Last week I was listening to a Teaching Company lecture on early medieval history. The professor delivering the lecture allowed himself a brief digression into comparative religion when discussing the role of Islam in shaping a medieval landscape. He considered whether Islam was more similar to Judaism or Christianity, and concluded that it was really more similar to Judaism. One of the important similarities is apparently the fact that both Islam and Judaism are “priestless” religions, in which spiritual leaders have a pastoral and educational rather than sacramental and sacrificial role.
This is an innocent enough comment, except for the fact that it is false – or, rather, that it perpetuates a critical misconception about Judaism that leads to a painful amount of confusion regarding the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. Forgive me while I state the obvious: Judaism is not a priestless religion. Probably more attention is devoted to the priesthood in its five founding books than to any other topic. Judaism is a religion centered on priestly worship at the Temple, which – if you are a Christian – has been subsumed into priestly worship at the Temple of the body of Christ, or – if you are an Orthodox Jew – has been temporarily put on hold until the Temple can be rebuilt.
This is by no means a matter of semantics. The existence of a priesthood makes possible a sacramental relationship with God – one focused on His concrete presence (in the Holy of Holies or in the bread and wine) and mediated through sacrificial offering. The presence of such a relationship in both Mosaic Judaism and in Christianity is their most defining characteristic; its absence in Islam and its conditional absence in modern Judaism is theirs.
I don’t mean to be nitpicky; this was not a course in religion, and the professor should not be judged for lack of precision in an area in which he does not claim to be an expert. But it strikes me that this kind of gross inaccuracy is common, and every time it is repeated, it perpetuates a misconception that is particularly destructive to Jewish Christian self-understanding.