In over three decades of speaking with churches, schools, civic organizations and other non-Jewish groups, the single question I have been asked far more frequently than any other is this: “What do Jews think of Jesus?” While my response has evolved over the years, and still depends a bit upon the context of the encounter, my best, most authentic answer is simple: “We don’t.” For the most part, Jews don’t think about Jesus at all. He has no part to play in our religious tradition. Yes, according to Christian Scripture, he was Jewish. But within the framework of Jewish Scripture and practice, he just does not exist, for good or for bad.
As I see it, the question itself points to a kind of fallacy at the heart of human nature. Individually and in groups, we tend to assume that what is of core importance to us is also central to all of those around us — especially if we are ensconced in the dominant, majority culture. Our own outlook becomes the default, which we apply to everyone else, wrongly taking for granted that their perspectives are essentially similar to our own when, in fact, diverse people and communities often view the world through vastly different eyes. The beginning of wisdom — and a fundamental step in genuine dialogue across social, political and religious boundaries — is learning to recognize that what is essential to us may be very tangential or even utterly insignificant to others.
So it is with Jews and Jesus. When I was in rabbinical school, I was taught to respond to questions about Jesus with something like this: “We Jews believe that Jesus was a rabbi or a teacher or a prophet who, in many ways, emerges out of the Jewish experience.” But that answer is apologetics, a half-truth, really, that reflected Jewish fear in the face of 2,000 years of persecution inflicted upon us in Jesus’ name. Yes, we Jews have thought of Jesus over the course of our history — but not in a religious manner. We thought of him as his followers raped and murdered and forcibly converted us. With that background, we came up with an answer to mollify our Christian neighbors. Thankfully, those days are past, at least here in the United States. I am grateful that most Jews now encounter Christians as dear friends, as colleagues, as husbands and wives and family members. Which means that it is now acceptable — no, it is a positive good — to recognize that we have profound differences in the way we approach religious life. I am happy that I can now unapologetically acknowledge that, thank God, we do not think alike.
So, how do we Jews think about Jesus? In the same way that Christians think about Mohammed or Buddha or Confucius. We know he’s out there, among the pantheon of founders and teachers of great world religions. We’re good with that. We’re tickled that millions of Christians have a Jewish man at the center of their faith — as long as you can accept that he has no role to play in ours.
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Dan Fink is the rabbi for the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation.
The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.