Why Bush shouldn’t talk to the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute


A media firestorm kicked up last week after Mother Jones broke the story that President George W. Bush was to be the keynote speaker at the annual fundraiser of the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute on Nov. 14. 

I blogged about the news as soon as I heard about it, and I’ve now had a chance to review what others have written, as well as the online comments. 

Keep in mind, judging the state of the American mind by reading Internet comment sections is like tasting a four-star meal by scooping it out of the garbage disposal. It’s weird and messy and slightly scary. But in Bush v. Jews, one constant refrain emerges: Why are Jews so upset? Religion is a private matter, the majority of commenters say. The people who invited Bush happen to believe Jews need to accept Jesus as the Messiah. The former president wants to speak to them. So what?

So let me explain. There is nothing private about the Irving, Texas-based Messianic Jewish Bible Institute. Its sole purpose is very public — to convince Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah. When Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah, these people believe, Jesus will return to earth and the End Times and Rapture will follow.

That may or may not happen — my guess is we’ll never know. But one thing for certain does occur when Jews believe Jesus is divine: They stop being Jews. This is something all Jews agree on. Think about that for a second: This may be the only thing about which all Jews agree. It’s what makes Jews Jews. 

“‘Jews for Jesus,’” Rabbi David Wolpe wrote on beliefnet.org some years ago, “makes as much sense as saying ‘Christians for Muhammad.’”  

Bush, therefore, is helping to raise money for a group whose reason for being is to stop there being Jews.

It sounds alarmist, but there it is. Success for the group Bush supports would mean no more Jews. 

Of course, that’s not how the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute frames it. It tells those it proselytizes to that they can believe that Jesus is the Messiah and still be Jewish. The thing is, the proselytizers know that not a single Jewish scholar, or text, or tradition, or belief, supports that claim. So, in order to do away with Judaism, they have to lie and engage in subterfuge and double-speak. Bush, a straight shooter, agreed to speak to some of the greatest snake oil salesmen in the great state of Texas.

Keep in mind: Jews have no problem with Christians believing in Jesus. Some of our best friends are Christians. Many Jews, like me, even like and admire Jesus, that fiery Nazarene, for his radicalism, his truth telling, kindness and courage. Don’t forget, as Reza Aslan, author of the Jesus biography “Zealot,” told the Journal, “Jesus was a Jew first and foremost, and everything he said and did has to be understood solely within a Jewish context, that his teachings were simply a form of Judaism that then became what we now call Christianity. He was a fervent, zealous, law-abiding Jew.”

But where we part ways with Christians, where we remain Jews, is that we don’t believe the man was God. 

For the wannabe Bill Mahers out there, this may seem just a foolish fight between two sets of what Louis C.K. calls, “believies.”

But for Jews, the distinction defines us. There are many theological reasons why Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah, but I believe the real reason goes deeper than theology, deeper than text.

For Jews, there is no Father and Son; there is no Trinity: there is only Unity. One. That is a mindset with vast implications for how Jews see the world and behave in it. God is ineffable, certainly not a man, and God’s power lies precisely in that mystery. We accept that the biggest piece of the puzzle is left unsolved — that missing piece is the engine of our spiritual journey. It makes us, as individuals and as a People, inquisitive, skeptical of authority, relatively tolerant, empathetic — for if God is One, we’re all in this together — and eternally dissatisfied. 

That’s why when we start believing in Jesus as God, we stop being Jewish — not just in name, but deep down, in our souls. 

According to its 2011 IRS filing, the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, the group President Bush is supporting, spent $1.2 million attempting to convince Jews around the world not to be Jews. Read through the filing and you’ll see how the group goes about doing this. It spent $69,000 in Ukraine, $79,000 in Russia and a whopping $203,000 in Ethiopia (note to IRS — that seems like an awful lot of money in an inexpensive place where there aren’t many Jews left, anyway). The group spent only $20,000 in Israel, and no expenditures are listed for the United States or Western Europe. 

The Jews of the former Soviet Union, cut off from practicing their religion first by the Holocaust, then by the communists, are among the world’s least educated about Jewish belief and practice. The Messianic Jewish Bible Institute is piggybacking on a century of persecution to reach the low-hanging fruit of Jewish identity.

And now, they have a former American president to give them a boost.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Rabbi: Only messiah can straighten out gay ruling


A few stragglers took a bit longer to formulate their responses to the landmark Supreme Court decision this week on gay marriage.

The National Council of Young Israel wasn’t quite as eloquent as the Orthodox Union, nor as elegiac as Agudath Israel of America, but the essential view is the same.

We oppose homosexual marriage and are disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision that strikes down portions of the Defense of Marriage Act. Pursuant to the tenets of the Jewish faith and in accordance with Torah law, we believe that marriage should only be recognized as a union between a man and a woman, just as it always has been throughout history.

Someone also forwarded me the video response below from an unidentified-yet-very-disappointed Orthodox rabbi with a talent for metaphor. After rehearsing the biblical story of Bilaam — the lesson, if I understand correctly, is that if a donkey engages you in conversation, don’t talk back — he gets to the point.

Any carpenter will tell you that if you want to wed two pieces of wood, you take a zachar and a nekeiva, you take a male and a female, and they fit — one couples with the other. And that’s how you fit two pieces of wood together. You have a male and a female board.

OK, fine. But what if those pieces aren’t wood, but metal? What then?

We can’t speak of marriage, of a wedding. We can speak of a welding. You take two pieces and weld them together. Yes, but they’re not wed together.

But all is not lost. This decision, the rabbi says, has brought humanity so low that it can only herald the End of Days. Maybe, the rabbi says — and here I suspect his metaphorical instinct was entirely unintentional — the messiah will soon come and “straighten us out.”

Messianic Judaism’s new interfaith push in Beverly Hills


Since it opened in 2011, the Interfaith Center of Beverly Hills has been sitting mostly empty.

On the one hand, it occupies a piece of prime real estate on the ground floor of a modern office building on a busy stretch of South Beverly Drive. Actors and agents take meetings at Urth Caffé, less than one block away. Just across the street, machers meet for coffee at Larry King’s Original Brooklyn Water Bagel Co. Although it’s hard to understand exactly what the stark, black letters above the Interfaith Center’s entrance mean, it’s just as hard to miss them.

Yet except for a few classes that take place during the week and a Christian prayer group that sublets the space for Sunday morning services, so few people use the spare storefront at the corner of Gregory Way and South Beverly Drive that the owner of the cafe across the street confessed she hadn’t ever seen anyone go in or out.

“I’d really like to know what goes on there,” said Anahit Hagopian, who owns the BeverLiz Café.

But for one older man who wandered in on a recent Tuesday afternoon — his full beard and long, curled sidelocks looking especially white against the black flat-topped, wide-brimmed hat on his head and his ankle-length black coat — there was little question about what he thought the space’s function was.

“I see a shul, mit seforim …” a synagogue, with scholarly books, he said, speaking a mix of English and Yiddish that would be instantly understandable to any Orthodox yeshiva student.

Despite the mezuzah on its doorframe and the bookshelves lining the back wall, the Interfaith Center isn’t a house of Jewish prayer. It’s the site of a new attempt by Messianic Jews to draw in the mainstream Jewish community.

“It’s not a synagogue,” Stuart Dauermann, a leader in the Messianic Jewish movement, told the old man, who left moments later, a cold can of cola in his hand. “It’s a study center — but not quite a beit midrash either.”

“Not quite this, but also not that,” is a description that might equally apply to Messianic Jews themselves. Some Jewish followers of Jesus — or “Yeshua,” as they call him, using the Christian messiah’s Hebrew name — have no problem calling themselves Christians; others reject that label, and all are, quite simply, not welcome in the mainstream Jewish world.

“Messianic Jewish congregations are not Jewish,” Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said. “And speaking of Jesus as ‘Yeshua’ is often an attempt to hide what a group truly believes in. They have every right to practice what they like, but call it what it is.”

Dauermann — who intersperses his speech with Hebrew and Yiddish words, wears tzitzit (the religiously mandated fringed garment) and says he “feels naked” when studying without his kippah — resists being classified as Christian and describes himself as an observant Jew.

In an interview with The Journal, Dauermann said the mission of the Interfaith Center is to promote “increased understanding between Jews and Christians.”

“We may not have agreement, but we can make progress,” Dauermann, the center’s chief visionary officer, said. Asked what would constitute “progress,” he answered vaguely, pointing to the center’s two-word mission statement, “Rethink religion.”

Dauermann, 67, has been rethinking religion for most of his life. Born into a Conservative Jewish family in Brooklyn, he turned to Jesus when he was 19. A noted composer of Messianic Jewish music, Dauermann has also become a leader within the Messianic Jewish community, which counts about 400 congregations and fellowships in the United States that range in size from a few dozen to a few hundred people.

In 2011, Dauermann stepped down from his post as rabbi of one such congregation, Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue (AZS), also located on Beverly Drive, where he had served for 20 years.

Dauermann said he stepped down from that post because he realized he was getting older and wanted to be “more focused” on his life’s work, namely, “interpreting the Jewish world to the Christian world and, perhaps, interpreting the Christian world to the Jewish world.”

“I spend a lot of time talking to Christians about Jews,” Dauermann said, “improving Christians’ attitudes and behavior toward Jewish people, toward one of greater respect.”

The Interfaith Center isn’t looking to engage with Muslims, Hindus or anyone other than Christians and Jews. Dauermann sees himself as uniquely placed at the “intersection” of those two religions; he wrote the brochure for the Interfaith Center, which mines that vehicular metaphor rather intensively.

“How many conversations or relationships between Christians and Jews you know have ended up as collisions? How many intermarried families do you know that are having their share of relational fender-benders?” reads the text of “Interfaith Intersections,” which can be downloaded from the center’s Web site. “We’re familiar with the intersection, and we’re here to help.”

The identity of the center’s parent organization — the Messianic Jewish Theological Institute (MJTI) — isn’t hidden, per se, but neither is it trumpeted, only appearing in very small print on the brochure’s last panel. Similarly, while mainstream Jewish synagogues often plaster the names of their donors on walls, doors and all manner of other surfaces, the Interfaith Center offers no clear indication of its patronage, and Dauermann declined to identify any of the individuals who support the nonprofit MJTI.

“People like to preserve their privacy,” Dauermann said, “and I believe in derekh eretz [appropriate conduct].”

Nor would Dauermann specify exactly what leasing the space (which was most recently occupied by the high-end clothing retailer Lisa Kline) is costing the center each month. The most recent form filed with the IRS by the nonprofit MJTI covers a period before the opening of the Interfaith Center. That year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2010, MJTI ran a $1.17 million deficit, declaring $178,000 in revenues against $1.35 million in expenses. Most of that money — $773,000 — was devoted to employee salaries and benefits.

Dauermann did dispute the belief held by many neighbors that the center sits empty more often than it is in use, however.

“Daytime activities are not our forte, because most people are not free during the daytime,” he said, “and that’s part of the reason for that perception.”

The center could be more heavily utilized in the near future, Dauermann said, especially once Andrew Sparks, a messianic rabbi who was Dauermann’s partner in developing the Interfaith Center, returns to his duties as the person directly responsible for programming at the center. Sparks was seriously injured in June when he was hit by a car while crossing a street near Beverly Hills. Sparks was not available for comment; Dauermann said he is recovering. 

Although many often equate Messianic Jews with the Jews for Jesus organization, Joshua Brumbach, who took over for Dauermann as rabbi of AZS, said the two are different.

“Jews for Jesus is a Christian missionary organization; they exist to get Jews to convert to Christianity,” Brumbach said. “They attend churches, and they don’t believe that the mitzvot [Jewish religious commandments] are obligatory anymore.”

Messianic Jews, by contrast, want Jews “to be better Jews, instead of less so,” Brumbach said.

Brumbach, 35, said he was born into a Messianic Jewish family and that he studied in a yeshiva in Europe (which he declined to name). He represents a new generation of Messianic Jewish leaders, who are coming to the fore of a movement that has undergone some significant changes in recent years, according to Benzion Kravitz, an Orthodox rabbi who founded the Los Angeles-based counter-missionary organization Jews for Judaism in 1975.

“[It] has evolved from originally just being a ploy to Jews with the goal of getting people through it into the church,” Kravitz said, “to developing into its own movement separate from the church, which is what Stuart Dauermann wants.”

Brumbach would appear to share this goal. He said he is working to update services at AZS, making them “much more participatory, bringing in Carlebach-style melodies to make the davening [prayer] more engaging for young people.”

Kravitz said he tends to ignore Messianic synagogues unless he hears reports about them evangelizing to Jews, and that he hasn’t heard any such complaints about the Interfaith Center. But as a place that explicitly invites Jews to join in conversation with Messianic Jews, Kravitz said that the Interfaith Center is, in his view, “treif,” or unkosher.

“Their mishmash of Judaism and Christianity, in their minds, is the true way to practice Judaism,” he said, “which invalidates Reform, Conservative and Orthodox [Judaism], anything rabbinic.”

Dauermann, for his part, said he understands why many Jews oppose Messianic Jews like him.

“I encourage Jews to live as Jews,” Dauermann said, “and my preference is that they should live as Jews.”

But given that he believes that living as a Jew and believing in Jesus are not incompatible, doesn’t Dauermann want other Jews to accept Jesus as he has?

“I have great respect for the fact that people live their own lives and make their own decisions,” Dauermann said.

Messianic truth in advertising


The growth of the Jews for Jesus and messianic movements in Israel, especially during Israel’s 60th anniversary, is unprecedented and an outcome of unrestrained relationships with fundamentalist Christians.

There are more than 15,000 messianic Jews residing in Israel and more than 275,000 in the Diaspora. Jews for Jesus now has an office in Tel Aviv, with a staff of 10 that includes several Israeli-born messianic Jewish couples, and they have launched a five-year crusade to proselytize Israelis. Last month they spent over $500,000 for full-page ads in four Israeli papers and ads on buses and billboards. They have already handed out more than 75,000 missionary tracts and received contact information from 850 Israelis.

Furthermore, some Israeli politicians and prominent rabbis are associating with messianic Jews, inadvertently lending them credibility. Others rabbis were outraged about a messianic Jew in the International Bible Quiz for Jewish youth and called for a boycott. Of grave concern are the actions of messianic lawyer Calev Myers, who has been fighting in the Israeli Supreme Court for messianic rights, including initiating changes in the law of return that recently enabled a dozen messianic missionaries to become Israeli citizens.

Myers and the messianic movement are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the Israeli public. It is misleading for them to claim that the only difference between messianic Jews and other Jews is their belief that Jesus is the Messiah. This was highlighted by Myers’ recent quote in the Jerusalem Post comparing messianic Jews to messianic Chabadniks. In fact, messianic Jews intentionally avoid mentioning a fundamental difference. In addition to believing Jesus is the Messiah, they believe he is God in the flesh and part of a Trinity. All denominations of Judaism considered these beliefs to be idolatrous for Jews.

As early as 1980, Jews for Jesus founder Moshe Rosen in his book, “Sharing the New Life With a Jew,” advised messianic missionaries to avoid mentioning their belief in the deity of Jesus because it makes witnessing to Jews extremely difficult. Additionally, attempts by the messianic movement to prove their theology from biblical and rabbinic sources are based on misquotations and mistranslations.

Even before Christianity, Jews rejected these anti-Jewish nonmonotheistic beliefs. We also realize they were introduced into Christianity due to the influence of pagan cult gods like Osiris and Dionysus.

Obviously, there are other differences. Messianic Jews accept the Greek New Testament as divinely inspired scripture and they believe that all Jews who don’t believe in Jesus face eternal damnation in hell. However, historically it is their idolatrous beliefs that have ultimately placed “Jews who believe in Jesus” outside the pale of Judaism.

Christian friendship is appreciated; however, we must be cautious and call for truth in advertising by the messianic movement. We should also call on messianic Jews to reject these foreign beliefs and return to the pure monotheistic unity of God that defines our identity and personal relationship with God.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz is the founding director of Jews for Judaism International, which has offices in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Toronto, Jerusalem, Sydney and Johannesburg. He can be reached at RabbiKravitz@JewsForJudaism.org


David: Great Leader or Damaged Hero?


“The Life of David” by Robert Pinsky (Schocken Books, $19.95).

Every morning, pious Jews pray to God that “the offspring of Your servant David may speedily flourish … for we hope for your salvation all day long.”

The hope of future redemption and a return to ancient glory has long been a staple of Jewish life, based upon God’s promise to David that “your house and your kingship shall ever be secure before you; your throne shall be established forever.”

Through exile and persecution, Jews have held fast to that promise, waiting and praying for the Messiah, who will descend directly from the house of David. Not just a figure of hope for the future, though, David himself has played a role in our collective imagination as a great king, a giant-killer, a musician and poet. Legend says that David himself authored most of the Psalms.

But David’s story is far more complex, and far more interesting. He was, though various rabbis have tried to deny it over the centuries, a deeply flawed — and so fully human — character.

It is the complexity of the character that Robert Pinsky, the former poet laureate of the United States, examines in his new book, “The Life of David.” Brought up on a cheder education, Pinsky has been familiar with the figure of David his whole life, and has been drawn to him, because, as he put it in a phone interview (followed up briefly via e-mail), “This is one of the most manifold and interesting lives ever lived. Great writer, great leader, great killer. His family life, his sex life, his political life, his life in art. All richly complicated and enigmatic.”

Indeed, most people know details of the legend of David — the young shepherd who killed Goliath with nothing more than a slingshot; the young king who spied Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop and committed adultery with her.

As Pinsky writes, “It is an essential part of David’s meaning that he is visible at so many stages of life. Not for David to die young like Achilles, nor to endure old age offstage and out of our sight like Odysseus, nor to go down as a grizzled warrior like Beowulf charging into the cold twilight a final time to kill and die for his people … David’s drama is that of a life entire.”

Pinsky bases his treatment of David in the firm belief that he had to have existed, if only because no people would have created a hero so damaged. As the author intended, the book is “not a traditional biography nor an historical novel,” with the result that the telling dips liberally and idiosyncratically into the realms of biblical scholarship, literary criticism and midrashic exegesis to build its vision of a man who emerges as fascinating and very, very dangerous.

Pinsky writes as a poet, which may be difficult for some readers to follow. The later chapters are more solidly chronological, but generally speaking, the text is not organized sequentially, but associatively, looping back and forth, returning to potent images in a sort of refrain. Ultimately, though, the somewhat elevated style parallels the larger-than-life quality of the story it tells.

And what a story it is. David is by turns pious, loving, brutal, coldly calculating. In Pinsky’s hands, the world in which David flourished is revealed as full of “violence and swagger,” with David the master of that world. Although Pinsky never tries to whitewash David’s character — on the contrary, he revels in the contradictions that David presents — the king remains exemplary. Despite dealing with a character who could be thuggish in his dealings with friends and foes alike, Pinsky accepts the Bible’s attitude toward him, resulting in the outline of a man to be admired more than condemned.

David is the great biblical hero, toward whom the text of the Bible inexorably builds and after whom it never quite recovers. So few of us actually read David’s story from start to finish. We have grown accustomed to viewing the Bible through a veil of sacredness, which often obscures the insights it reveals into psychology and politics. As Pinsky noted, “We think we know these figures and their stories, then we understand how we do not, and then in that strangeness, we find something like ourselves in a new way.”

The “Life of David” returns David to where he belongs, not merely in prayer, but to life.

On Tuesday, Sept. 27 at 7 p.m., Robert Pinsky will read from “The Life of David” as part of ALOUD at the Central Library. For more information, call (213) 228-7025 or visit

Longing for the Messiah


When we open our doors at the seder and invite Elijah the Prophet to sip the glass of wine that we have designated for him, we express our longing for

the Messiah. Elijah, in our tradition, will herald the arrival of a ruler who will enable a world of peace. The message of the seder is of hope: God, the Creator, entered history to free us from bondage, providing reason to believe that God will re-enter history to facilitate the final redemption.

Jews believe that the Messiah has not yet come. The test of the authenticity of the Messiah, as we understand our Scripture, is by physical achievement: Is there Jewish independence and universal peace? We have had many who were proclaimed Messiah at one time. Bar Kokhba led a revolt in the year 132 against the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Many Jews, including the beloved Rabbi Akiva who is mentioned in our Passover haggadah, believed that Bar Kokhba was the Messiah. Alas, the revolt failed dismally, Bar Kokhba was killed and Jews kept longing.

The most successful Messiah vis-a-vis the Jewish community arose in the 17th century. According to professor Gershom Scholem, the great historian of Jewish mysticism, close to two out of every three Jews in the world for many months believed that Shabbetai Tzvi (1626-1676) was the man who would bring redemption. It was a time of intense Jewish persecution, marked by massacres in Poland and Russia. Israel was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. Shabbetai Tzvi had a prophet, Nathan, who taught that the time had arrived for the return of the Jews to their homeland. Upon arriving in the capital of Constantinople with the hope of visiting the Sultan, he was arrested. In custody he had considerable freedom and to symbolize the messianic era, he sacrificed a paschal lamb at Passover. Soon afterward, he was given a choice: convert to Islam or die. He converted. Some of his followers said that it was only a test of their faith and that Shabbetai had gone over to the dark side to gather holy sparks. Bottom line: Shabbetai never delivered.

In more recent times, many followers of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, believed that he was the Messiah. There was precedent for such belief among Chasidim. For instance, in the 19th century, followers of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav believed that he would unite and elevate holy sparks enabling the messianic era. During Schneerson’s protracted illness his followers held on to belief that he would proclaim his true cosmic role. It was a time of hope, influenced by the recent fall of the Soviet Empire and the possibility of peace in Israel. Once the Rebbe died, close to 10 years ago, many of his Chasidim asserted that he would be resurrected speedily in our day. Some still cling to that faith.

Messianism is dangerous when it leads to false hopes or the need to convert others. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the 20th century theologian, said that when the Messiah comes, he should refrain from announcing his name, thereby allowing Jews and Christians to welcome the Messiah together. We don’t believe in a Second Coming. Our reading of Scripture has only one coming, which is tested by its success. Moreover, Jewish mysticism and modernity have reinforced that each of us is a partner in the crafting of a world of harmony. Each of us has a role as a peacemaker, beginning with our own homes and communities.

In our tradition, history is a spiral. The same seasons return each year, but there is a forward and upward motion. One day we will celebrate the redemption of all of creation. May that day arrive speedily.

Eli Spitz is senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Tustin.

Why Jews Don’t Accept Jesus


Why don’t Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah or son of God?

Growing up in Philadelphia, I attended Akiba Hebrew Academy, a private Jewish school. In 11th grade, a Southern Baptist preacher came to speak to our class. He looked around the room, and with a kindly smile said, "You seem like nice boys and girls. But I must tell you that unless you change your ways, you are all going to hell." I admired his honesty, but not his theology. I spent the next hour trying to think of a question that would stump him. As the class was ending, I raised my hand.

"Is Jesus perfect?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered.

"Is the Father perfect?" I asked.

"Yes," he said again.

"And is the Holy Ghost perfect?" Once again, he answered affirmatively.

"Well then," I said, "two of the three are superfluous. Perfection does not need anything. That is why it’s perfect. Since by definition, you can’t add anything to perfection, the idea makes no sense."

He paused for a minute, and said, "That is the mystery of the Trinity."

Since that time, I have been intrigued by the deep division between Jews and Christians over the question of Jesus. It has always seemed as crystal clear to me that Jesus was nothing more than a human being, as it has seemed crystal clear to many of my Christian friends that he was the son of God.

There is a long tradition of back and forth about this question, which has become somewhat urgent now that Jews for Jesus has launched a major outreach campaign in Los Angeles. It is not my intention to try to "prove" to Christians that Jesus is not God. I am neither so imperialistic nor so arrogant as to take upon myself such a task. Rather, in the spirit of pluralism, I want Christian readers to understand why Jews have traditionally rejected the Christian understanding of Jesus’ life and mission. Along the way, perhaps I can offer some clarity to Jewish readers who may wonder about many of the same questions.

I am going to stick to a few broad philosophical arguments. One of the most common — and least enlightening — exercises in religious history is the batting back and forth of biblical verses. I think it is fair to say there is no conclusive argument from the Bible, and that Jews and Christians read similar passages very differently.

1. The primary reason that Jews do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah is that after his arrival and death, the world was not redeemed. There is at least as much suffering, pain and tragedy in the world as there was before Jesus — probably much more. If the Christian answers that the suffering is a result of the world’s rejecting Jesus, two related questions arise, which I will take up below: Why did the majority of those who knew him reject him in his own lifetime (as the majority of the world still does today)? And if suffering is a result of rejecting Jesus, why has so much of the suffering historically been inflicted by (and even upon) those who accepted him, that is, Christians?

2. There is reason to believe Jesus himself was a staunch upholder of the law. That which defined early Christianity, the rejection of Mosaic law, might not have been Jesus’ intention at all. As Jesus says, "Think not that I have come to abolish the Torah and the Prophets. I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them. For I truly say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Torah until all is accomplished. Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men to do so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5).

This is not to suggest that Jesus did not differ at certain points with Orthodox rabbinic teachings. But the points of contact are closer and more numerous than is usually supposed, and the variations, from a Jewish point of view, far more problematic.

3. Some of Jesus’ teachings seem to Jews either contradictory or simply immoral. This does not negate the possibility that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but he was far from perfect in his moral outlook. The idea that eternal punishment would follow from rejecting Jesus seems downright evil. That someone could live a noble life and not be saved, when another could live a depraved and cruel life and through a true conversion of his heart at the end of life still be saved, is hard to tote up on the moral balance sheet. I am aware that many Christian groups reject this doctrine today, but for centuries it was normative church doctrine.

The Jesus who said "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother" (Matthew 10:34-37) is not a Jesus whom I can accept as a moral model. The statement is consistent, however, with the Jesus of Luke 14:26, who says, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother and wife and children and brethren and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."

In addition, the Jesus who withers a fig tree because it did not provide him with fruit when he was hungry seems peevish rather than exemplary (Matthew 21:17-19).

There are many remarkable and wonderful teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. However, they are the teachings of a human being, not a God, and many of them — including the most morally enlightened — are paralleled in rabbinic literature. One cannot truly understand Jesus without understanding the climate in which he grew up. When one studies the Talmud, the image of Jesus becomes sharper — and still very impressive — but less original.

Jesus’ criticisms of the rabbis of his day are echoed in the literature of the prophets centuries before. When Hosea writes, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6), or Isaiah thunders, "I cannot endure sin coupled with solemn ceremonies (Isaiah 1:13), we are hearing the same themes Jesus so deftly expounded later on.

4. The idea of the Second Coming seems to have grown out of genuine disappointment. We are told in the Gospels, "Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death till they see the son of man coming in his kingdom." When Jesus died, true believers had to theologically compensate for the disaster. It remains significant, I believe, that the vast majority of people who knew him did not see Jesus as divine. Unless the entire Jewish population of Jerusalem at the time was either wicked or foolish, they — who knew Jesus far better than we — did not respond to his presumed divinity because he was clearly human.

5. The history of Christianity is not such as would persuade Jews that Christians are in possession of a superior moral truth. The history is too long and painful to summarize here, but many good books are available that elaborate on what the historian Jules Isaac called "the teaching of contempt." The thousands, even millions, of innocents who lost their lives, their children, their hope, from a refusal to be other than they were make it difficult to see Christianity in its historical garb in anything but a dark, forbidding light.

The chronicle of Christian anti-Semitism is one of the most gruesome, disheartening chapters of human history. Even the most abominable tragedy, the systematic slaughter of millions in World War II, the Holocaust, cannot be entirely separated from centuries of Christian teachings of the abjectness of the Jew. As the theologian Elieser Berkowitz put it, the Nazis who killed Jews may not have been Christians, but they were all the sons and daughters of Christians.

6. Although many faiths, including some Roman mystery religions, spoke of a man/god, Judaism sought to keep clear the boundaries between the human and the divine. The blurring was taken to be the sign of betrayal of the tradition.

7. Jesus did place great emphasis on internal spirituality. This was not because he was more spiritually advanced, but because society was more advanced materially. Moses had to set up a system of courts, of civil and criminal law. Jesus was born in Rome, with the most advanced civil society of the time. He did not need to discuss external rites, either religious or civil. They were taken care of by Roman law and the developed Jewish law. In this sense, Islam bears a closer kinship to Judaism; it, too, is a religion of law, necessitated by Mohammed’s melding desert tribes into a religious community, much in the manner of Moses. Hence, as Moses Montefiore said of Jesus, "Public justice is outside his purview."

8. The idea that one can be saved only through Jesus is contrary to simple compassion and justice. Judaism teaches that "the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come." Maimonides writes in a letter that there are non-Jews who "bring their souls to perfection." That is the simple truth that all faiths should acknowledge and celebrate. Otherwise, there can be no kinship. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote about attempts to convert the Jews: "How can we take seriously a friendship that is conditioned ultimately on the hope and expectation that the Jew will disappear? How would a Christian feel if we Jews were engaged in an effort to bring about the liquidation of Christianity?"

A related note: There are some today who speak of themselves as "Jews for Jesus." This is nonsense. It makes as much sense as saying "Christians for Mohammed." A Jew who accepts Jesus has cut himself off from the faith community of Jews, and that has been so for 2,000 years. Moreover, that Christians argue with the Jewish community about the legitimacy of "Jews for Jesus" is presumption of a high order. I would not presume to tell Christians who is a Christian and emphatically reject the idea that the Christian community can tell me who qualifies as a Jew.

Many Jewish thinkers have seen Jesus as they have seen Mohammed — as God’s instrument to advance monotheism in the world. Franz Rosenzweig spoke of Judaism as the sun — that is the source — and Christianity as the rays of the sun — that which spreads monotheism to the world. The great Jewish philosopher Maimonides saw Islam and Christianity as the preparation for God’s eventual kingdom.

Jesus exercises a powerful historical fascination. He was, without doubt, a profound and enigmatic personality. Nonetheless, he remains, for many Jews, a man whose wisdom and wit place him among the great teachers of humanity — but is neither a Messiah nor a God.

For those who wish to explore this further, there are no end of books addressing the complex, fascinating relations between Christianity and Judaism. A polemical work, which illustrates how Jews answer the various verses in the Torah taken to be referring to Jesus by many Christians, is "You Take Jesus, I’ll Take God" by Samuel Levine (Hamoroh, 1980). A more ecumenical examination is the work of the renowned scholar Jacob Neusner, "A Rabbi Talks With Jesus" (McGill-Queens University Press, 2000). For those interested in how the rabbis anticipated Jesus’ teachings, one book worth reading is by the Christian scholar Brad Young, "Jesus, the Jewish Theologian" (Hendrickson Publishers, 1995).


David Wolpe is the senior rabbi of Sinai Temple.