Tuesday, July 20, 2010

More on Mixed Premises: Part I--Challenging Assumptions

As a blogger, I am always gratified when there is discussion of my posts. Discussion brings out differing points of view, new insights, as well as the intellectually stimulating process of further thinking, the clarification of the writing, and the countering of arguments. Such has been the case with the post I published on Sunday 7/18 concerning Glenn Beck's mixed premises. I am well aware that my counters, my clarifications and my thought will not necessarily change the closely held opinions of others, and especially when they involve the issue of religion which is so basic to many people's thought that it goes unquestioned and is therefore difficult to discuss passionately without hurt feelings and misunderstandings. And although sometimes I do change my own opinions in response to these arguments, more often the synthesis of ideas in my own mind that occurs due to them leads me to a better understanding and better expression of my thesis.

In this spirit then, I would like to clarify and discuss some of the common themes that have arisen in the comments I have received here and on my Facebook link to the same post. This essay will be presented in two parts. First, as I have listened more to Glenn Beck on this topic, as well as reading the comments, I have noticed a certain assumption--that there is something called Judeo-Christian tradition--that has led to a good deal of unclarity about the very real differences between Judaism and Christianity. Although most Jews have a reasonably good idea of the differences, most Christians--as a result of being the dominant religious culture--are not aware of the fundamental differences that make Judaism and Christianity different religions entirely, even if both are Western in root and thought.


Hot August night and the leaves hangin' down
And the grass on the ground smellin' - sweet
Move up the road to the outside o' town
And the sound o' that good gospel beat
Sits a ragged tent, where there ain't no trees
And that gospel group, tellin' you and me

It's Love, Brother Love
Say Brother Love's Travellin' Salvation Show-ow (halle-halle)
Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies
And everyone goes, 'cause everyone knows, brother Love's show

(Neil Diamond, Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show, 1969)

In listening to Glenn Beck I have noticed a shift in the emphasis of his themes, so that as he approaches his big Washington Restoring Honor Rally, it has become "Brother Glenn's Traveling Salvation Show". I have also noticed that he tends to treat Judaism and Christianity as one thing--Judeo-Christian--emphasis on the Christian--and from the Jewish perspective, he adds insult to injury by assuming that Jews are in agreement with the Christian gospel. His focus, though presented broadly as "America has to get back to God", is really that America has to accept the Gospel. I have heard him make statements refering to "Judeo-Christianity" that give me reason to believe that he is not only ignorant of the real differences between Judaism and Christianity, but that he shares the common assumption that Judaism is a sect of American Christianity, a sort of Christian-lite. Harmless, I suppose, for the most part, except that this ignorance and this assumption have lately caused him to make certain statements that revive the ancient deicide charge against Jews, and have also caused him to misperceive the reaction to these anti-semitic remarks.

It is certainly true that Judaism and Christianity both arose from the same roots--the tribal Israelite religion of the Hebrew Scriptures--but it is not true that Christianity either arose from or replaced modern Judaism. Rather, both arose at about the same time--Judaism being the elder by a few centuries--and in response to the same historical events, making both truly Western religions. (I would argue that Islam is not truly Western, though it is often given that designation, but that's another essay). Modern Judaism, which has its roots in the Babylonian exile and matured due to the Roman wars with Judea and the Second Exile, is a complete religion in its own right; it is not Christianity "lite", nor is it merely a precursor and foundation to Christianity. Although there are many differences between them, the most foundational of them have to do with each religion's understanding of human beings, to the nature of the Divine, and to the nature of law and faith. In broad strokes, these differences are as follows:

1) Rabbinic Judaism understands the human being to have free will, and to be responsible for his or her own actions, and to be expected to make decisions about those actions based on the importance of life as it is right here. There is no notion of original sin in Judaism; a person is judged solely on his or her own moral choices, and the standard of value is life on earth; there is no heaven or hell although some Jews have a notion of a "world to come" in which all men live by divine law.

Although normative Christianity also posits free will, it is incomplete because of the doctrine of original sin which posits that human choices are by nature skewed towards evil, which is why a human being cannot obtain goodness on his own and needs the blood sacrifice of Jesus in order to obtain it. Normative Christianity has a well-thought out notion of an afterlife and of eternal reward and punishment that supercedes in importance any earthly consequences.

2) Rabbinic Judaism does not have a well-characterized theology of the nature of the Divine; the existence of G-d is assumed, but not described. It is quite possible to be a good Jew without having any specific notion of the Divine, or any such belief at all, and many modern Jews believe that the Eternal dwells within the human being, rather than outside the universe. Rabbinic Judaism does not posit Divine omniscience and omnipotence. The Rabbinic tradition, and more formally, the Jewish philosophers of the European Enlightenment both convey the understanding of the amorality inherent in such a being.

Christianity, on the other hand, has many different well-developed theologies about the nature of their Trinity--which has made some creative and some destructive tendencies in the relationships among its sects--nearly all of which posit Divine omniscience and omnipotence. These theologies create for Christianity much lively thought and argument about the nature of good and evil, the quasi-dualistic nature of the universe, and faith and works, among others. This might be a reason for the multiplicity of different sects within Christianity and the the arguments about which sects are legitimately Christian and when a sect has become a different religion entirely. Whereas Rabbinic Judaism, without this theological specificity, has three broad sects related to differing views of the relationship of the individual to Jewish Law. This second difference is, I suspect, a result of the third difference below.

3) The Jewish religion in broad strokes is based on the mythos of a Divine covenant(contract) with a particular people, B'nei Israel, and since the basis of a contract is specific actions, Judaism does not rest on agreement to intellectual beliefs, but rather to agreement to specific actions codified in Halachah--Jewish Law. The Rabbis--the founders--of modern Judaism placed this Law in the realm of human action on earth ("It is NOT in heaven"), because they said it was not necessary to any being that does not have free will and freedom of action. The law (Halachah) and the teaching (Torah) belong to us, here and we a responsible to make our contribution to its implementation. Judaism is therefore orthopraxic--a religion of right action. It is also particularistic--Jews do not believe that others have the same obligations or purposes; rather they have other Divine obligations and purposes.

On the other hand, Christianity is based on the concept of the universal blood sacrifice of Jesus that brings all human beings in right relationship with the Trinity. According to Christianity, law is secondary to this atonement, done not from the merit of human beings but from grace. In order to participate in this atonement, each person must agree to "believe" in it, accepting specific intellectual beliefs--doctrines and dogmas--that bring him into the community of believers. From that point on--in varying degrees according to sect--Christians must act in certain virtuous ways modeled on the sacrifice of Jesus, but Christianity is primarily a religion of orthodoxy--right belief. It is universalistic in that Christians have a mission to cause everyone to accept these beliefs and thus attain salvation.

The bottom line for me is that Jews accept that there can be many covenants that lead different people to salvation, and Jews are concerned about their own particular covenant; whereas Christians accept only one covenant that supercedes all others, and are concerned that everyone accept that one. Jews are more concerned about right action that leads to more abundant life in the here and now; Christians are more concerned about right beliefs that put each human being in alignment with the atonement of Jesus' death and will be rewarded by eternal life in the eschatological there and then.

Both religions secondarily recognize the primary concerns of the sister religion, it is the primary emphasis that creates the fundamental difference. Both religions, in their normative forms and sects, focus on the individual and his or her responsibilty to Law and Action (Judaism) or Grace and Faith (Christianity). However, of the two, Judaism defines virtue as action that leads to life in the here and now, and Christianity defines virtue as sacrifice of earthly desires for heavenly gain.

Both religions are western--having borrowed or developed Greek logical argument, as well as the Greek emphasis on thought that leads to specific actions. However, Judaism borrowed more heavily from Greek logic and rationalism, and Christianity borrowed more heavily from Greek Gnosticism. These differences are probably due to the nascent time periods for each religion.

Again, I want to emphasize that this is a summary of what I see as the critical differences between modern Judaism and Christianity, done in very broad strokes. Whole books have been written just on the issues I touched on in this post, and volumes have been written about the historical periods and philosophical arguments that underpin each. I am also aware that neither religion is monolithic, and that Christianity, in particular, has a multiplicity of sects that differ among themselves in regard to the relative importance of these ideas, among other things. These arguments have indeed made Europe a bubbling and sometimes brutal cauldron of ferment and change.

Further, I am writing about these two religions from a different perspective than most, being more concerned with and knowlegable about Judaism than Christianity. I am not interested here in opening a debate about the relative merits of the two religious traditions, although I am sure my thoughts on this are clear to readers. And I have little regard for the argument that the United States is a "Christian" country; from 1791 onward,when the First Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, it became the supreme law of the land that the United States has NO established religion, and that everyone (including Brother Love) has the right to freely exercise of any religion he or she chooses. Finally, I am not open to comments that attempt to convert me to Christianity. I have chosen my path, and my feet are firmly on the Way of Torah. This part of the discussion was written for the sole purpose of laying common groundwork so that a fruitful discussion of Beck's remarks, the reactions to it, and his assumptions vs. reality can be entertained.


Brianna said...

I would like to comment that although I was aware of the histories of Judaism and Christianity, and the differences between them, this awareness was more from a historical perspective than a doctrinal one. I also understood Christianity's basic doctrine, due to growing up in a Catholic family and a year's worth of sitting through a Christian private school (not attended for religious reasons). However, I have never taken the time to delve into the theology of Judaism in any great depth, so it is a great treat to listen to you explain it, especially as you do an excellent job. Reading an essay of clear, logical thought is a treat for the mind in any subject, and doing it on a subject on which one previously knew very little only increases the pleasure.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Thanks, Brianna. My understanding of Christianity has its origins in Catholicism. As an adult I took 12 hours of Bible at a Catholic university here (now defunct)because I wanted an adult understanding of it. I also participated in Catholic-Jewish Dialogue, though it became too PC for my tastes.
Tomorrow I will address your discussion.