The dispiriting news that President George W. Bush plans to speak at a fundraiser to a group of ‘Messianic Jews’ led me to reframe and slightly revise an article I wrote several years ago.
It not only explains in a short compass why Jews do not accept Jesus as a Messiah or son of God, but why the term ‘Jew for Jesus’ or ‘Messianic Jew’ is a terrible misnomer that owes more to marketing savvy than any theological truth.
Growing up in Philadelphia, I attended Akiba Hebrew Academy, a private Jewish school now known as Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. In 11th grade, a Southern Baptist preacher came to speak to our class. He looked around the room, and with a kindly smile said, “You seem like nice boys and girls. But I must tell you that unless you change your ways, you are all going to hell.”
I admired his honesty, but not his theology. I spent the next hour trying to think of a question that would stump him. As the class was ending, I raised my hand.
“Is Jesus perfect?” I asked.
“Yes,” he answered.
“Is the Father perfect?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said again.
“And is the Holy Ghost perfect?” Once again, he answered affirmatively.
“Well then,” I said, “two of the three are superfluous. Perfection does not need anything. That is why it’s perfect. Since by definition, you can’t add anything to perfection, the idea makes no sense.”
He paused for a minute, and said, “That is the mystery of the Trinity.”
Since that time, I have been intrigued by the deep division between Jews and Christians over the question of Jesus. It has always seemed as crystal clear to me that Jesus was nothing more than a human being, as it has seemed crystal clear to many of my Christian friends that he was the Son of God.
There is a long tradition of back and forth about this question. It is not my intention to try to “prove” to Christians that Jesus is not God. I am neither so imperialistic nor so arrogant as to take upon myself such a task. Rather, in the spirit of pluralism, I want Christian readers to understand why Jews have traditionally rejected the Christian understanding of Jesus’ life and mission. Along the way, perhaps I can offer some clarity to Jewish readers who may wonder about many of the same questions. Additionally it is vital to renew the respect for the division that has always existed between those who accept Jesus and are therefore Christians, and Judaism which rejects any man as God.
This article addresses a few broad philosophical arguments. One of the most common — and least enlightening — exercises in religious history is the batting back and forth of biblical verses. I think it is fair to say there is no conclusive argument from the Bible, and that Jews and Christians read similar passages very differently.
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.
Jesus’ criticisms of the rabbis of his day are echoed in the literature of the prophets centuries before. When Hosea writes, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6), or Isaiah thunders, “I cannot endure sin coupled with solemn ceremonies” (Isaiah 1:13), we are hearing the same themes Jesus so deftly expounded later on.
The idea of the Second Coming seems to have grown out of genuine disappointment. We are told in the Gospels, “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” When Jesus died, true believers had to theologically compensate for the disaster. It remains significant, I believe, that the vast majority of people who knew him did not see Jesus as divine. Unless the entire Jewish population of Jerusalem at the time was either wicked or foolish, they–who knew Jesus far better than we, who saw him and spoke to him and knew his family –did not respond to his presumed divinity because he was clearly human.
The history of Christianity is not such as would persuade Jews that Christians are in possession of a superior moral truth. The history is too long and painful to summarize here, but many good books are available that elaborate on what the historian Jules Isaac called “the teaching of contempt.” The thousands, even millions, of innocents who lost their lives, their children, their hope, from a refusal to be other than they were make it difficult to see certain aspects of Christian history in its historical garb in anything but a dark, forbidding light. Christianity has given birth to the freest civilizations the world has known, but there is no evading the horror of much of that history as well.
The chronicle of Christian anti-Semitism is one of the most gruesome, disheartening chapters in the human story. Even the most abominable tragedy, the systematic slaughter of millions in World War II, the Holocaust, cannot be entirely separated from centuries of Christian teachings of the abjectness of the Jew. As the theologian Elieser Berkowitz put it, the Nazis who killed Jews may not have been Christians, but they were all the sons and daughters of Christians.
Although many faiths, including some Roman mystery religions, spoke of a man/god, Judaism sought to keep clear the boundaries between the human and the divine. The blurring was taken to be the sign of betrayal of the tradition. To this day, believing in a man who was God is a bright dividing line and a reason, as discussed below, to say one is a “Jew for Jesus” is self-contradiction.
Jesus did place great emphasis on internal spirituality. This was not because he was more spiritually advanced, but because society was more advanced materially. Moses had to set up a system of civil and criminal law. In the desert there were no courts. Jesus was born in Rome, with the most advanced civil society of the time. He did not need to discuss external procedures, either religious or civil. They were taken care of by Roman law and the developed Jewish law. The only religious discourse left was that of feeling and the emphasis on love (which exists plentifully in Judaism as well) is far easier when you need not pronounce on legal penalties or social arrangements.
In this sense, Islam bears a closer kinship to Judaism; it, too, is a religion of law, necessitated by Muhammad’s melding desert tribes into a religious community, much in the manner of Moses. Hence, as Moses Montefiore said of Jesus, “Public justice is outside his purview.”
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