Friday, December 21, 2012

A Jewish View of Jesus

Several years ago when I was a synagogue rabbi, I had an interesting and eye-opening experience. Our synagogue was host to 38 eighth graders from St. Joseph's Catholic School. They were studying about world religions and their teacher brought them to the synagogue to learn about Judaism. Before my presentation, I asked them to write down any question they had about Jews and our religion, and the one question that came up a dozen times or more was this one;  "What do Jewish people think about Jesus?"Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of "Jewish Literacy," talks about Jesus as a young observant Jew, who grew up in provincial Galilee. Jesus spoke Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew that was the language of the marketplace, the street and the family table. Jesus never questioned his allegiance to the Jewish faith, a religion that was already a thousand years old at the time of his birth. Rabbi Telushkin goes on to add that Jesus lived within the community of Jews, paid his dues to the Temple and attended the "Bet Knesset," the Jewish house of assembly – or, to use the Greek term, the synagogue.

In the Christian New Testament we find that Jesus was a law-abiding, highly nationalistic Jew, who was deeply concerned about the morals and ethics of the society in which he lived. Like many of the great rabbis within the Jewish tradition, Jesus believed in the Torah—the Five Books of Moses that Christians refer to as the "Old Testament." Jesus believed what the Torah taught about the central theme of the Jewish religion, which is, "What is hateful to you do not do to another." As a good Jew, Jesus preached, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself."

Christ the Redeemer, Andrea del Sarto
What was Jesus like? We Jews turn to Jewish scholars who tell us that at the time when Jesus was growing up, there was great activity in the ancient Jewish community which boasted more than 26 different Jewish denominations. As a young man, Jesus was attracted to one of these.

Historians believe that Jesus joined a branch of Judaism called the "Essenes."  They were highly disciplined, lived communally and pooled their resources and income. Jesus' long hair wasn't just an artist's depiction. It was accurate. For religious reasons the Essenes deliberately did not cut their hair and Jesus followed in that tradition—the same tradition that Samson followed, because he also was an Essene.

Most likely Jesus dressed in a loose fitting linen or wool garment, with four fringed corners, (described in the Book of Numbers) which was the typical dress of the pious Jew.  And when we Jews wear the tallit (the prayer shawl) today, we are wearing the vestiges of the long garment that religious Jews, like Jesus, wore in ancient times.

Some Jewish scholars believe that Jesus may have been a prophet, in the style of Micah, one of our own recognized prophets. Micah was courageous and fearless in his denunciation of the leaders of Judean society who often used their position to abuse the disadvantaged. Like Micah, Jesus had a deep sympathy for the underdog, the poor, and the victims of social injustice. Yet many scholars believe that Jesus never saw himself as the founder of a new religion.

The Last Supper, near to Stamford, Lincolnshire
Jews and Christians have more in common than many might think. Most of us are aware that Jesus was observing the Jewish holiday of Passover when he celebrated “The Last Supper.” But there are more examples of our common heritage – a heritage that affirms that the values and ethics that are attributed to Jesus are the values and ethics that are the bedrock of the Jewish tradition.

If Jesus said, "Love your enemy," then he got it from the Jewish tradition that tells us that "if your enemy is hungry or thirsty, give him food and drink." And if Jesus did indeed say, "Turn the other cheek," he was talking about the essence of his own Jewish traditions from the book of Lamentations, which tells Jews, "He gives his cheek to him that smites him.”
Jews appreciate Jesus, just as we appreciate Micah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and all the other prophets and holy men and women of ancient times. We hold Jesus in esteem because we Jews are grateful to Jesus for teaching Torah, for living Torah and for being the fine Jewish man that he was.