Rockower Archve: A Response to the Jesus Video (April 1998)

(Editor’s Note: The following column, which was published in April 1998, won a Rockower Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing from the American Jewish Press Association)

A Response to the Jesus Video

Historically, the whole concept of “The December Dilemma”, namely, what to do with your Jewish child when the whole country is filled with Christmas, is misplaced.

It is this time of year that has been the trickiest for Jews. Jews who have no problem exercising the ecumenical spirit and watching a Christmas play often feel very uncomfortable at Passion plays.

In past centuries, churchgoers inspired by the Easter story would then go out and beat up or kill as many Jews as were conveniently available. While most Christian denominations no longer hold Jews communally responsible for the death of Jesus, there are still many strong overtones in the Easter story that are very uncomfortable.

This year, another element is injected into the mix. Every household in Alabama — including, we presume, every Jewish home in the state — is receiving a Campus Crusade for Christ video about the life of Jesus.

The video, based on the Gospel of Luke, is well-done. It is faithful to the story as portrayed in that book of Christian scripture. But while viewing it, there is something to keep in mind.

While Christians hold that the Gospels are the word of God and are historically accurate, we do not. We, like the non-Jewish scholarly world, maintain that the Gospels were written somewhere between 80 and 150 C.E., at least two generations removed from Jesus’ life.

They were written at a time when the Jews had been scattered by Rome, and the early Church was trying to make inroads in pagan Rome. It was quite easy to shift blame for Jesus’ death from the Roman authorities to the then-powerless Jews.

Every other contemporary source considers Pontius Pilate, who finds Jesus “blameless” and the target of a rampaging Jewish mob in the Christian Bible, to be the Saddam Hussein of his time, killing at a whim and totally unconcerned with what anyone — the Jews included — would think.

The entire Christian Bible was written to promote the idea of Jesus as messiah. It has its agenda, and should be taken as such.

Jewish life during the time of Jesus was in turmoil, and many messianic movements started. One developed into Christianity while others died out.

There are many things Judaism expects from the messiah, and never does Judaism teach that one would have to “believe” in the messiah any more than one has to believe, as an article of faith, that the United States flag is red, white and blue. In fact, we are told to be skeptical about reports that the messiah has come.

Simply put, the Jewish position is that the criteria for messiah never have been fulfilled. The early Gospel writers tried to show the criteria were fulfilled, linking activities of Jesus to verses in the Jewish Bible (sometimes through mistranslations, other times through verses that simply aren’t there). Some of the verses refer to messianic expectations, many do not. But most Jews aren’t familiar with the Jewish interpretations of Isaiah 7:14 or Isaiah 53 (or with the mistranslations pervasive in Christian versions).

Anything that was not fulfilled — real worldwide peace, resurrection of the dead, everyone acknowledging God’s rule — is explained as details for the second coming. Judaism teaches the messiah will get it all done the first time around.

It is never enough to define ourselves by what we are not. If we do not have a positive message, then our efforts are pointless. We become “Not-Christians” rather than Jews.

Of course, Judaism has a positive, vital message for the world, and it is our mission to shine that message on a dark world.

It is a gross oversimplification to state that the difference between Judaism and Christianity is whether or not the messiah has come. There is so much more to that.

When truly examined, and Judaism is seen as having a religious component rather than simply being a race, arguments that one can be both Jewish and Christian are shattered.

Christian missionaries insist that Judaism is a race, and we no more lose that identity by accepting Jesus than an Asian or a black person would. That view denigrates Jewish religiosity and theology.

The differences are many:

• According to Christianity, the “original sin” in the Garden of Eden caused the eternal damnation of all humanity. According to Christianity, we are born sinners, doomed but for the saving sacrifice of Jesus’ blood (an argument that alludes to, but twists the meaning and purpose of, the sacrificial system in Leviticus).

The popular bumper sticker says that Jesus is the answer. In Jewish thinking, Jesus is an answer in search of a question.

Judaism does not hold that we are born sinners, but that we can choose between the inclination for good and for evil. Recited in our morning service is the belief that the soul God gave us is pure. Christianity teaches that every soul is tainted by original sin.

• In Christianity, the body is sinful and something to be overcome. Thus, the tendency among many Christians to never drink, or to view sex as only for procreation. Judaism teaches that the body is created in the divine image, and we are held accountable for any of life’s pleasures that we did not enjoy when we had the opportunity (though moderation is also taught).

• Christianity teaches that there is a Satan who is in constant battle with God for every soul, and that there will be a final battle between Satan and God. Judaism teaches that Satan is an agent of God, given the task of testing us and tempting us, but serving only at the pleasure of God. Satan can not oppose God, not is Satan an equal power to God — merely one of the angels (and not a fallen one, either).

Satan does not cause us to sin — we are the only ones who have that power.

For Christians, evil comes from Satan, good comes from God. We learn that God is the single, all-powerful Who creates good and evil, light and darkness.

• Judaism teaches that each person, created in God’s image, is in a partnership with God to perfect the world. The commandments are the blueprint by which we do that — seven commandments for all of humanity and the 613 commandments for Jews (though admittedly, not all 613 apply to any particular individual). The commandments are God’s greatest gift.

Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that our works are nothing, that the only way to have a relationship with God is through faith. The commandments are seen as a “curse”, not a gift.

• Judaism teaches that each Jew — from all eras of history — was present at Mount Sinai when the covenant was given. Christianity teaches that the covenant was superseded in a message given to just a handful of individuals.

• Judaism teaches that God is an indivisible whole. Christianity teaches that a man was God incarnate.

• Judaism teaches that each of us is responsible for our own actions and only we can make atonement for our sins. Christianity teaches vicarious atonement, that the death of another can atone for your sins.

• And finally, Judaism affirms that God has a relationship with anyone, Jew or gentile, who calls upon Him in truth. We do not possess the only truth, just a higher responsibility in perfecting the world.

Christianity often portrays our God as a stern, authoritative judge, while portraying the New Testament God as a God of love.

To a Jew, that portrayal is backwards. Which is a loving God? One who says that the righteous of all nations have a place in the World To Come, or one who says that no matter how good you are, you are doomed unless you pass one litmus test of faith?

But if you believe that you hold the only truth, you feel compelled to share it. And thus, the Jesus Video Project. They have a right to send us the videos. We have no obligation to buy in. Keep that in mind as you pop the popcorn (or open the Passover macaroons).