As usually happens when I get asked this kind of question, I was a bit stunned at first. But then I reached back into my knowledge of the tradition and pulled a piece of wisdom out of our liturgy -- when we welcome a new Jewish boy into our covenant with God (a bris ) we wish that he may grow up to be entered into three things:
- תורה/Torah -- The study of Torah.
- חופה/Huppah -- Marriage (literally the marriage canopy)
- מעשים טובים/Maasim Tovim -- Literally, "good deeds"
Of course I wasn't talking about national or eternal redemption (if I was, I might have talked about the coming of the Messiah ). Rather, we were discussing what redemption might look at for the person who has got "lost". For the person who has seriously sinned, or gotten badly involved in drugs or criminal activity. For the person who has (physically) hurt others or his or herself. How might that person be "saved" to use a word Christians like? (We were talking about an actual patient like this. One who had been sexually abused as a child and later fell into prostitution and drug use.)
I said that my hope for such a person is that they could fulfill the promises of the bris: That they could grow to find their way to Torah. That they could find a relationship with another that could be honest and loving and lasting. And that they could find a way to help others and be a positive influence on the world through their good deeds. That would be redemption to me.
My Christian colleague's response shocked me: "That sounds impossibly hard," he said.
And this speaks to a dramatic difference between Christianity and Judaism. For most Christians, redemption is something that only comes as a gift from God. They might even say that there is nothing you can do to earn redemption; it can only come from God (being saved by grace).
What I love about these kind of conversations is that they affirm for me my identity as a Jew. I can intellectually understand this sort of Christian theology. But in my gut it means nothing! In my gut I'm all Jew.
Blessed are You, Lord our God who made me a member of the covenant of Israel!
FYI, here are some quotes from the old Encyclopedia Judaica's article on redemption:
The sages [of the Talmud] know nothing of a miraculous redemption of the soul by external means. There is no failing in man, whether collectively or as an individual, which requires special divine intervention and which cannot be remedied, with the guidance of the Torah, by man himself.
Joseph B. Soloveichik, the modern Orthodox thinker, describes redemption in terms of faith and performance of mitzvot, but also includes the idea that the human capability of renewal and self-transformation manifests itself especially in times of human distress. Being redeemed is a mode of existence, not an attribute. "Even a hermit can live a redeemed life" (i.e., as a mode of existence, redemption is an individual thing and not dependent upon society. "The Lonely Man of Faith" in: Tradition, vol. 7, no. 2, Summer 1965). Furthermore redemption is a function of man's control over himself. "A redeemed life is ipso facto a disciplined life" (ibid.). As opposed to dignity which is man's triumph over nature and the feeling of success, redemption is when man is "overpowered by the creator of nature," and it is discovered in the "depth of crisis and failure" (ibid., 23–24).