Ed Gaskin

I’m a Judeo-Christian. What does that mean?

Wikipedia says the term “Judeo-Christian” has a mixed history. So perhaps it’s better to define what I mean by it. Because I spend so much time in both Jewish and Christian communities and each community knows I spend time in the other, there is a natural curiosity as to how I identify. Instead of saying I’m either Jewish or Christian, I like to say I’m Jewish AND Christian.  I use the term Judeo, as a modifier for the type of Christian. This works for me, and may not work for anyone else.

Unfortunately, the religious right has co-opted the term Judeo-Christian, as in, “This country was built on Judeo-Christian values.” But that’s only true if you exclude Native Americans, the Enlightenment, humanist thinking, Deists, agnostics, and the religious beliefs of slaves who literally helped build America. Similarly, those on the religious right like to claim that God created America primarily for the benefit of Christians. They try to include Jews as co-signers of their policy agenda by saying things like abortion goes against Judeo-Christian values. Then there are those who refer to Judeo-Christian as support for their Christian Zionism or Messianic Judaism or Supersessionism. When I say Judeo-Christian, I don’t mean it from a religious right perspective. In fact, I oppose the use of the term to refer to the religious right. The term has had different meaning over time, but the way the religious right uses it is not historically, what the term has meant.

From my first Shabbat worship service, what caught my attention as a Christian was that nothing was sung, preached, or prayed that I didn’t agree with or that didn’t align with traditional Christian faith. Having attended both Shabbat and Sunday morning services regularly for four years, I have heard many sermons preached by rabbis that could just as well have been preached in a church and vice versa. I have heard songs sung in church and in synagogue that could be sung in the other faith’s services. There are Jewish rituals and holidays that could be practiced by Christians, such as tashlich and Yom Kippur. Any Jew or Christian could recognize the need for a National Day of Prayer. The Passover seder is something I could see embraced by the Black church. In fact, there are Black/Jewish seders, also called Freedom Seders. I see Judaism as a complement to my Christian faith, not a replacement.

The spectrum of Jewish observance ranges from ultra-Orthodox to Reform. For me, the spectrum runs from Orthodox to Christian; I see Christianity as the largest form of Judaism. I say that because the Christian Bible contains the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus was Jewish, the disciples were Jewish, and even the first pope was Jewish. The Apostle Paul boasted about how Jewish he was. Philippians 3:4-8. It was Paul’s reimagining of Jewish concepts, symbols, and doctrine that made it possible for gentiles to accept this new form of Judaism. Pauline theology is largely understood to be the foundation of Christianity. In the first century, there were many Jewish Christian groups, and it was not clear, yet which Jewish customs could or should be kept. It is unfortunate that over time, as gentile believers came to outnumber the Jewish ones and antisemitism increased, Christians disavowed their Jewish past.

Jews may object to the characterization of Christianity as a form of Judaism because of the theological differences between the two religions. My response would be that Jews may not be as familiar with the wide range of Christian beliefs, from Unitarian Universalists, who believe all paths lead to God, to some fundamentalist Christians who believe there is only one way and that only those from their denomination will be saved. Some see Catholicism and Protestantism as so different that they should be treated as two different religions rather than two versions of the same faith. The Christian church in the South went beyond segregated sections to segregated churches, with some for whites and others for Blacks. It hardly felt like they were worshiping the same God. My Christian faith is closer to that of Rabbi Heschel than that of George Wallace, Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond, and Bob Jones Sr., although these men were all self-professed Christians. But so are those members of The Church of Jesus ChristChristian i.e. members of the Ku Klux Klan.

In the span of Christian history, accepting Christians with different beliefs is a relatively recent development. For example, Roman Catholics and Protestants alike persecuted the Anabaptists, resorting to torture and execution in attempts to curb the growth of the Anabaptist movement. For most of church history, those with different views were seen not as Christians but as heretics, and thus deserving of death. Considered from that perspective, Judaism may not be any more different from Christianity than various Christian denominations are from each other.

Some have argued that Judaism, unlike many Christian dominations, is a non-creedal religion that does not require one to believe in certain doctrines. Some have even argued that Judaism does not require a belief in God. This point would seem to make it possible for someone to be both Jewish and Christian.

That brings us to the exclusive claims of Christ that Jews object to, such as Jesus being God, the Messiah, or the Lamb of God who takes away people’s sin, or that there is no way to heaven without Jesus. My response would be that since Jews already believe in the God of Abraham and Sarah, and they use some of the same names for the same God, and pray to the same God Jesus prayed to, they are already believers.  In other words Jews and Christians both worship a God called Yah·weh and thus conversion is unnecessary.

Much of the history of antisemitism in the Christian church has involved attempts to convert the Jews or to torture kill them as heretics, as in the Spanish Inquisition. Perhaps instead, we should accept all followers of Abrahamic religions as “believers.”

Susan Katz Miller author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family, says there is a small but growing cohort of rabbis who understand families raising children with both religions, and support them. Susan Katz Miller asks, “If the stumbling block is the divinity of Christ, then what are we to make of the fact that we are all children of God, including Jesus?” Which brings us to theological discussions concerning the hypostatic union of Christ. The Hypostatic Union is a theological term used to describe the truth that in Christ one person subsists in two natures, the divine and the human. In church history, there were debates as to what the divine nature of Christ was. Should differences in theological beliefs prevent someone from being a Judeo-Christian?

Apparently not for Inter-Faith families. According to Susan Katz Miller,

Nationally, of an estimated 1.8 million children in homes with at least one Jewish parent, some 300,000 children are being raised with two religions. And in New York, Chicago, Washington and elsewhere, grass-roots communities are providing formal Jewish and Christian education programs for these dual-faith children, while also encouraging them to attend churches and synagogues.

The aim in these programs is not to blend or merge the two religions, but to help children understand the two distinct traditions, the common ground, the important differences and the intertwined history.

Jewish, Christian Interfaith Families: Practice One Faith or Two? Is where I have previously written about being both Jewish and Christian. The Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington (IFFP) is an independent community of interfaith families and others, committed to sharing, learning about, and celebrating our Jewish and Christian traditions. The Rev. Julia Jarvis and Rabbi Harold White lead it. It is now in its third decade. According to their website, IFFP is a place where both Jewish and Christian partners can feel like equal members of the community, celebrate, and learn about both faiths. And they are not the only ones. Besides Washington, there are similar communities in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago; grass-roots communities providing formal Jewish and Christian education programs for dual-faith children, while also encouraging them to attend churches and synagogues. These Interfaith communities demonstrate that it is possible to be a both Jewish and Christian.

There is always the fear of Jewish assimilation, acculturation, or Jewish, Christian syncretism, where Jewish culture is lost. And becoming a Judeo-Christian could be seen as the first step in the loss of Jewish culture. But it does not have to be in a world of “both and” thinking.

This is not a new way of thinking. When looking at the Tzippori Synagogue, an ancient synagogue discovered in Sepphoris, a Roman-era Jewish city in Galilee. The synagogue has a mosaic floor. The mosaic floor is divided into seven parts. There is a scene showing the angels visiting Sarah. The next section shows the binding of Isaac. There is a large Zodiac with the names of the months written in Hebrew. The largest panel or central sections of the mosaic show the Zodiac with Helios in the middle, driving his sun chariot. Zippori was not a backward, renegade village that had gone astray. According to the Jewish virtual library,

Zippori became the center of Jewish religious and spiritual life in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Yeduda Hanasi, complied the Mishnah here and, relocated the Sanhedrin (the supreme Jewish religious and judicial body he headed) to Zippori in the third century. At least 18 synagogues were functioning in the city around this time and jews constituted the majority of the town’s population.

And yet, there is an image of a Pagan god, Helios and the Zodiac in the middle of the synagogue. That seems very incompatible, e.g. Judaism and paganism, and yet they made it work.

This is often contrasted with Masada where one way or another all the Jews died or were captured, so as to not be under Roman rule. We are talking about something very different, where groups of individuals are freely making a choice, not being forced into one.

Traditional Christians may argue that the Bible is the word of God, and that God was very intentional about the words used in the Bible, thus it must be utterly truthful. This doctrine of inerrancy says that the original manuscripts of the Bible are without error, and the inerrant word of God is only found in the 66 books of the Christian biblical canon. If that’s true, then it would make sense to spend more time studying the Hebrew scriptures, since they make up between 70% and 80% of the Christian Bible, depending on whether you count characters, words, or books. For me as one who identifies as Christian, my interest in Judaism is an effort to reclaim my Jewish spiritual heritage as a Christian. I believe more Christian don’t do this because of an unconscious antisemitism, they think of Jews as “the other.” Something alien and not compatible with Christianity.

In my experience, Christian pastors only preach about the Hebrew scriptures through the lens of salvation history, as understood in the Christian tradition. If I had to select a lens, I would pick justice as in “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Deuteronomy 16:20. I believe the Hebrew scriptures, especially the law and the prophets spend more time on moral, and ethical behavior, values, justice, and righteousness than on salvation.

Looking through the narrow lens of salvation history misses the broader themes and other teachings. For me, having the benefit of a wider perspective helps me in my spiritual journey. I embrace the Jewish teachings, training, and spiritual formation and the Christian teachings, training, and spiritual formation. That is why I describe myself as a Judeo-Christian.

What do you think?

About the Author
Ed Gaskin attends Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts and Roxbury Presbyterian Church in Roxbury, Mass. He has co-taught a course with professor Dean Borman called, “Christianity and the Problem of Racism” to Evangelicals (think Trump followers) for over 25 years. Ed has an M. Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and graduated as a Martin Trust Fellow from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. He has published several books on a range of topics and was a co-organizer of the first faith-based initiative on reducing gang violence at the National Press Club in Washington DC. In addition to leading a non-profit in one of the poorest communities in Boston, and serving on several non-profit advisory boards, Ed’s current focus is reducing the incidence of diet-related disease by developing food with little salt, fat or sugar and none of the top eight allergens. He does this as the founder of Sunday Celebrations, a consumer-packaged goods business that makes “Good for You” gourmet food.
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