Growing up in Philadelphia, I attended Akiba Hebrew Academy, a private Jewish school. In 11th grade, a Southern Baptist preacher came to speak to our class. He looked around the room, and with a kindly smile said, "You seem like nice boys and girls. But I must tell you that unless you change your ways, you are all going to hell."
I admired his honesty, but not his theology. I spent the next hour trying to think of a question that would stump him. As the class was ending, I raised my hand.
"Is Jesus perfect?" I asked.
"Yes," he answered.
"Is the Father perfect?" I asked.
"Yes," he said again.
"And is the Holy Ghost perfect?" Once again, he answered affirmatively.
"Well then," I said, "two of the three are superfluous. Perfection does not need anything. That is why it's perfect. Since by definition, you can't add anything to perfection, the idea makes no sense."
He paused for a minute, and said, "That is the mystery of the Trinity."
Since that time, I have been intrigued by the deep division between Jews and Christians over the question of Jesus. It has always seemed as crystal clear to me that Jesus was nothing more than a human being, as it has seemed crystal clear to many of my Christian friends that he was the Son of God.
There is a long tradition of back and forth about this question. It is not my intention to try to "prove" to Christians that Jesus is not God. I am neither so imperialistic nor so arrogant as to take upon myself such a task. Rather, in the spirit of pluralism, I want Christian readers to understand why Jews have traditionally rejected the Christian understanding of Jesus' life and mission. Along the way, perhaps I can offer some clarity to Jewish readers who may wonder about many of the same questions.
I am going to stick to a few broad philosophical arguments. One of the most common--and least enlightening--exercises in religious history is the batting back and forth of biblical verses. I think it is fair to say there is no conclusive argument from the Bible, and that Jews and Christians read similar passages very differently.
1. The primary reason that Jews do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah is that after his arrival and death the world was not redeemed. There is at least as much suffering, pain, and tragedy in the world as there was before Jesus--probably much more. If the Christian answers that the suffering is a result of the world's rejecting Jesus, two related questions arise, which I will take up below: Why did the majority of those who knew him reject him in his own lifetime (as the majority of the world still does today)? And if suffering is a result of rejecting Jesus, why has so much of the suffering historically been inflicted by (and even upon) those who accepted him, that is, Christians?
2. 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. As Jesus says, "Think not that I have come to abolish the Torah and the Prophets. I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For I truly say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Torah until all is accomplished. Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men to do so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5).
3. Some of Jesus' teachings seem to Jews either contradictory or simply immoral. This does not negate the possibility that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but he was far from perfect in his moral outlook. The idea that eternal punishment would follow from rejecting Jesus seems downright evil. That someone could live a noble life and not be saved, when another could live a depraved and cruel life and through a true conversion of his heart at the end of life still be saved, is hard to tote up on the moral balance sheet. I am aware that many Christian groups reject this doctrine today, but for centuries it was normative church doctrine.
The Jesus who said (in Matthew 10:34-37), "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother" is not a Jesus whom I can accept as a moral model. The statement is consistent, however, with the Jesus of Luke 14:26, who says, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."
In addition, the Jesus who withers a fig tree because it did not provide him with fruit when he was hungry seems peevish rather than exemplary (Matthew 21:17-19).