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Rabbi Jesus?

Dear Friends,

Reverend Matthew Wright of Woodstock’s St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church and I are currently teaching a class for the Lev Shalem Institute called “Judaism and Christianity: Shared Origins, Different Paths.” The class meets every Thursday from 12:15-2pm at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, and we have five more meetings in this particular series. About 40 people are participating, a wonderful mixture of Christians and Jews. It has been so fascinating and energizing that we may decide to schedule another installment.

Faced with so many centuries of accumulated competition, mistrust, and – I must be frank – relentless Christian anti-Semitism, the fact that we are ready to engage in a mutual exploration of our common roots is heartening and exciting. As a Jew, I have many good reasons to be skeptical when Christians approach me for a discussion about faith. But I am determined to get past my own knee-jerk generalizations and prejudices about other groups of people. As I open myself to real dialogue, I continue to meet Christians who are both deeply committed to their Christian faith and deeply committed to the difficult work of transforming that faith so that it no longer needs to justify itself at the expense of the Jews. There is a sea change taking place in many parts of the Christian world in recognition of a past and a theology that need to be confronted and addressed. Of course, there are still large segments of the Christian world that remain attached to retaining the Jews as the villains and victims of their story. But many Christians are actively working to transform their tradition’s relationship to Judaism and to Jews.

Perhaps this change was precipitated by the horror of the Holocaust. Certainly the Second Vatican Council heralded a new era and paradigm when 50 years ago it published Nostra Aetate (In Our Time). It declared the Jewish People to be the “elder brother” of Christians, and also affirmed that the Jewish People’s covenant with God was still active and intact. Speaking with my Christian clergy friends, it is clear to me that times have changed. The course that Reverend Wright and I are teaching reflects that increasing respect and openness.

As one engages in this inquiry of common origins, perhaps the most shockingly obvious realization is that Jesus was a Jew. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua. His mother Mary’s name was Miriam. Jesus lived among, studied with, and preached to other Jews throughout his life. What can we learn about our commonalities if we read the teachings of Jesus in this context?

One thing that becomes clear is that Jesus’ teachings were not unique. Rather they deeply reflect the core teachings of Rabbi Hillel, the central “founding father” of rabbinic Judaism. Hillel’s approach to Judaism set the tone for all generations of Jewish teachers that would follow him. In other words, Hillel represents the best of mainstream Jewish teachings. Hillel died around the time of Jesus’ birth, and when we compare even a few of their sayings, we can clearly find the themes that they shared. For example:

Hillel, when asked by a prospective convert to Judaism to teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one leg, replied: “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go and learn.” Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a

Jesus taught: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets (meaning the entire Torah).” Matthew 7:12

Hillel taught: Do not judge another until you have stood in his place. Pirkei Avot 2:5

Jesus taught: Do not judge and you will not be judged. Luke 6:37

Hillel taught: Be of the disciples of Aaron–a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves all people and draws them close to Torah. Pirkei Avot 1:12

Jesus taught: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God Matthew 5:9

My preliminary conclusion is that Jesus was an inspiring Jewish teacher – a rabbi, perhaps – preaching in the lineage of the followers of Hillel. Can Jews possibly begin to study Jesus’ teachings in this light? Can Christians who wish to access the historical figure of Jesus begin to accept that he was a Jewish teacher, and study the teachings of Judaism in this light? I am fascinated by these possibilities, and there is a burgeoning literature devoted to these questions. I have especially been learning from Jesus, First Century Rabbi by my colleague Rabbi David Zaslow and The Jewish Annotated New Testament, edited by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Brettler.

Of course, in the decades after Jesus’ death a rift developed between those Jews who believed he was the Messiah and those who negated these claims. In future classes we will be exploring how this rift eventually led to the creation of a new religion, Christianity, and how anti-Semitism became sewn into the theology of the early Church. A truly consequential question hovers over our exploration: can Jews and Christians heal the rift between us, not by melding together but by understanding and reclaiming our shared origins? I am excited by the potential of our dialogue to alter the ways in which we see each other and value and learn from each other’s traditions and teachings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan