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March 29, 2019 10:02 am

Admiring Judaism Through the Eyes of a Christian

avatar by Paul Socken

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Opinion

A Torah scroll. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Devout, practicing Christian friends have told me over the years that they respect much about the Jewish faith. I decided recently to ask them what, in particular, they admired.

One told me that he likes the idea of Shabbat, saying: “Shabbat teaches us to put everything aside for one day, and make sure we rest and recuperate. It is the secret to balance in life and promotes mental well-being.” He also commented on “the focus on gratitude that is central to the Jewish faith. Being grateful for what we have and expressing it on a regular basis can combat depression and anxiety. I find the Jewish practice of thanking God every morning to be psychologically liberating.”

Another friend responded that Judaism “takes into account human weakness instead of demanding an unattainable perfection, and yet asks that we care for others on a daily basis, but mostly, it is filled with wisdom which is deeply human.”

Michael Higgins, a former colleague at the University of Waterloo and now Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought at Sacred Heart University, wrote: “Judaism is tradition — the careful cultivating of memory and ritual in a creative continuity that is embedded in, but not limited to, history. As an English literature professor I treasure the rich explorations of heart and spirit found in the Jewish imagination. And as a Catholic I value the rootedness of my own faith in the people of the Covenant.”

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The Catholic historian, Paul Johnson, writes that in antiquity, the Jews “were the great innovators in religion and morals. In the Dark Ages and early medieval Europe, they were still an advanced people transmitting scarce knowledge and technology.” He adds that, “in an astonishing second burst of creativity,” Jews broke out of their ghettos and “once more transformed human thinking, this time in the secular sphere. Much of the mental furniture of the modern world too is of Jewish fabrication.”

The friend who mentioned wisdom as a hallmark of Judaism brings to mind a wealth of wisdom literature embodied, among other texts, in The Ethics of the Fathers: “Despise not any man and discard not any thing; for there is not a man that has not his hour and there is not a thing that has not its place.” Indeed, the question of wisdom itself is raised: “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone. Who is strong? One who subdues his own inclinations. Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot. Who is honourable? One who honours his fellow.” Needless to say, there are endless commentaries by our rabbis throughout the ages on these pithy observations.

Prompted by Christian  reflections on Judaism, I would add that study is a value that I cherish in the Jewish tradition. Ephraim Mirvis, chief rabbi of Great Britain, points out the ubiquitous presence of the term “study” in Judaism. Mishna means “study,” talmud means “to learn, ” and gemara is Aramaic for “learning. “A teacher is a “moreh,”and a parent is a “horeh” — from “hora’ah,” which means to study. We call our synagogues “shuls,” which comes from the German word meaning “school.” This extraordinary emphasis on study and learning is impressive and inspiring.

In an era of rampant Jewish assimilation, it is important to stop and reflect on the qualities that others attribute to Judaism, and our personal, individual responsibility in furthering our own knowledge and assessing our role in preserving Judaism.

If knowledgeable, observant Christians recognize that observance of Shabbat is healing, that Judaism is a font of wisdom, that our faith is “the careful cultivating of memory and ritual in a creative continuity,” and that much of what the modern world treasures is the contribution of Jews, surely we owe it to ourselves to examine this heritage more closely and to plumb the depths of our legacy.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, in A Letter in the Scroll, that “though I admire other civilizations and faiths … still this is my people, my heritage, my God. There is nothing quite like it. It still challenges the moral imagination of mankind. I want to say to my children: Take it, cherish it, learn to understand and love it. Carry it, and it will carry you.”

Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Waterloo.

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