Thursday, August 4, 2016

Religious differences

Most of us, whether Christian or Jew, when confronted with the question of what it is that divides the two God-believing religious communities, would probably say that it is the acceptance or the rejection of the claim that Jesus of Nazareth was or is the Christ, or the Messiah, of Israel. It is Jesus’ famous question, ‘Who do men say that I am?’ that we read in the gospels.

Although this point of difference is quite true, and quite meaningful, I think that what divides Christianity and Judaism is something deeper and more fundamental, something on which the messiahship of Jesus itself stands or falls. It is the question of the Law, to the Hebrews, Torah, something that Saul of Tarsus, as Paul the apostle, examines extensively.

Why do I think this? Because as I survey the religious landscape, I see a spectrum of belief systems ranging from ultra-Orthodox Judaism on the one hand to ultra-Orthodox Christianity on the other, and what fills the space between the two is a gradation of rejection/acceptance of Jesus, apostate to gifted ancient rabbi, human to semi-divine messiah, and man-God to God-man.

But that spectrum is not what influences the daily lives and mindset of the believers in these two branches of monotheism. Rather, it is their attitudes toward the Law, that is, the biblical commandments, positive and negative, that are found almost exclusively in the Jewish Tanakh (Bible) and the Christian Old Testament of the Bible, are they absolutely binding, or what are they?

Literally, are they absolutely binding, words falling directly from God’s lips to our ears, telling us without equivocation what it is that God wants us to do or not to do, or are they something else? the ‘something else’ itself comprising a broad spectrum from belief in the Law as an evolution of human recognition of divine morality, to a body of tribal rules that modernism can safely ignore.

What brought this to mind was reading in the morning news of a modern-Orthodox Jewish woman who finally decided to ‘come out’ as a homosexual in the face of a prominent rabbi’s drawing a line between Judaism and sexual perversion in predominantly gay-friendly Israel, a country which accepts gays in secular, social relationships from which religious biases are, by law, excluded.

In drawing the line, the rabbi also placed Jews who accept gays as ‘normal’ as well as Reform Jews (a denomination) on the ‘wrong’ side of the line, calling them ‘Christians.’ Obviously, to this rabbi, the significant difference between Judaism and Christianity was not so much ‘who is Jesus of Nazareth?’ but rather, ‘what is the Torah?’—perhaps he would accept Jesus if he were Torah-observant.

This reminded me of a talk I recently had with a fellow Orthodox Christian, who told me that his younger brother (both he and his brother raised as Reform Jews by a father who now identifies as Unitarian) was about to marry his pregnant partner and commit their lives to a neo-Galatian, messianic Jewish sect called ‘The Twelve Tribes’ or ‘The Commonwealth of Israel.’ This sect believes,

that all denominations are fallen and therefore refuses to align itself with any denomination or movement; does not identify itself as Christian, believing that Christianity is the Whore of Babylon; that in order for the messiah to return, the Church needs to be restored to its original form seen in Acts; that the Sabbath and Mosaic law (including dietary laws, and Jewish feasts) must be observed.

Where does Jesus of Nazareth fit into the ‘theology’ of this sect? Naturally and theoretically, his role is that of human messiah, not the God-man of Orthodox Christianity, but the man-God (the ‘chip off the old block’ semi-divine ‘christed’ man of Arian and Jehovah’s Witness teaching), a necessary adjunct to their ‘salvation by adherence to the Law’ belief system, the ancient Galatian heresy.

Yes, the rejection or acceptance of Jesus of Nazareth does formally erect a broad divide between Judaism and Christianity, but it seems to me that a great divide between, not the formal faith communities but, their human participants is erected by what we believe is the proper function of the Law, whatever we conceive that Law to be—divine, human, or a mixture of both.

This is not an easy knot to untangle, but we are all untangling it, or tangling it up even more, during the course of our earthly lives. As a Jew, I know what the Torah says, and as a Christian, I have heard the gospel and read the writings of the apostles, especially Paul. For me, accepting Jesus of Nazareth as resurrected from the dead and vanquisher of death puts the Law in perspective.

‘Love is the Law, Love is not ruled by laws,’ is a sentiment that can be heard in a contemporary song, and is always beckoning to us throughout our lives, day by day either building our heavenly mansion or demolishing it, as we slowly migrate to the Day of Judgment when we hear, not if, what, or who we believed in, but ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to Me.’

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