How can I politely, yet firmly, explain to Christians that their faith does not supercede mine; the Hebrew Bible is not merely the "Old Testament" and that Jews are not simply Christians without Jesus?
I am concerned with Derekh Eretz (proper behavior), but also with clearly stating the validity of my views and beliefs.
There is no easy way to enter into a discussion with someone who questions the validity of your faith and suggests that the New Testament superseded the Hebrew Bible as a source of faith. In such a discussion, you will often find that the other person may know the Bible a lot better than you (by the way, we read the Bible in very different ways and have a vast literature beyond the Bible that we consider sacred that Christians don’t accept). And second, the person with whom you are having this discussion is not likely to listen to a point of view different from his or her own. Besides, it seems to me that there is a lack of derech eretz in telling someone else why their beliefs are wrong; they should not do this and neither should we. Rather than trying to refute their point of view, then, I believe it is easier to respect the other person by listening to what they have to say, but making it clear that, personally, you are proud to be a Jew and that Judaism is a unique and different faith.
There is a good chance that the person with whom you are speaking knows a lot of Bible but very little about Judaism and it might be helpful to explain some of the fundamentals of Judaism to him or her. You might begin by telling them that we do not refer to the Bible as the Old Testament but rather as the Tanach, or Hebrew Scripture. From our perspective, there is only one testament, based on God’s covenant with our father, Abraham, and confirmed by the entire people of Israel at Mount Sinai. Nothing in our Bible suggests that Israel’s covenant is no longer valid and binding. While they might quote chapter and verse from the “Old Testament” to prove otherwise, their interpretation is often based on reading backwards from the New Testament into the Hebrew Bible rather than the other way around. That is, the New Testament is not the fulfillment of the Hebrew Bible but one particular read of our Bible which is not accepted by most Jews. If they continue to insist on the validity of their beliefs, you might simply remind them that Jesus was born as a Jew, lived as a Jew and died as a Jew – and if it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for you too!
The bottom line is that you don’t have to prove your beliefs or values to anyone. Besides, for us as Jews religion is measured not by faith but by deeds. A person is judged not based on what he or she believes but how he or she acts – and that applies equally to Jews and non-Jews alike. We believe that the righteous of all nations ‘have a share in the world to come.’ By the way, this is a fundamental issue about which Jews and Christians disagree: which is more essential - faith or deeds? You might also remind the person that from the perspective of the Hebrew Bible all human beings are created in the image of God no matter what faith they happen to follow.
It might also be helpful to explain to your friend why Judaism is meaningful to you. I have always found the following adaptation of Edmond Fleg’s essay, “Why I am a Jew” to be especially meaningful in articulating what it is that makes Judaism so special:
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands of me no abdication of the mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires of me all the devotion of my heart.
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because at every time when despair cries out, the Jew hopes.
I am a Jew because the word of Israel is the oldest and the newest.
I am a Jew because the promise of Israel is the universal promise.
I am a Jew because, for Israel, the world is not yet completed; humanity is completing it.
Having listened to what your neighbor has to say, I hope he or she will be willing to do the same. Make it clear to your friend that while you honor him for his faith, it is not the path that God has chosen for you and for your family. This is a matter of faith. You are part of a proud and ancient tradition that has brought great goodness to the world (including Christianity and Islam) and that the world would be a poorer place without the very people who carry on the traditions of Abraham and Sarah. And at the end of the day, no one can prove or disprove matters of faith. Faith is based on beliefs upon which we stake our lives and our eternal souls – and that is true both for their faith and for ours.
As a tactical matter, it is generally best to steer clear of discussions of theological differences between believers of different faiths. As Jews, we do not actively proselytize, as we believe that all keepers of basic morality, encapsulated in the Seven Noahide Laws, will be rewarded by God. As far as I know, Judaism is the only major religion that posits that one does not have to be a member of the faith to receive eternal rewards. Thus, we should respect other people’s faith, especially believers in peaceful monotheism and only those who do not preach hatred and violence against other religions. People often get very emotional about their religion, sometimes leading to confrontation, so it’s best to deflect conversations when the other religionist is only trying to bait you or “save” you. You shouldn’t feel that you need to explain your beliefs to others, but rather, you should continue to work on becoming the best and most confident Jew you can be.
Very often, Jews, lacking basic knowledge of our wonderful religion, are confronted by a proselytizer citing impressive sounding verses that seem to show that Judaism does not apply anymore or other loopy ideas. If you are that Jew, it’s best to remove yourself immediately from that situation, explaining that you’d prefer to keep your religious convictions and practices private, and then find a more knowledgeable Jew who can either answer your questions or provide answers to the proselytizer. Do not allow yourself to get drawn into a discussion with talented sophists who can twist words and meanings, unless you have a strong base of Jewish knowledge.
Sometimes, however, we have no choice but to engage the opposing religionist in conversation. With regard to your situation, the first question is whether your friend is trying to proselytize you or is honestly curious. If it’s the former, see the previous paragraph. If it’s the latter, you can still state that religion is a very personal matter and you prefer to respect others’ religions and you thus hope that your friend will respect your right to practice religion privately without needing to answer to other people. If that doesn’t suffice, the next step will really depend upon your knowledge as alluded to above. If you don’t have a strong Jewish background, and are unaware of the history of Jewish-Christian polemics, you can politely but firmly state that you are a proud Jew but you don’t feel comfortable answering theological questions. You can suggest that your Christian friend read a good Jewish introductory book, such as “To Be A Jew” by Rabbi C.H. Donin, “This Is My God” by Herman Wouk or “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism” by Rabbi B. Blech. If you’d like to learn about some general differences between Judaism and Christianity, please see what I wrote at http://jewishvaluesonline.com/question.php?id=50&cprg=%2Fsearch.php%3Fsearchtxt%3Dchristianity%26what%3DA on this site.
In addition, if you haven’t read the above-mentioned books, you may want to take the opportunity to do so or attend classes on Judaism so the next time someone says, “Hey, what’s with that Judaism thing? Isn’t it time you joined our religion”, you can answer with confidence and aplomb. Good luck.
Q: How can I politely, yet firmly, explain to Christians that their faith does not supersede mine; the Hebrew Bible is not merely the “Old Testament” and that Jews are not simply Christians without Jesus? I am concerned with Derekh Eretz (proper behaviour), but also with clearly stating the validity of my views and beliefs.
I’m not sure it is necessary to engage in a debate or a lengthy explanation about Jewish beliefs and why Jews different from Christians. If you are talking about Christian evangelists who try to proselytize you, I don’t think there really is any point in engaging with them at all. You aren’t going to change any minds. All you can do is for them to respect your beliefs and leave you alone. If you are talking with friends who truly want to understand Judaism, you could refer them to a classic book on the subject, Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver’s Where Judaism Differed: An Inquiry into the Distinctiveness of Judaism. It gives a good, general, overview of basic Jewish beliefs, organized topically. It also would probably be helpful to you, to give you some guidance on how to explain Judaism to those who are interested.
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