Truths You Can Use

Truths You Can Use

What Christians Should Know About the Jewish Background of Jesus

Friends, Following up on the popularity of this piece on how five rabbis understand Jesus, I’m including a snippet from a recent lecture I gave on the Jewish background of Jesus. The full lecture will soon be available on my website. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and let me know if I should add anything!

jews and jesus


 

5 Rabbis Explain Jesus

rabbi jesus

 

For every complex question, as H.L. Mencken once put, there is usually an answer that is “clear, simple and wrong.”

His observation rings true when it comes to a question I get at least once a week. What do Jews believe about Jesus?Jews as a group rarely agree on matters of Jewish belief. How could we agree on the essence of another?

Yet, we ignore the question at our own peril.

Learning About Jesus Means Learning About Judaism

What lies behind it is a yearning for a deeper faith and understanding between Christians and Jews. For Christians a better understanding of Judaism leads to a better understanding of Jesus. For Jews it leads to a deeper appreciation of the world’s largest faith.

While scholars and historians can give us a critical and detailed picture of the first-century Jewish life in which Jesus lived and taught, rabbis can give us a better picture of his spirituality. What made his message resonate for Jews of the time and ultimately lead to the birth of a new religion?

Fortunately, over the last 100 years many rabbis have explored this issue, and the number of relevant books keeps growing. Here are five intriguing points of view:

1. A Jewish National Hero: Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach emphasizes Jesus’ self-understanding and significance as a political leader of first-century Jews. As he writes, “The more we peel away the surface, the more we see the truth: Jesus, I will continue to show, was a great political leader who fought for the liberation of his people.”

“In this sense, he saw himself in the guise of Moses and David, both of whom, while supremely concerned with the spiritual welfare of the people, were first and last concerned with the political freedom of the Jewish nation.” In other words, for Jews of the time, Jesus’ was a political hero and not a spiritual one.

2. The Penultimate Messiah: Rabbi Byron Sherwin places Jesus in the theological category of a precursor to the ultimate messiah. He serves a similar role as John the Baptist does for Christianity.

As Professor Shaul Magid puts it, “Yitz Greenberg and Byron Sherwin base their writings on Jesus on a more nuanced view of ‘the messiah’ in Judaism that distinguishes between a penultimate and ultimate messianic figure, each serving a crucial role in the messianic process.”

In other words, Jesus emerged out the yearning of first-century Jews for a national and spiritual savior, and his spiritual significance will be fulfilled in the future messianic period.

For Christians this event will be the second coming. For Jews it will be the “first coming,” which had been foreshadowed by Jesus. (This terminology of “first coming” is my language, and is not used by Greenberg or Sherwin. For the sake of brevity, I am summarizing their arguments and leaving out significance nuance that would be appropriate in a scholarly forum. See Zev Garber, ed., The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation, 2011)

3. A Righteous Leader: Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Daniel Matt place Jesus in the category of a Jewish Tzadik. A Tzadik is a person of unusual righteousness who serves as a bridge between his community and God. He is meant to exemplify Jewish virtue. He is “Torah incarnate,” but not God incarnate.

For Schachter-Shalomi and Matt, Jesus represented a more mystical pious Jewish outlook, in opposition to the legal doctrine and focus of the Pharisees. Jesus served the same function for first-century Judean Jews as the Hasidic movement would serve for eighteenth-century European Jews.

4. A Rabbi: The great nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American Rabbi Emil Hirsch wrote and spoke frequently about Jesus. He saw him as a champion of faith in human progress and a teacher of the Old Testament.

As Hirsch proclaimed from the pulpit, “He was of us; he is of us. We quote the rabbis of the Talmud; shall we then, not also quote the rabbi of Bethlehem? Shall not he in whom there burned, if it burned in any one, the spirit and the light of Judaism, be reclaimed by the synagogue?”

Hirsch’s point of view has been echoed in several contemporary books with the phrase “Rabbi Jesus” in their title.

5. An Ethical Exemplar: Emil Hirsch’s brother-in-law Kaufmann Kohler was also a prominent rabbi and scholar. He was president of the seminary for Reform Rabbis for 25 years.He wrote frequently about Jesus, and while he was critical of Jesus’ seeming dismissal of the law of the Old Testament, he highlighted his social message.

For Kohler, Jesus was a “helper of the poor” and a “sympathizing friend of the fallen.” He said Jesus learned these values at the synagogue and brought them to the forefront of first-century Jewish life.

As we can see, the Jewish understanding of Jesus is diverse. I have no doubt we will continue to uncover and learn more in the years ahead.

Rabbi Moffic’s newest book is Wisdom for People of All Faiths

How to Jump on a Moving Train

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A biblical scene haunts me every time I read it. Moses stands alone in the cleft of a rock. He has led the Jewish people out of Egypt. He has devoted his life to God’s service

He yearns to see God’s face. But God refuses. “You shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”  (Exodus 33:23)

Hundreds of interpretations have been offered. Most of them focus on theological questions. Does God have a face? Does God have a back? Why can’t Moses see God’s face?

These questions miss the point. This passage is not about physically seeing God’s face. It about our “facing up” to our blessings. Just as Moses only sees God’s back, we only see the blessings of life as they are passing away. The challenge is to turn our faces toward them.

Missing the train

When life is good and we have no worries, we assume that is the way life is supposed to be. We “eat, drink and be merry.” It is only when things change—when we experience loss or disappointment—that we begin to see how lucky we have been.

We are like travelers who see  the train as it is departing from the station. If only we had been wise enough to have gotten on when we had the chance. If we only we had turned our face toward the Light.

Can we ever catch the train? Yes. But we need to move quickly. And we cannot ride forever. We can make our ride count by sharing out seats with those we love.

Sharing Our Seats

Forgive me if you have heard this one before: A man named Schwartz comes to synagogue every Sabbath and sits with his friend Goldstein. Goldstein sings the songs and says the prayers. Schwartz just sits there.

People wonder why he goes at all. He doesn’t believe in God. He doesn’t seem to be listening. Why does he come?

Finally someone asks him. “Schwartz,“ he says, “we know your friend Goldstein comes to temple to pray. What are you doing here?” Schwartz replies, “Goldstein comes to talk to God. I come to talk to Goldstein.”

Faith is not only about finding God. It is about finding one another.

Speaking Up

And when we find one another, we have to make our relationships count. We need to speak words of love. It’s the only way to avoid the pain of words left unsaid.

Rabbi Jack Riemer expresses this truth in a haunting story. It took place at a funeral he conducted. As gravefriends and family began to leave the cemetery, the husband of the deceased remained by grave. He kept repeating to the rabbi that he loved his wife.

“I love my wife, ” he said. “I love my wife.”

The rabbi said, “I know.” They stood in silence. After a while, the rabbi returned to the man and said that the cemetery was closing, and it was time to go. The man answered, “I love my wife.” The rabbi said, “I understand. But it’s time to go. The cemetery is closing.”

The man replied, “You don’t understand. I love my wife. And once I almost told her…”  

For this man the train was long gone. We still have the chance to jump on it. Let us make our ride count.

To get free weekly spiritual inspiration from Rabbi Moffic, click here. 

 

Can God Help Us Focus?

We live in a world full of distractions. Sometimes it feels hard to work with focus for any significant amount of time. My brain wonders, twitter beckons, and I suddenly feel hungry for my fifth snack over the last 3 hours. 

spiritual focus

My friend and teacher Michael Hyatt recently gave some superb tips on how to maintain our focus. His thoughts prompted me to explore Jewish wisdom on the topic.

What I Discovered

It seems we are not the first generation to experience distractions. It is a human proclivity.

I also came to realize that focusing in the moment is truly a spiritual act. We can use the tools and techniques of the spirit to become masters in the art of living.

Here are a few of them:

1. Remember to take breaks: The Sabbath is one of the most wonderful tools for maintaining focus. It forces us to take a long break once a week.

I am always able to get more work done in six days than in seven days, because the Sabbath day is a time to recharge. The energy gained from rest helps me become much more focused during work. It may seem counter-intuitive, but 4000 years of history suggest it works.

2. Remind yourself of why you need to focus: The great twelfth century sage Nachmanides said we miss some of the most important moments in life because we have not prepared our hearts for them. Part of focusing in the moment is preparing for it.

Think about it this way: If you are going on a major travel adventure,  do you prepare for it ahead of time? If so, you realize how much more you get out of the trip by familiarizing yourself with what to expect and where to focus your attention.

 There will always be surprises, and that is part of the joy of travel. Yet, the more we prepare, the more we get out of our experience.

The same is true with major projects for work or home. There will always be surprises. And preparation helps us to deal  with them and maintain focus in the moment.

3. Listen: We all know people who are simply waiting for their chance to speak. They are not paying attention to what you say or what is going on around them. If all we are doing is waiting to speak, our mind will naturally wonder when we are not.

Listening, however, can keep our minds engaged. Michael Hyatt advises us to be “fascinated by other people.” When we are, we listen and focus and respond appropriately.

How Moses Got Focused

Jewish tradition said that many people passed the Burning Bush. But only Moses paused, looked at it, and took the time to listen to the voice of God coming forth from it.

When we listen–and listen truly–we can enter into the moment. We pay attention to what needs our attention.

We need to remember that listening depends as much on the heart as it does on the ears. Using them both makes us artists of the spirit.

To get free weekly spiritual inspiration from Rabbi Moffic, click here. 

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