Why Does Judaism Look So Much Like Other Ancient Religions?

The ever prolific blogger Dov Bear posted a question on facebook, apparently on behalf of some other anonymous thinker/friend of his:

What would “authentic” judaism look like? Let me clarify the question: what would Judaism look like if you stripped out anything that was “borrowed” from other religions or pagan practice…

I’m not so bold as to try and figure out what “authentic” Judaism would look like, but I do want to pose the following question: Why is Judaism so similar to the religions and societies that were around at time the Torah was given (as well as to those from the time of Avraham)?

The answer, as usual, can be found in Rambam among others, but I’m posting this as a lazy sketch, not a real post, so bother me later for sources if you really want them.

One important explanation is really quite simple. I think I might just post what I commented on Dov Bear’s status on facebook, where I responded specifically to a commenter’s claim that Rambam would exclude sacrifices (korbanot) from Judaism if he could, because sacrifices exist only to wean us away from paganism in his opinion.

Just to put out a thought I think is important and relevant here.

First, Rambam wouldn’t exclude sacrifices. Just because it exists in his opinion to wean us away from paganism (like many, many, other mitzvot in his opinion) does not mean that if we would start again we would not have them. Rather, we should learn that God gave the Torah to man, to fit man as he basically still is, but more specifically was, at the time the Torah was given.

If the Torah resembles Hamurabi’s Code, it is because God wanted the Torah to be given in the most understandable way possible for people at that time. They would have understood that code, and even if it was reinterpreted and changed, they would respond to it with sympathy and understanding (“imagination” and rational thought being necessary in this case, see Faur’s homo mysticus on the MN).

Same goes for brit milah, and endless things. The Torah was given in the language of man, etc.

“Native Judaism” is a Judaism that is not just native to the Divine, but is also native to the people who were taken out of Egypt, as well as to the human psyche in general.

The Moreh Nevuchim will probably always be the best book for this point of view, but it pops up here and there, and seems implicit from TaNaKH (the Bible) itself.

As usual, it’s always good to recommend anything by Nachum Sarna, because he explains beautifully in many places how the Torah wanted to take a pagan world view and make it into a monotheistic one, with all of the implications that come with this.

Taking this understanding with us also allows us to understand many Aggadic (non legal statements) from Chazal (The Sages) in a new light.



Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism

5 responses to “Why Does Judaism Look So Much Like Other Ancient Religions?

  1. Le Newyorkais

    It is very presumptuous to speculate on what God “wants.” Does it really make sense to say that an all-powerful and all-knowing “wants” anything? To want means to lack, and does God lack anything? Why doesn’t he just sit down and create whatever he “wants”?
    Ya, ya, he created billions of galaxies, solar systems, sub-atomic particles, and species, and yet he cares mostly about what part of 1 species, the Jews, eat, behave, grow beards, have sex, study his word, etc. Come on! Does this make an ounce of sense? Is it clear how self-serving this position is for the Jews?
    Anyway, Rambam is half right. Animal sacrifice is cruel and degrading to both man and beast. But command it the Torah does. In vivid detail. In fact, over 1/2 the 613 mitzvot deal directly or indirectly with sacrifice. It is CENTRAL to Biblical Judaism; it is not merely some segue from “paganism” to Judaism. Chazal say that the world exists on the merit of 3 pillars: Torah, Temple service, and fear of God. There u have it: no sacrifice, no Judaism, and no world.
    Let’s face it: Jewish practice is merely some fairy tale that got out of hand.

    • Hi Le,

      Characteristically tough questions!

      Number one, you’re correct. God doesn’t “want”. I should have said “kavyachol”.

      2) Judaism isn’t self serving, it’s serving God. That doesn’t mean it can’t be twisted, but it’s theocentric. Jews are God’s servants, not the other way around.

      3) Rambam explains that indeed, the Torah and commandments want to work very hard to keep us away from paganism and idolatry. The Torah was a revolution (good or bad, depending on your view, but definitely a revolution) and it’s not easy for people to change so radically and so quickly, let alone a group of slaves. The commandments are given in a way that is sensitive to people.

      4) Love the quote Le 🙂

      Indeed, once sacrifice was put into a monotheistic context, it became central to serving God, and a pillar of the world. You can speculateo nwhat that means in a Jewish context.

      5) regarding cruelty, I’m not sure why it’s cruel to man, but I hear it being cruel to beast. Some say (like R. Kook) that there won’t be sacrifices in the messianice age. Others say that it’s commanded, and there cannot be a change (this is Rambam’s view) and the sacrifices as a service to God will continue to reflect an imperfect world and history.

      • Le Newyorkais

        1) maybe I am not getting something here—what is “kavyachol”?
        2) by self-serving I mean that Judaism invents philosophies and principles that suit who? The Jews, that’s who.
        God made a covenant with the Jews’ ancestors. They r his chosen people. They have special rules because they r “holy.” He cares about the Jews. He gives a hoot what they eat. He took them out of slavery in Egypt.
        Hey, that reminds me, why all the drama-queen stuff about taking the Jews out of Egypt? Hey God, if u “want” to take the Jews out of Egypt, so flippin’ TAKE THEM OUT ALREADY! Forget giving the Egyptians miraculous plagues, forget hardening Pharaoh’s heart, forget turning the Nile into blood, forget the pillars of fire and smoke. Just go in there, and take them the hell out!

  2. Le Newyorkais

    Come on, Yitzhak, animal sacrifice is gross in today’s world. Offering barbecued steak to God to atone for one’s sins? Brilliant, just brilliant.
    What will vegetarians do when they r obligated to sacrifice? Broil zucchini?
    Yitz, u got it backwards: u have the answer BEFORE the question. God and Torah r the ultimate truth, believers say. THEN, u got to work out all the obvious questions and contradicitions ASSUMING, when all is lost, God is the right answer. Even when we (or he, apparently) have no answers, i.e., the holocaust.
    Supposedly, Messiah will bring the answers. but what could those answers POSSIBLY be? What COULD Elijah possibly say about Our Father permitting the torture and murder of his children. Can u even conceive of what this answer CAN be? What can Messiah say that would satisfy your and my utter confusion?
    Yitz, think outside the box for a minute. There is no reason for a rational person to believe in Torah and God, unless maybe he was brought up in it, or is a BT looking for “meaning” in his life.

  3. Pingback: Is Modern Biblical Scholarship A Danger to Traditional Belief? (Part 3) | ThinkJudaism

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