Are Jews saved? That’s a question I get periodically from (usually) well-intentioned Christian friends. I also see it appear in my blog comments fairly often.
It’s a timely question given that Passover – a festival of redemption and liberation – is less than two weeks away.
In a sense, the question is one that arises in a Christian theological context more so than a Jewish one.
Judaism has often been ambivalent about the existence of an afterlife, and many Jews don’t invest much energy thinking about heaven. Many Jews also are agnostic or even atheist, so the question fizzles on this count as well. And of the Jews who are theists, many don’t strongly affirm a personal-God.
When I am asked if, I as a Jew, am saved, I usually reply with a question of my own – “saved from what?”
Most Christians are asking the question from the context of their own theology, and therefore are thinking salvation means being saved from sin and its effects, being accepted by God, going to heaven, living eternally, and so on. The thinking is sometimes grounded in the Four Spiritual Laws or other forms of atonement-salvation theology.
Obviously, Jewish and Christian theology differ, and within each tradition there are various strands of thought and approaches to every topic.
In general, Jews and Christians read the pivotal myths of the first chapters of Genesis differently. Christians tend to read these stories as involving disobedience, rejection, sin, Fall, judgement and damnation. Jews tend to read these stories as involving human maturation, the dawning of moral awareness, the transition of civilization from hunter-gather to agricultural, and of a loss of innocence due to the obtaining of wisdom.
The difference in interpretation creates significant differences in terms of theology. Many Jews do not accept the narrative of original sin, therefore, they also do not accept a narrative of dire separation from God that requires a remedy such as the Cross.
This is not to say that the themes of redemption and salvation are absent from Jewish theology. Torah resounds with offerings and promises of salvation and redemption. Our liturgy references our salvation through union with God. And two of our holidays are rooted in central themes of atonement, redemption, and salvation – the High Holidays and Passover.
And I think reflecting on these holidays is a good way into understanding the Jewish approach to these themes.
Let’s start with the High Holidays where the themes are repentance, turning around our lives, and once again embracing God, our better selves, and humane values. The focus is on reflection, self-examination, and making amends. The process of atonement with God comes from our own desire to reorient our life and engage in Teshuvah – turning, back to a path of life, back to the Source of Life – back to connectedness with others, back to living a life of dignity and love.
Passover focuses more on a collective sense of salvation or redemption, and in this sense is more foundational. Passover is the story of our spiritual ancestors finding the Divine spark of freedom within and breaking free from the bonds of slavery – a slavery most properly understood as a life of narrow selfishness; of elevation of self over others – a spiritual slavery that is the meaning of Egypt.
So, what’s a Jewish answer to the question, “are Jews saved?”
I’d answer, yes – we’re saved from a life of selfishness and nihilism when we choose the way of life outlined in Torah (love your neighbor, seek justice, walk humbly, feed the poor, be kind, welcome the stranger …)
Those demands are the heart of the Covenant we accepted at Sinai. And that Covenant is sweet and a source of redemption for all who embrace it.
When the Temple was destroyed and the cult of animal sacrifice with it, the emerging Rabbis asserted that going forward, acts of loving kindness atone – no one need die, no blood needs to be shed.
The Jewish notion of salvation is practical and concerned with the quality of life here and now. Whether that life extends beyond death remains a genuine question, but not the central issue.
As a Jew, I’m saved by accepting the responsibilities of love and justice put forth in the Covenant. Attempting to live such a life opens one’s heart and mind to more abundant ways of living freely and in accord with our dignity.