Sermon: A Rabbi Talks with Jesus

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 13 August 2010

I don’t miss many things from the time BC – by which I mean ‘Before Children’

Sleeping past 6.30 is one.  But the main thing I miss is having the time to read books on holiday.  Long gone are the days of taking a suitcase half filled with books in the knowledge that there is a week or two of sustained reading ahead.  Nowadays, even if I were to somehow find the time to read, well, suitcase space for a family of four is at a premium.  So instead of big tomes, I am now limited to a handful of tiny books, and the hope that I might grab a few hours here or there, to read them.  So it was fortunate that during the 10 days we have just had away, it was one of those ‘tiny books that can squeeze into a family suitcase’ that turned out to be most interesting.

This extraordinary little book, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, came to prominence when it was referred to by the current pope, Benedict XVI, in a book of his own about Jesus.  Indeed, on the back sleeve of the latest edition there is a quote from the pope stating:  that this is “By far the most important book for the Jewish-Christian dialogue in the last decade”.  The author, the American scholar Jacob Neusner has been labelled ‘the pope’s favourite rabbi’ as a result.

So what is so special about it?  In the work, Neusner places himself into the Gospel of Matthew – he enters into a dialogue with Jesus based on the sayings found there.  In so doing he does not take the lazy route of proclaiming Jesus as a good liberal or reform rabbi whose words were misused by Paul in his creation of Christianity.  Rather, Neusner takes the words at face value, looking seriously at the ideas attributed to Jesus and he seeks to analyse them, to see if they stand up, and to examine their relationship with Torah.

The Gospel of Matthew is chosen because, by general understanding, it was written as an invitation to the Jewish world – it uses Torah as a source book in a way that the other Gospels do not, and contains none of the venom found elsewhere.  Significantly, it also includes Jesus’ claim in the Sermon on the Mount that “I have come not to abolish the Torah and the Prophets but to fulfil them… till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Torah until all is accomplished… whoever relaxes one of the least of the commandments… shall be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven”.  So Neusner is given license by Jesus’ own claim to unpack the words of Jesus in relation to Torah.

And Neusner’s conclusion is that those words do not stand up to Jesus’ own claim – that there are significant breaks between the teaching of Matthew’s Jesus and Torah – that Jesus, even the Jesus of Matthew, represents a transformation – an abandonment, rather than a continuation, of Torah.

Neusner acknowledges that in certain places Jesus develops Torah in a positive, insightful and enlightening way, one which is in line with the interpretative tradition of Rabbinic Judaism.  Even here, though, Jesus’ own language is suggestive of schism, using a repeated formula with regard to Torah: “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you”.   And elsewhere, Neusner finds the Jesus of Matthew to give not a development of Torah but rejection of it – rejection for example of the Jewish understanding of Shabbat as a core aspect of life, and of the supremacy of Kibbud Av v’Em, of honouring one’s parents in favour of: “he who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me”.

And there are more fundamental differences, too – a focus on ‘Right’ (R I G H T) – on ethics – to the almost complete exclusion of ‘rite’.  Indeed, the language of Jesus contrasts these two areas of life, rather than seeing them, as Torah and Judaism do, as complementary – both important. Neusner sees perhaps the greatest distinction as being between the here and now-ness found in Torah and the focus in Matthew’s Jesus on the forthcoming Kingdom of Heaven and one’s place therein.  While Judaism demands that we be holy in the here and now in imitation of God’s holiness, Jesus uses the language of perfection in pursuit of eternal life.  And in this context we find another break from Torah, the insertion of self – as in Jesus’ advice to a young man who already keeps the Mitzvot:  “If you would be perfect, go, sell all you have and give to the poor… and come, follow me” In one of the most powerful scenes in the book, Neusner imagines having a dialogue with a Jesus-era Jewish “master” about Jesus’ teaching: The sage asks: ‘What did he leave out?’  “I: ‘Nothing.’  “He: ‘Then what did he add?’  “I: ‘Himself.'”

The focus on eternal life rather than the here and now also presents as an individualism within Jesus’ teachings which is in contrast to the societal obligation of Torah.  In a final dialogue with Jesus, Neusner explains why he won’t be accompanying him any longer.

“I: I really don’t see how your teachings and the Torah’s teachings come together.  That isn’t because things you say don’t appeal to the Torah, some of them do. It’s because most of what you say and most of what the Torah says scarcely intersect… About most of the rules of Torah you have very little to say… For instance, Moses tells us to organize a just government, to establish fair and equitable laws… how to deal with people’s fights… Your silence [on these matters] speaks an eloquent message… He: And what might that message be? I: The here and now doesn’t matter”

As I this I was struck by the contrast with our Torah portion for this morning.  Our portion with its requirement to create a fair system of justice, one with clear rules and processes and with the demand: Tzedek Tzedek tirdof: Justice, justice thou shalt pursue.

So this is an extraordinary little work – and one which is delivered with great respect for the other.  Importantly, Neusner never takes his critique to be a proof that Judaism is somehow better.  He recognises that he is in dialogue with only one part of Christianity – and that he cannot be in dialogue with that aspect of Jesus’ person as understood in Christian thought which gives a very different dimension to his words, the identification of Jesus as Son of God.

His goal is merely to show that within the language of Jesus in the book of Matthew, much of that which Jesus says is not true when judged against the other truth of Torah.

He does something else – something even more important.  In engaging whole heartedly with the words of Jesus in Matthew, in meeting the perspective of another on his own tradition, Neusner achieves that which good dialogue can achieve – not, in truth, to challenge the other, but to bring into focus those things are important to ourselves.

This book helps to show what is most significant about Judaism – the aspiration to be holy in our lives – recognising that ritual allows us to sanctify the everyday, and complements our commitment to ethical behaviour The focus not on securing a place in the world to come but in what we do and create in this life.  And our commitment to create a society beyond the individual – to create family, community and society, that reflect the value of justice that our portion this Shabbat proclaims.

All that – and it even fitted in my suitcase