Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Jewish Jesus

Recent attention has been shown to videos of R. Shlomo Riskin praising Jesus and referring to him as a rabbi. Some have been shocked, even scandalized, by this. But I see nothing wrong with it because Rabbi Riskin is not praising the Christian Jesus. He is, rather, propounding a revisionist view of Jesus.

Rabbi Riskin is using the shock value of his statements in order to teach Jewish lessons to those who might otherwise be unwilling to hear. In other words, this is to some extent a kiruv gimmick. I'm not saying that he is being dishonest; he believes what he says (and has been saying it for decades). But he is attempting to break down barriers so that people will listen to a Torah lesson.

Click here to read moreThere is a school among historians, which includes R. Riskin's teacher Prof. David Flusser, who believe that Jesus' legacy was distorted by Paul and other Christians (link). He was a traditional Jew whose teachings are frequently paralleled in the Talmud. He taught that people have to observe the commandments and never claimed to be a deity. At most, he thought he might be a Jewish messiah who was meant to bring about Jewish political independence and a religious revival. It was Paul, according to this view, who later created a religion that rejects the commandments and deified Jesus.

For an accessible treatment of this subject, see Hyam Maccoby, Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity. If you ask me, this view relies too much on highly speculative literary criticism of the Christian Gospels.

In other words, the real Jesus was a Christian heretic. This is not the Jesus any Christian would recognize. He did not believe in the deification of man or in a messiah being anything other than a religio-political leader. When R. Riskin talks about Jesus, he is talking about a Jewish teacher. And when he talks about Jesus' teachings, he means traditional Talmudic Judaism.

(What about the Talmud's rejection of Jesus? According to many, that wasn't the Christian Jesus but someone else, or even multiple people in the ancient world. See this essay: link.)

In this particular video, Rabbi Riskin is speaking to Christians and therefore using their terminology. But listen carefully and the views he attributes to Jesus are those of Orthodox Judaism. For whatever purpose this speech is given, he tries to create a bridge between Jews and Christians by saying that Jesus taught what we, Orthodox Jews, believe and therefore it is something Christians should also.

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