Absolute truth

Should Jews believe Judaism is true?

David Klinghoffer knew that his new book "Why the Jews Rejected Jesus" would make plenty of people angry.

After all, the Orthodox Jewish journalist argues that Jesus misunderstood centuries of Jewish tradition, twisted it or rejected it outright -- or all of the above. The Apostle Paul, he says, padded his Pharisee resume and may not even have been a Jew.

Truth is, Klinghoffer believes Judaism is "true," in every sense of that unpopular word. But he has discovered that many modern Jews get mad when someone has the chutzpah to openly proclaim that Judaism is rational and built on a binding covenant with God that is linked to eternal salvation.

"The Sinai covenant and its commandments, you see, are not compatible with every lifestyle," he said. "So if you try to tell many Jews that the covenant is still in effect they're going to bristle. They see those commandments as a judgment on their lives."

Klinghoffer paused and chose his words carefully: "If you say that one way of living is right, then that implies that another way of living must be wrong. ... If our beliefs clash, then we can't both be right. People don't like to talk about things alike that."

This weekend, millions of Jews will have a chance to talk about their beliefs and the ties that bind as they begin the weeklong Passover season, which recalls the Exodus from Egypt. This is the most widely celebrated of all Jewish holidays, with friends and loved ones gathering for the familiar rites of the symbolic Seder meals.

What Klinghoffer finds disturbing is that the doctrinal lessons of Passover are incomplete without those taught by Shavuot, a holiday that comes 50 days later. Shavuot recalls the revelation of the Jewish law -- the Torah -- to Moses at Mount Sinai.

Without Shavuot, he said, Passover is meaningless. Without the truth contained in the Torah, Jews have no identity.

Yet few Jews celebrate Shavuot and many hesitate to defend their own faith.

"I think it is interesting that when I speak to audiences of Christians and Jews, it's the Christians who say that they appreciate hearing from a Jew who isn't afraid to be honest," he said. "They don't want to settle for watered-down dialogues in which no one talks about the questions that divide us as well as the truths that unite us."

Klinghoffer's book is making waves because it bluntly states and defends the arguments used by Jews -- from ancient times until today -- as they rejected Christian claims that Jesus was the Messiah and the source of salvation for all humankind. Rather than providing ammunition for anti-Semites, he said his intention was to help traditional Jews and Christians be candid.

For example, Christians have for centuries pondered the unique Jewish role in "salvation history," a mystery often summed up in the familiar statement, "How odd of God to choose the Jews." Meanwhile, Jewish scholars have faced a paradox of their own. As the Jewish intellectual Franz Rosenzweig once said: "Israel can bring the world to God only through Christianity."

Without Judaism, there is no Christianity. But without Christianity, Klinghoffer argues, there would be no Western civilization as the world knows it and, without Christendom, Europe would have remained pagan and almost certainly fallen to Islam.

Despite their many differences, Klinghoffer is convinced that traditional Jews and Christians can find unity on many controversial questions -- from abortion to euthanasia, and many hot moral issues in between. Christians and Jews are supposed to believe that "we can say, with a straight face, that there is such a thing as 'truth,' " he said.

This matters in an era in which many want to blur the doctrinal lines between world religions. Others want to deny the existence of religious truth altogether.

"This raises all kinds of questions," said Klinghoffer. "Who gets to decide what is right and what is wrong? Does God get to play a role in those decisions or do we just put that up to a vote among ourselves? Where does moral authority come from? Do we just pluck it out of the air or does it come from somewhere?

"When we start asking these kinds of questions, Jewish and Christian believers can stand side by side."

Spirituality up, doctrine down

During the 1990s, pollster George Barna released many reports showing that Americans were growing less traditional on issues of sin, salvation and the scriptures.

Church leaders found his data disturbing. On many occasions they asked: Could anything reverse these trends? What would it take to inspire significant numbers of Americans to repent and return to their roots?

"I told people that I thought it was going to take something big, some kind of genuinely shocking event that would show that there is right and wrong and good and evil," said Barna. "I sincerely thought that if something like that happened, many people would turn to God and that we would see lives changed."

Apparently not, he said.

The Barna Research Group's latest data indicate that nearly half of the Americans polled say faith has played a vital role in helping them cope with the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001. In poll after poll, Americans claim their interest in spirituality is rising.

But Barna said there is no evidence Sept. 11 that had any lasting impact on how ordinary people practice their faith or live their daily lives. Worship attendance quickly returned to normal -- 43 percent. Bible reading is par for the course -- 41 percent. It is especially interesting that the "unchurched," the percentage of Americans with few or no ties to organized religion, is precisely the same as before the attacks -- 33 percent.

Barna said it didn't help that 41 percent of churchgoers said their congregation did nothing at all during the past 12 months to address issues raised by the attacks. Only 16 percent said they had heard sermons or other teachings focusing on Sept. 11.

"It's clear that our churches did little to try to crack the spiritual complacency of the American public," said Barna.

Researchers at the Gallup Organization have been looking at similar numbers.

"People are talking about how they are more spiritual now," said Frank Newport, editor of the Gallup Poll. "But this just isn't showing up in any way that we can measure. Maybe they are more spiritual. Maybe that statement is true. But this new interest in spirituality is showing up in what people are feeling, not what they are doing."

The bottom line: ask Americans questions about how Sept. 11 affected their religious feelings and the poll numbers will soar. Ask them questions about specific religious beliefs and practices and the numbers will plateau or even decline. The emerging consensus seems to be that vague, comforting spirituality is healthy, but that doctrinal, authoritative religion may even be dangerous.

That may be a hard news story to report and write, but it is still a major story, according to Steven Waldman, editor and chief at Beliefnet.com. When probing the impact of Sept. 11 on religious life in America and abroad, it is fairly easy to note what did happen. Yes, Americans responded with character and compassion. American attitudes toward Islam have seemed to change on a daily basis. There has been shocking evidence of brutal anti-Semitism.

But Waldman believes the big news is "what didn't happen. The fact that people initially went to houses of worship -- and then stopped -- should be viewed as a huge story, not a non-event." The bottom line, he said, is that "Americans didn't view organized religion as much help. ... While the pews were emptying out, psychologists' offices were filling up."

And as the 12 months passed, Barna's staff kept asking a series of tough questions about right and wrong and about good and evil.

Barna was stunned to find that, soon after Sept. 11, the percentage of Americans affirming that they believe in "moral truths or principles" that are eternal and unchanging actually declined -- from 38 to 22 percent. Only 32 percent of born-again Christians still believe in the existence of absolute moral truth.

"Those numbers have not risen" in recent months, said Barna. "Why is that? ... Perhaps many Americans have simply decided that it's just too much work to claim very specific and detailed beliefs and then to try to follow them in daily life. It's just too hard. It's too limiting on their behavior.

"I think most Americans want to keep their options open."