I have spent much of my adult life working to bring Jews and Christians together. In particular, I have tried to explain to fellow Jews that traditional Christians are our best friends in the world today.
Moreover, I believe that America’s founders, virtually every one a Christian, developed the best value system ever applied to a society. And they did so by basing their Christianity on the moral ideals of the Hebrew Bible — the inscription on the Liberty Bell is from the Torah — and by universalizing those values. What are known as Judeo-Christian values became America’s core values and formed the finest country ever made.
Nevertheless, while there is such a thing as Judeo-Christian values, no one speaks of “Judeo-Christian theology.” Judaism and Christianity differ theologically — primarily around the identity of Jesus of Nazareth — and that is what nearly everyone who thinks about Christian-Jewish differences thinks about.
But there are other differences between Christians/Christianity and Jews/Judaism that are not all related to Jesus, and that can help explain Jews and Christians to each other.
Here are some that I have to come to identify after a lifetime in Judaism and decades immersed in the lives of faithful Christians. They are written solely in order to help Jews and Christians better understand one another.
1. The most obvious and perhaps most important difference concerns how an individual attains what Christianity refers to as salvation, or what Judaism calls the rewards of the hereafter. Judaism believes that the only way to achieve heavenly reward is through good works, while traditional Christian teaching is that it is only attained through faith (in Jesus). One ramification of this difference is that all Jews, including the most ultra-Orthodox, believe that anyone who lives a moral life — no matter what his faith or lack of faith — has “a portion in the world to come.”
It is important to add that good and faithful Christians also teach that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26): The only way to show that one has faith is through works.
It also important to add that this Christian belief has also led to positive as well as negative consequences. Among the former, it has animated innumerable idealistic Christians to go to the poorest places on earth and serve people there. The great Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who devoted his life to being a medical missionary in Africa, was such an example.
2. Judaism allows for divorce much more readily than either Catholicism — which never does — or traditional Protestantism, which rarely does. (The one exception within Judaism is the case of the agunah, the woman whose husband refuses to grant a religious divorce, and who, even under physical, moral and social duress, refuses to do so.) While Judaism does teach that “God hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16), neither God nor Judaism demands that people live in marital misery until death.
3. Christians tend to place greater emphasis on sins of thought than does Judaism. The best-known example concerns lust. As Jesus says in Matthew, “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Judaism has no such normative teaching.
It is true that the 10th Commandment prohibits coveting whatever belongs to one’s neighbor. But prohibitions on thoughts are rare within Judaism and the 10th Commandment only prohibits coveting — which means desiring to steal. It does not cover lust or any other thought.
4. Many Protestant Christians believe that all sins are equal in God’s eyes. I have asked such Christians on my radio show if they think that God deems murder and taking a stapler from work equally wrong, and they have answered in the affirmative. “All sin is rebellion against God,” they tell me, and while we humans must judge and punish some sins as more serious than others, God does not.
5. Many Catholic and Protestant Christians — whether traditional or liberal in their theology and politics — believe that it is their Christian duty to forgive all sinners of all sins whether or not the sinner repents and no matter who the sinner hurts. Thus, the pastor at a church attended by President Bill Clinton while he was president admonished his congregants to forgive Timothy McVeigh, the American terrorist who murdered 168 people in Oklahoma City.
6. Most believing Christians have a more personal relationship with God/Jesus than most religious Jews have with God. Christians regularly speak about their love for God, whereas Jews are far more comfortable with expressing their love for Judaism (Christians rarely speak of loving Christianity).
7. With regard to prayer, Jews almost exclusively rely on reciting prayers written for them, and Christians rely more on spontaneous prayer.
8. Christians tend to accept suffering with fewer complaints in general and fewer complaints against God. Christians tend to view their suffering as little compared to the suffering of Christ, or even as being Christ-like. Jews tend to regard suffering as a flaw in God’s order that must be alleviated.
Committed Christians and committed Jews have much to teach, and much to learn from, one another. And in America, thank God, we are truly free to do so.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).