Despite serving as the foundation for Christianity, Judaism is generally not well understood by Christians. For example, many Christians think of Judaism in terms of what is described in the New Testament. But modern Judaism is radically different than in the days of the Pharisees. Here are some basic insights about Judaism – that can help clarify things a little.
Liberal versus Orthodox Judaism – prior to the 1800s there was essentially a united Judaism – scattered throughout the world, with regional and cultural differences, but all drawing upon the same writings and same general ideas. A Jew was either observant or not.
Along comes the Reform Movement in the 1800s (started in Germany and quickly established in the United States) and Judaism splits into Liberal Judaism and Orthodox Judaism. It’s important to note that Orthodox Judaism and all its types are reactions to Liberal reforms.
Liberal Judaism encourages Jews to live in mainstream culture, eschewing the black top coats and hats, beards and side curls, and practice only those traditions that have meaning to the individual. Liberal Judaism permits modern scholarship, Biblical interpretation, favors Liberal theological approaches, and above all emphasizes ethical living over outdated legal-ritual purity notions.
Both branches of Judaism contain various movements or groups. Orthodoxy is comprised of the modern Orthodox, Hasidism, Chabad, and various smaller Orthodox groups. Liberal Judaism is comprised primarily of Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Renewal movements. The differences between Liberal movements is not great, and in many ways, less significant than the differences between Christian denominations.
Liberal Judaism is the dominant form of Judaism worldwide, and the vast majority of Jews, particularly in the Western world, are Liberal Jews.
Judaism has no Creed – there is no set of specific doctrines or beliefs one must accept to be a Jew. There is no standard Jewish catechism. One is a Jew based on the acceptance-recognition of the local, and broader, Jewish community. Jews read the same Bible, draw upon the same set of traditions, see themselves as part of the same history, but do not share a specific unified theology. Yes, there is a shared theological foundation, but Jewish theology is amazingly varied, especially from a Christian perspective.
Judaism has no Central Authority – there is no Jewish Vatican or Pope. There is no central committee. No Jew can tell another Jew what they must believe or think. Most Jewish movements produce general statements to help guide its members, but these are not strictly binding. Excommunication from the Jewish community, at least in Liberal Jewish circles, is extraordinarily rare and would likely involve some highly unethical behavior for which the individual isn’t repentant. Some Jews might consider another Jew’s thinking and opinions odd or even crazy. The Rabbi might not agree with you over something. But for the most part, Jews cherish intellectual freedom and non-conformity.
Judaism is not Monolithic – no Jew may speak authoritatively for another Jew. In some ways, there are as many Judaisms as there are Jews, and then some. Few Jews celebrate Passover the same way, or light Shabbat candles the same way, or think about God the same way, or read Torah the same way, and so on. For example, some Jews keep Kosher, some (the majority) do not. Those who do, don’t all keep Kosher in the same way. And so on. There is a family resemblance, but not uniformity. Unity in Judaism is achieved through shared texts (Torah, Talmud), an emphasis on ethical monotheism, a shared history, a common liturgy, and shared traditions and holidays.
Judaism is not Legalistic – Judaism is based on a set of sacred writings – Torah/Tanakh, Mishnah, and Talmud. From these writings written-edited over thousands of years emerges a set of traditions called Halakah – sometimes understood as “law”, but better translated and understood as “the way”. Halakah is a set of commandments, practices, and commentary that guide Jewish life. Halakah includes moral commandments, guidelines for daily living, and rules that would apply (according to the Orthodox) if the Temple were rebuilt in Jerusalem. A foundational principle of Liberal Judaism is that Halakah is not strictly binding – each Jew is to learn and study the guidelines and then only practice those traditions that make sense to him or her and provide spiritual or moral meaning for their lives. The requirement is to engage the tradition, but not slavishly follow it.
Judaism Emphasizes Praxis – Jews for the most part, are just not that into theology. The emphasis is on community, ethical living, Jewish tradition, and service to others. Most Jews don’t sit around talking about the meaning of redemption or eschatology. Rather, Jews are usually more interested in whether you observe Shabbat, treat others kindly, and participate in the community.
Liberal Jews are not waiting for Messiah – the vast, vast majority of Liberal Jews, who comprise the vast majority of global Judaism, are not waiting on a Messiah. The notion of Messiah is a complex one, rooted mostly in minor strands of Jewish thinking prior to Jesus. The notion of a Messiah does animate most Orthodox Jews, but even they can’t agree on what the Messiah is or what they would do or how we would know him or her. As for Liberal Jews, the notion of a Messiah is not part of the program.
How Jews Read the Bible – Christianity adopted what Jews call the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) – the Torah, Writings, and Prophets, and call this collection of books the Old Testament. However, Liberal Jews usually read the texts quite differently than most Christians. For example, Liberal Jewish thinking/theology does not contain notions of original sin – that’s not how we read Genesis. And the Prophets are read as social justice commentary, not forecasting texts of future events – Isaiah was reading the signs of the times and applying moral principles, not predicting the far off future. Early Christians, using a Jewish scripture interpretative principle called Midrash, read the Prophets differently, and read the foretelling of Jesus into the texts. Liberal Judaism’s commitment to freedom and personal autonomy doesn’t condemn such a reading, but doesn’t share such conclusions either.
Torah is not Inerrant – most Liberal Jews do not believe the Torah is God’s word – rather, most Liberal Jews believe the sacred writings to be the collected wisdom of our ancestors as they wrestled with the Divine and what life was about. The Torah is considered foundational, and is revered as sacred, but it is not considered infallible or inerrant, and thus a Jew may interpret the writings as they see best. Further, the vast majority of Liberal Jews read the texts mythically, symbolically, creatively, and not literally.
Life after Death and Resurrection are not Common Tenets – most Liberal Jews, a large majority, do not believe in an afterlife. While we cannot say with any certitude what exactly happens when one dies, Liberal Judaism is not invested in notions of resurrection or heaven. Again, such ideas are not part of the program.
Opinions about Jesus – Jews don’t hate Jesus. The vast majority hold Jesus in high regard. Granted, they don’t think he was God or the Messiah (see above), but they understand his teaching, for the most part, to be a beautiful and compelling presentation of what’s in Torah. Jesus is certainly worthy of the label “prophet” in the eyes of many Jews. Further, he is due credit for taking the God of Israel, Torah, and Jewish moral principles to a wider, global, audience – in essence, expanding the Covenant.
Will all Liberal Jews agree with my above explanations? No. Will many Jews want to word things differently on this or that topic? For sure. But in general, the above is a decent snapshot of select ideas in Liberal Judaism.
As always, I am most interested in your thoughts.