A Thumbnail Sketch of Judaism for Christians - page 2


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From the Fall 2015 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

A Thumbnail Sketch of Judaism for Christians

by Gerald R. McDermott, Ph.D.
Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion, Roanoke College


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Traditionalists and Modernists: The Basic Difference

  The best way to see how these two Jewish movements differ is to consider where they go to find their authority. In other words, how do they answer questions about what is true, good, and beautiful? Traditionalists generally say the answers are found in Torah (the Pentateuch or first five books of the Old Testament), while modernists look to human reason and experience. For example, to answer the question, what is God like?, traditionalists would say they know about God mainly from Torah, while modernists would say that while Torah might have some inspired general ideas about God, such as God’s goodness and justice, we need human reason and experience to understand what those abstract ideas mean.


  For traditionalists, every letter and word are from God, not only in Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Scripture (Tanakh), but also in the Talmud, which are the rabbinic commentaries written in the first through the seventh centuries AD in Babylon (modern Iraq) and Israel. Traditionalists think that even the rabbinic writings after the Talmud are inspired, but to a diminishing degree. Since Torah is God’s Word, and God’s Word is forever, Judaism should never change—say the traditionalists. Therefore the idea that Judaism has evolved over time is an illusion. People might have changed God’s law, but the law itself has not and should not change. For God has revealed His will through the Bible and Jewish tradition, and our task as humans is to stick to it, not change it.
  Modernists, on the other hand, say Torah is inspired only in parts—when they find what they consider to be truth and goodness in it. How do they know those parts are good and true? By using modern reason and experience. Those same authorities—modern reason and modern experience—also tell them that the law of change is universal, and therefore Judaism too must change with time. The ancient culture that gave us “revelation” was in fact limited by the cultural mores of those ancient days. Our modern days are blessed with so much more learning and wisdom, and we must use these modern insights to filter out what is ancient and false and bad from what we now see is good and true. That means Judaism must change if it is to continue to be true and good. Torah is revelation but only in some of its broad ideas. Many of its details were not at all inspired, but produced by cultures that we had best leave behind.


  Both traditionalists and modernists say that God is one, not many (contrary to polytheism), not two (contrary to all dualisms, such as Zoroastrian or Chinese yin and yang, which believe in two equal forces that fight for mastery of the cosmos), not three (contrary to Christianity, which Jews believe teaches three gods and therefore a kind of polytheism), and not none (contrary to atheism).
  Both groups of Jews also agree that the God of the Jewish Bible (and therefore the true God!) is very different from what the religions of the Ancient Near East (ANE: Babylon, Egypt, Assyria, and Canaan) said about the divine. In other words, the true God is creator (thus the world had a beginning and is not eternal, as most ANE religions believed), spirit (God does not have a body, as most ANE religions believed), lawgiver (God is moral, contrary to the gods of the ANE, who often did immoral things), guide of history (and thus outside of history, contrary to the ANE gods who were within history and could do little to change history), and humanity’s helper, but through the resources of this world.
  On miracles, traditionalists say God still performs them; modernists say God does not, for that would oppose God’s plan to run the world according to the laws of nature.
  Salvation? Both groups say that word may pertain to life after death, but its primary reference is to this world when there is victory over ignorance and selfishness.
  Both groups agree that God is both transcendent (separate from this world) and immanent (in the world).

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