our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness Phaedr. 244a


Thou shalt love the stranger

A Bimonthly Jewish & Interfaith Critique of Politics, Culture & Society
May/June 2004 || http://www.tikkun.org

Jesus the Jew

Michael Lerner

Jesus is our brother, partner in Jewish Renewal, and part of the tradition of prophets, mystics, social change activists, and teachers who have for the past 2800 years been seeking to return Judaism to its highest vision and deepest truths. Jews do not see Jesus as God, except in the way that everyone is part of God and created in the divine image; not the Son of God, except in the sense that everyone is a daughter or son of God; not the Messiah, at least not in the sense meant by Jewish tradition in which "messiah" means the person whose appearance will be accompanied by the lion lying down with the lamb and nations beating their swords into ploughshares and war being learned no more.
Jesus' message of love is both an intrinsic part of Torah Judaism and a message that badly needs more champions in every age. It was the Torah, not Jesus, that first taught "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" and "Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might." It was this same Judaism which taught a truly revolutionary message: "Thou shalt love the stranger" (Hebrew: ger, which might also be translated as "The Other," or "the Powerless one," based on the follow-up point made in Torah, "Remember that you were a Ger in Egypt" when the Jewish people were enslaved).
Similarly, Torah's demands to "pursue justice" and its call for a redistribution of land every fifty years (the Jubilee) were as revolutionary in Jesus' day as they are today.
But what happened by the time Jesus was growing up in Galilee was what has happened with every spiritual message received by humanity in the past several thousand years: people "get it," sometimes even write it down (as in the Torah), and then are unable to stick with it, and instead the message either becomes meaningless or the practices surrounding the message (rituals) end up distancing people from the spirit of the original message.
As I've argued in Jewish Renewal and elsewhere, it is always flawed human beings who get the spiritual message (because that's all there is on the planet), and so the way we hear the message is limited by our own spiritual, intellectual, and psychological capacities. Tarnished by living in a world of oppression and cruelty, we sometimes hear God's voice as the voice of cruelty, embodying a message that is in line with our experience of "reality" as harsh and cruel. Similarly, it's no surprise to hear that same voice in the gospels when Jesus speaks of his family in dismissive language (when he says "If anyone comes to me and doesn't hate his own mother and father and wife and children and brothers and sisters and even his own life, he can't be my disciple").
There is another voice in Torah and in the Prophets and in the teachers, mystics, social change activists, and renewal figures of Judaism: a voice of love that affirms that the only way we can build the world we want is through love, kindness, generosity, compassion, and open-heartedness. It is this voice, repeatedly articulated by the Prophets of Israel, that is the "good news," the voice of renewal, the core message which has been repeatedly lost and which must be rediscovered and reasserted again and again.
This voice of love is always distorted when people get scared, so it's no wonder that this prophetic message was increasingly marginalized when, in the period of the Second Temple, first the Greeks and then Romans conquered Israel and imposed their harsh taxes and violent regimes. A sect of accommodators to imperial rule, the Sadducees, became the major voice of the priestly class who ran the Temple and sought to work with the imperialists, joined also by some merchants who learned Greek or Latin and then sought to take advantage of the economic possibilities opened by the imperialists. The Sadducees may have insured themselves the power and support of the Romans, but increasing numbers of Jews found accommodation to empire unacceptable.
The question then for most Jews was not, "Do we agree with the priests who ran the Temple?" since mostly they did not, but rather, "What's our alternative—how can we resist imperial power most effectively and conscientiously?"
The most significant response was that of the Pharisees—the group of scribes, scholars, and teachers who began to develop what would become, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 ce, the new Rabbinic Judaism which lasted for the next two thousand years. The Pharisees created a de facto alternative to the sacrificial worship of the Temple by emphasizing prayer, meditation, and the study of Torah in local community houses of study (synagogues). Studying Torah and elaborating its commands became an alternative spiritual practice—a way to get close to God without sacrifices.
Perhaps the best known Pharisee, who was a contemporary of Jesus, was Rabbi Hillel. When asked by a skeptic to teach the whole Torah while standing on one leg, he replied: "Do not do unto others what may be hateful to you. Go and learn." In reviving the Golden Rule, Hillel was preaching a message common among the Pharisees.
Nurtured by a revolutionary Torah story which taught Jews that the God of the universe was a Force of Healing and Transformation who had liberated Jews from slavery (and hence demonstrated that no system of oppression is ultimately necessary), Jews became the most cantankerous people of the ancient Roman Empire—the group which most frequently rebelled against Roman power both in Palestine and wherever else in the Empire a large number of Jews resided. Among them, there was a group of Jews known as the Zealots, who argued that armed struggle against Rome was immediately necessary. It was one such armed rebellion, in 67ce, that led the Romans to respond with devastating force that included burning down the Temple in 70 ce, and another such rebellion, led by Akiba and Bar Kochba in 132 ce, which led to the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Jews by the Romans and the expulsion of Jews from the land in 135 ce.
The Essenes were a proto-mystical cult that despaired of armed struggle with imperialism and instead tried to build a countercultural reality by establishing communal living groups in the hills above the Dead Sea. There they awaited the Messiah.
There were dozens of would-be messiahs wandering through Judaea, each with a band of followers and an array of miraculous behaviors that gave them validation. Most of them courted the same fate as thousands of others suspected of insurrectionary desires: crucifixion. There were also growing numbers of Jews, including many Pharisees, who began to talk of salvation in some different world, in a Heaven, or in the resurrection of the dead which would occur in messianic times. If love could not rule on this earth, maybe its domain would be elsewhere or at some later time.
The Rabbinic Judaism that grew from the Pharisees sought to emphasize the idea that if the Torah was merely a collection of law, it would have started with the laws of the Paschal sacrifice in Exodus XII. But why this first Book of Genesis and first twelve chapters of Exodus? Why did the story start with the creation of the world and of humanity? Because, they answered, in so doing the Torah could tell us that God created human beings in God's image, and that consequently no one later could legitimately come along and say, "My ancestors come from a better lineage than yours, so we deserve a better deal on this planet than you do." No, the rabbis insisted, everyone is equally created in the image of God and equally entitled to the benefits of God's planet.
When people are hopeful, they respond to this kind of message. But as Roman power increased, and a loving world seemed more utopian, the Pharisees became increasingly enmeshed in internal polemics and in refining external ritual, and their loving message receded. This dynamic repeats itself through the history of spiritual and religious traditions—and hence there is a constant need to renew the community of love so that it does not turn into something else. This was the great promise of Jesus and his movement. In a dramatic way, it challenged the Jewish people to come back to our own deepest truths—and to not let its justifiable struggle against the Roman imperialists and their priestly collaborators in the Temple turn them away from the real message that God had meant to impart to the world through the Jews: that the God of the universe sought a world of love, kindness, compassion, peace, justice, openheartedness, and generosity.
The generosity sought by God was a generosity on both the material level and the spiritual level. On the material level, the Torah called explicitly for sharing of one's food with the hungry, and for a redistribution of the land every fifty years (back to its original essentially equal distribution). When Jesus taught that the way people could best honor his memory would be to treat "the least among you" (that is, the most despised, the Other, the ger) as though they were dealing with God directly, he was insisting on this basic recognition of God's desire for us to share what we have.
Yet there was also a spiritual level of generosity called for—the generosity of spirit that comes with forgiving sin. For the Temple based version of Judaism, the only way one could achieve cleansing from sins was to offer a sacrifice. But in the Pharisaic tradition, the forgiveness of sin could be accomplished directly by repentance to God, and by adopting a new spirit in our relationship with fellow human beings. This new relationship had at its core a spirit of forgiveness for others, just as we sought God's forgiveness for our own sins.
The centrality of forgiveness or for transcending judgment of others was enshrined in the Pharasaic (rabbinic) saying: "al tadeen et chavercha ad she'tagi'a leemkoemoe"—"do not judge your fellow human being until you come to his place." Until we experience what a person went through in her childhood and adult life, we are in no position to make judgments. And since none of us will ever be able to do that, judgments of others are always inappropriate. Forgiveness became a central rabbinic virtue.
It was this call to forgiveness that became central to Jesus' message as well. We were to forgive those who trespassed against us, those who hurt us. Not just little trespasses, but even big and hurtful ones. Forgive our enemies! So when the disciple Peter asks Jesus "How often should I forgive my brother if he keeps wronging me? Up to seven times?" (repeating the cynical realism of those who insist that forgiving another won't change their behavior), Jesus responds: "Not just seven: seventy times seven." Because the goal is not to change the behavior of the offender but to change our own behavior, and through that begin to heal the world.
Jesus' message is meant to apply to the Romans, but also to Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein. Forgiving doesn't mean empowering them or letting them continue their hurtful behavior—we are not being enjoined to passively allow evil to triumph. One can resist evil actions without blaming or judging those engaged in hurtful acts.
Jesus' call is a spiritual call. Jewish commentator Stephen Mitchell, in his wise and brilliant book, The Gospel According to Jesus, put it this way: "When we condemn, we create a world of condemnation for ourselves, and we attract the condemnation of others; when we cling to an offense, we are clinging to precisely what separates us from our own fulfillment. Letting go means not only releasing the person who has wronged us, but releasing ourselves. We receive exactly what we give. The more openhearted we are, the more we can experience the whole universe as God's grace. Forgiveness is essentially openness of heart."
It is this message that we teach in the Jewish Renewal movement when we ask each of our members to say a prayer before going to bed each night to connect with our capacities to forgive so that we can forgive each person who has hurt us in the past day. We think of each of them and send them blessings and forgiveness, no matter how strong the pain they've caused us, thereby allowing better alignment with the God part of us. This practice doesn't detract an ounce from our commitment to resist all the ways that hurtful people act. Rather, as we separate from our judgments, we become more empowered to struggle for tikkun olam, the healing of the world we need.
The energy freed up by forgiving others makes it possible for us to withstand the pain and disappointments of a world that has too much pain and too little love, a world that in various ways crucifies all those who struggle seriously for a world based on love.
As Christian theologian Ched Myers recently pointed out to me, (echoing a message that has been put forward in these pages by Michael Bader and Peter Gabel, among others), the call for a world based on love, generosity, compassion, and kindness often provokes anger and resistance from those who feel that their lives have been built around "being realistic." They resent the very assertion that something else is possible. This is why, Myers teaches, the cross has remained a powerful symbol for Christianity—understood as the reminder that if you live a life committed to love, you may end up facing the powers that be (including the powerless who have internalized the oppressor's message and fear of love) and their determination to crucify you for daring to shake their certainty in the inevitability of domination and control by the few of the many. Nothing upsets them more than the "naivete" of those who talk about love and kindness—they base their lives on the assumption that "the real world" requires you to dominate others before they dominate you; so if you claim that something else is possible, they feel that you are invalidating everything they stand for.
For these people, the message of the cross gets transformed—so that instead of a sign of hope, it is a reminder of the inevitability of cruelty (and hence leads to a politics in which we prepare ourselves for the need to defend ourselves against all the evil others that surround us). This is the "muscular" Christianity glorified in Gibson's film The Passion, where it seems the whole point is to endure suffering.
Just as in Judaism there are those who gravitate to the message of fear and the need to defend oneself against evil others as well as those who gravitate to the message of hope and the notion that each of us can play a central role in the task of healing and transforming the world, so in Christianity we get the voices of a Christian renewal movement who gravitate to the Resurrection as the central truth of a world based on hope and those who gravitate to the Crucifixion as a message focused on grim realism and the acceptance of cruelty (coupled, sometimes, with the hope that it can be escaped in some afterlife which will be there if one believes in Jesus).
We at Tikkun embrace the Jewish Jesus, the part of the story that is most consonant with the vision of prophetic and Renewal Judaism, seeing there the reaffirmation of the possibility of possibility. And we do so in the same way that we embrace our other prophets and teachers, recognizing them as flawed even when they are able to have moments of transcendence. Just as Jesus and his Gospels are filled with moments when Jesus seems an ill-tempered or self-inflated being ("I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me, though he shall die, yet shall he live"), so too all our prophets and teachers, including all of us who today do spiritual teaching or tikkun olam work, sometimes get lost in ourselves, self-pitying, and self-aggrandizing, and that too should be forgiven just as we should forgive Jesus for his all-too-frequent moments that do not embody his message.
I also have compassion for the many Jews who were not able to sustain this compassion toward Christians when the message of love and openheartedness was transformed by later generations into a message used to beat up on Jews and others.
It was only fifty years after his death that Jesus' message was put into writing as a Gospel that claimed to supercede Judaism with a new religion based on Jesus not as an inspired human being, but as a higher order of being, later understood to actually be God. As moved as his followers were by the message of love, many had begun to despair of his "second coming" and were increasingly attracted to the allure of having their message accepted by larger numbers of people in the Roman empire. Unable to fully hold on to the significance of the revolutionary message of Easter and the beautiful story of resurrection—that love would triumph over death, and that no amount of imperial power could fully defeat the power of kindness and generosity—the gospel writers twisted the story in ways that portrayed the Jews rather than the Roman imperialists as the culprits in killing Jesus. The gospel writers made it seem as though the destruction of the Temple, the military act of Roman triumph over Jewish revolutionary impulses, was actually also a triumph for Jesus—because in their new interpretation it was the Jews who were the real enemy (for not accepting Jesus), and not the imperial regime that had actually crucified him! In this retreat from faith in the power of love to an identification with the power of the Romans, the gospel writers had opened the wedge to temporal power that would actually defeat in actual practice the loving message that Christianity had promised to bring to the world. Every move to make Jesus into a god, and then into the Son of God, and then into a part of God, was a move of fear, a desperate attempt to make Jesus more powerful, sitting on the right hand of God, or even being God, because as King he would be exercising the kind of power that was "real" rather than "merely" the kind of power that Jesus had, which was the power of testifying to the possibility of a world of love. And in this move to become more closely aligned with the powerful, to reshape the story so that the Jews are portrayed as the bad guys—the Christ-killers—and the Romans as merely innocent bystanders, we get the sick dynamic in which Christianity gets elevated by demeaning Judaism.
Jews responded in kind with unsavory tales of Jesus as they knew him, and the competition was often intense and unpleasant until Christianity gained state power (and some say, lost its own soul) under the rule of Constantine (see the powerful account, Constantine's Sword, by James Carroll). It was in the fourth century that Christianity began to teach an active hatred toward the Jews. Jewish life was permitted, but laws were passed to degrade the condition of Jews and make their lives miserable—as a living example of what would happen to anyone who knew Jesus and yet rejected his message.
The full picture of the hateful policies of the Church are detailed by Catholic priest Edward Flannery's monumental study The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Anti-Semitism. St. John Chrysostom laid the groundwork for the teaching of hate that went on for the next 1600 years when he described the Jews as "inveterate murderers, destroyers" and "lustful, rapacious, greedy, perfidious bandits" whose synagogues were "the house of the devil" and filled with prostitution.
Legal restrictions soon followed, as Church legislation became the law of the land throughout most of what in the next centuries became "Christian Europe." Jews were prevented from engaging in most forms of work or owning property, forbidden from socializing with Christians, banned from public life and from practicing law, prevented from testifying against Christians (so Christians could assault or rob Jews but it was illegal for Jews to demand punishment or just compensation), and eventually in many Christian countries, Jewish children were forcibly baptized, Jews' property forcibly expropriated, and ultimately they were forcibly expelled (from England in the thirteenth century, France in the fourteenth century, Spain in the fifteenth century, Portugal in the sixteenth century, etc.).
Thus began a popular culture of hatred toward Jews that was sustained by Church teachings, and which manifested most frequently on Good Friday and Easter when the official teachings of hatred toward the Jews for having supposedly been the ones responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus (at least as told by some of the Gospels) manifested in wild mobs of Christians entering into Jewish sections of town, killing, raping, burning, and stealing from the Jews as part of the annual Easter celebration.
Most Christians have never been taught about the way Christianity perpetrated hatred against Jews. Few Protestants have read the ruthlessly hateful statements against Jews by Martin Luther. And though Vatican II (1963-1965) finally banned the teaching of hatred of Jews on Good Friday, the Catholic Church never taught about its disgraceful role in fostering centuries of hate, and how this hatred was mobilized by the fascists and manifested in the Holocaust. No wonder, then, that many thought Jews were being irrational and paranoid about Mel Gibson's film and its attempt to revive the story of Jewish culpability for the death of Jesus (while simultaneously ignoring the Jewish Jesus and his teachings of love).
No wonder, also, that Jews, having had this long experience with the Christian religion that taught hatred while claiming to be an embodiment of Jesus' love, built walls of hostility and anger around ourselves to protect us from Jesus. But this has been a loss for Jews. To the extent that we Jews feel safer today than we have in the past, we should finally allow ourselves to open to Jesus the Jewish renewal revolutionary and prophet, treating him with the same respect, and the same rough-and-tumble criticism that we give to all our great teachers. Particularly at this moment when his legacy is again being appropriated by the forces of fear and hatred, it's important for us to ally with the many Christians who affirm the revolutionary and loving aspect of Jesus' message. Our Christian brothers and sisters—whose renewal/prophetic message of generosity seems increasingly marginalized as the churches that celebrate power and domination grow in political importance and power—may need Jewish allies to help them reclaim and validate the Jewish Jesus now more than ever. 

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun and author of nine books including: Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation (HarperCollins, 1995), Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul (Addison Wesley, 2000), and Healing Israel/Palestine (North Atlantic Books, 2003).
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