Posted by: Steve Coplan | April 24, 2006

Judaism that scales

That’s Christianity. I'm in the midst of listening to the Gnostic Gospels on CD during my commute to glamorous Fort Lee. The author is Elaine Pagels, who was widely quoted recently for her work on releasing the Gospel of Judas. Since I've always found Judas a far more compelling character than anyone else I've encountered in my admittedly cursory readings of the New Testament, I found the reinterpretation both compelling, and well frankly a little bit of stretch. The gospel's hypothesis is in fact that Judas was Jesus' favorite disciple, chosen to betray him in order to hasten his destiny as the savior. I still prefer to see him as fatally flawed, a character type far more consistent with the Torah's figures than the saints. The Gospel of Judas is also interesting in that it raises again the question when Christianity became a separate religion rather than followers of Rabbi Jesus, who were mostly Jewish or Judaized initially. The reason why I find this inflection interesting is because Christianity has been so wildly successful, while Judaism has persevered thousands of years but constitutes a tiny percentage even of those who believe in monotheism (and by extension the Hebrew god).

Judaism is a religion of intensive ritual and comprehensively proscribed lifestyles. The result is a religion (rather than faith) that is symbolically rich, open to constant interpretation, elaboration and density. Judaism is an enormously resilient religion and way of life that has persisted despite innovations in humanity's spiritual reportoire. The lack of enthusiasm the innovators encountered for their novel approaches inevitably resulted in some less than complementary views of Jews (but not always Judaism) – compare the denunciations of Jews from Matthew, Mohammed and Martin Luther. But on the other hand, Judaism doesn’t scale very well. Judaism's statement of purpose is the study of the Torah and devotion to the precepts – creating a lifestyle entwined in the ritual, the constant study of texts and ongoing practice. One consequence is of course that much of the religion practicioners become consumed with ritual purity and the minutiae of observance, but lose any sense of the moral context.

This phenomenon was already clear in Jesus’ time (and even earlier as Philo Judeaus’ writings on the individual's relationship with the divine illustrate) with the added element of a corrupt and nepotistic priesthood collaborating with the colonial occupiers. Jesus was as others have pointed out was one of Judaism’s first rabbis – he broke with the established hierarchy to make religion more relevant in people's lives. But more importantly, he set out to establish that ritual existed to entrench a principle and that the embracing the principle was more important than being exacting about the ritual's performance. An interesting example of this is the passage in Acts that describes Peter's vision of an array of unkosher food which he is exhorted to consume. Eventually he realizes that he has been confronted by this vision to illustrate that he must embrace all of humankind (and stop being so picky about what he eats). I've been led to believe that the tradition of the Easter ham is derived from this episode. Also, later proponents of Christianity removed the need for what was viewed as a barbaric act through the 'circumcision of the heart' argument.
During roughly the same period that Jesus preached, Jews had started to codify the Oral Law – the Mishna that along with the Gemara form the foundation of the Talmud. Two of the central sages of the mishna are Hillel and Shamai, who offered opposing views on fulfilling Judaism's obligations or mitzvas. Hillel advocated that understanding the intention of the act could compensate for any oversights in practice while Shammai argued that ritual purity was imperative in order to preserve the integrity of its underlying lesson. The Gemara frequently sets up their contrasting positions as the basis for debate. Hillel was, however, famous for artculating the aphorism – "Do not do unto neighbor what you will have not done to you – all the rest is commentary" when a Roman centurion asked him to recite the Torah's principles standing on one leg. Jesus modified the wording slightly, but fundamentally changed the impact.

The break between Judaism and Christianity centers on the divinity of Christ, and by extension his sacrifice for humankind. In a sense, this is more a political argument since the followers of Jesus couldn't persuade mainstream Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah, and gradually whittle away the laws that discouraged non-Jews from signing on to the program. Still, nothing quite matches the simplicity of 'God is Love', without having to make qualifications.



  1. Don’t know if you’ve been reading Harry Potter to your kids, but the new thinking on Judas, in my mind, offers a clue on the actions of Severus Snape at the end of the last one… Just my suspicion…

  2. Harry Potter? We are still working through Goodnight Gorilla and Rumble Tumble with Caleb.

    There is clearly a good deal of speculation on the motivations of Severus Snape (, but it strikes me that Judas didn’t have split loyalties. He just had an impulsive weakness for hard currency.

  3. harry potter great strory i love to read

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