questions and answers about religion 4059

Questions and Answers About Religion

April 29, 2021
Religion historian Martin S. Jaffee answers questions about three of the world’s major religions—Christianity, Islam, and Judaism—in this question-and-answer series. As a professor of comparative religion and Jewish studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, Jaffee is uniquely qualified to discuss areas of commonality among the three religions. For example, do all three believe in an afterlife? Jaffee also explores Jewish mysticism and the origins of Christian baptism, among a number of other issues.

Questions and Answers About Religion

Q: Which religions believe in an afterlife?


A: Virtually all known religious traditions, whether monotheistic or polytheistic, whether the product of a simple or complex society, share to some degree a common idea: that there is an element of the human person that is independent of the physical body and survives the body’s death. Religions differ dramatically, however, on how they define this nonphysical aspect of the person, how they imagine its origin and destiny, and the degree to which belief in this nonphysical aspect plays a role in the daily lives of individuals.


In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam this aspect of the person is usually called the ‘soul.’ It is understood to be the creation of God, sent into a physical body to serve the Creator and destined to return to the Creator after the death of the body. At some points in the history of each tradition, the fate of the soul has preoccupied the lives of believers and led to great acts of self-denial with the goal of lessening the body’s power over the soul and hastening the soul’s ascent to God. At other times, particularly in the scientific culture that has dominated much of the world since the 19th century, many forms of Christianity and Judaism in particular have sought to redefine the nature of the soul in ways compatible with modern psychological or moral theories.


Similarly, conceptions of the life of the soul after death have undergone a variety of transformations. Each tradition in its classical form imagines a final historical moral accounting in which the souls of the dead are reunited with their former bodies in a mass resurrection and are judged for eternal reward or punishment. Again, in modern times, many Christian and Jewish communities have rejected such beliefs as unscientific. But even in the 21st century, most Muslims, and many members of the more ‘traditional’ forms of Christianity and Judaism, continue to affirm the reality of the soul’s survival after death and the promise of a future judgment at the time of the resurrection.


Q: How has the practice of Judaism in the United States been affected by American culture?


A: Dozens of thoughtful books have been written on this subject over the past 50 years. However, in this context it is impossible to describe all the changes, large and small, that American Jews of the past several generations have introduced into the ritual practices and customs that their ancestors brought to North America.


Perhaps the most important change, upon which so many other things depend, is the universal adoption by American Jews of a typically ‘American’ concept of religion. That is, religion is a matter of private conscience that can’t be regulated by the government; to affiliate or not to affiliate with a religious community is a matter of personal choice; and even one who joins a religious community is free to shape its discipline to his or her own taste and needs.


The enormous diversity of religious practices within and across the spectrum of ‘organized’ Jewish religious communities embodies these principles. American Jews choose to be Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, New Age, or even ‘secular’ Jews; more importantly, within those specific choices they craft and shape their lives in accordance with a wide range of norms derived from the larger American culture and interpreted through the filter of many forms of Jewish religious tradition. I often tell my students that, in discussing American Judaism, almost anything you can say about it will be true and false at the same time.


Here are three books I recommend on American Judaism:


1. Glazer, Nathan. American Judaism. 2nd ed. University of Chicago Press, 1972.


2. Eisen, Arnold M. Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America. Indiana University Press, 1997.


3. Heilman, Samuel C. Portrait of American Jews: The Last Half of the 20th Century. University of Washington Press, 1995.


Q: Are there any precedents for Christian baptism?


A: Water is among the most universal of religious symbols. Whether as rain, sea, pool, or flood, water’s life-giving and cleansing nature have made it a rich symbolic vehicle for ideas about spiritual cleansing, rebirth, eternal life, and so on. Immersions in pools of water or rivers for purposes of spiritual cleansing and renewal are known throughout the world’s religions and often predate the emergence of the monotheistic religions.


Christian baptism has its roots in Jewish practices that originated in rules from the biblical Book of Leviticus. A key assumption of that book is that contact with death, blood, certain bodily fluids, certain kinds of animals, certain types of skin ailments, and so on convey to men and women a condition of uncleanness. This uncleanness is not “dirt” from a hygienic point of view. Rather, it is a pollutant that renders a person incapable of approaching the place of divine worship until the pollutant is removed by a ritual rinsing of the body.


In postbiblical times, the custom emerged among Jews to use immersion pools for the purpose of such ritual cleansing. Special cisterns have been found throughout Israel that were constructed for such immersion. Those entering these pools in states of uncleanness emerged in purity. They could then make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem and enter it to offer sacrifices.


Christian baptism descends from this Jewish idea of cleansing. Ancient Jews had already begun to see moral flaw as a pollutant that could be washed away through immersion. Among early Christians, baptism was seen as an act of penitence that cleansed a person from former sins. More importantly, it came to be seen as a ritual that transformed a person’s relationship to God by conducting one into the community of those saved by the sacrifice of God’s son. Thus, in Christianity, the cleansing power of water comes to represent the capacity of the soul to be purged of sin and death and to be purified and transformed into a being awaiting eternal life.


Q: Do different denominations use different versions or translations of the Bible?


A: The most important difference in versions of the Bible is the difference between the Jewish and Christian collections of Scripture. In Judaism, the term Bible refers to the 24 books that make up what Christians call the Old Testament. These are ancient Jewish writings believed to have been revealed directly to prophets such as Moses or to have been inspired in the minds of later prophets, such as Jeremiah. Jews call these books collectively by the title of Tanach, which is an acronym for the Hebrew words for law, prophets, and the writings—the three kinds of books that make up the Hebrew Scriptures.


There was no Old Testament until the 2nd or 3rd century AD, when emerging Christian communities began to collect their own authoritative writings that sought to interpret the meaning of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. This emerging collection of writings was understood to testify to a “new covenant” or “new testament” that God had entered into with the church. Gradually the Christian scriptures themselves came to be called the New Testament, while the ancient Jewish scriptures were called the Old Testament.


To this day, Christian editions of the Bible include both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Jewish editions contain only the Tanach. The term Old Testament is not used among Jews, since they do not recognize the authority of the New Testament.


There are currently hundreds of different English translations of the various versions of the Bible. The most famous is the Authorized Version of King James from the 16th century. This version is the basis of most Bible translations in use among Protestants. There are a number of Bible translations that reflect Catholic interpretive traditions, such as the Jerusalem Bible. Most Jewish communities prefer the various translations published during the 20th century by the Jewish Publication Society. All of these differ from one another in many subtle and not so subtle ways. But that is a topic for another time.


Q: What is the difference between a child baptism and an adult baptism? Is one more correct than the other?


A: Baptism is one of the essential rites for entry into the Christian community. Historically it has taken many forms, from immersion of the entire body in water to anointing with a few drops, and from a rite performed for infants to a ritual suitable only for adults. From a comparative and historical perspective, there is no ‘right’ or ‘better’ form of baptism. The form preferred in a particular Christian community depends upon the traditions that community regards as authoritative.


The ritual of immersion in water for purposes of physical and moral cleansing has its roots in ancient Judaism. In Christian tradition adult baptism in particular is linked to the activities of John the Baptist and to Jesus’ own baptism at the onset of his mission of self-disclosure as the Savior. Most early Christians were baptized as adults because they were adults when they converted to the new faith. As Christian tradition developed in the first centuries of the church, however, it became common to baptize infants, and adult baptism became rarer.


A return to adult baptism is often associated with the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Groups such as the Anabaptists, Baptists, and others held that entry into the Christian church should be an act of conscious faith. Thus, they claimed, the rite could be performed only for adults who could freely make a choice. In the contemporary Christian community, all new converts must be baptized. The Catholic and Orthodox churches still favor infant baptism, while the diverse Protestant denominations continue to practice different customs.


Q: Does the word “worship” in the original Hebrew have many different connotations?


A: The Hebrew word behind worship is avodah. In the Bible it refers almost exclusively to the sacrificial worship of the God of Israel in the wilderness Tent of Meeting or, later, in the Jerusalem Temple. In later Hebrew, avodah can be extended to other worshipful activities, such as prayer, study of the Torah, and devoted performance of divine commandments. The word avodah comes from a root that means ‘to serve.’ The word eved (slave or servant) comes from the same root. Thus, avodah is the service of God in an attitude of devoted submission. This sense of worship echoes in Christian and Islamic tradition as well. The Greek word leiturgos (which means “public service” or “public servant”) is the source of the term ‘liturgy,’ the technical term for worship in classical Christianity. And the common Islamic name Abd Ullah (or Abdullah) simply means ‘servant of God,’ the Arabic term ‘abd’ being identical to the Hebrew ‘eved.’


Q: Where and what did Jesus do during his ‘missing years’? I see him as a normal guy—pondering, praying, and meditating. But, did he know what he was sent here for?


A: The four overlapping accounts of Jesus’ life that are included in the New Testament are silent about the years from Jesus’ childhood through his baptism and the onset of his teaching mission. However, early Christian communities produced and preserved other collections of Jesus’ teachings and accounts of his life that historians usually refer to as noncanonical gospels—that is, documents used for Christian preaching and worship that did not ultimately gain acceptance as part of the New Testament. These do fill in some of the obvious gaps about Jesus’ life.


But, since these noncanonical works have not become accepted by Christians as a whole, their stories about the ‘lost years’ have not gained much acceptance. Also, historians have tended to dismiss these stories as legends. It is always possible that some of these noncanonical gospels preserve early Christian traditions about Jesus that were for some reason excluded in the official gospels of the New Testament, but there is little consensus about this among historians. A good place to look at some of these fascinating materials is in a book edited by Ron Cameron called The Other Gospels, published by Westminster Press in 1982.


Q: Does Judaism acknowledge any form of ‘life’ after death? If so, does it include ‘rewards’ and ‘punishments?”


A: If by ‘Judaism’ one means the ‘Old Testament’ or ‘Hebrew Scriptures,’ then it is difficult to find a coherent understanding of ‘life after death’ in Judaism. However, for well over 2,000 years most forms of Judaism have held rich conceptions of the eternal life of the soul after its separation from the body, reward and punishment after death, and the reuniting of the soul and body in a resurrection at the time of messianic redemption and divine judgment. In virtually all cases, the beliefs are linked to creatively interpreted Biblical proof-texts.


In ancient post-exilic Judaism, these ideas are common in the Apocalyptic writings of Second Temple times (after 200 BC); in many of the Dead Sea Scrolls (ca. 140 BC-AD 66); in the writings of Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria (e.g., the first century philosopher, Philo); among the Pharisees (according to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus); and in the Rabbinic writings of the third to seventh century AD. Indeed, medieval Jewish philosophy, as represented by such figures as Maimonides (12th century) and Nahmanides (13th century), and Jewish mysticism, as represented in the Zohar and other writings (13th-18th century), held firmly to the belief in the eternal life of the soul as well as rewards for righteousness and punishment after death for the unrepentant wicked.


In the past two centuries or so, many forms of Judaism that emerged among the modernizing Jews of Central and Western Europe have abandoned these beliefs, holding them to be unnecessary to Judaism and without firm Biblical foundation. Nevertheless, belief in an afterlife is deeply embedded in classical Jewish sources and continues to be a firm conviction in all forms of contemporary Orthodox Judaism. In general, this statement from the third-century AD Mishnah is a reliable guide: ‘All Israel has a share in the World to Come—except those who deny that the resurrection of the dead is taught in the Torah.’


Q: Roman Catholics and most Protestants differ on the breakdown and numbering of the Ten Commandments. How do Jews distinguish the Ten Commandments?


A: The Ten Commandments appear in the Torah in two slightly different versions. The first setting is the actual revelation of the covenant at Sinai (Exodus 20:2-14). The second is in Moses’ summary of that event (Deuteronomy 5:6-18). In neither place are they actually numbered. Throughout the history of Jewish and Christian interpretation, therefore, scholars have struggled to divide the divine statements into ten explicit propositions. In the Rabbinic tradition, which has defined Jewish biblical interpretation for 2,000 years, the ten statements are usually enumerated as follows (in the Exodus version). I paraphrase them for convenience. Different English renderings may be consulted in any reputable biblical translation.


1. I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt … You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2-3)


2. You shall not make an image (Ex.20:4-6)


3. You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain (Exodus 20:7)


4. Remember the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11)


5. Honor your father and your mother (Exodus 20:12)


6. Do not murder (Exodus 20:13)


7. Do not commit adultery (Exodus 20:13)


8. Do not steal (Exodus 20:13)


9. Do not swear falsely against your neighbor (Exodus 20:13)


10. Do not desire your neighbor’s house, wife, or servant (Exodus 20:14)


Q: Christians often cite certain Old Testament prophecy, such as Isaiah 53, as evidence that Jesus was the Messiah that the Jews were awaiting. Christians believe that Jesus fulfilled other Jewish symbolism in Abraham’s offering of Isaac, Moses’ serpent on a pole, the sacrificial system, the high priesthood, and Passover.


Why do contemporary Jews reject Jesus as their Messiah? What is it about Jesus that does not meet their expectations of a Messiah? What type of Messiah are Jewish people looking for?


A: The question is not really “Why do Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah?” but “Why have the great majority of Jews always rejected the legitimacy of messianic claimants both prior to and since the career of Jesus of Nazareth?”


As Jewish thinking about the biblical prophetic texts has crystallized since the early Second Temple period (about 536 BC to AD 70) and in the generation since the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70, the standard expectations of the Messiah have come to include the following:


* He must exemplify extensive knowledge of Rabbinic tradition.


* He must rule as king over a visible empire in the land of Israel.


* He must preside over the restoration of the Temple and its sacrifices.


* His era must witness the restoration of all exiles.


* And so forth …


The accomplishments of all historical messianic claimants, including Jesus, have failed to meet these expectations.


So, for most Jews in most times, there simply isn’t much of interest to discuss. It would be inappropriate to engage in dueling proof-texts, since all messianic interpretations of Scripture—Christian or Jewish—depend on already believing what the interpretations set out to prove. It’s a barren exercise and usually yields nothing but bruised feelings. Christians and Jews would do much better trying to simply live up to the high moral standards that each tradition embodies and strives for.


Q: Having just begun studying readings about the Kabbalah by Rav Berg, I am curious why this area was unavailable to mainstream Judaism for so many years. I find many answers to my questions concerning spirituality and the world. Can you explain the reason for withholding so much valuable and relevant information?


Also, can you direct me to further readings on the Kabbalah? Unfortunately, my Hebrew is limited so I would have to read commentary or translations.


A: For most of its history, Jewish mystical tradition, also known as Kabbalah (‘tradition’), has been a form of knowledge reserved to a highly selective intellectual and spiritual elite. Its popularization among broader segments of Jewish society has been fairly recent, since the 15thand 16th centuries.


Contemporary Hasidism has, since the late 18th century, been the most common context in which kabbalistic ideas and spirituality have been made available at a popular level. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries kabbalistic learning was downplayed among central European, western European, and North American Jews who were interested in modernizing Judaism to conform with modern, scientific conceptions of the universe.


In more recent decades, especially in the context of the general reorientation of North American culture toward inner spirituality, Kabbalah has enjoyed a kind of resurgence among precisely the sorts of Jews who once rejected it—those very closely in touch with the general non-Jewish culture. It has, for many, become a ‘route back’ into Judaism.


Here are two helpful works appropriate for the general reader:


Ariel, David S. The Mystic Quest: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism. Schocken, 1992.


Matt, Daniel C. The Essential Kabbalah: The Heart of Jewish Mysticism. HarperCollins, 1994.


Q: Is it true that in the earliest period of Judaism (before the Babylonian captivity), there was no notion of a ‘messiah’ because the Jewish people had no need for a mediator between God and mankind?


A: Actually, the notion of Messiah does in fact date to the pre-Exilic period, but Jewish notions of Messiah do not include the role of a ‘mediator’ between God and humanity.


The Hebrew word for messiah, mashiakh, refers in the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) and many early prophetic writings to a person anointed with oil to serve as a representative of the community before God. This could be a priest, as in the book of Leviticus; a king, such as David; or even a prophet. During the Second Temple, or postexilic, period, the concept of Messiah was expanded to include a figure—either priestly or royal—who, at the end of time, would come to restore Israel to its land and establish a divine kingdom.


Jews during this time seem to have acknowledged more than a few candidates for this role, and Jesus was one such candidate. But the idea that he is a mediator between God and humanity, sent for the forgiveness of sin and the conquest of death, is a Christian one and is not a part of Jewish messianic ideas.


Q: What is the meaning of postmodernism in Christian theology?


A: Postmodernism is a recent intellectual movement that has affected many fields of humanistic learning, including philosophy, literary criticism, history, and theology. There is no single definition of postmodernism. In general, it is characterized by a suspicion or outright rejection of the claims of ‘modern’ thought (that is, the main Western intellectual tradition since the 18th century) to provide objective, unbiased truth about the world and human nature. For many postmodernists, objectivity is impossible, and any claims to the objectivity of scientific knowledge often mask deeply political motives for power.


Postmodern Christian thought tends to react against the modernist trends of Protestant and Catholic theology that sought to accommodate Christian belief to the ‘objective’ truths of the natural and human sciences. Thus modernist Christian thinkers sought to revise scriptural conceptions of the age of the world with scientific models of the origins of the Universe. Or they sought to revise understandings of scriptural events in light of modern literary, historical, and archaeological research. Postmodern Christian thinkers question the modern ‘faith in objectivity’ and point to the shifting versions of truth recommended by historical changes in science itself. Many are especially critical of the institutional structures inherited from Christian modernism, which in their view continue to harbor distinct vices of modernism in general, such as nationalism, racism, and sexism, all of which, at some moment or other, have been defended as scientific, objective points of view.


Although Christian postmodernists question many scientific perspectives on scriptural truth, they are not fundamentalists. From a postmodern perspective, fundamentalism is a modernist movement. That is, it accepts scientific models of objectivity and simply claims that the Bible is the truth about science.


Q: Why are there three different Sabbaths in the three monotheistic religions?


A: It is commonly said that the Jewish Sabbath falls on the seventh day of the week (Saturday), the Christian Sabbath on the first day of the week (Sunday), and the Muslim Sabbath on Friday. This is, however, a misconception.


The root of the question is the biblical institution of resting from all labor on the seventh day of the week in commemoration of the divine rest on the seventh day of creation. This Sabbath (from Hebrew shabbat, meaning “ceasing”) became in later Judaism a day devoted not only to very strict restrictions on creative work, but also to study of the Torah and extended feasting and public worship. Contemporary forms of Judaism still honor the seventh day, from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, as a special time.


From the first Christian century onward, as Christianity developed its consciousness as a biblically based religion distinct from Judaism, the question was asked: Are Christians bound by the commandment to observe the Jewish Sabbath? Most forms of Christianity have answered in the negative. Early on, the first day of the week became a preferred time for public Christian religious celebration. Since Christ was believed to have risen from death on a Sunday, this day became known as the Lord’s Day. It gradually attracted to itself much of the reverence that the Sabbath enjoyed in Judaism.


In Islam, there is strictly speaking no formal day of rest comparable to the Jewish Sabbath or the Christian Lord’s Day. It became common custom in the first Islamic century, however, for Friday to serve as a day of obligatory public prayer. To this day, in Islamic settings, the Friday noon prayer service in the mosque is a major weekly event.


Q: An increasing number of people use the word ‘spiritual’ in place of ‘religious.’ What, in your opinion, is the difference between the two terms?


A: In the history of Christian theology there was a time in which the terms spiritual and religious were virtual synonyms. Both represented inner attitudes of faith that opposed ‘worldliness.’ Indeed, in medieval Roman Catholic tradition, the word religious did not apply to all Christians baptized into the Church. Rather, it was used specifically in reference to those who chose a ‘spiritual’ life of asceticism and prayer, usually in a monastery or a convent. These were the ‘religious,’ as opposed to other Christians who married, pursued livelihoods, and enjoyed other forms of ‘secular’ (worldly) life.


The contemporary sense that ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ are somehow at odds is not new; it has a genealogy going back to the Protestant Reformation. Many Reformers attacked Catholicism’s conception of ‘religion’ as opposed to ‘worldliness,’ and sought to turn worldly activity itself into a divine calling, a witness for ‘spirituality.’ Thus in Protestant countries, monasteries and convents were abandoned.


Present usages of the terms ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’ reflect this tradition. ‘Religion’ is seen as a body of imposed rules and dogmas that often smothers the natural ‘spirituality’ of human nature. This ‘spirituality’ is conceived in a variety of ways that cannot be summarized easily. But it commonly appears as an inner sense of connectedness to the ultimate forces of reality that lead to psychic wholeness and other forms of inner strength. ‘Religion,’ in this view, tries to constrain ‘spirituality’ by packaging it in received formulas. Even contemporary Catholics and Jews often speak the language of ‘spirituality,’ finding that their ‘religions’ offer ample room for exploring the inner life of the divine.


Q: Do any religions not believe in ascending upward after death?


A: If we stay within my own area of familiarity, I would say that classical Judaism, Christianity, and Islam believe in both an upward ascent (of some souls to Heaven) and a downward descent (of some souls to Hell). In the Hebrew Bible (‘Old Testament’), however, it is very difficult to find an explicit statement of an upward ascent to Heaven after the soul leaves the body. There are, however, ample references to those who ‘descend to Sheol’ after death. Sheol is conceived as a shadowy nether world whose inhabitants are somehow cut off from communication with the God of Israel.


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