Four Common Misunderstandings about Judaism

On Tuesday afternoon I was invited to speak on a luncheon panel entitled “Dialogue among the Abrahamic Religions” sponsored by the Muslim Student Association at North Central College. The other panelists were Eric Doolittle, chaplain at North Central College, who represented Christianity, and Aadil Farid, immediate past president of the Islamic Center of Naperville. We were invited by Youseff Mekowy, an Egyption student in his senior year and President of the Muslim Student Association at NCC. He indicated that the purpose of the panel was “to educate our audience to help clear the stereotypes and the ignorance that might lead to any sort of misunderstandings”. The audience of about 50 consisted of about faculty and students from different countries and different religious backgrounds.

I decided to talk about four common misconceptions or misunderstandings about Judaism.

The first is that one can understand Judaism by reading the Old Testament. It is true that in the Old Testament one can read the seminal Jewish stories about Abraham and Sarah, about Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, about the commandments to abstain from certain foods and about our history in the Land of Israel. But Biblical Judaism, with its Tabernacle and Temple, its Priestly service, its focus on animal sacrifice, its emphasis on ritual purity, its severe punishments – think “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” – and its very cross G-d – is not the Judaism that we practice today. Judaism is not a fossilized religion, but a living, breathing and developing tradition that has evolved and adapted to meet the challenges of new circumstances and changing times. There is always, of course, much tension around how much Judaism should change, or could change, before it ceases to be true to its origins. This has led to a variety of expressions of the Jewish faith throughout the world, from Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism to the more traditional interpretations from the Orthodox or Haredi movements.

A second common misunderstanding about Judaism is that going to a Seder replicates Jesus’ Last Supper. Although the Gospels situate the Last Supper around the time of Pesah and therefore Seder, there is no conclusive evidence that the Last Supper was the Jewish ritual known as a Seder. Scholarly consensus holds that is more likely to have been an ordinary Jewish meal. There is no mention in the Gospels of important symbols associated with a Seder — Matzah, or bitter herbs, or four cups of wine, or the eating of the Paschal lamb. Furthermore, the Seder as we know it, began to be practiced sometime after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE, after Jesus’ time, and continued to develop throughout the Middle Ages up to our own present day.

A third common misconception is that all Jews support the State of Israel. In fact, prior to World War ll there was a great controversy about whether there should be a Jewish homeland in the Middle East . There was also controversy about and what kind of homeland it ought to be. Some sought to establish a Jewish cultural center within the Ottoman Empire. Others, such as Theodore Herzl the founder of Modern Zionism, saw the need for a Nation State of the Jewish people with real political power. Many Jews in America were concerned that the establishment of a Jewish state would lead to charges of “dual loyalty”. Justice Louis Brandeis addressed the issue in 1915 in a speech to Reform Rabbis:

“Let no American imagine that Zionism is inconsistent with Patriotism. Multiple loyalties are objectionable only if they are inconsistent. A man is a better citizen of the United States for being also a loyal citizen of his state, and of his city; or for being loyal to his college…. Every American Jew who aids in advancing the Jewish settlement in Palestine, though he feels that neither he nor his descendants will ever live there, will likewise be a better man and a better American for doing so. There is no inconsistency between loyalty to America and loyalty to Jewry.”

Today, 69 years after the establishment of the State of Israel, most Jews want to see a democratic Israel with secure boundaries who is at peace with her neighbors. At the same time, many Jews disagree with the policies of particular Israeli governments. Most American Jews support the official goals of the Israeli government, which is to work toward a two state solution where Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace and dignity.

A fourth misconception is that all Jews believe in G-d and are religious. Last year Rabbi Yehiel Poupko, Rabbinic Scholar of the Jewish United Fund of Chicago, wrote an article for the magazine “Christianity Today” explaining to Christians Bernie Sanders’ Judaism. He writes that Sanders’ “Judaism, and membership in the Jewish people, fit no category of faith and religion familiar to most Christians.” How then can Sanders say, as he did, “I am very proud of being Jewish, and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being” and yet not practice the Jewish faith or affirm a belief in G-d? This is because, writes Rabbi Poupko, “We are not merely a faith or a religion. We are a family. Our family life entails belief in God, responding to God’s revelation at Sinai, and God’s commanding voice summoning us to a life of justice, holiness, purity, and righteousness. Irrespective of how an individual Jew responds to that, they remain a member of the family.”

As we all know there are many other misconceptions about Judaism. Perhaps I will be invited back to NCC next year, so that we can continue to learn from one another.