V. COMMON QUESTIONS ABOUT JUDAISM
WHY THE NAMES JEW, ISRAELITE, AND HEBREW?
Since the time of Jeremiah at least, the term Jew has been used to designate a group of people in differentiation from various Gentile groups. Etymologically the word suggests a descendant of Judah, but Mordecai of the Esther story was called a Jew although he was a descendant of Benjamin. The descendants of the priestly tribe of Levi are also included under the general designation, Jew. Jacob, the father of Judah, was given the name Israel after he wrestled with an angel (Gen. 32:28). Every Jew is a descendant of Israel and may be called an Israelite. Abraham the Hebrew is the father of the Jewish people and like Jonah who identified himself by saying, "I am a Hebrew" (Jonah 1:9), the Jew willingly accepts the designation. For the last hundred years the ancient language of the Jewish people has been referred to as Hebrew and the word is often used in reference to Jewish culture. A Jew is proud to be called a Jew, but he is also an Israelite and a Hebrew and does not object to these designations.
WHAT DO JEWS THINK OF JESUS?
Unfortunately but understandably the thoughts of many Jews are still colored by the remembrance of sufferings inflicted in the name of Jesus, so that the mention of his name frequently produces an uncomfortable feeling. As Jews are made to feel less defensive as a minority group and are accepted without discrimination, they feel more at ease in attempting to understand the person, Jesus. Some Jewish scholars portray the Jesus of the Gospels as a man deeply steeped in Jewish ethical teachings; a man aglow with love and pity, especially for the unfortunate and lost; a man gifted with deep insights into human nature; and a man endowed with the ability to illustrate vividly through parables and to drive home a point with incisiveness. A leading rabbi has said, "I accept Jesus as one of the great men of history! I accept the religion he preached because, 1, too, am a liberal Jew; but I reject the religion about him."
WHY DO JEWS REJECT JESUS' DIVINITY?
They believe that the references to Jesus' divinity and Messiahship are merely reflections of a believing Church and not to be accorded historical validity. They believe that Paul, a former rabbi, is the real maker of Christianity because he equated Jesus with God, thus making him divine; he called him the Christ, a claim which they doubt Jesus made of himself and proclaimed the Lordship of Christ and justification by faith, thereby cancelling all obligation to follow the Torah and its ramifications. The Jews say that even if the miracles attributed to Jesus are true, they are paralleled by similar miracles in the Old Testament where no claim to divinity is associated with them. They claim that the virgin birth is a legend to justify the belief in Jesus as the God-man and has no weight. They reject the concept of vicarious atonement and, of course, the doctrine of the Trinity. Although the New Testament is sometimes studied very carefully by Jews, it is never accepted as Holy Scripture.
DO JEWS ACCEPT BIBLICAL PROPHECY ABOUT THE MESSIAH?
Most Jews believe that a Messiah is predicted in the Old Testament and that he will be the human "son of David," who will be the monarch of a restored Davidic kingdom. They claim that there are no references to his being divine. They say that Paul was absolutely right in declaring that the crucifixion is a "stumbling block to Jews" (I Cor. 1:23) because Jews believe that the Messiah is to reign triumphant, not die as a common criminal. They believe that the Messiah, when he comes, will institute a reign of justice, truth, and peace-a reign which, they claim, has not yet become apparent.
Liberal Jews do not believe in Biblical prophecy in the predictive sense and have discarded all concepts of a personal, physical Messiah. They claim that the prophets were speaking to their contemporary situations and that all predictions must be interpreted in their social and historical contexts.
DO JEWS ACCEPT THE BLAME FOR THE CRUCIFIXION?
Jews do not accept the blame for the crucifixion, although they have been plagued with the onus of responsibility throughout Christian history. Modern Jewish scholars claim that the Gospels are inaccurate in describing the role of the Sanhedrin in the trial of Jesus and that other details are not consistent with Jewish practices. In the history of Judaism there is only one account of a trial for blasphemy and in that case the accusers were condemned and therefore it is unlikely that Jesus was actually tried on that charge by the Sanhedrin. Of course, the Roman authorities reserved the right to condemn to death and utilized the method of death by crucifixion.
However, even if it is assumed that the Jewish leaders viewed Jesus as a threat to the structure of Jewish Law and a corrupt priesthood viewed Jesus with fear and there was a desire to see him eliminated, Jews ask why they should be condemned forever because of the action of their forefathers. They point out that the world does not condemn Anglo-Saxon Americans because the early settlers annihilated Indian tribes and deprived other Indians of their lands and resources.
Actually, the Christians' own most profound religious convictions preclude limiting the blame for the death of Jesus to any specific person or group, because all mankind shares responsibility and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, all mankind is redeemed. Love and forgiveness in the name of Christ preclude the Christian's condemnation of a religious group for an event that occurred long ago.
WHAT DO JEWS THINK OF CHRISTIANS?
Jews are willing to include Christians among their best friends and are eager to co-operate with them in every social endeavor. With a genuine spirit of charity and forgiveness they are eager to forget the past but cannot help remembering the persecutions suffered by their people. In the early centuries Christianity was viewed as a threat to Judaism because Jesus, the Apostles, and most of the early disciples were Jews. The Christians accepted the Jewish Bible, sang the Jewish psalms, and prayed some of the same prayers-and in addition, encountered the same foes. Obviously, the Christians were viewed with suspicion. But after they became dominant and ruled the Western world, suspicion turned to fear. Jews were massacred during the Crusades; they were accused of poisoning wells, of causing the Black Plague; their property was confiscated repeatedly, and persecution was common. The present generation has known the pogroms of Hitler. The Jew tries to forget the past, to avoid malice, and to live in peace with his Christian neighbor of today.
WHY B.C.E. AND C.E.?
Most Jewish historical and religious books use the designations B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era) to indicate respectively the period before the birth of Jesus and the period after his birth. The explanation is simple. The authors do not wish to imply that they accept Jesus as the Christ and therefore dislike the designation B.C. (Before Christ); they do not wish to imply that they accept Jesus as Lord and therefore dislike the designation A.D. (Anno Domini - in the year of the Lord). The traditional Jewish calendar is often inadequate. Therefore the conventional calendar is accepted for practical purposes, with the designations B.C.E. and C.E.
DO JEWS BAPTIZE?
This question is asked frequently because John the Baptist baptized in the river Jordan, a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4f) and Jesus' disciples baptized (John 4:1), and perhaps Jesus did too even before the "glorification" (John 7:39). The meaning of this type of baptism is clarified by the practices of traditional Judaism today. It is believed that women are unclean at certain periods. A woman becomes ritually clean through immersion Mikvah - a form of baptism. Through contact with women who are ritually unclean or through the violation of other tabus, a man may also become polluted (Lev. 11-15; Nums. 19). As a means of cleansing or purification and sanctification, a ritual of total immersion is required for him as well. Special baths called ritualariums are constructed by Orthodox communities for this purpose.
A Gentile wishing to become a Jew must also be totally immersed. In addition, a male must be circumcised. While the Temple was still in existence, an offering was required of both men and women but the outstanding feature is the baptism, declared by Hillel to be the decisive ceremony of conversion to Judaism.
Steeped in this tradition, John the Baptist exhorted the people to become both ceremonially and morally pure through repentance and baptism, in preparation for the Messianic kingdom, to save them from the wrath to come (Luke 3:7). Baptism in Judaism is never thought of as a means of removing the effects of a generic original sin; its purpose is the cleansing and restoration of an individual to his original state of purity, and it may be performed often, although a single baptism is adequate in connection with conversion.
As baptism developed in Christianity it was related to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: the baptized spiritually died to sin and were buried or cleansed in water to rise to a new and perfect life in Christ. The early Christians recognized the significant difference between the baptism of John and that of Christianity, and those who had only the former baptism were rebaptized (Acts 19:3-6). Jews do baptize, although they do not use the term, but the meaning is different from that of Christian baptism.
WHAT IS THE JEWISH CONCEPTION OF MAN?
Jews do not believe that man is born with original sin or that the soul bears a guilt that must be removed through baptism or confession of faith in Christ Jesus. On the other hand, they do not believe that man is born good. Man is born free and with the capacity to choose between good and evil. No man is blamed for what others have done; each man is accountable for himself.
DO JEWS BELIEVE IN INTERMARRIAGE?
Jews are opposed to intermarriage for essentially practical reasons. Loyalties to conflicting religions create disorder in a home and confuse the children. Furthermore, according to Jewish Law, the child belongs to his mother. Therefore, if a Jew marries a Gentile woman, the child belongs to the woman, and the progeny are forever lost to Judaism.
For many centuries, when the Jews were being persecuted, to marry outside of the faith was considered a betrayal and a token of allegiance to the oppressors. The person who married outside of Judaism became an outcast and was mourned by his family as if he were dead.
Of course, intermarriage has always occurred where there has been cultural intermingling, with the result that Jews invariably reflect the physical characteristics of the culture in which they live. Thus Jews in China look like Chinese, those in India look like other Indians, those in Yemen look like other Yemenites, those in Germany look like other Germans, and so on. There are no common Jewish physical characteristics.
ARE JEWS MISSIONARY-MINDED?
Jews believe that anyone, whether he is a Jew or not, may achieve salvation through an ethical commitment to the one God, and therefore Judaism does not have the same missionary incentive as Christianity. At one time Jews traversed "land and sea to make a proselyte" (Matt. 23:15). A special treatise in the Gemara contains laws and discussions pertaining to newcomers to Judaism, with the great rabbi Hillel more liberal than his opponent, Shammai. But as Christianity became the dominant group in Western culture and Islam dominated the Near East and northern Africa, all conversions to Judaism were categorically forbidden, with the result that the missionary spirit was stifled. It is now being reborn on the assumption that Judaism has much to say to the religiously unaffiliated, and Jewish Information Centers have been opened in many parts of the world. Although conversion is simpler in Reform Judaism than in Orthodox Judaism, it is often discouraged, especially when it is sought for the purpose of marriage and without sincerity of intent. In Orthodox Judaism the person is refused acceptance into Judaism three times but if he persists, he goes through a rigid period of instruction after which he is immersed and is called a Jew.
WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AMERICAN JEWS AND ISRAEL?
The state of Israel has a special meaning for Jews all over the world because it is a country that has welcomed the Jewish homeless with open arms and excites admiration for causing the deserts to bloom once again. Jews also have spiritual and emotional ties to the land of their "fathers" and the persons there who are rebuilding a Jewish culture. But this attachment and interest is supplemental to the loyalty to the country that gives them citizenship. Jews in the United States are intensely loyal Americans and their many contributions to our way of life are ample testimony of their devotion to this country.
WHAT IS THE STATUS OF JEWS IN AMERICA?
Since the first Jewish settlers, came to America over three hundred years ago, Jews have enjoyed a high degree of freedom and security in this country. Distinguished in physics, medicine, and the arts, Jews are also leaders in trade, banking, manufacturing, and other productive enterprises. They are active in the support of causes for the underprivileged and in opposition to any form of discrimination. Philanthropy, devotion to family life, and a deep concern with learning are characteristic of vigorous Jewish communities throughout the nation.