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Christian influences on Jewish religious practices
Jewish-Christian Dialogue Today
The Christian-Jewish dialogue is a unique relationship after centuries of alienation and disrespect. It is an encounter of faith entailing a revision of past and present teachings of contempt considering the other religious person as an object of confrontation. The new stage of the dialogue is a process of considering the other as a fellow subject in God's design. Much has happened in the reckoning of Christians and Jews concerning each other. Much has been done theologically and catechetically in Christian education to eradicate prejudice in teaching the New Testament and the presentation of Jews and Judaism. Much is still to be done. The reciprocal respectful consideration of each other is the beginning of an unparalleled process of recognition and acceptance of the other's spirituality. It is a search of the other in the "mystery" of faith.
The work of Dr. Joseph Gutmann
A great deal has been devoted to the study of the Jewish roots and influences of Judaism upon Christianity. Very little has been done to study Christian influences upon Jewish religious practices. A pioneer in this research is Dr. Joseph Gutmann who was my professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. Dr. Gutmann is one of the greatest world specialists in Jewish art and a prominent Jewish thinker. He is the author and editor of The Image and the Word: Confrontations in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and Beauty in Holiness,Studies in Jewish Customs and Ceremonial Art, among other studies.
Dr. Gutmann used to offer a course at the seminary on Christianity and Jewish customs. Part of it was summed up in his article "Christian Influences on Jewish Customs" that has inspired most of the present article (1), as well as his What Can Jewish History Learn from Jewish Art? (2) The reading of Dr. Gutmann's work is indispensable in understanding the phenomenon of Christian influences upon Jewish religious customs.
The Obstacle of Christian Anti-Semitism
Dr. Gutmann points out that "the influence that medieval Catholicism exerted on Ashkenazi Judaism in its formative stages has generally been
overlooked". This is due mainly to the fact that "Christian anti-Semitism and the persecution of Jews have influenced the Jack of desire to investigate the roots of many of our Jewish religious customs and their relationship to Christianity." (3)
Personally, I remember how shocked I was by Dr. Gutmann's course at the seminary. I felt that I was committing a treason in acknowledging the influence of Christianity on certain Jewish religious customs in Eastern Europe, opening the doors to syncretism. My fear was that the recognition of an influence might weaken my Jewish spirituality. My teacher, deeply committed as a Jewish per-son, tried to show the origins of certain customs emphasizing the special way in which such influence exercises the development of Jewish spirituality. It was a recognition that religious people are not alone in the world; there are other people of faith who have God as the common source of their being. To recognize an influence does not imply denying the originality and strength of a personal faith commitment nor is it an invitation to conversion. It is the recognition of religious pluralism and the presence of God in alt of us.
The class discussions were followed by my own personal examination of daily religious practices at the seminary and local synagogues. I looked at rabbis and cantors dressed in special gowns that reminded me of the garments used by Christian clergy. Were those "religious uniforms" part of Judaism? Did they remind us of the garment used by the high priest in the Templ, or were they just the result of the environment's influence? Did the rabbis dress like that in the Middle Ages? Were the garments a result of Jewish acculturation after the emancipation in Europe?
I listened to sermons. The majority were on political questions, American or Israeli, social matters, etc. Very seldom, unless attending an Orthodox service, there was a Midrashic commentary, that is, a meaningful expounding of the weekly biblical text. Was this emphasis on contemporary matters the result of Christian influences or the result of American democracy and the separation of church and state?
Common Religious Experience
Rudolf Otto described in his book The Idea of the Holy (4) the elements that were common in the Western religious experience, especially the experience of the numinous. The noumena are the external sources of experience that are not themselves knowable and can only be inferred from experience of specific moments, of deep spiritual phenomena. The noumena, the word of God, freedom and immortality, is apprehended through a person's capacity of acting as a religious human being in a special time and under specific circumstances.
One precise moment of the history of Judaism in Europe, the period between the 12th and 15th centuries, clearly shows the imprint of Christian influences upon Judaism. The non-Jewish sources, as well as Jewish ones, help to rebuild the picture of that time. The study of the period also helps to understand the development of Judaism, and its influence on our present experience of faith.
Some examples will be very important and have been studied in Dr. Gutmann's What Can Jewish History Learn from Jewish Art? and other sources listed in the bibliography.
It is important to point out again that Christian influences do not transform Jewish religious customs into Christian ones. As Rudolf Otto stresses in his book, examples of sacred experiences overpass the limits of individualism to a transcendental spirituality that is present in ali experiences of God and its manifestations. There are many ways of reaching God and expressing the ethical commitment of the covenantal relationship with the Eternal. What is common is the living experience of God.
Remembering the Dead
One of the sacred sections of the daily Jewish prayer service is the recitation of the Kaddish, or Qaddish, which is now considered as a prayer to remember dear ones who are dead. It is also recited in memory of martyrs who perished sanctifying God's name. Kaddish is also recited at the end of studying a Talmud tractate.
It is a doxology that has no direct link with death. It expresses in a repetition of evocations the praise of God. Dr. Gutmann points out that "the idea that the recitation of Kaddish by the living has the power to atone for the sins of the deceased and to redeem the dead from Gehinnom (Gehenna) is first indicated in the l2th and 13th century Rhenish sources". And "the custom of reciting Kaddish as a prayer for the dead has its roots in the Requiem Mass or Mass for the Dead celebrated so that through prayer and sacrifice the living can aid the souls in purgatory and help them attain eternal glory. Even the Jahrzeit, the anniversary of a dead person, has a counterpart in the Christian church, where it was customary to observe the date by honoring the dead at annual anniversary masses". (5)
Dr. Gutmann explains this influence saying that Memorializations of the dead, as clearly reflected in many images of the aqedat Yitzhag, (the story of the binding of Isaac) became an important part of German Jewish life, and severa! ceremonies — mourner's qaddish, and Jahrzeit — evolved. These, too, although not directly illustrated in art, reveal their indebtedness to contempor ary Christian practices. Tw o distinct commemorations developed in medieval Germany — the Communal Martyr Liturgy and the Communal Family Liturgy. The Communal Martyr Liturgy consisted of reading the Memor lists, or martyrologies, to commemorate the qodoshim (holy martyrs or saints) who had chosen martyrdom for the sanctification of God's Name. Alongside this rite, there developed in medieval Germany what is now called yizkor or hazkarat neshamot (prayer for the souls of the dead) - the Communal Family Liturgy which memorialized the dead. Prayer and charity, it was held, can speed the redemption of the dead and enable dead souls to obtain rest in paradise. These two rites find early Christian parallels in the "Feast of MI Saints" and "All Souls' Day". On the "Feast of All Saints" the commemoration consisted of reciting lists of saints (martyrologies), many of whom had been martyred for the sanctification of Christ. "All Souls' Day" was the solemn commemoration of ali the departed faithful. Charity and prayer, it was believed, would help the deceased souls, perhaps lingering in purgatory, attain the final purification necessary for admission to the Beatific vision. It should be observed that the very name Memorbuch (memoria! volume) comes from the Latin memoria (memory) and that the prayer which follows the Christian recitation of the departed begins with memento (remember), just as the Hebrew prayer begins with yizkor (remember).
Jewish marriage ceremonies deserve special attention. The sacred Sua! is done under the Huppah, a portable canopy, and the custom is very related to the portable canopy for church ritual since the Middle Ages.
Dr. Gutmann points out that
Smashing a glass at the wedding was customary in medieval Christian Germany, as popular folklore believed that a broken glass would smash the power of demons dwelling in the northern region. This practice among Jews arose in medieval Germany and is at home in the Rhineland by the I2th century. li was the custom to have the bridegroom shatter the glass against the interior northern synagogue wall. By the 18th century, when the wedding was shifted to the exterior, it appears that a stone was affixed to the outside northern wall of the synagogue building and the groom shattered the glass against it. Although we have no medieval depictions of this practice, we do have later illustrations. This originally superstitious custom was justified by interpreting the shattered glass as a symbolic reminder of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. (6)
The smashing of a glass, was customary in medieval Christian Germany as shown by popular folklore. Behind the ritual was the crashing of the power of demons. Judaism, however, has replaced the superstitious custom by interpreting the shattered glass as a reminder of the destrucdon of the Jerusalem Temple and other moments of great desolation in Jewish life.
Influence and Creativity
It is important to ask if some Jewish religious practices were direct derivations of Christian customs or the response to the challenges of environment and culture.
Dr. Gutmann's opinion is of special interest:
Thus far we have seen how the historic encounter of Jews with medieval German Christendom spawned nove! Jewish theological concerns, customs and liturgica! practices. Was the art itself influenced by Christianity and does it echo what Judah ben Samuel ha-Hasid observed about Jewish customs (minhagim) -that they were, in many places of Germany, like those of Christians?
The art of the Jews of medieval Ashkenaz clearly shatters the romantic notion, sometimes found in popular Jewish history books, that Jews lived in German lands in splendid isolation untouched by Christianity and that Jewish art is rooted in a now lost, antecedent Jewish art that began in Hellenistic Egypt.
And Dr. Gutmann adds,
Obviously the Gothic knights in the Sussex Pentateuch, representing the four tribes of Ephraim (bui!), Reuben (eagie), Judah (lion) and Dan (snake), surrounded by wonderfully fantastic creatures are familiar features of medieval Christian art. The large German Mahzorim, both in size and format, are patterned after contemporary breviaries - one mahzor is even called a Brevarium Judaicum.
The illustrated Haggadah emerga as a separate private book in 13th century Europe at the very time when private Christian books, such as the Psalter and the Book of Hours, began to appear. They too, in formar and decoration, closely follow the Christian books. Even the Hebrew lettering at times takes on the characteristics of the Gothic script. Within the holiest of medieval Ashkenazi texts we find not only prevailing Christian styles, but the intrusion of Christian iconography as well. Thus in depictions of the aquedat Yitzhag we I-1'nd Isaac on a draped Christian altar; and we see the ram suspended from the tree - as an allusion to Christ crucified, a sign that the lamb of God would also be hung from the cross. In addition, we see underneath the liturgy for the second day of Rosh Hashanah another obvious Christian symbol, the paschal candle, which stands at the Gospel side of the altar and is lit at Easter Vigil time to commemorate Christ as the light of the world. (7)
Another religious-practice custom that was common was related to the circumcision ceremony. One medieval ritual was to place talismen and amulets hanging on the child or in the room surrounding the woman in childbirth. Another custom was to establish a night vigil to protect mother and child. The medieval Jewish vigil was known as wachnacht (night watch). Family members and friends were gathered to study and recite prayers in order to protect the mother and the child. It was believed, however, that the covenant of circumcision would end the power of all evil spirits and demons. It is important to point out, and as Dr. Gutman establishes in one of his studies, "a related ceremony was employed by German Christians the night before baptism, as they too believed that the power of the evil spirits and demons held over mother and children was broken only with baptism." (8)
Christian influence in the Jewish life cycle can be detected in the bar mitzvah ceremony. When a boy reaches the age of 13, he is welcomed in the synagogue as a mature person and is obligated to ali the commandments of Jewish religiosity. No trace of this ceremony, however, can be found in Jewish sources before the 13th century. The custom was that on the first Sabbath after his 13th birthday, the boy was called up to the biblical reading for the first time and read from the Torah scroll to indicate to the community at large that he was now an active member of the religious majority. The custom can be compared to the Christian confirmation rite. It was performed shortly after baptism, but in the 13th century it was deferred to the year of "discretion" interpreted as the age of 10, 12 or 14. Was there a Christian influence on the bar mitzvah celebration?
The influences of Judaism upon Christianity, and Christianity upon Judaism, reveal that medieval Christian and medieval Jewish cultures were not isolated islands, far from each other. There were restrictions imposed by Christians, but thought and mutual interest overcame ecclesiastical and royal impediments. Scholars knew the basic texts of other religious communities; Greek philosophy became the common denominator of Christian theology and Jewish religious thought.
I would like to finish this short presentation with the interpretation given by Dr. Gutmann on the subject of Judaism and its relationship with local cultures:
There can be little doubt that Christianity exerted a profound influence on the development of the Ashkenazi life-cycle customs and ceremonies in medieval Germany. This should not be surprising, as the Jewish involvement with Christian civilization produced a unique and novel Judaism — Ashkenazi Judaism — just as previous Judaisms unmistakably bear the hallmark of their involvement with the Islamic and Hellenistic civilizations. (9)
There have been mutual influences and relations that require now our mutual Jewish-Christian understanding and study. The aim is not syncretism, but rather a respectful exchange of opinion on mutual influences. This might encourage scholars in both communities to probe more deeply, as Dr. Gutmann says, "in the fascinating area of research, which has for understandable reasons been sadly neglected to date" (10) The very example of dialogue, of an encounter of faith, considering the other as a person of God, and in God as the entirely Other, is an excellent opportunity for a research in our roots and mutuai influences. it is not an invitation to disregard differences or commitments, but together to understand God's cali for witnessing the kingdom at a very special moment of human history.
The call is to be understood in the spirit of Emmanuel Levinas' definition: "The existence of God is sacred history itself, the sacredness of man's relation to man through which God may pass". (11)
Footnotes and Bibliography
(1)Gutmann, Joseph, "Christian influences on Jewish Customs".
Klenicki, Leon and Gabe Huck, Spirituality and Prayer: Jewish and Christian Understandings (New York: Paulist Press, a Stimulus Book, 1980).
(2)Gutmann, Joseph, What Can Jewish History Learn from Jewish Art? (New York: The Center for Jewish Studies, 1989).
(3)Klenicki and Huck, op.cit. p.I29.
(4)Otto, Rudolf, The Idea of the Holy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 24.
(5)Gutmann, op.cit., pp. 9-10.
(6)Outmann J (ed.) No Grave,, Images: Studies in Art and the Hebrew Bible (New York: 1971).
Outmann Joseph, (ed.) Beauty in Holiness: Studies in Jewish Customs and Ceremonial Ari (New York: KTAV Publishing Co., 1970).
Gutmann Joseph (ed.) The Image and the Word: Confrontations in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1977).
(7)Gutmann, op. cit. pp. 15-16.
(8)Klenicki and Huck, op. cit. p. 131.
(9)Idem. p. 135.
(10)Idem. p. 135.
( (11)Levinas, Emmanuel, Time and the Other (Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, 1987), p. 24.
is the director of the Department of Interi anh Affairs of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, New York.
This essay originally appeared in the journal Professional Approaches for Christian Educators (PACE), vol. 21, December 1991. PACE is a publication of Brown Publications - ROA Media. It is reprinted with permission.