Is The Jewish Bible Vengeful and The Christian Bible Full of Love?

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Dear Jew in the City,

Thank you for all of your posts and videos — they have been unfailingly helpful as I have been trying to navigate the often-confusing ba’alas teshuvah process. Here is a question I have for you, though. How do you respond when people claim that Judaism and the “old testament” are the vengeful part of the Bible and Christianity has a monopoly on love? As many times as you can point out that commandments like v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha (love your neighbor as yourself) are pretty evidently loving, I find that very sincere, well-meaning people will still zero in on things like stoning a disobedient child…

Sincerely,

Lover Not a Fighter

Dear Not a Fighter,

The “fun” thing about religion (he said sarcastically) is that both supporters and detractors can cherry-pick verses to “prove” that the religion means whatever they want it to mean. In our current political climate, this is most noticeable with Islam. There are plenty of Muslims who preach that Islam is a religion of peace, and they have the verses in Qur’an to support it. For example, Qur’an 3:199 says, “And indeed, among the People of the Book are those who believe in Allah and what was revealed to you and what was revealed to them, humbly submissive to Allah. They do not exchange the verses of Allah for a small price. Those will have their reward with their Lord. Indeed, Allah is swift in account.” (“People of the Book” refers to non-Muslim monotheists, specifically Jews and Christians.)

Conversely, if you’ve seen ISIS beheadings and attacks around the world, you’re probably aware that there are those who consider Islam to be a religion of hate; they, likewise have verses to support their position. For example, Qur’an 5:51 says, “O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are allies of one another and whoever is an ally to them among you, then he is one of them. Indeed, Allah does not guide the wrongdoing people.” One could find many more verses to support either side of this debate.

But your question is about Judaism vis-à-vis Christianity. Is Judaism really the religion of vengeance and Christianity the religion of love? As with Islam, I can cherry-pick verses from both the “Old” and “New” Testaments to prove whatever I want.

It may surprise you to learn that Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to send peace on earth. I did not come to send peace, but a sword. I am sent to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:34-35). That sounds pretty violent to me!

A funny story: At the time of the Iraq War, I attended a clergy panel about whether or not we should participate in such a conflict. A colleague, a priest, said we should not, based on various New Testament verses. I challenged his sources with the aforementioned “I did not come to send peace, but a sword.” He replied, “That’s clearly a metaphor. Jesus didn’t carry a sword; his disciples didn’t carry swords….” I replied with a quote from John 18:10, “Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear.”

Similarly, in the Parable of the Ten Minas, Jesus says “I tell you that to everyone who has, more shall be given, but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence”(Luke 19:26-27). (There are those who will tell you that, as part of a parable, these aren’t Jesus’ own words but those of the character in his story. However, the character who says these words is the exemplar for Jesus himself.)

My point in doing this is not to bash Christianity. It is simply to illustrate that a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Wiccan, an atheist – you name it – can find verses to make their own belief system look good or someone else’s look bad. Out of context, anything can be made to mean whatever you want it to mean. This is what’s going on when people posit Judaism as the product of a God of vengeance. They are cherry-picking verses out of context to support their preconceived conclusions.

Another factor is that the text of the Torah doesn’t give the complete story. For example, the Torah prohibits performing acts of labor on Shabbos, but it doesn’t define what acts of labor are. You cite the case of the ben sorer u’moreh (stubborn and rebellious son), in Deuteronomy chapter 21. If the full details of a weekly mitzvah that affects everyone (i.e., Shabbos) are not provided in the text, it should not surprise you that the details of an obscure mitzvah like ben sorer u’moreh are not explicit. I provide just a few of the details in my book, The Shnayim Mikra Companion:

If a person has a thoroughly rotten son who absolutely will not toe the line, the parents may have him flogged in an attempt to rein him in. If he’s completely incorrigible, he may even be put to death because his evil fate is inevitable. (To be eligible for this punishment, the boy must steal money from his father, use it to buy meat, which he must consume undercooked with a certain quantity of wine in front of his father’s house with a circle of bad friends. There are a lot of other conditions, too. The Talmud in Sanhedrin 71a tells us that the case of the rebellious son never happened and was only included in the Torah for the lesson it imparts.)

Let’s read that last line again, “The Talmud in Sanhedrin 71a tells us that the case of the rebellious son never happened and was only included in the Torah for the lesson it imparts.” So, people get bent out of shape over a mitzvah that Jewish tradition tells us was never actually performed and was never intended to be performed. It seems an awfully hypothetical basis for drawing any “big picture” conclusions about Judaism!

The sheer volume of capital crimes makes a lot of people consider Judaism to be violent. What they don’t tell you are all the parameters necessary for someone to be executed. The person has to be warned not to do the thing he’s about to do because it carries a potential death sentence, then he has to go ahead and do it anyway, in the presence of witnesses. He’s tried before a court of 23 judges; it takes a simple majority (12 to 11) to acquit but it requires a supermajority (13 to 10) to convict. Judges who initially voted to convict can change their votes to acquit but those who voted to acquit cannot change their votes to convict. There are many other laws favoring the defense over the prosecution. Capital punishment was so uncommon that the Talmud (Makkos 7a) says if there was an execution more frequently than once every 70 years, it was a bloody court.

You cite the dictum to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Leviticus 9:18). The Torah likewise prohibits favoring powerful people in court cases (Leviticus 19:15), taking something that a poor person needs as collateral for a loan (Deuteronomy 24:12), and oppressing widows and orphans (Exodus 22:21) or converts (Exodus 22:20) – even verbally. A skim of the 613 mitzvos will reveal hundreds that are clearly meant to protect the weaker members of society and only a handful that cry out for explanation. But even the seemingly-troubling ones are far less troubling once one takes the time to look into them.

“But,” I hear you ask, “if anyone can cherry-pick verses to make a religion appear as they wish, how do we know you’re not doing the same thing?” Good question! And the answer is, because I don’t want you to take my sample verses at face value. I encourage you to delve into the Torah, with all of its commentaries and codes of law, to get a big-picture view of things, including the things that require more explanation.

By familiarizing yourself with what the Torah says – and what it actually means – you will become well-equipped to respond to the troubling questions, whether they come from people misrepresenting Torah or from our own minds.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Educational Correspondent for JITC

 

Rabbi Abramowitz analyzes the 613 mitzvos – including the more troubling ones – in his book The Taryag Companion.

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Rabbi Jack Abramowitz About Rabbi Jack Abramowitz

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, Jew in the City's Educational Correspondent, is the editor of OU Torah (www.ou.org/torah) . He is the author of five books including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion.

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  1. Catholic Mom says:

    I appreciate your comments about cherry picking verses to make points, and it is important to judge a religion, like any ideology, based on what its adherents actually do, and not just some words on a page (“by their fruits you shall know them”). Sadly the fruits of Christianity are not all good. But if you are going to analyze what the actual teaching of the New Testament are (as opposed to the teachings of the Christianity) it is intellectually dishonest not to acknowledge that they are fundamentally pacifist.

    Over and over again Jesus teaches complete pacifism. “Do not use force against evil.” “If any man strike you on the check, turn your face so he may strike you again.” “He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.”
    The passage beginning “I come not to bring peace, but a sword” is beloved of those who wish to show that Christianity is really just like Islam, but even the most cursory reading makes it totally obvious that Jesus is saying “I am not bringing a feel-good, kumbaya, let’s group hug and then keep right on doing what we’ve always done religion. My teachings are revolutionary and they will bring you into opposition with the world as you know it – even with the closest members of your own family.”

    The parable you quote is not about this world – it is about the world to come when the King (God) will judge the world. And Jesus is not the exemplar here. It is said of the earthly king in this parable: “I was afraid of you, because you are a hard man. You take out what you did not put in and reap what you did not sow” Jesus has many similar parables where he says “this is how human beings in power right here on this earth judge, which is why you fear them, yet you don’t seem to be afraid of the judgment of the King of Kings which is coming.”

    As far as the behavior of Peter attacking the centurion – bad choice to support your point. Jesus rebukes Peter, then heals the centurion’s wounds. Then goes off to be executed while offering no resistance and forbidding his followers from offering any resistance. As did at least 10 of his apostles as well as St. Paul (the author of most of the New Testament outside the Gospels).

    As you know, there have been many pacifist Christian sects throughout history based on a plain reading of the New Testament. Even today we have the Quakers, Amish, and Mennonites. And indeed, complete pacifism was the position of the early Church. The Church rejected pacifism through a long process beginning with Constantine and we may look back today and wonder how different the world might have been had it remained true to the literal teaching of the New Testament.

    You can certainly argue with this pacifism – for example, would it preclude fighting the Nazis? Jailing child molesters? – but denying it is just not historically accurate.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. What you’re doing is proving my point. I never said that these interpretations reflected my personal beliefs about Christianity, I said that one could cherry-pick verses from any religion to illustrate any point that one wanted to make. Everyone knows that Christianity has a reputation for being about love and peace (historical anomalies like the Spanish Inquisition notwithstanding). I was demonstrating how detractors take verses out of context to “prove” the opposite. If you’re complaining that the verses I quoted are out of context – yes, that was the entire point.

      Having illustrated that, I go on to address that people who posit the “old” testament as the product of a God of vengeance are doing the same thing – taking a handful of verses out of context to illustrate a preconceived (and erroneous) conclusion. So my point in using NT verses was not to suggest that Christianity is inherently violent (I don’t believe it is), but to say, “See how silly that is? Well, that’s what people do to us.”

  2. Catholic Mom says:

    I read your original post after I posted and I do see that your main point was to debunk cherry picking verses, which we all agree is ridiculous. So I agree that my reaction was misdirected. However, some verses are truly quoted out of literary context (that is, they don’t mean what the person quoting them says they mean) while some are out of historical context — that is, they don’t reflect actual thinking or practice. I would say the verses you quoted from the NT are of the first type while those from the OT you discuss are of the second.

    BTW, my second reading of your piece also introduced a novel question for me — why was Peter carrying a sword in the first place? One thing we know about Peter is that he often had a hard time grasping where Jesus was going with his teachings and he certainly had major human weaknesses (causing him to panic when Jesus was arrested and deny that he even knew him) so you could kind of see him nodding his head while Jesus was preaching on non-violence and meanwhile buckling on his sword, but you are the very first person I’ve ever known to have even noticed this! Question to raise on a different site. 🙂

  3. Catholic Mom says:

    BTW, an equally important point is that if Jesus were teaching peace and love while the OT was full of violence and hatred, the first thing Jesus would have done was repudiate it, but he never did this. Instead, he said “do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. I come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.” In fact, many of his teachings are accompanied by quotations from the OT to prove his point. Christianity says that God is a God of justice and of mercy and that this is manifest in ALL the scriptures. If it were otherwise, Christianity would be incoherent.

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