Two Jewish Thoughts About Easter

Easter is a good time for Jews to remember that in the Age of Emancipation, they need to Come to Jesus. Really.

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.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

21 thoughts on “Two Jewish Thoughts About Easter”

  1. On point 1, the official Christian doctrine from St Augustine on was roughly as you write: the Jews were a necesary evil. Augustine added the important point that the Jews were continuing witnesses to the authenticity of the old Testament (against Gnostics who said the it had been entirely superseded). The problem was that the position ¨These people are bad and inferior BUT you mus tolerate them as witnesses, necessary parts of God´s plan etc¨¨was just too complicated a balancing act on the ground, especially when it got mixed up with social resentments (eg 14th-century Spain). ¨Jews are BAD¨ was a much simpler and more saleable message. See Netanyahu, The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th Century Spain.

  2. It IS a matter of theology that Christians do not accept anti-semitism on Easter or on any other day. I know of no place that this is in fact happening within modern mainstream Christianity and would like to be pointed to any documented occurence of such (don't point me to some whacky fringe group either). This post is based on a faulty assumption that this is a large-scale occurence within Christianity. Not the case. Go back and read the responses of mainstream Christian leaders after Mel Gibson released his "Passion of the Christ". The mainstream Christian community has spoken with one voice in rejecting any blaming of the Jews for the death of Christ. The theological reality is that we all put Jesus Christ on that cross. It was all sins (past, present, and future) that required his substitutionary death and atonement. To suggest that the cruxifiction of Christ is far down there on the scale of sins is just an evil thought. If it turns out that Jesus was in fact God, then it is the ultimate sin to put to death very God of very God (the great "I Am"). That the most wonderful outcome was the result of this act does not excuse this most evil of sins. That good things come from bad does not excuse or justify the bad acts in any logically consistent way. The cruxifiction of Christ is in fact the ultimate sin, one that each and every human bears responsibility for. It is the rejection of Jesus as God, and the placing of an idol in His place, that condemns all men. This is the theological backdrop to the rejection of anti-semitism as held by most mainline Christian denominations.

    Since we're speaking theology, many Christians do not subscribe to your sidebaar theological proposition that Christ saved "all of humanity" either. This is a form of universalism. Christ died only for the elect. The is the doctrine of "limited atonement". It is important that one becomes familiar with Christian theology before speaking out about it. It is good to see a call to embrace Jesus as a good figure, especially in light of the Christian hate speech that is accepted in our society, but ultimately Christians believe that it is not simply accepting Jesus as a good man that is the call of mankind but rather it is the call to bow down to him as Lord.

    p.s., [ personal abuse zapped by James Wimberley under house rules on civility ]

  3. Bux's comment illustrates the vapidity of his enterprise, the endless epicycles of theological proof-texting to explain why one group doesn't really hate another one because Jesus didn't die for identity politics. "The theological reality is that we all put Jesus Christ on that cross." Um, no we didn't. He was nailed to a tree purportedly because he upset some people with his teachings. A bunch of other people have used this story, and the theology it spawned, as an excuse to persecute those they don't like. They've also used it as an excuse to do a great deal of good in the world, but then so did Gandhi and he wasn't a papist. Claiming that there is a "theological reality" that supersedes those facts is . . . outside of the reality-based community.

  4. I think it was the Romans that hung Christ on a cross.

    Jews became a necessary scapegoat when Paul of Tarsus transplanted this to a religion that could appeal to Romans.

    As someone said, reading the Gospels is like reading an account of France in the early 1940s, and seeing no mention of Germans.

  5. Some Christians accept neither substitutionary nor limited atonement. As a Christ-centered Friend (Quaker), I don't see the sense of basing the salvation of humanity on an act of violence by a God of love against a man who preached non-violence. Rather, it seems to some of us that salvation comes, not through "faith in Christ" (a mistranslation of the Greek), but through the "faith of Christ:" that is, through his fulfillment of the human side of the Covenant as a faithful Jew. The crucifixion was just the inevitable outcome of such a faithful life, and the resurrection the final verse of the "this is my beloved son, listen to him" message.

    My understanding is that there are a number of Jewish scholars using the Christian documents of the early Common Era for the purpose you describe, but I can't recall where I ran across this information. I know that Geza Vermes and Hyam Maccoby are two Jews renowned for their studies of the historical Jesus in a thoroughly Jewish context.

  6. Hyam Maccoby sees the passion narratives as slanted against the Jews and favorable to the Romans. Pilate, for example, is portrayed as reluctant to execute an innocent man, while the Jewish crowd is depicted as malicious and ravenous for blood. The Roman centurion says, "This was the Son of God," while the Jewish crowd mocks and reviles Jesus.

    Some aspects of the Gospels Maccoby also sees as suspect, in particular the parts where healing on the Sabbath is portrayed as contrary to the Torah. He says that the Pharasees never included healing in the list of forbidden activities on the Sabbath, and that the methods used by Jesus were did not involve any of the activities that were prohibited.

    The "someone" mentioned by Taylor is also Maccoby, who says that the scarcity of references to the Romans in the Gospels is as peculiar as an account of France under German occupation that made nearly no mention of that fact.

  7. As someone who was brought up Jewish, but now attends Methodist church services with my lovely shiksa wife, (I call myself a MethaJew), I agree that there is a lot of good stuff Jews could extract from the life of Jesus. Such an approach would have the added benefit of removing some of the mystery of christianity for jews, such as myself, who, until I married into it, did not know that much about christianity.

  8. Comment 1 was mine, I just forgot to identify myself. I didn´t react to Jonathan´s point 2 out of tact, seeing it as directed essentially to other Jews. But since Bux jumped in with his muddy yokel boots, I´ll just say that as a Christian I reject his offensive response utterly. Who are we to say we understand and follow our Founder completely? The latter is obviously false; so the former almost certainly is. My own pennyworth is that from very early days the Church(es) have paid far too much attention to doctrine, building an extraordinarily elaborate structure of rival Christologies on top of Jesus´ few and obscure claims about himself, and largely forgotten the job they were actually instructed to do, which was to preach and bring forward the Kingdom of Heaven, an ethical not a cultic revolution. So Jonathan´s call, and all insights from whatever traditions, should be welcomed by Christians with any humility.

    If you are going to go down the theology road, there are an awful lot of us apocatastasiasts out there, preferring the Cappadocian Fathers (and Mothers – one of them was Gregory of Nyssa´s sister Macrina) to Jean Calvin.

  9. James Wimberley, what exactly are the house rules on civility that caused you to "zap" my last comment? Do these house rules apply to Jonathan Zasloff's Feb. 24, 2010 post or are there two separate standards?

  10. @ Taylor.. that was succinct… the Jewish followers of the Jewish Jesus disappeared about the time the temple was destroyed.. prior to that destruction the leader of the church in Jerusalem agreed to give Paul the mission to the gentiles. As the [mostly gentile] followers of Jesus separated themselves from the Jews of the disapora they lost the cover which enabled them to avoid the civic duty of worshiping the divine Caesar.. but then the Jews fell out of favor (remember that destruction of the temple?) so survival necessitated absolving the gentile Romans authorities and blaming the out of favor Jews for the crucifiction (the enemy of my friend is my enemy). . right about the time the oral traditions were being written…

    But, I DO love the point of bridging between the Jewish and Christian traditions. I just recently heard lectures by and read a book by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine on that same point. "The Misunderstood Jew…" I think Christians often forget that Jesus WAS a Jew speaking to Jews.. It's important to keep that context.

  11. Couldn't it also be the case that growing disbelief and religious ignorance has taken the passion out of the formerly rampant ecumenical movement? When the middle of the road has lapsed into atheism, agnosticism, or plain non-observant ignorance, there's nobody left to drive doctrinal discussions except for the fanatics.

    As it is, this is a major problem in Orthodox Judaism. The following sentences attach to mitnagic Judaism: When the vestiges of Samson Rafael Hirsch's orthodox theology are embodied by Breuer and Haredi sectarians, with nary a nod to Torah Umadda in modern applications of Torah im Derech Eretz, there is no real theological road back to modernity from the fanatic tsitsis-bremtser fringe. In Israel, Torah Umadda has been swallowed up in religious Zionism and Haredi shit-throwing. In the United States, Breuerichkeit has become a joyless anti-intellectual movement of narrowminded professionals. And, of course, the Haredim in places like Monsey, Kiryas Joel, Lakewood, and Five Towns seek to recreate the Judaism of the Frankfurter Judengasse ca. 1669.

    The enlightened conservadoxy I grew up with (well, its guttering flickers in the 1970s and 1980s) was mortally wounded by Holocaust necro-fetishism and finally died in the ecstatic blut-und-boden nationalism of Greater Israel and the settler movement. The lingering bits of modernity-infused progressive orthodoxy, mostly in Manhattan, mostly twenty-and-thirty something university attending Jewish singles, dies on the vine when transplanted to the 'burbs – "philosophically enlightened progressive" Orthodoxy of appearances inflated by kosher organic locavorous CSA food fetishes. I miss it – but the old stereotype does hold: two jews, three congregations.

  12. O Bux, whither goeth thy sense of humor? (Or am I presumptuous in thinking you ever had one?) Admittedly Jonathan walks a fine line, in his First Jewish Thought, between solemnity and hilarity, but then the minority (such as Jonathan) often walks such a line in talking to the majority (such as y'all) about Matters Of The Gravest Import, especially when the history between the two groups is fraught with, shall we say, discord (also known as roughly eight centuries of murderous persecution visited upon the minority by the majority.)

    I have nothing to add to your second paragraph, where the stench of condescension reeks for itself.

  13. "I agree that there is a lot of good stuff Jews could extract from the life of Jesus."

    Of course since we know pretty much NOTHING about Jesus (apart from what the Romans say about him) that isn't filtered through the lens of people with an agenda, it's not clear quite what this statement really means. "We could all learn a lot by studying stories about how to be a nice person"? Well, yes we could — and if those stories happened to be about Ghandi, or MLK, or Buddha, or even Nelson Mandela (sometimes it's necessary to take arms against evil), what is lost compared to studying the life of Jesus?

  14. "But, I DO love the point of bridging between the Jewish and Christian traditions. I just recently heard lectures by and read a book by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine on that same point. “The Misunderstood Jew…” I think Christians often forget that Jesus WAS a Jew speaking to Jews.. It’s important to keep that context."

    I'm sorry, but all this fussing over "what did Jesus REALLY mean" strikes as a completely broken model of how human society works. Like asking "what is the path of the electron", it's a viewpoint that's not even wrong, it's so decoupled from reality.

    The way the world works is that people NOW try to find justifications for what they want to do, and one source of justifications is claims about how things were done THEN. Since many different things were done then, and there are many different thens to choose from, it's never hard to find what you want. For an example of exactly the same behavior in a different context, look at US politics with its claims about what the Founding Fathers (or if that doesn't work, Lincoln, or the Mayflower Pilgrims) said and believed. Anyone who thinks these discussions have anything to do with the past, rather than being power struggles of the present, is completely deluded. The only link to the past is the fact that the people, organizations, cultures, and ideas of the present came from the past. On the Goldwater->Reagan->Bush timescale these arguments have some tenuous connection to reality (though even then, precious little — how many people in the US today have an accurate knowledge of the timeline of the abortion debate in the US, or an understanding of where it really came from?), when it comes to Lincoln or Hamilton, let alone Augustine and Paul, the connections simply do not exist. We might as well be combing through Cicero and Homer trying to find arguments to support what we want to believe (which, come to think of it, was what people did 200 years ago — and then they stopped, and neither the world not civilization ended).

  15. The Roman capture and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD was also a "nuclear bomb" on the fledgling Christian movement, I believe. Why do we have no gospels predating that time? Jerusalem was the headquarters of that movement in the first few decades after the crucifixion, and who can say what documents, what first-hand testimony may have disappeared in the siege?

  16. Bux: house rules here.

    Point 2. ¨No insults to bloggers or other commenters.¨ Nothing in the rules about public officials.

    BTW, Jonathan provided an argument why Sen. Conrad´s conduct deserves condemnation; you just said Jonathan was wrong in what he wrote. If your remark was humour, it escapes me.

    Incidentally, the call was mine alone. He´s a nicer guy than me and would probably have let it stand.

  17. In the good old days, you could deliver a mortal personal affront to a public official by saying something like, “It seems to me very strange and unaccountable that that which was the object of his execration should now receive his encomiums.”

    Nowadays, you have to call them a piece of crap.

    What do they teach in school these days?

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