Ask The Rabbi

For the week ending 22 January 2011 / 16 Shevat 5771

Ma, No Theism?

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Jonathan Swartz

Dear Rabbi,

I heard that Abraham's parents were not Jewish. I was wondering then how Abraham was considered the first Jew? If he was the first Jew, what other religion was there? Christianity, yes. I guess my question is if no one was Jewish, how could anyone be Christian? What separated the two religions from one another and how did these religions come to be? Thanks.

Dear Jonathan,

Abraham was the first Jew in that he was the first individual to separate himself from the rest of idolatrous humanity and recognized G-d. That’s why the Torah refers to him as “Ivri ”, which means “on the other side”.

It was through Abraham that G-d re-introduced the teachings of Judaism originally taught to Adam and which were preserved until then by only a few. Judaism was thus transmitted through his progeny, the Hebrews – derived from their being the descendants of Abraham the “Ivri ”; or Israelites – the descendants of Jacob/Israel.

However, formally speaking, there only became a Jewish People at Sinai where, en masse, the Israelites underwent a proper “conversion” involving acceptance of G-d, the Torah, circumcision for males and immersion in the mikveh for all. (See The First Jew ).

While Abraham lived around 1900 BCE, the events at Sinai took place around 1300 BCE.

There were pagan religions at this time, but no other monotheistic religions. In fact, Abraham’s Hebrew teachings pre-date all other extant religions, including Hinduism and Zoroastrianism.

Christianity (“christos” being the Greek word for anointed, i.e. savior) is based on the belief of certain Jews of Jesus’ times that he was messiah. This belief was rejected by the vast majority of Jews at that time, which is why the followers of Jesus then directed their belief toward non-Jews. As a religion separate from Judaism, it only took root in the early centuries of the Common Era, particularly under Emperor Constantine who became Christian and enforced it upon all the subjects of his vast Empire.

So the history of Abraham and his descendants, the Jews, spanned a period of at least 1900 years before the Jewish followers of Jesus (himself born a Jew) formed the sect that eventually became Christianity during the ensuing centuries.

By the way, Islam, which in many ways is more similar to Judaism than Christianity, is a relative late-comer, arising only around 700 CE, based on Muhammad's being inspired by the teachings of Judaism which he then spread by power of word and sword, initially among the pagan peoples of Arabia, and later through the Near East and Africa.

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