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Jesus in Jewish-Christian-Moslem Dialogue

By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi from Paradigm Shift

The article on Jesus was my review of Dermot Lane’s book The Reality of Jesus (Paulist Press, 1977). The issues dealing with Jesus are painful ones in the Christian-Jewish dialogue, and often the responses come from a panic reaction. We have it between the rock of wanting to maintain our belief in the Mashiach and the hard place of our history with those who wanted to force us to accept Jesus as our Messiah. The arguments tend to raise more heat than light. I attempted to show where there were possibilities for further dialogue that would allow some permeability to the person and the teaching of Yeshua ben Miriam of Nazareth that would not result in an automatic rejection response… I believe that there still is some mileage left in the dialogue and/or disputation over these issues. Most of the time, they are addressed by Jews who come from legal-rational quarters. I sought to speak from a place that recognized the soterial-mediating function of the tzaddik in Hasidism and who access the inner reality…in the cosmos…

Treat this discussion as an exercise in hope. I would for this moment only suspend past pains and disappointments and suspend also my conviction that where we are now as Jews and Christians is better than any other place – better because it is our reality. Further, I also believe that the separate voices of our official religions will ultimately contribute more in the unanimous peace in praise of God than a plain chant in which all blend.

There is little that a Jew can say upon reading Lane. This book puzzles me. Here is a man who documents how all of present-day Christology hangs on a hair. The further he returns to the past the more traces of the unique, special, the second person of the Trinity vanish, and what remains is a teacher of aggadic Pharisaism who differed from the other teachers of halakhic Pharisaism.

Lane’s method is a sort of last-ditch stand when a person encounters the conflicting claims of historic material and of creedal dogma. The two are not compatible, and the means of the low-ascending theology are just not able to sway the historian while the believer is threatened by the historic stuff that makes his or her lush creedal affirmation look inflated and exaggerated. But if the believer cannot assign the special unique creedal significance to his or her Christ who pales into one of the many teachers in the Sitz im Leben that the historian gives, then why bother believing? I cannot believe that just another rabbi teaching aggadah to fisherfolk would excite the regular Christian to participate in a Mass done in Jesus’ memory. So who is Christ?

Call him by his Hebrew term, the Mashiach, anointed one, and claim his descent from David in order that there will be fulfilled that “a sprout come forth from Jesse. . .” and you run into the trouble of (a) the job description given to that messiah has not been fulfilled by him. The irenic order of universal Shalom has not yet arrived. As we are told of R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk who, when he lived in Jerusalem, once heard a madman blow the ram’s horn on the holy Temple mount. When people came to him and said, “The Messiah has arrived; he blew the ram’s horn,” R. Mendel opened the window, looked out, and said, “No. He has not come. Everything is still as it was before.” The state of exile continues unrelieved and for us Jews aggravated by inquisitions, expulsions, pogroms, and extermination camps. One might cry out: “If it is as you say that you are saved – how come you make us suffer so much?” No, the seat of the Davidic Messiah has not yet been occupied by his rightful descendant, and that is that. And (b) what sense is there in the genealogy that traces Joseph’s descent from David if Joseph had nothing to do with the biological event of Jesus’ birth? So, even if the Shalom order had arrived, Jesus could not be billed as the Davidic Prince of Peace. Both on the fact of exile and on the theory of Davidic descent, we have no Messiah as yet. To some extent I feel ashamed to raise those old disputed issues, but somehow the Christologist is not ashamed to lay the heavy claims on Jesus, and there is after all this tradition that we Jews experience in countless ways as leaning on us and urging us to accept this Christ as the Messiah we expect, and we can only push back by retorting: We will accept a biological descendant of David as the Messiah when through him the Shalom order is established.

But wait, is there only one Messiah spot for Jesus to occupy? Ever since the break between Judah and Joseph, the Kingdom of Israel from the Kingdom of Judah, there has been a claim for the coming of a Messiah, son of Joseph. This Messiah comes not to redeem sinners – this belongs to the Davidic Messiah-but to redeem the righteous and to teach them that they too need to come to Teshuvah (turning – metanoia). Being a descendant of Joseph the tzaddik he, as the Midrash (Vayosha 24) has it, will, after having served as a leader of the Jewish troops, be killed by a warrior from the West named Armilus (Romulus). He is, as the Jewish tradition places him, the righteous suffering servant of Isaiah 53 who is to be martyred. Let’s put this together. An Ephraimite, a descendant of Joseph who comes from Galilee (no need for the census story at all), who lives an exemplary holy life (perhaps there is an underplaying of other companions he may have had in favor of fisherfolk, publicans, and sinners, which may have helped in making converts among the Gentiles of the Roman Empire, but not in Jerusalem, where Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea become more important), and is martyred by “Romulus” could very well have become the Mashiach ben Joseph for Jews.

If Christians had spoken of Jesus then the chances are that Jews would have been able to join Christians in the Good Friday lament and count Jesus as one of the ten Martyrs of the State and included his death with that of Rabbi Aqiba in the dirges of the Yom Kippur martyrology. Jews could have even added the extra bite of bread at the conclusion of the meal as a memorial and have had a cup of thanksgiving – Eucharist – for the same intention and prayed in the daily liturgy for the resurrection of the Josephite Messiah that he might lead us to meet the Messiah ben David. But . . . the Gospel writers were prisoners of hope. Too impatient to postpone their hopes for the salvation of this world, they pushed it up to heaven, and as soon as the temporal order was in their hands Christians became triumphalists in an unredeemed world. Not content to assign the dignity of Messiah Ben Joseph to Jesus, claims were made for the New Adam that the world’s condition refused to substantiate and all the transubstantiations subsequently did not change the accidents of wine, bread, death, and martyrdom.

But why identify the second person of the trinity with the messiah and come with inflated claims when we can, instead of turning to the synoptics, turn to John? His formulation of Jesus as the Memra, the Logos, the Word that was God, was with God, was made flesh, creates the more significant Christology. Of the three tasks so well described by Rosenzweig in his Star of Redemption – Creation, Revelation, and Redemption – the real claim was made that Jesus is the revelation. That equates Jesus with Torah, not with Mashiach. If there be a being who so lives as the Creator in Heaven wishes the being to live that he or she becomes a living Torah, at least Jews of a mystical, aggadic, kabbalistic-hasidic persuasion seem to have a stronger theological warrant for dialogue. The tzaddik is God’s possibility, for humanity in a physical body. The tzaddik is Torah, who decrees and God agrees; for the tzaddik’s sake the all was created. “God does not need a world,” the Magid of Mezeritch teaches, but since tzaddikim like to lead worlds, he creates worlds for them. tzaddikim can heal and help, but most of all those who see them utter the blessing: “Blessed art Thou Lord our God King of the Universe who hast apportioned of thy wisdom to them who fear thee.” The tzaddik, at once an archetypal model for behavior, is also an accessible model and anyone who will follow the tzaddik- in the older sense of imitatio – can also become a tzaddik. There are tractates of all other commandments in the Talmud, but for Love, Faith, Awe, and Devotion only a living tzaddik can serve a generation as the tractate of the duties of the heart.

The tzaddik is the Sinai event for all those who stand in a positive relationship to the tzaddik. The tzaddik serves the souls of the disciples and devotees as a general soul that is for the disciple the interface to God’s grace, light, and love on this plane. Now all those teachings are more compatible to the soteric claim of Christianity. The Paraclete, the mediator, the WAY to the Creator, all these are what the tzaddik is for mystical Jews and the Torah is for all Jews in general. The Christian can say that, fulfilling the Torah, Jesus became the Torah now immanent in his heart and soul without making at the same time the extravagant claim for Jesus to be the fulfillment of the redemption. For, although the Torah was given at Sinai, no Jew expected that this would so transform the whole world that it would usher in the irenic realm of God’s Kingdom. It is on the contrary a revelation – a survival guide and handbook of how to manage in a world that is not yet redeemed.

Having stated the foregoing from a Jewish position, is this not also close to the Christian one? The final redemption still awaits another COMING. In the meantime, there is the word made flesh, the paradigm of the fullest God in the fullest human, the soter, reconciler, connector to the Creator. On the Jewish side such an open and clear statement gives possibility to the notion that Jesus is for Christians who follow in his footsteps, pray in his name to the Creator, love one another as he had loved his disciples, and await the redemption with the light of the world having poured itself- kenosis – into the souls of his followers. He is the word that the Christian hears spoken of the Creator in the tongue of the man, the rebbe from Nazareth. His followers once named Nazarenes can now be seen by Jews as Nazarener hasidim in the same way as Jews who follow the Satmarer Rebbe are Satmarer hasidim, and those who follow the Belzer are Belzer hasidim.

There is yet a deeper aspect of Christology worth considering from the principle of dialogue. There is the experience of the Christ (I do not mean the Messiah aspect, but the Son of God aspect) that is the confidant, the compassionate, the Holy, the one who is all sacred heart, who is the love of God that is also the God is love and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him. True, this aspect is far from the ken of the exoteric Jew but close to the esoteric one who is a hasid or who follows the Kabbalah. I remember a conversation I once had visiting the late Thomas Merton at Gethsemani. Merton responded to my question what the Trinity meant to him by quoting the Greek Fathers who said that God in awesome might and creative power is the Father. God as loving and compassionate and working to bring all souls to their reconciliation and salvation is the Son. God as this love is revealed to the human mind and gives human being the revelation of God’s will and wisdom is the Holy Spirit. I responded to this that I believe that God creates, and, if this dimension of an infinite number of dimensions is talked about under the name “Father,” this has not only enough biblical and theological warrant for Jews but is no point of quarrel. That God loves and in this capacity is called the Son also makes a certain amount of sense to a Kabbalist.

For in the Zohar the Tetragrammaton is interpreted to mean YHVH as follows: Y is the Father – Hokhmah, wisdom. H is the Mother – Binah, understanding. V is the Son-Z’eyr Anpin, the heart and the compassion, the one really pointed to in the word YHVH; and H at the end is the Daughter – the Shekhinah, the sabbath, the Divine Presence and, yes, the Ruach HaKodesh -the Holy Spirit. As long as we do not exclude the other manifestations by declaring that there are only three, we have further room for dialogue and understanding. Now it is also true that the Kingdom of the YHVH has not yet begun on this earth and, as Zechariah foretold, that will happen on “THAT DAY on which YHVH will be one and His name ONE.”

What this calls for is a willingness to admit that all our formulations about God are nothing but tentative stammerings of blind and exiled children of Eve responding to the light deeply hidden in the recesses of their nostalgic longing for the untainted origin in which one needed not to look through the glass darkly but could see. This can even make us proud of our traditions and heritage as the storehouse of those stammering of the souls that were filled by God with the grace of that holy moment that defied definition and that was forced by ecclesiastical lawyers to be encapsulated in a stateable wording. The mistake that was made was to take the ecstatic exclamations of the overwhelmed souls and to make them numbered articles of creeds instead of acts of faith made in fear and trembling.

It is this move that, for all the balance in Lane’s book, he did not make. It is indeed difficult to say that the magisterium of the church -that the Torah and all its commentaries – are deo gratias what we do have and treasure, but only as the human snapshots of moments of God’s nearness; that, although we cannot improve on the divine that flows into our vessels, we can and must take responsibility for keeping these vessels clean and transparent and not at all as essential as the light they contain. Perhaps we are as dogmatists small souls of small faith who do not dare trust that God will be with us as God was with our forebears and that God will not abandon us nor forsake us.

It then behooves the poor of the spirit of all creeds and denominations to support each other in the desperate acts of faith that we make in the face of the exile and the holocausts and enter into a dialogue among fellow servants and children of one Creator.