It is time to examine this complaint and investigate what is really going on when Christians voice it. What we will find is that this accusation is not about Christ's death at all.
The story of the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus is the climax of the account in the Christian Bible of how a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth is revealed to be the second person of the Trinity. The several accounts of these events do not agree on assigning blame for the crucifixion. They vary in whether they portray the Romans or the Jews as the major actors. Inevitably, Jews themselves--and their friends within the Christian community--have been busy for generations arguing that Jesus was crucified at the orders of the Roman commander in Palestine; Jews simply no longer held such sovereign power in the land.
I have thought for a long time that the argument about the crucifixion of Jesus is entirely beside the point, and I have recently been confirmed in my view by rereading the book of Luke. "Was it not necessary," Luke writes (24:26), "that the Christ should suffer these things and enter to his glory?" The point is made, over and over again, that Jesus willed his own crucifixion as necessary to his mission to atone for the sins of all humankind.
This makes theological sense. If the crucifixion was necessary to atone for a cosmic trauma, "the fall of man," then it was a necessary and inevitable expression of divine intention. Mere men, whether Roman or Jew, could not have crucified one person of the Trinity; that is, they could not have nailed an aspect of God Himself to a cross to die painfully, in degradation, there.
The only way that arguing about guilt for the crucifixion makes any sense is to deny the fundamental tenet of Christian theology that Jesus was the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity. If this is denied, the argument is then reduced to the question of who was responsible for the terrible end of the life of a carpenter from Nazareth.
The central point of this painful discussion is that the issue between Jews and Christians is not, and never has been, "Christ killing." Neither Jews nor Romans could have killed Christ. The real issue is "Christ rejecting."
It was true, and remains true today, that the mainstream of the Jewish people refused to accept the Christian message when it was first announced. Judaism has gone its own way, bearing its version of biblical truth. There are Christians, such as Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, one of the Vatican's chief theologians, who understand this issue. His most recent assessment of non-Christians was to assert that they are defective human beings. From my perspective, as a Jew and a rabbi, this is a disgraceful assertion, but it does make some kind of theological sense. It is an "explanation" of Christ rejection: Only defective human beings could be guilty of such foolishness, says the cardinal, but he seems to understand that he cannot, at one and the same time, believe in the divinity of Jesus and accuse anyone of having killed him on the cross against His will.
The time has come to deal with the question of the age-old theological quarrel between Judaism and Christianity in terms of the question that really matters. Why do Jews and Christians read the Hebrew Bible differently? Why do Jews interpret the Hebrew Bible in the light of rabbinic teaching as recorded in the Talmud, while Christians read the Hebrew Bible through the teaching of the New Testament? We might then discover that the biblical God was far more expansive in His love of humankind than our narrowest theologians ever imagined.