Gospel Pharisee

“I no longer know how from that I came to speak of Jesus and to say that we Jews knew him from within, in the impulses and stirrings of his Jewish being, in a way that remains inaccessible to the peoples submissive to him. ‘In a way that remains inaccessible to you’ — so I directly addressed the former clergyman. He stood up, I too stood, we looked into the heart of one another’s eyes. ‘It is gone,’ he said, and before everyone we gave one another the kiss of brotherhood.” — Martin Buber, Between Man and Man

In even the best Christian writing, for instance, Bruno Latour’s religious essays, I am frequently frustrated by a view of Judaism that strikes me as off-the-mark.

Many Christians seem to have received their understanding of what Judaism is (and, because it serves an antithetical function, what Christianity isn’t) through the image of the Pharisees in the Gospels, the deserving targets of Jesus’s harshest rebukes and arguments. Jesus was always on one side, the Pharisees were on the other side. Their sharp differences seem to demonstrate that Jesus represented a different religious vision, a new true one opposed to an old obsolete one. And it is casually assumed the old obsolete way represented by these freeze-framed Pharisees represents what Judaism has been from the time of Moses to today.

From a Jewish perspective, however, things look different. The ancient tradition that is today called Judaism is one long incessant struggle (Israel means “struggle”), a progress achieved through breaks, leaps and resumptions, through losses and recoveries of everything imaginable and unimaginable — the land, the Temple, faith, righteousness, the immediacy of God’s presence — over and over again. Jewish scripture is full of repeated disputes, failings, fallings-away, rebukes, repercussions, returns. People sometimes say “life is a series of interruptions,” and the story of the Jews one of recovery from some of the most catastrophic interruptions humankind has ever witnessed.

It is also necessary to understand that struggle is part of Jewish culture. Jews value argument. There is a Hebrew word for a sacred argument, Machloket L’shem Shemayim, meaning “disagreement for the sake of Heaven”. It is said that an argument of this kind is true in a way that surpasses any belief any person could hold. When the most faithful Jews argue, it is the furthest thing from rejecting the other. It is the best way to love your opponent.

Finally, the tradition to which Judaism belongs has never stopped reinventing and reinterpreting itself. The so-called Old Testament is really a long series of new testaments that reinterpret and add new layers of richness to what came before. It is all woven from past sayings and passages, recombined, tilted and refracted to reveal and generate new dimensions of meaning. When Jesus quoted, juxtaposed and re-angled passages from Torah, Psalms and Proverbs he was, once again, doing what Jews do, and he did it brilliantly.

Seen from this vantage point, Jesus fits right into the pattern of Jewish history, culture and faith. What Jesus represents is not an exception, but the very rule in Judaism. What he lived and taught was not an interruption of Judaism, but the most essentially Jewish reinterpretation, resumption and continuation. His arguments with priests and scribes were not a protest against his tradition, but participation in it. He was Judaism incarnate, but this incarnation neither began with Jesus, nor ended with him, but is just the doing of Judaism. Jews are supposed to incarnate their faith.

Only the deepest misunderstanding of the tradition to which Jesus belonged, loved, and ceaselessly affirmed, permits the strange expulsion of Jesus from his own Jewish world into the bizarre not-of-this-world diaspora of Platonic heavenly forms. This kind of vision of heaven is likely a Greek ethnocentric misunderstanding of Jesus’s at-hand transfigured kingdom, which is right here, right now, with us.

I am not saying that Jesus did not contribute to the development of Judaism. He did, but he did so as one more Jew in a chain of Jews stretching back to Abraham, and extending through the present day into the future. And when Christians penetrate the superstitions and moralisms that crust and obscure their own faith and feel that living kernel inside, it is Judaism they are finding there, the same living kernel that Jesus found and embodied.

This is why I say the best Jews and the best Christians share the same faith, even if their beliefs diverge.

Leave a Reply