Monday, March 28, 2011

Response to: A Western Heart: How ancient is Judaism?

A Western Heart has a post titled How Ancient is Judaism, which has touched an interesting question. When does religious practice change so much, that we are no longer a continuation of the past, but rather a new religion?

At some risk to my "Goy" self, I occasionally write something about Jews and Judaism. So far, however, I have escaped unscathed (I think) so here goes another foray:
It is a common and proud claim among Israelis that they are still living in the same place and speaking the same language and (sort of) following the same religion as they did 3,000 years ago. That thought gives them great pride and helps make up in some way for the horrendous travail Jews have had to go through to get to today.

But, to be blunt, it is nonsense. After the Roman triumph and the expulsion of most Jews from Israel, Jews had to change their religion radically. Judaism had been a temple-focused religion -- so once the temple was gone, huge changes in thinking and custom were needed.

And the changes took two forms: Those who accepted the ideas of the greatest rabbi (Jesus Christ) and those who laboured to stick more closely to traditional ideas. Even among the latter group, however, the surrounding pagan culture took over to a degree. The modern form of the seder, for instance, is said to be strongly influenced by the form of the Hellenistic symposium.

So Judaism as we know it today is in fact no older than Christianity. They are two branches that had to put out fresh growth after the original tree was cut down. And just as Christian thinking underwent all sorts of disputes in its development (e.g. the Arian/Athanasian controversy) so Jews waited a long while for their new ideas to coalesce -- in the form of teachings by great rabbis such as Rashi and Maimonides...(read the full article at the link above)

Just to make it clear, I think his post is fair enough, though mistaken at its core. He is mistaking an evolution of a religion and the total break of a religion with its past. Basically I would argue that the core concepts have remained similar enough over time, that it is not a new religion, but an evolved one. Think about it as the difference between species, and breeds. There is a very simple thought experiment we can perform to check whether we are dealing with a new religion, or with a change within an existing religion. I call this the "test of recognition". Let us hypothetically transport an orthodox Jew back in time to when the temple existed. Let us ignore issues of speech, funny black hats, and/or the lack of beards. The question that interests us is whether despite all the changes in how they act, would the Jews at that time recognize him as a Jew (even if a rather odd one)? I have little doubt they would.

No one can argue that Judaism has changed. I'm fairly sure most intelligent Jews would admit that the Jews in the second temple period would not know/understand or phrase in a similar manner most of our concepts. However we would still share the same basic holy book (something Christians wouldn't), a similar world view that accepted the concept of commandments (Again, something Christians wouldn't even with early Christians) even if it differed on what they were exactly, and some of the basic oral teachings forming a basis for our understanding of the bible. Most importantly when describing god neither one would think the other was worshiping a different deity. (As I'm sure some would find with Christians). We would be recognized as Jews, and recognize second temple Jews as Jews.

No comments: