Jewish Apologetics

Dispute between Pope Sylvester and Rabbi Zambri
Dispute between Pope Sylvester and Rabbi Zambri

Jewish apologetics attempts to defend Jews, our religion, and our culture from critics. The history of Jewish apologetics reflects a complicated relationship between Jews and Gentiles throughout the millennia. Jewish apologetics formed as a response to the challenges of pagans and – eventually – as a response to the challenges of Christianity.1

Jewish apologetics are intended to defend the Jewish religion and the Jewish social and national life against the direct attacks from the world around the Jews. Jewish apologetics is also intended to attack the internal doubts that were rising up from comparing Jewish life and the life of the Gentiles surrounding the Jewish community. In addition, Jewish apologetic literature is also written “in the hope of proving to the Gentiles the virtues of the Jewish religion and thereby influencing their outlook on, and attitudes toward, Judaism.”1

There is a long history of Jewish apologetics which became especially prevalent after the destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash and the expulsion of the Jews from Eretz Yisrael.

The authors of Jewish-Hellenistic literature believed that their task was to defend the ideas of Judaism and its historical role. These Jewish-Hellenistic writers interpreted Judaism allegorically declaring that Judaism contains all the best of the systems of the great Greek philosophers. They also wrote that the Jews also pioneered all the “intellectual and material basis of universal civilization.”1 In addition to these general Jewish-Hellenistic apologetic writings, there were also specific apologetic works written by various authors. One of the most well-known of these works is Against Apion written by Josephus. Against Apion is a defense of the Jews who refused to participate in the local cults of the cities and provinces where they lived. Josephus and others also attempted to emphasize the humane character of the “precepts in the Torah regarding proselytes and Gentiles to counter the widespread accusations that these injunctions demonstrate pride, contempt, and hatred of mankind.”1

With the rise of the Church and the spread of Christianity Jewish apologetics were met with a new set of issues. The Jews maintained their ground in understanding the Tanakh. They insisted that there are answers to each Christian textual interpretation.

We learnt elsewhere: R. Eliezer said: Be diligent to learn the Torah and know how to answer an Epikoros. R. Johanan commented: They taught this only with respect to a Gentile Epikoros; with a Jewish Epikoros, it would only make his heresy more pronounced. (Sanhedrin 38b)2

The Talmud Bavli speaks about the Minim and the Epikoros who attempt to use Jewish sources – especially the Tanakh – to try and prove their own beliefs. Rabbi Yohanan said that all the passages which the Minim use as grounds for their heresy have a refutation to their heresies close by in the Scripture. There are multiple examples throughout the Tanakh. Here are but two examples:

1. And God said: Let us [plural] make man in our image, after our likeness … (Bereishit 1:26)

And God created [singular] man in His own image… (Bereishit 1:27)

2. Come, let us [plural] go down, and there confound their language … (Bereishit 11:7)

And the Eternal One came down [singular] to see the city and the tower … (Bereishit 11:5)

Part of the Church’s attacks upon Judaism was what became known as “replacement theology.” In essence, the Church maintains that it has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. Jews have steadfastly maintains that Israel is still the chosen people of God even though they have been placed in exile. The Jews of the Medieval period claimed that there continued a sovereign Jewish state in the East and therefore Israel maintained its status as an independent people under God’s protection. David al-Mukammis was a Jewish convert to Christianity who – after returning to Judaism – wrote two tractates refuting Christianity. These tractates served as refutation sources for the Karaite scholar al-Qirqisani and the Rabbinic scholar Saadiah Gaon. Judah HaLevi wrote an apologetics work called Sefer HaKuzari where he uses history – that of the conversion to Judaism of the king of Khazaria – to defend “the values of human faith in the revealed religion and of Jewish law above those of philosophy… At the basis of his defense of Judaism, he places the history of the Jewish nation and its election by God.”1 During the Renaissance there arose a Karaite scholar known as Isaac ben-Abraham of Troki. He was well-known as someone who had frequent contact with various Christian scholars from whom he learned about the Christian faith. What came out of his extensive reading of the Christian scripture, Christian theological writings, and anti-Jewish literature was his famous apologetic work Hizzuk Emunah. This work became extremely popular for its powerful defense of Judaism as well as its calm and reasonable emphasis of the vulnerable points in Christian tradition and theology.3

Islam, as opposed to Christianity, has received very little attention in Jewish apologetics literature. Two reasons are given for this situation. First, the fact that Islam states that the Tanakh is corrupted abolishes any common ground on which the explanation of the Jewish scholars can be based. Second, Muslims did not taunt the Jews about their exile as much as the Christians did which meant there was less of a reason for writing apologetic literature directed toward Islam. There were however two works of apologetics that were written specifically toward Islam. Solomon ben-Abraham Adret wrote Ma’amar al-Ishma’el which rejects a Muslim’s argument who disparaged the inclusion of the stories of Reuven, Tamar, and Yehudah in the Torah. This same Muslim also attacked the Jews for observing certain mitzvot which he believed merited abolition. Keshet u-Magen, written by Simeon ben-Zemah Duran discusses the attitude of the Qur’an toward Judaism. He also points out the contradictions found within the Qur’an, “its ignorance of the principles of natural science and philosophical doctrine of the soul, and complains about its obscure style.”1

During the Enlightenment of the eighteenth-century there was a weakening of religion in the West. This meant that the Jewish apologists had to prove “that the Jews constituted an advantageous element from an economic standpoint; that any faults with adverse social consequences, such as the practice of usury, were the result of the economic position into which they had been forced by medieval laws; and that they were loyal to the countries whose national culture they wished to adopt.”1

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Jewish apologists continued to emphasize the contributions of the Jews to civilization which meant they had to emphasize Judaism’s universal character. In addition, these apologists continued to be preoccupied with the questions of emancipation. Among these apologists was Abraham Geiger who defended Judaism is the spirit of the times and was known to make scholarly investigations of apologetics. With the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe during the second part of the nineteenth-century there came a renewal of apologetic literature – especially in response to blood libels. Joseph Samuel Bloch was a significant contributor to the defense of Judaism. He was especially known for combating anti-Semitic accusations made by Catholic theologian August Rohling. In Eastern Europe Jewish apologetic writings were mostly restricted to the struggle for civil rights. The apologists wrote in defense against anti-Semitic attacks – most importantly speaking out against blood libels. They fought for the abolition of residential restrictions made upon Jews while also emphasizing the role of Jewish merchants in the economy. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the growth of Jewish apologetic literature has been mostly an attempt to defend the universal nature of Judaism to the Gentile world while also attempting to bring Jews back to Judaism.1

Jewish apologetics is the attempt to disprove the challenges of the non-Jewish world and the Epikoros Jews. Jewish apologetics also attempts to bring back to lost people of the Jews. Read and study Torah and learn that there are always answers to the challenges of the Minim and the Epikoros.

Jews, God-fearers, and Gerim assert that the Messiah has yet to come and that Christianity’s assertions are false. The “Messianic prophecies” in the Tanakh as asserted by Christianity are (1) not Messianic prophecies, (2) are mistranslated and/or misinterpreted texts, and/or (3) have not been fulfilled by the Christian messiah.

What to Do When Confronted by A Missionary

1. Look at the entire context of the verse in question (It is best to use a Hebrew-English Tanakh). – If the Jewish proof can be made strictly from a Christian Bible however it has more impact.

2. Check to see if the verse is mistranslated.

3. Check to see is the verse is misinterpreted.

4. Check to see if the verse can be applied to a person other than Jesus.

5. Do not quote one’s rabbi.

6. Do not quote the Talmud/Mishnah.

7. Ask for logical proofs of their beliefs if they use psychological tricks such as warning you that you will burn in hell if you do not accept Jesus.

8. When you ask a question do not allow them to simply ignore it. Make sure that they answer your question or admit that they do not have an answer.

9. Speak calmly.

10. Never be on the defensive.

11. Remember that most missionaries are sincere and should be treated in a respectful manner.

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1American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. “Apologetics.” jewishvirtuallibrary.org. Jewish Virtual Library, 2012.
2I. Epstein “Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin.” London: Soncino Press, 1949.
3Isaac ben-Abraham. “Hizzuk Emunah.” faithstrengthened.org. Faith Strengthened, n.d.