While Jews will not celebrate a millenium for another 240 years, it would be wise to contemplate for just a moment the celebrations which are soon to take place in the non-Jewish world. The festivities surrounding the birthday of Jesus and his berith mila (circumcision) on the first of January are really more than surprising. The astonishing fact that one Jewish child seems to be at the center of an unprecedented world affair in which billions of human beings will participate should make us wonder what this is all about.
Maimonides informs us that there must be more than a little religious meaning in all this. In his Mishne Torah (Hilchot Melachim, 11:4 ) he states that God caused Jesus to have such a great influence on mankind so that it would become accustomed to the concept of the coming of the real mashiach. The great Rav Avraham Yitschak Kook (1865-1935) even went so far as to call Jesus a man with “awesome personal power and spiritual flow” which was misdirected and led to his confusion and apostasy. (Sefer Derech Hatechia, and his letter of June 29,1913 to the famous scholar, Ridbaz, Rabbi Yacov David Wilovsky)
Most astonishing is the recounting in the Talmud of the story about how Jesus became an apostate. This passage in the Talmud was once censored by the Church, but is now printed in all the new editions. (See Ma’amar Al Hadpasat haTalmud by R.R.N. Rabbinowicz, 1952, 28 n. 26)
“Our rabbis teach us: Always let the left hand repel and the right hand invite…unlike Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perayah who repulsed Yeshu (Jesus) with both hands…When King Janai killed our sages, Rabbi Yeshoshua ben Perayah (and Jeshu) fled to Alexandria in Egypt. When peace resumed, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach sent a message to him: ‘From me (in Yerushalaim), the city of holiness, to you, Alexandria, my sister: “My husband stays in your midst, and I sit forsaken.”‘ He (Rabbi Yoshua ben Perayah) arose (to return to Yerushalaim) and went and found himself in a certain inn, where great honor was given to him. He said: ‘How beautiful is this achsanai (inn.)’ Thereupon Jeshu said to him, ‘Rabbi her eyes are narrow.’ (The word ‘achsania’ can mean ‘inn’ or ‘innkeeper,’ Jeshu seems to have thought that Rabbi Yehoshua was speaking about the female innkeeper.) So, Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: “Villain, do you behave yourself like that (looking at women)? He sent out four hundred trumpets and excommunicated him. He (Jeshu) came before him and said to him: Receive me (let me repent and accept me.) But he would not acknowledge him.”
“One day he (Rabbi Yehoshua) when was reciting the ‘Shema’ (Hear Israel) he (Jeshu) came before him. He intended to receive him (and forgive him), and he made a sign to him. He (Jeshu) thought that he repelled him (thinking that sign was dismissive). He went and hung up a tile and worshipped it. He (Rabbi Yehoshua) said to him: ‘Return,’ but he replied: ‘So I have understood from you that every one who sins and causes the multitude to sin has no chance to repent.'” (Sanhedrin 107b)
There is much in this passage which is unclear. Is it suggesting that if Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perayah would have been more tolerant towards Jeshu, the latter may not have become an apostate, a false mashiach, and Christianity would not have been?
Whatever the Talmud may have in mind, one is not able to ignore the fact that it seems to teach us that one erroneous hand wave is enough to start an unprecedented outburst of animosity which may result in a new or false religion or movement. Ramban notes this in his commentary on the event where Sarai afflicted Hagar, which resulted in an ongoing hatred of Arabs for Jews. (See Bereshith: 16:5,6) The Talmud mentions the same thing in relationship to the Amalekites where it discusses the source for Amalek’s hatred of Jews as being an unnecessary rejection of his mother by the forefathers. (See Sanhedrin 99b.)
In all these cases, a minor mistake resulted in a major and often outspoken anti-semitic ideology.
In his celebrated work, Makor Baruch, the well-known sage Rabbi Baruch haLevi Epstein, (1860-1942) the author of the commentary “Torah Temima” on the Torah, notes that a harsh and erroneous approach to those who stand on the edge of leaving the fold of the Jewish people has led to a great amount of damage. In the tractate, Chagiga (15a) we read the story of Elisha ben Avuyah who, after a certain incident, questioned Jewish Tradition and stopped being religious. As soon as the sages said, “‘Return, backsliding children’ (Yirmiyahu 3:14) except for Acher. (the other one) [the name they gave Elisha ben Avuyah after he turned away from Judaism]” implying that he could not repent, Elisha left his people completely.
Most interesting is the following comment by Rabbi Epstein, “This phenomenon, to our sadness, seems to repeat itself in every generation. Whenever people quarrel over matters related to ideology and faith, and a person discovers that his more lenient opinion is in the minority, all too often — although his original view differed only slightly from the majority, the total rejection he experiences pushes him over the brink. Gradually, his views become more and more irrational and he becomes disgusted with his opponents, their Torah and their practices, forsaking them completely.” (Chapter 13.5)
Rabbi Epstein goes on to discuss the case of Uriel Da Costa (1585-1630) (a Dutch Sephardi Jew who denied the authenticity of Oral Law) and most possibly the well-known Dutch apostate philosopher of Jewish descent, Baruch Spinoza. He criticizes the religious Jewish leaders of the city of Amsterdam who excommunicated both these men, “instead of instructing him with love and patience and extricating him from his maze of doubts by showing him his mistake, they disparaged and ridiculed him. They pursued him with sanctions and excommunication, cursing him until he was eventually driven away completely from his people and his faith and ending his life (in the case of Uriel Da Costa who committed suicide) in a most degrading fashion.” (For a full treatment of this in relation to Spinoza, see Spinoza, A Life, Steven Nadler, Cambridge, 1999, Chapter 6.)
While Uriel Da Costa did not do permanent damage to Judaism, Spinoza became the father of a major philosophical school which did great damage to the image of Judaism and encouraged in later days anti-Jewish outbursts just as in the case of Jesus and his followers. (See: To Mend the World, Emile Fackenheim, Schocken, 1982, Chapter 2.)
We wonder what would have happened if religious leaders such as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Parayah and the religious leaders of the Amsterdam Portuguese-Spanish Community would have shown more patience and tolerance. Perhaps Spinoza would not have created so much animosity towards Judaism, and Jesus may have stayed in the fold. It would not have led to so much Christian anti-semitism in later days and, with tongue in cheek, we would not have to deal with “Bug 2000” which has already cost us millions and which has nearly driven whole societies into an unprecedented panic. Who would have imagined that one hand, waved nearly two thousand years ago, could ever cause such upheaval in our own days?
*Several scholars state that the identity of Jeshu as Jesus is in dispute. See, for example, Rabbi Yechiel of Paris (Vikuah, edited by R. Margoliot, 1920, 16f)