Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Jews and the Jesus Problem

In an essay in The Forward, Jay Michaelson writes about the Jesus issue in the Jewish community:

"One wonders when, if ever, we Jews will be able to heal from the trauma of Christian oppression and actually learn from, while still differentiating ourselves from, Christian teaching and tradition. Along my own spiritual path, I’ve been amazed at how much I learn from the teachings of other traditions — Buddhism, Hinduism, Paganism, Sufism — yet how jittery I get when it comes to Christianity. Yes, like many Jews, I have an appreciation for the teachings of Jesus, and I even wrote my master’s thesis on Paul and the Talmud. But this isn’t enough. I want to understand Christ the way Christians do — not to become one of them, but in order to enrich my own religious life. I want to learn from them how to have a personal relationship with a personal, humanized, embodied God who cares, and who saves. I want to experience Jesus as a human being enlightened enough to see everyone as holy, even the impure, the leprous and the marginalized. And I want to follow his example, seeing all my fellow human beings and myself as sons and daughters of God."

I like this paragraph because it resonates with something I often say as I try to reconcile my Christian background with my Jewish impulses. Perhaps it doesn't matter whether or not one believes that Jesus is the son of God. Perhaps it is more important that we live a life like his, that we learn to see the value of loving our neighbor.


Casey said...

Isn't Jesus just a "definition" of YHWH? I mean, I know that if I asked you to define YHWH for me you'd probably say (correct me if I'm wrong) that "It" is something essentially without definition... unspeakable, ineffable, unnameable.

Not that you asked, but my interpretation of all of this is that Christianity shouldn't have become "Christianity" -- it should've just become reform Judaism... Jesus could have served as the example that reminded Jews that G-d was precisely That, and that any definition of G-d that excludes that there man dying on the cross was insufficient.

I mean, rather than telling you all this -- let me ask: what is it you imagine when you pray? Is G-d a space in your brain? An ethereal energy "out there?"

Jesus helps me accept the astonishing Vedic maxim -- tat tvam asi -- Thou art that. "Not a part, not a mode of That, but identically That, that absolute Spirit of the World."

But by now Jesus-in-Christianity has become a narrowing, rather than an expanding, part of the definition of G-d. But then, so have all of the major religions in their own ways, haven't they? The special trepidation Michaelson admits when encountering Jesus from a Jewish perspective probably should serve as encouragement to him to look precisely there. Thinking against oneself, ey?

Good topic. You always talk about my FAVORITE stuff, Monica... you should write a book or something!


Anonymous said...

I'm sure you're familiar with this book:

Best of all is an essay, "Talking Torah with Jesus." Other essays talk about him in terms of the Bal Shem Tov.

Rahumai said...

The problem with the essay is that its author takes a monolithic "Christianity" as a self evident fact. He does not bother explaining which sect of Christianity he has in mind.

He writes, "the rabbis of the Talmud knew the New Testament", while in reality the rabbis knew a very different NT. In fact, they knew only one Hebrew/Aramaic gospel - not four.

Moreover, the rabbis knew a particular Judeo-Christian sect, the like of which has been extinct for more than a millennia.

So in my eyes, the very proposition is absurd. Jews have no Jesus problem. Jesuites have Jewish problem.

Monica said...

Casey--YHWH was changed to Yahweh much later by Christians. They added vowels to the acronym of the name of G-d that can't be named, if that makes any sense (and I'm totally simplifying things here). We find YHWH in Genesis--it's essentially the unnamed name of G-d. So, yes, YHWH is G-d, unnamed.

A lot of people have argued, as you seem to, that Christianity was really just another sect of Judaism--a really radical sect, of course.

Hmmmm....when I pray? I suppose that G-d is....G-d. Nothing more, and nothing less.

Anonymous--thanks for the recommendation!

Rahumai--I wasn't suggesting that there is truly a "Jesus problem" when it comes to the Jews. In fact, I believe, as you suggest, that Christians tend to have more of a Jewish problem. In my experience, Jews are perfectly fine with Christians being Christians--to each their own, I suppose. My title was meant only in the ironic sense.

You may be right about the author thinking only of a "monolithic" kind of Christianity, which, as we all know, is absurd. There are more "brands" of Christianity than there are of Judaism. I think, though, that most would agree that there is a very distinct history/legacy of "Christian" persecution of Jews--and this is what Michaelson (at least in the paragraph I quoted) is referring to. My sense is that Michaelson is suggesting that we step beyond the understanding of Jesus as perpetuated by the Crusaders and anti-Semitic monsters of Hitler's so-called Christian regime. Perhaps there is something more to the man--be he legend or history--that is worth engaging. Then again, perhaps this discussion/distinction works only when we take it outside of religious/theological discussions, and instead contextualize it in the "safer" realm of ethics.