LS: What's the general attitude toward Jesus in Judaism?
The reality is that Judaism doesn't regard Jesus as particularly important. He's not a big subject. I wrote this book mainly for non-Jews, because to them the Jewish view of Jesus is a much bigger deal.
[Jewish radio personality] Michael Medved has made the point that this is the one thing that all Jews have in common--that we don't accept Jesus as our savior. That's the one and only thing on which all Jews agree. For many Jews, tragically, that's where their Judaism ends. For them, Judaism means we don't believe in Jesus. That's really a sad, impoverished version of Judaism.
RP: What Medved said has a lot of implications about the current state of Judaism itself within a larger Christian world. Jews often feel threatened by Jesus. Why is that?
Well, there's obviously history, 2,000 years of friction. In my book, I also deal with the historical backdrop. In the first century, there was a perception of Christian Jews as essentially deserters. When Jerusalem was under siege by Roman forces, the Jews looked around and discovered that the Christian Jews had fled across the Jordan to safe ground.
LS: If you talked to a contemporary rabbi about Jesus, would he or she consider Jesus a renegade rabbi who was a traitor to his religion, or a good person whose followers went astray and became traitors?
There's a huge diversity of opinion. You have someone like Rabbi Irving Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi who is quite liberal and provocative, who regards Jesus as having been a failed messiah. You also have [Talmudic scholar] Jacob Emden, who died in 1776. He was traditionally Orthodox--in no way a modernizer--and regarded Jesus as a hero who brought religious civilization to the gentile world. He writes amazingly positively of Jesus.
In a lot of ways, the [contemporary] rabbinate has not really caught up to Emden. Most people don't know about his view of Jesus.
LS: Is Jesus ever mentioned in Hebrew school or in other Jewish contexts?
There's a lot of Jewish ignorance about Christianity, a lot of fear and mistrust--not so much about Jesus the person but about Christianity as a historical phenomenon. Unfortunately, in every area of Jewish life, you'll find people who have an irrational fear of Christianity. The more serious the Christianity is--for example, evangelical Christianity--the more of a bogeyman it becomes in the mind of some Jews.
RP: I often find it hard to explain to serious Christians exactly how Jews regard Jesus. I remember a conversation I had with a woman on the subway who invited me to a Bible study class. When I explained that I was Jewish and didn't believe Jesus was the Messiah, she exclaimed, "But he was such a great guy!" For a lot of Jews, that's the hardest thing to explain--why we can believe he was a good person, but not the Messiah. Are there a few talking points for Jews you can give us?
There's a lot of misunderstanding among Christians about how a Jew is "saved." Even using that word, you're already using Christian vocabulary. Christians, especially evangelicals, regard Judaism as a system where you purchase salvation with acts, good deeds, sacrifices. That's such a misunderstanding of Judaism.
Jews were assured that we had been "saved"--to use Christian language--at Mount Sinai [where the Jews received the Torah]. The 613 mitzvot--commandments--are our response to being saved. They're the grammar in which we conduct our relationship with God. The relationship has already been given to us as an unmerited gift at Mount Sinai. Just as there's a grammar of your relationship with your parents, your friends, your spouse. It's the same with God and the Jews and the Torah.
When Christians say, "You're receiving the gift of Jesus' sacrifice," it's like they're offering us a gift that we already had, in return for giving up something--namely, our relationship with God expressed through the Torah, through the commandments--that's the essence of what we've been for 3,300 years.
For a non-Jew, the offer of Christianity is wonderful. For a Jew, the offer of Christianity is getting something you already had, and giving up something of eternal, immeasurable worth--namely a unique relationship with God.