What are the basic differences between Christianity and Judaism (apart from the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ)? How do these differences show up in what we are told is ethical and correct behavior?
Judaism introduced monotheism to the world over 3500 years ago, stressing that there is one God who not only created the world, but who remains actively involved in our lives. What defines us as Jews are our belief in and fidelity to the Torah, given to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai, which comprises the Written Law (the Five Books of Moses) and Oral Law, written down over 1800 years ago, and known as the Talmud. With this in mind, along with the recognition that a fuller answer would comprise books, we can focus on four fundamental differences:
1)Judaism is an all-encompassing way of life, as reflected in Jewish law, known as Halacha, which comes from the Hebrew “to walk”, as it guides us in our everyday life, both in our interactions amongst people and with God. Our foundational belief stresses that God is the Ultimate Commander who has given us 613 biblical commandments, as explained in the Talmud, meant to refine and anchor us in an often rudderless world by creating a community of law-abiding, caring and loving Jews, who are also bidden to be a positive influence upon the outside world. These commandments are explicated in the Talmud, which often takes seemingly simple statements (i.e. “an eye for an eye”) and gives the actual, practical meaning (this refers to monetary payment, and not God forbid, taking out someone’s eye as punishment). These hundreds of ritual, civil and ethical laws have been codified into the Halacha, which we believe is the way that God wants us to live our lives.
Halacha is a highly rigorous and sophisticated corpus of laws, defining not only how we must do business in the most ethical way possible, but also how we have to care for the stranger and the downtrodden. In reality, there is no bifurcation between ethics and other mandated laws – one cannot be a religious Jew if one is not ethical, the same way that an intentional violator of the Shabbat laws is, by definition, not an observant Jew. There is also a strong impetus in Judaism to go beyond the letter of the law, which applies to those ethical cases which may escape the formal strictures of Halacha.
I do not claim to be an expert on the various sects of Christianity, and am therefore unable to speak in as much detail as about Judaism, but as far as I know, there is nothing in Christianity. that approaches the idea of living a daily life sanctified by a multitude of precisely mandated actions, governing everything from how we eat, to how we invest. Christianity may have ethical codes, but the consequences for not keeping these ethical values are less severe than in Judaism's Halachic framework. While this may sound daunting or overbearing for some, Halacha still leaves room for individual freedoms and choice, while imbuing its followers with thousands of years of wisdom. Some might say that Christianity emphasizes creed while Judaism stresses deed, and while this is basically true, Judaism also does have a set of beliefs (i.e. see Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith from his commentary on the Talmud). But ultimately, action is more important than belief in Judaism, at the very least, in our human interactions.
2) Judaism believes that the bond that God created with our ancestors, beginning with Abraham and Sarah, continuing through the Prophets, and encompassing the Jewish people of all ages, remains firm and unchanging. We reject the idea of a new testament adding to an old testament - the Five Books of Moses, along with the Prophets and Writings comprise our canon (the "Tanach"), and reflect the last direct, public words that God has spoken to us. While we encourage all people to believe in a monotheistic God, we reject the idea that God has rejected us. God's ways are generally unfathomable, but the Jewish people's travails through the ages are reflective of the prophecies in Tanach, and do not, as early Christianity posited, point to a new religion replacing Judaism.
3) Judaism does not believe in hierarchy. Your entry-level coffee getter at Imnobody.com has the same direct line to God as the righteous, revered rabbi who spends his days immersed in our Torah. As opposed to Christianity, in which only one individual was supposedly given certain powers without any witnesses, all approximately two million Jews stood at Mt. Sinai as part of the Revelation, hearing from God directly. As reflected in this democratic fact, we do not believe in intermediaries to whom you confess your sins – when we stumble, each and every one of us must turn to God directly and continue our daily dialogue with Him. This approach should lead us to value every individual, treating all people with dignity, while always exhibiting the highest ethical behavior.
4) Going even further, Judaism does not believe that non-Jews are doomed to eternal Hell. While we obviously believe that Judaism is the authentic religion (if we didn’t, why would we be Jewish?), we also do not believe that everyone must be Jewish to live meaningful lives and gain eternal rewards after our physical lives end. Judaism just asks all our fellow inhabitants of this word to keep the Seven Noahide laws, including setting up a justice system and the prohibitions against murder, theft and sexual immorality. We generally discourage conversion to Judaism, as we tell prospective converts – “What? Are you crazy? You want to be Jewish?”, roughly translated as: it’s much easier to be able to eat at Burger King, and you’ll also be rewarded if you live a moral life, so you may want to rethink this one. But if you do join us, you’re just as Jewish as Moses.
5) While Judaism most definitely believes in the concept of a next world, it also does not overemphasize it at the expense of this world. As a religion of life, Judaism teaches that whenever one’s life is in danger, one must transgress all the commandments, save the three cardinal sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and murder, if such action can possibly remove the danger. According to Maimonides, one of the two broad purposes of our lives is to be involved in “tikkun olam”, or repairing the world in the image of God (the other is to study Torah). Thus, each and every day of our lives should be infused with sanctity and awareness of our obligations to those around us. This, again, should lead to the highest ethical behavior and not just have us go through the motions or have a fatalistic view of this world.
And, of course, we believe that the Messiah has not yet come and that no human has died can be the Messiah. We sincerely hope, however, that by all Jews observing the Torah and incorporating the highest degrees of honesty and integrity in our lives, we will soon see that day, which will bring peace to the world, both for Jews and non-Jews.
 I refer here to mainstream, Orthodox Judaism, as it has generally been observed for millennia.
1. I refer to traditional, Orthodox Judaism as it has generally been practiced since Talmudic times.
Trude Weiss-Rosmarin authored a wonderful little book entitled Judaism and Christianity: The Differences. Unfortunately, it is out of print. But locating a copy would be immensely useful. I will not focus on the obvious differences - like Judaism’s pure monotheism and Christianity’s trinitarianism or Judaism’s insistence on God’s indivisibility and incorporeality – but, as you ask, on the differences that impact on ethical behaviour. A caveat: all things I am about to say about Christianity should not be interpreted as disrespectful. I believe that all religions that teach respect for all people and aim to better our world are to be valued. But all religions are not the same and it is important to consider the differences.
First and foremost, Judaism’s conception of human beings is essentially different than Christianity, at least according to the Roman Catholic division. For all Christians up to the time of the Protestant Reformation, human beings were held to be born in sin. How to change that sad circumstance became the subject of much debate among Christians. But the attitude that people are inherently bad was characteristic of Christianity of this period. Judaism held that while human beings are sometimes guilty of terrible crimes, it is not a function of birth but of choice. To put it differently, Christians believed that human beings sin because they are sinners, while Jews believe that human beings sin because they are human. As the Book of Ecclesiates (7:20) puts it: “there is not a righteous man upon the earth that does only good and never sins.” But sinning, in Judaism, is attributed to what we chose to do, good or bad, not the fact that we were born. Human beings, on the Jewish view, are born morally neutral and with the capacity to do good or evil. What we choose to do is what determines our character.
Now since Christianity is based on a fundamentally negative opinion of human beings, it is entirely understandable why Christianity developed as it did. The ideal life for Christians is the monastic. Living in splendid isolation, these champions of the spiritual life are shielded from the evils of the outside world. And the ideal objective for Christians is to get to heaven where they can find eternal bliss, in contrast to this sinful world, a “vale of tears.” Judaism, in contrast, advocated engagement with the world and its transformation. The only monastic order in Jewish history (the Dead Sea sect) had a very short life-span. Otherwise, Jews acted to make this world heavenly rather than find a route to Heaven. Hence, Jews have always been connected with social movements for change, from political revolutions to union organizing. Jews remain the most charitable ethnic group in the world. The much-abused term “Tikkun Olam” is still worth citing as a Jewish pre-occupation. Jews see the world in need of repair and act to fix it, not escape from it.
Judaism also insists on personal accountability. When Catholics confess and request absolution, they do so to a third party and penance, more often than not, takes the form of ritual acts. Jews, however, must reconcile directly with the party wronged and restitution must be made prior to any ritual is performed. Without personal accountability, it is, from the Jewish perspective, impossible to get people to take responsibility seriously.
Lastly, consider our major holidays. While we celebrate the Days of Awe, the underlying theme is one of introspection. We evaluate our behaviour, admit mistakes, and resolve to do better. In other words, our most sacred days are spent in contemplating how we can improve ourselves and the world. This is hardly the stuff of Christmas or Easter.
What are the basic differences between Christianity and Judaism (apart from the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ)?
1. The basic differences
a. Covenant: Judaism conceptualizes the relationship between God and the world as a covenantal one, i.e., one based on mutually agreed-upon and binding conditions. The covenant between God and Israel, established first with Abraham and realized fully at Sinai, commits the people of Israel to strive to live as a holy society by following the teachings and commandments of Torah, and commits God to watch over and protect them as they do so.
Christianity holds that God’s incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ constitutes a new covenant with humanity that supersedes and nullifies the covenant with Israel at Sinai. In place of the Sinai covenant, Christianity holds, God has now established a new covenant with all humanity: Jesus, the Son of God, made atonement for all human beings’ sin through his death on the cross. In order to become party to this new covenant one need only accept the premise that Jesus died to atone for one’s sin. Acceptance of this premise is effected ritually by baptism; the evidence that one has truly accepted it that one’s conduct and character from then on are moral, ethical, and virtuous, reflecting the qualities that Jesus manifested in his lifetime.
Judaism also holds that God cares for the whole world, as shown in the covenant with Noah and his children after the Flood, and that all human beings, therefore, are obligated to adhere to basic standards of ethical conduct. It is, therefore, not necessary to be Jewish in order to have a relationship with God. In the classical Christian view, however, a person must accept the “new” covenant made through Jesus in order to be “saved,” i.e., in order to have a relationship with God.
b. Human nature and sin: It is significant that there are no references anywhere else in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) to Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden. This story did not play a significant role in biblical theology. Classical Judaism sees death as the evil consequence of eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and while there is a strand of misogynistic midrash on Eve, it does not play a central role in Jewish thought. Human beings, in the Jewish view, are created with the capacity to do either good or evil. This is expressed through the rabbinic concepts of yetzer ha-tov, the “good inclination,” and the yetzer ha-ra, the “evil inclination.” Judaism understands “sin” as evil behavior, not as a theological state of being.
Classical Christian thought considers sex to be the great evil consequence of eating the fruit of the tree, and places the primary responsibility for it on the woman. Sexual intercourse is therefore inherently tainted, since it would not have occurred but for Eve’s disobedience. All human beings, therefore, are born in sin, and this sin can only be atoned for through the atonement provided by Jesus’s death on the cross. Thus Jesus is seen as the “new Adam,” the counterweight to the sinful first man. “Sin” is both behavior but also the state of being of anyone who has not accepted Jesus as their savior and thus had their sinfulness atoned for and forgiven.
c. The messiah: The Hebrew word mashiach means “anointed.” In ancient Israel high priests and kings were anointed with oil when they were inaugurated into their offices. According to the Tanakh, God established a covenant with King David that his descendants would be Israel’s one and only legitimate ruling house. Indeed, the dynasty ruled in Jerusalem for over 400 years (ca. 1000 – 586 BCE), though as the prophetic books attest, not all of them were paragons of virtue. The Davidic dynasty apparently died out just after the return from the Babylonian Exile (536 BCE). At that point Judea was under Persian rule; it passed to Greek control in 332, but won its independence in the struggle that began under the leadership of the Maccabees. The family of Judah Maccabee, known as the Hasmoneans, established an independent kingdom for a short time, but their rule was controversial and many Jews regarded them as illegitimate. There are passages in the prophetic books (e.g., Isaiah 11) criticizing the bad Davidic kings and looking forward to the accession of good ones under whom God’s laws would be followed and the kingdom would be prosperous and at peace. It was probably during the reigns of the Hasmoneans that Jews began reading these passages and interpreting them to refer to the reappearance of the Davidic dynasty in the person of a good king. This longing for a melekh mashiakh, an “anointed (i.e., legitimate Davidic) king” intensified as Hasmonean Judea fell under Roman domination and conditions in Judea worsened. Ultimately there were a variety of Jewish notions about what would happen when the “messiah” arrived, but all have at least these in common: 1) the ingathering of the Jewish people from exile; 2) the reestablishment of a sovereign Jewish nation under a restored Davidic monarchy; and 3) the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed by Rome in 70 CE at the conclusion of the first Jewish revolt. Most also envision a time of peace and harmony. Apparently the followers of Jesus believed that he was the promised descendant of David and therefore the “anointed” one (Christos, in Greek). However, he did not accomplish what the majority of Jews expected the mashiach to accomplish. His followers, faced with this cognitive dissonance, resolved the contradiction by reinterpreting the concept of mashiach: It was necessary, they held, for the “messiah” to come not once, but twice – the first time to suffer and die for humanity, and the second time to usher in the “kingdom of God."
d. The commandments: For Jews, the mitzvot (commandments) of the Torah are the means by which a loving and caring God enables them to live a life of holiness, i.e., of intentionality in deed that deepens the individual’s relationship to God and perfects the conduct of individuals and society. The earliest followers of Jesus were Jews who shared this view. However, ultimately the early church became a movement dominated by gentiles who found the rituals of Judaism unappealing, and it adopted the view of Paul, that the ritual commandments of the Torah were superfluous, and that all that mattered was to accept the atoning death of Jesus. This has led over the centuries to an extensive Christian polemic against Jewish ritual.
2. How do these differences show up in what we are told is ethical and correct behavior?
This question requires either a book or a very brief answer; I will opt for the latter. The difference between Judaism and Christianity in the realm of ethical behavior is more largely a matter of emphasis and attitude. The Torah presumes that the long-term continuity of human society is both a given and a desideratum, and therefore is concerned with social ethics, the judicial process, civil and criminal law, and so forth. The Christian Scriptures (the “New Testament”) were written by individuals who expected the imminent return of Jesus, the end to society as they knew it, and the ushering in of a radically new and different era, the “kingdom of God.” They did not care, therefore, about the orderly maintenance of society. A person should give everything away to the poor, abandon his livelihood, leave his family – because in a short while none of these would matter. Of course, Jesus did not return, and the church had to develop a system of rules for conduct in the interim until the Second Coming. But the divergent origins of the two scriptures have bequeathed to each tradition a distinctive ethos in their approaches to ethics. Very simply put (perhaps overly so): Jews have tended to emphasize adjusting social mechanisms to ensure justice; Christians have tended to value the saintly individual who abandons his or her own private life and devotes it to those in need.
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