I made up an imaginary conversation with Jesus and wound up debating the real-life Bishop of Rome, the pope.
In my 1993 book “A Rabbi Talks With Jesus,” I imagined being present at the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus taught Torah like Moses on Sinai. I explained why, for good and substantial reasons based in the Torah, I would not have followed Jesus but would have remained true to God’s teaching to Moses. Much to my surprise, Pope Benedict XVI, in his new book “Jesus of Nazareth,” devotes much of his chapter on the Sermon on the Mount to discussing my book.
“More than other interpretations known to me, this respectful and frank dispute between a believing Jew and Jesus, the son of Abraham, has opened my eyes to the greatness of Jesus’ words and to the choice that the gospel places before us,” the pope writes.
I certainly didn’t envision this sort of a reception when I began writing “A Rabbi Talks With Jesus.” I wrote that book to shed some light on why, while Christians believe in Jesus Christ and the good news of his rule in the kingdom of Heaven, Jews believe in the Torah of Moses and form on earth and in their own flesh God’s kingdom of priests and the holy people. And that belief requires faithful Jews to enter a dissent at the teachings of Jesus, on the grounds that those teachings at important points contradict the Torah.
Where Jesus diverges from the revelation by God to Moses at Mount Sinai that is the Torah, he is wrong, and Moses is right. In setting forth the grounds to this unapologetic dissent, I meant to foster religious dialogue among believers, Christian and Jewish alike. For a long time, Jews have disingenuously praised Jesus as a rabbi, a Jew like us really; but to Christian faith in Jesus Christ, that affirmation is monumentally irrelevant. And for their part, Christians have praised Judaism as the religion from which Jesus came, and to us, that is hardly a vivid compliment.
Jews and Christians have avoided meeting head-on the points of substantial difference between us, not only in response to the person and claims of Jesus, but especially in addressing his teachings. He claimed to reform and to improve, “You have heard it said… but I say….” We maintain that the Torah was and is perfect and beyond improvement, and that Judaism — built upon the Torah and the prophets and writings, and the originally oral parts of the Torah written down in the Mishnah, Talmuds and Midrash — was and remains God’s will for humanity.
By that criterion I set forth a Jewish dissent to some important teachings of Jesus. It is a gesture of respect for Christians and of honor for their faith. For we can argue only if we take one another seriously. But we can enter into dialogue only if we honor both ourselves and the other. So I treated Jesus with respect, but I also meant to argue with him about things he says.
When my publisher asked me from whom to request a blurb for my book, I proposed British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then head of the Holy Office (aka the Inquisition) in the Vatican. My favorite contemporary theologian of Judaism, Rabbi Sacks and I had corresponded for years. Cardinal Ratzinger and I had previously exchanged offprints, sharing an interest in the historical study of Judaism and Christianity in the first century. He had criticized the study of the historical Jesus and found dubious its distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. Since my book argued that in the Sermon on the Mount a fully articulated Christianity emerged, with Jesus portrayed as exercising the authority of God, I hoped Cardinal Ratzinger would endorse the book. This he did, promptly and generously.
That is where the matter rested for 15 years. The book made its way and went through a couple of printings and a second edition. It came out in Swedish, German, Italian and Russian, with translations in Polish and Spanish under contract. Imagine my surprise when I heard that the pope mentioned my book in his biography of Jesus.
It turns out he did more than mention it. Catholic News Service reported that Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, presenting the pope’s book at an April 13 Vatican conference, cited my book as “one of the reasons” Pope Benedict decided to write his. “What Pope Benedict says about [Neusner’s] book is so essential for understanding his own book about Jesus,” the cardinal said.
“More than discussions about exegetical methods” used to understand what the Scriptures say about Jesus, the pope has “at heart the discussion with the rabbi,” Cardinal Schonborn said.
So where does the argument now stand in the light of the pope’s renewal of the discussion? The pope writes: “Neusner addresses this mysterious identification of Jesus and God that is found in the discourses of the Sermon on the Mount.… His analysis shows that this is the point where Jesus’ message diverges fundamentally from the faith of the ‘eternal Israel.’ Neusner demonstrates this after investigating Jesus’ attitude toward three fundamental commandments: the fourth commandment (to love one’s parents), the third commandment (the Sabbath), and finally the commandment to be holy as God is holy.” The pope proceeds to address all three, systematically and in clear focus.
In ancient and medieval times, disputations concerning propositions of religious truth defined the purpose of dialogue between religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity. Judaism made its case vigorously, amassing rigorous arguments built upon the facts of Scripture common to both parties to the debate. Imaginary narratives, such as Judah Halevi’s “Kuzari,” constructed a dialogue among Judaism, Christianity and Islam, a dialogue conducted by a king who sought the true religion for his kingdom. Judaism won the disputation before the king of the Khazars, at least in Judah Halevi’s formulation. But Christianity no less aggressively sought debate partners, confident of the outcome of the confrontation. Such debates attested to the common faith of both parties in the integrity of reason and in the facticity of shared Scriptures.
Disputation went out of style when religions lost their confidence in the power of reason to establish theological truth. Then, as in Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s “Nathan the Wise,” religions were made to affirm a truth in common, and the differences between religions were dismissed as trivial and unimportant.
Disputations between religions lost their urgency. The heritage of the Enlightenment, with its indifference to the truth-claims of religion, fostered religious toleration and reciprocal respect in place of religious confrontation and claims to know God. Religions emerged as obstacles to the good order of society. Judeo-Christian dialogue came to serve as the medium of a politics of social conciliation, not religious inquiry into the convictions of the other. Negotiation took the place of debate, and to lay claim upon truth on behalf of one’s own religion violated the rules of good conduct.
Of course, religious toleration is a good thing. In the Middle Ages, after all, disputations often were not conducted in an atmosphere of civility. Jews frequently faced persecution, rather than respectful theological debate.
Yet the tradition of disputation also has value, so long as such debates are conducted in a manner reflecting goodwill and respect. In articulating our beliefs and having them challenged, we sharpen our understanding of our own faiths.
Two new facts have opened the way to a renewed debate about religious truth: First, Pope John XXIII signaled the desire of Catholic Christianity to bring about a reconciliation between Jews and Christians in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and he expressed respect for Judaism. Second, the Second Vatican Council began the work of formulating a Catholic theology of Judaism and other religions, an enterprise realized for Christianity in Pope John Paul II’s “Crossing the Threshold of Hope.” The counterpart for a Judaic theology of world religions is Chief Rabbi Sacks’s “The Dignity of Difference.”
It is against this backdrop that one should view my exchange with Pope Benedict. What we have done is to revive the disputation as a medium of dialogue on theological truth. In this era of relativism and creeping secularism, it is an enterprise that, I believe, has the potential to strengthen Judaism and Christianity alike.
Rabbi Jacob Neusner is a professor of the history and theology of Judaism at Bard College and a senior fellow at the college’s Institute of Advanced Theology.