What is Authentically Jewish?
How do we answer the above question when, in every age and Jewish sub-culture, we have absorbed many influences from non-Jewish societies around us?
These influences have not only affected food and fashion, but even religious expression and doctrine.1 They include:
The Hellenistic (Greek) culture of the 4th-1st centuries B.C.
Hanukkah notwithstanding, Hellenism influenced many aspects of Jewish life.2 Rabbis used Greek language and references to Greek culture. Jewish art as well as Pharisaic Jewish society also picked up some Greek “flavor” as did Jewish biblical interpretation. And traditions? What could be more Jewish than the Passover seder? Yet it also drew from a Greek institution called the symposium, a kind of banquet and philosophical lecture for holidays and special occasions. At a symposium, you would find questions concerning the foods, eating of greens and an apple mixture, and reclining—rituals readily recognizable as part of the modern seder.3 So is the seder “authentic”?
Greek philosophy (middle ages A.D.)
It seems we can’t get away from the Greeks! The famous Maimonides believed that Greek philosophy and the Hebrew Bible could be harmonized; his discussion of the nature of God relies heavily upon Aristotelian thinking. “Maimonides sought to bridge [earlier] interpretations with his assertion that the unity of God is unique. . . . Maimonides suggested that the intrinsic unity of God should be conceived as radically different in character from the unity of a species that is composed of discrete members, or from the unity of an organism that is made up of interrelated yet relatively distinct elements.”4 The Orthodox Jewish view of God’s unity may owe more to Aristotle than most Jews realize. Is it “authentically Jewish”? Was Maimonides? (In fact, Maimonides was the subject of controversy in his lifetime.)
Islamic influences (approximately 950-1150 A.D.)
Islam played a huge role in the development of medieval Jewish life, especially during the “Golden Age of Spanish Jewry.” Contact with the Muslim world encouraged Jewish exploration in mathematics, medicine and astronomy. Moreover, Arabic, not Hebrew or Aramaic, became the language of the common people, and also of many great medieval Jewish philosophers and grammarians. “In the literature of philosophy and even of theology one may say without hesitation that the influence flowed from Islam to Judaism and not the other way around. The notion of a theology, of a formulation of religious belief in the form of philosophical principles, was alien to the Jews of Biblical and Talmudic times.”5 Which Jewish culture is authentic?
Christianity (1750 A.D. – today)
Christianity certainly influenced Judaism in the development of counter-doctrines and practices. But Reform Judaism—especially when it began in Germany in the early 19th century—deliberately borrowed elements of worship from churches in order to adapt Judaism to modern life. “The Reformers also borrowed some of the church practices they considered most beautiful. Chief among these were the use of an organ and a ‘mixed’ choir [of men and women] . . . Another practice Reformers borrowed was the sermon.”6 Which set of Jewish practices is “authentic”? Orthodox? Reform? Neither?
Outside influences (not to mention internal Jewish changes) make it difficult to define what is “authentically Jewish.” We may want to say that being truly Jewish means believing in Y’shua, but the expression of that faith can reflect the wide variety of Jewish cultural forms our people have absorbed throughout history. Perhaps, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, “Jewish is as Jewish does.”
- For a convenient online survey, see My Jewish Learning’s website.
- For more, see Lee I. Levine, Hellenism and the Jewish World of Antiquity (Univ. of Washington Press, 1998); David Steinberg, “The Impact of Greek Culture on Normative Judaism from the Hellenistic Period through the Middle Ages,” http://www.adath-shalom.ca/greek_influence.htm
- Levine, pp. 120-121.
- Martin Sicker, Between Man and God: Issues in Judaic Thought (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), p. 51. See also Kenneth Seeskin, The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 83 ff.
- Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987), p. 80.
- Eugene B. Borowitz,. Explaining Reform Judaism (New York: Behrman House, 1985), pp. 7, 9.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.