“Christians Often Speak of, “Love,” “Grace” and “Salvation,” but What Do These Terms Mean to Jews?

My third essay, (slightly expanded) that appears in Lights in the Forest, edited by Rabbi Paul Citrin and published September, 2014 by CCAR Press:

For me, these terms relate to what I call, “The mystery of God.” As long as I live I shall never forget the plaintive cry of a young girl a few weeks before her Bat Mitzvah. I had been called to the family’s home as her father had just passed away. She sobbed in my arms, and cried out, “God damn you God!” I can still feel her tears and hear her sobs.

Things happen in our lives that are incomprehensible! I don’t believe we are meant to understand the reason for everything. I resonate to God’s ultimate response to Job who finally demanded an answer from the Almighty for his many afflictions – “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” (Job 38:4-39:30)

In contemporary words, there is much that we cannot know that we wish we did. That is an essential element of my faith. Over the years many times during Torah study and other learning sessions, people have asked, “Why did God do that?” Or “How could God have been so mean as to have done that?” My response has been, “There is a reason that we come to worship God and do not expect God to come and worship us. We answer to God. God does not answer to us.”

As human beings created in God’s image we have a very good idea of what God hopes our behavior will be. God hopes we will treat one another with graciousness and love, and we may hope that God will treat us with graciousness and love. Often it will not seem that way. We have all seen many bad things happen to very good people. Because of such events I have seen so many people lose or abandon faith in God.

Harold Kushner earned international renown by explaining that phenomena by writing that he can believe in a God as all good but not all powerful. It is a formidable argument that has brought great comfort to a great many people, but I am not sure he is correct. How God dispenses reward land love in this world is a mystery I do not believe we can solve.

No matter how sophisticated the computer programs we develop, no matter how close we humans come to winning the battle against cancer, there is still an infinite gulf between the reality of God and our knowledge of God. I think we need the humility to realize that.

In the aftermath of the children of Israel’s apostasy at Sinai when they worshipped the golden calf, Moses (Exodus 33:12ff) asks God to give the people more tangible evidence that God is with them. Moses asks God to show the people a reason to believe. God agrees to Moses request, but insists (Exodus 33:19) I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show compassion to whom I will show compassion” In other words God says, “Moses even you who have closer knowledge of me than anyone before or since will not fully comprehend the reasons for all that happens, and the rest of the people will have even less understanding. I am in essence a mystery.

We do perceive, though, that God’s love, grace and salvation are things we must try to earn. This is one of the largest real differences between classical Jewish and classical Christian thought. In Christian thinking faith in God and Jesus are indispensible and (some would say the only) if one wishes to gain grace, salvation and God’s unconditional love.

By contrast we Jews believe that we must try to earn them through the acts of kindness, caring and compassion that we do. Our belief in God or lack of belief is clearly a secondary consideration.

We also believe, though that because of God’s graciousness and love for us, we have a mission to use Torah – understood in the broad sense of the term as all of Jewish learning – to work toward the salvation of the world. It is a goal we may never fully attain, but as Rabbi Tarfon taught us nearly 2000 years ago, “we are not free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot 2:21)


8 thoughts on ““Christians Often Speak of, “Love,” “Grace” and “Salvation,” but What Do These Terms Mean to Jews?

  1. It is very difficult to comprehend that which we cannot begin to understand, which has myriad explanations. I learned after 9/11 and so many synagogue deaths that there is a randomness to our world which if just that random. We can not ask, why did some die on 9/11 and others on the same floor live? Our answer, which will never be enough is “because that is the way of the world.” God wishes to expose God’s self thought radiance, joy and grace. Only in the light can we see God’s works.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Yes! Living with difficulties that we cannot comprehend and accepting that we cannot comprehend, but still living with purpose and meaning is life greatest and, to my mind, most important challenge!


  3. When I was a young nurse, i took care of this young patient with a rare aggressive leukemia. His hospitalizations were often longer than his time at home. He noticed my engagement ring one day, and that led us to a discussion. Being sick was hard on his girlfriend. He wanted to propose to her when he got better. I was on duty the night he died…4 days before his 27th birthday. His death hit me hard. Why was I so lucky? Why did he die? And why on earth did I choose a line of work where I had to see this stuff? Then I had a change of heart when I went to his wake, I walked into the room, his mother embraced me and introduced me to his entire extended family. And she especially made sure that the people who flew in from Puerto Rico met one of his nurse’s. I realized that day that I don’t know why he died. God doesn’t tell me why. Maybe God doesn’t know. But I learned I can make a difference even when we can’t cure. And I believe that is what we are meant to do….make a difference. (I still sporadically think of that patient). I have learned to never pray for a cure, and just ask God to give strength to the sick, their loved ones, and health care providers.

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  4. “… there is still an infinite gulf between the reality of God and our knowledge of God. I think we need the humility to realize that.”

    The aforementioned is so true, Stephen. Thank you for sharing your heart and your belief in what Knowing God truly means.

    With blessings,

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you, Dani, for this heartwarming affirmation. I cannot claim to know what God truly means, but I do know people often make false assumptions about what they think God should mean, and then they lose faith when God does not conform to their expectations.


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