A man, whom I shall call Ted, wrote me and attempted to prove to me through various arguments that Jews have changed Judaism into another religion. I shall, with Hashem's help, debunk those and other arguments.
First, I want to clarify the basis of the issue. Jewish Law states that in the normal course of things we may not permit what Judaism has forbidden, nor may we repeal or abolish what is obligatory. We may often forbid what is permitted, but not always. There are restrictions on doing that as well. And when we may add a restriction, it must always clearly be a Rabbinical restriction, and never treated as a Biblical restriction.
We consider forbidding the permitted when necessary an ineluctable part of Judaism. It is part and parcel of the process of keeping Judaism alive. And it has worked successfully for over 3,300 years.
However, permitting what was forbidden, or rejecting what was obligatory -- those are actually changing Judaism in forbidden ways.
Now to discuss Ted's points.
Ted's first "proof" was that we no longer offer animal sacrifices. Therefore, he concluded, there is nothing wrong with changing Judaism. He used this to justify not observing those elements of Judaism he did not wish to keep.
There are a number of fundamental mistakes with that line of reasoning.
The reason we do not bring sacrifices today is because the Torah forbids us to bring sacrifices anywhere outside of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. (See my article about this, Why Do We No Longer Bring Sacrifices?) Since the Romans destroyed our Temple and sent us into exile it has been forbidden for us to bring sacrifices. Therefore, we are actually obeying the Torah by not bringing sacrifices. It is certainly not a product of our deliberately changing Judaism. Quite the contrary: it occurred against our will.
Three times a day we pray that Hashem restore to us the land of Israel, the Holy Temple, the Davidic kingdom, true divine rule, the system of Elders and the Sanhedrin (the highest Jewish Court), among other things. When these things are restored to us, the Holy Service at the Temple will be reinstated, and we will once again bring sacrifices. In fact, we pray explicitly for that to happen as well, when we say, three times a day, "Return the Service and the fires of Israel to Your Temple Sanctuary, and their prayers please quickly willingly accept with love.... This is an integral part of the Amidah prayer, which we pray three times a day. (The "fires" is a reference to the fact that some sacrifices were burned on the altar, either completely or in part.)
It is important to understand that our exile was forced upon us by outsiders. The fact that another culture conquered us does not mean that we have the right to change Judaism. If you read analytically what Ted wrote, you will see how his contention is not logical. What Ted was unknowingly saying, when you look at the historical perspective, is this: "Since the Romans kicked us out of the Holy Temple, and against our will we cannot keep the sacrifices, we may therefore willingly change anything we want in the Torah." How does that follow?
Modern western civilization shies away from the thought of sacrifices. That's because most people don't understand the reasons for the sacrifices, and the values that are behind them. (But that's outside the scope of this article. Perhaps I'll write about that another time, Hashem willing.) If the Holy Temple stood today, we would bring sacrifices today. And yes, I mean animal sacrifices, as much as that horrifies many "modern" people. The only reason we don't bring the sacrifices is because we can't. Judaism, as I have written in other articles, does not follow after the mores and beliefs of the masses. Judaism follows the teachings that Hashem gave us, teachings that Hashem used when He created the universe. Those don't change by popular demand.
This is not to say that there have been no changes in the way Jews live and behave -- as long as it does not affect our religious thought and practice. More importantly, they must bring about increased religious thought and practice, without lessening any other Jewish observance.
Judaism forbids syncretism. Syncretism means taking ideas from people or cultures outside of your religion and adding them to your religion. For example, most of Christianity has been taken from pagan religions. Christianity, in all its forms, is chock full of such examples of syncretism. As Christianity spread, a great deal of cultural exchange took place, and the Christian Church assumed a great deal of pagan ideas and customs. The Egyptian scenes of the goddess Isis and her baby Horus found their way into Christianity as Mary and Jesus through the Copts, who were later Egyptian that became Christians. The pictures of the Madonna and the baby Jesus were simply patterned after much older depictions that originated in ancient Egypt.
The Christian Holiday of Easter began as an adaptation of the Jewish Holiday of Passover. In fact, some branches of Christianity call Easter by the name "Pascha." But Christians do not celebrate Passover as the Torah tells us to -- as the season during which Hashem took us out of Egypt, saved us from being slaves, made us into His people, and elevated us into spiritual beings. In Christianity, Pascha took the pagan form of celebrating the death and ascension of their god, just as a number of other pagan cultures have done. But now, many Christians don't even call it Pascha at all. They call it Easter, a name that derives from the pagan goddess of spring, Eostre.
Christmas itself actually comes from the Roman Saturnalia, a pagan festival in honor of their god Saturn, and the birthday of the sun. On Saturnalia, Romans exchanged gifts with each other, feasted, lit bright lights, and celebrated the "light returning," good will for all, and similar festive occasions that filtered into Christianity. When the Germanic tribes were Christianized, some of their rituals and customs were brought into Christianity as well, such as the Yule log. The twelve days of Christmas come from the Germanic twelve-day Yule. Yule was a very ancient pagan holiday celebrated on that day for at least two millennia before Christianity even existed.
Even the Christian day of rest was moved from the seventh day, the day explicitly stated in the Torah as being the Sabbath, to the sun god's festival day, Sunday. The concept of the trinity comes from various pagan religions, as does the concept of their god dying to wash away their sins. (In fact, very little of Christianity comes from Judaism. What apparently happened was that they took pagan ideas and tried to claim support for them from the Torah.)
These are common examples of syncretism, where a religion has adopted the ideas of other religions, and thus changed. This sort of behavior is forbidden in Judaism. Furthermore, we have never needed to take religious ideas from the Gentiles. We have the Torah, which is so vast, and which tells us everything we need to know about Hashem and how to become the best people we can possibly become. We do not need to learn about it from Gentiles.
There are many things -- not religious things -- that are worth learning from the Gentiles. As the Rabbis teach us, "If someone says that the Gentiles have knowledge, believe it, because it is true. If someone tells you that the Gentiles have Torah, don't believe it, because it is not true" (Midrash Eichah Rabbah, 2:13).
So, it is not syncretism if we make use of modern inventions and other products created or developed by other cultures. (You'll notice I use a computer, and even the Internet.) It is syncretism to adopt religious beliefs, holidays, or other religious practices from other cultures or religions.
For example, wearing clothing that is similar to gentile clothing is not syncretism. In no way has the understanding or practice of Judaism changed because of the clothes we wear, so that is not syncretism. Even Chassidim, the most cloistered sector of Jews, wear clothing that in overall approach is similar to gentile clothing: shirt, pants, jacket, etc. That is not a problem. This is not the syncretism that the Torah forbids.
There is a problem in imitating gentile styles. That is, if many gentiles are now wearing a certain style of clothing, because it's the "in" thing, it's the current fad, then it could often be forbidden to wear it. Certainly, if it identifies someone as being part of a certain non-Jewish culture, it is forbidden for a Jew to wear it.
The Talmud says that there are three essential characteristics in the definition of a nation: clothing, language, and names. A nation is defined by these three attributes. Any dissolving of these attributes is a descent into assimilation. Therefore, Orthodox Jews take Jewish names, pepper our English with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish words, and wear clothing that differentiates us from the Gentiles.
It is, however, permitted to wear a gentile style after the gentiles have stopped following that fad, since that clothing is no longer associated with that culture.
You may have heard of a Jewish author named Chaim Potok. Potok, a man with no real Jewish knowledge (though he claimed to be a Conservative rabbi), liked to say that Chassidim today wear the garb of the Polish nobleman of a few hundred years ago. This refers to the long jacket (or coat, as some call it) that we wear, which reaches down to below our knees. (Potok never, to my knowledge, explained why he considered this "fact" significant.)
Like most of what Potok said or wrote about Jews or Judaism, this is fairly stupid. In the first place, even a small amount of research reveals that the Polish noblemen did not wear the sort of jacket / coat that Chassidim wear today, or ever wore. Polish noblemen wore a jacket of a completely different style. Their jackets covered the sides and sometimes the fronts of their thighs, and did not reach down in back at all, because it would have intefered with their horse riding. (And as Rabbi Asher Wade says, Polish noblemen did not want to look like Jews!)
Furthermore, there are some ten or twenty different types of Chassidic jackets, and all of them look very distinctly different. Which one is supposed to look like the jacket of the Polish nobleman?
But the truth is that all this is irrelevant. It is permitted for Jews to wear a style of clothing that Gentiles used to wear, if the Gentiles are no longer wearing that style. Even if Chassidim are wearing something that Polish noblemen once wore, of what significance is that? (I have noticed, however, that whenever Potok made that claim during an interview, he smirked, so I must assume he used to say it to gain some sort of personal satisfaction. There is no bliss like the ignorance of a bigot.)
Someone else once insisted, in a letter to me, that Judaism has changed its Laws because we no longer have slaves. That is incredibly ridiculous, as I'm sure you realize. No Law changed because we no longer have slaves. For that matter, the Torah does not command us to have slaves at all. We transgress no Torah Law by not having slaves. The Torah merely says that we are permitted to keep prisoners of war as slaves, as long as we treat them humanely. If we didn't keep them as slaves, there was always the danger that they would go back home and return with yet another army and invade us again. It was either keep them as slaves or kill them. In any case, there's indication that Jews seldom had slaves anyway.
But the fact that Western society today is built differently so that slavery is illegal does not mean that we have changed the Laws of Judaism.
Now, it can be correctly argued, that many Jews have changed Judaism. Yes, this is true. The Reform, the Conservative, the Reconstructionist, and even some groups of people who still call themselves Orthodox. They have changed their "Judaism"; that is, they have changed their way of life, but the Laws of Judaism have not changed. If they make an official change, they are no longer performing Judaism, but what they have decided to do. (And I'm going to say this one more time, because I am sick of the letters I get from people about this: THEY ARE STILL JEWS, EVEN IF THEY STOP OBSERVING JUDAISM.)
One woman wrote me that in her community they do not observe the Commandments of the Torah, but they feel that "as long as you believe in G-d and act like a good person then you are fine. As long as you help others try and have faith then you can't go wrong."
That's a very beautiful Buddhist sentiment. It's also what many Christian denominations believe. But it's not Jewish. Of course believing in G-d, acting like a good person, helping others, and having faith is very important in Judaism. But these are just a few of the Commandments found in the Torah, not all of the Commandments. In fact, Judaism teaches that it is impossible to maintain faith in Hashem -- which is essentially emotional -- without performing the physical acts of the Commandments.
Among many Orthodox Jews, however, the Laws of Judaism are still followed, and have not been changed. The Laws of Judaism were created by Hashem. Hashem has always known the future, and therefore He created Laws that could be applied in all times.
Some non-Orthodox groups argue that the only way Judaism could survive is if it evolves. Therefore, they argue, they must change the Laws of the Torah. (What they really mean is that we should stop keeping the Torah.) I find this ridiculous. Charedi Jews have been keeping a Judaism that has not had to change or reject any of the Laws of the Torah since Hashem gave it to all of Israel at Mount Sinai. It has survived, and so have we. How have we managed to survive? And if statistics mean anything at all, we are growing and they are shrinking.
And note another thing: the people who argue that the Laws of the Torah should be changed are those who have never actually observed those Laws in their entirety! If Charedi Jews, who keep all the Laws that we are actually able to keep, were to argue that we must change something, it would be much more believable.
If you look at what the non-Orthodox are trying to change, you will see that it is mostly because modern Western civilization has adopted those beliefs. They wish to keep up with the times. Here's an example: The Torah says that it is forbidden to perform certain acts. However, today's society simply calls them an "alternative lifestyle," and tells people to accept it as equally as valid as any other lifestyle. Therefore, some non-Orthodox groups feel that the Jews should do the same. Never mind what the Torah says, they tell us. Judaism, they argue, should be changed to keep up with the times.
Think about this. Where would Judaism be, if Jews had always said "we have to keep up with the times?" When the Syrian-Greeks under Antiochus Epimanes conquered Jerusalem, they forced the Jews to worship idols. Greek culture was the popular thing back then. Why shouldn't we have adopted it?
Yet the fact remains that we didn't. Antiochus told everyone that the religion of the Jews won't last long, because he would force them to assimilate. Many Jews became Misyavnim, Hellenisers (in other words, Greek imitators), and joined the Greeks in their orgies, their nude exercises, and their other disgusting practices. They truly believed that Judaism was a thing of the past, and would not last. There isn't much difference in what many believe today.
Yet we did last, and the entire Greek culture is gone. Most people have forgotten what the Greeks have done, and know nothing about Greek culture. No one even remembers the Hellenisers - except the Orthodox Jews! The only people who still remember the ancient Jews who sold out their religion are the Orthodox Jews who study Jewish history.
Greek culture moved on, changed, and devolved into the various cultures that exist today, some of which still retain small elements of the ancient Greek culture and teachings.
Long after the American culture has been and gone, Judaism, in its ancient form, with perhaps only external changes, will live on.
And those who walk slowly to the melting pot will be subsumed no less than those who run at a faster pace.