Protestants, Jews and the Law

by Denis E. Owen and Barry Mesch

Drs. Owen and Mesch are both associate professors of  religion at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

This article appeared in the Christian Century June 6-13, 1984, p. 601. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The richness of Judaism’s “sacramental” sensibilities, its wealth of ritual practices and its appreciation of religious action, may offer Protestantism some insights for resisting the divergent tendencies of American culture to encapsulate religion in feeling and inwardness on the one hand, or to package religion as for telemarketing (rationalizing even the inner life) on the other.

The topic of Protestant-Jewish relations has previously been broached in these pages. Carl Evans’s “The Church’s False Witness Against Jews,” which appeared May 5, 1982, inspired us to write this article.

Evans attempted to enhance Protestantism’s respect for Judaism by showing that the elder tradition, as represented by certain rabbinic parables, is, like Christianity, a religion of grace and not the legalistic morass that Protestants often think it is. While the sentiment that Protestants might think better (and more accurately) of Judaism is certainly to be affirmed, one must nevertheless beware of ethnocentric biases common to Christianity’s attempts to appreciate other traditions. Evans’s argument can be summarized, somewhat uncharitably: “Judaism is a lot like Christianity, so it’s not so bad after all.’’ Christianity remains the standard for comparison. One winds up appreciating a distortion of Judaism which seeks to make it conform to preconceived notions of authentic religion.

Our concern here is to open some avenues for an appreciation of Judaism as it actually exists. Accordingly, we will accentuate the differences between Judaism and Protestant Christianity in an effort to reveal those which are most basic and significant. While we will focus on Protestant characterizations and misunderstandings of Judaism, it is worth noting that misperceptions occur on both sides; all ought to be examined. It seems best to begin with the socially dominant group, since its perceptions are more likely to produce serious consequences.

Protestant understandings of Judaism tend to be filtered through three conceptual commitments central to the Protestant enterprise. First, there is the law-grace (works-faith) distinction, which originally served to distinguish Protestantism from Roman Catholicism (in the Protestant view) but also had immediate implications for the Reformation’s perception of Jews. Martin Luther, for example, notes in his Lectures on Galatians (1535). “The papists . . . are our Jews.” A second and related commitment is Protestantism’s preference for subjective religion: internal states are seen as the essence of true religion, and rituals as mere trappings. Third, there is Protestantism’s historical assumption that religion is preeminently about individual salvation, understood particularly as the triumph over death. This ultimate end of religion can be received only as a gift, as a result of God’s grace, his forgiving and transforming love to the unworthy person of faith.

Projecting its own concerns onto Judaism, Protestantism has assumed that salvation holds an identical place in the Jewish faith, and that the essential difference between it and Christianity (and the Jewish mistake) lies in the path to that end. Jews, so Protestants say, in their alienation from God’s grace in Christ seek to earn their salvation through good works. Jewish law is taken as though it measured merit, setting the standards which allow one to procure the desired reward. In this view, law is a way of salvation, a kind of ladder to heaven for those capable of climbing it.

The problem, as Protestants see it, is that the ladder is unclimbable (or rather that all climbers are incapable). No one can merit salvation by measuring up to God’s demands. In short, justification is by faith, not works. Law, in this view, has a negative and heuristic function. While the Law can provide some order for human society and help direct the action of sinful people into nondestructive paths, its ultimate theological purpose, as Luther argues, is to bring one to despair -- to “crush that brute which is called the presumption of righteousness’’ (Lectures on Galatians). Law reveals the depth and pervasiveness of human sinfulness, confronts one with the terrifying, righteous and impossible demands of God and imposes the sentence of God’s judgment -- namely, death. Properly understood, this bleak scenario serves as a softening process, producing, in Luther’s words, “a thirst for Christ” by exposing one to the reality of one’s status before God. “When the conscience has been terrified by the Law,” Luther said, ‘‘there is place for the doctrine of the Gospel of grace.”

Accordingly, Jews have been understood to live in a devilish quandary. Their “misuse” of the Law constitutes arrogance -- storming the gates of heaven with self-righteousness as a battering ram, they thereby violate God’s sovereignty. The very effort to attain righteousness under the Law, according to Rudolf Bultmann, “is already sin” (all quotations from The Theology of the New Testament [Scribner’s, 1955]). Furthermore, it leads to shallow and inferior religiosity. For Bultmann, Jews appear interested only in “minutely fulfilling the law’s stipulation,” with fulfilling the “letter of the law” without “asking the reason, the meaning of the demand.” This orientation concerns itself only with externals. The Law is obeyed only for the sake of reward. Jewish obedience is always “purely formal,” a kind of grudging compliance to an external demand which is inevitably described as a “burden.”

Jewish obedience is also episodic, lasting only as long as one’s confrontation with the burdensome commandment endures. Or as Bultmann puts it, “obedience, obedience again and again in the concrete case.” In contrast, Protestantism is presented as the superior religion of internal transformation, which replaces intermittent compliance to external demands with ‘‘radical obedience,’’ a surrender of ‘‘the whole will’’ to the sovereignty of God. For Protestants, then, Judaism is legalistic, and consequently arrogant, deludedly self-righteous, shallow and hopelessly trapped under the burden of trivial externals.

Some of these judgments result from sheer misunderstanding, others from radically different fundamental assumptions about the human relationship with God. The negative Protestant assessment of Judaism has the virtue of accurately perceiving the centrality of law in classical Judaism. Conciliatory approaches which ignore this and present Judaism as a religion of Protestant-style grace are at worst, praising a fictional religion, or, at best, selecting pieces of Judaism without regard for the whole. Better to acknowledge the reality -- that Judaism is indeed a religion of law. The logos of John 1:1 could very well be rendered torah (God’s “Way” or “Law”). Thus one could plausibly make the case that in Christianity ‘‘the Law is made flesh,” so central is law to Judaism. The misperceptions have more to do with the function of law than with its centrality.

First, the assumption that the Law is a means to earn salvation: just as in Christianity, in which Christ is not a mere means to salvation but salvation itself, for Judaism, Torah is the very presence of salvation here and now. When the Torah is read publicly in the synagogue, the blessing chanted over the scrolls states, “Blessed are You O Lord our God . . . who in giving us a Torah of truth has planted everlasting life within us.” Jewish tradition has long viewed the Sabbath as a taste of eternity: once a week Jews live in the mode of heavenly existence. More generally, since God is the creator of the universe, living according to his law allows one to live in balance with the whole of creation -- to live well. Halakhah (Jewish Law), both ritual and moral, is taken to be in accord with the laws of the universe itself.

For a Jew, violation of the laws of Halakhah is akin to violation of the laws of nature: disobedience produces dissonance within the universe, while obedience allows one to live in harmony with the totality of God’s creation. In the Jewish view, there is a ritual nature to all things. There is a sense here in which the Law is an end in itself. While Judaism has claimed that God rewards obedience and punishes disobedience, one is not to obey the Law in order to get the reward. One obeys because one loves God, who in creating, redeeming and giving revelation to his people has taken the first step. The Law is viewed as a magnificent gift bestowed by God on the Jewish people. It represents an act of love on God’s part which creates a living connection between him and them.

Evaluation of one’s ability to keep the law marks one more profound distinction between Christianity and Judaism. Christianity’s focus on the individual’s-inability to perform all the details of the Law is almost absent in Jewish discussions. The time of the year when Jews engage in sustained introspection regarding their failure to achieve the ideal, the Ten Days of penitence from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur, is not a tune of despair but rather a time for extended examination of their moral and spiritual lives; it is a time set aside to commit themselves to doing teshuvah (repentance) and to change their lives in the coming year. At the end of the Yom Kippur service Jews feel a sense of purification, of having cleansed themselves of their sins and of being ready to try again.

In Judaism there is a fundamental belief that the Law is “do-able.” There is no particular mitzvah (commandment) that is seen as especially difficult. However, whether one is able to do all mitzvot is not an issue of great concern to Jewish thinkers. As human beings we strive to do the best we can; when we fail, we simply try to get back on the right path (teshuvah). The authentic act of repentance which repairs one’s relationship both with God and with one’s fellow human beings is completely effective. Once that action has been taken, there is no residue from the earlier sin.

The backdrop of these differences is a fundamental disagreement on the status of human beings before God. For most of its existence, Christianity has viewed humankind as marred by original sin. Our very being is deformed and is consequently blind to, alienated from or guilty before God. Here Christianity tends to display an all-or-nothing approach -- one is saved or damned, saint or sinner -- and this despite voices like Luther’s, who named the church a “church of sinners,” and its members simultaneously “sinful and justified.” But even these tend to be totalistic states: one is at once wholly a sinner and wholly justified. We might reasonably say that for Christianity, sins tend to be symbolic -- evidence of a deeper and ‘‘more real’’ corruption.

In Judaism, while people do sin, they are not thereby sinners. In the daily prayers one affirms, “O my God, the soul with which You have endowed me is pure, You created and fashioned it. You breathed it into me and You preserve it within me.” In rejecting the idea of original sin, Judaism also rejects the totalistic approach. In the liturgy for the High Holy Days, one finds images of God weighing sins and good deeds against each other -- a view suggesting that human beings combine both good and evil inclinations. In Judaism one is not so much simultaneously sinful and justified as partially good and partially evil. Both evil and good are real, and are really our attributes. Our righteousness, little as it may be, is not, and need not be, impugned. In Protestantism the struggle of faith is to submit, to let God do it all. In Judaism the struggle is with the help of Torah to exercise control over ones evil tendencies and nurture one’s goodness. Sins in Judaism thus are not symbolic, but concrete and particular.

The view of human beings as mixtures of good and evil is closely connected to the Jewish understanding of why God gave the Law. Rabbinic literature often warns against searching for reasons for the commandments, yet itself engages in the process -- with the understanding that those who seek reasons find them, but that one neither looks for nor finds the reason. There are two aspects to the question: First, why did God give the Law in general? Second, what are the reasons for each of the particular laws?

In regard to the first, which for our purposes is the significant question, the most common and widely accepted response is leisaref et ha-bri’ oth, “to purify God’s creatures.” The concept here implies the idea of betterment, the improvement of human beings. Law functions in this metallurgical metaphor as a means of expunging the inappropriate, counterproductive, anti-moral aspects of the human soul. This picture of the human being is one of a creature who is in need of purification, whose life is a process of improvement, who is continually striving to gain power over the negative or evil aspects of his or her being but who knows that the battle is never over. While Law here is seen as a means to an end, the Jew is to remember that the act of observing the Law has its own meaning. Observing the Law is doing the will of God. Each time one does a mitzvah, one enters the realm of the divine, and one’s own life is sanctified through it.

Two observations should be made here, one about the question of original sin, the other about the notion of human partnership with God. In Judaism, human beings do not necessarily bear the entire burden for the existence of evil. Jewish interpretations of the story of the Fall in Genesis tend not to stress human pride or arrogance (trying to ‘‘be God”), as do their Christian counterparts. Instead the focus is likely to be on a much more innocent experimentation with the possibilities of human existence (“Let’s see what this is all about”). God consequently has the greater share of responsibility for whatever evil exists, since his creation is incomplete. Yet this “deficiency” gives human beings a significant role to play: they may become co-workers with God in the process of “refining” the creation.

The Jewish view here is somewhat closer to the Roman Catholic perspective (in which the sacramental action of the church makes one a co-worker) than to traditional Protestantism (according to which there is little for human beings to do). Jews, by contrast, see themselves as constantly “building up” holiness through their actions in the world. Accusations of reluctant, formal, episodic obedience (“again and again in the concrete case”) are mistaken on a number of counts. The reward for fulfilling a commandment, according to The Ethics of the Fathers, is another commandment -- in short, an ongoing life resonating with God’s created order. Constantly reappearing throughout all Jewish liturgies is the affirmation that God’s commandments are blessings. So much for burdens and reluctant obedience.

It is also important to notice that Judaism, unlike Christianity, does not equate internal states with actual deeds. Judaism has little sympathy with Christianity in its equation of anger with murder, or of lust with adultery. Jews credit most heavily the perspective of the potential victim, for whom there is indeed a rather large difference. Of course, it is possible to take an instrumental approach to the Law (to gain honor or reward, to make parents happy), but the distinction between motivation and results prevents hasty rejection in the name of internal purity. In classic Jewish terms, whatever the problems of motivation might be, the act itself takes priority, and its religious value is not dependent on pure motivation. To use academic jargon, we might attribute some “sociological sophistication” to Judaism, meaning that it recognizes that human beings live “from the outside in” as well as “from the inside out.” Seen in this light, even purely formal obedience to the Law (action which is yotze yedey hovah, self-consciously fulfilling one’s obligation) can become a self-creative or self-transforming activity undertaken with the faith that as we do, so shall we become.

The fundamental axiom in this whole discussion is that God cares about how human beings behave. Our actions, from what appear to be the most important to the most insignificant, are of concern to God. We know what he wants us to do by consulting Halakhah (the entire corpus of Jewish Law). Therefore, the actual behavior of Jews throughout their lives takes on ultimate significance. One strives to live one’s life in conformity with God’s will. If God has provided instruction as to how we are to live our lives (in Halakhah), then we are obliged to follow those instructions. Doing something out of a sense of fulfilling the Law has a greater value than simply deciding that such and such an action would be good or beneficial. Religious Jews feel the divine command in all their actions and therefore look to Halakhah for guidance in deciding which action to take. Once again, however, this sense of obligation is experienced not as an impossibly heavy burden but rather as evidence of the great love and concern that God has shown the Jewish people in providing guidance to them on how to lead a holy life.

Throughout this discussion we have focused our attention on the individual person’s relationship to law and Torah. An adequate understanding of Judaism, however, requires that one recognize that Jews performing their individual responsibilities under the Law are affirming their membership in the Jewish people and their collective responsibility to God. This collective responsibility finds its expression in the concept of covenant (berit).

In the traditional Jewish view, God has freely entered into a covenant relationship with the Jewish people which is binding on all parties and which stipulates certain kinds of behavior to be exhibited by the covenanted nation. Its performance of these acts constitutes the fulfillment of its obligation as a covenant partner. The prophetic denunciation of the people is not that they are “merely” performing the required actions without the appropriate inner attitudes, but rather that they are performing only a part of their obligations and not all of them. God wants acts of loving-kindness, righteousness and justice, not just punctilious ritual behavior. The covenant obligations must be fulfilled in their entirety, not selectively.

It is through the laws given by God in the Torah, later interpreted and extended in the Oral Torah and Halakhah, that the Jew establishes and fulfills his or her relationship to God through the covenant. Thus it is true that Jews see their relation to God (as well as God’s relationship to them) in legal terms. This sense of being a legally constituted partner in the enterprise of human history is an essential ingredient in the Jewish self-concept. That partnership, however, while in a certain sense contracted with each individual Jew, is ultimately mediated through the Jewish community. The individual’s fulfillment of obligations (mitzvot) contributes to the fulfillment of the covenant responsibilities of the people. Each Jew, as a member of the covenant people, shares in the responsibilities and the obligations but does not view his or her goal as personal salvation or redemption -- rather, the concepts of salvation and redemption are reserved, for the most part, for the covenant partner, the People of Israel. Concepts like life after death and resurrection, while present throughout Judaism, are finally peripheral because of their close connection with ideas of individual salvation and personal continuity. Overwhelmingly, the real hope is one of the continuity and salvation of the people.

We hope that we have successfully demonstrated that while law is indeed central to Judaism, its actual operation is significantly different than Protestants have assumed. Protestant critiques of Jewish law have been setting up straw men and knocking them down, with little attempt to engage the Jewish community as a true interlocutor. A compassionate understanding of Judaism (the prerequisite for any real partnership in conversation) certainly requires the revision of Protestant views of Jewish law, and may entail the rethinking of the religious role of law, or of concrete religious action in general. Consequently, implications for Protestant understandings of Roman Catholicism (and the ‘‘concreteness’’ of its ritual life) may also emerge. Protestantism’s resources for such rethinking are probably to be found within its liturgical and sacramental traditions, which stress historical continuity and the tangibility and gentle guidance of ritual forms.

Because we believe that our conclusions point beyond the issues at hand to implications and agendas for the future, we suggest that the richness of Judaism’s ‘‘sacramental” sensibilities, its wealth of ritual practices and its appreciation of religious action, may offer Protestantism some insights for resisting the divergent tendencies of American culture to encapsulate religion in feelings and inwardness on the one hand, or to package religion as for telemarketing (rationalizing even the inner life) on the other. But these are matters for further essays. Protestant Christology may profit from thinking through the implications of seeing Jesus as ‘‘Law made Flesh.’’ Contemporary re-evaluations of St. Paul, particularly those of Krister Stendahl (Paul Among Jews and Gentiles) and E. P. Sanders (Paul and Palestinian Judaism and Paul, the Law and the Jewish People), are valuable resources. We are convinced that correcting our ingrained preconceptions will allow Jews and Christians not only to talk to each other, but to understand what is said.