Friday, November 27, 2009

Judaism on Incarnation

By David Nekrutman

Judaism rejects the idea of divine Incarnation. Historically speaking, the doctrine that Jesus is God is what led to the charges of deicide against the Jews, resulting in much pain and devastation to my people. Today, however, a true Jewish-Christian relationship can be developed without compromising core religious doctrines. It is precisely the Christians' positive support of the Jewish people and Israel that allows for topics that were off limits to be discussed freely.

Jews do not believe that God will or can ever be represented in His totality in a physical form. We recognize that human beings are created in the image of God and are united with the Almighty, and we understand that God is ever present in the world and the nation of Israel. However, Christianity's claim that Jesus is God is simply not within the pale of Jewish thought.

Jews might wish to inquire what it means for a Christian to say the Incarnation took place. I am not suggesting Jews start believing in the Christian concept. However, Judaism can learn to appreciate the spiritual truths of the "other" without having to agree with them.

Christianity teaches that the supreme expression of God's love and care was His self-sacrifice to save humanity from sin. This explains the Christian's feeling that in Jesus he or she encounters God Himself, and not simply a sage or prophet.

Yet the concept is not foreign to mainstream Judaism. If we can separate the Christian dogma from its dogmatic content and isolate its basic religious sense, Jews and Christians have many more things in common religiously than what may traditionally be meant by Judeo-Christian beliefs.

Incarnation is a process whereby some disincarnate reality takes a bodily manifestation. The most obvious case might be that of body and soul. If one believes in the preexistence of the soul, then any physical birth is an act of incarnation. This type of incarnation is naturally recognized within Judaism.

Jews believe the Torah ("the Word") was created before the world, and was used as a blueprint to form the universe in which we live. The physical scroll itself can thus legitimately be viewed as a form of incarnation. In fact, when a Torah scroll is damaged beyond use, it is buried just like a human body.

To avoid Christian overtones, Judaism never describes the transformation of the soul and the Torah in incarnational terms. However, if we think of the idea that the Torah is an incarnating presence, we have a better understanding of that which Christianity attributes to Jesus, which is similar to what Judaism assigns to the Torah.

Even the nation of Israel is an incarnational process; fulfilling a divine plan for the world. It is not common to speak of the incarnation of Israel, but the re-animation of the "dry bones" described in Ezekiel 37 is just that. Israel is an incarnation of the Divine Will - a covenantal surrogate of God's presence.

In the Gospel of John one finds the notion of the Word becoming flesh-literally, "incarnation." The assumption is that the body of Jesus, too, is divine. Incarnation in this context encompasses a fuller sense of the human person, who is said to be not only divine but truly God. If the logos has been made into flesh, then Jesus' body is subject to religious worship. This is where Judaism draws the line; it says the body can clothe divinity, but can never itself become divine.

The Christian can point to Jesus and, with all the power of this idea, say, Ecce Deus. The Jew will say that the person is proto­divine, but would never declare an individual human God.

While this doctrine of incarnation is currently at the heart of Jewish-Christian differences, it by no means reduces our shared conception of God, Who loves, is humble, and is ever-present in the world. A Jew can thus appreciate the spiritual reality of the Christian; in it, he hears an echo of God's voice.

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