The topic of this month’s newsletter is the fault line that separates Judaism and Christianity and creates a Grand Canyon-sized chasm between Jewish people and Jesus. Must this be? The highly sensitive and difficult question we will address is whether or not the message of Jesus that is conveyed through the Gospels is intrinsically antisemitic. This is a question that most Christians would never even think to ask. But every Jewish person knows that this assumption is one of the primary underlying reasons for the rejection of Christianity by Jewish people. Allow me to explain further.
Jewish historian Solomon Grayzel wrote, “The history of Judaism and Christianity is written in blood and punctuated in violence.” It is understandable why Jewish believers are reluctant to become involved with the church. From childhood, we are taught that Christians (the people in churches!) are the enemies of the Jewish people. The church was supposedly the institution responsible for persecuting our ancestors. Many of us find it painful to step inside a local church, whatever the denomination. How can we enjoy the company of those who inspired the murder and destruction of our people? Am I exaggerating? Perhaps, but if you were brought up in a Jewish home like mine, my words should at least ring with familiarity, if not authenticity.
Is there any truth to the accusation that Christians persecuted Jews? Of course there is! And I will not qualify that statement by placing quotation marks around the word Christian. If I say that all those who mistreated Jews were Christians in name only, I am arrogantly dismissing early church leaders such as Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine, not to mention Reformers such as John Wycliffe and Martin Luther. Painful as I find it, I do not have the authority to write these individuals out of history, much as I might like to.
To deny the past would be foolish. To forgive these men posthumously would be presumptuous because they never asked for forgiveness. Yet, to think that they characterize what God intended the church to be would be foolish and useless.[i]
I still remember when I was first considering the message of Jesus. I was only 19 years old, living far away from home, where I had been raised in what I call a non-practicing Orthodox Jewish home. This might sound a bit odd, but many Jewish people are raised in one of the various denominations of Judaism—Orthodox, Conservative or Reform—and are not especially religious. But, for what it’s worth, when I practiced Judaism I did so as a modern Orthodox Jew. Truthfully, at this time in my life, it was more a case of Orthodox Judaism being the Judaism I preferred not to practice. I was far from God, although I was open to all sorts of religious and spiritual ideas – except Christianity!
Because I knew virtually nothing about the tenets of Christian faith, my major objections to the message of Jesus were not theological or biblical. They stemmed from the deeply ingrained cultural and historical memory I referred to earlier. I was raised in New York City and lived in a very Jewish community. I knew some Christians at school, mostly ethnic Catholics who didn’t seem to like Jewish people! At least that was my impression. In fact, everything I knew about Christianity was negative towards the Jews. I also believed that those who perpetrated the Holocaust were Christians and I knew that my grandparents had moved to the United States to get away from the Christians that were persecuting them in Russia.
So, you might ask, what was it that brought me over the line to faith in Jesus? How did I reconcile who I was as a Jew with belief that He was the Messiah?
Briefly, there were three reasons why I ultimately became a follower of Jesus. First of all, I met Gentile Christians who loved the Jewish people. They might not have known much about Judaism, but they showed God’s love to all. They especially enjoyed meeting Jewish people, as they were avid Bible students and understood the importance of the Jewish people and Israel in the plan of God.
Also, I began reading the story and words of Jesus in the Gospels because of my encounters with these Gentile Christians, who eventually helped two of my best friends come to faith in Yeshua. In what seemed like a miracle to me, I found a New Testament in a phone booth in the middle of a campground in the Redwood Forest…a long story! As I began reading the New Testament, I immediately felt a deeply emotional conflict. On one hand, I felt so guilty reading this book, which I thought was the inspiration for millennia of antisemitism. Yet, on the other hand, I was unmistakably drawn to the compelling words of Jesus. On top of that, my close reading led me to the surprising conclusion that the Gospels were not antisemitic as I had thought. In fact, they seemed so Jewish!
However, what really put me over the line was the person of Jesus Himself. I just fell in love with Him. He was strong, bold, courageous, truthful, and so deeply spiritual. His words grabbed hold of my heart in ways that I cannot even explain. It became obvious to me that He was the Messiah and the fulfillment of all that my Jewish people hoped for through the centuries. I found myself asking how Jesus could possibly have inspired hatred of the Jewish people when He was so clearly Jewish, with a great love for His people. And I confess, this is a dark mystery I do not fully understand to this day. As He said at a moment of intense rejection by the Jewish leaders of His day, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling” (Matthew 23:37).
And so I was left staring at the chasm between myself as a Jewish person, feeling the burden of thousands of years of intransigence towards Jesus, while at the same time wanting to embrace Jesus as my Messiah. Without, I hope, sounding trite, for me the bridge was actually Jesus Himself. He reflected the depths of spirituality I was longing for but could not quite find within the Judaism in which I was raised. I did not want to reject Judaism or who I was as a Jew, but I desperately wanted to know God intimately and personally. Jesus became my Messiah, Redeemer, and my Bridge to my heavenly Father. I finally understood what He meant when He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me”(John 14:6).
Coming to faith in Jesus as my Messiah was the most difficult and most profoundly wonderful decision I ever made in my life. I now follow Yeshua, the Jewish Messiah and join arms with any others who do the same, although I try to be clear-sighted about the failings of people and institutions. There remains much to lament on that score.
I hope that you enjoy the rest of this newsletter as we look at some difficult New Testament passages that have been interpreted in an antisemitic way throughout the years. We are going to try and help you know to how to handle these texts and understand them within a first-century Jewish context—which is the key to unlocking their meaning. I also asked my friend Dennis to share his story, and I hope you enjoy it. It is my prayer that you will reflect upon what you read and ask God to show you if Jesus is indeed the Jewish Messiah for all.
[i] Direct quote from the following article written by Dr. Mitch Glaser. https://jewsforjesus.org/publications/havurah/havurah-mm88-02/the-egg-and-miriam-or-a-post-easter-assessment/