Good Works: A Jewish Perspective

The last post pondered whether good works are a cause or effect of faith from a Christian point of view.  To appreciate the Jewish perspective, it helps to understand the notion
of shared merit.  Jews believe that on Yom Kippur, there is a “closing of the gates” wherein God makes a judgment on
each person’s life and writes the names of all who have turned to him and lived faithfully in the Book of Life.  It is an
annual opportunity for Jews to reflect on their actions, to make amends for their wrongs, to seek forgiveness from their fellow man first and ultimately to seek atonement with God.

When Jews confess their sins, the vidui in the Yom Kippur liturgy, they confess in community, speaking aloud a long list of sins.  The community aspect of confession is
monumentally important.  It reflects the responsibility that Jews have for one another, so while I myself may not have committed murder, I did share responsibility for my brother’s actions.  Further, if I look deeply within myself, I will find some part of me that identifies with the sin.  My harsh words might have damaged someone’s self-esteem, for example.  In addition to the shared responsibility for sin, Jews recognize a shared responsibility for good works.

That notion of shared merit helps to explain the popularity of the Pharisees among the Jewish peasant class.  Not only were Pharisees generous with tzedakah, or giving what’s fair to those in need, their fasting and other acts of piety accrued merit for the whole community.  This perspective lets us see the Christian parable of the Pharisee and the tax-collector (Luke 18) in its original context.

The tax-collector enters the temple racked with guilt for shaking down people in need to line his pockets.  His angst is heightened by the fact that he is not making teshuvah, or turning to God to change his ways.  He knows he will go back out the next day and
shake down more unfortunates.  Without teshuvah, he can’t hope for God’s forgiveness.  Across from him kneels a Pharisee who is moved with compassion for the
sinner.  He thanks God that he was spared tax-collector’s difficult position.  And
then he offers to share his merit—his tzedekah for the tax collector’s taking by force, his fasting for the tax collector’s feeding off his neighbors, etc.  The parable concludes, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other.”  Ok, which one was justified?  Vanderbilt Professor of New Testament Studies Amy-Jill Levine asserts “rather than” is properly translated “along side.”  In any case, suggesting an unreformed tax-collector could be justified at all would have astonished 1st century Jews.

In the Jewish tradition, Halakhah is the set of laws governing personal deportment.  The
purpose of the laws is not improved health, financial gain or appearance.  Rather, they offer a myriad of daily opportunities to submit one’s will for the sake of honoring God.  Observing Halakhah both strengthens spirituality for the individual through daily practice and earns merit for the community, and hence is at once cause and effect of faithfulness.  In view of shared merit, good works not only benefit a Jew’s fellow man in an earthly way but also lift him up spiritually.

Join the conversation.  What brings you present moment mindfulness for the sake of honoring God?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.

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One thought on “Good Works: A Jewish Perspective

  1. Pingback: Good Works: Cause or Effect? | Across Traditions Blog

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