By Daniel H. King

Looking at Judaism from the perspective of a Christian, there is much both to love and to respect. As Paul, a Jews by birth and raising, and yet a Christian by conviction and lifestyle, said it: “I bear them record that they have a zeal for God” (Rom. 10:2); and again, “To (them) pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came” (Rom. 9:4-5).

Of all the non-Christian religions of the world we ought to feel the most kindred in spirit to Jewish people. We share a common faith in the Hebrew Bible and its God. And, it is not in vain that historians speak of the Judaeo-Christian ethic which lies at the heart of Western civilization’s law codes and common standards of behavior. However, being so closely “related” to Judaism has led to animosity and rivalry on both sides of the Jewish-Christian equation. Early Christians first experienced persecution at the hands of the Jews before they felt the brunt of Roman Imperial opposition. Later, when Christianity became the most popular religion in the Roman Empire and Catholicism was developing into a political force, persecution of Jews by the church of that time turned the tables against Judaism. So, the relationship has not always been a friendly one.

As early Christians were at times misunderstood and charged falsely by Jews and Romans, so has it been for Jews at the hands of Christians. Anti-Judaism, well attested in the pagan world, and later Anti-Semitism which culminated in the holocaust under Hitler and Naziism, have brought us to an awareness of how tragic can be the result when misunderstandings and misrepresentations are allowed to fester into hatred. Differences do exist between the two religions, but no one’s case is made stronger through falsehood. It is with this in mind that we attempt to shed some light upon Judaism as believed and practiced among Jewish people today.

History and Background

One of the most prevalent misunderstandings about Judaism is the idea that reading the Old Testament is the key to knowing and understanding it. This is only partially true. If one is to know what Judaism is about, he must have some idea of what the centuries of Jewish tradition have produced since the completion of the Hebrew Bible. He must understand what the Mishna and Talmud are and how these literary works have shaped Jewish thought since the fall of the Second Temple. As well, he must grasp how modern modes of thought and lifestyles have altered Jewish thinking as it has that of many Christians. In short, he will find that Jews are almost as disparate in their ways of thinking about religion as are the various Protestant denominations and the Catholic church. It is hard to say, “Jews believe this or that.” Only some Jews probably believe any given thing that we might talk about. Still, there are some basic things that do pertain in most instances, and it is these which we will be talking about.

“Judaism” traces its beginnings to the time of Ezra the scribe and “the man of the great synagogue.” Ezra returned to Jerusalem in 458 B.C. to restore the Law of Moses as the guiding principle in the life of the nation. Because of his courage and tenacity and the success which followed his efforts, Ezra became a folk hero in certain circles in Israel. He was portrayed as a “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6). Following upon his model, close scribal study of the Law became the special province of select groups in Israel, among them the scribes of the Pharisees, which are prominent in the New Testament, and the (probably) Essene scribes at Qumran. These men came to be called “lawyers” (Matt. 22:35; Lk. 7:30; etc.) or “doctors of the Law” (Lk. 5:17; Acts 5:34). They rendered judgments for the community on important legal issues, although they frequently disagreed among themselves on their rulings. The Hebrew Bible was viewed by them as a final book, all-embracing, adequate for every contingency. No future, however distant and revolutionary, could possibly render it antiquated: “Leaf it (the Book) and leaf it again, for everything is in it” (Aboth 5:25). To them the Law, or Torah, included both the written Law and the Oral Law (accumulated traditions). Over time they came to view their judgments as case law having divine sanction, even harking back to Sinai itself: “Moses received the Law from Sinai and handed it down to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly” (Aboth 1:1). As teachers of the Law, they expected to received special treatment: “Let the honor of they friend border on the honor of they teacher, and the honor of thy teacher on the fear of God” (Aboth 4:12). The common people revered them for their, sometimes legendary, knowledge of Scripture and tradition.

The result was that during the time of Jesus many had become conceited and self-assertive and the Lord was at odds with them on various occasions. He particularly disliked their reverence for human traditions (Mk. 7) and the hypocrisy of many of their lives (Matt. 23). In the providence of God, however, one of their young students, Saul of Tarsus, eventually became the most articulate and effective of the preachers of Jesus as the Messiah.

The Impact of the Destruction of the Temple

After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Judaism found herself without a Holy City or Temple. Priesthood and sacrifice were at a virtual end. The High Priesthood as an institution was lost in Israel, and the mantel of leadership fell upon the Pharisees, or more correctly, their posterity. As a people she fell back more than ever upon the contemplation of the Torah. A center of study evolved at Jamnai in Palestine under Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai. Johanan concentrated his efforts on the present needs of the surviving remnant of Israel, devising a program for the reconstruction of the people and the faith in the aftermath of this disaster. The academy at Jamnia continued discussion and debate of issues relating to Jewish life and further expanded the oral tradition material.

At the end of the second century Rabbi Judah the Prince assembled and edited a compilation of Oral Law, known as Mishna or “study.” It gained immediate acceptance as the authoritative work in the field of interpreting and amplifying the contents of Scripture. Of the 523 chapters of the Mishna, only six are free from disagreement among the authorities cited. So it may be viewed as more of a discussion of issues than a creed for Jews. The traditional material had grown so voluminous that it was necessary that it be put into written form that it not be lost. By the time it was set down in writing, however, some of the decisions arrived at in the Mishna were no longer applicable to existing conditions. There arose, therefore, a growing body of “Gemara” (from an Aramaic word meaning “study”) or discussion of Mishna pronouncements. This has come to be called the Talmud. It grew through the entire period of the first eight centuries of the present era. It involves the study of biblical texts, Mishnaic discussions, and includes application and appropriation of these matters to Jewish life at the time of the particular segment represented in the text. The Talmud today appears in the form of two compilations, the Palestinian (incorrectly called the Jerusalem Talmud, or Talmud Yecusalmi), and the Babylonian (Talmud Bavli). These collections are respectively from the academies of Palestine and Babylon, where a sizeable community of Jews still lived.

Thus, Hebrew Bible, Mishna and Talmud now form the sacred literature of the Jew. He does not aspire to the building of a Temple and the reinstitution of the Sacrificial Cultus of the Old Testament. This is one of the most widely misunderstood aspects of Judaism, especially among premillennialists and dispensationalists. The activities and institutions that gave rise to the origin of talmudic Judaism can be traced back to the period of the Babylonian Exile. It provided an impetus for the formation in embryonic form of the synagogue (bet ba-keneset), with its nonsacrificial form of worship (“I have been a sanctuary to them,” Ezek. 11:16), and the schoolhouse (bet ba-midrash) where Divine service assumed the form of Torah study. After the fall of the Temple in 70 A.D., Johanan taught that what God wanted from Israel was not a Messianic war but irenic acts of loving kindness, the atonement for the new age in the place of the old Temple sacrifices. His philosophy has since been universally recognized by Jews as the correct one.

What Modern Judaism Believes

The greatest affirmation of Judaism is the oneness of God. The Shema (“Hear. . . “) of Deuteronomy 6:4 is the basic statement of that belief: “Hear, 0 Israel: The Lord our God is One.” In the face of ancient polytheism Judaism shone like a light in the darkness so long as she upheld this creed. Judaism was the first to accept what is today shared by almost all living religions today, namely, that underlying the endless variety of life there is a single purpose, a single reality. That reality is God. Yet even this most basic idea of Jewish faith is not shared by all Jews. Some are as atheistic or agnostic as the humanistic infidel. Their attachment to Judaism may be purely hereditary and social. Again, it is hard to say what all Jews believe, even with regard to this most fundamental thing.

Most everything that Jews do accept as true is dependent upon where a particular group or individual stands relative to the three divisions within Judaism. For most of their history most Jews could be said to be “orthodox,” that is, they believed in and followed the laws written in the holy books. But the changes brought on by modern thought have led to divisions within the Jewish community. Each Jewish congregation is self-ruled or autonomous; there is no central religious leader in Judaism. Yet three district groups have developed over issues of “modernism.”

Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox Jews remain faithful to the ancient traditions, interpreting them very strictly and attempting to practice them in their individual lives. Dietary and Sabbath restrictions are carefully observed. Hebrew is used in the synagogue services, and special schools train their children in Hebrew history and language. They also look for the coming of the Messiah.

Conservative Judaism. Conservative Jews hold to the Torah, but accept the place of modern scholarship in its interpretation. Traditional forms of worship are continued, with Hebrew used in the services. They are more lenient on dietary and Sabbath laws.

Reform Judaism. Reform Judaism is a modern American attempt at adapting Judaism to twentieth-century Western life. Worship is similar to Protestant Christian groups, with families sitting together for services and organ music and choirs. The liturgy is in Hebrew but the sermon in English. Theirs is the most liberal approach to the traditions of the past.

Even in the face of opportunity to return to Palestine and make a homeland for Jews, the Exilic concept of worship and service to God has led most to remain where they are. While Israel has opened its gates to Jews from throughout the world, still the largest Jewish community on earth is found in New York City. Land, Temple, Priesthood and Sacrifice are all ideas which have been replaced by study of the Torah and deeds of loving kindness, largely the contribution of Post-exilic Rabbis and their learned academies.

Judaism and Christianity

Since Judaism and Christianity both have their problems with Liberalism and modernistic thought, and that is a discussion all its own, we shall concentrate our thoughts around four basic ideas defended by traditional Jews and leave alone criticism of Reformed thinking.

The first and most basic problem with Judaism as we know it today is one which Jesus wrestled with and condemned in his Pharisaic contemporaries. This is the tendency to heap human traditions upon the Divine Law and give equal weight to tradition in deciding an issue. Jesus rejected the notion that the Oral Law was handed down directly from Sinai. He saw it as a human innovation displacing the Word of God: “You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men. . . . You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition!” (Mk. 7:8,9) On the Pharisee’s argument about Corban, Jesus said they made “void the word of God through your tradition which you hand down. And many such things you do” (Mk. 7:13). God gave his Word by inspired prophets who spoke and wrote God’s own words. “Making a fence around the Law” was the idea of men. It is the seedbed of the traditionalism which produced the Mishna and the Talmud. The result of such human regulations is that God’s will is often passed over for the observation of human statutes.

The second element of Judaism wherein it differs from a biblical viewpoint is the approach it has toward Temple and Sacrifice. The Hebrew Bible demanded animal sacrifice as appeasement of God and atonement for men’s sins. All the reasonings of the Rabbis notwithstanding, if one accepts the legitimacy of the Hebrew Testament in the present era then there ought to be a Temple and the blood of sacrifices ought to be offered in it. The arguments for their being discontinued are post-biblical in their origin and pragmatic rather than scriptural in their foundation. For Christians the disappearance of Temple and Sacrifice represents no difficulty at all, since Christ has offered the final sacrifice for sin, accomplishing what the blood of bulls and goats could never do (Heb. 10:1-10).

The third point relates to the Law. The largest body of adherents to Judaism reject the observance of the dietary and other requirements of the Hebrew Bible. While we may agree that concentration upon deeds of charity and benevolence toward humanity are more uplifting and worthwhile in the present day – still it is not consistent with the notion that the Hebrew Testatment is still in effect and its Laws binding upon Jews. If the Law is yet binding, then let faithful Jews obligate themselves to observe it in all of its parts: “Cursed be he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10). If unwilling to do so, then allow that the Old Testament has been fulfilled and taken out of the way as the New Testament proclaims (Jer. 31:31; Heb. 8:8).

The fourth and most critical issue relates to the Messiah. While many Jews do not believe at all in a personal Messiah that is to come (liberal Jews prefer to think of every man as a messiah who does whatever he can to advance the cause of right), others still believe the Messiah will usher in the Age to Come. Of course, they reject the Messiahship of Jesus and the validity of the New Testament scriptures. As Samuel Sandmel wrote: “When we Jews have understood explanations, and when we have not, we have consistently rejected the Christian claims about Jesus. We have not believed that Jesus was the Messiah; we have not been willing to call him Lord; we have not believed that the Logos became incarnate as Jesus; we have not believed that Jesus was, or is, the very Godness of God” (We Jews and Jesus, p. vii). Yet for most Jews he has been viewed as a beneficial person in some respects: “Jesus is, for the Jewish nation, a great teacher of morality and artist in parable. He is the moralist for whom, in the religious life, morality counts for everything” (Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 413). And, while he is counted by most as a good Jewish man, he is seen as no more than this. For all Christians he is, “The Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt. 16:16). The Lord himself portrayed this rejection by the Jews of his own day as more than a mere intellectual decision: “I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am He” (Jn. 8:24).

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 10, pp. 291-293
May 17, 1990