Syncretism and Judaism

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

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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.

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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.