This time of year millions of eyes are on one Jew: Jesus. While we Jews have no part in this, it is important that we ask ourselves why this man has fascinated the world as few people ever have, yet simultaneously has been totally rejected by the Jews. What can be learned from the tragic story of a man who is worshipped by many as a god but seen by the Jews as nearly an outcast?
Yeshu (Jesus) is mentioned several times in the Talmud (1), mostly in a negative light. It is extremely difficult, however, to know whether these stories and observations about him actually refer to the Yeshu of the New Testament. One of the many problems is that several dates do not correspond.
Scholars have noted that there is also a great discrepancy between the picture that emerges from the actual text of the NT and the one developed by the Church. Even within the NT there are several readings that appear inconsistent, possibly because of later interpolations. In view of this, the negative observations in the Talmud may quite well refer to the Yeshu as projected by the Church and not to the one that appears in the NT (notwithstanding any inconsistency in the dates of these stories.)
It is, however, the Church’s portrait of Yeshu that has prevailed as the most common and perhaps the most authoritative one in Western civilization. In its need to separate Christianity from Judaism, the Church went out of its way to rewrite the story of Yeshu in such a way that he became a strong opponent of Judaism and, above all, of Halacha.
Yet, a critical reading of the NT text seems to reveal that Yeshu was a conservative person, little interested in starting a new religion. Furthermore, scholars are of the opinion that he was not looking for ways to undermine Halacha as was his disciple Paul. His statements concerning divorce do not support the view that he opposed it entirely as was stated by the Church. (See, for example, Matthew 19:9 in comparison with Mark 10:1-12.) In fact, he seems to adhere to the view of Beth Shamai, which allows a man to divorce his wife but only if she has committed adultery! (Mishna Gittin 9:10) Similarly, the well known incident where he permitted his disciples to pluck ears of corn on Shabbat does not prove that he favored Shabbat desecration. The text seems to indicate that it may have been a case of pikuach nefesh (the saving of human life). (See Mark 2:23-28) (2).
Another possibility is that he was not always consistent in his views, or perhaps even an am ha’aretz, a man with little knowledge of Halacha and lacking an in-depth understanding of the Torah. To account for the instances in which he is quoted as having spoken against halachic standards, scholars seem to agree that this is due to later reworking of the original texts (3).
This may explain why several world renowned rabbis had a more positive attitude towards Yeshu than that of the Talmudic text.
Most remarkable is the observation by the famous Rabbi Avraham Yitschak Kook, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of our times and Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Community of Israel before the establishment of the state. Rabbi Kook calls Yeshu “a man who had personal power and spiritual flow” (4), who by misdirecting his spiritual capacity became corrupted and could no longer play a role in Judaism.
Even more surprising is a statement found in the preface to Seder Olam by the famous halachic authority, Rabbi Yaakov Emden (“Yavetz,” 1697-1776):
“The founder of Christianity conferred a double blessing upon the world. On the one hand, he strengthened the Torah of Moshe and emphasized that it is eternally binding. On the other hand, he conferred favor upon the gentiles in removing idolatry from them, imposing on them stricter moral obligations than are contained in the Torah of Moshe. (!!) There are many Christians with noble qualities and excellent morals. Would that all Christians would live in conformity with their precepts. They are not enjoined, like the Israelites, to observe the laws of Moshe, nor do they sin if they associate other beings with God in worshipping a triune God. They will receive a reward from God for having propagated a belief in Him among the nations that never heard His name: for He looks into the heart.”
On the other hand, it is worthwhile mentioning a controversial Midrash that is rather uncomplimentary towards Yeshu. On the verse, “There arose no more a prophet in Israel like Moshe, who knew God face to face.”(Devarim 34:10), the Sages made a most unusual comment: “In Israel none arose, but among the gentiles one did arise. And who was that? Bil’am, son of Peor” (Sifri). This refers to the notorious gentile prophet Bil’am who tried to curse the Jewish people but was prevented by God from doing so and was instead forced to bless them (Bamidbar, 22). Since it is unthinkable that the Sages’ statement suggests that Bil’am rose to the level of Moshe Rabenu, several commentators explain that the gentiles had someone whose status among the nations of the world was similar to that of Moshe among the Benei Yisrael. Moshe was the great halachic legislator, and the gentiles, too, had a man who held that level of authority in their eyes. That man was Bil’am. While there is no allusion to this in the Torah text, the Midrash quotes a verse from Bil’am’s blessing to the Jewish people: “God is not a man that He should lie” (Bamidbar 23:19). To this the Midrash Tanchuma (ad loc, in uncensored printings) adds: “Bil’am foresaw that a man born from a woman would arise and proclaim himself a god. Therefore, Bil’am’s voice was given the power to inform the gentiles: ‘Do not go astray after this man; God is not a man, and if he (a man) says he is God, he is lying.'” In that sense Bil’am assumed the role of legislator among the gentiles.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l, one of the leading halachic authorities of his generation, mentions something he had heard in his younger days as a reason why Lot’s elder daughter called her son Moav, meaning “from my father”, after having been impregnated by Lot. (Bereshit 19:37) How could she be so promiscuous as to openly declare that the father of her child was her own father? This is the pinnacle of immodesty. The answer is most remarkable: It was because Ruth, a descendant of Moav, would one day convert to Judaism and become the great grandmother of King David and therefore of the Mashiach. Since Christianity claimed that Yeshu had no father and his mother was impregnated by the “Holy Spirit,” Lot’s daughter did not want anybody to believe that she was impregnated by God Himself, a belief that would never be accepted in Judaism. In fact, it is a kind of Idol worship, and as such, Yeshu could never be the Mashiach. The Mashiach, like everyone else, will be born from a mortal father and mother who descend from mortal fathers and mothers through all past generations. By openly declaring that it was Lot who was the father of her child, the elder daughter risked her reputation for the sake of making it clear that the forefather of the Mashiach is Moav and not the “Holy Spirit” (5, 6).
Even more interesting is an Aggada in Sanhedrin 106b which tells of a sectarian who asked one of the sages, “Do you know how old Bil’am was when he died?” He replied, “It is not actually stated, but since it is written ‘Bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days’ (Tehillim 55:24) he must have been 33 or 34.” He rejoined, “You have spoken well; I personally have seen Bil’am’s chronicle in which it is stated that Bil’am, the lame, was 33 years old when Pinchas Lista’a (Pinchas the robber) killed him.” What is Bil’am’s chronicle? There is no such book known, but as suggested by Abraham Geiger, one of the later Jewish writers, it may allude to Yeshu. The latter was 33 years old when he was killed by Pontius Pilatus. The name Pinchas Lista’a may well be a garbled reference to Pontius Pilatus. In that case, Bil’am’s chronicles may refer to the NT.
These and many other observations about Yeshu seem to indicate that the Sages of Israel had an ambivalent attitude towards him – some condemning him, others having a more favorable approach, though not one of them sees him as a prophet or sage, and surely not as the Mashiach.
Whether or not the Yeshu of the Talmud and the Yeshu of the NT are one and the same, it cannot be denied that Yeshu is seen by billions as one of the greatest religious men in all of history; this, in total opposition to Judiasm’s view of him. There he is seen as a tragic failure, one who plays no role in anything Jewish. This significant discrepancy causes us to pose the following question:
How could it be that millions worship him while others totally reject him?
Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook and Rabbi Yaakov Emden argue that Yeshu must have been an exceptional person. He surely was a tremendous personality of great religious potential. This is why he was able to fascinate so many millions and even have them believe that he is the Mashiach (though it was probably the Church that created this image). This begs the questions: How is it possible that he fell so low to the point where the Jews decided to completely reject him? What happened to a man of his caliber that led him to stray from the road to such an extent that he became an outcast in the eyes of Judaism? Surely many reasons can be given, but above all, we have to consider the following.
When reading the story of Yeshu one is reminded of another Jew who, like Yeshu, became one of the most influential people in all of history but was also condemned and rejected by the Jews – Baruch Spinoza of Amsterdam (1632-1677). He, too, had been fully part of the Jewish community, then started to oppose Judaism, broke away at a young age and became one of the greatest secular Jewish philosophers ever. He, too, is admired by millions.
What both men have in common is that they were mistreated by the rabbis of their days. According to the Talmud, Yeshu was rejected by the influential Rabbi Joshua ben Parchia for having made an indecent comment. The rabbi immediately excommunicated him. Though Yeshu approached him several times and asked for forgiveness, the rabbi did not listen. By the time he had second thoughts, an inadvertent wave of his hand made Yeshu believe that there was no way he could ever re-enter the community. He then began to worship idols and was lost evermore to the Jewish community. Because of this tragic incident the Talmud warns, “Let the left hand repel but the right (stronger) hand invite, unlike Rabbi Joshua ben Parchia who repulsed Yeshu with both his hands” (Sanhedrin 107b, uncensored edition).
Spinoza, too, was the victim of over-zealous rabbis – this time, the leaders of the Amsterdam Portuguese Spanish Jewish community. Once they heard his views on God and Torah, instead of drawing him closer and carefully listening to his insights, they threatened him and ultimately excommunicated him resulting in the most famous ban ever issued in Jewish history.
It is impossible to know what would have happened to Yeshu and Spinoza had the rabbis taken a more tolerant stand and continued to speak to them. Spinoza might not have written some of his most fierce critiques of the Jewish tradition and might have been more sympathetic to Judaism itself. (It seems that on some occasions Spinoza lost his equilibrium when attacking Judaism.) Similarly, Yeshu’s attitude towards Judaism may quite well have been different, and Christianity under the influence of Paul might not have become as anti-Jewish.
Both men were exceptionally bright, and men of spirit. They could have become major spiritual forces in Judaism had they been granted the space to do so. Perhaps they would not have gone to the extreme. Even the greatest men are often pushed over the edge, becoming more extreme in their views because of their own unpleasant experiences with their communities and the authorities. No philosopher lives in an intellectual vacuum.
No doubt this does not free Yeshu and Spinoza of their responsibilities. They should have realized that Judaism was greater than what the rabbis stood for. They should have used their exceptional gifts in the service of Judaism even when they were opposed by the rabbis of their day. It may have enriched Judaism in ways we will never know. The fascination they caused throughout the world may quite well have been different and more mature. It may have prevented the worship of a man as a god or false messiah; it might have avoided the evolving of a philosopher who is so much identified with anti-Jewish sentiment. They might even have become great teachers in Israel and inspired all of mankind.
All of this is, of course, speculation. History is the tragedy of what could have been but was not. Speculation alone achieves little. Only when it warns us of future mistakes can it be effective. Judaism cannot afford another Yeshu or Spinoza (7). They were the unfortunate result of rabbinical zealousness against which the Talmud warns.
1. See, for example, Shabbath 13b, 104b; Chagiga 4b; Yebamoth 49b; Sanhedrin 107b
2. For another halachic explanation, see Professor David Flusser, Jesus, page 58, The Magnes
Press, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1998.
3. See David Flusser, ibid, chapters 1 and 4.
4. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, Derech Hatechia; Rabbi Kook was fiercely attacked for these
views. See his defense in Igrot La-rayah, 375.
5. Igroth Moshe, Orach Chayim volume 5; Yore De’ah volume 4, page 15.
With thanks to Rabbi Ze’ev van Dijk in Amsterdam who drew my attention to this observation.
6. According to the Midrash, Lot’s daughters believed that no human beings had survived
the destruction of Sedom and Amora except for them and their father. To make sure that mankind
would survive, they decided to have relations with their father (Rashi on Bereshith 19:31).
7 See also the tragic story of Elisha ben Avuya, Chagiga 15a.