As children, my sister and I often argued over what we would watch on television at 8 o’clock on Friday nights. While our parents were usually at services, we were home trying to decide between Our Miss Brooks, a situation comedy about the trials and tribulations of a high school English teacher, which she preferred, and Crossroads, a series of dramas about the experience of clergymen, which I preferred. Interestingly, my sister became a teacher, and I became a rabbi.
She was older and usually got her way, but I prevailed one night, and Crossroads it was.
I remember a scene where a young boy in a baseball cap asked his priest: “Father, what’s the difference between you and Rabbi Silver?” The priest gave the boy a sympathetic look and said, “Think of it this way, son. We are both in the same league; it’s just that we play for different teams.”
Since that night I have wondered: did the priest mean that he and the rabbi both pursued the same objective in different ways? Or did he mean that they were in competition with one another? The question remains with me and lies at the heart of my inquiry into the role of the Christian Messiah.
A famous author wrote, “…One need only read the lives of Jesus written since the sixties and notice what they have made of the great imperious sayings of the Lord, how they have weakened down His imperative world-condemning demands upon individuals, that He might not come into conflict with our ethical ideals … “
How correct the author seems! We have seen since the nineteen sixties Jesus made into a jeans-wearing modern, very much like us in many ways, yet with a message and a mission which set him apart. We have seen since the sixties Jesus Christ popularized with music and visual effects designed to capture both the imagination and the entertainment dollar.
The author’s statement about what has been done with Jesus since the sixties is not surprising until we realize that the author is Albert Schweitzer, his statement published in 1906 in The Quest of the Historical Jesus, and his reference is to the 1860s, not the sixties of the last century.
In his famous study, Schweitzer concluded that the historical Jesus is largely beyond discovery. More than a century later Geza Vermes’ 25-year study of the life and times of Jesus yielded a similar conclusion. He wrote: “Certainly unless by some fortunate chance new evidence is unfolded in the future, not a great deal can be said of Jesus at this distance of time that can be historically authenticated.”
To this day “the Quest” remains fraught with uncertainty. One of the reasons the historical Jesus is so elusive is that the Gospels (even the similar accounts of the Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke) disagree on many details. Vermes contended that the Gospel do not “provide more than a skeletal outline of Jesus as he really was.”
To this Samuel Sandmel added: “We cannot be precise about Jesus. We can know what the Gospels say, but we cannot know Jesus.” Though the historical Jesus is largely unknowable, we can and must deal with the image of the personality, teachings, and influence of Jesus which has come down to us. As Schweitzer wrote, “Jesus as a concrete historical personality remains a stranger to our time, but his spirit, which lies hidden in his words, is known in simplicity, and its influence is direct.”
Of course, Schweitzer wrote as a Christian. We Jews too, though, must deal with the influence of Jesus more than the elusive historical figure whom centuries of dedicated research have failed to fully reveal.
Without denigrating in any way the figure who inspires the Christian religious experience, we acknowledge frankly that we Jews do not see Jesus as Christians do.
Simply stated, the basic Christian concepts which Jews do not accept are:
That Jesus was God’s anointed, the Messiah whose coming many Jews longed for both at the time Jesus lived and during other periods of Jewish history.
That the martyr’s death of Jesus in any way effects atonement for the collective sins of humanity or for the sins of an individual.
That God became or is likely to become incarnate in any human form, making any human being a suitable object for worship.
That, as Paul contends in his Epistles, the life and death of Jesus rendered the elaborate system of Jewish law functionally useless.
These are the main claims Christians make for Jesus which Jews do not accept. Jesus was not the Messiah for Jews because he did not fulfill the clearly understood Jewish expectations of what the Messiah would do. As Samuel Sandmel wrote, “In a word, the people who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah rejected the claims because the expectations did not materialize. The power of Rome was not broken, the Davidic line was not restored, the scattered were not miraculously restored to Palestine; day to day life went on as before.”
The basis of the Jewish rejection of the Messianic claims made for Jesus are offered without apology and without rancor. These are matters of faith and feeling. Beliefs such as these are not matters of right and wrong.
In interfaith relations, our goal should be to go beyond mere tolerance to an acceptance of one another’s feelings. Without trying to convince or convert, we should open our minds and our hearts to an understanding and an appreciation of what we each hold dear.
Unfortunately, for the bulk of the 2000 years since Jesus lived, Jews and Christians have been at loggerheads over the issue of the “status of Jesus.” Christians have persecuted Jews for their lack of belief, and Jews have responded with resentment and furtively written anti-Christian polemics.
Many years ago, Rabbi Samuel Goldensohn described the roots of the Jewish-Christian conflict this way: “Temperamentally, the Children of Israel were profoundly earnest. No one who reads the Scriptures can escape the conviction that the people who could face the issues of life with such courage, who could lay bare their shortcomings, failures, and convictions with such frankness… no one can deny that this people was exceedingly earnest.”
As for the early Christians, Rabbi Goldensohn pointed out that the converts to the new doctrine “championed it with equal zeal.” It is important to understand, he concluded, “that there is no zeal so strong as that felt by those who are responsible for a doctrine or are recent converts to it.”
Fervent belief, zeal, mutual earnestness, to use Goldensohn’s terms, fostered the antipathy which existed between Christians and Jews for so many centuries. Hopefully, that mutual antipathy will continue to wane. Hopefully, in this time and in this place, we are able to gracefully and graciously accept the legitimate religious differences which exist. Hopefully, we are at a point where Christians need not proselytize Jews in a forceful or unbecoming manner, and where, therefore, Jews need not regard Christians with mistrust and disdain.
As I relate the reasons why Jews do not believe in Jesus, I do not suggest these are reasons why Christians should not believe in him.
But it is wrong for a Jew to believe in Jesus. It is one of the few notions that is totally alien to the Jewish religion as it has historically developed. Belief in Jesus may be ineluctably right for Christians, but it is outside the pale of Jewish belief.
That, is why I harbor such great resentment of so-called “Jews for Jesus.” I do not mind if Christians try to convince others of the merits of their faith. I reject, however, the notion that one can be both Jew and Christian at the same time. If a Jew wishes to become a Christian, let him do so in good conscience. At that same time, though, let him not delude himself into thinking that he is still in essence a Jew.
A Jew for Jesus is no more a Jew than a Catholic or Protestant who denies Christ is a Christian.
But what of Jesus himself? It would be most interesting to see what place he would hold in Jewish thought were his life and career not encumbered with the enmity they have spawned. Had Jews never been branded as Christ-killers. had we never suffered as we have in Jesus’ name, what place would this teacher from Galilee have held in our religious tradition?
On this one can only speculate, for Jews have been blinded to Jesus’ merits because of the suffering his followers have caused us. If Christians are to understand Jews, they must understand that the issue of Jesus is so fraught with emotion that some of us are incapable of discussing it objectively.
Why? Our conditioning is such that when we hear the merits of Jesus extolled, we instinctively expect that soon to follow will be an attempt to convert us to the faith of Christ, or to condemn us for rejecting that faith. Christians must realize that, because of the past 2000 years, Jews recoil instinctively at the name of Jesus. We somehow feel that, following the pattern of Martin Luther, kindness will be followed by condemnation if we fail to “see the light” as Christians see it.
Through the early 1520s, Martin Luther often condemned the persecution of Jews by Christians and recommended tolerance and understanding toward us. As Jews continued to resist the message of Christianity, though, Luther grew increasingly hostile. In the 1540s he wrote, “On the Jews and Their Lies” and “Admonition Against the Jews.” In these works, he called us “thieves and brigands” and “disgusting vermin” who ought to be banished from society or subjected to forced labor.
We Jews must make Christians aware of the emotional process which makes us automatically wary when we hear Jesus exalted. The reflex has been bred into us through centuries of experience with pogroms, expulsions, and worse. My prayer is that the same reflex can be bred out of us, not by forgetting the past but by overcoming it, not through ignorance or denial of our history, but through subsequent centuries of mutual acceptance and friendship.
Perhaps the reflex is no longer appropriate. The last decades give us cause to hope for a lessening of suspicion in interfaith relations. Much of this lessening of tension has been due to active effort on the part of the Christian community. Our hope is that such efforts continue to grow and that we in the Jewish community continue to warmly receive and reciprocate them.
Jesus is not to blame for our inbred wariness. Some of his followers are. With this in mind, let me try to speculate on how we, were we able to transcend history, might regard Jesus himself.
Certainly his conflicts with the religious authorities of his time would not have left Jesus unalterably condemned. Acceptance in their own time was certainly not one of the ingredients always found in viable Jewish heroes. Moses, the greatest of our leaders, was often discredited and defied by significant numbers of people. Great prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos were despised and rejected by the establishment of their day. Even Elijah, for whom we open the door every Passover, was so discouraged by the treatment the people accorded him that he complained. to God, “I have been very jealous for the Lord…but the Children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword; and I, only I, am left.” (I Kings 19:10)
No, the fact that these individuals were often in conflict with the people they confronted has not damaged their ultimate reputations. Neither would that fact cast Jesus from the ranks of Jewish luminaries.
Personally, I see in Jesus a loyal Jew despite his alleged differences with the Jewish establishment of his time. The controversies he raised seem to have been “for the sake of heaven”, that is, positive-minded controversies. Whether Jesus’ notions were right or wrong, they aimed to deepen the people’s understanding of the essence of religious practice.
In addition, I see Jesus as a gifted leader and teacher with an exceptional flair for the use of parable. I see parallels, as Geza Vermes has indicated, to the accounts of his miracles and healings in Biblical figures such as Moses, Elijah, and Elisha and in contemporary Galilean sages, Honi the Circle Drawer and Hanina ben Dosa.
Yes, the concept of God’s love which Jesus presented did add a new dimension to Jewish religious life. For those of us who remain Jews, though, Jesus’ idea of a God whose love and forgiveness are unconditional is less attractive than a God whose primary interest is in a moral world of respect and justice, tempered by mercy and compassion. In short, we find ourselves more drawn to the God of the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic literature than to the God Jesus portrays.
Here, too, we accept and respect that others feel differently. We ask in return that the followers of Jesus respect the tradition from which Jesus sprang and which he affirmed throughout his life.
We ask that Christians discontinue and discourage efforts to set up Pharisaic Judaism, which is indeed our Judaism, as an arid and floundering legalism into which Jesus breathed the reviving breath of love. It is simply unfair and untrue to deem the laws and outlooks of the Pharisees as void of love and compassion. We ask that Christians study the writings of their own enlightened scholars, like R. Travers Herford, George Foot Moore, and Morton Scott Enslin, to gain a true appreciation of the Pharisaic legacy.
Indeed, if Christians treat our faith with the respect it deserves, then we must respect their kindness as representative of the master of their faith. It may not be fair to him, but since the historical Jesus is beyond recovery, our assessment of Jesus will necessarily hinge on the actions perpetrated in his name.
Jesus is not, nor will be ever be, to Jews what he is to Christians. If modem Protestants can continue to accept this fact with equanimity, then the virulent anti-Semitism which infected Martin Luther in his later years will be of only historical interest. If modem Catholics can continue to graciously accept us as we are, then we can safely consign the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the expulsions and edicts directed against us to the increasingly distant past.
No, Jesus is not our Messiah. We looked for things from the Jewish Messiah which Jesus never brought. Claims were made for Jesus which we can never accept. It is not just a matter of time until we “see the light”.
For our Christian friends, though, Jesus is both the hope and the inspiration for “peace on earth and true good will among humanity.” If Jesus fosters these ideals in his followers, and if his teachings help create a better world for all of us, then we as Jews, rather than recoil at the mention of his name, should acknowledge Jesus’ positive impact and be grateful for it. Our view of Jesus from now on will depend less of what he was than on what his followers make of him.