This is a response to a recent article by Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, Los Angeles. The article “Why Jews Should Not Accept Jesus Whatever George W. Bush Thinks” appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward. You may read that article here
Dear Rabbi Wolpe,
This letter comes to you with high regard for the continuing contribution you and your family have made not only to the Jewish people but to society at large. My respect for you and for these contributions helps to undergird my disappointment with your recent article in The Jewish Daily Forward concerning, Why Jews Should Not Accept Jesus. Nothing I write here should be taken to indicate that my respect for you and your family is diminished. But it should be taken as an appeal to you to listen to other voices you have apparently ignored or perhaps of which you have been unaware, that you might in the future address this sobering topic more appropriately. I write to you confident that you are someone who loves the truth more than comfortable opinions.
You began your article by putting the terms “Jew for Jesus” and “Messianic Jew” in quotes, calling the terms terrible misnomers “that owe more to marketing savvy than any theological truth.”
That’s where you started to lose me, and likely some of your critical-thinker readers as well. Your statement attributing the self-naming of Messianic Jews and Jews for Jesus to “marketing savvy” was cynical and unproven. Frankly, the statement seems nasty. It does not commend you. It also runs contrary to my experience, as one well acquainted with Jews for Jesus and a prominent figure in the Messianic Jewish Movement. Whether among Jews for Jesus, or the Messianic Jewish congregational movement, choices in self-labeling are not clever marketing ploys, calculated to repackage a product in order to deceive. Rather, the terms we choose to describe ourselves not simply for others but among ourselves grow from our deepening awareness and convictions about Jewish covenantal identity and its implications for our lives as Jews.
Suppose I began an article about you and your family by saying.”David Wolpe and his family are Conservative Jews because they want to avoid the more rigourous demands and explcit beliefs of Orthodox Judaism.” Such a statement would be nasty, unfounded, and prejudicial. It would at best mark me as someone who didn’t know what I was talking about. Please draw the parallel.
By signaling your disdain at the start of your article, you make it difficult for the thoughtful reader to deal objectively with the rest of what you have to say.
You then choose as a foil in your argument an unattractive stereoptype, an unsophisticated Southern Baptist preacher who had the temerity to address your 11th grade class at a private Jewish school by telling all of you, “You seem like nice boys and girls. But I must tell you that unless you change your ways, you are all going to hell.” Surely just about all your readers recoiled from this blundering bombastic boor. Here you move from nasty attribution of motives to dragging before your readers the most unattractive example you can muster. Is this reasoned argument?
You tell us of having interrogated this minister at the end of the class, reporting how you bested him in a verbal exchange. You demonstrated the non-essentiality of the Trinity by getting your pastoral interlocutor to acknowledge that each of the persons of the Trinity were perfect . This being the case, you retorted there was no need for the other persons in the Trinity because perfection needs no supplementation. The minister’s only response was to simply claim that the Trinity is a mystery. So here we have an unattractive straw man giving simplistic answers, bested by a seventeen year old Jewish boy who easily deflated his pathetic position. While this may prove gratifying for some in your readership, Rabbi Wolpe, for the discerning reader this comes across as more propaganda. Why begin your portrayal of Christians with such a distasteful and inept figure? This does not commend you. I think the issue is so emotional for you that emotionally based canards have replaced your usual thoughtful rhetoric.
You then invoke “the spirit of pluralism” in your effort to help “Christian readers to understand why Jews have traditionally rejected the Christian understanding of Jesus’ life and mission . . . [and to] offer some clarity to Jewish readers who may wonder about many of the same questions,” saying “ 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.” I find this invocation of the spirit of pluralism ironic, since you telegraph from the very beginning that one thing you will not be pluralistic about is Messianic Jews whom you characterize as savvy marketers trying to sell an ersatz product. Axiomatically you allow for pluralism, but only for some. I am reminded of Orwell’s statement in Animal Farm that “all animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” If I may, I rise to moo a word of protest.
You turn next to some statements of religious differences between Christians and Jews. First, you state a reason favored by the Rambam [Moses Maimonides, 12th century Jewish philosopher], that the Messiah must bring redemption and peace to the world, and the eradication of death, disease, and tragedy, asking two subsidiary questions: If Jesus is the Messiah, why was he rejected by the majority of the people of his time and now, and if suffering is the result of rejecting Jesus, why has so much of this suffering been inflicted by and even upon Christians?
As to why Jesus can be called Messiah when so many counter-indicators are apparent in the world, with him being so widely rejected, the same spurious argument could be used against the chosenness of the Jews, God forbid. “How can you say the Jews are God’s chosen people when they have been persecuted, murdered, exiled, pillaged and despised for thousands of years?” These sufferings of the Jews are real, but you and I both know that they do not nullify the chosen status of our people. Such an apparent contradiction is also true of Messiah. As you know, our Jewish tradition postulates two Messiahs, one of whom suffers death, the other of whom arrives in triumph, because our scriptures themselves present the same kind of paradox as that portrayed on history’s pages. You know these things, but choose not to report them. Why?
And as to why so much suffering has been inflicted by and even upon Christians, you ask a good question, which fair minded people of every stripe echo themselves. The Christian answer is that redemption has begun but is not complete. Isaiah the Prophet hints that such would be the case when, speaking of Messiah he says, “Here is my servant, whom I support, my chosen one, in whom I take pleasure. I have put my Spirit on him; he will bring justice to the Goyim. He will not cry or shout; no one will hear his voice in the streets. He will not snap off a broken reed or snuff out a smoldering wick. He will bring forth justice according to truth; he will not weaken or be crushed until he has established justice on the earth, and the coastlands wait for his Torah.” Here we see a messianic process, contrary to the common assumption which you too adhere to of an instantaneous messianic transformation.
I agree with you wholeheartedly in the next point you make, that “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,” and that “many statements associated with Jesus are straight from classic rabbinic literature.” Here you are saluting a standard that many Messianic Jews uphold. I say “many” because the Messianic Jewish community is rather diverse, with differences as wide as between Humanist Judaism’s standards of practice and those of Haredi Judaism. And as for your statement that “where Jesus differs the variations, from a Jewish point of view, are more troubling than exemplary,” while some agree, this is not a viewpoint shared by all Jewish scholars such as Amy-Jill Levine and Daniel Boyarin, and others as well.
When you speak of the Trinity as a contradiction, you are saying nothing new. Those who hold to this doctrine, and even those who hold to the classical formulations of it, agree from the outset that it seems a contradiction. And frankly, no one would hold to the position if they did not feel it was a conclusion required by the full orb of scriptural testimony. The people who formulated these doctrines were not naïve idiots but sophisticated intellectuals well aware of the paradox imbedded in what they were saying. It is similar to the argument about divine sovereignty and free will, an argument well represented in classical Jewish discussion. This too is a paradox, actually, like the Trinity, an antinomy, but just as Jewish scholars and tzaddikim [holy people] have held to the antinomy of absolute divine sovereignty and free will, so scholars and saints on the Christian side have held to the absolute unity of God simultaneously with the Trinitarian formulation. That some think this nonsensical is as unconvincing an argument as those who think the harmonization of divine sovereignty and human free will is untrue because they cannot wrap their minds around it.
[More to Come]