Steven T. Katz on Judaism and Christianity – Part 2

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Katz Continues Christianity

Steve Katz returned in February 2001 for the continuation of his exploration of Christianity’s historical roots and its relationship to Judaism. On Friday night, he concentrated on religious anthropology–the notions of man, sin and redemption, which we report on here. On Shabbat, he dealt with the two religion’s different notions of the messianic function, which we will report on in the next issue.

Often, he noted, there are tendencies to distort in when discussing Judaism and Christianity and to reinforce stereotypes and negative images. This does not lead to true understanding. Instead, his goal was to present comparative anthropological views of Judaism and Christianity so that we could draw true comparisons.

The Jewish View of the Human Condition

The Jewish view of the human condition begins with Genesis, where we are told that men and women are created in the image of God. The rabbis, of course, ask what that means, and they concentrate on two things.

One, we’re not in the image of God physically, but in the fact of our freedom. After all, even the angels don’t have freedom. It says in the psalms that men and women are higher than the angels. The consequence of freedom is that we can keep mitzvot.

Second, the rabbis make a point of noting that, like God, we can be divine creatures. There is a midrash that says we should be like God. If God is just, we should be as well. If God is kind, we should be kind. If God looks after the widow and the orphan, we should as well. There is also the story in Genesis where God tells Adam and Eve to name the creatures of the field. This is significant, because to classical people, naming a thing meant to have power over it. This was the sign that people were partners in creation; that we complete the process of creation.

There are many other ways the rabbis develop this notion. For example, most things that happen in Jewish life are connected to the calendar. The tradition is that it’s the rabbinic court below, the human court, that decides the times of the calendar and the heavenly court follows.
In another example, God doesn’t want there to be a king, but when people ask for one, God sanctions the House of David.

This idea of human power is fundamental to Judaism. Notions of covenant and Torah all turn on the notion that men and women are majestic creatures, who therefore can keep the Torah and keep the covenant. We can be God’s covenantal partner.

Sin and Redemption in Judaism

Because of this, notions of sin and repentance and redemption in Judaism have a special character. The most important is the notion of sin. It’s basic in the Bible, but today, people don’t really believe very much in the notion of sin or of sin having consequences.

Katz emphasized that sin is an act. Sin is something you do, something that is volitional, a bad choice, a misdirection of the human will, a falling short of effort, of not trying hard enough, of asserting your ego against God’s ego. The Bible has 20 words for sin. English has one. There are many different types of sin and many nuances.

Adam and Eve are told they can have the run of the garden; they must respect only one rule. The rule not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge is the limit. And limit is the human condition. Even though we are majestic, we are limited. That’s why if someone commits suicide, it is a sin. You’re not free to take your own life in Judaism. (Katz noted that a person who commits suicide thus cannot be buried in the normal way. The rabbis, however, decided no normal person would commit suicide and so the person who did must be mentally disturbed. You can’t hold someone responsible if they are mentally disturbed–that is, this was the way the rabbis got around this situation.)

The notion of sin in the Garden of Eden is interesting, noted Katz. The rabbis said the apple was a pear and the command was not to eat the pear. It’s the first kosher food law. The kosher food laws, he said, have no other purpose. All the other things attributed to kashrut are irrelevant and later expositions. Kosher food has only one purpose: obedience. God could have said eat pigs, eat animals that don’t have a split hoof, eat things that don’t chew their cud, eat shellfish, eat birds of prey–it wouldn’t have mattered. The fact is, it’s a matter of obedience. But Adam and Eve sinned. They violate the relationship by asserting their will. In the Tower of Babel story, people assert their will as well. What do they want to do? They want to take heaven by storm against the human condition. Which, in the end, limits them.

Now, said Katz, this notion of sin is about rebellion. It’s a rejection of heaven. It’s a misassertion of human freedom. This touches on the deepest dis-connection between Judaism and Christianity. Sin is an action, it involves volition. It doesn’t touch the heart of a person. According to Jewish tradition, sin is an exterior thing.
This is very odd, remarked Katz: The rabbis had this profound sense of the consequences of the nature of sin. Yet they believed that human beings were really good; and, therefore, even when you sin, even if you are a sinner, you don’t corrupt the inner nature of who you are. You don’t lose the fundamental quality of being created in the image of God. You don’t stop being God’s partner. Whatever you do, it’s like dirt. The prophets always use the image of dirt on a garment. If you get dirty, you wash the dirt off. And that is the process. Returning to God is like washing the garment, washing away the sin.

We find the image of washing away sin in several places. In the New Testament, there is the image of baptism washing away sins. At Qumran (the Dead Sea community), they had a heavy regimen of bathing. In the Jewish notion, we have the image of going to the Mikvah and cleansing. The point is, it’s something external, not something internal. And, while the consequence of sin is to separate you from God, it doesn’t do so permanently.

In Judaism, we are not so much sinners as people who commit a sin. We do sin, but it’s one sin after another. It’s not the human condition. This conception of sin leads to all kinds of consequences in Jewish tradition. It has to do with the notions of repentance and redemption, who we ultimately are, and how we stand before God.

The Christian View of Sin

The Christian tradition is different; it talks about man as sinner per se and begins with the idea of original sin. Even before a child comes into the world, that child is a sinner. People are always sinners.

Original sin means that just being born makes you corrupt. You have to come to terms with this. As an heir to Adam and Even, you are tainted by the original corruption. This is the meaning of the immaculate conception–that Jesus as born without sin. It is the notion that Mary was always virginal–she was without sin. Everyone else is a sinner. (St. Augustine connected these notions of sin with sexuality and physicality.)

The overall result of original sin is enormously important. For example, Christians have infant baptism because, without baptism, the child would go to hell. It is also why the church believed that if a child died in the womb, it was important to take some holy water from the baptismal fount and put it into the uterus to touch the baby in t he womb. Katz noted that this is not a harsh doctrine; rather it points to a sense of the church as gracious and as an entity very concerned with the loving condition that requires the baptism. It also points to the power the church possesses to save the soul from sin through the life and death of Jesus.

Implications of Different Notions

In Jewish tradition, by comparison, every man and woman is Adam and Even once again. We are all heirs of Adam and Eve in the sense that we don’t live in the garden. We have to work for a living and birth involves pain–the traditional consequences of their sin. But we don’t die because of them and we aren’t judged because of them. In the Jewish tradition, we don’t tie death to creatureliness or sensuality or sexuality or concupiscence or original sin. Instead, every one of us is Adam and Eve anew. And we can either be saved by our efforts, we can be righteous and do good things or not.

There are a number of places in rabbinic literature where the rabbis give lists of people who die without sin. What does this mean? Yes they died–that’s the human condition. But they didn’t die because they were sinners. They didn’t die as a result of either original sin or some kind of corruption. And as the rabbis discuss who is on that list–Abraham, Moses, other figures–most of the lists even include a non-Jew. For example, there is Enoch, an odd character with one small verse in the Torah, who was of the generations of very early beings. The Torah says he did not die, but was taken up into heaven. There is a great tradition, known as the Book of Enoch, in which Enoch becomes a great mystical figure. He’s the Prince of Heaven and probably influenced various Christian beliefs. Another biblical figure who is not Jewish and is often cited on these lists is the priest called Nachitzedek, the righteous priest.

As Katz noted, in Judaism, good and evil are open to us. We have the capacity to negotiate and to navigate between them. We don’t have necessary sin. The rabbinic tradition tries to explain why people do bad things in the notions of the Yetzer HaTov and the Yetzer HaRah, the good and bad inclinations. They say that the bad inclination is realted to sensuality. Even David says, according to the Midrash, that he wished he could control his sensuality. Solomon, the wisest of kings, gets into trouble with his sensuality and has multiple marriages. But the rabbis are very clear. Nothing would happen in the world without the Yetzer HaRah. It is ego that makes you want to go out and get rich, build a house, or have children. So there is something positive about the evil inclination. More importantly, the evil inclination is under the control of your will. You are not under the control of its will. Whenever the Yetzer HaRah is discussed in rabbinic literature the phrase is used “It is close at hand and you can control it..

One of the fundamental features of traditional Judaism is that you are masters of your passions. For example, in regard to food, keeping kosher is about obedience; but it also frees you from the momentary commitment to your passions. You may see a lobster or cheeseburger and want to eat it but you don’t. Instead, you are reflective, and it is clear that the sin is in the action, not in thinking about it. All the Biblical phrases that denote sin are somehow connected with the idea of falling short, turning away, or asserting your ego improperly.

Men and women are majestic. Men and women sin. Yet what happens next is that you can overcome sin through Tshuvah or repentance. The word tshuvah is from the root shuv, to turn. The rabbis had the image that people and God are face-to-face and dialogical partners. If sin was turning away from God, then Tshuvah is turning back. We see it in Isaiah and Lamentations. “Turn to me and I will turn to you.”

Tshuvah Central in Judaism

Tshuvah is a complicated idea and an idea that the rabbis thought was enormously important. For them, it was the natural dialectic, the natural partner to sin. If sin is volition, then the repair is an action. They had a phrase “mi da keneget mi da”–”measure for measure”. This suggests concepts such as “like the sin must be the redemption”, “like the crime must be the punishment”, “like the sin must be the repentance”.

The rabbinic writings indicate seven things that were created before the world. One of these is the name of the Messiah. That is, God already creates the remedy for existence, for all that’s wrong with existence, before he creates existence. God also creates Tshuvah.
A second meaning of Tshuvah is kapporah–to be found not guilty, or acquitted. There is a tradition that, on Yom Kippur, before you begin to pray so God will hear, you have to make yourself worthy. The tradition, called Shlug Kapporos, involves a live chicken turned over one’s head. As people turn the chicken, they ask that it be a substitute, that they be acquitted through the death of the chicken. The custom arose from the rabbis saying that you could give money as a substitute. But the overall idea is that sin can be taken away through this action.

Another notion related to Tshuvah is the concept of tachara, which has to do with purity. The idea of tachara is that sin makes you impure. Being impure means you can’t go to the Temple or do certain other things. (Other things make you impure as well. If a man has a nocturnal emission he is impure. If a woman is menstruating, she is impure.)

Tshuvah has all of these connotations, particularly the dual connotation of involving both the personal and the communal. That’s why, the prayer book for Yom Kippur has the sins, most of the time, in the plural. That connotes the community of Israel, and we pray as a community. The scapegoat that is sent out to the desert is also communal. But for Minchah on Yom Kippur, we don’t repeat the sins together, we pray privately; because it’s individually that we commit sin.

So there is all this complexity involved in the notion of repentance, but above all it requires action.

One notion raised by knowledgeable people has to do with sacrifices. Does the act of sacrifice, the shedding of the blood, save without any other action? Is that sufficient for atonement and forgiveness? The rabbis said no. For the sacrifice to work you had to do several things, including atonement. For example, if you stole money from your neighbor and came to the Temple and gave a sacrifice, the sacrifice would be worthless unless you had returned the money. The priest, in fact, could only take y our sacrifice if he knew you had made reparations.
The rabbis, wanting to facilitate this process, said that if you stole something, you didn’t have to return the original object. You could give monetary compensation. But they were adamant that you had to repent by doing. In addition, you had to make a vidud, or confession.

Often, Katz noted, Jews ridicule the confessional. Yet the idea of confession is a Jewish tradition. In fact, the rabbis say that you should make confession the day before you die. The questions then emerges, how do you know when you are going to die? The answer is: You don’t, so you should make confession every day.

The implication of the idea of Tshuvah and the reason it is so important is that it means that you can not only change the future, you can change the past. That’s an astonishing notion, said Katz. And sacrifice doesn’t operate mechanically, like a magic moment in an opera. It has to involve all of these human conditions of repentance, of sorrow, of crying. We don’t eat on Yom Kippur because we want to show our humility. We’re not powerful, we’re not in charge, we’re not egotistical, we’re not lustful, we’re not our bodies. We don’t wear leather as leather is a sign of comfort or majesty. We don’t have sexual relationships, another sign of our majestic creative power. We don’t wear perfume. We abase ourselves. And we cry out to God to forgive us. We do all of these things, all of these human actions. And it’s the response of God to these actions that we understand to be the necessary connection between our Tshuvah and God’s return.

This whole notion of Tshuvah which is so central in Judaism is absent in Christianity in its traditional form. To understand this more fully, we have to understand that Christianity is not the religion of Jesus as a person, but the religion of those who believe in Jesus as the risen Christ. In early church history, we have John the Baptist, who, Katz noted, is Elijah returned, the messenger of the Messiah. John the Baptist says “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” That is very Jewish. Jesus also says repent. In the synoptic Gospels–Mark, Matthew, Luke–you find the words grace and repentance in their rabbinic doctrine.

Tshuvah Subordinate to Grace in Christianity

But the fact is, that this message becomes subordinate to something else. Paul wants to explain who Jesus was. After his conversion experience, he believes himself to be equal to the apostles and he wants to explain what this scandal to the Jews, this death on a cross, is all about. The way he explains it is tied fundamentally to this notion of sin and redemption, of the human condition; and goes like this: Men and women are not majestic, men and women are not heroic, they are not powerful. They cannot do what Jews think they can do. They cannot keep the Torah and their effort to keep the Torah only reveals their sinfulness. Human beings are not able to do virtuous things in God’s sight, because they are corrupt in nature. And when the Jews think they are doing good things, they’re just showing how egotistical and foolish they are. To think that God can find what the Pharisees are doing worthy, is just a sign of hubris, which is a sin.

Instead, Paul emphasizes the notion of grace, which mean’s God’s free gift. Grace is a free gift, we have no claim on it. It’s not that we do something and then God responds to what we do. It’s not that we are meritorious or virtuous. The rabbis have a very important doctrine called schud, or merit. Jesus even talks about storing up merit in heaven. You can do things that God finds worthy because you are his partners and he gave you that majesty. He wants you to count. But for Paul, there is no merit. Salvation by the works of the law is a mistake. And the reason it is a mistake is that Paul believes that human beings really can’t keep the law properly. So he says the law only reveals your sinfulness, your limitations, your weakness, your inadequacies and your ego. That’s also why Paul almost never uses the term repentance, or Tshuvah. He may once, in all the Pauline writings, use the Greek word for Tshuvah.

In Paul’s theology, grace means that God loves us. Grace means that God acts for us. God takes up where we cannot act. And God comes into the world and dies for us. That’s the meaning of the crucifixion. And that’s the power of the life and death of Jesus for Paul. Human beings can’t redeem themselves. They can’t do anything that is possibly redemptive. And this leads to a theology which connects Jesus to sacrifice and connects Jesus to the original Adam.
In the Pauline writings, Jesus is the new Adam.

What does it mean to be the new Adam? It means the old Adam got us in trouble. And since it was Adam, a man, who got us in trouble, who made the original sin; it must be a human who makes atonement. So God comes into the world in the flesh, the incarnation, takes the sins of the world on himself, offers himself as an expiation to make atonement, and suffers the crucifixion–and it’s through that blood that we are saved. It’s also why in the new testament, in Paul, the death of Jesus, rather than the life of Jesus is emphasized. (The synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke have more about the life of Jesus.) Half of the Pauline corpus deals with the theme that Paul sees Jesus as the sacrifice par excellence.

An interesting point is that in the description of the Passover sacrifice in the Torah, it notes that you shouldn’t break the bones of the pascal sacrifice, a curious little detail. Part of the cruelty of Roman crucifixion was that they would break people’s bones and they would die of suffocation because of the way they were hanging on the cross. In the new testament, however, with all of the terrible things that were done to Jesus, such as the penetration of the spikes, he did not have his bones broken. Why? Because it calls up the image that Jesus is the Passover sacrifice par excellence.

As Jews we make sacrifices every year, but, since we have to do it every year, it must not be effective. Now Jesus makes a sacrifice and that makes all future sacrifices irrelevant. That’s why the Temple could be destroyed. That’s why the whole system of sacrifice could come to an end. Jesus was the new Adam, the pascal sacrifice; and the blood that comes voluntarily from God washes away the sin of Adam and Even.

Two Radically Different Views

And so we have two radically different notions of the human condition. In Judaism, you have majesty and volition and repentance; and then you have redemption, which is God’s response to human action. Of course, the tradition knows about chesed, grace, but the grace is always in a dialogue with justice. It would be unjust for God not to take account of human action. It would be unjust not to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. It would be unjust only to be an act of grace and not pay any attention to our effort.

In the Christian tradition, because the anthropological position is based on our inability to act, our fundamental corruption, and the fact that we are mired from the outset; we are bankrupt and unable.
Now in the rabbinic tradition, it is still God who redeems us. This is not unbridled egotism or humanism. God redeems us in response, like a father or mother catching a child who walks and yet cannot go all the way. But the child must walk. The father or other can’t walk for the baby.

In the church’s tradition, that notion of partnership, of human action, and God’s response; of our crying out to God and God responding to us, of our making confession and offering up ourselves in different ways; can’t be. It can’t be because of the negative notion of how limited and corrupt we are.

The result of this is that in Judaism, given our notion of covenant (which means partnership) and that Israel is a partner, and that we can do Tshuvah, and that we have the dialectic of redemption–that the messianic idea (who the messiah is, what the messiah does, and all the rest) will be consistent with these premises.

In Christianity, the central aspect is the crucifixion and how it redefines human existence. For the church, everything that came before is “through a glass darkly”–people couldn’t know the real meaning. Now, because of the crucifixion and only because of the crucifixion and resurrection, does everything that came before make sense. But it makes sense in a new way, in a way that requires you to redesign, refigure, and redescribe the notion of messiah.

Two Models
Two Traditions

So this is the deep difference between Christianity and Judaism. It’s not a matter of whether the Messiah has come or not. Rather, it is the fact that we define messianism in a way consistent with our theology and the Church radically redefines it in terms of its theology. The fundamental issue is that we have one criterion, one set of principles, and the church has quite another. We are talking at cross-purposes and therefore have this complex situation that arises. Because the Church doesn’t understand our faith, it accuses us of being apostate, or rebellious. Because we don’t understand the Church’s faith, we accuse them of many things as well.

The fact, however, is that there are two very different traditions. In some ways, Christianity is as different from Judaism as Buddhism, even though it draws on the same roots. If a Buddhist came and told you he had a different belief, you wouldn’t be surprised. Yet Judaism and Christianity are just as different, even though they have a complex relationship.

In summary, we have two models of two different religious traditions:

C Judaism has its unique and distinctive ideas of covenant, Torah, and tshuvah. Men and women sin, but can do repentance, and God responds to that.

C Christianity has a different conception of covenant and Torah and it emphasizes original sin and human depravity; in the face of which, God’s power requires that we throw ourselves on the mercy of God.

It’s only when you start to understand these things, noted Katz, that you can begin to understand messianism. If you start the conversation between Jews and Christians without understanding these pre-conditions–the basis on which the messianic idea rests in each tradition–you’ll never understand the two sides appropriately and all conversations will be meaningless.