Jesus for Jews

By Eve Levavi Feinstein
Wednesday, June 15, 2011

That Jesus lived and died a Jew would hardly be regarded as news by most educated Jews and Christians today.  Still, while the historical Jesus is ever-elusive, the figure of Jesus, for Jews, has become more accessible.  The pronounced decline of Christian anti-Semitism in our day has allowed for more freedom to discuss not only the tortuous and changing relationship of Jews to the Church, but also to its founder and the central figure of its concern: namely, Jesus. 

The past half-decade has seen a spate of books on the topic written by Jews, with titles like The Misunderstood Jew and From Rebel to Rabbi.  In 2007, the Christian scholar Peter Schafer published a challenging study on the place of Jesus in the Talmud.  The newest entry in the field is a collection of essays edited by Zev Garber, The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation.

While the collection is composed in part of papers presented at a 2009 symposium, the word "reclamation" is a tip-off that the editor's interest in the subject is not merely academic. The Church's task, as represented in this volume, is to foster a more positive and respectful relationship with those who, according to the book's dedication, "practice the faith of Jesus." For Jews, acknowledgment of Jesus' Jewishness opens the door to a deeper and more constructive relationship with those who, in turn, "believe by faith in Jesus." In short, reflection on the Jewishness of Jesus promises to serve as the basis for enhanced Jewish-Christian dialogue.

The contributions to the volume are quite varied. The first section, "Reflections on the Jewish Jesus," focuses primarily on the historical relationship of Jesus to the Jewish communities of his day and the reception of his teachings by Jews living during and shortly after his lifetime.

The second section of the book, "Responding to the Jewish Jesus," provides a glimpse into the long history of Jewish attitudes toward Jesus and Christianity and Christian attitudes toward Judaism. These attitudes are, needless to say, quite at odds with those that Garber seeks to promote. Over the centuries of Christian oppression and Jewish cultural resistance, most "dialogue" took the form of polemic and disputation, in which each side caricatured the other's beliefs. Eugene J. Fisher's essay, which closes the section, suggests that such caricatures, born of ignorance as much as animosity, have not disappeared in spite of the more congenial circumstances in which we now live.

Having written in the past about Christian misconceptions of Judaism, Fisher here turns his attention to Jewish misunderstandings of Christ, Christianity, and Jewish-Christian relations over the centuries. Noting that Catholic education about Jews has changed dramatically since the Second Vatican Council, he calls upon Jewish educators to improve education about Christianity. Because so little is taught about Christianity in Jewish schools, Fisher argues, "many Jews in this country gain what they think is an understanding of Christianity from the media or stories handed down from the shtetls."

Most directly pertinent to Garber's program is the third section of the book, "Teaching, Dialogue, Reclamation: Contemporary Views on the Jewish Jesus." Most interesting, from a Jewish point of view, are the essays of Steven Leonard Jacobs and Shaul Magid on recent Jewish efforts to bridge the gap with Christianity by recognizing Jesus as a legitimate and important Jewish figure. As Magid points out, such efforts began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when liberal Jews sought common ground with liberal Protestants by holding up Jesus as a paradigm of Judaism's ethical tradition. Such an understanding made sense for Jewish reformers who identified with Jesus' critique of the orthodoxy of his time, and it was well suited to an American landscape dominated by liberal Protestants—particularly Unitarians—who viewed Jesus above all as a teacher of ethics.

In today's cultural milieu, in which even liberal Judaism is quite varied and evangelical Christianity is on the rise, some Jewish thinkers have sought instead to engage with the messianic and Christological elements of Jesus' figure. Yitz Greenberg, for example, has proposed viewing Jesus as a "failed messiah"—the term "failed" being used here not in a pejorative sense, but as an indication that Jesus' redemptive work is incomplete. According to this view, Jesus takes his place among many Jewish leaders who were not able to complete their missions, including Moses, Jeremiah, and Bar Kokhba, leader of the Jewish revolt against Rome in the second century C.E. 

A similar perspective is offered by Byron Sherman, who identifies Jesus with the "Joseph messiah," a leader who, according to one Jewish tradition, is to arrive on earth before the final redemption by a messiah descended from King David. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Daniel Matt, taking a different approach, suggest that Jesus be viewed as a tzaddik, a righteous individual who, according to Hasidic tradition, embodies the divine. Much as Greenberg and Sherman accept Jesus as a messiah but not the messiah, Schachter-Shalomi and Matt accept the possibility that Jesus represented a type of divine incarnation without viewing his incarnation as the unique event of Christian doctrine.

It may certainly be argued that beliefs such as these are not beyond the pale of traditional rabbinic Judaism. Yet it is difficult to imagine that they will be widely accepted within the Jewish community any time soon, making them a questionable basis for genuine inter-communal dialogue. Moreover, as none of the Jewish thinkers cited in these essays accepts the core Christian doctrines of the resurrection and full divinity of Jesus, the gulf between mainstream Jewish and Christian views of Jesus remains quite wide.

This does not mean that genuine, respectful, and productive interfaith dialogue is an unattainable goal. On the contrary, the very concept of interfaith dialogue presupposes the existence of religious difference—often fundamental, irreconcilable difference—in the midst of which it is still often possible to find considerable common ground. For Christians, reflection on the Jewish identity of the incarnate Christ may serve as a foundation for dialogue with today's living Jewish community. For Jews, learning to understand and respect Christian views about Jesus—without necessarily accepting them—may be more fruitful than attempting to claim him as one of our own.

Eve Levavi Feinstein is a College Fellow in Harvard's department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.


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