Would Jesus Want To Convert Jews?

Posted on April 7, 2008


On March 31, 2008, JPost.com posted an article by Shmuley Boteach entitled “Would Jesus Want To Convert Jews?” (and here).

I am continually perplexed and frustrated at the widening gap between what is popularly understood about religious beliefs/faith systems/theology, etc., and what I’ll call a more “honest” look at the source of these understandings. It seemed good of me (Luke 1:3-4), then, to offer a response to help bring clarity, and perhaps a greater sense of harmony between the Jewish and Christian faiths; though different in many aspects, they are similar in more ways than perhaps adherents of either would often like to admit.

A couple notes before a response. 1) I appreciate greatly the contribution that Shmuley is making to society. Whether the affectionate title “Jewish Dr. Phil” is meant pejoratively or complementarily, there is something to be commended for captivating an audience with a higher calling–to ethics and standards and morals that rise above the base and primordial urgings of humanity. 2) While I may make “corrective” suggestions, they are for the purpose of furthering and deepening the conversation (even to find common ground), not for the point of showing who is right or who is wrong.

PREFACE: Religious people, in general, understand the complexities and intricacies of their own faith systems, putting up with, and even denouncing variant strains or sects that belong to their “tribe.” Yet, that awareness often slips to the sidelines when it comes to critiquing, evaluating, engaging with, or even listening to another religion. This dualistic hypocrisy is NOT religious. It’s human. We see more clearly through our own lenses. We understand and are compassionate and gracious more towards that which is closer to our own hearts. And we hold tightly to the ethic and freedom of being able to exclude and distance ourselves from those within our religion of whose ideas we disagree. After all, what’s a family for if not for disagreement. (I’m reminded here of a Jewish Passover celebration my wife and I were invited to where, as soon as we walked through the door, bets were being taken as to when the first verbal fight was going to break out, and over what subject. All done, of course, in familial love and good Jewish passion).

I mention this simply to encourage and persuade us to keep these dynamics in mind when relating to and engaging with other religions. For example: I do not assume that Shmuley Boteach is THE spokesperson for the Jewish community (perhaps to the delight of some or to the disappointment of others). I DO BELIEVE, he is a part of the ongoing conversation that all religions have internally, and I hope this post, and my responses to his article are held in kind. Rabbi Akiva said, “Study is greater” (Kid. 40b; Deuteronomy/דברים 5:1) for it leads to proper practice. I hope my contributions do justice to that kind of study.


SB: The ad said “The most loving and Scriptural expression of our friendship toward Jewish people, and to anyone we call friend, is to forthrightly share the love of G-d in the person of Jesus Christ…. We recognize that it is good and right for those with specialized knowledge, history, and skills to use these gifts to introduce individuals to the Messiah, and that includes those ministries specifically directed to the Jewish people.”

Oh brother, here we go again. Is this really what we all need right now? … just when we thought that Christians and Jews could really work together to reverse this tide, we get this: Christians who profess to be the Jewish people’s friends by devoting themselves to the end of their existence as Jews.

Shumley’s concern here is valid. Though his tone is cynical, there is good reason, for Christians historically have neglected any tie or even gratitude to the Jewish people for the faith of which they now adhere. Often called a “Theology of Contempt,” Christians disregard any value of anyone other than those who profess the Messiahship of Jesus, and there is a special disdain for the Jewish people for they have “rejected Jesus.”

This is changing. I would suggest (and I assume Shumley would agree with me) that it’s not changing fast enough, nor in broad enough spectrums. But there are strains of Christianity that are not just becoming aware of the Jewishness of Jesus, but celebrating, embracing, and re-theologizing around these “new” discoveries. Studying Jesus as a first-century Jew is almost widely held and accepted (say, now automatically assumed) in scholarly circles, and it’s beginning to filter its way to popular levels as well, and even into pulpits. My hope is that this trend continues, and that instead of decrying Christian evangelism as Semitic annihilationism, Jews and Christians will begin to see “evangelism” in the Jewish “Kingdom” (מלכות שמים) light, the way Jesus of Nazareth taught it.

SB: Jesus was a Pharisaic rabbi. Everything he taught and lived was based on the Torah and the Talmud. From his proclamation that “The meek shall inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5) which comes from Psalm 37, to the famous Golden Rule of ‘Do to others what you would they do to you,” which derives from Leviticus 19, to his statement that ‘the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath,’ whose origin is the Talmud (Yoma 85b), Jesus’ mission was to renew Jewish attachment to the Torah in a time when the threads of tradition were being unwoven due to the oppressive hand of the occupying Roman beast.

While Christians have difficulty understanding Jesus in Pharisaic terms, I concur with Shmuley, that the ideas, philosophies and religious teachings of Jesus were Pharisaical, meaning, along the same lines of the “separated ones,” the “Perushim” (פרושים). This is actually why Jesus could have the heated debates and discussions with the Pharisees; because they thought along the same lines and were a part of the same family (see Preface above).

Jesus most definitely quoted from the Old Testament [the Hebrew Bible, Jewish Scriptures, or Tanakh (תנייך)]. I question, however, whether Jesus’ teachings on the Sabbath (mentioned above) originate from the Talmud. Given the codification of the Mishnah is c.200 C.E./(A.D.), and the Gemara c.500 C.E., could it not be possible that the Talmd’s ideas originate with Jesus? I can’t say definitively (nor could anyone, really), but I think Shumley’s air of certitude ought to be qualified and the entire issue kept in question. Another example is Jesus’ statement, “For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them,” (Matthew 18:19-20 crossed with Avot 3:3).

As for Jesus’ mission, I concur, with one caveat (which may be semantical). I would suggest it was not attachment to the Torah, but rather a fulfillment of the Torah. The “you have heard that it was said…but I say to you” statements (Matthew 5:21, et.al.) help to play that out. The Gospel writers weave the narratives in such a way as to illustrate the “new covenant” (ברית חדשה) of Jeremiah, which would mean a new kind of relationship to Torah:

“I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)

It is important to note that while this is true, it was never at an abolishment of Torah:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20 NIV)

SB: But it is specifically Jewish values which today represent a great hope for rejuvenating a crumbling modern world and from which our Christian brethren can greatly benefit.

My wife, who studied in Jerusalem, mentioned to me that one professor reported that Shmuel Safrai [1] is quoted as saying that what separates Christianity from all other religions is the teaching, “love your enemies.” I suggest, that is a distinctly “Christian” teaching, from a Jewish rabbi who upheld the laws of Judaism, fulfilled them to their uttermost essences, and established an entirely radical new way of discovering the fullness of the Torah through this kind of love (חסד).

SB: Christianity says that faith trumps action. What you believe is more important than what you do.

Untrue. It would behoove anyone who holds to this ideology, Christian or otherwise, to read the book of James (or, a more historically authentic name, the book of Jacob). While MANY in Christianity do hold to the ideology that faith is more important than works, classic Christian thought, and contemporary Orthodox Christian teaching is that faith and works is a false dichotomization. The two go hand in hand, and one ought not create a value hierarchy where God did not intend. Read Jesus’ stories where he commended their “faith” which is actually better understood as “emunah” (אמונה), meaning “faithfulness.” The Paralytic (Matthew 9; Mark 2; Luke 5), the Hemorrhaging Woman (Matthew 9; Mark 5; Luke 8), and several others.

SB: Christianity values perfection while Judaism values struggle. Jesus was perfect, and Christians are meant to emulate his example.

The word in Matthew 5:48 is the word “teleios,” which can be translated as “perfect,” or “complete.” Homer uses it in his Illiad, however, to mean “unblemished” as in a sacrifice (Illiad 1, 66). Jewish readers will clearly understand this in light of Levitical laws. This, I suggest, is Jesus’ clarion call to holy living, and a unified purpose; a “oneness” of being (“אחדness,” to merge the Hebrew and English). Reading the verses before give context to his teachings, where Jesus suggests that all people, family and strangers, ought to be treated with the same love.

I agree, that generally speaking, Christianity, especially the Protestant strain, decries any sense of wrestling (Israel). However, this is due more to a misunderstanding of this verse than to an honest reading of the New Testament as a whole, which is in some ways one big (pardon the analogy) wrestling “smackdown” than it is a clarification of perfect theology.

SB: And is the Christian emphasis on salvation what we most need now, or is it the Jewish emphasis on redemption? Should we be talking about getting into heaven when, after so many thousands of years of human history, our earth still has genocide in Darfur, terrorism in the Middle East, and broken, lonely souls across the West?

Rather than worrying who needs to be converted to get into heaven, Christians and Jews should join together to create heaven here on earth.

I would suggest reading my review of N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope, for I think Shmuley, and many others, would be “surprised” to hear that Christians, again, are re-theologizing about terms like “salvation,” and “heaven,” and the entire mission of God through the person of Jesus. Many in the Christian Church (Emergents, Evangelicals, Red-Letters, Orthodox, Catholics, etc.) and other extended family sects, are embracing the prayer that is common to both Jews and Christians:

Your Kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.

תבא מלכותך יעשה רצונך בארץ כאשר נעשה בשמים

[1] Shmuel Safrai was born in 1919 and at the age of three immigrated to Palestine with his family. He was ordained as a rabbi at the age of twenty at the prestigious Mercaz Harav Yeshivah in Jerusalem. He later received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the fields of Jewish History, Talmud and Bible. Safrai was recipient of the Jerusalem Prize (1986) and the Israel Prize (2002), the State of Israel’s most prestigious honor. He wrote over eighty articles and twelve books including Pilgrimage in the Period of the Second Temple and Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef: His Life and Teachings. He died July 16th, 2003, and was buried only a few feet from the grave of his close friend and research colleague, David Flusser.

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