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The idea that one can be saved only through Jesus is contrary to simple compassion and justice. Judaism teaches that “the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come.” Maimonides writes in a letter that there are non-Jews who “bring their souls to perfection.” That is the simple truth that all faiths should acknowledge and celebrate. Otherwise, there can be no kinship. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote about attempts to convert the Jews: “How can we take seriously a friendship that is conditioned ultimately on the hope and expectation that the Jew will disappear? How would a Christian feel if we Jews were engaged in an effort to bring about the liquidation of Christianity?”
What is so bothersome about the group that President Bush has chosen to address is that to speak of “Jews for Jesus” makes as much sense as saying “Christians for Muhammad.” A Jew who accepts Jesus has cut himself off from the faith community of Jews, and that has been so for 2,000 years. When the first Christians left the Jewish community, and all the billions of Christians who followed recognized that their belief in Jesus made them a distinct religion, were they all deluded? Only today people have realized that division was a mistake after all? The sudden rise of ‘Messianic Jews’ owes more to a clever way of misleading untutored Jews than to making theological sense. It should not receive the imprimatur of a former President of the United States.
Moreover, that Christians argue with the Jewish community about the legitimacy of “Jews for Jesus” is presumption of a high order. I would not presume to tell Christians who is a Christian and emphatically reject the idea that the Christian community can tell me who qualifies as a Jew.
Many Jewish thinkers have seen Jesus as they have seen Muhammad, as God’s instrument to advance monotheism in the world. Franz Rosenzweig spoke of Judaism as the sun — that is the source — and Christianity as the rays of the sun — that which spreads monotheism to the world. The greatest Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, of the Middle Ages saw Islam and Christianity as the preparation for God’s eventual Kingdom.
Jesus exercises a powerful historical fascination. He was without doubt a profound and enigmatic personality. Nonetheless, he remains for many Jews a man whose wisdom and wit place him among the great teachers of humanity, but neither a messiah nor a god.
There need be no opposition or antagonism between faiths so long as there is no triumphalism in them. Ultimately all faithful people of good will wish for a peaceful world reflecting the goodness of the One who fashioned it.
For those who wish to explore this further, there are no end of books addressing the complex, fascinating relations between Christianity and Judaism. A polemical work, which illustrates how Jews answer the various verses in the Torah taken to be referring to Jesus by many Christians, is “You Take Jesus, I’ll Take God,” by Samuel Levine or Twenty-Six Reasons Why Jews don’t Believe in Jesus” by Asher Norman. A more ecumenical examination is the work of the renowned scholar Jacob Neusner, “A Rabbi Talks With Jesus.” For those interested in how the rabbis anticipated Jesus’ teachings, one book worth reading is by the Christian scholar Brad Young, “Jesus, the Jewish Theologian.”
David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles