Shemot-- Where Moses and Jesus Split Ways
This Shabbat, we are introduced to Moses, the slave child who is raised into the Pharaohs household only to return to his slave-roots now as a liberator. What figure is greater than Moses, as the Torah itself says,” There never again rose a prophet like Moses.” Nevertheless, the Torah is clear at its conclusion: Moses must die and be buried in an unknown grave no matter what his greatness. Every year, when we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt at the Passover Seder, poor Moses is left out in the cold. The Hagadah as we have it tells us that we were delivered” Not by a messenger, not by an angel” but by G-d himself. Salvation comes only from G-d, not from any mortal elevated to divinity. Poor Moses gets only two mentions, in an off the hand manner, in some quotations.
What happens to the concept of Moses ,“ The man Moses” as the Torah points out, is very important to our understanding of how Jews and Christians differ.
I once asked some congregants what was the happiest day in the year for them. One young couple told me “ Dec. 25”. Yes. December 25, Christmas, was the happiest day of the year for this very Jewish family. They had a small toy store. They were both so busy in the months preceding Dec. 25 that they couldn't see their children, except to feed them, get them to school, and to bed. Finally, on the 25th, the store was closed, and mom and pop were home to play with the kids, and if it was a good selling season, they had good reason to call it a yon tof. It is true for many Jews who are in the retail business, that Christmas is truly a yom tov, a festival, because the earnings from sales are critical for survival.
It is always confusing, when we realize that Chanukah and Christmas usually come close to each other, except for this year, when Hanukkah fell just on Thanskgiving. But confusion there is a plenty, not just about the holidays, but also about what is Judaism, what is Christianity, what is the same, and what is different.
The confusion is great because we are near, yet so far apart. I recall two questions posed to me by our members who attended a lecture given by a Catholic monk, who spoke on the Jewishness of Jesus. How Jewish could Jesus have been?
The other question posed was whether the obligation to love one's neighbor as one self had any basis in Judaism. After all, the Christians claim that Jesus taught it.
This is especially a perplexing issue, because, we are constantly told that there is, in the United States, a Judeo-Christian tradition. We Jews used it, when we wanted to emphasize that Christians should treat us better, and the Christian right-wing uses it, when they want to make sure that right-wing Jews don't feel left out when they attack the secular left.
This term "Judeo-Christian tradition" implies that Judaism and Christianity are two variations of same religion. But we are not the same tradition. If there is a common tradition, it is a Judeo-Christian-Moslem tradition.
The truth is that we are alike, yet we are very different. To add to the confusion, American civilization, while built on European Christianity, is very much shaped by the Jewish roots of Christianity.
There is no question, and indeed, no Christian will dispute it today--Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew. If you follow the debates among Christian academic scholars today, you realize that there is great doubt as to the authenticity of about most of what is written in the Christian scriptures about the life of Jesus.
There is, however, a general consensus that emerges out of scholarship that Christian ministers study in their seminaries.
It is, in short, that Jesus was born, son of Joseph, by natural conception, to Mary, probably in Nazereth, not Bethlehem, probably in spring-time, certainly not on Dec. 25. He probably studied a little bit but not much because he is in the Galilee which had no academies, and he probably spent some time in the wilderness with a group like the Essenes of the Dead Sea scrolls. He probably was influenced by this group because some of his teachings reflect their language.
He probably was a popular spiritual figure, the type of a Hasid ,a man of piety, to whom people attributed miracles, a type that is found in Jewish traditions of the period. He probably preached a very nationalistic anti-gentile morality; much of his rhetoric reflects the conflict between the Jews of the Galilee and the Jews of Judea ( Later on, this would be miss-understood as a conflict between Jesus and Jews.)
He probably saw himself as a predecessor of the Messiah, perhaps a type like Elijah, perhaps he may have thought of himself as the Messiah, but if he used the word, Son of God, it was never in the sense of literally born to God, as distinct from a human father, but in the sense of a direct personal relationship, a concept common in Jewish writings of the period. More commonly, he used the phrase “ Son of Man’, which was sued in some circles to indicate a quasi- Messianic figure.
He never preached against observing the commandments, and he was against the Sadducees, the religious movement represented by the Kohanim, the priests. He was in competition with the Pharisees, the religious teachers who founded Judaism as we know it. While Pharisee, in modern English, has come to mean a hypocrite, in all likelihood, he was close to them, since he agreed on almost every point. He insisted that his followers had to be more devout, not less devout, more observant, not less, than the Pharisees.
None of the preaching of Jesus that can be identified as his original statements in the first three gospels were directed against the Torah or against observance of the commandments. He argued against the Sadducees--so did the Rabbis of his day. He argued against the Temple priests--so did the Rabbis of his day. He argued against the Pharisees-- so did the Rabbis, who were themselves Pharisees, who preached against those who exaggerated or made a show of their
religiosity. The argument against hypocritical Pharisees, attributed to Jesus, is a Rabbinic argument,” Osim Maasey Zimri—They act like Zimri, a renegade, and demand the reward of Pinhas, the religious hero.
He probably got in trouble with the Temple authorities because he seemed like a rabble rouser, and was probably put to death, by Pontius Pilate, who used the quislings whom the Roman authorities had put in charge of the Temple as a way to cover his liability. Probably, the same Temple authorities tried to coach him to speak in a way that would get him off the hook and not be exceuted.
He probably died, was temporarily buried in a Jewish tomb, and the body removed by the owner when he needed it for a death in the family. Hence, the empty tomb.
That is Jesus the Jew. I say “ probably”, because, as one of my professors used to say about historical speculation” Wuz U der , Chali?”
For a Christian, it is a matter of faith. For a Jew, it is a matter of historic interest and speculation.
What about the question which was posed to me that " Love thy Neighbor as Thyself" is distinctly Christian? Christians often assume when they want to press their case against Judaism that it is Jesus who made this the core principal of religious ethics. But goes against Christian scriptures.
In the very Christian scriptures, Jesus has a discussion with Pharisaic scholars and they agree on it completely: The two central pillars of the Torah are--Shma Yisrael and Vehavat lereekha—Love the one G-d and Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus the Jew, like any Jew of his day, recognized that G-d is One and only One to whom we owe our religious love and allegiance and in it follows as a corollary that we have to love our neighbors. Jesus simply quotes from the Torah, ”Love your neighbor”. This is used frequently in Jewish sources of the period.
What about the Golden Rule? Jesus says “:Do onto others what you would have done unto you”. It is but a variation of the popular slogan stated by Hillel decades before. Frankly, it is found around the world in one or another variation. The classic Jewish difference, as stated by Hillel, is that we can’t stand moral abstracts. They are useless. So Hillel continues,” The rest is commentary—go and study”. Without “ Go and Study”, the Golden Rule is just an advertising slogan.
What about turning the cheek? It is a quotation from Lamentations,” Eicha” , which we read on Tisha B’Av. What about the Sermon on the Mount? Quotations from the book of Psalms. What about the “Lord’s Prayer”? A Combination of popular religious phrases: “ Our father” is avinu shebashamayim:,” Hallowed be thy Name” is yitgadal veyitkadash and so forth.
If Jesus lived and died as a Jew, what then is Christianity? That is a different religion. It is a religion that arose in the groups of followers, many who had come from various mystic and zealous cults within the Jews of Israel, who gathered after his death, followers desperately looking for the Messiah, who had not come. This group drew into it Jews who had come from outside the land of Israel, Jews who brought with them a mix of ideas from Greek mysticism philosophy, many of these ideas that had become popular among Jews in general. Just as today, the most militant of Israelis are those from America, so, in the land of Israel, at that time, the most passionate, looking for something new, were those from the Hellenistic world. Many of the themes that were prevalent in these groups for the century or more preceding Jesus would be reflected in the religion about to be born.
The foremost among these was a Jew from Tarsus, in what is now Turkey, Saul, also known by his Greek name of Paul. He started as a Pharisee, an enemy of the followers of Jesus, so he claimed, but he had a dramatic vision and then turned the tables on the early followers of Jesus. He and other Jews from the Greek diaspora created a new religion whether they realized it or not.
No longer was the law of the Torah binding--only general ethics.
No longer did one's actions count for getting into Heaven--only a blind faith in the salvation effected by the death of Jesus.
No longer would life in this world be redeemed, but all would be done aright in a life of the spirit, not the flesh, after death.
No longer was God's hand to be seen in deliverance of the nation from oppression, but in the life of the soul after death.
No longer was the Messiah a political figure, but the literal son of God.
No longer was God one indivisible, of no physical attributes, but God was in the flesh, like a human being, three entities in one.
From this moment on, the new religion, Christianity, was a new religion. When the Jews rebelled against Rome in the year 70, the early Christian did all that they could to put as miles and miles between themselves and the rebellious Jews.
Within a century after the death of Jesus, Christian thinkers discussed the possibility of cutting off any connection by disavowing the quote “old testament” of the Jews.
Now, you can see why the editors of the Haggadah, who put the core text together for us in the centuries following the split with Christianity, turned a cold-shoulder on poor Moses—not to demean him, but to clarify the key difference between the Jewish concept of G-d as the direct source of Salvation as opposed to the Salvation by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
As for the idea of Messiah, which was translated in the its Greek equivalent,” Christos”, one anointed to high position. For the Jew, the Messiah is a political-historical figure of the future, indicating a world brought to universal justice and peace. For the Christian, the Messiah is G-d made manifest in the past and indicating salvation of the human soul and forgiveness of sin in the next life. That is a faith issue which does not matter to us as Jews but is the critical difference for Christians.
So we are left with what we share and where we differ.
The new Pope Francis is doing remarkable work and he is himself friendly towards Jews . However, we don't need the Pope's stamp of approval, nihil obstat, and the Pope doesn’t need our kosher stamp, a hechsher . The same goes for our relations with any other religious leader, Christian, Moslem, Jain, Shinto, Hindu and so on.
We don’t need agreement on core faith issues.
What we do need is willingness to respect where we differ, and to work hand in hand, where we agree, to forge a redeemed world. We look to the day, in the words of the prophet Micah, when all nations shall go up to the mountain of the lord—each shall go up in the name of their Lord, said the prophet, each nation with its own unique understanding and faith, be it in the name of Jesus or Mohammed or Buddha, but we shall call upon the name of the Lord, our God. We’ll do it our way. Amen.