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Jesus and the Jews.

I begin with citations from two very different modern Jews - one, the most widely praised proponent of an existential, rooted Biblical faith for the present century, the other, a renegade, self-hating suicide whose early promise was quickly compromised and who finally self-destructed.

From my youth onwards I have found in Jesus my great brother. That Christianity has regarded and does regard him as God and Saviour has always appeared to me a fact of the highest importance which, for his sake and my own, I must endeavour to understand. A small part of the results of this desire to understand is recorded here. My own fraternally open relationship to him has grown ever stronger and clearer, and today I see him more strongly and clearly than ever before.

I am more than ever certain that a great place belongs to him in Israel's history of faith, and that this place cannot be described by any of the usual categories. Under history of faith I understand the history of the human part, as far as known to us, in that which has taken place between God and man. Under Israel's history of faith I understand accordingly the history of Israel's part as far as known to us, in that which has taken place between God and Israel. There is a something in Israel's history of faith which is only to be understood from Israel, just as there is a something in the Christian history of faith which is only to be understood from Christianity. The latter I have touched only with the unbiased respect of one who hears the Word.(1)

Christ was a Jew, precisely that He might overcome the Judaism within Him, for he who triumphs over the deepest doubt reaches the highest faith; he who has raised himself above the most desolate negation is the most sure in his position of affirmation. Judaism was the peculiar, original sin of Christ; it was his victory over Judaism th made Him greater than Buddha or Confucius. Christ was the greatest man because He conquered the greatest enemy. Perhaps He was, and will remain, the only Jew to conquer Judaism. The first of the Jews to become wholly the Christ was also the last who made the transition.(2)

It is, perhaps, strange to find these two highly favorable impressions of the Nazarene coming from two such different kinds of Jewish (or, in one case, anti-Jewish) thinkers. In any event, both of these views are highly idiosyncratic, not to say unique. Not many Jews, ancient or modern, would have so much good to say about the founder of Christianity.

The "standard" view of Jesus in Judaism is, I should think, that there is no view. The Talmud speaks of the Nazarene, if at all (and even that is highly debatable), in code.(3) Among most relatively unlearned Jews there is a profound ignorance of much of Christianity. It is surprising how one can grow up and be educated in a nominally Christian culture and still learn so little about it, despite its important, sometimes powerful subliminal effects. To most American Jews, I should guess, Jesus seems to be strange, lonely, erratic, utterly "goyish," alien to their own customary attitudes and prejudices. To more sophisticated Jewish students, his imperious "but I say unto you" separates him from a democratic Jewish style of parity in discussion and decision. Most significantly, Jesus is neither our problem nor our glory. He may have belonged to us; some may wish to recover him; but he is not at the center of our consciousness.

The conventional wisdom among recent Jewish scholars, and I mean no disparagement by that term, is more welcoming and incorporative. Geiger and Graetz, at the beginning of Jewish reconsideration, attempted to wrest Jesus from Christian interpreters. He was ours, not theirs. We were true disciples; we had, in a way, superseded them. Claude Montefiore, the learned and liberal English student of Christianity, stands for others, too, who find Jesus both congenial and important. He is a kind of rabbi for Montefiore, and a rather gifted one, at that.(4) Some Jewish scholars pick up on the New Testament themes of Jesus as Moses (on the Mount), as Elijah (reviving the dead), or as the Suffering Servant - all Jewish models which, for us, are imitated, not fulfilled, in the life of Jesus as described in the gospels.

Lately, even Paul of Tarsus is being recovered as a Jewish teacher authentically reproducing Jewish ideas and methods - indeed, a writer of the first t'shuvot of which we have any clear record. Krister Stendahl has tried valiantly to place not only the gospels, but, also, Paul in a first century context where the Jewish atmosphere is decisive, and he has some Jewish colleagues in the project.(5) If Paul, then, a fortiori, his Lord.

There is also a theological rejection of Jesus among some Jewish thinkers. Liberal Judaism, which had jettisoned the traditional halakhic (legal) fundamentals of Judaism, needed to find a good reason for our not becoming Christians. They claimed to find that reason in comparative theology.(6) Judaism, and Judaism alone, they asserted, adequately represents ethical monotheism. Jesus, the Son, some said, means that Christianity's God is characterized by what older Jewish authorities used to call shituf, a non-monotheistic association of God with man. Or, for liberal Judaism, alternatively, Jesus was a good Jew (so the saintly, scholar Rabbi Baeck of Germany taught) whose ethical ideas were transmuted by Paul into a kind of vaguely Hellenistic mystical polytheism.(7)

This dichotomy between two kinds of Judaism, one mystical and one ethical, is highly debatable, if not completely outmoded. The distinction between Palestinian and Hellenistic Judaism is no longer so clear, nor is Judaism entirely free from its own mystical versions of shituf.

Still, there is a philosophic point to be made. As Steven S. Schwarzschild has brilliantly emphasized, the continuing dangers of incarnationalism are salient. An ethical system requires transcendence - or what's a heaven for? Christian thinking, from the gospels to after Hegel, is perilously close to proclaiming an immanence, a world in which salvation inheres instead of demands. God cannot become man without sacrificing the distance in which human self-transcendence can be demanded and achieved. The world, for us, is not yet redeemed. Ethics and immanence are, at least here and now, polar opposites.(8) There may be parallels to trinitarianism in the Zohar or in other Jewish documents, but, surely, there is something in the Jewish tradition that does not love incarnation of any kind, pace our pious and generous philosopher, Michael Wyschogrod.(9) It may be the very methodology of the gospels, highly aggadic, that mistakenly bypasses the legal strategies of its sibling, rabbinic Judaism. Jesus may have been a saint, but his methodology, by Jewish standards, was flawed. A majority of authorized scholars, not a single "seer," is required to define the will of God for their own time. Rabbis do not claim wholly independent authority, but only the power to decide that comes to them from the precedents of communal deliberation. We no longer have any prophets. Talmud and gospel are opposing genres; Jesus was, of course, both more and less than a rabbi, despite the fact that he is referred to as "Rabbi" in the New Testament.(10) But Judaism resists his religious claims and method precisely because the "Torah is not in heaven" and requires no mediating or supernatural presence to bring it into our lives.

If all messiahs, except the last, are pretenders, some may be forerunners of the true successor. In a much censored passage of Maimonide's great code of Jewish law, he admits as much.

But if he [the Messianic pretender] does not meet with full success, or is slain, it is obvious that he is not the Messiah promised in the Torah. He is to be regarded like all the other wholehearted and worthy kings of the House of David who died and whom the Holy One, blessed be He, raised up to test the multitude, as it is written And some of them that are wise shall stumble, to refine among them, and to purify, and to make white, even to the time of the end; for it is yet for the time appointed (Dan. 11: 35). Even of Jesus of Nazareth, who imagined that he was the Messiah, and was put to death by the court, Daniel had prophesied, as it is written, And the children of the violent among thy people shall lift themselves up to establish the vision; but they shall stumble (Dan. 11:14). For has there ever been a greater stumbling than this? All the prophets affirmed that the Messiah would redeem Israel, save them, gather their dispersed, and confirm the commandments. But he [Jesus] caused Israel to be destroyed by the sword, their remnant to be dispersed and humiliated. He was instrumental in changing the Torah and causing the world to err and serve another beside God. But it is beyond the human mind to fathom the designs of the Creator; for our ways are not His ways, neither are our thoughts His thoughts. All these matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth and the Ishmaelite [Mohammed) who came after him, only served to clear the way for King Messiah, to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord, as it is written, For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they all call upon the name of the Lord to serve Him with one consent (Zeph. 3:9). Thus the messianic hope, the Torah, and the commandments have become familiar topics - topics of conversation (among the inhabitants) of the far isles and many people, uncircumcized of heart and flesh. They are discussing these matters and the commandments of the Torah. Some say, "Those commandments were true, but have lost their validity and are no longer binding;" others declare that they had an esoteric meaning and were not to be taken literally; that the Messiah has already come and revealed their occult significance. But when the true King Messiah will appear and succeed, be exalted and lifted up, they will forthwith recant and realize that they have inherited nothing but lies from their fathers, that their prophets and forbears led them astray.(11)

This is at once a positive and a negative view of the founder of Christianity. Maimonides, and not only he, was more friendly to Islam, which had no doctrine of the trinity, than he was to Christianity, partly perhaps because he always lived among Moslems. Just after the poet, Heinrich Heine, was converted to Christianity for reasons of convenience, he was said to remark that no Jew could really believe that another Jew was God.

The attempted recovery of the historical Jewish Jesus remains one of the great accomplishments of modern scholarship, coming as it does from many scientific quarters. The Jewish roots of Jesus have been unearthed by Sanders and Vermes, by Davies and Cook.(12) I once shared teaching a class with Markus Barth, who tried, not without success, to show that every single verse in the gospels had a Jewish source. We now know that there were many Judaisms in the first century, and that Jesus stands clearly in their midst.(13)

Eugene Borowitz, in a tour de force, has even examined, with generosity and skill, the Christologies of Knox, Barth, Rahner, Moltmann, Pannenberg, and H. Richard Niebuhr.(14) Perhaps never before in all of Jewish history has a Jewish theologian undertaken such a task, not to say accomplished it with empathy and learning. It is not only for Paul Ricoueur that hermeneutics has finally replaced apologetics.

On the Christian side, Tillich and Gilkey, Cox and Wayne Booth, have all emphasized the profundity of pluralism. We are not necessarily on opposite sides of a barricade, but, rather, on the same side in a common battle. Pope John XXIII was a model of generosity of spirit, a sign that Jesus could now unite Christians and Jews and not divide them. Among more radical Christians, Bultmannian demythologization contributed to this mutuality, as does radical post-Holocaust revisionism of the New Testament like that of Rosemary Radford Ruether and Norman Beck.(15) After Auschwitz, the New Testament must be carefully examined for moments of deep anti-Judaism. It has not passed the test given by these and other sensitive scholars. Liberation theologies speak of Jesus as an emancipator more than as a savior, a teacher with a preference for the poor of this world. They also choose the God of Exodus over the God of Sinai, emphasizing liberation over law, to the dismay of some otherwise sympathetic Jewish radicals.(16)

Orthodox Christians still resist these, perhaps excessively modernizing, moves. When, at the 1975 Nairobi meeting of the World Council of Churches, I humbly reminded the delegates that Jesus was, after all, not born in Nairobi nor in Kansas City nor in Berlin, the Primate of Norway arose angrily to tell me that Jesus was not born in the Land of Israel, as I had suggested, but "in the hearts of all who let him in." For some Christians, the Jewishness of Jesus is not a fact and is anything but a gift! It remains a snare and a delusion, an embarrassment, if not worse. They did not welcome a Jewish Jesus into their hearts.

Narrative theology, as opposed to foundational or proclamatory religious statement, might advance the cause of mutuality, but not necessarily. As Michael Goldberg has pointed out, our stories may differ even more than our dogmas.(17) Jews are decisively imbedded in history in a far different way from Christian power on the one hand, and from Christian spirituality on the other. Our image of religious leadership must also be different and, perhaps, even contradictory.

Reinhold Niebuhr tried valiantly to "Judaize" modern Christianity, even to make it Zionist, but only with mixed success. The rebel Jesus who is said to be behind all faiths, as in the neo-Catholicism of Hans Kung and in the Russian neo-Orthodox myth of the Grand Inquisitor, may be comforting to sophisticated Christian piety, but is not very convincing to hard-headed Jewish realism. Especially in modern Israel, Jewish scholars like R.J.Z. Werblowsky and David Flusser, however, have been free to confront Jesus without rancor or romanticism. Their Israeli Jesus may be too small for Christian believers, but seems plausible to open-minded Jews. If the great French Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, is correct, all of our metaphysics will have to be transmuted into an optics, our mythologies into an ethical approach to the face of the "other." For a human love of a human neighbor, Jesus serves as a model. No longer a God, he may well come to be a symbol, for some, of Jewish ethical monotheism.(18)

Almost fifty years ago my uncle and teacher, Rabbi Felix Levy, was asked to preach an Easter sermon on the radio. I do not remember that sermon, but I do remember that he concluded it with a courageous reading of our great prayer, the Alenu. This statement of faith will serve as my conclusion also. Jesus probably prayed an early version of the Alenu. All of us must, I believe, face the text in candor, humility and profound reflection, if we are to share a common gift of a common, beneficent and teaching God!

It is for us to praise the Lord of all, To acclaim the greatness of the God of creation, Who has not made us as the nations of the world, Nor set us up as other peoples of the earth, Not making our portion as theirs, Nor our destiny as that of their multitudes. For we kneel and bow low before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, Acknowledging that He has stretched forth the heavens And laid the foundations of the earth. His glorious abode is in the heavens above, The domain of His might is in exalted heights. He is our God, there is no other, In truth our King, there is none else. Even thus it is written in His Torah: "This day know and lay it to your heart, That the Lord is God in the heavens above and on the earth below. There is none else." We therefore hope in Thee, Lord our God, Soon to behold the glory of Thy might When Thou wilt remove abominations from the earth And the idols shall be wholly destroyed, When the world shall be established under the rule of the Almighty, And all mankind shall invoke Thy name, And all the wicked on earth Thou wilt turn to Thee. May all earth dwellers perceive and understand That to Thee every knee must bend, every tongue vow fealty. Before Thee, Lord our God, may all kneel and bow down, And give honor to Thy glorious name. May they all accept the rule of Thy dominion, And speedily do Thou rule over them forevermore. For the kingdom is Thine, and to all eternity Thou shalt reign in glory, as it is written in Thy Torah, "The Lord shall reign for ever and ever." Yea, it is said, "The Lord shall reign over all the earth; On that day the Lord shall be One and His name One."(19)


(1.) Martin Buber, Two Types of Faith (London, 1951), pp. 12ff. (2.) Otto Weininger, Sex and Character (New York, 1906), p. 328. (3.) Cf. Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Herbert Danby (New York, 1944), pp. 18-47. (4.) His masterwork is: Claude Montefiore, The Synoptic Gospels, edited with an introduction and a commentary (London, 1909). See Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (New York, 1973) and Jesus and the World of Judaism (Philadelphia, 1983). See, also, Israel Abrahams, Studies in Pharasaism and The Gospels (Cambridge 1917, 1924, reprint New York, 1967), two volumes in one. (5.) Krister Stendahl, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia, 1976). (6.) See Kaufmann Kohler, Jewish Theology (1918, 1968 various editions); Abba Hillel Silver, Where Judaism Differed (New York, 1956, 1972); Claude Montefiore, Outlines of Liberal Judaism (London, 1923), chapter XX. (7.) Leo Baeck, Judaism and Christianity (Philadelphia, 1958), pp. 100ff. (8.) Menachem Kellner, The Pursuit of the Ideal: Jewish Writings of Steven Schwarzschild (Albany, 1990), esp. chapter 3 and pp. 20ff. (9.) Michael Wyschogrod, The Body of Faith: Judaism as Corporeal Election (New York, 1983). (10.) See A.J. Wolf, art. "Rabbinate" in Encyclopedia of Religion (New York, 1987) Volume 12, pp. 181-185. (11.) Hilkhot Melakhim, in Hershman's translation of Maimonides' Book of Judges (New Haven, 1949) p. xxii ff. (12.) W.D. Davies, Christian Origins and Judaism (Philadelphia and London, 1962); E.P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism (Philadelphia, 1985); Michael Cook, "Jesus and the Pharisees," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 15, 1978: 441-460; Van A. Harvey, The Historian and the Believer (New York, 1966), esp. Chapter VI. (13.) Jacob Neusner, Judaism and its Social Metaphors (New York, 1989). (14.) Eugene Borowitz, Contemporary Christologies (New York, 1980). See, also, Thomas Walker, Jewish Views of Jesus (New York, 1931) and Walter Jacob, Christianity Through Jewish Eyes (Cincinnati, 1974). (15.) Rosemary Ruether, Faith and Fratricide (New York, 1974), esp. Chapter 2; Norman A. Beck, Mature Christianity (Cranbury, 1985), esp. pp. 95-206. (16.) Schwarzschild, as in Note 8. (17.) Michael Goldberg, Theology and Narrative (Nashville, 1981), and idem., Jews and Christians: Getting Our Stories Straight (Nashville, 1985), and idem., "God, Action and Narrative," Journal of Religion (Chicago, 1988): 39-56. (18.) Emmanuel Levinas, Difficult Freedom (Baltimore, 1990). (19.) Translation by David De Sola Pool in The Traditional Jewish Prayer Book (New York, 1960), pp. 88 ff.
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Title Annotation:personal narrative
Author:Wolf, Arnold Jacob
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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