I am on my way back to Nashville from Elat Chayyim, the Jewish retreat center in upstate New York. As often happens when I teach, I bring to Judaism insights and parallel teachings from other traditions. The sayings of Rabbi Jesus play a growing role in my work. As a Jew speaking to Jews, Jesus’ teachings can relate better to Jewish audiences than similar teachings coming from eastern religions.
This integration of Jesus the Jew into my teaching (as opposed to Jesus the Christ of whom I know nothing) is often a shock to my students. Rarely do rabbis use Jesus to teach to the heart of Judaism. Yet, following the initial shock, there is a sense of relief and gratitude as well. So many Jews are curious about and ignorant of the Jewish Jesus. They have a sense that they could learn much from him, but the guilt that often accompanies that awareness is usually enough to squelch it. But when they listen to a rabbi use Jesus’ wisdom and insight to excavate the deeper realms of Jewish thought they come to me to confess their own interest and request that I do more.
I have tried to find a venue for teaching the wisdom of Jesus to Jewish audiences, but to date I have had no luck. While there are several centers eager to hear about the Jewish Jesus these are not centers of Jewish learning, nor do they attract a lot of Jewish learners.
Yet there is both a growing hunger and a pressing need for this teaching among Jews. The hunger comes from the fact that Jesus spoke to the heart of Judaism: Love of God and neighbor, and opened the table fellowship of the rabbis to all comers. Unlike many Christians who see him as the second Adam, I see Jesus as the second Abraham opening his tent to all who wish to share in the divine feast and learn about the One who manifests the many. As much of mainstream Judaism takes a turn toward tradition, with form once again trumping substance, the simplicity and depth of Jesus’ wisdom brings a welcome balance.
The need has to do with the resurgence of right-wing conservative evangelical Christianity. As Jesus and his message become the captives of the very tribalism he preached against, the intensity of evangelizing Jews will increase. For Jews, the best defense against Jesus the Christ is Jesus the Jew. Ignorance of Jesus is not defense against Christianity. On the contrary, ignorance of Jesus and his teaching leaves the Jew open to interpretations of Christ that can be confusing, misleading, and most seductive.
As we move deeper into the Christmas season, a time when so many Jews feel awkward and even alienated, it is my hope that Jewish leaders will reach out to this prodigal son and make room for Jesus among our most respected prophets and sages. The confluence of Christmas and Hanukkah could be a catalyst for reclaiming Jesus as a God-intoxicated Jewish mystic. This would be a great gift to the Jewish people (and others), and herald a deepening of Jewish wisdom.