The Distinctiveness of Judaism – Introduction

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When people were sacrificing their children to their idols, it was much easier to articulate and demonstrate the ethical and conceptual distinctiveness of the theological principles of Judaism. As the Jewish People, though, became more and more successful in influencing the nations of the world in their moral development, the distinctiveness of Judaism became somewhat more difficult to enunciate.
How are we still different, specifically in the moral/ethical realm? How do our thought processes in this discipline still stand apart from that of the rest of the world? I was once asked a question by a student of mine in an afternoon Hebrew High School: what’s the real difference between a Christian and a Jew – so we have the Seder and they have Easter dinner, but it’s really the same thing, it’s just family getting together – so aren’t we really the same, just with some minor differences in process? That is essentially the same question I am posing here. The question is not just how we are different but: how are we substantially and importantly different?
My underlying assumption, obviously, is that we are; that there are distinctions in the Jewish ethical and moral perspective that distinguishes it from other ethical and moral systems. In many ways, this is a challenging statement. Within the parameters of what we define as Judaism, there are actually many variant ethical/moral systems; some overlapping, in certain ways, more with other non-Jewish systems than with other Jewish ones. For example, Reform Judaism’s position on homosexuality and gay rights is more in concert with the position of certain Christian denominations than it would be with Orthodox Judaism. Similarly, Orthodox Judaism’s view on the subject would seem to be more in concert with the view of certain other Christian denominations that it would be with Reform Judaism.
Nonetheless, the argument would be that there is something unique within the Jewish perspective on a subject of moral/ethical concern which makes it distinctive, even as it may be similar in many respects with non-Jewish perspectives. It may then be that this distinctive Jewishness traverses the variant denominations of Judaism even as they may disagree in other specifics.
Ultimately, though, I speak as an Orthodox rabbi. It is from that perspective that I state that, even when it would seem that the ethical/moral viewpoints I maintain overlap with those of other ethical/moral systems, there is still something distinctively Jewish within my perspective. My goal, within this blog series, is to present, using different examples, why this is so.
A further problem, though, is that the perception of the world, in general, is exactly the opposite, suggesting that Jewishness no longer really presents a distinct moral perspective. This is bound in the term “Judaeo-Christian” which, beyond even its narrow implication of an inherent bonding in Jewish and Christian ethics, decrees a basic underlying, totally similar base in Western ethics. My contention must be understood to further insist that this term “Judaeo-Christian” is actually a misnomer and that its simple application in attempting to understand Judaism will essentially lead to incorrect conclusions. No doubt, there is overlap between Christianity and Judaism, in fact between the general world of Western ethics and Judaism. Nonetheless there are major distinctions with approaches, thoughts and ideas found within Jewish thought that are not found within other perspectives (and approaches within other perspectives that have no place within Judaism).
Perhaps the argument would be that if the world community, which clearly, over history, has incorporated Torah values into its various systems, would have fully incorporated the perspective of Judaism, it would be a Jewish (or, perhaps, a pure Noachide) community. (For more on Noahism, see WikiNoah) In that the world community, or the Western world, has not, a distinction still must exist. (Interestingly, see further the censored words of Maimonides at the end of his Mishneh Torah where he describes Christianity and Islam as steps on the way to the incorporation of the full truth of Judaism.) Identifying these ethical/moral distinctions must thus be an important part of our goal of knowing and understanding Judaism.
The place, perhaps, to begin is with how Jews look at the Bible. The topic actually begins with the very definition of the Bible; the Jewish understanding being clearly unique. I, though, would like to further begin this study with a specific example which some might find strange as a starting point but actually demonstrates the matter well. So in my next post, we will look at the city of Sodom – and how Judaism derives from this story the concept of Middat Sdom while the focus of the world on this story led to the word ‘sodomy’. The difference in approach will speak volumes.

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