No reasonable and informed person can take issue with you when you turn to bewailing the sad carnage and persecution perpetrated in the name of Christ against the Jews. Understandably, you draw from this a negative verdict about Christianity and any pretensions of its moral power. Your argument is true as far as it goes. But as it stands it misrepresents your case for the moral weakness of Christian commitment. It is not only Jews who have died for kiddush HaShem. Multitudes of Christians have died throughout history for their allegiance to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah and Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, and others are giving their lives even now. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts reported in 2010 that even now “an average of 159,960 Christians worldwide are martyred for their faith per year.” Now it is not that they are killed that is my issue, but that they adhere to their faith in Christ and in the God of Israel at the cost of their lives. Does this not sound like moral fiber to you?
And what of the multitudes of missionaries who for centuries have gone off to the most dangerous places in the world to bring social benefit and the scriptures to far flung peoples. In times past missionaries with the China Inland Mission would pack their belongings in coffins for shipment to the their destinations on the field because they knew they would never be coming home again. What of the multitudes of PhD’s in Linguistics and Translation who invest their entire lives going to head-hunters, cannibals, people living in Stone Age cultures, even now. One of my doctoral committee members is just such a man who for fourteen years raised his children with his Jewish wife in the jungles of Papua, New Guinea amidst people who had only recently been “pacified” from cannibalism. Are we to call these highly educated missionaries religious fanatics? Or are they not servants of a higher good, bringing literacy, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the prophets to people who knew them not at all. Are these religious workers to simply be written off as pathetic do-gooders? What of all the hospitals, universities, and humanitarian works that have for many centuries been founded by Christians because of their religious commitments. Is this small change to you? While it is true that there is no people as philanthropic as our Jewish people, and while it is sadly true that multitudes of our people have died for the sanctification of God’s Name, by what measure is the same behavior by Christians not worth consideration?
I find it hard to fathom how a man as educated as you can say so dogmatically that “the blurring [of the boundaries between the human and the divine] was taken to be the sign of the betrayal of the tradition.” While this is no doubt true for many, what you fail to state is that responsible voices, scholarly voices, insist that this concrete boundary is a later development, and that it did not exist as a hard line in earlier Jewish thought. For example, Daniel Boyarin, Professor of Talmudic Thought at U. C. Berkeley, is certainly no betrayer of the Jewish tradition. As you must know, in his recent book The Jewish Gospels, he demonstrates through the use of various streams of Jewish thought and literary works that the idea of a Divine Messiah was not foreign to Jewish thought and belief and was even expected. He maps out various related beliefs about the Messiah down through the centuries before and during the time of Jesus using texts such as Daniel 7:13-14, the Similitudes of Enoch, First Ezra as well as insights from the Talmud and other rabbinic literature that may reflect earlier Jewish thought on this subject. And then there is Mark B. Shapiro, who holds the Weinberg Chair in Judaic Studies at the University of Scranton, with a PhD from Harvard under Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Twerski. In his classic, The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised, Shapiro details how the Rambam’s absolutist strictures against God having a human body would have marked many of the Sages as rank heretics. The position you describe as a non-negotiable was simply not universally held, and the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles are not as absolute as many today assume them to be.
You say. “To this day, believing in a man who was God is a bright dividing line and a reason, as discussed below, to say one is a “Jew for Jesus” is self-contradiction.” I suggest do some reading in Boyarin and Shapiro, if you haven’t already done so, and reconsider your shibboleth. Until then, for the sake of your own credibility, please reconsider your absolutist statements.
You must have been exhausted when you wrote your article, Rabbi, because you say that Jesus was born in Rome. Even if you meant to say “Paul” instead of Jesus, this is also false. For some reason you attribute Jesus’ ethics and spirituality to his Roman context, but the statement makes no sense whatsoever, as I am sure others have told you! And as for Jesus simply speaking of the subjective domain rather than of commandments, that is also hard to prove. What is called “the Great Commission” includes Jesus’ last words to his disciples, to teach the nations “whatsoever I have commanded you,” and Jesus also stood squarely behind the Torah of Moses as a standard of faith and practice as you yourself noted earlier in your article. So you lost me while you were wandering the streets of Rome looking for the Nazarene!
While there are some who would agree with you and with Moses Montefiore that “public justice is outside of [Jesus’] purview,” you will have a hard time convincing me. This brings us back to Matthew’s Gospel, which you quote so much. You probably got the Moses Montefiore reference from Jacob Neusner who himself quotes him as “proof” that Jesus occupied himself purely with private morality rather than the public sphere, as does Judaism. But in Justice, Jesus, and the Jews: A Proposal for Jewish-Christian Relations, Michael L. Cook shows how Matthean scholar Anthony Saldarini demonstrates Neusner to be 180 degrees in the wrong here. Neusner is reading later considerations into the text, and fails to interpret Matthew in his own context. In addition, why is it that later Christians used the very passages in Matthew which Neusner uses to discount Jesus’ public morality as the basis for their own public morality?
Returning to your statement about Jesus being born in Rome, perhaps you were using a glaring metaphor, that Yeshua’s ethics and teachings had more in common with Rome than Jerusalem. This is impossible to sustain, however. As but one example, in Matthew 25 Jesus sounds very Jewish indeed, and very much committed to public morality, when he teaches the parable of the sheep and the goats, in which the righteous and the wicked nations are judged for their treatment of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and those in prison. It is a very Jewish concern for morality in the public square, even as Jesus’ brother says, again very Jewishly, that “True religion and undefiled before the Father is this, to visit orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unspotted by the world.” Concern for the poor, the disenfranchised—the underdog. Can we get any more Jewish than that? I especially recommend Pinchas Lapide’s The Sermon on the Mount : Utopia or Program for Action?, which will likely cause you to reverse your opinion on this matter.
Jesus did NOT set up an alternative Torah as a system to rival that of Moses for one very good reason. It was not because he was concerned only for the internal and personal, but because he had not come to abolish the Torah. The Torah was still in place, and he expected his Jewish disciples to adhere to Jewish norms in obeying it [Matthew 23:3].
You say that,
The idea that one can be saved only through Jesus is contrary to simple compassion and justice. Judaism teaches that “the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come.” Maimonides writes in a letter that there are non-Jews who “bring their souls to perfection.” That is the simple truth that all faiths should acknowledge and celebrate. Otherwise, there can be no kinship.
You might have added this quote:
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.
This quotation expresses the same irenic posture you yourself commend. And the quote is from the Apostle Paul, writing to the Romans. I hope you see again that things are not as simple and negatively slam-dunk as you imagine. You must have been deeply offended by some boorish Christians to have developed so unrelievedly negative a view toward a religious culture far more irenic and sophisticated than you claim it to be.
You then refer to Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, who “once wrote about attempts to convert the Jews: ‘How can we take seriously a friendship that is conditioned ultimately on the hope and expectation that the Jew will disappear? How would a Christian feel if we Jews were engaged in an effort to bring about the liquidation of Christianity?’” You are right here, sir. There are those in the ranks of supersessionist Christianity who see no problem with simply absorbing Jews into the Church. But there are many others, gentiles as well as Jews, and certainly most Messianic Jews, who staunchly believe that Jews who believe in Jesus should continue to live as Jews in conformity to the norms of Jewish life, doing all they can to preserve Jewish communal cohesion from generation to generation. It is this concern that gave rise to the Messianic Jewish congregational movement, even though today, as with the wider Jewish world, levels of halachic commitment vary from camp to camp. We entirely agree with Heschel that any movement that treats Jewish communal continuity as a priority to be discarded is a movement which Jews and friends of Jews should correct and avoid.
You speak of the recognition of Jews for Jesus [an organizational name, by the way] and by extension, Messianic Jews [a generic name] as being “bothersome” like “Christians for Muhammad.” That’s a nice bumper sticker I suppose, but like many slogans, of little mature value. The weight of scholarly opinion recognizes that the early Jewish believers in Jesus were in fact and considered by their contemporaries to be participants in what Neusner taught us to call “a Judaism.” Although certainly not alone in this, Daniel Boyarin teaches us in The Jewish Gospels and in his Borderlines that to use the very category “religion” in discussing the birth of faith in Jesus as Messiah is to impose upon historical events a category that only developed centuries later. Reviewing Borderlines, Zackary Sholem Berger says it this way:
The book’s final chapters round out a general conclusion: namely, that Christianity, in distancing itself from Judaism, invented religion. While the Latin word religio previously had been used to refer to a particular devotional act, the Christians invented “religion” as a new category of human activity — independent of ethnicity, politics and culture — designed to exclude Jewish practice. “Religion,” writes Boyarin, “is a Christian cultural product.” This is why it is confusing to speak of Judaism as only a religion, and why the word “Judaism” itself (a term that Boyarin thinks inappropriate to describe early Jewish practice) does not appear until the Enlightenment. [Read more: http://forward.com/articles/5703/crisscross-boyarin-on-borders/#ixzz2l1kQ37Ny
In the earliest centuries, although not always since then, Jews who accepted the Messianic claims of Yeshua not only refused to turn their backs on their community. They were stigmatized for holding fast to their Jewish communal identities and halachic commitments. Political factors and power struggles in the fourth century and beyond marginalized Jewish believers in Yeshua and declared Jewish life anathema for Jesus believers, whether Jew or Gentile. The Torah obedient communities of Jesus believers were socially starved out through ecclesiastical ostracism due to Gentile anti-Judaisma and and anti-Semitism, a legacy from pagan Roman intellectual arrogance. Edward Flannery explains that this is so in the early chapters of The Anguish of the Jews. Norwegian scholar Oskar Skaraune is one of many others like Boyarin who document how even isolated communities of Jewish Yeshua believers maintained their commitment to Jewish life, and Jewish community. I suggest you acquaint yourself with Skarsaune’s In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity.
You are certainly right, Rabbi Wolpe, in what you say about how Judaism and Christianity are regarded by many. But many others would say, as do I, that you are wrong and anachronistic in what you say that Judaism and Christianity and especially Messianic Judaism are with respect to each other. And your statement, “the sudden rise of ‘Messianic Jews’ owes more to a clever way of misleading untutored Jews than to making theological sense,’ says everything about your attitudes and nothing about the facts on the ground.
I agree with you wholeheartedly that “there need be no opposition or antagonism between faiths so long as there is no triumphalism in them. Ultimately all faithful people of good will wish for a peaceful world reflecting the goodness of the One who fashioned it.” But you are in serious error if you believe that all who embrace the Nazarene, and especially all Jews who do so, are triumphalistic. It is just not the case.
I agree as well that people should read Samuel Levine’s “You Take Jesus I’ll Take God,” but for different reasons than you do. Many years ago, I knew a young Jewish woman who believed in Yeshua, whose mother contacted Orthodox Rabbis out of her distress that her daughter had gone in this direction. They recommended Levine’s book. However, the results were other than they expected. The mother was so deeply offended by the straw men, condescension, and nastiness of the book that, in disgust, she severed contact with those she had originally enlisted. The book is the yellowest of yellow journalism, and had a similar book been written to discredit Judaism you would be the first to denounce it in every available venue.
As for Asher Norman’s work and Rabbi Neusner’s, they will be convincing for those looking to be reassured of their prior commitments. As I said earlier, people always find what they are looking for when they are looking to have their own preferences confirmed. People will only change their minds when and if they are first truly available to reconsider their views, doubting their adequacy.
Like you, I commend Brad Young’s book, and many others that highlight Jesus as a Jewish scholar. Amy Jill-Levine’s The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus and Kosher Jesus by Shmuley Boteach also come to mind, but there are very many others as well.
Rabbi, as I said earlier, nothing in this letter is meant to express disrespect toward you and your family and your contribution to the general well being and that of the Jewish people. But I hope I have given you occasion to reconsider opinions to which you are certainly entitled, but which are difficult to support. You were upset about President Bush lending legitimacy to a diverse group, which you view to be categorically illegitimate. I mentioned that our diversity is wide. Some who call themselves Messianic Jews demonstrate little if any submission to halachic norms. Some are indifferent as two whether a Messianic Jews goes to a synagogue or a church. Such attitudes grieve me, my colleagues and my friends just as you are grieved to know that there are many Jews in Los Angeles who can be found in front of their TV’s or computers on Yom Kippur eating trifle rather than in a shul saying the Al Chet. But you do not disown these people, nor do I disown such Messianic Jews as I describe. I am President of Hashivenu, a Messianic Jewish think tank and influence center that advocates a return to halachic life as a manifestation of covenant responsibility for all Jews, including Messianic Jews. In lifestyle, in commitment to Jewish continuity, in values, you would find us indistinguishable from rabbis and other Jews you know. And there are quite a few Jews like us in your shul and those of your colleagues every shabbat.
I said earlier that I believe you to be a man who cares more about the truth than about holding comfortable opinions. In this connection I like to wryly state my version of something Yeshua said: “the truth will set you free . . . but first it may make you uncomfortable.” If I have caused you discomfort in this letter, I hope it is the discomfort of new and inconvenient truths. I hope I have been successful in challenging you to reconsider opinions you have long held which may not be as true as you have assumed. I hope you will henceforth not speak so monolithically on matters calling for far more diffidence and nuance. I hope my words increase the light, and not the darkness.
Before I go, I want to visit an issue you raise more than once, the claim that Yeshua was more than a man, which you view to be both untrue and antithetical to Jewish loyalties. I am reminded of a time when I was invited by Rabbi Allen Maller, of blessed memory, to address an Elderhostel class at the University of Judaism, now American Jewish University, as a Messianic Jewish leader. He, like you, would go on in the class to declare my views to be out of Jewish bounds. But before he did so, in my talk I mentioned that we Messianic Jews do not believe that a man became God, but that God took human form in Yeshua of Nazareth. I said that the Creator of all was certainly capable of doing so. The Rabbi interrupted me and goaded me saying, “Do you believe that God could become a dog?” I tried to continue, but he goaded me again. Here is what I answered him: “That God might become a dog is ridiculous, but that he might become a man is not, because man is made in the image of God. There is already a creational kinship.”
Rabbi Wolpe, what we Messianic Jews believe may be offensive or unacceptable to you. Nothing I could say or have said can change that or deprive you of the right to your opinions. But calling it nonsense does not make it so.
I want to close with three invitations.
Years ago, my friend Jhan Moskowitz, of blessed memory, a Messianic Jew, had occasion to see that a nineteenth century Christian work about the Talmud might be reprinted. It was called “The Old Paths,” by Alexander McCaul. However, when Jhan saw how this book cast the Jewish tradition and sources in a negative light through selective quoting and nasty surmisals, he recoiled from the prospect of being in any manner connected with such defamation and cancelled the project.
I respect you enough to hope that any glimmers of light you detected in this letter will cause you to do the same.
May HaShem continue to strengthen you and increase his shalom among all the people and projects you hold dear.
Rabbi Stuart Dauermann, PhD
Director, Interfaithfulness -- “Exploring the synergy between Judaism and Christianity, partnership between Christians and Jews, and the relationship between God’s tomorrow and our today.” .