I’ve been speaking at a lot of churches lately, and I noticed the same four questions being asked: “Are Jews a race?” “Are the Pharisees evil?” “Did the Jews kill Jesus?” “Why do the Jews reject Jesus as their Messiah?” Let me share my brief responses to each.
Are the Jews a race? No. We are a people, like the Cherokee or the Sioux. Jews come in all races and many nationalities. What ties us together is not genes but memes, a story that we delight in retelling and reinventing without end. Just as a person can marry into a Native American tribe or be adopted by one, so people can marry into the Jewish people and convert to our way of life.
The corollary question to “Are Jews a race” is “Is Judaism a religion?” The answer is yes and no. There are a variety of religions called Judaism: biblical Judaism, Priestly Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism, which itself comes in many forms—Hasidic, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Humanistic, and Secular Judaism. But most Jews are not religious, choosing to affirm their identity as Jews through Judaism as a culture. While religion permeates the culture, providing us with distinctive celebrations, feasts, fasts, and foods, the culture is larger than the religion leading ultimately to a way of thinking about reality that is rooted in fierce questioning, doubt, argument, and a love of paradox. One is not born with these traits, but learns them to the extent that one is actively engaged in Jewish culture.
Are the Pharisees evil? No. Many Christians use the term Pharisee to represent all that is self-righteous, hateful, narrow minded, course, and cruel. This has to do with the anti-Jewish polemic of the New Testament and the Jew hatred of later Christian leaders. The Pharisees were in fact the liberals of their day (536 BCE -70 CE) who sought to transform biblical Judaism into something more open and dynamic. Hillel was among the greatest of the Pharisees, and it was he who taught that the whole of Torah is summed up in the teaching, “What is hateful to you, do not do unto others.” Christians who continue to use the word “Pharisee” to represent those forces and frames of mind antithetical to the supposedly love-filled way of Jesus and his contemporary followers are perpetuating Jew-hatred and should stop doing so immediately.
Did the Jews Kills Jesus? No. The Romans killed Jesus. Did some Jews collaborate with Rome in this matter? Yes. The office of the High Priest was bought and sold by the Romans which meant the High Priest was owned by Rome. Anything or anyone that might upset the status quo had to be stopped. So it isn’t difficult to imagine that some Jews saw Jesus as a threat to them and perhaps to the Jewish people as a whole. But the actions of a few should not be blamed on the many. Jesus was Jewish, his followers were Jewish, the crowds that gathered to listen to him preach and that welcomed him into Jerusalem on what is today called Palm Sunday were Jewish. The fact that John’s Gospel blames the Jews as a people for the death of Jesus speaks to the need of the early Church to placate Rome, and has little historical validity vis a vis the Jews.
Why do Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah? The messianic ideal in Judaism is political: the messiah is a human being anointed by God (mashiach in Hebrew means anointed one) to free Israel from occupation, lead all Jews back to their homeland, and establish a just and compassionate state with the Temple at its heart. Jesus did not do of these things, and therefore isn’t the messiah as Jews define the term.
Christianity redefined the meaning of messiah in spiritual terms and placed Jesus’ kingdom outside this world, something that makes Jesus irrelevant to Jews. As the Son of God Jesus comes to redeem us from Original Sin, something Judaism knows nothing about. While it makes perfect sense for those who believe they have Original Sin to want to get rid of it, it is very hard to convince people who do not believe it to seek the cure to a disease they do not have.