A few days ago Christians around the world celebrated the birthday of a Jewish boy from Bethlehem — Jesus (in Hebrew “Yeshu”) — a religious figure revered by nearly half the world’s population: two billion Christians and one billion Muslims (yes, Jesus is important to Muslims).
Yet Jews rarely, if ever, talk about Jesus. I’ve never given a sermon about Jesus, not even at this obvious time of year, and I’ve never heard a rabbi speak about Jesus from the pulpit. I assume, and I presume most of my colleagues presume, that congregants would completely freak out if a rabbi were to speak about Jesus, even as a historical figure, even as a “know your neighbors” kind of thing. I feel like I’m very bold as a rabbi because I’ve actually dared to quote from the New Testament once or twice from the pulpit in the last ten plus years.
What is it about Jesus that gives Jews the “heebie-jeebie’s?” Is he a topic we shouldn’t discuss?
It’s understandable why Jews have problems with Jesus. Centuries of anti-Semitism were carried out in his name. It’s nice that Christians have apologized for that, but the Jewish cultural aversion to Christianity, Jesus, crosses, etc., runs very deep. For Christians, Judaism is the root and source of their religion, so many Christians are comfortable talking about Judaism. For Jews, Christianity is not just heresy, it’s a threat. It’s heresy that has led to persecution and violence on the one hand, and assimilation and loss of identity on the other hand. Christianity is the dominant culture in most of the countries the majority of Jews have lived in for centuries. Compared with converting to Judaism, it’s very easy to convert to Christianity, and the temptation to convert in order to secure access to an easier way of life was great for many centuries. Many Jewish parents worry about ending up like Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn, the great 18th century rabbi, whose grandson, the composer Felix Mendelssohn, is one of the most famous Jewish apostates.
Furthermore, many Jews look at doctrines such as the Trinity, and objects such as icons, and conclude that Christianity is a form of idol worship, against which the Jewish tradition takes the strongest possible stand.
So when Christians ask their Jewish friends “what do you think about Jesus?” most Jews are at a loss for words. They know that the biggest theological gulf between Jews and Christians is that we “deny” Jesus. But what exactly is it that we deny? What, or who, do we think this character called Jesus was, anyway? Are Christians idol worshippers?
In this blog post, I am not presenting any kind of authoritative “Jewish view of Jesus.” There is no such thing. I’m just presenting my personal opinion, an opinion that has been shaped by actually reading at least part of the New Testament, by engaging in serious interfaith work with Christians for many years (I teach Torah at a monastery here in Israel once a month, and some of the nuns came to our Chanukah party), and by reading books such as Bruce Chilton’s “Rabbi Jesus,” and Hyam Maccoby’s “The Myth-maker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity.”
I have occasionally been surprised when I meet Christians who are not aware that Jews deny the central theological assumptions of Christianity. To wit, we do not believe:
- That Jesus is part of God, i.e., part of a “Trinity” of God
- That Jesus is the son of God
- That Jesus was born from a virgin mother
- That Jesus was the promised Messiah that Jews have been waiting for
But what do we believe? Who was this Jew, Jesus?
I believe Jesus was a historical figure. The earliest gospels are thought to have been written down only 30-40 years after the death of Jesus. It seems unlikely that he was made up out of whole cloth.
Jesus was a rabbi – a teacher of Torah (the picture at right is a picture of “Rabbi Barry” at “Rabbi Jesus’s” synagogue in Capernaum). I think he trained as a rabbi, and had a falling out with his teachers, because, like the great prophets of the Jewish tradition, he was disgusted by the hypocrisy of the upper class authorities, who he saw as being more concerned with shows of piety than with either real piety or concern for their fellow man.
I was browsing through the New Testament the other day, and was struck how there are references that nowadays the only people who would really understand them are rabbis. For example, in Matthew 15:2 it says “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.” To understand this properly, you need to understand the Talmudic discussion on the topic. Even most Jews wouldn’t get this right, because washing hands before eating bread has become accepted as completely normative for all observant Jews. However, if you go back over 2,000 years ago, it was only the priests, the kohanim, who were required to eat their food in a state of ritual purity, and who therefore had to wash their hands. The Pharisees (a.k.a., “the rabbis”) took it upon themselves as a stringency to conduct themselves like priests, and always washed their hands before eating, and they only ate ritually “pure” food. Washing the hands before eating indicated you were a “chaver,” a learned person, part of the “in group” of people who adopted this custom. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, a requirement incumbent upon all Jews. So by not washing before eating bread, Jesus and his disciples were making a political statement that they were aligning with the “common people,” not with the “elite.” It is made clear in the next few verses why: the Pharisees were seen by Jesus as hypocrites, violating the commandment to “honor your parents,” while focusing on ritual observances like hand washing.
Jesus was a revolutionary figure, but it does not seem to be Rome he was revolting against. In a historical context, it seems odd that the Romans would have agreed to put Jesus to death. Jesus was no threat to Rome: he preached a message of passivity in the face of the Romans. His famous speech about “turn the other cheek” is directed at the Roman persecutors. It’s a message of “don’t fight back.” If there was any doubt about his message, in Mark chapter 12 Jesus tells his disciples to give him a coin; “’Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?’ ‘Caesar’s,’ they replied. Jesus said to them, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they marveled at him.”
Yet his criticism against the Jewish power structure – Pharisee and Sadducee alike – was sharp and pointed. He called them hypocrites – more concerned with shows of piety like washing hands and lengthening prayers – than with caring for people. The story of the Good Samaritan is a stinging indictment of priests and Levites, who are indifferent to a suffering person, while the “outcast,” the “heretic” Samaritan takes care of him. But his indictment of his fellow Jews was no harsher than many previous Jewish prophets, such as Isaiah, who said “Is this the fast I want?…. Is not this rather the fast that I have chosen? to loose the chains of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you bring the poor, who are cast out, to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh?”
Jesus was against false shows of piety – “unnecessary” hand washing, and dragging prayers out excessively (we still make our prayers rather long, don’t we? Typical Yom Kippur service: 5 hours. Typical Christmas Mass 90 minutes). He wasn’t against following Jewish law: in fact, in Matthew chapter 5 Jesus says, “Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose.” Jewish followers of Jesus were still expected to follow halacha; it was only his non-Jewish followers who were exempt. Jesus was, however, certainly less strict than the Pharisees. I suppose many liberal Jews today would approve of Jesus’ teaching that “the Sabbath was made to serve man, not man to serve the Sabbath.”
Jews wouldn’t call Jesus a prophet, because we say the era of prophecy ended with Malachi, yet his message was one that was clearly in the prophetic tradition.
So if Jesus was a rabbi, what do we make of his followers who turned him into God? Is Christianity, the Trinity, etc., a form of idol worship?
The answer to that one is “no.” Christians are very clear that there is only one God. That one God is expressed in a tripartite form of “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” but Christian doctrine is clear that they are all part of only one God. I think of the Christian concept of the Trinity as similar to the Kabbalistic concept of the ten sefirot, different ways God has of manifesting Himself in the world.
What about the icons, the images, etc., in a church that Christians seem to worship? Isn’t that idol worship? The answer again, is “no.” Christians do not worship relics (remains of saints, or objects associated with Jesus). Saint Jerome declared, “We do not worship, we do not adore, for fear that we should bow down to the creature rather than to the creator, but we venerate the relics of the martyrs in order the better to adore him whose martyrs they are.” While it is true that some Christians believe relics or icons have healing power, that seems to be similar to some Jewish superstitions about things like wearing red strings on your wrist. Generally speaking, icons and such are simply used as objects to focus one’s concentration, the way that Jews use a “mizrach,” a wall plaque with phrases or God’s name on it, that we put on the wall facing Israel (or here in Israel facing Jerusalem or the Temple Mount) to help us focus our prayers.
My own view, informed by Maccoby’s excellent book, is that the “Jewish” parts of the Christian tradition are likely the parts attributable to Jesus, and the elements that seem very foreign to Judaism – virgin birth, the deity in human form, “God” born of a woman, the symbolism of transubstantiation in Communion – are elements that were imported from Greek thought and traditions by Paul.
So as Jews, it is clear that we do not accept Jesus as part of God, or I should say at least no more part of God than any of the rest of us (after all, kabbalistically, the ultimate level of God is “Ein Sof,” the infinite, and we are all part of that infinite oneness as well). What about the Messiah part? How do we Jews react to that?
We do not believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah of our tradition because one look at the world around us shows that it is still a very broken place. We do not yet live in the era of peace and prosperity prophesied by Isaiah. What we are waiting for is what Christians call the “second coming.” However, and most Jews may not have thought about it this way, at the same time I have no trouble acknowledging that Jesus has indeed been a PERSONAL savior many millions of people. There is no doubt that there are many people whose lives have been completely transformed, who have been saved from a life of fear, or hate, or drugs and despair, thanks to their belief in Jesus. So to that extent he has been a force for good.
And that is a point that “ardent atheists” like the late Christopher Hitchens miss. Hitchens, a famous and very articulate essayist, who only learned as an adult that he was born a Jew, wrote a book called “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” Hitchens wrote that organized religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.” Hitchens was an equal opportunity basher – it didn’t matter what religion you practiced, it was messed up. He thought that Hanukkah was celebrating a “disaster,” it would have been much better for the Hellenized, more secular Jews, to have come out on top.
The bad things that happen in the name of religion are obvious: wars, hatred, anti-Semitism, etc. The good things are less obvious: the lives transformed, the soup kitchens, the care for other people. The Torah tells us “the inclination of man is evil from his youth.” We don’t need religion to be evil. Coming off of centuries of church-sanctioned anti-Semitism, it can be hard for Jews to acknowledge the positive aspects of Christianity, but they clearly do exist.
The thawing of relations between Jews and Christians has led many Christians to develop an interest in the Jewish roots of Christianity, hence books such as Chilton’s. Perhaps as a sign that New Testament studies are becoming less “off limits” for Jews, there is a new book, “The Jewish Annotated New Testament” that I’m looking forward to reading which is a Jewish scholarly commentary on the NT. I think it will help interfaith dialog: many Jews who would not otherwise feel comfortable picking up the NT may feel comfortable reading it with a commentary that looks at it from a Jewish perspective – and I mean a “real” Jewish perspective, not a “Jews for Jesus” perspective.
At this time of year, as the Christians celebrate “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,” may the rest of us also join that spirit of good will, and learn to love and respect one another.