Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Better Definition of Judaism to Contrast with Carl Kinbar's Definition

Carl offered a definition of Judaism here.  He essentially devised a specialized definition that, in his view, would exclude One Law as a valid expression of Judaism.  I happened to come across a better definition today in a book by Shaye Cohen.  If you're in a hurry, skip to the last paragraph.  And, if you are in such a hurry, shame on you!  (I kid).

"Throughout this book I avoid the terms 'orthodox' and 'normative' (and their antonyms 'heretical' and 'schismatic').  In this section I explain why.
The Greek word orthodoxia, the ancestor of the English 'orthodoxy,' means 'right opinion,' just as the Latin word norma, the ancestor of the English 'normal' and 'normative,' means 'standard of behavior.'  The terms therefore imply the 'rightness' of the religious variety to which they are applied.  'Orthodox Judaism' is Judaism which is true---that is, revealed by God and sanctioned by tradition.  'Normative Judaism' is the dominant form of Judaism--that is, the form practiced and revered as legitimate by the largest number of Jews.  The two meanings overlap but are not identical.  To define one variety of Judaism as orthodox is to make a theological judgment, a confession of faith not susceptible to rational inquiry....A historian cannot describe any variety of Judaism as orthodox unless he or she is clearly writing from a confessional perspective.
To define one variety of Judaism as normative is a historical judgment, a statement that this variety was more widely practiced than others, but here too the notion of 'rightness' almost invariably intrudes.  In the period of the First Temple, if we may believe...the prophets, most Israelites went whoring after foreign gods...  The religion of the masses and, at certain times, of the state as well, was polytheistic...Shouldn't we call Israelite polytheism normative?  We do not do so because the biblical prophets and historians, who are deemed by both Judaism and Christianity to have been the bearers of the word of God, roundly condemned such practices.  Thus even the term 'normative' conveys a notion of 'right-ness' and is therefore avoided here.  (Appropriate substitutes as 'popular' or 'dominant.')....
This issue can be approached from a different perspective.  What is Judaism?  Is it the religious behavior of all people who call themselves and are known to others as Jews, Israelites, and Hebrews?  Or is it an ideal set of beliefs and practices against which the practices and beliefs of real Jews are to be measured and judged?  If the former, Judaism is a relativistic construct of human beings, and no variety of Judaism is any more correct or authentic than any other.  This is the perspective of the historian.  If the latter, Judaism is a body of absolute truths revealed by God and/or sanctioned by tradition, and those interpretations of Judaism that more nearly approximate these absolute truths are truer and more authentic than those that do not.  This is the perspective of the believer,"  pg. 130 From the Maccabees to the Mishnah by Shaye Cohen.


  1. Interesting article, thanks for sharing. I do like Shaye Cohen's perspective, in my opinion it is more accurate.

    Carl offered a definition of Judaism here. He essentially devised a specialized definition that, in his view, would exclude One Law as a valid expression of Judaism.

    Technically, in broad terms, does it really matter if you or me meet the status quo of Christianity or Judaism as a label, the reality of following the Messiah and what that means, is more important. Whether we are labeled as Christianity or Judaism, we share common ground with both and respect both.

  2. Peter,

    You are all over the place here, and you also walking on dangerous ground.

    "We don't want to assimilate."

    who is the we? Are you Jewish? why are you writing in a style so people might believe you are one?

    "There's two kinds of assimilation as I see it: (1) Messianic Jewish assimilation into non-Torah lifestyle; (2) Messianic Israelite (i.e. former gentile) assimilation into non-Torah lifestyle. "

    Why are you shooting yourself in the foot? Don't you see that you create a division? you say you are One Law, but you talk a difference between Messianic Jews and "Messianic Israel?" Please don't take your reader as fools....

    "What are the causes? Both are caused by an imbalance of communal forces. The UMJC, for example, is ironically creating an institution in which there's no value in being a Jew. Why no value? Because, in practice, the UMJC is like the Reform movement in regard to its level of Torah observance. The minimal Torah observance reduces the incentive to avoid assimilation."

    I am not a fan of the UMJC, and you know it, but for this to hold water you need to show where does the UMJC advocate a minimal Torah observance...

    "ronically, it's the One Law communities that value maximal Torah observance and, consequently, incentivize covenantally-based marriages aimed at preserving a maximal Torah lifestyle. Is a man a Jew by birth? Then he should marry someone who lives a life devoted to Torah-observance--someone who demonstrates by communal oath that she is devoted to Torah and Tradition (i.e. teaching the Israelite faith to her children). "

    So, are advocating that only a Jew can live a life "devoted to Torah and tradition?"

    "Jews must remain Jews (by marrying those who have covenanted to maintain the Jewish Faith)."

    How many Jews you know are doing that? And please define "Jewish faith?"

    Maybe you should consider taking your comment down?

    1. Dan,

      You're my elder by a good margin. So, for you, I'll take the comment down on the grounds that it is unhelpful/unclear, etc.

  3. So, does it mean that you will take it down only for me, but you still stand on what you wrote?

    1. If I delete something, it's because it was unclear. I stand by everything I believe. Do you have a question regarding my beliefs? Do you have a suggestion for a question that I should add to the FAQs section?