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Two takes on christianity: furthering the dialogue.


On two occasions (Berlin, 1994; and Nashville, 2000), I have addressed the question of Christology in relation to the Holocaust/Shoah, both of which have since been published. (1) Though alluded to in both, neither presentations nor published versions addressed the one remaining question that remains at the heart of the Jewish-Christian dialogue, namely, "Who is this Christ in relation to the Jews?" Much research and writing continues to be done in both "Jesus studies" and "Paul studies," often by Jewish scholars. Other than the occasional presentation to the larger Jewish community where such scholars reside, their work remains primarily within the academy, such as the work of Amy-Jill Levine at Vanderbilt, Julie Galambush at the College of William and Mary, Pamela Eisenbaum at Iliff School of Theology, and Adele Reinhartz at the University of Ottawa, (2) not to mention the pioneering conference hosted by Peter Haas and convened by Zev Garber at Case-Western Reserve University in May, 2009--"Jesus in the Context of Judaism and the Challenge to the Church." (3)

I. Jesus, the Christ for All? A Judaic Perspective on Christology

I have been a resident of the State of Alabama (except for 1976-77), since being ordained a rabbi at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1974. During my residency in Alabama, I have lived-perhaps I should say survived!--under the governorships of George Wallace (1971-79, 1983-87), who inaugurated the first Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Observance) at the Governor's Mansion in Montgomery and who, interestingly enough, was a concentration-camp liberator during his World War II service in the United States Army, a fact that most people still do not know; Jere Beasley (1972); "Fob" James (1979-83, 1995-99), whose wife Roberta became staunchly pro-Israel with a decidedly evangelical orientation after the death of one of their children and who used to host anniversary celebrations of the State of Israel at the Governor's Mansion; Guy Hunt (1987-93), an ordained preacher who saw no conflict in using the Alabama state plane to fly to preaching engagements on Sundays but who was ultimately forced to step down as governor for this ethical violation of privilege; Jim Folsom (1993-95); Don Siegelman (1999-2003), who is now in prison; Bob Riley (2003-11), who has been touted as a possible Republican candidate for this nation's highest elected office; and, as of January, 2011, Robert J. Bentley, M.D., a deacon at the First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa, where my university is located
   I have cited the governors of Alabama because of an incident widely
   reported, both nationally and internationally, which relates
   directly to this topic. Later the same afternoon as his
   inauguration, January 17,2011, Bentley spoke at the famous Dexter
   Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, where the late
   Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-68), had been pastor. In the
   course of his remarks, he said the following:

   There may be some people here today who do not have living within
   them the Holy Spirit. But if you have been adopted into God's
   family like I have, and like you have if you're a Christian and if
   you're saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the
   Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes us? It
   makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and

   Now I will have to say that, if we don't have the same daddy, we're
   not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not
   accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I'm telling you, you're not
   my brother and you're not my sister, and I want to be your brother.

The brouhaha engendered by his remarks was truly something to behold, both critically negative and highly supportive. To his credit, he has also met with representative members of the Jewish communities of Alabama and apologized for the insensitivity of his remarks, apparently not realizing the fuller implications of his comments. Yet, there still remain some (myself included) who question the full sincerity of his apology and whether or not it truly reflects the mindset of one elected to represent and govern all the citizens of Alabama--Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, etc., as well as Christians. Collectively, we Alabamians (and I suspect others) will have to see what the next four years will bring--at this moment, however, not without a bit of trepidation.

Be that as it may, his comments do reflect a certain Christian Weltanschauung that is still very much in evidence among some of the world's Christians in a variety of denominations, which gets to the heart of this essay: Who, in fact. is this Christ (the question of Christology), and how are those of us who are not Christians to understand him? It also opens the door to a related question that is equally worthy of far more exploration than has been done in the past: What are we to make of the fact that both Jesus and Paul were Jews and never understood themselves as anything other than members of that community 2,000 years ago?

I take as my point of departure, however, a comment made by Jewish feminist theologian, professor of religious studies at Manhattan College, NY (a Roman Catholic institution), past president of the American Academy of Religion, and author of the highly influential Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, (5) Judith Plaskow. In an article titled "Feminist Anti-Judaism and the Christian God," in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (of which she is the co-founder), she wrote:
   The fundamental irrelevance on a religious level of Christianity to
   Judaism means that Christians taking Judaism seriously as an
   independent, living tradition must rethink the self in a way that
   is not true for Jews in relation to Christianity. What does it mean
   to affirm Christian identity without defining it over against
   Judaism? (6)

To this I would append a third question: What does it mean to affirm Christian identity in the presence of another who is totally committed to a different religious tradition--in this case Judaism--for whom the centrality of the Christ is equally an irrelevancy and a religious tradition that admits no affirmation whatsoever of the divinity of this Christ but one in which, in some perhaps more liberal circles, some are willing to grant historical validity to the human personhood of Jesus and reclaim him, to a lesser extent, standing in a long line of morim (not rabbis!) and as one who understood pedagogy/teaching and storytelling as means of nehchama?

The problem--as my late teacher Jakob J. Petuchowski (1925-91), alav hashalom, used to say--is that we Jews and Christians are "hung with a text," what is also referred to in Hebrew as talui, namely Jn. 3:16 ("For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."). The same God of Israel, affirmed by both Jews and Christians and who certainly was affirmed by the original Jewish followers of Jesus and later his gentile followers as well, who lovingly entered into B'rith with Am Yisrael at Har Sinai and symbolized by the gracious and unmerited gift of the Holy Torah itself to a seemingly unworthy people again lovingly offered a second unmerited gift, but this time to all humanity (and one would therefore assume Jews included), namely, God's only begotten son translated into human form, whose human death and return to full divinity opened the door to an eternality freed from sin for all humanity upon its acceptance of him.

Thus, the degree to which we Jews and Christians take seriously this central New Testament text, albeit while fully realizing that its very sacrality is confined to Christians only, we must conclude that this human-divine Jesus the Christ, as Christianity itself understands him and us as well, is both my Jesus and my Christ too. However, even this apparently relatively simple recognition is not as simple as it first appears. For Christians, it seems to me, this is, of course, quite obvious, though the negative history of our past 2,000-year relationship has been predicated upon a continuing Jewish obduracy, that is, our seeming and supposed Jewish inability both to see his reality within the Hebrew Bible and to accept him as the long-sought-for and long-awaited Jewish mashiach (messiah) of our Jewish religious tradition. That he does not meet Jewish messianic criteria--as was well summarized by the greatest of Jewish intellectual figures, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), who nowhere attributed to our Jewish messiah a divine aspect--is one thing, (7) but a far more important difficulty presents itself, which has to do with how we Jews and Christians read and regard our sacred texts.

As I am fond of telling my students and others, Judaism is a biblically based but not a biblically confined religious tradition. That is to say, we Jews include within the broadest understanding of our sacred canon not only the Hebrew Bible (from Bereshith to Divrei Hayamim Bet) but also the Babylonian Talmud, composed of the Mishnah and Gemara, both the additional halakhic literatures and the midrashic literatures, the Kabbalah literatures, and the Responsa literature of our rabbis down through the ages. Thus, "Torah" in its widest application includes all Jewish texts concerned with Jews as a religious community. It does not, however, include--nor has it ever included, nor will it ever include--the texts comprising the Christian New Testament. Thus, the religious affirmation so significantly important to Christianity, namely, the Christ himself--who he was, his purpose and mission, and the reading of both his life and his death--merit no Jewish affirmation whatsoever.

This is not as strange as it may appear or sound at first reading. Given the pluralistic nature of the religious worlds that inhabit our planet, we Jews and Christians do not affirm the divinities of the Hindu tradition or celebrate their supposed relationship with the human community. Acceptance of the Hindu peoples does not equate with an embrace of their gods. So, too, should our context merit the same sophistication and mutual respect: Acceptance of the Jewish people does not equate with an embrace of the Christ regardless of how Christians understand him. Acceptance of Christians by Jews does not equate with an embrace of this same Christ, even while recognizing that it is out of our Jewish loins that he came and out of the Jewish religious tradition that the later Christian tradition evolved.

Lest I be misread: To reject another's understanding of the divine-human encounter is not to regard the other as false. It is, instead, to celebrate the fullness of human diversity on this as on every other question of concern to humanity and to affirm a divine reality so completely beyond full human cognition that suggests not limiting our possibilities to only one way. (Perhaps, truly, this is what is meant by the New Testament understanding, "In my father's house are many mansions" [Jn. 14:2]). By extension, such thinking requires of us the courage to look our neighbor directly in the face and say something we have not heard with any regularity in religious dialogical encounters: "Your way of connection to the divine is right for you, and I respect it. My way of connection to the divine is right for me, and I trust you will respect that as well."

A second talui: Every religious tradition fully believes its way is the very best way for all humanity and is desirous of sharing that "good news" [Greek: "gospel"] with all those who would listen. Sadly, throughout human and especially religious history, however, their audiences have not been fully accorded the respect that comes with being a part of the human community. One need not rehearse here, for example, the sad and tragic aggressive missionizing and proselytizing of Jews by Christians, primarily Roman Catholics throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, with the addition of the various forms of Protestantism, too often resulting in violence toward Jews and a denigration of Judaism.

At this juncture, I would therefore posit the following: that acceptance of this Christ for Jews and acceptance of his fully divine and fully human nature are acceptable--but--and that is a very large and rather emphatic "but!"--only to those Jews who would welcome him and his affirmers into their midst, who themselves would open their doors to that conversation, wanting even to be convinced that, perhaps, he is, in fact, the long-sought-for and long-awaited Mashiach of the Jewish people. Were I reading my own words, as a fully committed Jew who takes his religious Judaism very, very seriously, I would already begin to feel a lump forming within my own throat. But, such is not at all what I am intending. Rather, it is the following:

For those Jews born within the Jewish community and meeting the historically and continually validated understanding of their own identity--that is, children of Jewish mothers (post-biblically and thus rabbinically) and/or those having undergone the formal religious rite we label "conversion," though there remain within the Jewish people denominational differences--the journey to this Christ remains a very real and human possibility. But, and here I wish to be totally honest and transparent, such a journey does not invalidate their past Jewish selves but only their Jewish present and their Jewish future. That is to say, truthfully, there is only one Jewish theological affirmation that unites all streams of religious Judaism, namely, that Jesus is not the Messiah for the Jewish people, regardless of how he is perceived, understood, and affirmed by others. Thus, at the moment at which a Jewish person chooses to embrace/welcome/accept this Christ, that person--born of Jewish parents, inheritor of both the Jewish religious and historical traditions--is no longer a Jew but a Christian and must be understood as such, even while acknowledging with sadness the failure of that which I hold most sacred to meet that person's religious and spiritual needs.

(Parenthetically, here, too, is an answer to the community of seemingly religious persons who would label themselves "Jews for Jesus," "Hebrew-Christians," "Messianic Jews," or what have you: "We, the Jewish people, reject communally your religious claim that one does not surrender one's Jewish identity or connection by one's acceptance of Yeshua Ha-Maschiach (Jesus the Messiah) as the one for whom we have longed and continue to wait. We regard you, both individually and collectively, as members of the Christian community, albeit with a somewhat unusual perspective, and do recognize your Jewish past, but your faith-claim is one that we completely reject, Jewishly. After all, as the Yiddish proverb would have it, "A bird could fall in love with a fish, but where would they live?" (8)

Moving this understanding even further, the question remains: How, then, do we non-Christians regard this Christ? Let me, therefore, respond to this question not only as a religious Jew but also as a scholar of Judaic studies and suggest that my conclusions could perchance be offered similarly, in the true spirit of dialogical encounters, by representatives of other faith traditions as well.

First of all, to the degree to which the historical evidence presented in the New Testament texts is reasonably historically accurate--and I am confident those reading this essay are somewhat familiar to a greater or lesser measure with the concerns raised by historians of that period (for example, the misreading of Pharisaism and the lack of awareness of the various Pharisaic groups in evidence at the time, the lack of address of the Sadducees and their involvement with both the Jewish and Roman hierarchies, etc.)--I find little, if any, reason to dispute the historical personage of Jesus (Hebrew name possibly Yeshua, Yehoshua, or even Yeshu), son of Yosef and Miryam ("Mary" would be a rather strange and unusual Jewish appellation), born into a lower socioeconomic family during the time of the Roman oppression of Palestine, who grew up the recipient of a solid Jewish education as his community understood it, who saw his role as that of an itinerant teacher who was attempting to bring a modicum of comfort to his hurting people, and who, because of his teaching skills and personality, increasingly attracted larger and larger populations of disgruntled Jews. In turn, he was misperceived as a political revolutionary threat to the Roman power structure and was thus put to death, crucified, as Rex Judaeorum (King of the Jews), with the support of a Jewish collaborationist leadership, including its High Priest Caiphas, which was in no way representative of the people as a whole. His story, later with the aid of Saul/Paul of Tarsus, would inspire the creation of an initially Jewish messianic movement that would find its fullest flowering after leaving the Jewish community and welcoming gentiles (Hebrew: goi'im) into the family of the God of Israel, but without the Jewish mitzvot of b 'rith milah, kashrut, (9) and Shabbat observance, focusing instead on the primacy of belief in this Christ as the vehicle by which one enters into relationship with the God of Israel.

Theologically, I have already addressed--and rejected--the whole notion of divinity with regard to a Jewishly meaningful category of m 'shichut. This claim of divinity in companionship with humanity does not speak to Jews, nor does the claim of Jesus as either "rabbi" (by which I understand the title as one having undergone a formal process of education leading to s 'micha) or "prophet" (Hebrew: navi, a term of specificity reserved only for those persons found in the second section of the Torah/Hebrew Bible, Nevi'im--Yishayahu, Yirmiyahu, Yehezekel, and the Trei Asar). (10)

As far as Judaism and Jews are concerned, there is more: In addition to not meeting Jewish messianic criteria, the hope of the Christ's life and death have not--or, at least, not yet--been realized. At this very moment in human history, our world appears no closer to the realization of a messianic kingdom brought about by his life, death, and resurrection than it has ever been. Thus, Jesus as Jewish Messiah remains as problematic for Jews as he has been for the last 2,000 years. Equally, the current turmoil throughout the Middle East is not understood by Jews apocalyptically, that is, as the beginning of the end in preparation for the Christ's return. Nor was the momentous event of May 14, 1948, when the Third Jewish Commonwealth known as M'dinat Yisrael and proclaimed on Tel Aviv Radio by its first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion (1886-1973) read by the majority of the world's Jews as the miraculous intervention of a divine hand. Except for a minority of Jews, primarily within the narrowest of Orthodox Jewish communities, we Jews simply do not read our past, present, or future messianically.

As a matter of fact, the failure of the resurrection of the Christ and his followers to usher in the messianic realm under God's sovereignty and the subsequent tragic history of humanity for the last two millennia, especially as we Jews have experienced it, culminating in the Holocaust/Shoah, has been proof positive for Jews that the very message of Christianity has fallen on ears neither attuned to its acceptance nor desirous of doing so. Better we Jews and Christians should--in preparation for the initial appearance of our Jewish Messiah or the return appearance of the Christian Messiah as a future event yet to unfold in the personhood of one neither of us has yet met--more fully invest our energies in, Hebraically, l'takein olam b 'malchut Shaddai. Our world is, indeed, broken! As persons of faith in a future ushered in by a Messiah beneath that same divine sovereignty, one of us will be proved correct and the other incorrect. Until that moment arrives, however, our common task is to prepare the way by addressing and alleviating the world's ills to the degree to which we are capable of doing so--so much to do, and, seemingly, so little time in which to accomplish it! But, as the second-century Rabbi Tarfon reminds us, "It is not incumbent upon us to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it" (Pirke Avot/Sayings of the Fathers, 2:16). (11)

Therefore, I would, suggest that the Christ of Christianity and the Messiah of Judaism remain where they have always been: waiting until we have proved ourselves worthy of their arrival. The Messiah of the Jews is a "Messiah in potential"; the Christ of Christianity, equally so. The embrace of the one necessitates the rejection of the other but not the rejection of the community for whom he is central and, most definitely, not the denigration of the religious tradition for which m 'shichut is also central.

By way of conclusion, let me return to the Holocaust/Shoah, a "watershed event" in the ongoing journey of Western civilization, which has truly shattered the "easy faith" of some religious Christians and some religious Jews of all denominations and perspectives. (To be sure, I count myself among the latter.) (12) I do so by now returning to a series of questions I first posited in 2000, which, to my way of thinking, have yet to be answered but which may very well prove to be the next level of Jewish-Christian theological and religious dialogue over this question of Christology:

1. In light of this Holocaust/Shoah, does this love of God that unmerited this gift [of the Christ] remain? Has it been in any way altered or negated by the acts perpetrated by too many of those, baptized at birth or later, who saw no contradiction between their heinous acts and their Christian selves? Does this God love us more or less in spite of the acts perpetrated in the name of National Socialism?

2. Now, when we are confronted with the full force of the realization of the depravities that we human beings can inflict upon each other, has the atoning death of the Christ for a sinful humanity been altered or negated or denied by the Nazis and their allied minions? Are their sinful acts therefore outside the boundaries of the Christ's atoning death, a realm of such pure evil intent and desire--despite, at times, the seeming ordinariness or banality of the perpetrators--that even God appeared to us powerless to confront?

3. If God's intent was to open the door to the eternality of existence through this Christ, has that, too, been altered or negated or denied by the years 1933-45, more specifically, 1939-45, and the death camps that, even today, continue to puncture and mar the landscape of Europe, most especially in Poland? (13)

4. If Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-81) was correct that "all philosophers and all theologians cannot explain the death of an innocent child"--juxtaposing the death of this Christ to that of 1,500,000 Jewish children in their innocence--then is there some kind of "theological equivalence" between the two? Can the former still be affirmed despite the latter? Or, does the latter alter, negate, or deny the former?

5. Continuing somewhat in a similar vein, since the essence of the Christian experience and faith is the affirmation of the resurrected Christ, is there any theological relationship whatsoever between that event and the seeming resurrection of the Jewish people in May, 1948, with the rebirth of the Third Jewish Commonwealth, the State of Israel, almost three years to the day after the end of World War II? Does one theologically confirm or deny the other? Do the continuing Jewish presence, survival, and progression, therefore, constitute a reality outside the presence of the Christ and his supposed unique relationship with the Parent God of both Judaism and Christianity?

6. Last, and most obviously, the other central affirmation of Christianity-that of the "dual nature" of this Christ: Has it, too, been altered, negated, or denied by the events of the Holocaust/Shoah? Can Christians after the Holocaust/Shoah continue to affirm this Christ in every bit the same way after the revelations of what transpired before 1945 as they could before the full-blown arrival of Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and National Socialism in 1933? Is there any room whatsoever for any kind of Jewish endorsement of the Christ after 1945, given the historical fact of affirmatively positive Christians, in the decided minority to be sure, who devoted their lives, and, at times, their deaths, to saving Jews imperiled by the Nazis and their ilk? (14)

For questions such as these--and there are many, many others--I have no ready answers, but I trust that it will be both the raising of questions such as these and the combined quest for answers that will sustain Jewish-Christian dialogical encounters well into this twenty-first century.

II. Do Jesus and Paul Really Matter Judaically?

I begin this second section with a question that I genuinely believe has not--or not yet--been fully explored in Jewish-Christian dialogical circles, namely, whether Jesus and Paul truly matter Judaically, by stating what, for me, are three transparently obvious points. Before doing so, however, I frame my comments by a short quote from Professor Adele Reinhartz of the University of Ottawa, in her review of Langton's The Apostle Paul in the Jewish Imagination:
   [A]t several points he [Langton] comments that the scholarship and
   other works that feature Paul have generated very little interest
   among Jews and therefore have had little impact on popular Jewish
   views of Paul. (As an aside, this lack of impact is not surprising.
   Most Jews are not interested in Christianity as such; they do not
   seek information about the New Testament, Paul, or even Jesus, and
   they do not use these figures as vehicles for thinking through and
   articulating the complexities of Jewish identity in general and
   their own Jewishness in particular.) (15)

The accuracy of both her and Langton's assessments regarding both Paul and Jesus and contemporary Jews--and, by extension, contemporary Jewish communities--echoes the earlier insight by Plaskow, quoted above. Thus, all three scholars--Langton, Reinhartz, and, earlier, Plaskow--are correct: Paul, Jesus, the New Testament, and Christianity are "irrelevant," to use Plaskow's volatile term. Why so? Hence, my three observations:

1. We Jews and we Christians, indeed Judaism and Christianity themselves, continue to exist in what I would define as an asymmetrical relationship: That is to say, as Christians continue to delve into their own historic past in their ongoing journey to enrich their own present and future, especially liturgically, they cannot do so without addressing the historical matrix--first-century Judaism--out of which they sprang. In so doing, many have thus developed a very much welcomed appreciation and respect not only of historical Judaism, both prior to and during the life of the Christ, but subsequent to his own journey as well. For that alone, we Jews should be grateful.

However, the reverse is simply not the case. As a historical people for whom knowledge of our past is very much intermixed with our overall Jewish value system, other than as "interesting" bits of historical data confined mainly to the minority of Jews who continue to remain historically curious, our worship modalities and life-cycle and holiday-cycle observances and celebrations and our prayer life are not enriched by our interface with the religious traditions of the Christianities within the larger Christian communities wherein we find ourselves resident, most pointedly, perhaps, because the 2,000-year history of our relationship is a bad history. It would thus seem to many of us Jews that a truly authentic Christianity is one that is historically grounded in its Jewish past and that gives credence to its origins, as well as one that also recognizes that for its parent religion and community, possessed of our own independent integrity, the reverse is not the case (that is, authentic Judaism is not grounded in the recognition of the birth of its offspring Christianity or its later separation from its Judaic parent).

2. This is not to dismiss out of hand historical knowledge. Those of us who consider ourselves students of history frame our work with a basic, if oft-times unexpressed, moral perspective, namely, that the study of the past, often interesting in and of itself, equally contains within it so-called "lessons to be learned" by which we are able to enrich ourselves in the present and prepare ourselves for what is always an uncertain and unpredictable future. Thus, we study the past to survive the present and move into the future--how much more do we who are students of our own--and others'--religious pasts! The evolving ways in which we humans have traveled in our limiting attempts to make meaningful sense of the divine-human encounter is truly something to behold, and, while we have not by any means whatsoever always acquitted ourselves honorably with regard to ourselves and our neighbors, we have learned much. In so doing, however--and the evidence of the past is itself overwhelming, especially in the religious sphere--we have truly failed to celebrate the diversity existent in the human community in all of our many and varied approaches to questions that penetrate to the core of all human communities around our globe, questions such as "Is there a God or gods? "What is the meaning of life?" "What is the purpose of my life?" " Is there life beyond the body's death?" "Why is there evil?" And so on.

3. The dialogical encounter between Jews and Christians that has truly seen its fullest flowering in these United States has its real beginnings with the world-important Roman Catholic conclave known as Vatican II (1962-55) and the passage of its most momentous document, Nostra aetate (Latin, "In Our Time," though Dr. Eugene Fisher, formerly Associate Director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently suggested we Jews should translate it "It's About Time!"). This truly breakthrough document opened the doors not only for Roman Catholics but also for Protestants to talk to their Jewish neighbors in ways in which we have never spoken before, examining our shared past, both its positives and its negatives, in a spirit of mutual inquiry. How far we Jews and Christians have come and how far we have yet to travel--one hopes together!

Having now stated my three observations, I want to add a fourth, one that is pregnant with meaning but, truthfully, has been very little explored within the context of Jewish-Christian relations, and one that returns us to our original question of whether or not Jesus and Paul really matter Judaically: What are we to make of the fact that both Jesus and Paul were Jews and never understood themselves as anything other than members of that community 2, 000 years ago?

First, to regard Jesus mistakenly as the founder of Christianity seems to this outsider a most unusual conclusion, based on the presentation of him in the New Testament itself. It is better Judaically to see and understand him as a teacher of his own people during the period of Roman oppression in Palestine, the focus of his work and that of his immediate followers being his and their fellow Jews.

Second, to regard Paul mistakenly as the founder of Christianity based on his "change of heart" on the Damascus road and his evangelical outreach to gentiles I fred equally specious. Better to see this Jew as a "man on a mission," bringing to the unenlightened the message of the welcoming God of Israel--without the specific Judaic obligations of B'rith Milah, kashrut, and Shabbat observance.

Thus, a unique religious tradition--Christianity--that evolved out of the loins of Jews, literally, and out of the Jewish religious tradition lessens its connections to its parents by its successful gentilization over the course of the centuries, while irrevocably still connected to Jews and Judaism by virtue of its own past.

Now to the question at hand: Unlike Christianity and other religious traditions, Judaism allows no individual persons to play a central role in its own celebrations, Moses included. While there is meaningful credibility to the historically Judaically formulaic prayers that begin "Barukh Ata Adonai, Eloheinu vaElohai avotainu, Elohai Avraham, Elohai Yitzhak, vaElohai Ya'akov" (Praised are You, Adonai, our God and God of our patriarchs, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob), even these larger-than-life biblical personages are confined to the past and not themselves objects of veneration and/or excessive adoration. (16)

A simple chart of the Jewish holiday cycle in this context would reveal the following:
Holiday           Meaning                   Central Personage(s)

Shabbat           Creation                  God
Rosh Ha-Shanah    Birthday of the World     God
Yom Kippur        Day of Atonement          God
Sukkot            Booths and Torah          God and the Jewish People
Chanukah          Tempe Dedication          God and the Maccabees
Purim             Liberation                God, Esther, and Mordecai
Passover          Liberation                God and Moses
Shavuot           Torah                     5 God and Moses
Tisha B'Av        Mourning                  The Jewish People
Yore Ha-Shoah     Mourning                  The Jewish People
Yore Ha-Atzmaut   3rd Jewish Commonwealth   The Jewish People

While Moses, the Maccabees, Esther, and Mordecai play important roles in the Jewish story, as do the Jewish people themselves, there are no calendared days devoted to them. The focus of Jewish worship and Jewish celebration remains God, not the covenanted people or individual members of the covenanted community. Thus, even were we Jews to reintegrate both Jesus and Paul into our midst--and acknowledging how unlikely that is to happen any time soon--they would be relegated, as all other persons within our history have been, to "players" in the Jewish story and most assuredly not singled out for special affection, admiration, or adoration.

We have now acknowledged that a clearer picture of first-century Judaism would require us as good historians to admit Judaically that these two Jews--Jesus and Paul--were there, lived and died there (Jesus in Jerusalem, Paul in Rome), and bear a measure of responsibility for radically innovative reinterpretations of the Jewish religious traditions of their day that ultimately evolved into what today is the umbrella of the Christianities, encompassing Roman and Eastern Orthodox Catholicism and the various iterations of Protestantism. Kol hakavod (mega-kudos) to the followers of Jesus and Paul for taking our Jewish understanding of the singular reality of God into the farthest reaches of our planet and coupling this with a uniquely Jewish moral/ethical system of values and behaviors that accords the individual full respect in the sight not only of God but of humanity as well--sadly and tragically, however, more honored in the breech than in reality.

Additionally, I have used the phrase "gentilized Christianity" as a description of what this evolved, no-longer-Judaic community of faiths is. While the cliche "Judaism is a religion of deed; Christianity is a religion of creed" is both true and false, it does, however, contain within itself aspects of essential understanding--subject, I trust, to the fallacy of all generalizations. In the creative evolution of its own religious traditions, Judaism--as adumbrated first by its priests, including Moses and Aaron and the rest of the Levitical community, and later by its rabbis arising out of the varied Pharisaic interpretations--chose to emphasize countless and specific behaviors, its theological and creedal affirmation of the reality of the God of Israel assumed. Without Ha-Kadosh Barukh Hu (the Holy One Praised is God)--or, in Aramaic, Ha-Kudsha Barikh Hu--Judaism's understanding of itself as an encounter with the divine makes no sense whatsoever and even less sense today. Thus, given what was and remains the central affirmation of Judaism (for example, Dt. 6:4-9), Jews have, throughout our long and uneven historical journey, chosen to place our emphases on behaviors rather than beliefs, perhaps honestly and realistically, for our safety, security, and collective group survival.

My reading of the New Testament and specifically of Jesus himself would not find him, I believe, in disagreement with this perspective; the various disputational confrontations between him and his Pharisaic colleagues may be read, therefore, as how one "translates" Jewish religious thinking into Jewish religious behaviors--for example, how one observes Shabbat or how one observes kashrut. Already in existence during his own lifetime, this manner of Judaic disagreement would later be held up by the rabbis early on in the post-biblical period as a Jewish virtue, epitomized by such Hebraic phrases as "Elu v'elu divrei Elohim Hayyim" (These words and those words are the words of the Living God.) and "Makhlokot l'shem shamayim" (controversies for the sake of Heaven). However, as Jews "dropped out" of this nascent religious movement and evangelistic successes among non-Jews dramatically increased its numbers, "Jewish-Christianity" (if one may even use such a startlingly complicated phrase), became--my term--a severely diminished "Judaism for gentiles," that is, one framed by a specific Judaic orientation to the God of Israel but one that continued to divest itself of the specifics of Judaic behaviors, along with less and less knowledge of what constituted "Judaism."

For Paul, however, the case is far more difficult, for this "Pharisee, descended from Pharisees" (Acts 23:6), who "studied under [Rabban] Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors" (Acts 22:3), according to his own account, would have been thoroughly familiar with the Jewish emphases on behavioral expectations rather than theological affirmations of belief. That he chose to reverse the equation in his own evangelistic outreach to gentiles may, in fact, say more about him than about Jews and Judaism and more about the state of his own psychological well-being and difficulties with ritual observances than about anything else. Additionally, the tendenz of the New Testament, including Paul, regarding Halakha as "burdensome, as is well-reflected in Acts 15, for example, is a distinctly non-Jewish orientation and assessment. As someone raised in and brought up in that community and who remains thoroughly committed to both its observance and its celebration--even in a more liberalized context--I have never understood the fullness of Jewish behavior as "burdensome" but, rather, as a uniquely Jewish path that brings the Jewish people into closer connection with the God of Israel.

Now, all this having been said, reintegrating Jesus into both Judaism and the pluralistic communities of Jews would, at the outset, require fully divesting him of that aspect of his "divine nature" that remains at the heart of Christianity, which I simply cannot envision happening. Reintegrating Paul back into Judaism and the same communities of Jews would additionally require recognizing as a valid Judaic interpretation a Judaism where Jewish behavior takes a secondary position, if that, to Jewish belief, which I simply cannot envision.

Thus, I find myself agreeing with the conclusions of Michael F. Bird and Preston M. Sprinkle in their review article, "Jewish Interpretation of Paul in the Last Thirty Years":
   Perhaps the reason why there will never be a Jewish 'reclamation'
   of Paul is because in Helmut Koester's words, Paul was trying to
   'accomplish the impossible'. That was 'to establish a new Israel on
   a foundation that could include both Jews and Gentiles'. (17)
   Whereas Paul could say that for Christians the 'end of ages have
   come (1 Cor. 10:11), and 'now is the day of salvation' (2 Cor. 6:2)
   such a claim is indefensible to many Jewish people who believe that
   the world is anything but redeemed. (18) Ultimately Paul's
   rereading of Scripture, his incorporation of Jesus into the divine
   identity, his acceptance of Gentiles without proselytism, his
   relativization or annulment of the Torah, his lowering the currency
   of Israel's election, his claim that the Old Testament is fulfilled
   in Christ, and his proclamation of a crucified Messiah could ...
   not be sustained even within the diverse array of Second Temple
   Judaism. (19) While some may want to find in Paul a gateway to
   reconciliation, in Jewish eyes, Paul is perhaps destined to remain
   a heretic at worst or an anti-hero at best. (20)

Turning to Jesus himself and his "reclamation," one must turn initially to Donald Hagner's The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus. While Hagner--an evangelical Christian--provides a solid academic overview of those modern Jews who have engaged in the study, analysis, assessment, critique, and potential reembrace of the Christ, his conclusion remains troubling and will remain highly contested by members of the Jewish community:
   Although there can be no avoidance of the major obstacle of Jesus,
   and although it is wrong to deny the real differences that separate
   Jews and Christians, it is also wrong to polarize those differences
   in such a way as to alienate Christians and Jews unnecessarily.
   Christians must learn again their Jewishness, the rock out of which
   they have been hewn, the root into which they have been grafted as
   unnatural branches. Jews must learn again that the Christ and
   Christianity they may choose to reject cannot be rejected as being
   incompatible with true Jewishness. Christianity rightly understood
   is not the cancellation of Judaism. It is at the heart of all that
   Jews hold dear. Jesus the Jew is the Christ of Christianity without
   being any less a Jew; Jesus the Christ is fully a Jew without being
   any less the Christ of the church. (21)

First of all, the very Christian understanding that Christianity is, somehow, perhaps mystically and theologically, grafted onto the tree of the House of Israel, following Paul and Romans 11, seems to me an attempt Judaically to legitimize an alien or gentile perspective in the eyes of the gentiles even though uttered by Paul. Could I not equally conclude, therefore, that if gentile Christians are, in effect, an unnatural branch, then, for the health of my Judaic tree I must remove them permanently from the trunk all the way down to the roots, in order to ensure the survival of my Jewish tree and not allow the grafting to ever take place again?

Second, for the last 2,000 years, we have rejected, too often to our physical detriment, Paul's arguments that affirmation of this Christ is fully compatible with Jewish messianic longings but do not require, equally, that affirmations of Jewish behaviors as the path to communion with the God of Israel remain in effect and will do so forever. Thus, there is literally nothing for us to learn again. Whether one outside our community chooses to accept or reject our understanding as self-applicable, it is our way, and it is true for us. What marks fundamentally Jewish denominational differences, in addition to baseline assessment of the transmission of the Holy Torah, is differences in our behaviors, not our rejection of them.

Additionally, we need to keep in mind the following: Were a man to present himself anywhere in the world and announce to us that he is, in fact, the Messiah for whom we Jews have both longed and suffered, and were we to be so filled with joy that he has met our criteria of m 'shichut that we were to accept him as such, our acceptance would neither negate nor dispense with our Jewish obligations: Shabbat still begins Friday evening at sundown, and I am obligated to be in the synagogue. The whole of the Jewish holy-day calendar is still present, and I am still obligated to its observance. Following Lev. 19:16, I am in no way permitted to engage in acts that endanger my fellow human beings. Thus, even in my joy, I remain committed to the Judaic system of mitzvot to continue to define who I am and what I am, perhaps even more so now that the M'shiach has arrived.

Third, I fully agree with Hagner that the birth, rise, and evolution of the various iterations of Christianity are in no way, shape, or form a cancellation of Judaism. The forms of Christianity are a different perspective on what I continue to call the divine-human encounter and, as stated above, a celebration of the diverse ways we human beings continue to travel religiously and theologically.

Fourth, I agree with Hagner that this Jesus is no less a Jew than he was before his later centrality to Christians. He remains for us what he was: a fully human being, caring about his fellow Jews in an oppressed community under Roman domination. But, the very claim of his divinity represents and remains an unbridgeable chasm between us. We cannot admit his divinity in contradistinction to the rest of us any more than Christians can admit the fullness of his humanity only. Thus, the best that we can say in each other's presence--and our being fully present to each other h la Martin Buber (1878-1965), who saw in such meetings the Presence of God, is very much the key to our continuing dialogical encounters--is that we agree to disagree.

Thus, we are left with our initial question: Do Jesus and Paul really matter Judaically? Dialogically, yes, for they present to both of our communities opportunities for meaningful and enriching conversations across the divide. Historically, yes, for they present to both of our communities opportunities to study our common past together and learn about a world far more diverse than any of us has, perhaps, heretofore realized. Religiously, no, only asymmetrically, for, while we applaud this proper and appropriate Christian look-see into their roots, we Jews continue to affirm, independently of their examination, our own religious systems of holy days, holidays, festivals, and fast-day celebrations as we have evolved them and the moral-ethical systems that we have developed to accompany our long journey from our earliest beginnings until this present moment and on into our future.

(1) Steven Leonard Jacobs, "Jewish-Christian Relations: After the Shoah," in Donald W. Musser, and D. Dixon Sutherland, eds., War or Words? Interreligious Dialogue as an Instrument of Peace (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2005), pp. 58-74; idem, "Who Do You Say That I Am? (Mark 8:29): A Post-Holocaust/Shoah Jewish Response to Contemporary Christologies," in Steven Leonard Jacobs, In Search of Yesterday: The Holocaust and the Quest for Meaning (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2006), pp. 95-104.

(2) These four pioneering colleagues are all women, though historically this has certainly not been the case, as is fully documented in Daniel Langton, The Apostle Paul in the Jewish Imagination: A Study in Modern Jewish-Christian Relations (Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). That, in itself, may very well be a topic worthy of further exploration at another time and in another context.

(3) See Zev Garber, ed., "Special Issue: Jesus in the Context of Judaism," Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 28 (Spring, 2010): 1-148; and Zev Garber, ed., The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation, Shofar Supplement in Jewish Studies (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2011).

(4) As reported in the major Alabama newspapers (Huntsville Times, Birmingham News, Montgomery Advertiser, Mobile Press-Register); emphasis added.

(5) Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1991).

(6) Judith Plaskow, "Feminist Anti-Judaism and the Christian God," Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 7 (Fall, 1991): 101; emphasis added.

(7) Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Section Hilkhot Melakhim Umilchamoteichem, chaps. 11 and 12: "And if a king shall arise from the House of David, studying Torah and indulging in commandments like his father David, according to the written and oral Torah, and he will impel all of Israel to follow it and to strengthen its breaches in its observances, and will fight the Lord's wars, this one is to be treated as if he were the anointed one. If he succeeded and built a Holy Temple in its proper place and gathered the dispersed ones of Israel together, this is indeed the anointed one for certain, and he will mend the entire world to worship the Lord together, as it is stated 'For then I shall turn for the nations a clear tongue, to call all in the Name of the Lord and to worship Him with one shoulder' (Zephaniah 3:9)."

(8) For a most interesting contemporary and scholarly reading by a representative of that community, see Mark S. Kinzer, Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2005). Kinzer, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, is president of the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute, Los Angeles, and is an "ordained rabbi" [of that community, though the use of the term "ordination" here is highly Jewishly contested], and adjunct professor of Jewish studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA.

(9) It should also be noted that the Hebrew word "'kashrut," while usually associated with the food traditions (no pork or pork-related products, no shellfish, and no mixing of milk products with meat products) is better understood as "that which has been prepared according to the strictures of the Jewish religious tradition." Thus a prayer shawl or tallit used in Jewish worship, e.g., is "kosher," that is, made as specified by the religious tradition.

(10) Significantly for Christians, Daniel, important prophetically, is not found in this collection but, rather, in the third section, K'tuvim or Writings. Also, while Islamic tradition regards Jesus as a prophet, Judaism does not.

(11) On this concept of "failure" in relationship to m'shichut, see the important book by Irving Greenberg, For the Sake of Heaven: The New Encounter between Judaism and Christianity (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 2004), specifically two essays, "Towards an Organic Model of Relationship" (pp. 145-161), and "The Respective Roles of the Two Faiths in the Strategy of Redemption" (pp. 162-184). My own assessment of Greenberg's comments is found in Steven Leonard Jacobs, "'Can We Talk?' The Jewish Jesus in a Dialogue between Jews and Christians," Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 28 (Spring, 2010): 144-147.

(12) See, e.g., Steven L. Jacobs, Rethinking Jewish Faith." The Child of a Survivor Responds (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994): and idem, In Search of Yesterday.

(13) A most interesting assessment of these various sites of horror has now been framed by discussions of what has been called "dark tourism," the seemingly endless fascination of humanity to travel both to Holocaust/Shoah sites throughout Europe and to places of genocide throughout the world, as well as to other such tragic locations (e.g., New York City after September 11, 2001). See, e.g., John Lennon and Malcom Foley, Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster (London: SouthWestern Cengage Learning; New York and London: Continuum, 2000); Richard Sharpley and Philip R. Stone, eds., The Darker Side of Travel: The Theory and Practice of Dark Tourism (Bristol, U.K.: Channel View Publications, 2009); Marc Terrance, Concentration Camps: A Traveler's Guide to World War II Sites (Boca Raton, FL: Universal Publishers, 1999): and Martin Winstone, The Holocaust Sites of Europe: An Historical Guide (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2010).

(14) Altered slightly from their original printed presentation in Jacobs, In Search of Yesterday, pp. 97-99.

(15) This review was published in the Review of Biblical Literature in 2011 by the Society of Biblical Literature; available at

(16) Jewish religious tradition does, however, fully recognize their special worth vis-a-vis the concept of z 'chut avot, the merit of the patriarchs, who are regarded in some circles as "living" even now within God's Holy Presence and thus are appealed to to intercede, if necessary, with the Divine Presence. There is also in Jewish tradition the notion of-'chut imachot, the merit of the matriarchs--Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel--who are said to perform the same function in Heaven when appealed to by women.

(17) Helmut Koester, "Strugnell and Supersessionism: Historical Mistakes Haunt the Relationship of Christianity and Judaism," Biblical Archaeology Review 21 (March-April, 1995): 26-27.

(18) Martin Buber, "The Two Foci of the Jewish Soul," in Fritz A. Rothschild, ed., Jewish Perspectives on Christianity (New York: Crossroad, 1990), p. 131.

(19) Donald A. Hagner, "Paul in Modern Jewish Thought," in Donald A. Hagner and Murray J. Harris, eds., Pauline Studies: Essays Presented to F F. Bruce on His 70th Birthday (Exeter: Paternoster Press; Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980), p. 158.

(20) Michael F. Bird and Preston M. Sprinkle, "Jewish Interpretation of Paul in the Last Thirty Years," Currents in Biblical Research 6 (June, 2008): 372.

(21) Donald A. Hagner, The Jewish Reclamation of Jesus: An Analysis and Critique of the Modern Jewish Study of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Academic Books, Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), pp. 295-296; emphases added.

Steven Leonard Jacobs (Jewish) holds the Aaron Aronov Endowed Chair of Judaic Studies and is associate professor of relgious studies at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, where he has taught since 2001. In 1995-2000, he was Zimmerman Judaic Scholar-in-Residence at Martin Methodist Colege, Pulaski, TN, and an adjunct professor of religion at Calhoun Community College, Huntsville, AL. In 1988-90, he was an adjunct professor of relgious studies at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, and visiting instructor of Jewish studies at Samford University, Birmingham, AL. He previously taught history at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and Jewish studies at Birmingham-Southern College (1986-90); and was Herbert P. Feibelman, Jr., Chautauqua Professor of Jewish Studies at Spring Hill College, Mobile, AL. 1978-84. He holds a B.A. from Pennsylvania State University, State College, PA; and from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, OH, a B.H.L., an M.A.H.L. (and rabbinic ordination in 1974), and a D.H.L. (1990). In 1999 he was awarded a DD. by HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His books published in 2012 include Lemkin on Genocide (Lexington Books), The Jewish Experience (Augsburg Fortress), and 50 Key Thinkers in Holocaust and Genocide (with Paul Bartop; Routledge); and he was editor and contributor to Maven m Blue Jeans (Purdue University Press), Confronting Genocide (Lexington Books), and Current Religions (Rowman & Littlefield). He is author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of a dozen other volumes, primarily in the areas of the Holocaust and genocide studies. Several dozen of his articles have appeared in edited collections and in scholarly journals. He has made presentations at scholarly conferences throughout the U.S. and in Sao Paulo, Warsaw, Sarajevo, and Tokyo. He has served since 1974 in temples in Alabama and Texas; since 2001, he has been rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Tuscaloosa. He serves on editorial boards for Bridges and Shofar, is associate editor of the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and serves on several advisory boards of institutions involved in genocide and human-rights studies, in the U.S. and worldwide.
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Date:Sep 22, 2012
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