I recently saw a quotation on “Facebook” from Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Ph.D., writing for “The Christian Left.”
I didn’t see the larger piece of which this quote was a part, but the gist of what I read was a protest that Christianity is so often used to endorse solely Conservative or “right-wing” political agendas. As Dr. McEntyre points out, the Christian tradition — from its very inception — gives priority to compassion, to caring for those with “less,” to tolerance, and so on.
Politically, I agree with her.
But then, she shockingly writes: “[Jesus condemned]…the religious leaders who from a place of privilege imposed their legalism and literalism on the people…”
Why am I so shocked?
Because a view of Jewish religious leaders as being in “a place of privilege” and imposing “their legalism and literalism on the people…” is as inaccurate now as it was 2000 years ago.
Ignoring “place of privilege” for the moment, the picture of Judaism as “legalistic,” conforming to “the letter” of Torah (i.e. the “Law”) rather than to its “Spirit,” is heartbreakingly wrong — especially coming from someone who otherwise espouses tolerance and mutual understanding with such conviction.
Is Jewish tradition a “literal” interpretation of Torah? I understand why it appears so. There are so many details involved in observance. But these are only the outer layer of Jewish teaching. The interpretive layers expand infinitely as we plumb them. These, too, are ultimately meant to awaken the heart.
Is “law” bad in itself? Even the most “secular” of us operate in a complex environment of laws.
In sports — as a recent umpire’s call clearly demonstrated — we demand both clear guidelines and adherence to them. Those guidelines are far more detailed, and cover a far greater range of possibilities, than the average sports fan might care to know. But it’s those rules — “laws,” if you will — that allow the standards by which each game is played to remain equal, even over long periods of time. It’s only with great deliberation that a fundamental rule of the game is ever changed. Individual situations can often require an umpire, or judge, to interpret the rules in that specific instance. Changes in technology can also require adaptations of the traditions of a game. The use of steroids, for example, was not always illegal or discouraged; it certainly is now. That’s “the law.” The specificity of these laws resembles that of halachah — “Jewish law” — quite closely. No one says that the rules take away from the pleasure of the game.
On TV “game shows,” there’s often a panel of judges who determine when certain rules are being followed or not. I’ve occasionally seen results reversed on “Jeopardy,” for example. An answer was called “wrong,” but later OK’d by the judges (with the contestant being rewarded the money he/she otherwise lost, but without the added advantage of continued 1st choice on the board). I’ve also seen an answer that was “right” later reversed by the judges. There’s a rather complex set of rules underlying even the simplest-seeming activity. Those rules keep the standards by which each game is played “even.” Again, the rules don’t negate the game’s pleasures.
Ever seen the tax laws? They’re so complicated, and change so often, that accountants are constantly receiving updates which they must read and file. In college, I once had a p/t job at a magazine for accountants. One of my duties was to literally remove outdated pages from a loose-leaf-type binder, and replace them with new, updated pages that had been received from the IRS. This binder became the reference for information about the tax code. I’m sure that lawyers’ offices have similar things.
We drive our cars in a context rich in “laws.” Would we want to drive without them? It’s bad enough that many drivers act as if “might makes right” on the road, and that the motor vehicle laws aren’t fully enforced. But they’re there, to be sure.
So, “laws” — even the most overly specific, seemingly picayune ones — are part of our lives.
I understand the Christian critique of Judaism: Overly specific adherence to rules doesn’t automatically make us “saints.” Agreed. Just as adherence to tax laws, or baseball laws, or motor vehicle laws doesn’t automatically make us patriotic Americans. For that, something more is needed: heart.
About that, the rabbis are clear: G-d wants your heart. Adherence to the rules is praiseworthy but not in itself the highest level of spiritual attainment.
Giving the heart might precede observance: Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha said, “One must first accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, and then accept the yoke of the commandments.” First give G-d your heart; then do what’s asked of you.
On the other hand, as we see especially in teaching children, it’s usually necessary to begin with the “letter” and work towards the “spirit.” This is as true for Christian education as for Jewish education. Kids comprehend by what they do. Abstract understanding comes later.
As the Epistles (mostly of Paul) show, it was also necessary to set manifest guidelines on what was acceptable vs. unacceptable, for many different communities, even though in theory, “faith” itself was enough. The history of the church in its first few hundred years shows clearly, too, that different traditions, beliefs and teachings needed to become unified — a process in which many were declared “heretical” if they didn’t conform to what was accepted by central authority. Later on, in the Reformation, that central authority was invalidated, too, but replaced with multiple authorities, synods, conferences, etc., each of which was empowered to declare what was acceptable within its particular denomination.
So, the process of putting laws in place is unavoidable. Remove all the laws you have and you will end up replacing them with new ones.
I’ve also noticed a phenomenon that seemed strange, even to me: Remove rituals and you will end up replacing them with new ones. The “New Age Movement,” for example, began in the ’60’s as emphatically anti-ritual, in favor of “experience” (as if there’s a necessary dichotomy between the two). Yet, only 20 years later, there were “solstice celebrations” and so on — new rituals to replace those that had been abandoned. American history has good examples, too: Thanksgiving, Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day and other holidays were created to meet the need to commemorate certain relevant events. People want rituals, and will create them, or ask to have them created, when none are already in place.
As for “imposing” an interpretation on the people, in Jesus’ day, there were, in fact, multiple approaches — Perushim (“Pharisees”), Tzakokim (“Saducees”), Essenes, and others. People chose the approach that they favored. The people in Galilee tended, in fact, not to support the Perushim. Rabbi Akiva, who came from there, speaks of scorning them long before joining them. It’s true, though, that after the Bar Kochba rebellion in 135 CE, Pharisaic Judaism was the only one that could continue to exist. The Essenes had been destroyed in the revolt 60 years earlier. The Tzadokim could exist as long as the Temple stood and offerings were made there; when it was destroyed and the sacrifices ended, the Tzadokim no longer had a basis for Jewish worship unless they joined the Perushim. The Karaites (who also rejected the rabbinic tradition) did not yet exist; nor did “Reform” or “Conservative” Judaism. But to describe the Jewish “leaders” as “imposing their literalism” on an unwilling populace can only be called at best a view tainted by misinformation.
The “privileged place” of the rabbis is also inaccurate. The Pharisaic rabbis came from various economic levels within society. A few might have been rich and powerful; most were tradesmen or “small businessmen.” They were hardly uniform in their “privilege.” If anyone, it was the Tzadokim (Saducees) who tended to come from the wealthier, more “assimilated” levels of society.
In the end, I must strenuously object to Dr. McEntyre’s depiction of Judaism and Jewish leaders, even if I agree with much else that she wrote. But don’t take my word for it. Read “The Pharisees” by R. Travers Herford — a Unitarian minister who praised the Pharisees for their piety and religious commitment, without negating his own.
My blog, too, presents that aspect of Judaism which is “spirit” — often as well as “letter.” I can also recommend readings from Jewish sources for Dr. McEntyre or anyone else who wants to explore this further.
It’s possible for a Christian to be a Christian and, at the same time, value the historical character of Judaism.