Tag Archives: messiah

pic of Jesus statue captioned with "oy."

What Do Jews REALLY Think About Jesus?!

Dear Josep,

With Holy Week beginning today and Passover beginning tomorrow night, this is a time of year that brings up not only joy and festivity, but also some complexity with regard to Jewish-Christian relations. In the past, Easter was a deadly time to be Jewish. All the focus on Jesus’s death stirred up a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment, because until very recently, Christians believed we were responsible for his death. Many of the worst anti-Jewish riots occurred around Easter time.

Eitan and I have both had the experience of meeting a Christian who has never met a Jew before. (I’m sure this is news to you. 😛 ) Especially if that Christian is a Protestant who grew up in a very traditional community, the first question we get, almost always, is:

So what do you think about Jesus?

pic of Jesus statue captioned with "oy."

We stifle a sigh and try to figure out how to answer that question as tactfully as possible.

Look–I get it. To most Christians, Jesus is God, except he’s the “personal connection” part that feels like your buddy and friend and father and confidante. For many of the people who ask me this question, their lives and the lives of their entire community revolve around Jesus. It’s very difficult for them to fathom how somebody could possibly live a deeply religious life with no Jesus.

Well… here is my complete and honest answer.

Truth Is–We Don’t Think Much About Him at All.

If a practicing Muslim walked up to a religious Christian and asked: “What do you think about Mohammed?”, many Christians would probably answer something along the lines of, “Uh… you mean that guy people got shot in France for drawing cartoons of?”

Mohammed is not even in their frame of religious reference. He’s not a figure involved in their practice, prayers, or religious contemplation.

That’s how it is for Jews vis-a-vis Jesus. He’s just not relevant to us.

We Think He Was Just a Guy

So there are a few things Christians believe about Jesus that Jews completely reject.

The first is that he was the Messiah and a prophet.

Both of these things are believed, to some extent, by Muslims as well as Christians. So give each other a high five. We Jews are gonna just… stay out of that party.

The reason we don’t believe he was the Messiah is pretty straightforward: he didn’t fill a single one of our traditional criteria. Our readings of the messianic prophecies in Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc. are very different from the Christian interpretations. See here for the Jewish concept of the Messiah.

We don’t believe he was a prophet for two reasons: one, we believe prophecy officially ended after the First Exile and that there have been no real prophets since; two, Jeremiah explicitly warns that anyone who tells us to defy the teachings of the Torah is a false prophet, and… well. (It may be arguable that Jesus never did tell anyone to defy the Torah, and that it was only Paul who did. Paul is a whole ‘nother can of worms.)

If this was the only difference, however, Christianity would still be a messianic subgroup of Judaism, as it was at first. It was only when the theological stuff started to get weird (*cough*Paul*cough*) that Christianity split off and became its own religion.

So the second thing we reject is the concept of the Trinity, and of Jesus being the son of God.

This theological concept is totally beyond the pale of Jewish belief. We believe in one invisible, omniscient, omnipresent God. Not in one God who is divided into three “parts” and certainly not a God who ever manifested Himself in a human being. That’s just… no.

Thanks, but We’ll Atone for Our Own Sins

The third thing Jews reject about the Christian idea of Jesus is this idea that he was the “sacrificial lamb” who died to atone for the Original Sin and all subsequent sins of humanity, replacing the need for animal sacrifices for atonement.

First of all–we have a very different concept of what the Original Sin was and what it means for humanity. You can read more about that here. In short: we don’t believe anyone is born “tainted” with it and we don’t believe atonement for it is necessary. We believe people are judged by God according to the choices they make during their lives, not according to an ill-advised bite of fruit taken by an ancestor thousands of years ago.

Second of all–we already have a way to atone for our sins. It’s called teshuva, and it is a deeply personal process that only the sinner can do for himself. You can read more teshuva about here.

Third of all–atonement sacrifices were only one kind of animal sacrifice, and as far as we’re concerned, those are still “on.” Most of us (Orthodox Jews) believe that when the Temple is restored we’re going to go right ahead and do those again. Replacing them with a dude who was actually God and sacrificed himself was definitely never on the agenda.

So If He Was Just a Guy–What Kind of a Guy Was He?

Right. So here’s where things can get a little hairy.

Jewish opinions on this range from the most generous: “He was a kind teacher who was misguided in his teachings, but they brought the world to an awareness of One God, more or less, and for that we can be grateful” to “He was a horrible person who defied his rabbis and tricked hundreds of people.”

The latter opinion I read in an essay in a collection of Jewish responses to missionaries, and I found it rather harsh. I tend to lean towards the liberal side, but… again, I don’t really spend a lot of time and effort thinking about this. I don’t actually care what kind of a guy he was. He’s not relevant to my life.

Why Jews Get Prickly When Christians Ask Us This Question

I really believe that most people who ask this question are genuinely curious and have the best of intentions. I’m even willing to forgive the gentle missionizing I’ve gotten here or there–“You really should read the New Testament, I think it will be very meaningful for you” type things. I know this comes from a genuine concern for my soul, as according to traditional Christian theology, I’m going to end up in Hell for all eternity after I die for believing all the things stated above. They don’t want that to happen to me. I really do appreciate the concern.


Let’s be frank: it was not so very long ago that Christians were burning us at the stake “out of concern for our souls.” Like, yes, I do believe many of them were genuinely concerned and acting out of what they thought was kindness, but… my appreciation has limits, mmkay?

In medieval Europe Jews were forced to sit in our own synagogues and listen to preachers lecturing about Jesus and salvation as part of a general strategy to get Jews to convert. Those days are over. If anyone, however well-meaning, starts aggressively proselytizing me, I am going to walk away. Because it’s the 21st century and I can do that now without getting my throat slit.

Therefore, if I just met someone, and they ask me what I think about Jesus, I will be on edge. I never know what their next question or statement is going to be. It’s not at all unlikely that it will contain some subtle or not-so-subtle attempt at soul-saving. And that’s gonna be awkward for everybody.

Speaking of which, a note to our readers: any comments to that effect will be deleted. You’re not going to change my mind about Jesus. Ever. Don’t waste your time.

“Jews for Jesus”

There is an unfortunate movement you may have heard of that calls itself “Jews for Jesus” or “Messianic Judaism.”

I prefer to call them, “Christians Posing as Jews.”

This group claims to be Jews who merely accept Jesus as the Messiah. They use Jewish lingo, Jewish symbolism, and Jewish rituals. But in practice, these people are not Jews, they are Christians. Many of them are not ethnically or halakhically Jewish and have no religious Jewish background. They claim outwardly to believe only that Jesus was the Messiah, but their beliefs about him are actually consistent with Christianity. They are aggressive missionizers and prey on lonely Jews with little knowledge. I know a few people who got involved with them and had a very difficult time getting out.

It may surprise you to hear me speak so harshly about a religious group. While I may have my disagreements with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, et al, I don’t have a problem with people who practice their faiths in earnest.

But you know me; if there’s one thing I have zero tolerance for, it’s dishonesty.

These people claim to be a stream of Judaism. They are not. They are, at best, a group of people who think they are following Judaism but are actually Christians. At worst, they are a deceitful stream of Christianity that is trying to save Jewish souls by pretending that Christianity and Judaism are not mutually exclusive.

I am not cool with that.

What I am cool with, is Christians celebrating their own faith and traditions. So on that note, a blessed Holy Week to you and all who celebrate, and Chag Sameach to all our Jewish readers!



Happily Ever After: The Jewish Messiah

Dear Josep,

So as we rise from the floor this afternoon and begin to ease ourselves out of deep mourning for the Temple, I thought it would be an appropriate time to look to the future, and write about what it is that we are praying for and hoping for when we talk about rebuilding it.

Let’s start from the beginning: what does “messiah” mean? It comes from the Hebrew word משיח, meshiaḥ, which means “anointed.” Back in the days of the Bible, you didn’t “crown” a king, you “anointed” him with oil. King Saul, the first King of Israel, was anointed this way, as was King David. So the Messiah will be a king–a human king–from the line of King David, who will reestablish the Kingdom of Israel in the Holy Land.

The same prophets who predicted the destruction of the Temple (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isiah were the big three, but there were more) also foretold the coming of the Messiah. They described him as an individual with great wisdom and sensitivity, who will bring universal peace and justice. They described him rebuilding the Temple–one that will stand forever, and not be destroyed like the previous two. They described the Messiah ushering in a new era, where all of humankind will know God and be aware of Him, and recognize the Jews as His chosen people. The Messiah will facilitate an “ingathering of the exiles”; Jews from all over the world will return to our homeland to establish the renewed Kingdom of Israel. We will stop being a hated and persecuted minority we still are today, and will reestablish our role as a nation of priests, who will be teachers and spiritual leaders for the rest of humanity. And people from all over the world will come to see the Temple–“a house of prayer for all nations”–and serve God there. Some scholars believe that the redemption will come about through miraculous means; others, including Maimonides, believe that it will happen in accordance with the laws of nature. Humanity will be at a completely different spiritual level, and the near tangible presence of God will again be felt at the Temple, where the human and the Divine will embrace. Prophecy–which, according to Jewish belief, stopped existing after the destruction of the first Temple–will return, with the Messiah being the first new prophet. And the world will be a place of harmony, peace, and love.

Cue doves, rainbows, and Handel's "Hallelujah."
Cue doves, rainbows, and laughing children.

Now, reading this description, it’s fairly clear why Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Simple: none of this happened. Not in his lifetime, and not in the 2,000 years since. He did not fulfill any of these prophesies. Now, Christian scholars would obviously disagree with me; they would interpret the same texts differently, and say that all this will come true when Jesus returns in a “second coming.” But none of the prophets mentioned anything about the Messiah dying and then disappearing for a few millennia before coming back and fulfilling the prophesies. And then y’all started with the Trinity business…. and the thing about him dying for our sins… and that stuff is totally off the map of Jewish beliefs, so… yeah. The Jewish Messiah is not supposed to be Divine. He’s supposed to be a human king and a prophet, just like David and Saul. And there is no connection between him and atonement. That all goes down on Yom Kippur. But we’ll be talking about repentance and atonement next month. 😉

Anyway. I think it is also fairly obvious from the above description why religious Zionists (such as myself) believe that the establishment of the State of Israel is a step along the way to the fulfillment of those prophesies. We have seen an “ingathering of the exiles”; we have seen the reestablishment of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel for the first time in 2,000 years; we have seen the miraculous reunification of the city of Jerusalem; we have seen the land turn from a desolate wasteland into a thriving, fertile land flowing with milk and honey. We have even seen the Hebrew language, once a stagnant, archaic language reserved mostly for Jewish scholarship (not unlike today’s Latin), turn into a living, breathing vernacular. These phenomena are baffling to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists. Nothing like this has ever happened before. It shouldn’t have happened. It’s impossible. And yet, it happened.

Still, going from the return of the Jews to their ancestral land–a phenomenon described as “spooky” by Nobel Prize laureate and physicist Leon Lederman–to a vision of all humanity living in peace and harmony and uniting around a single idea and belief in God is… quite a stretch.

Personally, I think of the Messianic Era as the culmination of everything we as humans are striving for… and towards which have already been advancing at breakneck pace, even though it may not feel like it. Because of how “plugged in” we are and how fast news spreads, violence, bloodshed and turmoil seem worse than ever before, but the fact is that they aren’t. There is actually much less violence in the world today than there was a hundred, certainly two hundred years ago. Though the Middle East is falling to pieces and some crazy stuff is going down, it’s a mere blip in the general trend, which is of a sharp decline in violence and oppression. We are so horrified by beheading and drowning videos, not because that type of cruelty is unprecedented, but because it has become so uncommon that we are not used to it. Think about it. Executions–beheadings, hangings, etc.–were a popular form of public entertainment less than two hundred years ago. And that’s without getting into the kinds of horrific things people used to do to each other in the Middle Ages and in the Roman Empire.

So, while we are very, very far from the “beating our swords into plowshares” thing, I don’t think it’s completely crazy to believe that sometime in the future, humanity will refine and improve itself to a point where the Messianic visions will no longer be visions, but reality. I believe that that’s why we are here. That God wants us to bring the world to that point through free choice and free will. And I believe that it is possible… and that we are on our way there.

"Flickr - Government Press Office (GPO) - “Slichot” Prayer (2)" by http://www.flickr.com/people/69061470@N05 - http://www.flickr.com/photos/government_press_office/8005892765/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Flickr – Government Press Office (GPO) – “Slichot” Prayer (2)” by http://www.flickr.com/people/69061470@N05http://www.flickr.com/photos/government_press_office/8005892765/. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I know it’s a pretty starry-eyed thing to be saying these days, especially from over here under the shadow of Daesh and a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran. You know me… to my sorrow, I’m not the world’s most positive person, and sometimes (often) I despair, too. But if a nation could emerge from under the shadow of the Holocaust and turn this hunk of desert into a vibrant oasis of democracy and innovation after dreaming of Jerusalem for 2,000 years… who knows, Josep, who knows.