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The primary reason that Jews do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah is that after his arrival and death the world was not redeemed. There is at least as much suffering, pain, and tragedy in the world as there was before Jesus — probably much more. If the Christian answers that the suffering is a result of the world’s rejecting Jesus, two related questions arise, which I will take up below: Why did the majority of those who knew him reject him in his own lifetime (as the majority of the world still does today)? And if suffering is a result of rejecting Jesus, why has so much of the suffering historically been inflicted by (and even upon) those who accepted him, that is, Christians?
There is reason to believe Jesus himself was a staunch upholder of the law. That which defined early Christianity, the rejection of Mosaic law, may not have been Jesus’ intention at all. As Jesus says, “Think not that I have come to abolish the Torah and the Prophets. I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For I truly say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Torah until all is accomplished. Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men to do so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5).
This is not to suggest that Jesus did not differ at certain points with orthodox rabbinic teachings. But the points of contact are closer and more numerous than is usually supposed. Many statements associated with Jesus are straight from classic rabbinic literature: When Jesus says, to take one of many examples, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27) he is putting in different words what Rabbi Jonathan ben Joseph said: “For it is holy unto you; it [the Sabbath] is committed to your hands, not you to its hands.” (Talmud, Yoma 85b). Where Jesus differs the variations, from a Jewish point of view, are more troubling than exemplary. And as is clear from the story that opened this article, the doctrine of the trinity, the idea that three can be one and one three, is to Jews less a profound mystery than a simple contradiction.
Some of Jesus’ teachings seem to Jews either contradictory or simply immoral. This does not negate the possibility that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but as with all human beings he was far from perfect in his moral outlook. The idea that eternal punishment would follow from rejecting Jesus seems downright evil. That someone could live a noble life and not be saved, when another could live a depraved and cruel life and through a true conversion of his heart at the end of life still be saved, is hard to tote up on the moral balance sheet. A Nazi on his deathbed repents and goes to heaven and Anne Frank to hell? I am aware that many groups reject this doctrine today, but for centuries it was normative church doctrine and still endures among a large number of Christians.
The Jesus who said (in Matthew 10:34-37), “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother,” is not a Jesus whom I can accept as a moral model. The statement is consistent, however, with the Jesus of Luke 14:26, who says, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”
In addition, the Jesus who withers a fig tree because it did not provide him with fruit when he was hungry seems peevish rather than exemplary (Matthew 21:17-19). While being aware of Christian interpretations of these verses, I am also struck by their plan and apparent meaning.
There are many remarkable and wonderful teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. However, they are the teachings of a human being, not a God, and many of them — including the most morally enlightened — are paralleled in rabbinic literature. One cannot truly understand Jesus without understanding the climate in which he grew up. When one studies the Talmud, the image of Jesus becomes sharper — and still very impressive —but less original.