Personal God In Judaism And Christianity By Dr. Faydra Shapiro

My dear friends,

Today it is my honor to introduce you to my friend and colleague Dr. Faydra Shapiro. She is Jewish like myself, but unlike myself she is an Orthodox Jew. Faydra directs the Galilee Center for Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, in northern Israel. She grew up in Canada and completed her PhD at McMaster University. For many years she was a university professor in a department of Religion and Culture in Canada. Her wonderful family made aliyah (immigrated to Israel) several years ago and she now directs the first program of its kind in Israel. She is also a proud mother of six young children. I invited her to contribute to our Jewish Studies for Christians study group on regular basis because I am persuaded that her voice, in looking at the Christian movement today as an Orthodox Jew, offers a much-needed perspective. I know that she will offer a friendly, at times corrective but balanced insight about Judaism that Christians need to hear.

Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg
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ntroductions are funny things – sometimes it’s what is unsaid, what is assumed, that can tell you the most. Several years ago I gave a talk at a church in North America about Israel and Jewish-Christian relations. The listeners were very encouraging and as the talk drew to a close I felt I had really done a superb job of teaching and inspiring the audience. Until the moment when one elderly gentleman stood up to ask me a question. He said: “Thank you very much, Dr. Shapiro. That was a great talk. But one thing you didn’t really speak about was the role of your faith in Jesus Christ”. “Oh, dear”, I thought, my heart sinking. Clearly I had done a brilliant job, but I had missed an essential point. Since that day I take the time to state it plainly and for the record: I am a Jew. Admittedly a Jew with an out-of-the-ordinary interest in Christianity and the New Testament, but still, simply, an “Orthodox” Jew.

That doesn’t necessarily matter much, but it’s always useful to know where a person is coming from.

Today I want to discuss an issue that comes up often in my conversations with Christian – almost always evangelical – friends and students. This is the matter of “having a relationship with God”, and the belief that this is one of the benefits of the Jesus path. While I do recognize that the whole rhetoric of “relationship not religion” is a product of 1970s popular American evangelicalism, it is an attiude that has important implications even if it might not be mobilized by many Christians. Now again, let’s pay attention to the unsaid. Having a relationship with God as opposed to what? The other (clearly undesirable) option is “religion”. So with Jesus one can ostensibly have something true and immediate – a personal relationship with God, whereas Jews only have “religion”.

Let’s unpack this a little. “Relationship” is understood to refer to something intimate, experiential, mystical, personal, friendly, deep, spiritual. “Religion” is ascribed the associations of being rule-oriented, man-made, legalistic, formal, distanced and superficial. Given these resonances, clearly having a relationship is something desirable whereas religion is something to progress past. And it is not uncommon for Christian readings of the gospels to assume precisely this – that what Jesus offered people was a personal (intimate, deep) relationship with God specifically in distinction to the Jews who only offered (formal, sterile) religion.

You can imagine the impact that this kind of slogan has for Christian understandings of Judaism.

It’s also interesting how this emphasis resonates with the current wave of people who insist that they are “spiritual, not religious.”

The fact is that Judaism takes the idea of the individual’s relationship with God very seriously. It is obvious to Jews that both fear of God and love of God are important, and that emphasizing one over the over leads to an unhealthy imbalance. But the Jewish love of God and personal relationship with Him ends up looking quite different than that of contemporary evangelical Christianity for several reasons.

First, most Jews find popular evangelical lyrics and expressions like “My Saviour, my closest friend” and “Jesus take the wheel” to be far too casually intimate with the Holy One Blessed be He, to be comfortable. The concern is that this approach casts the sovereign, powerful, Master of the Universe into a being dangerously much like ourselves.

Second, Jews believe that doing His will is the highest expression of love, gratitude and clinging to God. In short, good relationships are expressed in action. Because performing mitzvoth (commandments) often looks so foreign to outsiders, it is very difficult for Christians to recognize things like keeping the dietary laws or Sabbath observance for what it is supposed to be – a declaration of love for God.

I believe that the ideal for both Judaism and Christianity is a balance and an integration of heart and hands, relationship and religion, informal and formal, spontaneous and fixed. Our challenge is to look for the unseen behind the slogan, and behind our assumptions – to learn to see the “spiritual” in Judaism and the role of “practice” or “holy living” in Christianity.

Soon Jews around the world will be marking the holiest day of the year – yom kippur (the Day of Atonement). It is a powerful day, dedicated to intensive prayer and fasting, with some of the most profound and moving liturgy of the Jewish tradition. Several times on that awesome day we will describe our relationship to God with these words:

For we are your people, and you are our God.
We are your children, and you are our Father.
We are your servants, and you are our Lord.
We are your community, and you are our Portion.
We are your heritage, and you are our Lot.
We are your flock, and you are our Shepherd.
We are your vineyard, and you are our Keeper.
We are your work, and you are our Maker.
We are your companions, and you are our Beloved.
We are your treasure, and you are our Friend.
We are your people, and you are our King.
We are your betrothed, and you are our Betrothed.

(Click here to hear it sung and to see the words in Hebrew)

About the author

Dr. Eli Lizorkin-EyzenbergTo secure your spot in our new course “The Jewish Background of New Testament” - CLICK HERE NOW

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  1. Dr Karl Thompson

    I read with interest Dr Faydra Shapiro’s, article entitled ‘Personal God in Judaism and Christianity’ and it is clear that there was concern about a perceived flippancy and over familiarity by some people who have come in Messiah’s name ( Westernised as ‘Christ’) again I would like to add as per Wolf Paul above that serious believers in Yeshuah Messiah as the true promised Messiah from the Torah, do not subscribe to this irreverent attitude. Yeshuah Messiah who ( see John 4) told the Samaritan woman plainly that He is Messiah – I the one speaking to you am he with reference to the Torah accepted by both Jews and Samaritans is the prophet Moshe said all Jews should hear. He said, ‘Eloi’.

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      I in no way meant to suggest that all Christians or even all 21st century American evangelical Christians have this attitude. I know many Christians for whom this kind of talk is utterly foreign. But even without an overly-familiar kind of attitude, it is still not uncommon to hear some variant on the idea of (good) relationship vs. (bad) religion as characterizing Christianity vs. Judaism.

  2. David Hereford

    Thank you so much for this post! Most of the evangelicals around here wouldn’t have a clue what to do with His command to go to a city and kill every man woman, and child. The picture of balancing fear and love of Father is the perfect portrait of what we are missing here in America

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      I’m going to be perfectly honest here and say that I’m not sure how I would manage such a command either.

  3. R J Sim

    This so nicely shows how loving obedience should flow out from receiving the grace of the Covenant God. A great pleasure to read and to listen .

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      Ah, obedience. It’s always such an issue. But yes, the “loving obedience” (well said) is the right expression of our gratitude for the Covenant, and not as some would believe a matter of trying to win points with God and earn salvation. That might be a good topic for another post!

      1. R J Sim

        Yes, please, follow this comment with a post about receiving salvation. I’d like to hear your thoughts, Dr Faydra.

  4. Donna Max

    I really enjoyed this article and the opportunity to connect with an Orthodox Jew. I have taught religion on the air to over 150,000 people a week for 20 years and there are still some questions that interest me and which I feel could possibly improve my teaching about the Jewish Orthodox religion (when the subject comes up). Could I e-mail you direct Dr. Shapiro, as those questions come to mind?

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      I would be happy to help if I can. You are very welcome to contact me by email!

  5. Clarence Wagner

    Thank you Dr. Shapiro for this important article for both Jews and Christians. As a Christian, I have taught a similar message to Christians to bring them to the same understanding and conclusion that there is much that Christianity and Judaism share, including both relationship and religion combined. You premise in correct on what “most Christians” think about Judaism as a “religion” that is all rule and little relationship, and your response is so well thought out and presented. I am sharing this article with many.

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      Clarence, thank you for sharing and for all the good work that you do.

  6. Linda Brimigion

    I don’t understand why Orthodox Jews don’t accept Jesus as the Messiah. Why don’t they? Did He not demonstrate His ability to perform miracles? Are Jews like the Pharisees and Sadducess of Jesus’ time?
    I really would like to understand.

    1. Luis R. Santos

      Linda,

      One strong possibility could lie in Christendom’s distortion of Jesus/Yeshua as it left the Jewish roots with gentile leadership and purposely reinvented a new religion distinct from Judaism. One such aspect of the reinvention is the relationship of the believer, both Jew & Gentile, to Torah mitzvahs.

      Duet: 13 “If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or the wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods’—which you have not known—‘and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for the Lord your God is testing you to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul…. 5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has spoken in order to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of bondage, to entice you from the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall put away the evil from your midst.

      The test for a false prophet as outline above, even though he may be a miracle workers, lies in his living and teaching observance to “the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk”.

      What have you been taught from the pulpit about Jesus/Yeshua or believers’ relationship to the Torah?

      1. Linda Brimigion

        In my study of the Bible, I have learned that Jesus was prophesied in the Old Testament (for example in Isaiah). When Abraham was going to offer Isaac as a sacrifice as instructed by God, Abraham told Isaac that God woud provide the lamb A ram was caught in the thicket – not a lamb. God did provide the perfect lamb. Jesus was the perfect lamb sent by God to the Jews because they are God’s chosen people, but when the Jews rejected Jesus, God charged His disciples to preach the good news to the gentiles. Jesus’ whole purpose on earth was to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins.

    2. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      Linda, shalom. So much to say, so little space allowed in a comment! Why don’t you contact me by email for this conversation…

      1. Linda Brimigion

        Dr. Shapiro: what is your e-mail address?

        1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

          You can reach me at jcrelations@yvc.ac.il

  7. Deborah G.

    Very interesting perspective! As a Christian I am reminded of Jesus’ words: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Also, the beautiful song shows the personal relationship with God, for “betrothed” is deeply personal. Rich and fascinating!

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      Thank you for your comment, Deborah. I am very much looking forward to praying the beautiful liturgy of Rosh Hashana next week!

  8. Wolf Paul

    Thank you, Dr. Shapiro, for this article and the thoughts on the contemporary relationship talk in evangelical Christianity.
    This is just to say that it is not only Jews who are uncomfortable with the “God is my buddy” approach ; many of us Christians share this unease and prefer a way of relating to God that acknowledges his infinite greatness and otherness.
    And even Jesus himself said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” — so mitzvoth should not be a foreign concept to Christians, either 🙂

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      Quite right, Wolf – it should not be so foreign!

  9. Luis R. Santos

    Dr. Eli,

    Please let Faydra know of my delight in reading her article.

    Her statement “Second, Jews believe that doing His will is the highest expression of love, gratitude and clinging to God. In short, good relationships are expressed in action. Because performing mitzvoth (commandments) often looks so foreign to outsiders, it is very difficult for Christians to recognize things like keeping the dietary laws or Sabbath observance for what it is supposed to be – a declaration of love for God.” is the theme of my Shabbat study group (made up of mostly gentile Christians).

    Thank you Dr Faydra!

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      Thank you, Luis. Your shabbat study group sounds very interesting!

      1. Luis R. Santos

        Our group follows the traditional 1 year Torah cycle. We take turns reading the aliyot and discuss the passages. It’s a mini yeshiva!

  10. elijahworkz

    Great post! Thank you so much. There are a lot of misconceptions about Judaism in Christianity. I really appreciate what you, Amy-Jill Levine’s, Pinchas Lapide and many others are doing for the Jewish-Christian Dialogue.

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      Thank you for your kind words and for grouping me with such superb scholars. There are indeed many mutual misconceptions, and a lot of work to do for all of us who care passionately about these issues! 🙂