Common Christian Misperceptions About Judaism
Even highly educated people are wont to believe anything malicious about Jews- last week, New York Times, published an interview with accomplished writer, Alice Walker. She proudly pointed out to the interviewer that her favorite book, the one most important was one written by David Ickes, And the Truth Shall Set You Free. It turns out, that the book is a modern rewrite of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Yes, even highly praised and influential people, who have experienced oppression and hatred themselves, can have warped and twisted ideas about us Jews.
Now, we are approaching Dec 25, the day, which for Christians, as Christmas, is the birth of the Savior, who quite importantly, lived and died as a Jew, it is valuable to reflect on some common misperceptions Christians have of Jews, and thereby, learn something about Judaism for ourselves.
Some thirty-five years ago, the US suffered a major terror attack. At that time, the LA Times ran a headline” US Bars ‘ Eye for an Eye’ on Terrorists.” A State Department Official made mention that the US could never be as swift as Israel to retaliate, as it does not believe in an eye for an eye,” It is not an Old Testament country”
The implication is that the US is a morally superior nation because it is Christian nation, whereas Israel, which is Jewish, is morally inferior.
There is no other way to interpret the statement, which distinguishes New Testament from Old Testament.
He certainly was ignorant of American moral history, which, as a New
Testament country, based on love and forgiveness, wiped out entire Indian tribes, enslaved the black, firebombed Dresden and Tokyo, dropped the A-Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Let not the kettle call the pot black.
He was also ignorant of religious history and the Bible, as are many people, including our own fellow Jews, because he had no understanding of what the moral requirements of the "Old” Testament are on warfare or what the meaning of “eye for eye” is.
This all serves as a reminder to us of how much education and teaching still must be done, both in the left and the right., across the board. We have excellent relations with Christian clergy, and many Christian educators have attempted to straighten things out, but from the clergy to the congregants there is often a chasm a mile wide. Certainly, we, as Jews, should know what some of the common misperceptions are that Christian held and may still hold about Judaism.
1) An “Old” versus a “New” Testament.
. As a Jew, we can never use such a term. We don't have an "Old" Testament. Old means worn out, no longer valid, as in an old car, or an old coat. It is replaced by the New, in Christian thought, in other words, better, as in "New car" or "new coat".
This is a distinction which has its roots in the earliest of church teachings, that saw Judaism as an outmoded, no longer valid, system of belief. It was termed
” supersession”, whereby the “Church” has superseded the “Synagogue”. ( In Islamic thought, the Quran has superseded both Jewish and Christian scriptures.) The Synagogue is depicted in medieval statuary as a blind-folded woman.
The "Old Testament" means the Old Dispensation, the one that didn't work, the one that was given to Moses and was valid only till Jesus came, and instituted a New Dispensation.
In practical matters, most of historic church teachings on Judaism referred to us as a vanquished and vanished religion and people. Church texts assumed that we vanished with the year 70, with the destruction of Jerusalem This was adopted by many modern non-religious historians, such as Arnold Toynbee, who declared the Jewish people to be a “Syriac fossil.”. Jews should have disappeared long ago. The idea that, as a religion and a people, we continued to grow and mature, and develop was totally ignored, because until the past century, Christianity refused to grant us any validity whatsoever. Our only function was to serve as a proof of what happened to us because we rejected Jesus.
Again, while the Vatican and many Protestant Churches did much to change these positions, old assumptions die out slowly.
2) Jews are strict, exacting, wanting their eye for an eye.
. Shakespeare put it bluntly;Shylock, the Jew, wants his pound
of flesh, whereas the Christian preaches “The quality of mercy
is not strained.”
What does an eye for an eye. mean? After all, Christians never
repudiated the morality of the Bible, of our text; they repudiated
the religious details and obligations, but never the moral principles,
so an eye for an eye becomes an issue for Christians as well.
Every precept in the Bible comes to correct an existing condition.
One thousand years before time of Moses, in the oldest civilization, Sumer, there
was no such thing as an eye for eye; one can buy off a crime. For example, if a citizen killed another citizen, he could, instead of being killed, pay off the damage. A wealthy citizen would be spared but a poor citizen would be executed.
Then, in the time of Abraham, in Babylonia, Hammurabi tried to right wrongs in his famous code. It was the ancient Babylonian who formulated the principal of "an eye for an eye".
Thus, if a house collapses, and the son of the owner is killed, they shall take the son of the builder, and kill him instead. Quid pro quo; tit for tat. A fair exchange, but what fault was it of the son of the builder?
There was still the matter of social class. “If a commoner strikes the eye of
Commoner, he shall have his eye struck out„ but if a nobleman strike the eye of a commoner, he shall pay compensation.” There was no equality of justice before the law in this understanding of “eye foe eye”.
In the sense of the Bible, an “eye for eye”, a quid pro quo, can’t be distorted by rank or nobility; it is a radically new principal on which all justice , including American justice stands. It is not a Jewish principal, alone. It is a universal legal principal now. An eye for an eye, not a head for an eye; the punishment cannot exceed the crime. Not an eye for commoner but a dollar for a noble; there is no difference between a noble’s eye and a commoner’s eye, or between a man's eye and a woman's eye; all are of equal worth before the Law. Therefore, the noted father of international law, Hugo Grotius ,saw this as the basis of all fair and equitable law.
This was clear in the year 1300 before the common era, yet, in so called “New Testament” societies, including civilized England up to two centuries ago, or in this society, up .to the last century, a man could be hung for the crime of petty theft or for horse-stealing.
Victor Hugo in Les Miserable told the story of the relentless hounding of a man for the theft of some bread to feed his family. Had the French followed the “Old Testament” in France, the central character would have returned the bread and paid a small fine to the owner. The society, in turn, would have seen to it that he could feed the family. That is “0ld” Testament legalism.
Was an eye for an eye ever enacted?
The section in which “eye for eye” is first mentioned, in Exodus, is part of a discussion of a practical case, of two citizens in a fight. If one of the two is injured, the other is not injured in exchange. Rather “eye for eye” is invoked to clarify what the law itself determines, “rak shivto yiten ve.rapo yerapeh”, He shall pay for the loss incurred by disability and for medical expenses. Later, the Sages included compensation for pain, embarrassment, and loss of future income from the injury.
There were some, the Sadducees, interpreted it literally. -The Rabbis, the Pharisees, refuted this position. If an “eye for an eye” means “identical loss”, since when do we know that your eye is equal to my eye, or that your arm is equal to my arm. There is no possible identicality. Therefore, it can only intend compensation, a fair and adequate repayment for damages done.
3) Resist not evil?
This contrast of “eye for eye” versus mercy is an extension of an argument already heard in the New Testament, put in the mouth of Jesus:” You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye ‘, yet l say unto you ,’Resist not evil, but whosoever smite you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also’."
(Jesus is not being original here; he is quoting Lamentations, Eicah,”’ I gave my cheek to the one who smote me.” Here, the :” smiter” is God, and reference is to accepting the punishment that the author has incurred. Similarly, “ if someone wants to take your cloak, give him your tunic as well”, is a quote from Proverbs).
The statement “Eye for Eye" was used by the aforementioned State Department spokesman to denigrate Judaism, in contrast with the noble stance of Christianity, yet this nation at no time recognized its moral obligation to "Resist not evil". Not only has this nation rejected the preaching of Jesus, “Resist not evil", but every Christian institution, with the exception of a very few, such as Quakers, has outspokenly declared " Resist evil”, and rightly so! The “New” Testament is surely pushed back, on this issue, in deference to the “Old”.
4) Love your enemy?
Yet another statement of Jesus is taken to refer to the superiority of Christianity: “You have heard it said: Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
I challenge any one to find me one sentence in our side of the Book, in which anyone is commanded to hate an enemy.
It has been suggested that Jesus was speaking as a Jew, to a Jewish audience, and was himself preaching Judaism on this point; in other words, he was denouncing the militant groups, the Kanaim, the Zealots, on the fringes of the Jewish
community, who were preaching militancy and revenge against the Roman rulers. He was speaking as a Jew against Jewish extremists. (Indeed, one of his followers was known as “ the Zealot”, a reference, perhaps to his having come from that party over to the Jesus party.)
Well, what about the enemy? On the contrary, the Torah states categorically,” If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under his burden, you shall surely help him to raise his donkey again." and “You may not hate your brother in your heart or bear a grudge.”
What of “ Love the stranger’? The Torah states, "You shall love him, as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Israel; Jesus knows this very well and is restating it to his followers.
5) Law versus Love
Judaism is a religion of dry law, whereas Christianity is a religion of love-
Over and again, the prophets preached Chesed-love and though the Rabbis of old established Gemilut Hasadim, unconditional deeds of love ,as one of the three foundations of the world, alongside God's teaching, Torah, and the worship of God, Avodah.
6) Law versus faith
Judaism is a religion of dry legalism, whereas Christianity is the religion of uplifting faith This perspective is in utter disregard for the magnificence of religious imagination of the Prophets, the Psalms, the Midrash of the
Rabbis, the poetry of the Siddur, the songs of the medieval Rabbis, or the speculation and imagination of the Kabbalah.
Judaism is a religion of the law, whereas Christianity is a religion of faith. In the teachings of the early church fathers, the laws of Moses and Israel were a burden to be done away with, a punishment of the children of Israel, who were a nation of sinners. In al I of Jewish thought, the observance of the teachings of the Torah, the Halakha, was the freest and highest expression of faith, as a joy, not a burden, as a privilege, and not a punishment
The early Church teachings have been corrected by the modern church leaders. Yet much remains to be done, when educated intellectually enlightened people spout the same failed platitudes about us Jews. The worst of all, though, is the failure of our Jews to know what a rich treasure is ours, that we have shared with the world.