Judaism and Christianity: A Rabbi’s Christmas Sermon

 In Contemporary Life, Holidays

Judaism and Christianity:  A Rabbi’s Christmas Sermon

Rabbi Bonnie Koppell

Temple Chai- Phoenix, Arizona

Dec. 25, 2020

 

It’s impossible to ignore today’s date.  December 25th.  As a Jewish minority living among a Christian majority, we can’t help but be aware of the significance of this date to our friends and neighbors, who celebrate today the birth of a first century rabbi and teacher, Jesus of Nazareth.

When I speak to non-Jewish groups about Judaism,  they often ask me about the Jewish perspective on Jesus.  It is hard for them to understand that we have a rich and full tradition that doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus, and that we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about his significance and who he was.

I do think that MOST Jews acknowledge that Jesus was a historical figure who lived in the first century CE.  Where we differ with our Christian neighbors is their belief in his divinity, that Jesus was the Messiah, that’s the translation of the word “Christ,” and that he was the child of God in a way fundamentally different than the way in which we believe that all of us are made in God’s image and equally God’s children.  We do not believe that one individual is uniquely the child of God in a literal sense.

As Jews, we also reject the notion of the Trinity.  The Shema, arguably our most important prayer, reminds us at least three times a day of the belief in one and only one God.  We may see God through many lenses and identify many attributes of God, yet God’s fundamental unity is unquestioned.

One of the things I admire most about the Torah is that no individual is depicted as being perfect.  Even Moses, the greatest leader of all, is flawed.  We are all works in progress, we can all aspire to greater goodness and, some might argue, that is the goal of our lives.  We have different strengths, different aptitudes, but we are all equal in the sight of God.

Secondly, Judaism and Christianity have fundamental differences in the way we view human nature. Christianity includes a notion of original sin.   The Christian perspective suggests that human beings are born in sin and require ritual intervention to be saved from that sin- that is, baptism.   Where many Christians hold that without baptism as infants, children cannot be saved, in Judaism the lack of a bris or a baby naming do not automatically condemn us for eternity.

In addition, in the Jewish tradition, we do not believe in original sin.    Mind you, we do not believe in original goodness either!  Babies are mostly adorable and certainly innocent but they cannot be described as ‘good” in a moral sense.  Judaism suggests that, we are each born, with a yetzer ha–tov and a yetzer ha-ra, that is, an inclination to good and an inclination to evil.    Our character is formed by the choices we make.

Thirdly, traditional Judaism is filled with longing for the coming of the Messiah, who will clean up the mess we’ve made of the world.  Traditional Christianity is founded on the belief that Jesus WAS that messiah.  So how is it that our world is still so flawed?  That is explained by the doctrine of the second coming, that Jesus will return at some future point and complete the job.

The Reform movement has gone a step further, rejecting the notion of an individual Messiah and replacing it with the vision of a messianic age.  This is reflected in our liturgy- we no longer pray to God who is “mayvee goel”- the One who brings a redeemer, but “mayvee geula”, the One who brings redemption.  This shifts the responsibility for moving us towards the messianic age from God to humanity- thus the emphasis on tikkun olam, repair of the world.  It is not enough to pray for the Messiah to come, or, to come again.  In the limited time we are granted on earth we each need to nudge the world closer towards healing, wholeness and peace.

Finally, there has never been a creed in Judaism, though some, most notably Maimonides, have attempted to formulate one.  We are blessed with intellectual freedom, freedom to choose from a variety of beliefs about everything ranging from our views of the afterlife to our concept of God.  As Jews, our focus is on doing the right thing, on how we relate to each other- that, in the Jewish conception, is the foundation of religious life, not having the right belief in order to be “saved”.  I especially love the deep respect Judaism has for other faith groups- we do not feel the need to convince others to believe as we do, rather, our tradition teaches that “the righteous of all faiths have a share in the world to come.”  Christianity is great for Christians, Buddhism is great for Buddhists, and how blessed we are with our beautiful Jewish way of life.

A belief in the neutrality of our nature and our ability to shape who we become, a sense that we are all, equally, children of the One God, created in the Divine image, and the need to work towards a messianic age and to behave righteously- that is what we, as Jews, affirm.

 

 

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