What Shall We Do With Our Jewish Heritage?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 16, 2007
The great historian of world religions, Huston Smith, once wrote: It has been estimated that one-third of our Western civilization bears the marks of its Jewish ancestry. We feel its force in the names we give our children: Noah Webster, Abraham Lincoln, Isaac Newton, Rebecca West, Sarah Teasdale, Grandma Moses. Michelangelo felt it when he chiseled David and painted the Sistine Chapel; Dante when he wrote theDivine Comedy; and Milton, Paradise Lost. The United States carries the indelible stamp of its Jewish heritage in its collective life: the phrase "by the 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 their angle of vision on the deepest questions life poses.
The Sermon by the Rev. Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz
In our reading this morning, Huston Smith speaks of the immense debt which Western civilization owes to our Jewish heritage. But it’s a debt which proponents of “Christian” civilization have often been reticent about acknowledging and downright stingy about repaying.
How vile the poison of anti-Semitism, anti-Jewishness, throughout Western history! According to Saint Augustine—a relatively moderate figure in Christian history in some ways—there was simply no place in the pre-ordained order of Christian society for the Jews. They had rejected Christ, Augustine said, so they’d blown it; they’d turned down their last chance for salvation. They were finis, done, extinct as a nation. By their very humiliation, Augustine said, the Jews were evidence of the truth proclaimed by the Church: those who follow Christ prosper; those who do not are persecuted.
This doctrine, alas, was to shape Jewish destiny in the “Christian” world for centuries:
The confusion which followed the collapse of the Roman Empire brought yet new agonies for the Jews. The emperor Charlemagne had actually been pretty fair to them: he had allowed Jews to become merchants, to pursue careers, and several rose within the ranks at Court. But as the power of later emperors declined, so too did the position of the Jews. In England and in France, things got even worse. A royal edict expelled the Jews from England in 1290 (they weren’t to return for over 300 years); a century later, France followed suit in banning the Jews.
“In this life of sufferings,” wrote one Jewish historian, “there were moments when agony turned into nightmare.” In 1095, Pope Urban launched a great Crusade to reclaim the Holy Land in Palestine from the clutches of the Infidel. Why go all the way to Palestine, some of his followers reasoned, when there were so many “Infidel” so much closer to home? Within a year, the main Jewish communities of Europe—Mainz, Worms, Speyer, Trier, Cologne—were wiped out.
But the degradation would only continue. Jews were permitted only one occupation: that of lending money (the Bible said Christians couldn’t do it, so heck, somebody had to). The Lateran Council of 1215 ordered all Jews to wear a yellow badge (sound familiar?) in order that they might be more readily recognized (and of course, more readily abused and debased and herded together if the need ever arose again). Then came the Black Death in 1348. The Plague, in time, would claim as much as one-third of Europe’s population. Who was to blame for this terrible catastrophe? The Jews were, of course! They had poisoned the wells of Europe’s main cities and then had warned each other: “Don’t drink the water.” (It reminds me of all that nonsense after 9/11 that no Jews were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center—because the Israeli government had masterminded them, of course.) When we speak of human stupidity, we need not only speak in the past tense.
But all of these earlier persecutions of the Jewish people pale in comparison to the terrors which the past century have wrought. Hitler’s Holocaust, with its systematic annihilation of over 6 million Jewish men, women, and children may accurately be viewed as merely the unspeakably horrific climax of twenty centuries of abuse of the Jews at the hands of the Christian religion. The sad fact of much of Western history is that too often our Christian ancestors “repaid” their Jewish forbears by persecuting or maiming or even murdering their descendants. Too often, Christianity has reviled the Jews as arch-heretics and “Christ killers” one moment, and then turned around and sang the glories of our “Judeo-Christian heritage” the next. This is not historical justice; it’s historical (maybe hysterical) schizophrenia.
Even to speak of one, seamless “Judeo-Christian heritage” is an exclusively Christian way of looking at things. Jewish observers would admit to certain common elements in both faiths—but we were here firstthey’d probably say, rightfully too. Christianity arose out of Judaism—just as Buddhism arose out of Hinduism (but no one ever speaks of a Hindeo-Buddhist heritage, do they?). Ancient Judaism and primitive Christianity may share something of a common religious atmosphere and historical setting, but there are many points at which the two faiths diverge.
First, there’s the nature of God. To the Jew, God is absolutely One. A practitioner of Judaism cannot make heads or tales of the doctrine of the Trinity. To say that God is One—but also three persons—makes no sense at all to a Jew. To him (or her) it’s one way or the other. God’s unity is absolute, and Judaism (like Islam) is inexorably unitarian in its theology.
To a Jew (as to a Muslim) God has no form, nor will God ever assume any form. The Jew cannot fathom the traditional Christian idea that God took human form in the person of Christ Jesus—to even say such a thing is out and out idolatry. (Which is why, when Jesus said it—as he seems to, in some passages in certain of the Gospels at least—the orthodox Jews of his own day [and not just the Jewish establishment of the Pharisees and Sadducees, but the everyday common Jewish townsfolk around him] did not take too kindly to it.) In Jewish scripture, even the most holy men and women, those closest to God—Moses, David, Solomon, Judith, for example—are always shown as imperfectly human and flawed in some way. But even these imperfect vessels, we’re taught, are able to do the work of God in their own time.
Good Jews don’t believe there’s a need for any sort of intermediaries between God and humankind. Rather, to them, all people have the power (indeed, the duty) to come to know God directly, personally, within their own experience, in their own lives. They pray to God in their own names, and not through the intercession of some go-between.
Traditional Christianity teaches the doctrine of Original Sin. “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” Jewish scripture, on the other hand, clearly states that the sins of the fathers are not visited upon his children. The allegorical sins of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden belonged to Adam and Eve themselves, period.
Christianity generally teaches that salvation comes through faith in Jesus Christ. Judaism teaches that salvation (and most Jews probably wouldn’t call it that; they might say justification instead) is gained through obedience to God’s commandments—by striving to do works of righteousness, justice, and mercy here in this life.
Nor is this justification—or salvation—reserved for practitioners of the Jewish faith alone. Judaism is strikingly universalist in its views of salvation. Jewish tradition teaches that “All righteous people in the world have a share in the world that is to come.” Judaism recognizes Christianity as a good and holy road to God—for Christians, if they truly live out their own faith’s deepest ideals. Judaism feels the same way about Islam—or any other ethical faith which encourages people to love justice, practice mercy, and walk humbly with their God. It’s not what people believe that’s important to the Jew. It’s how he or she behaves; how he or she lives out the faith that he or she professes. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?
Indeed, there are numerous points of essential Jewish teaching which resonate very clearly with the personal theologies of many of us. Many of us, I’m sure, are drawn much closer to the traditional beliefs of Judaism than we are to some of the later additions and speculations of mainline Christianity.
And on an even deeper level—in what Huston Smith describes as Judaism’s “passion for meaning” this great Mother Faith of the West might well speak to us even more clearly.
“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth,” the opening line of Genesis reads. We might well smile when we think of the anthropomorphism of the author of this ancient narrative, portraying God as a sort of country squire, strolling in the Garden in the cool of the morning. But when we make our way, slowly but surely, through all this myth and poetry and metaphor, we might see that what those early Jews were saying was, in essence, that divine reality is more like a person than a machine. The early Jews found greater wellsprings of mystery and wonder within the human personality than in any other manifestation of creation.
God is not a human being, Judaism teaches, nor are men and women gods. God- Ultimate Reality—the Great Creator—ultimately transcends all human categories and far outshines human reality, as limited and circumscribed as it is. But humanity nevertheless shares in the mystery and wonder of the divine; humanity is created in the image of the divine.
“God saw everything He had made, and behold, it was good.” Much of Greek thought, especially that of Plato, took a rather dim view of the material world. These ideas heavily influenced Saint Paul and some of the early Church Fathers, including Augustine. So it was that Christianity rather early on developed a sharp distinction, something of a rigid dualism, between the physical world and the spiritual; between matter and spirit; between body and soul.
Judaism, on the other hand, perhaps unique among the world’s great religious traditions, refuses to abandon the physical aspects of Creation as illusory, deficient, or inherently inferior. The Promised Land is seen as a land of physical blessing as well as spiritual bliss. Judaism calls upon all people to savor the “milk and honey” of the physical world—and to view the physical reality as an important bridge toward the spiritual.
The Jewish experience also calls upon us to savor the meaning which manifests itself within human experience. Religion, for the Jew (as for many of us) seeks to make sense of the real world, of this life—and concerns itself far less with speculation about some far-off, esoteric realm of life after death. Judaism also sees deep and meaningful purpose within human history. History is that arena in which the struggle between divine potentialities and human limitations and frustrations are constantly being acted out.
As such, our individual moral activities are of the utmost important; what we do—how we act—each of us-- is part and parcel of the great unfolding of cosmic history. To the Jew, the Ten Commandments form the basic foundation of human order—just as the opening chapters of Genesis undergird of the cosmic order. Without the Ten Commandments, a good Jew believes, we would inhabit a world of ethical and moral void and formlessness.
Our individual ethics and morality are important, very important; but they’re not the final word. Morality also has to have a social dimension as well. Judaism declares that the future progress of any people depends upon the justice of their social order—and that we are as responsible got the condition of our society as we are for the condition of our personal lives and relationships.
One conviction common to all voices of the Jewish tradition is its declaration that every human being is, by simple virtue of his or her humanity, a child of God. Human beings have undeniable rights—inherent worth—which neither president nor pope nor government-erected security fence nor multi-national corporation can give or take away.
Our Jewish heritage reminds us of the blessedness of our birth—and of our deep responsibility:
This is the heart of the Torah:
May we find in these ancient words inspiration and comfort and enlightenment as we continue to make our way through the desert toward the Promised Land of which we dream.