The Talmud is the Jewish New Testament
High on the list of common religious misconceptions is the idea that Judaism (based off the “Old Testament”) is a ruthless, merciless, and punishing tradition while Christianity (based off the New Testament) is full of love and forgiveness.
A recent comic appearing in the New Yorker this past Christmas underlines this fallacy. In this one scene comic a Santa full of rage is destroying the interior of a house on Christmas, while the children look on in fear. In the background the father turns to the mother and says “Oh crap, we invited Old Testament Santa!”
Funny, I admit. Well funny in 2019 when Jews are accepted as equal members of American society. If I was a persecuted Jew in the 18th century, withheld from equal rights because of the false perception of inherent Jewish immorality, I might not be chuckling.
However, regardless of the humor of said comic, it touches on a point that critics of (or people who don’t really understand) Judaism continuously get wrong. A point that I encounter often when I am in an interfaith space whether the interaction is planned or unplanned. Namely that Judaism represents an archaic and punishing view of morality and theology, one that the New Testament came to correct.
Late Second Temple Judaism found itself in a state of extreme flux and turmoil. An encroaching Roman army mixed with the ever present allure of assimilating into the wider Greco-Roman society fractured Judaism into multiple sectarian groups, each vying for the future of the Jewish community.
As it became increasingly evident that Judaism would need to evolve from a Temple-centric, sacrificial tradition, new philosophies arose that attempted to radically innovate and preserve this ancient tradition.
By mid-first century there were two Jewish groups that embodied this shift more than anyone.
Followers of a young man named Jesus began to radically challenge the stale-natured status quo of temple based religion. Many of his followers, especially Paul, preached a universalistic faith where Jew and gentile alike could enter the Abrahamic covenant simply based on their belief in Jesus. Unsurprisingly, some Jews were drawn to this new Paulian, belief-centric, form of Judaism.
After Jesus’s death many of his disciples went a step further and codified his biography and life’s teachings into various gospels. And, although there is substantial contradiction from one gospel to the next, the four gospels come together to radically transform and re-interpret much of the “Old Testament”. Ask a Christian to interpret a well known story in the “Old Testament” and, assuming they know their Bible, you will hear a radically different version of the same story you have been taught all your life.
But the rabbis did almost the exact same thing, albeit one step better. They too came onto the scene attempting to radically change the status-quo, striving to create a Jewish philosophical and legal tradition that could survive and thrive beyond the tumultuous first century.
These rabbis were simultaneously steeped in the Jewish ethical tradition while, at the same time, immersed in the “secular” intellectual traditions of both Greco-Rome in Israel and the Sasanian empire in Babylon. As a result, they were able to create a form of Judaism that attempted to synthesize the best of both of these worlds.
A major focal point of Paul’s (and by extension the dominant thinking in the New Testament’s) worldview is that faith is the highest virtue of mankind. Faith is what separates people, not familial connection or actions. If one has faith then they are automatically in the in-group, otherwise they will be the “other.” As early Christianity was beginning to find its own identity separate from Judaism, fierce debates over dogma and theology were commonplace, where the victors would crown the losers as heretics, casting them out of the tradition. Philosophical homogeneity was one of the main goals of the early Church.
Conversely, the rabbis seemed to have the exact opposite goal. Judaism had been nearly torn apart by the ideologically disparate and occasionally waring sectarian groups of the late Second Temple. The goal of the rabbis then was to create a system and epistemological springboard that allowed for a multiplicity of ideas along with debate - ensuring that a difference of opinion could actually be the basis of community instead of strife. The early rabbinic champions, Hillel and Shammai embodied this idea as much as anyone. Although disagreeing on issues of legalistic, ethical, historical, and philosophical significance they never questioned the authenticity and “Jewishness” of the other.
Whereas the New Testament attempts to “correct” the Old Testament’s suspect morality via the awkward layering of more theology (for instance the idea the God changed his mind), the rabbis arrived at the same end via rational discourse. Creating a set of exegetical heuristics with which to approach the Bible, the rabbis were able to innovate and adapt Judaism according to the pressing moral and sociological needs without the overuse of theological apologetics.
The Talmud even goes so far as to argue that even if God himself came down and told the rabbis that what they were doing was wrong, they wouldn’t listen, since in their worldview rational interpretation and discussion superseded theologies and theophanies.
Imagine a story like that appearing in Christian literature.
Aside from a couple of foundational moral principles, the truth is that Jewish thinking and ethics has very little to do with the Hebrew Bible. Rather it is the innovation, evolution, and debate of a 3000 year tradition that truly defines the modern Jewish community.
Moshe Daniel Levine is a regular contributor of blog postings on Jewish Values Online.
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Why is there not more modern resistance to the idea that the Talmud, written by rabbis, carries the same authority as the Torah, given by God at Mt. Sinai?
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