V. 53. Pages 195-198
Brown describes self-righteousness as a “feeling that you have attained righteousness before God based on your actions, or the feeling that you are morally superior to others.”
Brown speaks of: “the efforts of religious Jews on the days leading up to Yom Kippur to have their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds so their names might be written in the Book of Life for another year?”
In place of the Jewish attitude (as Brown understands it), Brown offers the word of Paul: “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Messiah – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith”(Phil. 3:9).”
Brown has again displayed a lack of understanding of the facts on the ground within Judaism and, more importantly, a lack of understanding of the spirit of Scripture.
It is true that the Jewish attitude is to focus on our deeds, especially in the time-period leading to the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as if our judgment depends upon our deeds. In the words of Maimonides: “One should always see themselves, throughout the year, as if they were halfway innocent and halfway guilty, and so the entire world, that it is halfway innocent and halfway guilty; if he sins one sin, he causes himself and the world to be considered guilty and he brings destruction upon himself; if he does one meritorious deed, he has caused himself and the world to be considered righteous, and he brought upon himself and upon them salvation and deliverance” (3 Teshuva 4).
The key words in this teaching are: “all the time”. Immediately after doing a good deed, we should still be looking at ourselves as though we are standing on the edge. When properly understood, this teaching actually precludes self-righteousness. The thrust of the teaching is that we must act as if everything depends upon our future actions, and that at no given point in time could we rely on our past actions. I still haven’t met the Jew who walks around with the attitude that he or she is righteous enough to stand before God on the merit of his or her deeds. Maimonides (based on the Talmud) is encouraging everyone, both a person steeped in sin and a person who has lived a moral life to see themselves as one who stands on the edge. The point is not to consider yourself righteous, but rather, to treat your actions with all seriousness. Judaism emphasizes the concept expressed by David; “…no living being is righteous before You (God), and echoed by Job (Psalm 143:2, Job 15:14, 25:4). Furthermore, we recognize that, with our deeds, we give nothing to God that He does not already possess (1Chronicles 29:14, Job 35:7). At the same time, this does not exempt us from our responsibility as God’s servants. God puts the burden squarely on our shoulders when He commands us to obey His commandments and in His mercy, He counts our deeds for righteousness despite the fact that we gave Him nothing (Deuteronomy 6:25).
The joy and happiness we experience when we fulfill God’s will is not the feeling of pride in our own accomplishments. Rather, the happiness that results from our obedience to God is rooted in the recognition that we have just received the greatest gift from God and the greatest expression of His love.
To sum it up; we act as if everything depends on our deeds, because that is how God wants us to act. We put all of our trust in God, because we know that everything depends on His mercy.
So Brown has misunderstood the Jewish attitude towards good deeds, and towards God’s judgment. He has also misunderstood a basic theme in Scripture.
The concept that righteousness based on our deeds is somehow not from God while righteousness based on faith is from God, is completely without any Scriptural foundation. God, in His mercy, counts both our faith and our deeds towards us for righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Deuteronomy 6:25). As long as these (the faith and the deeds) emanate from a heart that is humble before God and that recognizes that God is the absolute sovereign to whom both our faith and our deeds belong, then these are accepted by God. But a faith that is not based on the recognition that God already possesses our hearts, such as the faith that Paul and Brown are encouraging, will never be accepted by God. Such a faith is the height of arrogance towards God. How could a human being pledge his or her heart to anyone aside from the One that created it to begin with?
Brown’s criticism of Judaism for possessing an attitude of moral superiority should be directed at the Bible. Throughout the Bible, God contrasts Israel’s position against the position of the gentiles (Exodus 19:5, Deuteronomy 7:6, 14:2, 26:18,19, 33:29, Jeremiah 10:16). There is no question that the people of Israel received greater gifts from God than did the other nations of the world. The question is: do we recognize these as undeserved gifts? – as the Scriptures encourage us to do (Deuteronomy 9:4). Judaism encourages us to acknowledge that which we were granted from God as undeserved gifts and as a responsibility before God and man, and not to use these gifts as an excuse for arrogance.
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Yisroel C. Blumenthal