Syncretism and Judaism

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

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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).

As Cassuto has suggested, in the biblical record the mythical notion that some men in remote antiquity lived for exceedingly long periods until they became gods has been adapted to monotheistic belief. None of the antediluvians managed to live for a thousand years, and they procreate as humans do, as if to say: these ancients did live for a very long time but they were otherwise ordinary human beings with ordinary human lives and were in no sense divine.

The dietary laws and the Sabbath have similarly been seen as having their origin in the practices of the Babylonians and other ancient civilizations but even if this is accepted (it is by no means certain that such theories are warranted by the evidence), what matters for Judaism is that the dietary laws are laid down in the Pentateuch as the means to holy living and the Sabbath as the day in which the One God is hailed as the Creator and all this is true whatever the actual origin of the dietary laws and the Sabbath.

The Rabbinic Period

This dual process of adaptation and rejection can be observed throughout the history of Judaism. Judaism has been compared to a sponge, which both absorbs and exudes moisture.

In the first two centuries CE the supreme court, the Sanhedrin, had a Greek name; the Sefer Torah could be, and in Alexandria was, written in Greek; some Jews, including Rabbis, had Greek names; and Rabban Gamaliel could bathe in a bath-house in which there was a statue of Aphrodite; yet the strongest opposition was expressed to any association, no matter how indirect, with the worship of the pagan gods.

In the Babylonian Talmud, ideas taken from the Persians, like the belief in demons and the way in which these operate, are recorded and evidently accepted, yet, precisely because the Zoroastrian religion was the Persian religion, the Talmudic Rabbis constantly spare no effort in opposing Zoroastrian dualism.

Medieval Philosophy

Syncretism in Judaism can be observed in the attempt of the medieval Jewish philosophers to cope with the problems raised by Greek philosophy in its Arabic garb. The whole of Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed is devoted to the consideration of how much of Greek philosophy can be accepted as true and hence as part of Judaism and how much is to be rejected in the name of the Jewish religion.

With regard to the religions of Christianity and Islam there was, of course, total rejection of the truth-claims of these two faiths yet, at the same time, both religions exerted an influence on the development of Judaism.

The influence of Sufism is clearly evident in Bahya Ibn Pakudah. Rabbenu Gershom's ban on polygamy for Ashkenazi Jews obviously owes much to Christian practice. The severe asceticism of the Saints of Germany was influenced by Christian monasticism. Maimonides, under the influence of Islam, ruled that a Jew must bathe his feet before the daily prayers whereas the Talmud speaks only of washing the hands.

Responding to the 'Outside World'

When Western civilization posed a threat to the survival of Judaism, the diverse ways in which Jews responded to the challenge resulted in a degree of syncretism. The Haskalah, Reform and Conservative Judaism, and Samson Raphael Hirsch's neo-Orthodoxy are all examples of adaptation of the old to the new.

In the area of scientific theory, many Jewish thinkers accepted the view that the universe is not geocentric, that life has been on earth for a vast period of time and that human beings have evolved from lower forms and they reinterpreted the biblical record so that it could be understood in accordance with the new picture of the universe.

Thus, while the actual term 'syncretism' is not found in any of the Jewish sources, and while Jewish fundamentalists deny that any form of syncretism ever took place in Judaism, the idea denoted by this term is clearly evident to Jews with any sense of history, although this recognition does not interfere with their belief in the basic truths of the religion.

On the contrary, the evidence for syncretism is evidence of the Jewish genius that has made Judaism an undying faith.

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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.