Jewish Understandings of the Religious Other

By Langer, Ruth | Theological Studies, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Jewish Understandings of the Religious Other


Langer, Ruth, Theological Studies


HUMAN SELF-IDENTITY BEGINS with the negative definition of "self" as "not other," spanning from the infantile recognition that parents have independent existences and extending to communal definitions of characteristics or boundaries that place some people "in" and others "out." We all live in overlapping circles of such communal boundaries, defined by such things as family, geographic proximity, co-workers, ethnicity, and religion. While some of these social structures are informal, others are defined by codified rules determining who is "self" and who is "other." Religious communities and national communities tend to be the most formal in defining these boundaries. Judaism, as primarily a national/ethnic community, traditionally handles these distinctions through the mechanisms of halakhah, of rabbinic legislation. This halakhic definition of "self" creates the underpinnings for the more theological expressions of this concept. (1)

In my article I offer a preliminary survey of the traditional Jewish halakhic definitions of self and other and their theological implications. I also explore some of the attempts to modify these understandings to answer the challenges presented to the traditional conceptions by the modern world. In the course of these discussions, I compare Judaism's understandings with the Catholic position presented in the documents on which this journal symposium focuses. However, there is urgent need for more intensive and serious scholarly research on this question before a more comprehensive answer can be presented. Although a few books and many articles have appeared in recent years, no one yet has seriously investigated the full range of medieval halakhic rulings about permitted and restricted interactions with the Christian and Muslim worlds, particularly with an eye to understanding their underlying theological positions. (2) Such work is a necessary preliminary for the task that many engaged in Jewish-Christian relations now recognize as urgent: the building of a Jewish theology of the religious other that will respond to the theological revolution in the Christian understanding of Judaism led by the Catholic Church. (3)

WHO IS A JEW?

At its most fundamental level, the definition of "Jew" is neither religious nor theological, but ethnic. (4) This point is critical for understanding traditional Jewish understandings of self and other. Joseph Dan argues convincingly that the very concepts of religion and theology as the academy understands them today are Christian concepts, derived from Christianity's early accommodations with Greco-Roman culture, resulting in a clear differentiation between the realms of church and state and between theology and philosophy. Judaism (and Islam), in contrast, have no such conceptual differentiation between the profane and the religious realms. Instead, these are cultures in which everything ideally participates in the holy, including the most mundane activities. Consequently, nothing lies outside the realm of religion; divinely ordained law governs literally every aspect of life, from the privacy of the home, to the marketplace, to the government, to matters of worship. Thus, the Jewish understanding of the non-Jew builds from a understanding of the self as a member of this holy community in contrast with an outside world that lives according to a different (or non-existent) relationship to God. (5) Modernity has challenged many aspects of this traditional identity, but one cannot understand this challenge without understanding its predecessors.

Modern scholarship also accepts fairly unanimously that per se Judaism is not so much the religion of or contained in the written Bible as it is the religion that lives by the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, especially its first five books, the Torah, as interpreted by the traditions of the rabbinic "Oral Torah." The Oral Torah is the ongoing process of interpretation and application of the received written text--embedded in which are infinite possibilities of meaning--so as to sanctify all aspects of life. …

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