The Gospel of Judas and Jewish Faith

This is a story about faith meeting disloyalty. It has very little to do with Judas, though.

For many centuries, the accepted New Testament account meant that Judas was a symbol of terrible things, like betrayal and treachery. You know, craven, money-grubbing Jews. The recent translation of a second century document referred to as the Gospel of Judas stands centuries of tradition on its head. According to this ancient work, Judas was a good guy, who would bear the burden of condemnation and vilification by a world that would not understand that he was faithfully facilitating the Will of G-d.

That sent millions of Christians into a quandary. Churches are hemorrhaging from an exodus of the formerly faithful. Having learned that a treasured part of their tradition has been upended, they have quickly moved to question anything and everything. Theologians are scrambling to find a place in which they can hunker down and lick their wounds after a hasty retreat from previously held positions. The Vatican is in a state of pontifical panic.

Well, no, actually.

No one seems terribly upset. The general attitude I have noticed is, “What, we should be disturbed by a bunch of meshugaim suffering from desert heat-stroke? What makes their version more valuable or authentic than ours? For this you want us to discard a tradition of thousands of years?”

I’m jealous. In the Jewish world, we often don’t react as calmly and sanely.

I am not a formal student of Jewish Wissenschaft, the “scientific” investigation of Judaism. I don’t keep my head buried in the sand either. I’ve had to duck more times than I can remember as the academic world hurled salvos at us believers. It always seemed to me that wherever historians discovered some overlap between Judaism and other cultures, they came to the conclusion that Jews had lifted some new element or belief from their neighbors.

Bereishis was stolen from Gilgamesh. Shabbos was a morphed Shabbatu. The biblical Flood narrative was all wet, and really washed on to Jewish shores from one of those other civilizations that cherished a flood story. (They are, after all, oh so common. You would almost think that it actually happened!) Where would Mishpatim (the section of the book of Exodus dealing with civil law) be without Hammurabi? Or holidays without ancient agrarian festivals (except of Chanukah, with wasn’t agrarian, but still properly pagan)? The afterlife was originally a Babylonian DVD, that someone forgot to return to an ancient Blockbuster. Are derashos (rabbinic methods of exegesis) Greek to you? That’s because they are!

We were the ultimate theological kleptomaniacs. I was always puzzled. Couldn’t the arrow sometimes point in the opposite direction? Did other societies never borrow anything Jewish? Couldn’t the universality of some cultural elements owe to a kernel element that actually transpired?

OK, it’s all about biases. The academic world was and is largely biased against traditional religious belief . (Gaia worship is fine, because it could be good for the environment and feminism, and far-left Anglicans seem to be infatuated with it.) And I certainly recognize my bias towards belief. I would be comfortable to call it a draw, but so many Jews won’t. Instead of swinging at some pretty easy pitches, so many run from the plate at every new curve ball. Every new discovery, observation, or conjecture convinces some non-Orthodox Jews to abandon their patrimony and faith.

We’re not talking about slam-dunk, overwhelming evidence. Whether the zeitgeist is Higher Criticism or the Minimalists rejection of the Exodus, there are always competing explanations available. They are sometimes embraced by the many, sometimes by fewer scholars, but they always mean that those who hold them are in good company. They haven’t checked their critical faculties at the door. They may be part of a minority, but nothing resembling membership in the Flat Earth Society. So why is Jewish faith so often the loser? If the persistence and resilience of that faith doesn’t quite constitute proof, does it not at least count as evidence in arguments that could go either way? Does faith have no backbone?

The word emunah loses too much when it is translated as “faith.” More properly, it has strong overtones of faithfulness and loyalty. Conviction does not evaporate before every challenge and question. It allows one to function with questions, especially if there is any kind of plausible answer available.

There are too many Jewish scholars and liberal clergy eager to betray their legacy for thirty shekels worth of academic respectability.

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26 Responses

  1. Jewish Observer says:

    “… for thirty shekels”


  2. Bob Miller says:

    The following is speculation, so I hope people with more information can fill in the blanks or challenge this with facts:

    Recent kiruv literature and presentations may not have been putting enough stress on emunah. A desire to make Torah Judaism palatable to secular American Jews could have led to over-concentration on the “rationally understandable” side of Torah and Jewish history. If the Orthodox Jews interacting with secular Jews didn’t give emunah its proper due, one would not be surprised if the latter group failed to understand it.

    Furthermore, education about emunah may have been under-emphasized within certain Orthodox circles. We have seen attacks by some ostensibly Orthodox Jews on the historicity of various biblical miracles (such as the Flood). Were they taught that way?

  3. Nachum says:

    I’m not sure what you see as the problem. Christianity is always under attack from both academia as well as popular culture. Many Christians are not religious at all. And religious Jews react much the same way to attacks as religious Christians do. I don’t see how your point is made.

  4. HILLEL says:

    Well, “plastic religion” is certainly nothing new.

    “Plastic Judaism” has been practiced by Karaites, Samaritans, Sabbateans, and–most recently–Reformer and Conservatives.

    I call them “plastic”, because, like plastic, they immediately soften upon the application of heat and become malleable. Then, they are transformed into whatever is the fashion de-jure in their environment.

    They are definitely ot “am ke-Shei oref.”

  5. Bob Miller says:

    “We’re not talking about slam-dunk, overwhelming evidence. Whether the zeitgeist is Higher Criticism or the Minimalists rejection of the Exodus, there are always competing explanations available.”

    There may be even be instances where academia offers no competing explanations, yet emunah calls for sticking to one’s guns.

  6. David Miller says:

    I don’t understand what you are getting at. Surely you must realize that believing in the deluge as a GLOBAL flood has zero support except amongst the likes of the Flat Earth society. I’ll bet that you accept that Wissenshaft forces us to accept either that the deluge was localized or has non-literal elements in its description.

  7. Harry Maryles says:

    This is quite a revealing post into the mind of Rabbi Adlerstein:

    I am not a formal student of Jewish Wissenschaft, the “scientific” investigation of Judaism. I don’t keep my head buried in the sand either. I’ve had to duck more times than I can remember as the academic world hurled salvos at us believers.

    Quite an admission. All I can say is “Me too!” See my blog entry today:

  8. Baruch Horowitz says:

    I find it interesting that Rav Soloveitchik ZTL writes in the “Lonely Man of Faith” that he was never troubled by the theories of Biblical criticism. I have also heard that this statement was not made out of ignorance of the issues, as he was familiar with works from the above school of thought. This can be a source of encouragement for anyone who has to deal with the above-mentioned issue. Despite his respect for the academia, Rav Soleveichick was unafraid to resist the zeitgeist.

  9. Rabbi Zvi says:

    “Every new discovery, observation, or conjecture convinces some non-Orthodox Jews to abandon their patrimony and faith.”

    I think our first priority is to try and retain the Orthodox Jews who abandon their patrimony and faith. I’ve known too many on that path.

    Regarding ducking, please see my comment to Harry Maryles blog noted above:

  10. David says:

    Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb got his Ph.D. in mathematical logic at Brandeis University & went on to become a Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University. I believe his approach to the matter is that this is something that one can “know” logically.

  11. Bob Miller says:

    Despite all this Wissenschaft and Zeitgeist, we should not lose our focus on Jüdischkeit.

  12. S. says:

    >“Plastic Judaism” has been practiced by Karaites, Samaritans, Sabbateans, and—most recently—Reformer and Conservatives.

    >I call them “plastic”, because, like plastic, they immediately soften upon the application of heat and become malleable. Then, they are transformed into whatever is the fashion de-jure in their environment.

    Since when did the Samaritans and the Karaites become fashionable? If anything, the Samaritans displayed unmatched tenacity. Imagine, a community of a few hundred clinging to their faith for millenia ad hayom hazeh, with no outside support whatsoever, no reinforcements. They may have been our ancestral enemies, but they were never a religion du jour!

    As for the Karaites, they piled chumrot atop one another, making yahadut impractical. It was their rigidity, not their plasticity that made them irrelevent. There is no comparison between these earlier sectarian movements and modern ones.

  13. Amanda Rush says:

    I think comment 4 above borders on the slanderous.
    Several groups, groups that differ widely in their practice, (or lack of it) of Judaism, have been lumped together and labeled with something that, if it were ever directed against the Orthodox community, would be called media or liberal Jewish bias against the Haredim.
    Why is it OK to direct this kind of slander against groups outside the Orthodox pale and not OK for non-Orthodox groups to hold the same standard when it comes to the Orthodox?

  14. Rabbi Zvi says:

    David – I didn’t glean that from his site.

  15. HILLEL says:

    Dear “s”:
    The Karaites wanted to abandon the traditions of the Torah leaders, so they adopted the excuse that they only accept “Prophetic Judaism.”–This position is very similar to that of Reform groups today, isn’t it?

    It is not slanderous to point-out the undeniable fact that Reform and Conservtive and Reconstructionist groups are reshaping Judaism in-line with the politically-correct fashions of today–e.g. ordaining women and open Homosexuals.

  16. S. says:

    >The Karaites wanted to abandon the traditions of the Torah leaders, so they adopted the excuse that they only accept “Prophetic Judaism.”—This position is very similar to that of Reform groups today, isn’t it?

    Sure, and Karaites and Reformers wore shoes. Any honest review of Karaite halakhah and theology shows that your view of the Karaites as creating something easier and something that fit in with the fashion of the day is simply and unequivocally wrong. Heretics, yes. Lukewarm religion? Not a chance.

  17. Rabbi Zvi says:

    With all due respect and for your edification:

    From “A History of the Jewish People”, Ben-Sasson, Ed., Harvard University Press, 1976, pp.449-450:

    The Karaite position is presented in a proclamation by Sahl ben Mazzliah (circa 960) a Karaite leader, “…for there is no compulsion upon us to follow our fathers in all respects…for even the Sons of Scripture change [i.e., there are differences of opinion and practice among the Karaites]. Which of them shall we follow? …Therefore they say to their brethren the Sons of Jacob: Study and seek and search and investigate and do what becomes established for you with clear sight and remains your opinion.”

    Ben-Sasson explains, “The proclamation constituted a call for the rejection of every earlier human authority, whether traditional or institutional, in favour [sic] of individual decision based on the application of one’s intellect and conscience to the Scriptures. Neither forbears nor teachers can show the way.”

    Reform outlined their basic beliefs in the Pittsburgh Platform (1885, adopted 1889): From the Encyclopedia Judaica, 1971, vol. 13, pp. 570-1.

    “We recognize in Judaism a progressive religion, ever striving to be in accord with the postulates of reason.” And, “Today we accept as binding only the moral laws,…but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”

    Note that my sources are not from Orthodox writers. I have more if anyone is interested for some honest review. And also, the Karaites had their “Day in sun” as well. As stated in Koheles – Lakol Zman, for everything there is a time.

    P.S. Personally and as an aside, I think derisive remarks are improper. The topics can be discussed politely, respectfully and intelligently. Indeed, we are taught that the Torah itself uses extra words in order to avoid using a negative term regarding non-kosher animals. Certainly people deserve the same consideration.

  18. S. says:

    You present a superficial similarity in their origin, which is why I mentioned that Karaites and Reformers both wore shoes.

    But your quotes show nothing about Karaite interpretation per se, which was very strict, in many instances far stricter and far less flexible than halakhah. Karaism was not plastic and lukewarm in any sense, unless you consider weeks long fasts, dark shabbatim with cold food, far stricter niddah and marriage laws etc to be essentially similar to Reform.

    Karaism was initially a rebellion against the religious authority of the Talmud and the rabbis. But it was nevertheless totally dissimilar from Reform in the sense that it was never about conforming with fleeting fashions or fashioning an easier way. The quote you provided dealt with its origins, not its beliefs and practices.

    >Personally and as an aside, I think derisive remarks are improper.

    I agree, and am shocked that you found my remarks derisive since that was never my intent!

    But upon rereading, however, I see that I said “any honest reading..,” which could imply that Hillel was not being honest, so for that I apologize.

  19. Rabbi Zvi says:

    No, Sahl ben Mazzliah was a few generations past the Karaitic origin – he was outlining their then current beliefs. He clearly declared that everything was open for reinterpretation. Just because they interpreted things in a strict manner, does not mean that they felt those interpretations could not be changed – and indeed they were. Check your history books.

    Also note that the Karaites never denied the divinty of the Torah. They challenged Rabbinic authority regarding the masorah and halachik application. In this regard they differ from Reform which, in previous statements, has even denied the Divinity itself – they talk about the god ideal being the power to do good in the world (I do not have the reference in front of me, feel free to check it out yourself).

    Reform has clearly taken greater liberties than Karaism ever did.

    My comment regarding derisive remarks was not intended for S.

  20. HILLEL says:

    To: S

    Perhaps I was wrong in selecting the Karaites as a parallel movement to Reform–perhaps I should have selected Tzadokim and Baysussim.

    As you know Tzadok and Baysus abandoned traditional Judaism and founded a heretical movement when they (wrongly) understood from their teacher that there was no reward in the world-to-come for those who serve G-D faithfully.

  21. Jon Baker says:

    When y’all said ‘plastic Judaism’, this is what popped into mind…

    I don’t care if it rains or snowses
    Long as I got my plastic Moses
    Riding on the dashboard of my car

    I can go 200 miles or more
    long as I got the giver of the Tor’
    right up there with my pair of fuzzy dice

    (for fans of Dr. Demento)

  22. Rabbi Zvi says:

    Actually Reform is probably closer to Karaism than it is to Tzadukim and Baysusim in the sense that we are discussing. Reform, though, takes more liberties than Karaism because they have fundamentally different beliefs.

    Through the course of the last century, Reform has restated its positions on its core beliefs a number of times in order to be aligned with its memberships beliefs and sensitivities. This is simliar to what is currently going on, albeit more slowly, in the Conservative movement.

  23. Michael says:

    Why not engage secular thinkers working toward wisdom? The smartest of them do not think that anyone from any tradition can arrive at the One Truth, but neither do the smartest of them dismiss a tradition as without any value. Given even those rules of engagement, why would Orthodoxy prefer not to contend? When Abraham pressed his guests to give thanks to the One God in exchange for company, shelter and a meal, he did not expect that they would abandon all their beliefs, but rather asked that they make room, extend to the Torah the very hospitality that Abraham had just modeled for them. That they would debate him, doubt him, perhaps ultimately dismiss him — this did not discourage Abraham either from pressing his case or from diminishing the very Torah that he offered his guests, no matter than that many could not truly appreciate the gift. He knew his engagement, whatever he could then impart of Torah, would provide value and knowledge ultimately, even if in their eyes it would not be recognized then as the Ultimate Value.

  24. HILLEL says:


    Abraham insisted that wayfarers wash their feet to make sure that they did not worship the dust while in his house.

    Abraham and his seed were chosen as G-D’s people precisely because they were totally-committed to G-D–no compromises, no debates–even unto death.

    Rabbi Zvi: I defer to your obviously-superior scholarship in this area. Thanks for your insights.

  25. Michael says:

    I do not pretend to any superior scholarship. I believe I understand why Abraham and his seed were chosen. I am not talking about a debate about the worth of Torah or suggesting G-D’s people make compromises. But it seems to me that any Torah commitment described as total must include a willingness to engage in a conversation with someone who may learn something from G-D’s people’s, even if that something is necessarily partial, less than the whole. Abraham’s commitment was not diminished by his hospitality. Does the Torah teach us that his concern for wayfarers ended when they left his tent?

  26. Baruch Horowitz says:

    The way that a particular individual responds to a challenge to Emunah-whether from the Weissenschaft school or from elsewhere- has much to do with a person’s background, interests, and exposure to the ideas in question. Although I am aware that the issues are different, personally, I am as concerned with the theories of Wellhausen and others, as I am with Christological inferences from Isaiah. However, I recognize that there are people who, for whatever reason, need to deal with these issues, and I am therefore grateful for the work done in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by Rav Chaim Heller, Rav Dovid Zvi Hoffmann and Rav Yitzchak Isaac Halevi. While I am also not terribly interested in the reconciliation of evolutionary theory with the pesukim of maseh bereshis, I am however, very interested in the science/divrei Chazal issues, and I have been following with great interest the discussion concerning the opinion of the Rambam, his son Rav Avroham, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, and others.

    I recently reviewed these two posts regarding emuna peshuta and emuna al pi chakira, simple faith vs. rational inquiry( and, and I found myself agreeing with the commentator who suggested that this is not an “all or nothing” issue. As stated above, the intellectual and emotional makeup of a person is complex, and there exists no “one size fits all” approach with regards to these questions. In the words of Chazal, “k’shem sh’ein partzufeihen shavos, kach ein deioseihem shavos”.

    Ravad I(author of Sefer Hakabbalah) writes in the preface to his philosophical treatise Emunah Ramah that people without a philosophical inclination should ignore his work, and others like it because, after all, “the purpose of philosophy is action”, and such people would benefit most from solely relying on the tradition. Nevertheless, the Ravad continues to say that he is writing his sefer for those who could benefit from it.

    Similarly, Rav Dessler(Michtav Meliyahu, volume I, pgs 175-176) explains that historically, the two approaches of emuna peshuta and emuna al pi chakira were formulated in response to the needs that existed during different periods in Jewish history. Rav Dessler(Michtav Meliyahu, volume IV, pg 355) also indicates that the Rambam’s derech was designed for people who needed this special guidance.

    In my opinion, the allowance of an as wide as possible range of acceptable Avodas Hashem approaches is just as necessary today as it ever was before. For some individuals, repressing paths which the Gedolie HaRishonim found acceptable reduces the ability-certainly from a psychological perspective- of these people to fortify themselves against the atmosphere created by the Wissenschaft des Judentums ideas referred to in Rabbi Adlerstein’s current post.

    Despite this, I strongly believe that rational inquiry must be firmly grounded in Emuna Peshuta(See MM Vol III, pg.177, and Rav Shimon Schwab, Selected Writings, pg. 256). As Rabbi Adlerstein implies in the current post, the problem is not the awareness per se of a particular Wissenschaft issue, but rather what a person’s attitude towards these challenges are. An individual’s perspective makes all the difference if he gets stuck, and then needs to rely on an idea embraced only by non-mainstream academic scholars, or perhaps not embraced at a particular time by any academic scholar.

    Emuna Peshuta may be strengthened by a person allowing him or herself to experience the vastness and the profundity of different parts of the Torah(MM Vol. III pg. 175-179), as well as by finding meaning and depth in the observance of Mitzvos, as another commentator pointed out(2/27/05 link, above). Finally, as Rav Dessler shows from Chazal, having the proper self-control over physical desires can indirectly have a salutary effect on emunah(MM Vol III, ibid, from Sanhedrin 63b; Lev Eliyahu, Chayei Sarah makes a similar point regarding Middos in general).

    I believe that the elements of rationality which are contained in different ways in the Mesorah of the Rambam and Rav Hirsch need to be kept alive for individuals who can benefit from their great legacy. As we go through the current Sefirah period, may we merit through the forty-eight attributes of acquiring Torah mentioned in Pirkei Avos, to strengthen Torah in both our hearts and minds!

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