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. Bill Gaffney


    I hope Dr Shapiro and/or Dr Eli will respond with more detail to your questions.

    First of all miracles weren’t unique to Jesus. Remember Elijah.

    You are dealing with different messianic expectations in Judaism than Christianity. To begin with there are a number of different ones held. The most prevalent is the messiah will be a great man who will overthrow the oppressors. In Jesus’ day that was the Romans.

    From a Jewish perspective Jesus was not the first, nor the last, to “claim” messiahship.

    As far as the pharisees Jesus’ teaching was mostly pharisaical. The pharisees believed in the spirit of the law. Yes, there were a few, such as Paul, who believed in the letter.

  2. Holly Holmstrom

    Loved this article and do believe Judaism and Christianity have so very much in common but I think the way to better understand each other is to explore our differences instead of ignoring them. Jesus said I am the way the truth and the life. No one cometh to the Father except by me. Is this not true for Jews also? Was Christ a sacrifice for the sins of All people? Or do Jews do not need an advocate with the Father? If one does not need to repent and believe on Jesus Christ as their Saviour if one can have a relationship, righteousness , religion whatever u want to call it without the atoning blood of the Messiah I would like to know the truth. How can I worm that I am Be with G-d?

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      Too many questions, not enough space available! I think the best answer – I am sure some will disagree – is that what mediates the Jews’ relationship with God is the people of Israel. We share each others’ merits and each others’ sins. God saves and preserves the people of Israel, of which we are each a critical part. But the role of the individual is less pronounced. I hope this helps..

  3. Brad Thompson

    What a blessing. Thank you. Another Jewish writer, I forget who but it’s in my list of interesting thoughts, wrote, “…Judaism encourages questioning, even honest skepticism. Jewish spiritual development is done gradually and with thought. That way the changes will be real, as they integrate and harmonize with your personality rather than overwhelm it.” I do believe Deuteronomy 7:11-13 will be fulfilled in its entirety; that is with both the people of Israel and with the people of the Nations. However, I do believe that there are and always will be differences between Jewish people and Gentiles; even among the two peoples who place their hope in Yeshua. However, this in normal and healthy.

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      Thanks, Brad. And as we can see from the comments, there are obviously significant differences between Christians as well. Dr. Eli has really built a tremendous discussion space here!

      1. Brad Thompson

        Since Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is about here, let me say that yes the disunity of the Christian Faith is a fault we, “Christians,” share. I have spent these days mediating upon G_D about this and other spiritual matters. All I can say is that I feel like the two blind men found in Matthew 20 shouting to G_D LORD! Son of David! Have pity on us! Jesus did stop and opened their eyes. I also believe Yeshua the Messiah is also leading many of us to people like you and your peers. Jews know who they worship. Unfortunately we “Christians,” at least in the “States,” lose sight of this often as illustrated by our strong opinions. May God Bless you and your family and all Israel.

  4. Roi T. Johnson

    This is a most interesting read! Thank you, Dr. Shapiro! My concern (if there can be found a question in it) is that you address the evangelical Christian as though most of Christendom understands the “personal relationship with God” in the same way. As one groomed culturally in the African-American Baptist tradition, I have long felt that our existential experience vis a vis God shows greater regard for the group than the individual. There seems to be a ready identity with the Jewish community in this regard, while at the same time acknowledging that one’s understanding of God is through the teachings and example of Jesus of Nazareth. Anyway, you’ve broadened my understanding. Thank you!

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      Roi, thank you for your comment! You have broadened my understanding as well. I am not really all that surprised to think that the experience of evangelical Christians in an “ethnic” Church would have a lot more in common with some Jewish elements because of the peoplehood/ethnicity component. I would love to spend more time in African-American congregations to learn more!

  5. James Ashmore

    This article misses the point. It is not a matter of which faith offers “personal relationship”, but which one “reconciles” man back to God so one CAN have a relationship with Him. It’s really a matter of New Covenant or Mosaic Covenant we must deal with here. There can be no relationship with God under the Mosaic Contract for it required 100% obedience (a thing which no one is capable of). The New Covenant, prophesied by Jeremiah, is the ONLY contract that let’s us in, because it qualifies all men by “Grace”, and not because they have been 100% obedient to the Mosaic Laws. Also, “Judaism” as spoken of in this article is so varied in its beliefs that there IS no one faith called “Judaism.”

    1. elijahworkz

      James, I think you have a distorted view on Mosaic Covenant. God actually requires 100% obedience to Him at all times – in the Garden of Eden, at the time of Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Paul and even now. The “Law” that was given to Moses actually was only 613 commandments that quite a lot of people prided themselves on keeping. The problem is not with keeping a certain number of rules. God’s law is perfect, but what God gave Moses for the Israelites was “imperfect” in the sense that it didn’t cover all the situations, all aspects of life for all times (it couldn’t really). That’s why God promised them to do a New covenant – when the Law of God (not just 613 rules) will be written in their hearts.
      It was also promised by Joel that in the end there will be also an outpouring of God spirit – what always associated with not only the knowledge of God’s will but the strength to obey it.
      We (Christians) just as Peter and Paul stated in their sermons, believe that those promises happened and Jesus’ Resurrection was the proof. Jews that don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah (the messenger of Good News of the Kingdom of God) still wait for that to come.
      But as with the Mosaic covenant so it is with the New Covenant – God provided the way for a repentant sinner to be cleansed and proclaimed “righteous”. Only then it was through the blood of animals and covered only few and now, through the blood of Jesus it’s available to all.

      1. James Ashmore

        With all due respect, when I said, “The New Covenant, prophesied by Jeremiah, is the ONLY contract that let’s us in, because it qualifies all men by “Grace”, and not because they have been 100% obedient to the Mosaic Laws.” There IS a difference between 100% obedience to all the Mosaic commands, and those of Messiah. It IS impossible for Jews to have a right relationship with God under the Mosaic Covenant, as Paul said, “By the works of the Law shall NO FLESH be justified..” Also, “as many as are of the WORKS OF THE LAW are UNDER THE CURSE…” There is no way around it, the Mosaic Cov. was a composite whole, and to break it in even ONE POINT, meant a violation of the entire Contract.

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          James, please, check Jer.31 again it is made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. Hence the implications.

          1. James Ashmore

            So then, are you implying that Gentiles can have no part in the New Covenant? I am missing your point here. Thanks.

          2. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            There is no new covenant with Gentiles. There can not be one. After all how can it be new if it was not one (old) before? Gentiles join the New Covenant that was made with Judah and Israel (Jer.31). Gentiles become co-heirs with them not separatly from them. That’s the point.

          3. James Ashmore

            So then, in my original remark, “It IS impossible for Jews to have a right relationship with God under the Mosaic Covenant, as Paul said, “By the works of the Law shall NO FLESH be justified..” Also, “as many as are of the WORKS OF THE LAW are UNDER THE CURSE…There is no way around it, the Mosaic Cov. was a composite whole, and to break it in even ONE POINT, meant a violation of the entire Contract.”
            HOW CAN THE “JEW” HAVE A RIGHT RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD UNLESS HE COMES UNDER THE NEW COVENANT? Paul, a Jew, said, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even WE have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified…”

        2. Brad Thompson

          My understanding of covenants is like this…a covenant is made with all people involved agreeing to the terms. If the terms of the contract are broken, then the innocent party has grounds for redress. Redress is often spelled in the covenant, but not always. GOD’S covenants are conditional, but the covenant itself is irrevocable (I believe). Most of the time, the guilty party is taken to court to be judged. GOD’S judge for Israel is “the Messiah.” He will make the final determination. Bottom line it’s GOD’S choice. How about Isaiah 29:24, “Those whose spirits stray will come to understand, and those who complain will learn their lesson.” Something to think about.

          1. elijahworkz

            James, you are confusing “God’s law that he commanded to keep” and “works of the law” – it’s not the same thing. Paul is arguing against a belief that “choosing starts with the Law”. Some believed that they are “God’s chosen people” because of the Law that was given. And Paul argues in Romans (by pointing to Abraham) that they were chosen first and then the Law was given. God chose Abraham, He called him – and Abraham’s obedience showed his faith and counted to him as righteousness.
            So the point in question is how the person becomes a part of “God’s chosen people”. Whether or not to obey God’s Law was never questioned by Paul (Acts 21:20-26)

        3. Brad Thompson

          My understanding is we practice “the faith of Jesus Christ.” We do not practice our faith in Jesus Christ, nor does Jesus’s faith in GOD save us. Jesus practiced / taught perfectly. He worshipped GOD under the old covenant perfectly. If we love him than we will practice the same faith Jesus Christ had in GOD. That is GOD is always the priority, gaining victory over temptation, and worshipping GOD without hypocrisy or biasness toward nobody. Isn’t the new covenant about the outpouring of the GOD’S HOLY SPIRIT on the Gentiles who believe? Practicing Jews already believe and will believe in Him when Jesus Christ returns to fulfill the remaining part of the Messiah prophecies. Have faith friend.

      2. James Ashmore

        You say, “God’s law is perfect, but what God gave Moses for the Israelites was “imperfect” This seems like double-talk. You say God’s Law is “perfect” and then you say what God gave Moses for Israel was NOT. Are you saying Moses gave Israel something DIFFERENT than God’s Law???

        1. elijahworkz

          James, please read what I said carefully: “what God gave Moses for the Israelites was “imperfect” in the sense that it didn’t cover all the situations, all aspects of life for all times”
          “imperfect” in the sense “incomplete”. It’s still God’s law but given to the specific people with specific circumstances. Pharisees problem was – they thought that by perfectly keeping just those 613 commandments (and bunch of other man-made rules however well intended) is what made them righteous. So their faith was in their works, in their own righteousness and not in God.

  6. Bill Gaffn

    Thank you Dr Shapiro.

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      My pleasure, Bill.

  7. Bernard Hadebe

    Why wouldn’t we accept the fact that Judaism and Christianity are two different things. Attempting to reconcile the two would be a waste of time. Judah is suppose to be one of the tribes of Israel not a religion that is if I understand my bible. The condition for becoming a Jew one must be born from a Jewish family, however, to become a Christian one must believe that Jesus is the son of God and believe that he died and rose from the dead. Christians are saved by grace, whereas Jews hope to be saved by keeping the law. The two cannot reconcile in my view.

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      I very much agree with you about acknowledging that Judaism and Christianity are different, and not feeling pressured to reconcile them. There are many distinctives and it was not my goal to diminish them but rather to draw attention to an ostensible distinctive that is used to denigrate Jews and Judaism.

  8. Bernard Hadebe

    Thank you for thoughts Dr Shipiro. However, I disagree with most of your assertions about evangelicals. It’s Jesus himself who said, John‬ ‭15‬:‭13-15‬ Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. That’s the difference between Judaism and Christianity. Jesus is our friend, our king and he is the mediator between man and God. He also our redeemer and saviour. If Jesus call me friend, why wouldn’t I reciprocate ?

  9. Lynelle Osburn

    Thank you for this introduction and statement of deep commitment and the song. I too have trouble with the “Jesus is my mate” school of thought. While we manifest the relationship we have with The Almighty through action, those actions are not necessarily essential. For some of us, we are in positions were we are imprisoned, in refugee camps, in bodies that require assistance from others for us to continue to live quality lives. For those of us with less freedom the relationship is no less and can be deeper because The Almighty is and our hearts are open. For differences in diet and practice I refer to Romans 1-14. Shalom.

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      Thank you – there’s a lovely Chassidic story told in many variations about Reb Zusia. There isn’t enough room to print it here but do look it up. The idea is that the challenge – what G-d wants from us – is to be the best “us”. We all have different abilities and disabilities. We still need to work on becoming the true people that G-d meant us to be.

  10. Patrice Marker-Zahler

    Thank you for the article. Yes the Christian religion is based on a relationship with our heavenly Father, however we look to the Old Testament to understand and learn from the patriarchs and heroes of the Old Testament what it meant to have that relationship with God. We see Adam walking and talking with him in the garden; Noah by faith listening to Him and taking His direction on how to build and arc while his family had not been born yet. Abraham is known as a friend of God, because of his relationship he with Him and his faith in God. David is known as the man after Gods’ own heart. I could go on, but you get the point, this relationship not religion idea goes way back before the 1970.

    1. Dr. Faydra Shapiro - Galilee CSJCR

      Quite. Judaism too has emphasized a relationship with God before the 1970s! My point was simply that the slogan has become a hallmark of a particular kind of Christianity in a specific time and culture.

    2. R J Sim

      Patrice, are the phrases Abrahahm is “friend of God” and David is “a man after God’s own heart” from the Hebrew Bible or the Christian New Testament, so-called. I’d like to learn from Dr Faydra if Jewish people also think of Abrah and David in this way. I don’t know, but would like to! Please take time to respossnd Dr Faydra.