In the last few months, between writing on Quora and going to my Intro to Judaism class, I’ve been struck repeatedly by people’s beliefs about what Judaism is, and how incorrect those beliefs really are. Most Christians assume that “religion” looks like what they do, and can’t imagine any other way. Most atheists I bump into on this topic either never had a religion, or they came from a Christian background and rejected it, but almost all of them are Americans, raised in the American tradition, which is steeped heavily in Christian motifs, beliefs, and ways of experiencing and explaining the world. So the atheists also tend to assume that Christianity is what all religions look like.
Many of these misconceptions stem from an equally incorrect misconception: that all Christians are fundamentalist/evangelical Christians – and so all religious people are just like them, because that’s what religion looks like. Both Christians and atheists seem to believe this, and the misconceptions that grow in this fertile ground are kind of like kudzu.
Here’s a few specific misconceptions.
1. Jews are just Christians without Jesus/a Messiah. No. Sorry.
To be honest, I’m not even sure what that means, but I’ve found plenty of assumptions stemming from the idea that Christianity is what religion “looks like,” so the main difference in Judaism must be that it doesn’t have Jesus, but in most other ways it’s the same.
Certainly, Jews look for the Moshiach and the Messianic Age, but Yeshua ben Yosef (aka Jesus) isn’t him (or her), and this isn’t it. We aren’t counting on (or living for) an afterlife, and we aren’t really all that interested in making people believe the same way we do.
In Judaism, “Moshiach” is a title given to every secular political king we’ve ever had. It is NOT the title of a spiritual leader. There are a number of reasons why Yeshua ben Yosef is not the Messiah: the Temple has not been rebuilt, we do not have world peace, and the Jewish nation is not all located in Israel – among others.
2. Jews think that their religion is the only correct one and that all other religions should be eliminated/people forced to convert to the One True Religion.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I know that for most people, this is what “religion” means, but it’s hard to become a Jew, and we discourage conversion without a lot of thought and consideration. Compare that to the Christian conversion where you say “yes” and (possibly) jump in the ocean to get baptized, and you’re in.
Judaism isn’t about being better than other people, it’s about having more responsibilities than other people (that’s what “Chosen People” means, you know – not that we’re special but that we’re extra burdened). And as long as non-Jews keep the seven Noahide laws (look it up on Google), they have a place in the World to Come.
3. Jews reject science and proof in favor of blind faith and belief in a vicious, mean, petty God.
If you believe this, you don’t know any Jews. Jews are often scientists. We recognize that science is about “how” and religion is about “why.” Einstein (himself a Jewish scientist) said: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” Einstein also said about God: “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”
You don’t even have to believe in God to be a Jew. So assuming that all Jews believe in a vicious, mean, petty God is kind of stupid.
4. Judaism is about belief that has no support in the real world or through science.
Nope, sorry. Judaism isn’t about belief; it’s about behavior. How are you treating people? How are you behaving? That’s more important to us than what you believe. Look at the variety of beliefs across the spectrum of Jews; no two of us experience God the same way and no two of us have exactly the same belief system. The important thing is that we treat each other ethically and respectfully.
5. All Jews believe that their religious texts are literal, 100% infallible, and 100% correct as written for all times, places, and contexts.
A few Jews do, just like a few Christians do. That doesn’t mean all of us do. For me, the Torah is largely a set of metaphors and fables about how to deal with life, and deal with other people fairly and ethically. This includes the fables where the lesson about being ethical comes out of the story showing you what is unethical. It’s also the stories of fallible human beings doing the best they could in the contexts of their times.
6. Christianity has Jewish roots because Jesus was a Jew, so Christians believe the same things Jews do.
No. Sorry. Here’s a few things that Christians believe that Jews categorically do not:
a. A human god
d. A need for personal salvation or a “savior”
e. Human sacrifice (sorry, but the crucifixion of Yeshua ben Yosef counts!)
f. The Messiah as a spiritual leader, rather than a political leader
g. “Original sin”
h. “Personal revelation” of truth
And yet I’ve had atheists throw many of those at me as if I believe them. Why? Because I’m a Jew, and Judaism is a religion, and all religions are just like Christianity, right?
Many of the stories that Christians think are definitive and important from the Torah are actually minor blips for Jews. Adam and Eve in the Garden? Relatively minor. For Christians, this is a Huge Big Deal. The Abraham and Isaac story? Important for Jews. For Christians? They’re not sure what to make of that.
If someone’s going to dislike me because I’m a Jew, I’d appreciate it if they’d at least get their facts straight.