ONE JOKE I'VE HEARD CAL THOMAS USE IN HIS excellent after-dinner speeches goes something like this: In the morning I first read the Bible, and then I turn to The New York Times to get the other side.
Good jokes often grow around kernels of truth: The Times often seems to be edited by Screwtape. But logic once in a while squirms its way onto that newspaper's pages, and along those lines I've been pondering a Times column by New York University professor Douglas Rushkoff that took issue with one piece of conventional wisdom about American Judaism.
Mr. Rushkoff wrote, "For too long, the health of Judaism has been defined largely by numbers.... [O]ur great mistake has been to forget that we are the descendants of a loose amalgamation of peoples united around a new idea, and to replace this history with the view, advanced by our enemies, that we are ... a tribe to be measured in numbers of surviving members, rather than as an ethical proposition born 3,000 years ago whose success should be gauged by its level of actual acceptance."
The article continued, "Judaism was built around the contention that human beings can make the world a better, more just place.... Judaism is a set of ideas to be shared. Its universal tenets should not be surrendered to the seemingly more pressing threat of tribal dissolution.... It would be a terrible shame if the religion's biggest concern continued to be itself."
I'd like to build on Mr. Rushkoff's argument, but take it in a different direction than I suspect he intended. He's right that "Judaism is a set of ideas to be shared," but is he right to assume it was built around humans taking the initiative? After all, God takes the initiative in blessing Abraham and declaring (in Genesis 12) that "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." God speaks to Moses from a burning bush and empowers him to lead slaves to freedom.
Some Orthodox Jews on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (this year, Oct. 5-6), swing a chicken over their heads while chanting a prayer for atonement; the chicken is then slaughtered and given to the poor. The twirling and killing signify that this should happen to the person as well, unless God is merciful. At the close of Yom Kippur, when a shofar (ram's horn) is blown, the future is sealed. But what if God already knows the future and has already atoned for our sins, through Christ's sacrifice?
Since that is the case, the chief task of Jews now is not the maintenance of a particular people. The chief task, following Genesis 12, is to help all the families of the earth to be blessed by sharing with them the good news of atonement completed. Chapter 15 of the book of Acts tells of the early Jerusalem council where Paul and Barnabas expressed their prime commitment to the idea, not the tribe. Others disagreed. Then Peter stunned the assembly by saying that God was the God of many Gentiles as well, for "he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith."
That history from Acts is consistent with Chapter 61 of the book of Isaiah, which contains a prophecy directed to the Israelites: "Foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers; but you shall be called the priests of the Lord; they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God ... and in their glory you shall boast." Over the past 2,000 years many Jews (including me, thanks be to God) have come to Christ and rejoiced while helping to evangelize other Jews as well as Gentiles. Others, though, have let loyalty to ethnicity outweigh the call to spread among the nations the biblical idea of salvation that culminates in Christ.
"In their glory you shall boast." We are not to boast of Judaism's thousands or millions but of the hundreds of millions throughout the world whose lives have been changed by the faithfulness of a Jewish carpenter and the echoes of that faithfulness in believers throughout the world. As a convert to Christ 27 years ago, I'm still astounded by the way some who grow up in Christian homes despise their birthright and even hate Christmas carols.
Joy to the whole world! The Lord has come. May I be twirled like a chicken if I ever ignore or minimize the import of that message of mercy to all the nations.