Christians and Jews

So similar, yet so different

This intriguing explanation by Eric Mendelsohn of Toronto of the differences and similarities between Christians and Jews is part of an occasional series in which writers of other faiths discuss their religion. Mendelsohn is a mathematics professor and lay commentator for kol HaneNhamah, the new prayerbook of Reconstructionist Judaism.

As the High Holydays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) approach, I am often asked by Christian friends to explain being a Jew. It is difficult because Christians and Jews are so close and so much alike.

But two other groups are also very similar, yet very different: Canadians and Americans. We like each other, share traditions, and a border. Yet it is difficult to explain to an American that an "Un-Canadian activities committee" is nonsense to Canadians.

We may be better able to understand the differences between Christians and Jews by looking at the differences between Americans and Canadians. There are some fascinating parallels.

Let's start with a simple example: "The scribes and the Pharisees. " Our differing perspectives on them as Jews and Christians are akin to Canadian and American views about United Empire Loyalists. The Loyalists are among the founders and strengtheners of our country and traditions. The Americans think of them as the "Tories" they expelled or hounded out. Christians think of the scribes and the Pharisees as, at best, an unfeeling establishment. For Jews they are the rocks on which our faith is built.

Another example: At one time there was only one form of government in British North America - British

Colonial Rule. The colonists matured, outside political events intervened, and colonial rule disappeared. In reaction to colonialism's irrelevance, weaknesses, and decadence grew two similar systems -- American Republicanism and Canadian Parliamentary Democracy.

American Republicanism claims revolutionary doctrine. Canadian Parliamentary democracy claims continuous development toward responsible government.

In the same way, once there was only

one kind of Judaism -- Temple Cult Judaism. Both traditional Jewish and early Christian sources talk of Temple Judaism's irrelevance, weaknesses and decadence near the beginning of the common era (Jews use BCE and CE instead of BC and AD; Canadians insist on spelling "colour" with a'u')

When outside forces destroyed the Temple they destroyed the cult. A revolutionary doctrine arose asserting that Jesus was the fulfilment of the aim of the Temple cult. Through his sacrifice, the expiation of sin by sacrifice could continue. Just as Americans insist that their revolution brought democracy to the world, so Christians assert Jesus brought salvation to the world. The Battle Hymn of the Republic's last verse, for example,

has the lines "As He died to make men holy/ Let us die to make men free."

But there was another group who insisted that Temple Judaism could develop without the Temple. They transferred power from the mystery of Temple priests to the scholarship of the Rabbis. Just as Canadians retained the parliamentary and judicial systems, Rabinnic Jews kept some of formal institutions of the Temple, the calendar of festivals, the reading of the Law, the liturgy, and added to this the concept that the offering of a prayer service served instead of a sacrifice. All branches of Judiasm today are direct descendants of Rabbinic Judaism just as all denominations of Christianity descend from Apostolic Christianity.

There is an endless list of such parallels. Here are some other important ones.

Americans regard the War of 1812 as a victory -- Canadians have a different view. Many Christians view the Crusades as spiritual and romantic

Jews view them as the first of the European events which escalated to the Inquisition and culminated in the Holocaust.

Margaret Atwood has most eloquently described Canadians as victims and survivors. Americans see themselves successful and triumphant. Jews see G-d's* work in the miracle of their survival; Christians see God's work in the success of their mission.

Americans patriotism is grounded in what you believe, Canadians in how you act. On the whole Christians are more concerned with creed, Jews with deed.

Americans are much concerned with a future when the American dream will be fulfilled. Canadians are more concerned with making social improvements now. Jews attach more importance to tikun olam (repair of this world) than to olam habah (the world to

come). Jews talk about afterlife as incentive to increase compassion in this life.

Americans can't see why Canadians shouldn't take on American symbols like Pilgrims and Indians for Thanksgiving; after all, Canadians do cat turkey and have a family dinner. And Christians sometimes wonder why Jews don't celebrate Chanukah with a tree; after all, haven't they taken on gift-giving and family reunions and other secular Christmas customs?

Americans believe that the American Way is the political and economic salvation of the world. Canadians believe that their way of life is best for them but may or may not work for others.

The best parallel is, however, the one from my own heart. It is difficult to tell an American that although you love them, recognize the advances of their society, have deep respect and admiration for them, that you simply do not see The American Way as the only way. You affirm that you are Canadian, that being Canadian is the best way for you and you neither desire nor need to become American. No matter how you say this, Americans either get hurt or can't understand.

Similarly, it is difficult to tell Christians that although you love them, recognize the advances of their society, that you respect and admire them, you simply do not see "Accepting Christ" as the only way. You affirm that you are Jewish, that being Jewish is the best way for you and there is neither desire nor need to become Christian. For no matter how you say this, Christians either get hurt or can't understand.

There is one group, however, who may be able to bridge this gulf. If Canadian Christians will listen to their own feelings about being Canadian in vast America, they will find they have the sensitivity. One of the best things about being a Canadian Jew is the knowledge that Canadian Christians are singularly equipped to understand how Jews feel.

*Author's note: Orthodox Jews do not write the name of G-d on paper that may be later desecrated. They bury paper with G-d's name with their dead. I follow a liberal practice of not writing G-d's name on paper that will not be recycled.

September 1993