Jesus Who?

Between the time that college ended and life began, I lived in San Francisco. My confusion must have shown on my face plain as day, because wherever I went, missionaries approached me and asked whether I had a personal relationship with Jesus.

When I shook my head, my hand quickly filled with a pamphlet or two, which I scanned, then deposited in a garbage can a block or two away. I never refused the brochure, and I never tossed it out in front of them — I may have been lost, but I wasn’t rude.

It wasn’t until I began working here, at The Jewish Journal, that I realized how wrong I had been. Of course I have a personal relation to the man we call Jesus and Christians call Christ. Every Jew, whether he wants to or not, whether he’s aware of it or not, must confront his rejection of a belief that those around him embrace. His rejection will at best set him apart, at worst cause him grave injury.

Sometimes Jesus becomes a pressing issue. Last year’s controversy over Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of the Christ” revealed gaping ignorance among those who believe “the Jews” killed Jesus, and also among those Jews who believe that, since they weren’t around in the time of Jesus, the controversy has nothing to do with them.

For David Klinghoffer, the issue was joined in 1982. He was attending UCLA, minding his own business, when a Jew for Jesus named Sid approached him and asked him that personal-relationship question. Sid could cite passages from the Bible and Gospels that proved Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and Klinghoffer, whose Jewish education hadn’t exceeded the obligatory trinity of High Holidays, Israel and Passover, didn’t know enough to argue otherwise.

The experience set Klinghoffer on a path toward Orthodoxy and religious inquiry, and the latest result is his new book, “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday, 2005).

One of the parts I most enjoyed was his overview of the historical phenomenon called the disputation. These were organized debates set up throughout the Middle Ages in which learned Jews were compelled to debate Christian scholars on matters of theology.

Many disputations were like crooked poker games in Hollywood Westerns: If you lost, you were run out of town; if you won, you got shot.

If a Jewish scholar did well, there followed pogroms or public Talmud burnings.

The event The Journal co-sponsored Monday evening with the University of Judaism, at which Christians and Jews discussed the Jewish rejection of Jesus, reflected just how far society has advanced, at least by one measure: Although there are a billion Christians and a few million Jews, this dialogue proved a conversation among equals, as panelist Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson pointed out.

The only heated moments came when Artson, the head of the Conservative Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, clashed with Klinghoffer on issues of halachic interpretation. When that happened, the Catholic on the panel, the Rev. Alexei Smith, rhetorically stepped in to separate the two.

All panelists agreed on the importance of such discussions. As a minority culture, Klinghoffer said, “many of us will have to explain to our children why we’re not Christian.”

Artson said that when he was a congregational rabbi in Orange County, he taught all his b’nai mitzvah students about Jesus. He encouraged his congregants to read the Gospels.

“You never thought you’d hear that from a rabbi,” Artson said. “Jews have this concept of theological cooties, but the Gospels aren’t contagious.”

Discussion won’t prove or disprove anyone’s belief. “For a person of faith,” said Smith, the ecumenical and religious affairs officer for the L.A. Archdiocese, “no proof is required.”

Religious dialogue and debate can sharpen one’s own understanding, shine more light on one’s beliefs. To that end, the self-defense reasons for learning about Jesus and Christianity — standing up to anti-Semites or political or cultural opponents — pale in comparison to the self-enlightening reasons: to better understand the faith that guides the lives of so many of our neighbors (including our president), and to deepen our understanding of our own small, unique faith. Even Christian opinions of our eternal fate can be enlightening, not threatening.

“The fact that other people think I’m going to hell is not my problem,” Artson said, “unless they plan to do something about it now.”

So why did the Jews reject Jesus as the messiah? Or, more accurately, why did some Jews do so?

For a complete answer, read the book, read the Gospels, study and reflect. But a short answer was provided by Klinghoffer, who said that for Jews, the Messiah’s appearance will not be accompanied by the least bit of doubt, uncertainty or contention.

“When the Messiah comes,” Klinghoffer said, “there won’t be panel discussions.”