reality. Likewise, in early Christianity, Greek thought came to dominate, and there developed a definite distinction, a sharp dualism, between matter and spirit; between the material world and the spiritual.
Judaism, on the other hand (perhaps more than any of the other great religious traditions of the world), refuses to abandon the physical aspects of creation as illusory, defective, or merely of tertiary importance. Rather, in the Jewish tradition, the Promised Land is seen as place of physical blessings, as well as spiritual ones. Judaism calls upon all men and women to savor the “milk and honey” of the physical world—thereal milk and the real honey-- and through the physical to come to savor the spiritual, as well.
The Jewish experience also calls upon us to savor the deeper meaning which manifests itself within human experience. Religion, to the Jew, has to make sense of the real world—make sense of this life, and not some far-off, detached spiritual realm, or some life after death. Judaism also pays attention to finding deep and meaningful purpose within human history. History, for the Jew, is the arena in which the struggle between divine potentialities and human frustration is constantly, continually, being played out.
To the Jew, then, the choices we make, and how we act morally and ethically in this life and in this world, is fundamentally important. Our choices—our actions—are part and parcel of the unfolding of cosmic history. The Ten Commandments form the basic under-girding of human order, just as the opening chapters of Genesis form the basis of cosmic order. Without the commandments issues to Moses, human life and human relationships revert to formlessness and void.
But in Jewish thought, ethics and morality are not just individual and personal concerns. They must exhibit a social dimension as well. Judaism declares that the future progress of any people depends directly upon the justice of their social order, and that all individuals are as responsible for the condition of their society, as they are for the order in their own personal lives.
The Jewish tradition is unwavering in its declaration that every human being is, by simple virtue of her or his humanity, a child of God. Human beings, then, have inalienable rights which neither king, nor president, nor pope, nor huge corporation, can ever, ever take away. Whenever truly progressive, reform-minded men and women have looked to history for encouragement in their age-old struggle for social justice, they have found it, as often as anywhere else, in the words of the Hebrew prophets.
Back when I was in divinity school, and studying the Bible in some depth, in many ways, my least favorite book of the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments alike, was the book of Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew Bible. At first, it seemed to me to consist of one ancient rule after another—an endless listing of the practices and precepts of an ancient culture far removed from our own time and place.
But in Leviticus, the nineteenth chapter to be exact, we also read:
Heed not unreal Gods:
You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy. When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges for your field nor gather the gleanings of you harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, nor gather the fallen gapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien.
You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy. You shall not steal, cheat, or lie to one another. You must not take a false oath in my name…
You shall not defraud nor rob; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until the morning…
You must not curse a deaf person, nor put obstacles in the way of a blind person.
You shall not be guilty of any injustice, neither partiality to the poor, nor deferring to the powerful, but judging fairly... You shall not play the part of a tale-bearer against your people. You shall not avenge yourself nor bear a grudge, but you must love your neighbor as you love yourself.
I am the Eternal
“You shall be holy, for I, your God, am holy.”
This is the heart of Torah. This is the echo of truth and the blessed aspiration for justice which beats at the heart of all true religion, of all of our brothers and sisters, all around the world.