1) Easter (and also Good Friday) has traditionally been associated with anti-semitic riots. A teacher of mine, who was Jewish and grew up in Boston in the 40’s and 50’s, told me that during Christmas, things were okay because people were thinking about “Peace on Earth and Good Will Towards Men.” During Easter, on the other hand, you stayed inside your house and hoped that a brick didn’t come crashing through.
I admit that I have never fully understood why Christian hierarchies did not fight against this, not as a matter of loving-kindness, but rather theology. The point of Christianity is that God made Himself flesh so that He could return to Earth and die for mens’ sins. Let’s assume that the Jews did in fact kill Jesus: if so, it was all part of the Divine plan. We had to; that was the point. If we hadn’t, then the death, resurrection, purification, etc. wouldn’t have happened. More importantly, had the Jews accepted Jesus as the Messiah, then Christ could not have emerged as saving all of humanity. That doesn’t excuse it of course (assuming you believe it to be true), but as sins go, it’s pretty far down there on the scale.
So lay off!
2) Andrew Sullivan posts a great YouTube clip of British author Philip Pullman defending free speech and the publication of his new novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. In the novel, Pullman posits that Jesus and Christ are actually twins, with the resurrection being a hoax perpetrated by Christ after Jesus dies. Okay.
But the title of the book does raise a crucial issue for Jews. We have to come to terms with Jesus, not for interfaith relations, but rather for enriching our own spiritual lives and culture. Of course, Judaism rejects any notion of Christ’s divinity, but that hardly means that we shold not accept the homiletic teaching of, well, the Good Man Jesus.
Modern Judaism, after all, is not a Biblical religion: it is a rabbinic one. The destruction of the Temple in 70 CE meant that the rabbis had to reconstruct the religion after (in the words of my teacher Judith Abrams), “the equivalent of a nuclear bomb being dropped on it.” The result was a series of texts — the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds, and other fragments (sometimes referred to as “Baraitot”) from the Second Temple period that became the Oral Torah. These texts collectively one the greatest spiritual, intellectual, legal, and religious achievements in all of human history.
But it still is grasping at straws: one cannot help, when studying them, come to terms with just how little we know about the period. Historians of rabbinic and early Christian eras often find themselves poring over a limited number of texts. I certainly hope we find more Cairo Genizas out there, but you can’t count on it.
And the need for greater textual richness is particularly true with contemporary Judaism, for we find ourselves in the middle of a time with our religion not unlike that of the early rabbis: the basis of our religion has been totally undermined, and we need to develop and enrich it in fundamental ways.
What has undermined it? Not the Shoah, but rather emancipation. Traditional Judaism emerged during a period of the centuries after the Crusades, when Jews were shunted into ghettoes, given second-class status at best, restricted in our lives, and shadowed by the constant threat of violence. If the rabbi or rabbis said something, then there quite literally there was nowhere else to go.
Obviously, that is no longer true. “Because the rabbi says so” cannot be the basis of a religious community in a free society. We thus need to explore fundamentally new modes of being Jewish, in the same way that the early rabbis did so in the wake of the Temple’s destruction. And as a result, we need to know as much about that earlier period, and rely on what we can learn as long as the texts from that period do not undermine our fundamental beliefs.
It thus seems to me that Jews might want to re-look at this fellow from Galilee — not the divine Christ, but the very human Jesus, whose teachings based upon our tradition and spoken in dialogue with the Oral Torah and the rabbis, have inspired billions of people. Thomas Jefferson’s wonderful edition of the Gospels, which he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, and in which he excised all elements of the Gospels that even hinted at Jesus’ divinity — stand as a key template. This Jesus has much to teach us. And, as the most prosperous and powerful Jewish community in history, we need no longer be afraid of him.
UPDATE: My friend Rachel Barenblat, otherwise known as The Velveteen Rabbi, posted some wise Jewish Easter reflections here.