Not long ago, I wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in which I briefly alluded to Jewish and Christian beliefs about the Afterlife. Just before the piece was to be put to bed, I got a querying phone call from my editor, who was not Jewish. She said that her Jewish colleagues had flagged my point about the Afterlife as a factual error. Jews, they told her, do not belief in an Afterlife!
These were smart people, editors at the L.A. Times. And they were Jews, who felt they knew enough about their ancestral religion to make a point of it when they saw a writer drifting into error on the subject. Yet it was they who were mistaken, not me.
With apologies to my friend Michael Medved, author of the recent bestseller The 10 Big Lies About America
, I was thinking today that it could be interesting to compile and annotate a list of the 10 Big Lies people tell about Jews and Judaism. No, not the obvious, crazy ones you’re thinking of — blood libels, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, various 9/11 conspiracy theories about how Jews working in the Twin Towers were warned ahead of time about the attack and decided to call in sick that day. Those are lies that nobody who’s smart, sane, and not an anti-Semite would believe. Although they get lots of attention from debunkers, they are really far less interesting than the untruths believed by many intelligent, educated, and nice people who might be Jewish themselves.
Here’s my list — the first item will be familiar to anyone who’s followed this blog of late. Add your own lies in the comment box! But remember, these are lies about Judaism as a stream of religious thought going back to deep antiquity, and about the Jews as a continuously existing people. We’re not talking about pop sociology here — what the statistically average American Jew alive today thinks about himself and his faith — but about theology and history. In no particular order:
1.) Judaism never had a problem assimilating Darwinian theory. It’s intelligent design that should be rejected by all Jews as a purely Christian idea, and totally treif.
2.) Judaism never had a mission to convert others or persuade them to drop their faulty religious or secular worldviews in favor of Torah’s view of reality.
3.) Judaism has no apocalyptic vision of the End of the World, similar to that in Christianity’s book of Revelation and certainly not one with a particular year as the deadline for wrapping up world history, as in the modern 2012 Mayan calendar doomsday prediction. By the same token, Judaism is a purely this-worldly religion with little interest in Heaven, and no belief in Hell.
4.) The natural political stance of a believing Jew is liberalism.
5.) Judaism is a uniquely rational religion, unlike Christianity, that has always disdained superstitious beliefs and practices such as astrology, alchemy, demons, and the like. Such ideas are simply the detritus of history and can be safely ignored by every Jew. Any parallels between Judaism and various pagan religions of antiquity is simply a coincidence, from which nothing interesting can be learned about the ultimate spiritual reality.
6.) For a Jew, secularism poses no threat whereas nearly everything about Islam should be seen in a sinister light. Christianity used to be a threat but after 9/11, it was replaced by Islam.
7.) Modern Zionism arises naturally from Jewish religious thinking going back to the Bible.
8.) The Jews are primarily an ethnic grouping, a people, a family, a race — not an idea.
9.) The history narrated in the Torah is basically a myth, a fiction woven together from strands of folk tales long after the events in question purportedly occurred. For example, there is no serous historical basis for believing that the Exodus happened as the Torah records it.
10.) Judaism’s problem with Christianity has to do primarily with issues surrounding Jesus’ life and death. Judaism never countenanced belief in a Messiah who comes back from the dead, having failed to transform the world when he was alive, as Jesus failed. Jews would never accept the idea of God’s taking physical form. God could never be seen as possessing different aspects — neither three (as in the “Trinity”), nor ten, nor any other number.
So there you have it. Instead of “lies,” you may wish to call these “misunderstandings,” “instances of historical or theological illiteracy,” or the like. In any event, not one of them is true, certainly not as stated. Yet I would guess that most people who consider themselves liberal, urbane, and sophisticated types — including most Jews — would assent to most or all these.