Personal God in Judaism and Christianity
Dr. Faydra Shapiro
Introductions are funny things – sometimes it’s what is unsaid, what is assumed, that can tell you the most. Several years ago I gave a talk at a church in North America about Israel and Jewish-Christian relations. The listeners were very encouraging and as the talk drew to a close I felt I had really done a superb job of teaching and inspiring the audience.
Until the moment when one elderly gentleman stood up to ask me a question. He said: “Thank you very much, Dr. Shapiro. That was a great talk. But one thing you didn’t really speak about was the role of your faith in Jesus Christ”. “Oh, dear”, I thought, my heart sinking. Clearly I had done a brilliant job, but I had missed an essential point. Since that day I take the time to state it plainly and for the record: I am a Jew. Admittedly a Jew with an out-of-the-ordinary interest in Christianity and the New Testament, but still, simply, an “Orthodox” Jew.
That doesn’t necessarily matter much, but it’s always useful to know where a person is coming from.
Today I want to discuss an issue that comes up often in my conversations with Christian – almost always evangelical – friends and students. This is the matter of “having a relationship with God”, and the belief that this is one of the benefits of the Jesus path. While I do recognize that the whole rhetoric of “relationship not religion” is a product of 1970s popular American evangelicalism, it is an attiude that has important implications even if it might not be mobilized by many Christians. Now again, let’s pay attention to the unsaid. Having a relationship with God as opposed to what? The other (clearly undesirable) option is “religion”. So with Jesus one can ostensibly have something true and immediate – a personal relationship with God, whereas Jews only have “religion”.
Let’s unpack this a little. “Relationship” is understood to refer to something intimate, experiential, mystical, personal, friendly, deep, spiritual. “Religion” is ascribed the associations of being rule-oriented, man-made, legalistic, formal, distanced and superficial. Given these resonances, clearly having a relationship is something desirable whereas religion is something to progress past. And it is not uncommon for Christian readings of the gospels to assume precisely this – that what Jesus offered people was a personal (intimate, deep) relationship with God specifically in distinction to the Jews who only offered (formal, sterile) religion.
You can imagine the impact that this kind of slogan has for Christian understandings of Judaism.
It’s also interesting how this emphasis resonates with the current wave of people who insist that they are “spiritual, not religious.”
The fact is that Judaism takes the idea of the individual’s relationship with God very seriously. It is obvious to Jews that both fear of God and love of God are important, and that emphasizing one over the over leads to an unhealthy imbalance. But the Jewish love of God and personal relationship with Him ends up looking quite different than that of contemporary evangelical Christianity for several reasons.
First, most Jews find popular evangelical lyrics and expressions like “My Saviour, my closest friend” and “Jesus take the wheel” to be far too casually intimate with the Holy One Blessed be He, to be comfortable. The concern is that this approach casts the sovereign, powerful, Master of the Universe into a being dangerously much like ourselves.
Second, Jews believe that doing His will is the highest expression of love, gratitude and clinging to God. In short, good relationships are expressed in action. Because performing mitzvoth (commandments) often looks so foreign to outsiders, it is very difficult for Christians to recognize things like keeping the dietary laws or Sabbath observance for what it is supposed to be – a declaration of love for God.
I believe that the ideal for both Judaism and Christianity is a balance and an integration of heart and hands, relationship and religion, informal and formal, spontaneous and fixed. Our challenge is to look for the unseen behind the slogan, and behind our assumptions – to learn to see the “spiritual” in Judaism and the role of “practice” or “holy living” in Christianity.
Soon Jews around the world will be marking the holiest day of the year – yom kippur (the Day of Atonement). It is a powerful day, dedicated to intensive prayer and fasting, with some of the most profound and moving liturgy of the Jewish tradition. Several times on that awesome day we will describe our relationship to God with these words:
For we are your people, and you are our God.
We are your children, and you are our Father.
We are your servants, and you are our Lord.
We are your community, and you are our Portion.
We are your heritage, and you are our Lot.
We are your flock, and you are our Shepherd.
We are your vineyard, and you are our Keeper.
We are your work, and you are our Maker.
We are your companions, and you are our Beloved.
We are your treasure, and you are our Friend.
We are your people, and you are our King.
We are your betrothed, and you are our Betrothed.