Is Judaism inherently legalistic?

In the company of Jewish friends, I went way out into the wilderness where I could see my tradition through their eyes instead of my own. They taught me what messiah means to a Jew, which is quite different from what it means to most Christians. They taught me things about Second Temple Judaism and first-century life under Rome that enriched my understanding of Scripture. They gave me a whole new view of Paul. But they also showed me places where the followers of Jesus twisted the truth about Judaism or at least wrote things in such a way that their interpreters could. Once I understood that the gospel writers had not told me the whole truth about the Pharisees, I wondered what else they had not told me.

— Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church

When I started learning Christian history as a Christian, many source materials painted a simple dichotomy: Jewish law = primitive and legalistic, Jesus Christ = freedom.

This dichotomy was enforced when I went to Israel for the first time and met my extended relatives, who didn’t do much to hide their judgment of my secular, Reform family. I got dirty looks for accidentally putting my meat dish in the dairy side of the sink, and for showing up to dinner with damp hair on Shabbat – evidence that I had taken a shower, which is forbidden.

Consequently, I believed this narrative about Judaism for many years, and praised God for opening my eyes to the truth, saving me from such a judgmental system.

It wasn’t until fairly recently that my interest in Judaism for its own sake was renewed, and I was a bit more selective in my research material this time (turns out, it’s quite helpful to read Jewish history from the perspective of Jewish scholars – who knew!).

That narrative of Judaism, as you can probably guess, was quite different.

In her book The Misunderstood Jew, New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine writes,

By suggesting that Jesus redeems his followers from an abusive legal system, Christians have a greater rationale both for ignoring the first part of their canon and for deemphasizing the point the Letter of James makes unequivocally, “Faith without works is dead” (2:26). By speaking of Jews as warlike, Christians can ignore the warlike aspects of their own canonical tradition, including statements made by Jesus himself, and so claim for him the peaceful high ground…A focus on Jewish purity and xenophobia allows Christians to claim leadership in multicultural efforts, even if that effort decides that one culture not worth celebrating is that of the Jews.

In all these cases, Jesus is made relevant either by projecting a negative stereotype of Judaism or by erasing Judaism entirely. The proclamation of the church can, and should, stand on its own; it does not require an artificial foil, an anti-Jewish bias, or an overstated distinction.

Once I truly absorbed this, I grew increasingly annoyed by mainstream Protestant teachers and pastors who kept pushing the “Judaism = legalism” narrative. But I also realized that they weren’t doing this to be intentionally anti-semitic; this is what they were taught in Sunday school or seminary, and it’s all they know, which just makes interfaith education and dialogue that much more important.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t any legalistic and xenophobic Jews in Jesus’ time – of course there were, and there still are today. But Jesus’ parables were hyperbolic and exaggerated on purpose. Church history, in many cases, has interpreted them to describe all Jews, and that simply isn’t true.

Regarding my own history, I wasn’t necessarily looking for “freedom from the law” when I converted (even though I did feel twinges of guilt for mixing meat and dairy from time to time). I was looking for a personal type of God who understood what it meant to have a literal human body. I did not “reject” Judaism for reasons that are historically inaccurate.

Photo by T Steele on Unsplash


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