No Easy Answers to the Jesus Question
“Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History,” by David Klinghoffer (Doubleday, $24.95).
I worked, for a number of years, in a vibrant and fiercely Zionist summer camp in the Catskills. It was a regular feature of our educational program, about a week into every session, to present the “the Jesus discussion” or “Jesus sicha.” The most venerable Jewish educator in camp would explain the development of Christianity, the historical background of early and Pauline Christianity and the basic differences between the two religions.
The Jesus sicha was a searing experience for adolescents. In their semi-assimilated upbringings, in their Aryan high schools, they had been furtively appeasing their non-Jewish friends, trying to get along. But here was a Judaism strongly defined against Christianity, that relates how Christianity had arisen as a heresy of Judaism, and one, we argued, that was a flawed and somewhat degenerate heresy. The experience was affirming, threatening and liberating for the young people. And over the years, many alumni of the camp named the Jesus sicha as one of the great bulwarks in their resistance to assimilation.
The ideas in the Jesus sicha were hardly novel. Many went back to the disputations at Barcelona, and the counselors who imparted our version were much influenced by Abba Hillel Silver’s “Where Judaism Differed.” Dennis Prager and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin made a good presentation of the same material in their “Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism,” and these ideas remain part of the popular parlance in Jewish education. Christians are also interested in the moment in which Christianity split from Judaism, and there’s a cottage industry of books from that side of the divide as well.
In his new book, David Klinghoffer exhaustively recounts the history of Judaism’s debate with its Christian heresy, from late antiquity through the medieval period. Perhaps he is reinventing the wheel, in light of the prior sources cited, but every generation needs its own Jesus sicha, and he does a respectable job, especially helpful for the general reader. At the same time, a number of factual errors, a deficiency in scholarship and Klinghoffer’s own political biases are likely to render his work a curio of its time.
Following a historical model, Klinghoffer poses the usual challenges offered by mainstream Christianity and lays out their classical Jewish refutations. He is exhaustive in this task, reviewing most of the possible biblical debates, but no more exhaustive, obsessive or tendentious than the average evangelical acolyte. Klinghoffer relies on the research of many scholars, including E.P. Sanders, George Moore, Geza Vermes and Paula Frederiksen. (He is dismissive of Frederiksen’s involvement in the brouhaha over Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ,” even as he acknowledges her help in some of the technical research that was obviously beyond him. Such is kavod today, I suppose.) Oddly, the recent documenters of the historical Jesus, such as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, seem largely absent from this work.
Klinghoffer presents “neither an ethical nor an apocalyptic but instead a foxy, ambiguous Jesus.” Oddly, however, he does not follow the obvious recourse of contextualizing his concept of a “foxy” Jesus by considering the biases of the different gospels. He elides the interest of Luke in spirits and the occult, of Matthew in Jewish nationalism and of Mark in the miracle accounts, although these emphases clarify an understanding of the historical Jesus. Also, Klinghoffer accepts and repeats many of the colorful accounts of Josephus, although contemporary scholars view Josephus as undependable because of his relentless, self-serving mendacity.
In the end, Klinghoffer correctly points out that the arguments for Christianity against Judaism succeed or fail according to the perspective of the debaters. One conditioned by Jewish understandings of scripture and life’s existential dilemmas looks askance at Christianity. Whereas Christians, who view Jesus’ centrality as a given, are puzzled as to why Jews don’t want to buy in. Klinghoffer correctly observes that Jews who embrace Christianity are typically disaffected, marginal Jews, who are seldom affiliated with the Jewish community. Klinghoffer points out, instructively for Christian readers, the initial Jewish response to the burgeoning Christian movements, which was underwhelmed skepticism, puzzlement and eventual disbelief.
Of course, one can poke holes in the gospel accounts all day, or discredit Paul’s credentials as a Pharisee, but the average lay gentile doesn’t want to hear it. Rather, as the success of the clumsily written “DaVinci Code” suggests, people would prefer to project every possible fantasy onto the much-vaunted Gnostic gospels, as if they contained a response to the repressive nature of conventional Christianity. In fact, a literate Jew reading the alternative gospels found in the Nag Hammadi trove might feel some sympathy for the early church fathers, for the Gnostic gospels were full of errant nonsense and probably deserved to be struck from the canon.
Klinghoffer is no talmudist and his understanding of Jesus’ relationship to the law is received from others. Nor does he quite register the nuances of Jesus’ rather consistent impatience, in every gospel, with the nature of Talmudic casuistry. This impatience is different from an argument against the oral law as a whole. Certainly, Christianity, as it developed under Paul’s leadership, was the great parting of the ways for the two faiths. Klinghoffer observes that the Jews “saw Paul as a faker … and they were right.”
Under the surface of this book is a contemporary polemic that not every Jew will find attractive. Klinghoffer declares that Christianity was “part of God’s plan” to bring about Western society and American civilization. This philo-Christian mysticism is Klinghoffer’s notion of the Divine predestination of the Christian idea: “Because the Jews rejected Paul, there is such a thing as Christian civilization.” He repeatedly asserts that the Jews created Western civilization by rejecting Christianity. Thus, if Christianity hadn’t gone its own way, then the world we know would not exist. However, the implications of this thought are as useless as wondering what would have happened to me if Mommy had never met Daddy.
Klinghoffer, as well, comes off as rather a na?f about the history of the 20th century. He is unfairly dismissive of Eliezer Berkovitz’ fierce rejection of the 1965 Vatican II Council’s “forgiving” of Jews for Jesus’ death. If Klinghoffer had been informed of the church’s forgiveness by his playmates, as I was, he might be less sanguine. Berkovitz, in angrily dismissing the church’s newfound desire for rapprochement, showed exemplary courage and moral clarity, which Klinghoffer dismisses with an airy “that’s one way of doing it.”
Klinghoffer seems to think that the anti-Semitism of the 19th and early 20th centuries was some sort of delusion on the part of those who “made the … bargain with their major donors … to discover new domestic threats of Jewish safety.” This dismissal of the origins, motivation and utility of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) is unhistorical, at very least. Perhaps Klinghoffer believes that the machinations of Henry Ford and Father Coughlin, or the closing of the borders of America to refugees of Hitler’s Europe, were scams by the ADL.
Elsewhere, Klinghoffer has documented his late embrace of Judaism. Whatever one might think of recent examples of poor leadership by the Holocaust industry, to dismiss the moral relevance of the ADL reflects a very short memory, or no communal memory at all. In this, he is not alone in his generation. Among our rabbinical students at the University of Judaism, I have encountered students who dismissed the significance of Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Is it possible to chasten them too harshly?
Klinghoffer’s historical analogies are often just wrong. His portrayal of the origins of German Reform Judaism, which he compares to the debased Hellenistic Judaism of antiquity, is insulting to generations of modern Jewish philosophers and the noble dimensions of the Western haskalah, the enlightenment. He makes much of one of the most famous unfounded assertions of contemporary scholarship: That there was familial overlap between the last generations of the followers of false messiah Shabbatai Zevi and the first acolytes of German Reform. There is manifestly no proof for this in the historical record.
Such tendentious issues limit the book’s value for a certain stratum of readers, but Klinghoffer’s work remains useful for most others who find the subject compelling.
There remains, after all, an ongoing interest in the great moment when the old, national and cultural Judaism parted company from one of its heretical sects. And how this sect, Christianity, evolved into a moveable, cross-cultural faith, freed of the cultural baggage of its progenitor. This new faith mutated in ways that made it portable and aggressive, and able to conquer a vastly larger segment of the world.