Sunday, March 16, 2008

On the Universality of Judaism or How Many Measures of Water Does it Take to Make a Dragon Kosher?

Today my dear friend Dragon completed her journey to Judaism and became a convert. I wish her great success in her future journeys within Judaism. This post is dedicated to her.

Recently, while engaging in my usual office bantering with my Mormon friend CJ, I mentioned Dragon to him and I told him about her situation, that she was in the process of converting to Judaism. CJ responded that she must not be converting to Orthodox Judaism. Taken aback by his response I asked him about it. It turns out that he was under the assumption that Orthodox Judaism did not accept converts and that therefore one could not convert to Orthodox Judaism.

The fact that CJ assumed this about Judaism struck me as strange for a number of reasons. CJ is someone, and I do not say this lightly, whose intelligence I have great respect for. Furthermore CJ knows a thing or two about Judaism. If he wished, he would have no trouble passing himself off as a Hebrew school educated Jew. On top of all this, almost every religion that I know of, (the one exception being the Druze religion) accepts converts as a matter of course. One can convert to Christianity, Islam, Buddaism, Hinduism or to Baha’I and no one would think twice about it. Why should someone think that Judaism was somehow different? It is true that Judaism does not have a mission to non Jews, we do not seek converts, and we certainly do not wage the sort the campaign that Mormons engage in, but we are just as willing as any other religion to open our arms to people born outside of our faith. (Of course to be fair to CJ I must point out that the Syrian Jewish community does not accept converts. Though even they admit that such a thing is possible; for practical reasons it is simply their practice not to accept people born as non Jews.)

While thinking about CJ’s comment, something rather disturbing struck me. The idea that Judaism would not accept converts makes perfect sense if one accepts the traditional Christian criticism of Judaism that Judaism is parochial and only concerned with Jews. From this perspective Christianity becomes almost a theodical necessity. If the salvation brought about by the practice of Mosaic Law only applies to Jews then God must have created some other route to save non Jews; clearly a good and merciful God would not leave the vast majority of the world without some means of salvation. Hence we have the Christian salvation brought about by the Cross, which is open to everyone. To quote Paul: “There cannot be Jew nor Greek, there cannot be slave nor free man, there cannot be male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

This notion that Jewish theology does not recognize the possibility that non Jews cannot also become close to God, while Christianity is open to everyone, can lead to certain absurdities. For example, when dealing with Job, Augustine of Hippo remarks:

… the Jews cannot deny that in other nations also there have been some men who belonged not by earthly but by heavenly fellowship to the company of the true Israelites, the citizens of the country that is above. In fact, if the Jews deny this, they are very easily proved wrong by the example of Job, that holy and amazing man. He was neither a native of Israel nor a proselyte (that is, a newly admitted member of the people). He traced his descent from the race of Edom; he was born in Edom; he died there. …

I have no doubt that it was the design of God’s providence that from this one instance we should know that there could also be those among other nations who lived by God’s standards and were pleasing to God, as belonging to the spiritual Jerusalem. (City of God Book XVIII Chapter 47.)

The truth is that there are a number of opinions in rabbinic literature that do make Job a non Jew. For Judaism this is not a problem in the least. Judaism can say, without blinking an eyelash, that Job was a gentile his entire life and never kept Mosaic Law, not the Sabbath, not Kosher nor circumcision, and yet was beloved by God because he was righteous. It is Christianity that has a problem with viewing non Christians as being right with God simply because they are righteous; from the perspective of traditional Christianity it is impossible to be righteous without having first accepted Christian doctrine, particularly the divinity of Jesus and that he died to atone for our sins. Almost as if to make this point Augustine, the very next line, continues by saying: “But it must not be believed that this was granted to anyone unless he had received a divine revelation of ‘the one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus …” (Ibid.)

In truth Judaism is a more universalistic faith than Christianity. Judaism accepts that people do not have to become Jewish in order to become close to God. It is for this reason that Judaism does not have a missionary arm. We have no need to worry about little black babies in Africa dying and going to hell. Those little black babies are pure and holy, without our help. Judaism is a universal religion that anyone can claim to simply by believing in God and by living an ethical life. Jews are simply the priests and priestesses of this universal religion and as we carry out certain extra rituals. Children born to parents who are part of this priesthood are automatically part of this priesthood as well. In addition to this people, like my friend Dragon, can join of their own free will.

Ultimately Christianity requires that Judaism be narrow and parochial. The more universalistic Judaism is the less Christianity makes sense. If Judaism really is a universalistic religion with a message for the entire world than a major component of Christianity, that Christianity comes to universalize Judaism, must be thrown out as an absurdity. That a Christian (and yes I do count Mormons as Christians) would take it as a given that Judaism does not accept converts, to me, says a lot about Christianity.


Tobie said...

I think that the two parts of your post do not necessarily link; there are ways in which Judaism could have evolved specifically to not recognize converts from the very theology you espouse in your post.

For example, if Judaism believed that it was primarily an ethnic issue, then it would not recognize converts. The problematicness of this decision would be lessened by the fact that it believed that non-Jews could acheive holiness without Judaism. If, on the other hand, Judaism were to believe that it was the only way of achieving holiness, then suddenly it would almost necessarily have to create conversion to give everybody else in the world a fighting chance.

So while I agree that Christianity relies on Judaism being narrow, I'm not entirely sure whether the correlation between accepting converts and having a message for the rest of the world is 100%.

Also: Congratulations to Dragon!

Jettboy said...

hmm, interesting persepctive. Although I agree with your reasoning why Christians might not believe Jews accept converts, it is more than you have said. The truth is that a lot of highly influencial Jews and others have been VERY insistant that missionary work is a type of Jewish Holocaust. Some have even implied you can't talk about your religion to a Jew without coming off as anti-Jewish by the very act of the conversation.

For Christians, and especially Mormons, to reject missionary work is to reject conversions. You can't have one without the other. Although this view might not be completely logical, the non-missionary attitude does fuel the idea. Thus, to believe that Jews don't accept converts is a charitable interpretation that could otherwise be seen as hypocritical.

Izgad said...

Tobie: I agree that Judaism could decide to not accept converts and still be universalistic. The fact is that Judaism does accept converts and is universalistic.

Jettboy: You make a good point about Jews complaining about missionary activity. Personally I think Jews whine too much about missionary activity. I believe that the State of Israel should allow missionary groups to operate within the state of Israel. It is the responsibility of Jews, not Christians, to save Jews.
That being said in practice trying to convert someone to your religion is almost bound to come across as intolerant, particularly to people raised on modern liberalism. It flies in the face of modern relativism, the idea that everyone is as good as everyone else.
I am a believer in having an open society, where people are free to argue for what they believe. I also believe that people should have the right to be politically incorrect and say things that offend other people.

James Pate said...

Hi Izgad.

One thing I wonder about, though, is this: Are the Jew and the God-fearing Gentile equal in every way before God? Or does the Jew have a special status?

I wonder this because of what I read in the New Testament. Paul came under fire because he said that Gentiles didn't have to receive circumcision or observe the law to become saved, which includes being part of the community of Israel. You can say that Paul had Judaism all wrong, since Judaism said that Gentiles could be "saved" (enter the World to Come") simply by being good. But Paul was responding to something out there. Maybe not all strands of Judaism were as universalistic.

Izgad said...

All branches of Jewish thought that I know of accept, at least in theory, the idea that gentiles can gain a share in the world to come through the observance of the seven Noachide laws. In the Old Testament we have the example of the Aramean general Naaman, who comes to recognize God as the one true God and abandons the worship of idols, without converting to Judaism. During New Testament times we know that there were God fearing gentiles who had taken on Jewish beliefs and elements of Jewish practice without converting to Judaism. So the Judaism of Paul’s time was open to people who were not Jewish. Maybe the Dead Sea Sect was not.
In practice there are a wide array of Jewish opinions as to the status of gentiles. To quote Animal Farm: "All animals are equal except that some animals are more equal than others."
According to the medieval Jewish philosopher, Judah Halevi, only genetic Jews have the ability to be prophets. Certain schools of Kabbalistic thought talk about Jews have higher souls.
I am ashamed to say this but today, particularly in the Ultra-Orthodox world, you see border line racism being openly preached.
I phrased the last part of the post in hypothetical terms for a reason. The problem posed to Christianity depends on which Judaism you are talking about and where it lands on the universalism scale.