I am reading Pope Benedict XVI’s new book, Jesus of Nazareth. In it the Pope responds to Rabbi Jacob Neusner’s 1993 book A Rabbi Talks with Jesus. The issue between them is Jesus’ insistence on making himself rather than Torah the center of attention. For example, Jesus says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell all you have and come, follow me (Matthew 19:21). Jesus doesn’t say, “Follow God,” or “Follow Torah,” but “Follow me.” No other rabbi does this. The aim of authentic teachers in Israel is to turn Israel toward God and Torah not themselves.
From the Christian point of view, of course, this is precisely what Jesus is doing. Jesus is God and the Word of God. Following Jesus is following God. Rabbi Neusner cannot make this Christian leap of faith, and so respectfully declines to follow Jesus at all.
While I find the distinction clear and compelling, it is also somewhat disingenuous. Rabbinic Judaism is a radical departure from Biblical Judaism and its focus on priestly caste and animal sacrificial resting on a rabbinic invention of the Two–Fold Torah.
The authority of the rabbis rests with their own assertion, found no where except in their own teachings, that 1) God gave two revelations to Israel, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah; 2) that the Oral Torah is necessary for a clear understanding of the Written Torah, and hence takes practical precident over it; and 3) that the Oral Torah was given not to the priests but to the elders, prophets, and sages who ultimately morph into the rabbis.
Is there any real difference between the audacity of the rabbis and the audacity of Jesus? Not in my book. What differentiates the two is the rabbis’ denial that they are in fact inventing a new Torah in their image while Jesus blatantly confesses, “I say unto you.”
What Pope Benedict XVI and Rabbi Neusner have in common is a shared belief that God actually reveals eternal truth to the Jews. Where they differ is over the question of who or what embodies that truth: Jesus or the Two–Fold Torah? If the former, then the latter is irrelevant. If the latter then the former is a deluded narcissist.
Allow me to offer a third voice: God doesn’t reveal eternal truth to anyone. Rather people discover bits and pieces of it over time and record what they find in books. There are truths in the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels, the Epistles of Paul, and the teachings of the rabbis that are timeless, compelling, and universal. There are also teachings in each that are silly, false, and evil. The job of the faithful is not to get behind one system or another, but to sift through them all to find the truths each contains.