Syncretism and Judaism

Throughout history Jews have accepted some influences of outside religions and cultures, and rejected others.

Print this page Print this page

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Syncretism is the assimilation by Judaism of elements stemming from other religions and civilizations. The process of syncretism in Judaism is rarely conscious or intentional, but as Jews came into contact with the ideas and institutions of the various peoples among whom they resided, their language and thought patterns were naturally and automatically affected, so that Judaism itself came to absorb these ideas into its own theology.

This does not mean that Jews simply adopted uncritically the beliefs and practices of their neighbors. A kind of consensus has been at work in the history of the Jewish religion by virtue of which those elements that could be adapted to Judaism without in any way coming into conflict with essential Jewish beliefs were not totally rejected but given a Jewish interpretation.

Where ideas from without were seen to be incompatible with the Jewish religion they were rejected without any attempt at compromise. Naturally, considerable tensions arose in these matters. The prohibition against copying the practices of the Gentiles militated against too easy an acceptance of the forms of a faith different from Judaism, and opinions among Jews were often divided on the legitimacy or otherwise of adaptation in this or that instance.

In the Bible

Biblical scholars have called attention to syncretic elements in the Bible itself. The creation narrative at the beginning of the book of Genesis, for example, speaks of the 'deep' (Genesis 1:2), the Hebrew for which is tehom. This word has been connected with the Babylonian creation-myth in which the primal chaos is personified under the name Tiamat.

The resemblance is very striking, yet the biblical narrative is totally non-mythological in nature and when it is appreciated that in Babylonian usage tiamatu became a generic term for 'ocean' it can be seen how precarious it is to read the Genesis narrative in such mythological terms.

Similarly, the account of the 'great sea-monsters' of Genesis (1:21) may bear traces of ancient, Babylonian mythology, but only traces. God creates the 'sea-monsters' and these are in no way divine. The story of Noah and the Flood provides a particularly striking illustration of how the biblical authors used ancient mythological material, but used it in support of monotheism.

The resemblances between the story of Noah and the Babylonian myths are strong even in some of the details, yet in the Genesis narrative there is sounded the most powerful monotheistic and ethical note, one that is totally absent in the Babylonian myth. The same applies to the list of the antediluvians in Genesis (chapter 5).

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.