Two Jews, three opinions

Dear Fellow worker,

The Jewish Chronicle is currently attempting to ‘create a snapshot of Jewish identity at this moment in our community’s timeline’. The JC wants its readers to answer the question, ‘What does being Jewish mean to you?’ It reminded of an article I read in 1987, in the academic journal Leylah, in which the current Chief Rabbi Jonathan Jonathan Sacks lamented that the religion of most Jewish people was  ‘Jewishness’ rather than Judaism.

As if in confirmation of Rabbi Sack’s assessment, PR guru Lynne Franks responded to the JC survey: ‘Being Jewish means… potato latkes, chopped liver, smoked salmon, bagels, schmaltz herring, pickled cucumbers, grandmother always in the kitchen cooking delicious Jewish banquets, strident voices, big hugs, Friday night dinners, warm personalities, generous hearts, liberalism, great wit, neuroses, strong community, outrageous humour, intellectual curiosity, Paul Simon…’

Between you and me, if that’s what being Jewish is (apart from the schmaltz herring and neuroses), I wouldn’t mind being Jewish. And for most Jewish people, ‘converting’ to Christianity – or any other religion for that matter –would be to say goodbye to all that cultural richness. From what Jewish people see in the Church, following Jesus is a life lived in monochrome rather than in technicolour. That is a real challenge to missions to the Jews because who would want to take Jewish people away from such a vibrant community (presuming, of course, that Lynne Franks is not over-egging the cake)? But notice that Jewishness for Lynne Franks appears to have little if any place for religion. God, faith or synagogue are absent from her gushing eulogy.

For Sam Lester, religion does at least feature, albeit marginally, in his sense of Jewish identity: ‘Being Jewish means… even though I’m not religious, going to shul [synagogue] three times a year, just in case…’

Judaism prides itself on having no creed. Jewish religion, say the rabbis, is based on orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy; doing the right thing rather than believing the right doctrine. The closest thing to a Jewish statement of faith is the ‘Thirteen Principles of Faith’ delineated by the Rambam, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, in twelfth-century Spain.

You can’t even be certain what any Orthodox Jew believes because there are so many sects within Hasidism. I have met Orthodox Jews who believe in the transmigration of the soul after death (reincarnation), while others believe in purgatory and still others believe that death is non-existence. Some adherents of the Lubavitch Chabad movement believe their long-dead leader is the Messiah and that he will rise from the dead. Indeed, a few in the movement believe their deceased Rebbe is God!

Still other Jews are atheists. One of our retired field-workers, John Graham, once had lunch at an Australian restaurant with the leader of an Orthodox synagogue. They ordered steaks but when they were served John was shocked to see rashers of bacon adorning the meals. In deference to the synagogue official, John set the non-kosher meat to the side of his plate. ‘Are you not going to eat your bacon?’ the man asked. John said no, and his friend immediately relieved him of it and put it on his own plate. When John expressed surprise, the man replied that no one would see him. ‘What about God?’ John asked. ‘I don’t believe in God,’ said the community leader.

A fascinating debate took place in September last year between Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, and Richard Dawkins the patron saint of new atheists. The debate is available to watch on YouTube ( About fifteen minutes into the conversation Dawkins asks the Chief Rabbi if the biblical accounts of the burning bush and the parting of the Read Sea are to be read ‘literally’.

‘The Red Sea?’ responds Lord Sacks. ‘Totally literal!’ In September 2010, the Chief Rabbi explains, a computer simulation developed at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in America demonstrated that an east wind blowing at 63mph would have parted the waters of the ‘Sea of Reeds’, allowing the escaping Israelites to cross to the other side on foot. The computer simulation can be viewed on the NCRA website (

Dawkins then challenges the Chief Rabbi about the historicity of Adam and Eve but this time Rabbi Sacks responds that the Genesis account ‘is clearly a parable because there was no first human. The tenth century rabbis, the Chief Rabbi points out, laid down a principle that ‘if a biblical narrative is incompatible with established scientific fact it’s not to be read literally’. According to Judaism, states the Chief Rabbi, reading the Bible ‘literally’ is heresy because of the Oral Tradition. The Oral Tradition governs biblical interpretation.

There is much in the position of both Dawkins and Sacks to take issue with but what is most disturbing about the Chief Rabbi’s line of reasoning is that for him and – if he is correct in what he claims – with Judaism itself, the Bible is not the final authority in matters of faith and practice. Science, for the Jewish leader, is above the Bible and, even higher still it would seem, is the Oral Tradition for which there is not a shred of evidence in the pages of the Torah. The Jewish scholar Jacob Neusner agrees with Jonathan Sacks. In his book Jews and Christians: The Myth of a Common Tradition, Neusner states that Christianity is the religion of the Bible, whereas Judaism is the religion of the Babylonian Talmud.

This is a challenge for us. In the last issue of the Herald I began to share some of the challenges that face CWI in the twenty-first century. I shared with you that, according to Rabbi Lionel Blue, ‘Jews are like everybody else, only more so.’ But there is also another Jewish saying to the effect that where there are two Jews, there will be at least three opinions.

In 1842, when CWI came into being, religious Jews were what we would today call Orthodox. Many of our field-workers were deeply knowledgeable about the Talmud and other Jewish sources and could hold their own with Orthodox Rabbis. That has all changed and the last 170 years have witnessed the birth of a number of denominations within Judaism, including Reform, Progressive, Conservative and Secular. And within those groups you can be sure that if you get two adherents together there will be at least three opinions.

When I speak to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons or Christadelphians, I know where they are coming from theologically. But when I engage Jewish people in conversation, I’m never really certain what the person I’m talking to believes. I think it was on the first or second of our Summer Schools that I asked a Jewish lady in Hendon what she believed. ‘I believe the same as my rabbi,’ she told me. I asked what her rabbi believed. ‘He believes the same as me,’ she said. I got the distinct impression that if I’d asked what they both believed, I’d have been told they both believed the same thing.

The one thing that all Jews of whatever stripe are agreed on is that you can’t believe in Jesus and be Jewish. And that conviction exercises a powerful stranglehold on the Jewish community. Former CWI field-worker David Bond tells the story of a Jewish lady to whom he read Psalm 22, which speaks of a sufferer whose hands and feet are pierced and whose garments are divided by the casting of lots. The lady recognised the account as a description of the crucifixion and imagined it had been written by a New Testament author. She was surprised to discover that King David was the author but could not bring herself to believe in Jesus because, ‘Jews don’t believe in Jesus’.

The Jewish rejection of Jesus stems largely from emotional and cultural considerations, not from biblical knowledge. Just as it’s a fairly simple matter to lead a horse to water so, without too much trouble, some Jewish people can be led to Jesus in the Hebrew Scriptures. But just as it’s another matter altogether to make a horse drink from the water to which you’ve led it, to persuade a Jewish person to drink of the water of life is one of those things that are impossible for men. Thanks be to God that ‘the things that are impossible with men are possible with God’.

Yours for the salvation of Israel,

This article was first published in the Spring Herald 2013

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