My freshman year of college, I was accosted by a classmate who lived across the hall in our dorm, a born-again Christian whose fervor and certainty I found both compelling and disturbing. Learning that I was Jewish, she immediately expressed her admiration for Jews as “God’s chosen people.” She asked questions about Jewish belief and practice but the one question that she couldn’t get her mind around, the one she kept returning to was, “But you don’t believe in Jesus, right? So according to your religion, how are you saved?”
I, too, had difficulty wrapping my head around that question–it’s such a fundamentally un-Jewish question. My classmate was taking Christian categories and simply trying to find the analogous terms or concepts in Judaism. But of course it doesn’t work that way. Just as languages each have their own flavors and nuances and words that can’t be readily translated into other languages, a religious tradition is a rich system of symbol and meaning with its own integrity. There is no “Jewish” translation of the word, or, more importantly, of the concept of a “savior” like Jesus.
Of all the many reasons this might be so, I prefer one pointed out by one of my teachers. Jesus, according to Christian theology, is given to humanity as a gift from God to remove its sins. In the words of John 3:16 of sports arena fame: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” More plainly, Jesus removes the sins of all who believe in him. As the old Latin mass put it, “qui tollis peccata mundi“–”who removes the sins of the world.” In Christian thought, people need Jesus to remove their sinfulness and lead them to salvation, as my born-again Christian classmate so wholeheartedly believed.
Jews, however, have never adopted the individualistic concept of salvation that marks Christian theology, where salvation is granted on an individual basis to those who accept Jesus as their savior. Judaism, from its earliest stages, has been marked by a collective approach to redemption, rather than individual one to salvation: We pray together to witness the coming of the Messiah, to be taken up as a people to our Holy Land. We pray for God to hear our prayers. This is why Jewish liturgy is phrased almost exclusively in the plural. “Forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” Judaism is a religion of the “we,” not the “I.”
In short, I tried to explain to my classmate that Jews don’t need Jesus. We don’t need someone to hold us when we fall short, we don’t need someone to “save” us because we have each other. Jews recognize that our fate is collective: we rise or fall together. This is the basis of the famous Talmudic saying, “kol Yisrael aravim zeh ba-zeh“–”all Israel is responsible for one another.” (B. Shevuot 39a) We gain strength from knowing we can lean on others when in need, and gain responsibility from knowing that others lean on us. Hand-in-hand, with God’s help, we help each other reach our collective destiny, a destiny of redemption that rests with God, not with a personal savior.