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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Shofar - Book Review Index

The Jewish Jesus: Revelation, Reflection, Reclamation, edited by Zev Garber.  West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2011.  405 pp.  $59.95.

Zev Garber, distinguished scholar of Judaica and editor of The Jewish Jesus, dedicates this volume to its “courageous and devoted” contributors: “Jews, who practice the faith of Jesus, and Christians, who believe by faith in Jesus. By the authority of Torah and Testament, they merge as one in proclaiming the Jewish Jesus and restoring his pivotal role in the history of Second Temple Judaism and beyond.”

              This dedication helps us understand the primary aim of this volume, which is to show that Jesus was firmly rooted in his Jewish religious identity, that, as Garber claims, “he lived and died as a faithful Jew” (p. 1).  This is a view shared not only by the nineteen contributors to this book who are at the forefront of Jewish-Christian relations, but also by a growing number of religious authorities and scholars, including even Pope Benedict XVI. In his recent book Jesus of Nazareth, the Pope states that “Jesus lived by the whole of the Law and the Prophets, as he constantly told his disciples” (p. 333). Pope Benedict’s affirmation of Jesus’ Jewish religious identity obviously is not intended to diminish Christian faith in Christ, and this is certainly not the intent of Garber and his book’s contributors who show us that Christians may affirm classical Christian dogmas about Christ while also acknowledging Jesus’ commitment to Judaism. 

              Pope Benedict also says in Jesus of Nazareth that reading Rabbi Jacob Neusner’s book A Rabbi Talks with Jesus “has opened my eyes to the greatness of Jesus’ words” (p. 69). This statement reflects another of aim of The Jewish Jesus—to promote interfaith learning and mutual respect between Christians and Jews. If the Pope’s appreciation of Jesus’ words can be enriched by reading a contemporary rabbi’s book, then surely other Christians can have their views of Jesus enhanced by reading Jewish authors. Garber wants to promote this type of interfaith learning. He trusts that when Christians and Jews learn from each other—particularly but not only about how Jesus was a faithful Jew—they are likely to see each other and each other’s religion in a new light and with greater appreciation.  

            For me, the essay “Before Whom Do We Stand?” by Henry Knight is a classic example of how Jewish-Christian dialogue can bring such a radical transformation. Knight details how his encounter with Zev Garber and other Jewish scholars and his study and friendship with Elie Wiesel have transformed his understanding of the Jewish tradition and his own Christian faith. In this essay, which is characterized by exceptional personal candor and integrity, Knight states: “With each reading Wiesel helps me see more—more about myself, more about the world in which we live, more about what happened during that night that was different than any other night and more about the people before whom I stand when I stand as a Christian before a Jew named Jesus” (pp. 323–324).

            Jews and Christians, such as Garber and Knight, who have been deeply committed to the interfaith movement, are aware of the dramatic changes in the way many Christians view Judaism. The changes began in earnest with the Second Vatican Council’s extraordinary decree Nostra Aetate (1965), which affirmed that God’s covenant with the Jewish people was not revoked. In response to positive changes by Catholic and Protestant churches, in the year 2000 an interdenominational group of Jewish scholars issued “Dabru Emet [Speak the Truth]: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity,” which acknowledges that “Christians know and serve God through Jesus Christ and the Christian tradition.” Yet, despite this positive reference to Jesus, even this ground-breaking statement offers no reflection on the significance of Jesus. This is consistent with the approach of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century and a great friend of some of the major Christian thinkers of his time.

             At a conference at the Princeton Theological Seminary on October 28, 1964, Heschel gave a talk on “The Humanity of Man” in which he said: “The question is often asked of me by Christians, what is your opinion about Jesus, about Christianity?” Here is his response: “Who am I to give an opinion about one of the sublime mysteries in history, about the relations between God and men? Am I to judge? It would be vulgar, if not blasphemous, for any mortal to sit in judgment about what is intimate and sacred to other human beings.”

             In one respect, Garber seems to be following in Heschel’s footsteps when he states: “It is not the role of the synagogue to judge whether Jesus the Jew metamorphosed into the Christ of faith or that Jesus and the Christ are one and the same individual. Rather, Jews must do their homework and cleanse the people of Israel of any conceived or perceived anti-Christian bias. . . .  Indeed, Christianity is a legitimate partner in tikkun ‘olam, endowing the world in peace, understanding, and unity” (p. 7). Garber’s aim is to examine the historical Jesus, not to judge whether Jesus was divine.  But insofar as Garber and the other Jewish contributors to this volume engage in an examination of the historical Jesus, they do indeed part company with Heschel.

The Jewish Jesus is divided under three headings: “Reflections on the Jewish Jesus,” “Responding to the Jewish Jesus,” and “Teaching, Dialogue, Reclamation: Contemporary Views on the Jewish Jesus.” The book was especially conceived for classroom use. At the end of each essay there are questions that will guide the reader to its core ideas to encourage discussion.

            A number of the contributors, including Stephen Leonard Jacobs, James F. Moore, Henry F. Knight, and Zev Garber, have been engaged in studying Jewish and Christian texts together for the last eighteen years. During that time they have developed good intellectual and spiritual relations, which is so central to genuine dialogue. The Jewish Jesus stands out for its honesty and openness. The contributors do not overlook the strong affinities between Judaism and Christianity, but at the same time they do not ignore the profound differences. This became clearest to me in Herbert W. Basser’s essay in which he states: “Jews are often outraged by my citing evidence that supports the early Christian claims detailing the vehemence of Jewish expression of anger and outright hatred, including officially composed curses, against the fledgling Christian religion. Christians may be angered by my claim that the official churches within a decade or so after Jesus sanctioned their saints and evangelists to stop at absolutely nothing within reach to delegitimatize Judaism” (p. 103).  Such honesty helps us understand why genuine interfaith dialogue presents such a great challenge for Jews and Christians.

             The boldest Jewish theological formulations of Jesus are presented in Shaul Magid’s “The New Jewish Reclamation of Jesus in Late Twentieth-Century America: Realigning and Rethinking Jesus the Jew,” in which he explores a number of contemporary Jewish scholars’ radical views of Jesus. Perhaps the most radical view is that of Rabbi Byron Sherwin, who gives Jesus a role within Jewish messianic theology. Sherwin sees Jesus as a Jewish messiah and uses Jewish classical sources that claim that before the coming of the final messiah, son of David, there will come a messiah, son of Joseph, who dies to prepare the way for the final redemption. Sherwin proposes that Jews accept Jesus of Nazareth as the messiah, son of Joseph. Magid concludes correctly that Sherwin’s view is a call to accept “Jesus as a Jewish messiah in contemporary Jewish theology” (p. 369). It would be a mistake to think that Sherwin wants to obliterate the unique and holy treasures of Judaism or Christianity in any way. For Sherwin, as for all the contributors to this volume, Judaism and Christianity remain two distinct religious traditions.

             In my view, one of the gems in this volume is the article by Christina M. Smerick titled “Taking Thomas to Temple: Introducing Evangelicals to the Jewish Jesus.” This article is based on intensive interviews that the author had with her colleagues in the religion and philosophy departments at Greenville College in Illinois. All the professors who teach courses which deal in some sense with Jesus and Judaism find that their students are extremely challenged by these courses. Smerick writes that the reason for this is “because one of the most consistent messages from the church is that Jesus was exemplary and utterly unique in his work and message. . . and presented a radical break from the Judaism of his day. . . .  The historically Gentile church has portrayed Jesus as far more of a Gentile or radical outsider than a participating member of the Jewish community” (p. 275). Fortunately, scholars like Smerick, Garber, and the others associated with this book are spreading the word about Jesus’ Jewishness and its significance for Christian-Jewish relations.

              One of the most important essays for me is Eugene J. Fisher’s “Typical Jewish Misunderstandings of Christ, Christianity, and Jewish-Christian Relations over the Centuries.” Fisher, who has devoted more than forty years to Jewish-Christian dialogue, is best known for correcting Christian misunderstanding of the Jewish tradition. In this essay, however, he helps us understand how throughout the ages Jews have misunderstood Jesus and Christianity, often because they fail to appreciate the complexity or diversity of theological positions found among Christians. The following is one example given by Fisher of a Jewish misunderstanding of Christianity: “Christianity is ascetic because it is other-worldly, and is based on the notion that faith alone, irrespective of one’s actual physical deeds, is necessary for salvation. The latter statement, of course, equates a certain interpretation of the thought of Luther with that of all Christians” (p. 235). He cites Eliezer Berkovits, one of the most influential Orthodox Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, who has written that “Christianity is an other-worldly religion. It has no use for this world and no respect for it” (p. 235). Fisher is an expert in both the Jewish and Christian traditions; his views must be considered seriously.

              Steven Leonard Jacobs concludes his valuable essay “Can We Talk? The Jewish Jesus in a Dialogue Between Jews and Christians” with a quotation from Yossi Klein Halevi, and I find a quotation from Halevi appropriate to share as I draw this review to a close.  In his book At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land, Halevi tells of being asked by a Christian, “How do you see Jesus?” His answer: “I feel love for Jesus. . . .  Obviously I don’t love Jesus the way you do. For me Jesus isn’t the world redeemer, but he did bring a measure of redemption into the world by drawing so many souls to God” (p. 209).

              For nearly two thousand years, views about Jesus have often caused conflict between Jews and Christians. Today, however, thanks to the efforts of interfaith pioneers like Yossi Klein Halevi and Zev Garber, there are views about Jesus that are fostering harmony and love rather than conflict. I am hopeful that the enlightening views found in The Jewish Jesus will advance Jewish-Christian friendship.

Harold Kasimow

Department of Religious Studies

Grinnell College