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Judaism and Christianity: A New Framework for Mutual Understanding

Review of The Structure of Religion: Judaism and Christianity. By William J. Leffler, II, and Paul H. Jones. Lanham, Maryland, University Press of America, Inc., 2005. 117 pp. ISBN 0-7618-3315-3.

 

There's no shortage of books on the differences between Christianity and Judaism. So, to paraphrase a famous Jewish question, “What distinguishes this one from all the others?” The short answer is the context in which co-authors, William J. Leffler, II, and Paul H. Jones, have explained those differences.

Leffler, a former Reform rabbi, and Jones, currently professor of Religion at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, maintain that both Christians and Jews think within their respective religious “boxes.” Each “box,” or structure, contains a unique frame of reference. Certain words, such as faith, secularity, worship, etc., are understood within those particular frames of reference. Unless each group learns both the structure and frame of reference of the other's religion, the authors argue, misconceptions will continue to impede mutual acceptance and respect.

The authors identify four segments of religious structure. They are as follows: a. the individual, b. the bridge-link, meaning the factor which initiates the process of joining the religion, c. the essential element, meaning the core factor of that religion without which it would not exist, and d. the religion. In addition to these four basic components, the authors include rays, a term they use to signify vehicles of inclusion--those aspects of the religion in which adherents may participate.

According to Leffler and Jones, in the Christian structure, the bridge-link is faith in Christ. The essential element is Christ. (Although God is a part of the essential element, belief in God alone is not enough to be a Christian.) The rays are the various denominations in which Christians may choose to manifest their beliefs, for example, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, etc.

Within the Jewish structure, the bridge-link is not monotheism, but a conscious self-identification as a Jew. The essential element is the historic Jewish people who accepted God's covenant at Sinai. There are many rays, but unlike Christianity, they are not denominational--not the various movements in Judaism, such as Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, Reconstructionist or Secular Humanist. While the synagogue is noted as one of many rays, others, including a connection to Israel, various foods, a recognizable style of humor, and languages such as Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino, are clearly cultural rather than theological in focus.

Even a cursory examination of the structural differences between the two religions sheds light on some of the chronic misunderstandings between Christians and Jews. If, as the authors maintain, the bridge-link in Christianity is faith (in Christ), and the bridge-link in Judaism is the conscious self-identification as a Jew, it's no wonder that Christians have a hard time comprehending how someone can call himself an agnostic and still profess to be a Jew without seeing a contradiction in terms. For the Christian, faith is an integral part of the religion. For the Jew, it is not.

While the first portion of the book details the structural differences between Christianity and Judaism, the second part contains a variety of discussion questions that range from the very basic (“What is a synagogue?”) to the more complex (“What … do Jews believe about After Life? or “Is there a difference between faith and belief?”)

The Structure of Religion can be especially useful to interfaith couples and their families. Even those who have made a formal study of their partner's religion may still think inside their own “religious boxes.” The authors present a guide to “thinking outside the box,” which can deepen mutual understanding between Christians and Jews in general, and interfaith couples, in particular.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
A language, also known as Judaeo-Spanish or Judezmo, once widely used by Sephardic communities, but now close to extinction. It is influenced by Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and Turkish. It is comparable to the language of many Ashkenazi communities, Yiddish. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at www.pearlstreetpublishing.com.

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