Judaism Tells a Story
At the end of January, I was privileged to host 45 Christian leaders for a morning of learning about Judaism. This “Clergy Institute” is an offering I’ve taught for 20 years. It’s an idea I inherited from Rabbi Herman Eliot Snyder who was our Rabbi Emeritus for many years. The notion is that we build a stronger community for all when the connections between Jews and Christians are healthy. Reaching out through the Clergy Institute has succeeded admirably. Over the years, I think many Christian clergy have come to see our congregation as a place where the door is open for learning and conversation.
Meanwhile, as is often the case, the “teacher” has an opportunity to learn while he is teaching and, this year, that’s what happened for me.
My topic was Creeds and Catechisms: What do I believe? What must I believe?
I chose the topic because Christianity does have creeds and catechisms while Judaism basically does not. I thought exploring why one religion went “creedal” when the other didn’t would make for fascinating learning. And I was correct.
During the morning, I focused on the beginnings of Judaism as the experience of a people. We looked at a number of Torah and biblical texts that represented Jewish belief and commitment but still weren’t anything like a required creed. We then looked further into Jewish history and saw how the rabbis of the Talmud came closer to defining Jewish faith but still stayed away from anything as formal as a required statement of Jewish belief.
The give and take in the room was lively and exciting. The clergy asked probing questions as we considered how each religious tradition grew the way it did.
Then at one point I realized I had overlooked a pretty significant Torah text. It didn’t change the basic thrust of the morning, but I admitted to everyone that I had forgotten the text and it wouldn’t be appropriate to ignore it.
So we read the text.
It comes from Deuteronomy 26. It’s the passage in which Moses outlines what he expects our ancestors to do when they get to Canaan and have their first harvests. Moses says the people are to take some of their first fruits and present them at the Temple in Jerusalem.
What comes next is what counts.
Moses tells our ancestors what they are to say when they get to the Jerusalem Temple. They are expected to recount how they got to this point. They are to recall how our ancestors were nomads, how they ended up in Egypt and were enslaved there, how God freed them, and finally how God brought them to the land of milk and honey.
The critical piece about this passage is that it is the only place in the Torah where we are told specifically what to say at a ceremonial moment. Elsewhere, one of the patriarchs or Moses may offer a spontaneous prayer. But this is the only spot where our ancestors are given a fixed script. So, then is this text a creed?
Remember, I had just spent the morning telling my clergy guests Judaism doesn’t have a creed.
Did Deuteronomy 26 prove me wrong?
For a moment I was stuck. Had I introduced a text that disproved my whole argument.
I paused and then it occurred to me. Deuteronomy 26 really isn’t a creed. Not even close. It’s a story. Our ancestors here were being told to remember their story because it defined who they were.
Suddenly, I was able to summarize the morning in a way that had never quite occurred to me.
“Christianity,” I said, “has a creed. Judaism has a story. Jews are Jews because they tell and retell this great story.”
Christianity has a creed. Judaism a story. A rather good way to summarize what makes you and me who we are!
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