Chapter 2: The Jewish-Christian Heritage
There are in the world today some 12 million people whose very existence is one of the most remarkable facts of history.
These people are the Jews. By birth, marriage, or adoption in faith, they are all members of a single family — a family that traces its genealogy back nearly four thousand years to a Middle Eastern nomad named Abraham.
The survival of this family as a self-conscious entity through forty centuries would be enough in itself to make the Jews a unique people. No other human family approaches it in size or antiquity. But the descendants of Abraham have survived much more than time. They have endured the most ruthless and long-continued persecution ever visited upon any people. They have clung to their family identity no matter how high the price — and that price has ranged from living in ghettoes to dying in gas chambers.
The mystery does not end there. For the Jews have not merely kept alive. They have placed an indelible mark on human civilization, and particularly on the moral and religious life of mankind. Out of this people came two of the world’s great theistic religions — Judaism and Christianity.1
Our purpose in this chapter is to examine these two Jewish faiths to see what they have in common and where they differ.
The description of Christianity as a Jewish faith may shock some Christians — and probably some Jews as well. After two thousand years of bitter estrangement and mutual contempt, both Jews and Christians are inclined to forget how closely they are bound together by common beliefs and a common history. But the relationship remains an intimate one, however little it may be acknowledged on either side. It is not simply a matter of Jesus being a Jew. All the people who founded the Christian Church were Jews. And they had no intention of starting a "new" religion. For them, Christianity was a fulfillment rather than a repudiation of Judaism. It built upon, and took for granted, the Jewish religious heritage, and its essential doctrines would be quite meaningless apart from that context.
The implication of these facts — which are clearly set forth in the New Testament — is that no one can become a Christian without also becoming in some sense a Jew. That is what the late Pope Pius XII meant when he said, "Spiritually, we are Semites."
The Vision of Abraham
The almost incredible story of the Jews begins with a religious vision experienced by a seventy-five-year-old patriarch who lived about 2000 B.C. in the city of Ur. Ur was even then a very old city. It lay in the middle of the "cradle of civilization," the rich valley of Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
The patriarch was Abraham. The little we know about him comes from the ancient family history recorded in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. But it is sufficient to establish him as a man of uncommon faith and courage.
Abraham lived in a polytheistic, idol-worshipping culture. There is no clear evidence that he personally ever attained the high concept of monotheism which his children were destined to develop and pass along to mankind. Abraham may have thought of his God, whom he called Jehovah, as the greatest of many deities. There is at least a hint of this in very early Hebrew poetry, which refers to Jehovah as "a great King above all gods." At any rate, Abraham was willing to bet his life on Jehovah.
Jehovah put Abraham’s faith to a severe test.
"Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you," He commanded, "and I will make of you a great nation . . and by you all the families of the earth will be blessed."
Abraham went. At an age when men are reluctant to risk new adventures, he pulled up stakes, severed all ties with home and family, and set forth with his wife Sarah for the Promised Land, then called Canaan, which later be came known as Palestine. This act of obedience to God by an obscure man was one of the most important events in the religious history of the human race.
Abraham and Sarah were childless, and Sarah had already experienced menopause. She shrugged off with a bitter laugh Abraham’s assurances that Jehovah would make them the progenitors of a whole nation of people. But at the age of ninety Sarah became pregnant and bore a son whom she named Isaac.
Isaac followed in his father’s footsteps as a nomadic sheepherder. He had a son named Jacob. (Jacob later acquired a new name, Israel; hence the terms "children of Israel," and "Israelites" for his descendants.)
During Jacob’s old age, a severe famine drove the family out of Palestine and into Egypt. There the Israelites remained for several centuries. They vastly increased in number but retained close ties of kinship. Instead of be coming assimilated into the Egyptian population and adopting the Egyptian gods, they clung doggedly to their identity as a separate people, and continued to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Their status as a foreign enclave within Egypt gradually deteriorated into a condition of slavery.
Moses and the Chosen People
About 1200 B.C., the oppressed Israelites acquired a leader who was as full of faith and courage as his forefather Abraham. His name was Moses, one of the greatest leaders of all time. The second book of the Bible, Exodus, describes vividly how Moses led his people out of captivity with the help of "mighty acts of God." The pact, or covenant, that Jehovah had made with Abraham was renewed with Moses:
"If you will obey My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be My own possession among all peoples. . . . you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."
The Jewish scriptures tell how Moses communed with God on the top of Mount Sinai, and returned with the tablets of stone on which were inscribed the Ten Commandments, which have served for more than three thou sand years as the basic moral code of the Judeo-Christian civilization. In addition to laws of a moral nature, Moses laid down detailed rules on food-handling and diet, the observance of religious rites, and the regulation of all kinds of human relationships, from that of husband and wife to that of master and servant. This vast and complex body of legislation fills a large part of the first five books of the Bible, which are known to Jews as the Torah, or the Law.
Many Gentiles resent the idea of the Jews being God’s "chosen people"; they consider it an arrogant claim. There may even lurk in some Gentile breasts a conviction that the persecutions that the Jews have suffered are a sort of come-uppance for being so presumptuous.
But it was not with any sense of self-righteousness or of racial superiority that the children of Israel entered into their "covenant" with God. Their feelings about the matter are accurately expressed in Dorothy Parker’s famed couplet:
"How odd of God
To choose the Jews."
[Editor's note: This couplet was written by William Norman Ewer (1885-1976), published in Week-end Book (1924). Many writers have incorrectly attributed it to Dorothy Parker.]
They were mystified that God, with all the great civilizations of antiquity to choose from, should select a slave people to be His "holy nation." Their amazement shows through very clearly in the records they left behind, which we now call Scripture.
Moreover, the Jews understood from the start that there was a quid pro quo involved in the covenant. Their part of the bargain was to obey God’s laws, as transmitted to them by Moses. ‘Their recognition of the heavy burden they accepted is reflected in a very old Jewish legend which says that God offered the Torah to every tribe and nation on earth, but only the Jews were willing to put on the yoke of obedience.
Israel did not wear the yoke joyously. The history of the Jews, recorded with such fascinating candor in the Old Testament, is that of a stiff-necked people who were al ways rebelling against the discipline of the Torah and turning their backs on God. They often resented the covenant, and instead of reveling in their unique role as a chosen people, wanted God to go away and leave them alone.
But God would not do that. Sometimes, when His chosen people grew particularly unruly, He would chastise them severely. Often He sent prophets like Isaiah, Amos, and Jeremiah to castigate them for their willfulness and dis obedience. But He never abandoned His covenant with them. "I will punish you in just measure," He said through Jeremiah, "but I will not make a full end of you." Instead of despairing of them, he made them a new promise:
"Behold the days are coming when I shall make a new covenant with the House of Israel . . . I will put my law within them, and write it upon their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be my people . . . for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more."
Jesus of Nazareth
From Jeremiah and other great prophets, the Jews learned that God would some day send a Very Special Person — an "anointed one" (in Hebrew, mahsiah, "Messiah") — who as their leader would put everything right, and establish the rule of God among all peoples. Anticipation of the Messiah’s coming gradually developed into a major element of Jewish faith, a hope that sustained the Hebrews through hard times, exile, and suffering.
Twelve centuries after the children of Israel escaped from bondage in Egypt and embarked upon their stormy career as God’s "holy nation," there appeared among them an extraordinary person, namely Jesus of Nazareth.
The story of Jesus is told in an ancient collection of short books and letters, written, for the most part, by men who had known him in person. These writings have been preserved by the Christian Church as the New Testament of the Bible. They can hardly be called an unbiased record since they were written by men who had a definite viewpoint about Jesus. On the other hand, they have been subjected to the most exhaustive scholarly scrutiny ever focused on any documents. Nothing has been taken for granted: every conceivable doubt about the authenticity of any aspect of the story has been raised and debated at length. This skeptical shakedown of the New Testament has not settled all questions abut what really happened in connection with certain event that some scholars regard as myth, others as historical fact. But the net result has been to confirm the essential historicity of the story of Jesus to a degree that has frankly surprised some of the savants who have participated in the quest.
The story of Jesus has been recounted so often and so well in other books — and best of all in the New Testament — that it need not be repeated here in any detail. It is sufficient to note that he came from very humble origins — a carpenter’s family in an obscure village; that he attracted no particular public attention during the first thirty years of his life; and that he then set forth to proclaim the advent of the "Kingdom of God" — the rule of God on earth which the prophets had said would be established by the Messiah.
His career as an itinerant preacher was fairly brief — no more than three years, possibly only one year. But it had a tremendous impact on the people of Palestine. Jesus be came known far and wide as one who "went about doing good" — healing the sick, comforting the sorrowful, challenging the complacent, sharing the deprivations of the poor. No one in the past two thousand years has been able to read the New Testament accounts of what he did and said without feeling an attraction to this incredibly empathetic, witty, understanding, self-giving, fiercely honest person who seemed to love all sorts and conditions of men, even those who wronged him.
There is no evidence that Jesus ever claimed, in so many words, to be the Messiah. Perhaps he felt that the title had acquired too many connotations of earthly kingship. What he did say, boldly and repeatedly, was that he had been sent by "my Father in Heaven" to show men the way, to tell them the truth, and to make it possible for them to enter into authentic, abundant life.
Did the Jews Reject Jesus?
The common people "heard him gladly," and followed him around in ever-growing throngs. It is worth emphasizing that these common people — who were the first to accept and respond to the message of Jesus — were Jews. This should be borne in mind whenever you hear someone speak glibly about "the Jews" rejecting Jesus.
The Jews who rejected Jesus were the "big shots" of the community — the "Establishment" of religious, political, and civic leaders. They had reason to dislike him, since he constantly took them to task for their hypocrisy and self-righteousness. But their real grievance against him was that he was rocking the boat — "stirring up the people," as they put it — challenging the status quo. There is no question about Jesus’ guilt on this charge: he was a radical, and he did start a revolution which was to shake the foundations not only of the society of his day but of every subsequent society that has tried to ignore his proclamation that all human beings are equally and infinitely precious in the sight of God.
The Establishment had Jesus arrested. He was tried before a religious court, and convicted of blasphemy for claiming a special relationship with God. He was then turned over to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor (Palestine was then a Roman province). Pilate ordered Jesus put to death by crucifixion, the most horrible form of execution that the callous Romans had been able to devise; the sentence was carried out on a hill named Golgotha just outside Jerusalem on a spring day in the year A.D. 30.
As he hung on the cross, dying slowly from sheer agony, he said, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
The Dazzling Light of the Resurrection
His disciples had scattered in terror after Jesus’ arrest. Some went back to their native Galilee; others went into hiding in Jerusalem. Although Jesus had dropped many cryptic hints to the effect that his death would not be the final chapter in the story, it is obvious from their own shamefaced accounts of their conduct that the disciples had not taken him seriously. He was dead, ignominiously dead, and once his body had been buried in a hastily borrowed sepulchre, the disciples never expected to see him again.
But they did see him again. At least, they said they did. And they stuck by their story through ridicule and torture, and even when they had to choose between recantation and death.
Some people reject the story of the Resurrection on the ground that human experience testifies overwhelmingly to the finality of death. Jesus couldn’t have risen from the dead, they say, because things like that just don’t happen. To which Christians may reply: "But that is precisely the point. The Resurrection was an extraordinary event, which assures us more forcibly than anything else could that Jesus really was a Very Special Person."
In the dazzling light of the Resurrection experience, the disciples, and especially that brilliant Johnny-come-lately, Paul, rethought the things Jesus had done and said during his ministry, the effect he had had on their lives, and the clues he had dropped concerning his identity.
They came to the conclusion that Jesus was not only the long-expected Messiah (in Greek, Christos, "Christ"), but also "the Son of God." In this title, they sought to express their conviction that Jesus, while fully and completely human, was at the same time God Incognito, or, as one of the Gospels puts it, "the Word of God made flesh."
They also concluded that Jesus’ death on the cross was an act of atonement, not for any wrongs that he had done, but for the sins of other men — all men of all ages. By his willingness to suffer even unto death for the sake of others, including those who despised him, Jesus had achieved once and for all the triumph of love over evil, and had established the "new covenant" that God had promised through Jeremiah (p. 26).
Included in the promise of the new covenant was the statement "I will put my law within them, and write it upon their hearts." This was fulfilled, Christians believe, when the visible presence of Christ was succeeded by the invisible but strongly felt presence of the Holy Spirit, who comes to man as "God within," providing guidance, strength, and irresistible inward testimony to the reality of God and the truth of Christ.
We have barely scratched the surface of Jewish history and Christian theology in this brief summary, and I hope you’ll investigate both subjects further by reading some of the more detailed books recommended in the last section of this book. Our purpose here is simply to identify the main beliefs which Jews and Christians share, and the principal points on which they differ.
Jewish and Christian Concepts
The most basic thing which Jews and Christians have in common is their concept of God. Some Christians have the mistaken impression that Jews believe in a harsh, avenging, legalistic God, who bears little resemblance to the merciful Father in Heaven revealed by Jesus. But Jesus did not radically alter the picture of God that had been painted by the great prophets and psalmists (whose scriptures he read, revered, and often quoted). What Jesus did was to pick out of the vast treasury of Jewish religious thought those insights which, he said, came closest to the truth about God, and to discard other ideas which he held to be false, misleading, or unworthy. In some of his parables — such as the one about the prodigal son — he seems to go further than any Jewish teacher had ever gone before in depicting God as One who is not only willing but eager to be reconciled with sinful man. But on the whole, the God whom men have encountered in the life and teaching of Christ is recognizably the same as the righteous, yet loving Jehovah who spoke through Isaiah.
This Jewish-Christian God is personal, not in any naively anthropomorphic sense, but in the all-important sense of being One who cares, purposes, and communicates. He is a God who acts within history, and who makes Himself known to men through His acts. He cares nothing for empty ritual and outward shows of reverence, but
He is intensely concerned with justice, and He expects men to show kindness, generosity, and love in their dealings with one another.
The basic difference between Jews and Christians is their attitude toward Jesus.
Until a comparatively few years ago, most Jews hated the very name of Jesus. And small wonder. For hundreds of years, Jews had been subjected to merciless treatment by persecutors who claimed to be acting in Jesus’ name. In our own day, there has been a belated and as yet inadequate recognition by Christians that nothing could be further from the spirit of Christ than to despise Jews. Both Protestants and Roman Catholics have taken steps to purge their religious-education materials of passages that might encourage Christian children to grow up with the warped notion that Jews are "Christ-killers" who deserve to suffer. They have placed new emphasis on what has al ways been orthodox Christian doctrine, but which has not always been made clear in Christian teaching: that all men share the guilt for the crucifixion, because it was for the sins of all men in all ages that Christ died.
Partly in response to this more Christian attitude on the part of Christians, and partly on their own initiative, Jews have begun to take another look at Jesus. Norman Cousins, the distinguished Jewish editor of Saturday Review, has urged Jews to "take pride in Jesus the Jew." "No other figure — spiritual, philosophical, political, or intellectual — has had a greater impact on human history," Cousins said. Rabbi Maurice N. Eisendrath, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, also has challenged Jews to "render unto Jesus that which is Jesus’" and to acknowledge that "his influence was a beneficial one, not only to the pagans but to the Jews of his time as well."
These ironic comments should not be mistaken by Christians as evidence that Rabbi Eisendrath or Mr. Cousins or other Jews are now ripe for conversion. However far the leaders of modern Judaism may go in reclaiming Jesus as a Jew, they continue to look upon him as strictly a human person. The belief that Jesus was God Incarnate, which is the linchpin of the Christian faith, is to a devout Jew pure blasphemy.
Jews who are traditional in their religious views believe that the promised Messiah is still to come. Some, more liberal in theology, have abandoned the expectation of a personal Messiah, and speak instead of a "Messianic age." There is general agreement, however, that when the Messiah or Messianic age does come, the evils that beset humankind will vanish and men will live together in peace, justice, and joy under the reign of God.
Since that golden age has plainly not yet arrived, Jews say, Jesus could not have been the Messiah.
Christians say that Jesus has "made all things new" for those who open their hearts to him, and permit his spirit to rule their lives. His kingdom may not be readily apparent to the world at large, for it exists within men and there are still a great many people (including some who loudly profess his name) who have not accepted his lord ship. The fulfillment of the messianic hope for a complete transformation and redemption of human society must await the time when Christ will come again, this time not incognito as a carpenter, but in the full glory of the Son of God.
The sharp divergence of Jewish and Christian views on Jesus is reflected in other theological differences between Judaism and Christianity, particularly on the question of what men must do to be saved.
Must Man Save Himself?
Judaism is more concerned with deeds than beliefs. It teaches that man does not need a saviour: that he can justify himself before God by obeying the Law of the Torah. "Jews believe," says Rabbi Arthur Gilbert, "that man can and does fulfill his responsibility to God by living as creatively and as righteously and as sanctified a life as possible here and now in this world."
Christianity asserts that men are weak and self-centered creatures who are unable to live up to even the milder demands of the Law, let alone obey the Great Commandment to "love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself." If man had only his own righteousness to speak for him, he would never be worthy to face God. But man does not have to save himself. Jesus has already accomplished man’s salvation through one mighty act of self-giving and obedience which outweighs in the scales of divine judgment all the sins of the human race through all of history. Christians believe that God could not simply overlook our sins or pretend they were unimportant: to do so would have made a mockery of His moral law. What He could do, and did in Christ, was to bear for us the pain and humiliation which we deserved to suffer, and thereby made it possible for us to come home to Him. "By God’s grace you are saved, through faith," said the Apostle Paul. "It is not our doing, but God’s free gift."
Evangelism and Conversion
Should Christians try to convert Jews — or vice versa? This is a perennial topic for debate among theologians. Jews have traditionally shown little interest in winning converts. This reflects their conviction that what a man believes is not nearly so important as how he lives. "Jews do not believe that they must convert others in order to achieve the redemption of humankind," says Rabbi Gilbert. "Let each nation, each people, all religions, come to God, each in their own way."
Christianity, by contrast, has always been an intensely evangelistic religion. Its compulsion to bring all men to Christ reflects its conviction that He is "the Way, the Truth and the Life," and that "there is no other name under heaven whereby men can be saved." But there has also been a persistent belief among Christian thinkers — from St. Paul through Reinhold Niebuhr — that the Jews are a special case, and that God perhaps has reasons for keeping the Old Israel intact instead of letting it be absorbed into the "New Israel" of the Christian Church. This viewpoint is rejected by Christians who believe that the great mission for which the Jews were chosen —as lightbearers to mankind — was fulfilled with the coming of Christ.
"Jesus Christ came first to the Jews," says the Reverend Reynolds N. Johnson, evangelism director of the Lutheran Church in America. "His church must never to include Jews in its concern, witness and welcome."
So far as most Jews are concerned, the question is academic. Dr. Gerson Cohen, professor of Jewish history at Columbia University, says that Jews have many differences about religion, but there is one "strong though negative tie linking Jews throughout the world." It is "the refusal to convert to Christianity."
Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism
The religious differences among Jews, to which Dr. Cohen refers, are sharper than most outsiders realize. Denominational rivalries are every bit as keen in Judaism as in Protestantism. The three principal denominations arc known as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.
Orthodox Jews are the most numerous, both in the United States and in Israel. They believe that all the Mosaic laws — including the dietary and Sabbath observance regulations — are still strictly binding. (Anyone who thinks that Orthodox Judaism is a fossil faith, taken seriously only by a few grey-bearded rabbis, should read Herman Wouk’s book This Is My God, a moving testimonial of what it means to be an Orthodox Jew in twentieth-century America.)
Reform Judaism (known in Europe as Liberal Judaism) seeks to preserve the basic moral precepts of the Torah and other ethical aspects of Jewish tradition — including a passionate concern for social justice. But it holds that the dietary laws, Sabbath observance rules, and ritual regulations of the Torah may be modified, or set aside, to adjust to the circumstances of modern life. For example: in Reform temples men and women sit together, which Orthodox Jews regard as a grave violation of Mosaic law.
Conservative Jews don’t like to be described as the in-between group, but they inevitably are, because the best and simplest way to define the Conservative position is to say that it is more strict than Reform and less strict than Orthodoxy.
Although Jewish unity seems at least as remote as Christian unity, there have been some evidences in recent years of an ecumenical movement in Judaism. It is motivated in part by a growing realization that the big religious question for many Jews is not whether to be Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform, but whether to abandon all of them. A very large proportion of the world’s Jews — perhaps more than half — are today so thoroughly secularized that they look upon the Torah as a historic relic not worth arguing about. If they hold a Seder in their homes on the first night of the Passover, or take their families to a synagogue on the Day of Atonement, it is only because they feel that it won’t do the children any harm, and may even do them a mite of good, to be exposed to a sentimental observance of old folk customs that are part of their heritage.
Some Jews who turn their backs on Judaism wind up in the Unitarian-Universalist Association (see Chapter 7). But the typical secular Jew does not form any new religious attachments. He simply ignores the whole subject. If you ask him what his beliefs are, he’ll tell you that he doesn’t have any.
Who Is a Jew?
The emergence of a large body of secular Jews who can only be classified religiously as theists raises anew a question that Jewish scholars have been debating for thousands of years. Is Jewishness a matter of religion . . . of ethnic origin . . . or what?
The American Council for Judaism, a small but articulate anti-Zionist organization, insists that a person becomes a Jew by voluntarily embracing a particular religious faith, and ceases to be a Jew if and when he abandons that faith. It holds that all ethnic definitions of Jewishness ultimately play into the hands of racist bigots like Hitler.
But most Jewish organizations define Jewishness in terms of "peoplehood" — that is, a person is a Jew if he is identified, by birth, by marriage, or by his own choice, with the incredible human family that traces its ancestry back to Abraham. According to this definition, the religion of Judaism is an important part of the heritage of this people, but adherence to Judaism is not the only criterion for determining who is a Jew. As a practical matter, Jews are prepared to accept as a Jew a person who repudiates Judaism — so long as he does not become a Christian. This long-held popular attitude was elevated to the status of law a few years ago when the Supreme Court of Israel refused to grant Israeli citizenship to a Roman Catholic monk who claimed that he was eligible for it under a law authorizing
citizenship for all Jews. The monk pointed out that both his parents were Jewish and that he had been reared as a Jew prior to his conversion. But the Court held that when he embraced Christianity, he ceased to be a Jew.
1. Islam also traces its spiritual ancestry back to Abraham, but not through the Jews. We shall go into this in Chapter 9.