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?
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.
LS: In your book, you talk about meeting a window washer in Seattle who is sincerely puzzled that Jews don't accept Jesus. Many Christians feel there's this overwhelming stack of evidence--usually connections made between the New Testament and the Hebrew scriptures--"proving" that Jesus is the promised Messiah. What should both Christians and Jews know when a Christian says, "clearly Isaiah shows that Jesus is the one"?
One thing to know is that for every Christian claim about, for example, Isaiah 53 [which describes a "suffering servant" who is persecuted to redeem the sins of his people], there's a Jewish response.
You can make an intelligent case from Isaiah 53 on behalf of Jesus. You can construe the Hebrew prophets as if they pointed forward to Jesus. But you can construe them to mean lots of different things. Shabbatai Zevi, the false messiah of the 17th century--his followers used those very same texts, including Isaiah 53, to prove that Shabbatai Zevi had to undergo suffering as the Messiah. You can use these texts to prove virtually anything.
LS: And your book says first-century Palestine was full of would-be Messiahs--a lot of people going around [like Jesus] with healing powers and other things.
Right. For Jews to give up the unique relationship with God that we have on the basis of a plausible, but by no means the only plausible, interpretation of scripture, is asking a lot.
There are one or two verses in the Hebrew Bible that some Christians will point to as showing that the laws were going to be transcended or discarded. But if you look at the context, those verses, to my mind, don't indicate that.
But even if you thought the Christian interpretation was plausible, it's only a couple of verses. To base a decision to give up Torah on a couple of ambiguous verses in Jeremiah is not, to me, a serious response for a Jew. For a Christian, who defines his spirituality through the lens of the New Testament, it's different. The Christian prioritizes the new over the old.
LS: What do Jews believe the Messiah will be like, and how does Jesus differ from this?
The Messiah will change the world. There won't be any question about whether he's come.
LS: It will be completely obvious?
Yes. There's no indication that it will be a test if someone accepts him. In my book, I make the analogy of seeing a woman who's clearly pregnant, and then later her stomach is flat. There's no need to ask, "Did you have the baby?"
The trite response is, "Jesus didn't bring world peace." That's just the beginning. Ezekiel describes the third temple being built in the time of the Messiah--things anyone with eyes can verify.
Some Christians will say, it's a two-part process.
LS: Or they'll say it's metaphorical.
Well, if it's metaphorical, then everything's up for grabs. They'll be inconsistent about what's literal and what's metaphorical; Jews have a tradition that tells us what to understand literally and what figuratively.
LS: So the Christian interpretation of the rebuilt temple being Jesus' resurrection--that kind of symbolic, metaphorical reading--just doesn't work in terms of Jewish beliefs about the Messiah? You're saying the actual temple will be there. It will be an actual stone building?
There's no question. In the last chapter of Ezekiel, he describes a temple in great detail, down to exact measurements. The measurements are all wrong if it's supposed to be the First or Second Temple. So either he's describing something that's never going to happen or something that will happen.
Christians and Jews who take prophecy seriously can't understand his very architectural description as a metaphor. It clearly hasn't happened yet.RP: I had never realized that Jesus was censored from the Talmud. You write that all mentions of Jesus were removed in the 16th century to avoid Christian wrath. I wonder if we would have been saved a lot of interfaith relations problems later if he had been left in. How did that happen and why?
There are a handful of references to Jesus in the pre-censored text of the Talmud. I struggled with whether to bring this up in my book, because some of them are off-color and offensive, certainly to Christians.
RP: Offensive because of the way Jesus is depicted?
The Talmud described his being punished after death--in a way that is clearly meant to be a metaphor. The story is a vision of villains suffering in hell, and one is of Jesus in hell [for 70 years]. It's clearly a metaphor, because Jews don't believe people suffer in hell longer than a year.
LS: So Jews believe people suffer in hell for a year?
Up to a year, if you've committed evils and haven't repented. In Jewish terms, it's not possible for Jesus to have been in hell 70 years after he died. It's clearly meant as a metaphor.
Nevertheless, I struggled with whether to bring things like that up at all. Why hurt the feelings of Christians? In many ways, it's the most religious Christians who are our very best friends--because they are friends of Israel and are on our side morally. But I ultimately decided that you can't write an honest history of the Jewish-Christian debate about Jesus without bringing up some disturbing things. The truth is, anti-Semites are already aware of this.
LS: What do Jews wish Christians understood about their feelings about Jesus?
I'd like them to understand that there is a serious and pretty massive response to Jewish arguments on behalf of Jesus. The story I tell in the book about being evangelized--that happens not infrequently. My friend Michael Medved, who speaks to a lot of Christian groups, tells me he gets asked about five times a week by Christians, in effect, "You seem like such a wonderful person, why don't you accept Jesus?"
It's not out of ignorance or impiety or not caring that Jews remain Jews. It's because we take the Hebrew Bible seriously. Christians, especially evangelicals--who also take the Hebrew Bible very seriously--should be able to understand that.In a sense, I welcome Christian evangelism, because I think it's a very healthy challenge and prod to Jews. In my own case, my whole journey to Orthodox Judaism started because I got into an argument with a Jew for Jesus in 1982 on the UCLA campus. He argued with me about Isaiah 53 and showed me I didn't know anything about my inherited religion. I was disturbed by that, and it made we want to go out and learn more about the religion I'd been raised in.
For a lot of Jews it's the same. We sort of blithely go along and say, "To be a Jew means we don't believe in Jesus," which is nonsense. Christians, when they evangelize us in their sweet, respectful way-which is always the case in my experience-are challenging us to learn more about our own religion.
RP: At the same time, Jews spend millions each year on counter-missionary efforts. I doubt whether most Jews would say, "evangelism is a blessing." I'm friendly with the guys at Jews for Judaism. They do a great job. I don't mean this in an insulting way to Christians, but when your body gets an infection it produces antibodies, and the antibodies are good to have around. Jews for Judaism wouldn't exist if it were not for Jews for Jesus. Jews for Jesus doesn't have a lot of success attracting actual Jews. A lot of the people who attend Messianic synagogue are not Jewish by birth.
LS: There have been many recent debates about religion in the public square. But do Jews feel uncomfortable seeing a creche scene on someone's lawn, or a crucifix or painting in someone's home?
There are definitely Jews who, while driving around a non-Jewish neighborhood and seeing a depiction of the Nativity on someone's lawn, would think "Oh, it's evangelism." It's a minority of Jews, but there are some Jews who have a very thin skin about any hint of any religion whatsoever. Not that they would take offense at a crucifix in someone's home, but they might feel "they might try to evangelize me." There's a weird fear, as if Jews haven't learned how to say "no thank you." I don't understand the fear, but it's definitely there.
LS: For many Christians, the Hebrew scriptural links are prioritized, as you said, according to how well they mesh with the story of Jesus. The interpretations are so ingrained. It's a big conundrum--how to gently explain to Christians that the evidence linking the Old Testament and New Testament isn't quite as self-evident as most Christians believe.
The only point where I disagree is "gently." My preference is for vigorous civilized debate in these issues.
LS: What about on a more personal level--when you're in someone's living room?
Yeah, for sure. We live in a really special time when Jews and Christians for the first time can discuss these questions in a spirit of friendship and love, not in a spirit of being threatened or angry. We should take that opportunity and not pretend it's still the Middle Ages when a Jew could get killed for saying the wrong thing.