The Shema is the great prayer of the Jews. It is written upon the doorposts of Jewish homes and recited countless times by Jewish lips. It is the prayer of the Bible to the Jewish mind.
We would do well to learn from the Jews. To the devout, Judaism is seen as a halakah, a way of life. Being a Jew has an effect on what you eat, how you dress, and how you spend your Friday nights. It permeates your whole life. To be a good Jew is to pray at least four times a day: when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you arise. To be a good Jew is to teach the faith to your children.
This is also what it should mean to be a Christian: to live completely differently than others do, not in order to be weird or different, but to be faithful. We should eat differently when we fast. We should dress differently because we are modest. We should spend our time differently because we value the things of God more than the things of this world. We should be people of prayer and we should make sure we pass this on to our children.
For us, Christianity must be a halakah, a way of life, if it is to be something other than a religious position or an intellectual pursuit.
For some, Christianity is a religious position. It is a club that they are members of, a social gathering. Such people define themselves as religious because they come to church regularly and are actively involved. But the Christian faith is more than just going to church. The test of real Christianity is not how often one goes to church, but what one does when not in church.
There is an assumption often made that people who are theologically inclined are also spiritual. But theology and piety are different things. There are many theologians who are not men of prayer. Scholarship and devotion do not necessarily go together. The biggest difference between a theologian and a nontheologian is that the former has no excuse for his lack of devotion. He should know better. Those of us who have an intellectual bent do well to remember that there will not be a written entrance exam given at the gates of heaven. Thus, although piety and theology should go hand in hand, it is far better to be a pious nonscholar than an impious theologian. Christianity must affect the way we live, not just the things we think about.
The extent to which we see Christianity as a halakah is the extent to which it will be passed on to our children. Fidelity to a Christian life as opposed to an American life (or British life or German life or Italian life or Russian life or Greek life) is the measure to which our faith has roots. A Christian life and an American life, for example, need not be completely different, but in those areas where the Christian halakah and the normal life of our culture lie in opposition, we must cognizantly choose the Christian way. Our primary allegiance must be to Christ. Our children must identify themselves as Christians first. They must learn that there are some things they must not do because they are a people set apart. And there are things that they must do because they are members of the kingdom of heaven. In many ways, they (and we) need to be obviously different. And if we are not different, if we do not wrestle with being out of step with our neighbors, then we probably do not have a Christian halakah. We should reflect on these things when we sit by the TV, when we walk to school, when we go into our bedrooms, and when we arise.
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
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“Christian Halakah” first appeared in the January/February 1999 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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