Monday, May 5, 2008

Toward Formulating a Jewish View of Jesus (Part I)

A question that I am often asked by Christians is how do Jews view Jesus? This is a rather difficult question to answer. Not because the question itself is so difficult, but because this is one of those questions that is not really about the given question, but is about larger issues; to answer such a question one most first come to terms with the very framework from which it arose.

What do Jews think of Jesus? As with most of Judaism, there is a wide spectrum of opinions. The Talmud, if we are to assume that the Yeshu that it speaks of is in fact Jesus, views him as a sorcerer and a heretic, who was justifiably executed by a Jewish court for his crimes and is now burning in excrement in hell. This view of Jesus finds its most coherent expression in an early medieval text known as Toldot Yeshu. Toldot Yeshu can be read as a Hebrew counter Gospel or even as a satire on the Gospel accounts. According to Toldot Yeshu Mary was a whore and Jesus was a bastard. In other words Toldot Yeshu is filled with the sorts of things that Christians today, unless they want to be accused of being Anti-Semitic, are not allowed to accuse Jews of believing. The fact that these accusations are grounded in Jewish sources is irrelevant; multiculturalism has nothing to do with telling the truth.

There are alternative Jewish views to this. Toldot Yeshu is hardly an authoritative source and there have been those, such of R’ Yechiel of Paris, who have denied that the Yeshu in the Talmud is Jesus. (See Hyam Maccoby, Judaism on Trial: Jewish-Christian Disputations in the Middle Ages.) The late fourteenth century commentator Profiat Duran referred to Jesus as a Hasid Sotah, a pious fool. Duran wrote a commentary, in Hebrew, on the New Testament, Kalyimot Hagoyim, offering a non Trinitarian reading of the New Testament and arguing that Jesus, the apostles and even Paul, for whatever faults they might have had, were good practicing Jews, who never intended to start another religion; it was their followers, who came afterward, who twisted their words and created Christianity. Moses Mendelssohn claimed to admire Jesus as a moral philosopher. This view was also shared by R’ Jacob Emden. (See Alexander Altman, Moses Mendelssohn: A Biographical Study pg. 204-05.)

Strictly speaking, from the standpoint of traditional Jewish thought, there is nothing to stop one from being a “believer” in Jesus. One can believe that Jesus was a righteous man; Judaism believes in the concept of righteous men. One can believe that Jesus performed miracles; Judaism believes that God will sometimes perform miracles, particularly if they are through the hands of a righteous person. One can even believe that Jesus was born of a virgin; a virgin birth is simply a type of miracle. In fact there is a tradition that Ben Sira was the son of Jeremiah’s daughter, born through a “virgin” birth. One can believe that Jesus was crucified; Judaism does not believe that righteous people are invulnerable. One can even believe that his death brought about some sort of atonement; there are Jewish sources that speak of God taking the righteous as atonement for sins of the world. One can believe that Jesus arouse from the dead and ascended to heaven alive; Judaism believes that Elijah the prophet and Enoch ascended to heaven alive and well as numerous other people. One can believe that Jesus sits at the “right hand” of God and is the fulfillment of Psalms 110; it is no different than saying that King David, Abraham or the Messiah sit at God’s right. Ultimately if one wants to one could say that the suffering servant passage of Isaiah 53 is about Jesus; it is no different than saying that the passage refers to Moses, Jeremiah or R’ Akiba. This may be pushing things, but, in theory, one could hold that Jesus was the Messiah provided that you define the Messiah simply as a mortal human being who is the subject of Isaiah 11; there are Jewish sources that say that this chapter refers to King Hezekiah.

There are really only three Christian beliefs that Judaism could never accept. One, that Jesus was, in some sense, God incarnate and part of some sort of Trinity. While in theory this belief might not be worse than the Kabbalistic notion of sephirot, any traditional notion of Trinity or an incarnated God is unlikely to pass through the strictures posed by the Jewish philosophical tradition, particularly as exemplified by Maimonides. From the perspective of Maimonides’ theology any discussion of divine attributes is problematic. Two, that Mosaic Law is no longer valid. Mosaic Law defines Judaism; if there is no Mosaic Law then Judaism ceases to exist. The final belief that Judaism could never accept is the idea that a belief in Jesus is somehow necessary for ones own personal salvation. Accepting such a claim would mean placing Jesus at the center of the religion and reorienting it around this singular concept.
(To be continued …)


James Pate said...

Thanks for this post, Izgad. It's a refreshing alternative to a lot of the counter-missionary junk I've read (which says "Judaism doesn't believe a man can die for others," neglecting the parts that do say that).

I have a few questions:

1. What's your source on Ben Sira being born of a virgin, and how old is it? I ask this because Raymond Brown argued that the virgin birth is most likely historical because it is original.

2. Judaism believes that the Mosaic law can change, right? I mean, at one point, Passover was observed at home. Later, it was observed in the central sanctuary. According to one rabbinic source, there will only be thanksgiving sacrifices in the World to Come. So, if that's the case, could Jesus make modifications to the Mosaic law?

Izgad said...

I don't have a specific source for the Ben Sira legend. Check Louis Ginsburg's Legends of the Jews.
As to the issue of Mosaic law changeing. There is a difference between saying that certain individual laws are practiced in different ways in different times and places and saying that Mosaic law no longer applies. Currently the majority of the 613 commandments cannot be performed as they involve having a Temple or a halachic Jewish state. That being said Judaism is still very different from Pauline notion of the Law being superceded. I admit that in practice the line between these two positions can be very vague, but there are still real lines.

James Pate said...

Also, the issue is phrased differently by different people. A lot of Christians may say that the law has been abolished, but others would say that it has been fulfilled. For example, there is still a Sabbath and sacrifices for Christian, but they believe those things exist in Jesus--the rest he offered and his sacrifice for sin on our behalf. Plus, certain laws remain, particularly the ones about love for neighbor.

Izgad said...

From a Jewish perspective there is no difference between saying that the Law has been abolished and saying that it has been fulfilled. Saying that the Law exists in Jesus also means that the Law has been done away with. At the end of the day the rituals that makeup Mosaic Law are being deemed to be no longer relevant.
Just to be clear. I do not mean for this to be an attack on Christianity, on Christians or on you. From reading your blog I have developed a great respect for you. I see you as a fellow brother in arms. I believe that, in this day and age, it is important for Jews to make common cause with Christians.