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Jesus First Century Rabbi – David Zaslow

May 30, 2016

JFCRThis isn’t an academic book but is aimed at the general reader.

It’s not just about Jesus but is a collection of responses to different observations made by Christians about Judaism.

Instead of emphasizing the differences between the two religions, the author explains how the concepts of vicarious atonement, mediation, incarnation, and Trinity are actually rooted in classical Judaism. Rabbi Zaslow dispels the myths of disparity between Christianity and Judaism without diluting the unique features of each faith.

He calls the Hebrew Scriptures the “Elder Testament” and the Apostolic Scriptures the “Younger Testament.” He recognizes Jesus as the faithful, Torah observant Jewish rabbi he was, and accepts him as the “Christian Messiah,” if not the Messiah of Judaism. He says that the beliefs and practices of Jesus fall very near that of the Pharisees and he gives loads of examples.

However, he doesn’t understand Paul and needs to read some of the modern scholarship of the likes of Sanders and Wright.

That being said, he has gone considerably more in the direction of understanding Christians than most Christians have regarding Jews.


“Many Christians think of the Jewishness of Jesus in the same way they think of the Catholicism of Martin Luther—in other words, he was Catholic but broke away from many of the theological doctrines of the Church at that time. Jesus, however, never left Judaism”

“The Jewish people may have endeavored to be a light unto the nations (Isaiah 42:6), but Christianity has brought that light to the world in a way that Judaism could never have done”.

“I cannot imagine a Christian whose Christianity would not be greatly enhanced by deepening his or her knowledge of the historical Jesus, the Jewish Jesus and about the religion of Judaism …. Simultaneously, it seems to be the right time for Jews to reclaim Jesus as an authentic Jewish teacher and native son.”

“Although the fruits of modern rabbinical Judaism did not fully ripen until centuries after Jesus’s lifetime, it seems clear that Jesus was part of the paradigm shift that was transforming his native religion”

“Jesus’s teachings indicate that he, along with the other rabbis and sages of his era, was at the forefront of the innovations that made it possible for Judaism to endure”

The word gospel comes from an Old English translation of a Hebrew word meaning “good news,” first spoken of by Isaiah: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation” (Isaiah 52:7). The notion of a gospel is Jewish in origin, even though Jews are reluctant to use that term because of its connotation within Christianity. What is the Jewish good news? God so loved the world that he gave his only Torah at Sinai. It is a Torah of redemption, revelation, forgiveness, and hope for humanity. It’s a gospel of joy about serving God and being part of the holy work to repair and sanctify our broken world. Then, when monotheism branched out in novel ways through Christianity and Islam, each new religion brought its own version of “good news” to billions of new adherents.

As God has grafted Christians onto the olive tree of Israel (Romans 11:17), they abide by their “new” covenant, which grew out of the earlier covenants. Many sincere Christians have asked me over the years why Jewish people don’t accept the gospel. Answering a question with a question, Jewish people ask, “Why don’t some Christians accept the reality that the Jewish people already have a gospel?” As Jesus said, “Salvation is from the Jews”

(John 4:22). A clear goal of many of the biblical prophets was to remind the Jewish people to fulfill their part of the covenant, and to spread the good news of the existence of a God of love and justice. In Malachi 1:11, God says, “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering. . . says the Lord of hosts.”

There’s no question that Gentile followers of Jesus were instrumental in helping to spread the Torah’s principles of ethical monotheism, albeit packaged in a new form, to people around the world. However, the question of whether a Christian is under the law, under some of the law, or free from the law has been debated within Christianity since the beginning.

From a Jewish reading of the Younger Testament, it certainly seems that there are universal commandments that must continually be fulfilled by all people. John does not appear to be abrogating the commandments of the Torah when he explains the two “love” commandments in the Torah: “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:21). Judaism also teaches that under the covenant of Noah (Genesis 9:3–9), all humanity is obliged to fulfill the same moral commandments.

The psalmist assures us, “For the Lord will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage” (Psalm 94:14). And Paul does the same in the Younger Testament: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin” (Romans 11:1). Speaking about the Jewish people Paul says, “As regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors” (Romans 11:28). Finally Paul warns his Gentile students not to become arrogant concerning Jews who are not followers of Jesus. Using an exquisite metaphor of Israel as an olive tree, he teaches: “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you” (Romans 11:17–18).

For most of two thousand years, it’s been difficult for many Jews to see Jesus even as a wonderful rabbi since his name was associated with the most terrible forms of prejudice. When Jesus is presented as someone who left Judaism, he is seen as someone who betrayed Judaism. Most Jews respect Christian theology as long as it is separated from coercion, the notion of exclusive salvation, and backed up by the force of the Crusades and pogroms.

Martin Buber put it this way: God is our help in all need and none outside of him. But this was also—of this I am certain—the faith of Jesus himself. I do not believe in Jesus, but I believe with him. I firmly believe that the Jewish community, in the course of its renaissance, will recognize Jesus; not merely as a great figure in its religious history, but also in the organic context of a Messianic development extending over millennia, whose final goal is the Redemption of Israel and of the world. But I believe equally firmly that we will never recognize Jesus as the Messiah Come, for this would contradict the deepest meaning of our Messianic passion. . . . Standing, bound and shackled, in the pillory of mankind, we demonstrate with the bloody body of our people the unredeemedness of the world. For us, there is no cause of Jesus; only the cause of God exists for us.

The idea that Israel is to be a light unto the non-Jewish nations (Isaiah 42:1; Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 60:3) is a recurring metaphor to the prophet Isaiah, whom Jesus quotes so often. An excellent example of this is Isaiah 49:6: “[The Lord] says, ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’”

In the Younger Testament, Isaiah’s image of Israel as the servant is allegorically extended to Jesus. Jesus recognized a covenantal duty to help bring the Jewish message of God’s unity, ethical monotheism, and redemption to the non-Jewish world.

Matthew seems to support the notion that the gospel was from Israel and not to Israel. Concerning Jesus, he writes, “This was to fulfill what has been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased . . . and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles’” (Matthew 12:16–18). Paul seems equally clear that the newly emerging Christ covenant was for Gentiles since Jews already had an intact covenant between themselves and God. Paul writes, “In Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:14).

Within Judaism, Paul’s “promise of the Spirit” was never based on the profession of a creed or membership in a particular religion—it is based solely on God’s mercy. Paul’s teaching about salvation is universal. He never imagined Jews leaving their native Judaism and converting to another faith.

The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 ce accelerated the transformation of the sacrificial system into the rabbinic Judaism that is practiced today. As will be explained later in the book, the commandments regarding grain, fruit, monitory, and animal offerings were brilliantly interpreted by the rabbis to apply to personal, family, and synagogue rituals. Many of these rabbinic innovations directly influenced Christian rites as well. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is clearly teaching from within the world of an emerging rabbinic Judaism.

Echoes of Torah

Hanging above our fireplace at home is a hand-painted, eighteenth-century ceramic plate from Italy. The painting is of Miriam standing next to Pharaoh’s daughter as she takes baby Moses from his basket on the Nile. I cannot count the number of people who want to know what a painting of baby Jesus is doing hanging in the home of a rabbi. Explaining that it is baby Moses always elicits amazed smiles from our friends. Yet in all the years we have owned this ceramic painting, it never occurred to me until recently that there was a parallel between the birth stories of these two great Jewish men. Anyone reading the biblical texts will discover unmistakable overlaps within the birth narratives of Moses and Jesus. There are also echoes within the betrayal stories of Jacob’s son Joseph and Jesus—both are acts of duplicity done for silver by those who were supposed to loved them. There are even overlaps in the miracle stories of Jesus and the early prophets Elijah and Elisha.

Finally, there’s an echo in the death stories of Moses and Jesus: neither lived to see his dreams fulfilled in this world. Both died with a great “promise” in front of them.

Judaism and Christianity are unique, distinctive, and different religions, but for too long the differences were emphasized while the far greater territory of their similarities has been ignored, suppressed, or simply unknown.

If you try holding the stories of Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus in your mind at the same time, you might experience what a Jew in the time of Jesus may have felt as he or she heard some of the stories in the Younger Testament being told—similarity, echo, overlap, emulation, and an identical moral imperative.

The master stories within Judaism and Christianity are, of course, uniquely different, but there are exquisite resemblances and contrasts in their details. While the Joshua of the Elder Testament is a warrior hero and leadership heir to Moses, the Joshua of the Younger Testament is a spiritual warrior claimed by Christianity as their Messiah. Jesus’s mother’s Hebrew name is Miriam, and Moses is rescued and protected by his big sister Miriam. Elijah and Elisha are miracle workers who are used by God to heal the sick, raise the dead, float an axe head on water, and multiply food. The miracles of Jesus echo the earlier Hebrew prophets (e.g., compare Luke 7:11–17 to 1 Kings 17:17–24). Finally, just as Jesus dies and is resurrected, there’s a parallel midrash about Isaac being sacrificed by Abraham and then being resurrected.

Beyond these larger themes, there are many other parallels between the Testaments. In Exodus 1:22 Pharaoh orders the death of every Hebrew male baby through drowning in the Nile, and in Matthew 2:16 Herod orders a massacre of all Jewish babies in Bethlehem under two years of age. When Herod’s murderous decree goes out, the Younger Testament (Matthew 2:18) quotes the lamentation from Jeremiah 31:15, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping, Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted, because they are no more.” Could the first-century Jewish followers of Jesus make a link between Rachel’s son Joseph (Genesis 30:25) and Mary’s husband Joseph?

In Exodus 2:15 Pharaoh wants to kill the adult Moses, who fled for his life from Egypt to Midian. In Genesis 37 we learn that Joseph, the son of Jacob, was a dreamer. In Matthew 2:13–14 an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him to flee to Egypt to save his life. Dr. Amy-Jill Levine points out, “Matthew 1:16 lists Joseph’s father as Jacob and so connects Jesus’ adoptive father to that earlier Joseph, son of Jacob.”11 Listen to the echo in the stories of when Moses is told to return to Egypt (Exodus 4:19), and when Joseph (Mary’s husband) is told to return to Judea (Matthew 2:19–20).

The coming of the messiah in Judaism is to be foretold by the miraculous return of Elijah. The prophet Malachi says, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Malachi 4:5). In the Younger Testament, some priests and Levites ask John the Baptist if he is the reincarnation of Elijah: “And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’

He said, ‘I am not’” (John 1:21). When John the Baptist says he’s not Elijah, he’s asked to identify himself (John 1:23). His response is to quote from Isaiah 40:3, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’”

In Genesis 37:26 it was Judah who saves his brother Joseph’s life by suggesting to his other brothers that they sell him into slavery for twenty pieces of silver. The other brothers were ready to leave him to die. In Matthew 26:15 it was Jesus’s disciple Judas who betrays his rabbi for thirty pieces of silver.

The stories of the final moments in the life of Jesus (Matthew 27:50) and the death of Moses (Deuteronomy 34:5) are both so sad. Finally, many of the rituals, modes of worship, and liturgy within Christianity are variations of Jewish spiritual practices. The Tree of Life images used in Proverbs 3:17–18 and Revelation 22:2 have an almost identical function in linking the Creator to the creation. The image of the Church as God’s bride in Revelation 22:17 is taken from Hosea 2:19 where Israel is called God’s bride. The notion of the election of the Church is taken from Deuteronomy 14:2–3, when God chose Israel.

Here is a look at just a handful of hundreds of parallels in the Younger  Testament that have been drawn from the Elder Testament. Using Paul’s metaphor of roots and branches, I use the term Root to refer to Jewish sources (Jewish Scriptures and Oral Torah) for these passages, and Branch to refer to verses on the Younger Testament.

Parallel Miracles of Moses, Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus

Multiplying oil and food

Root: 2 Kings 4:43–44 “How can I set this before a hundred people?” “So he [Elisha] repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the LORD, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the LORD.

Branch: Matthew 15:36–37    thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.

Healing infertility and infection

Root: 2 Kings 4:8–17 The woman conceived and bore a son at that season, in due time, as Elisha had declared to her.

2 Kings 4:40–41 While they were eating the stew, they cried out, “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” They could not eat it. He said, “Then bring them eat.” And there was nothing harmful in the pot.

Branch: Matthew 4:23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Resurrection of the dead

Root: 2 Kings 4:34 Then he got up on the bed and lay upon the child . . . and the flesh of the child became warm.

1 Kings 17:22 The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came  into him again, and he revived.

Branch: Luke 7:15 The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.

Healing the body

Root: 2 Kings 5:14 So he [Na’aman] went down and immersed himself seven times

Branch: Matthew 8:6–7 “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress.” And he [Jesus] said to him, “I will come and cure him.”

Appointing Disciples

Root: Numbers 11:25 Then the LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. . . .

Branch: Luke 10:1 After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.

Matthew 10:1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

Miracles with water

Root: Exodus 14:21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.

2 Kings 6:5–6

Branch: Matthew 14:29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.

Quotes, Parallels, and Echoes from the Bible and Oral Law

Most of the teachings of Jesus were quite familiar to his fellow citizens. There are literally hundreds of instances when a speaker in the Younger Testament quotes directly from the Elder Testament. Whenever you read, “as it is written” in the Younger Testament, it is a quote from the Elder Testament. Jesus seems to cite directly, or create variations of, the teachings of the sages before and during his lifetime. Some of the Jewish teachings below were known before Jesus’s lifetime; others were contemporaneous, and some were first recorded centuries later, but were possibly known in oral form during the first century. Although it cannot be proven that Jesus was quoting from his contemporaries or the sages who preceded him, it’s also difficult to deny that his teachings are in line with normative first-century rabbinic pedagogy. As Christianity was developing and gaining a foothold in the Roman Empire, it is likely that the rabbis were influenced and inspired by Jesus’s teachings and particular aspects of Christian theology. We cannot dismiss the reality of Christian influence on the rabbinic writings.

When I quote from the Talmud (first published as a unified text in the fifth century), it’s simply intended to return Jesus’s teachings to their Jewish theological context. Jesus is obviously not quoting from a text written hundreds of years after his lifetime. Regarding such teachings, Rabbi David Wolpe makes an astute observation: “Today . . . Christian scholars are beginning to understand that much of what Judaism preserved is what Jesus would have known. It may be that a fifth or sixth-century rabbinic midrash perpetuates a tradition that Jesus would’ve taken for granted in a world of oral transmission.”

Jesus maintained his observance of the Torah’s mitzvot until the end of his life, when he was murdered along with tens of thousands of other Jews who died at the hands by the Roman Empire. The following selections place Jesus’s teachings squarely within the rabbinic tradition during the centuries before and after his lifetime.

The Golden Rule

Root: Talmud: Shabbat 31a Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah—the rest is the commentary thereof. Go learn it.”

Mishnah: Avot 2:10 Rabbi Eliezar said, “Let the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own.”

Targum Pseudo Jonathan on Leviticus 19:18 Love your neighbor, for whatever displeases you, do not to him!

Branch: Matthew 7:12 In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

The Greatest Commandment

Root: Jerusalem Talmud: Nedarim 9:4; Midrash: Genesis Rabbah 24:7 Rabbi Akiva taught, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is the great principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai said that the verse “This is the book of the descendants of Adam . . . him whom God made in His likeness” (Genesis 5:1) displays a principle even greater.

Branch: Mark 12:30–31 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” [Deuteronomy 6:5]. And the second [commandment] is this, “Love your neighbor as yourself” [Leviticus 19:18]. There is no other commandment greater than these.


Root: Mishnah: Avot 1:10 Hate positions of authority over others.

Branch: Matthew 23:8 But you are not to be called rabbi.

Adversaries and Enemies

Root: Proverbs 25:21 If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.

Exodus 23:4 When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back.

Midrash: Avot de-Rabbi Natan 23 Who is the mightiest of the mighty? He who turns his enemy into his friend.

Branch: Matthew 5:43–44 You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”


Root: Talmud: Yoma 85b Rabbi Jonathan bar Joseph said, “The Sabbath is committed to your hands, not you to its hands.”

Midrash: Mekilta de Rabbi Ishmael/Exodus 31:13 Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, so that man is master over the Sabbath.

Branch: Mark 2:27 The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.


Root: Talmud: Yoma 85b The Day of Atonement does not procure forgiveness until he is reconciled with his neighbor.

Branch: Matthew 5:23–24 that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there

Measure for Measure

Root: Talmud: Sanhedrin 90a All measures of punishment and reward taken by the Holy One, blessed be He, are done in accordance with the principle of “measure for measure.”

Talmud: Shabbat 127b Our Rabbis taught: “He who judges his neighbor favorably is himself judged favorably.”

Branch: Matthew 7:1–2 Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.


Root: Talmud: Baba Metzia 49 Rabbi Judah said, “Your ‘yes’ shall be true, and your ‘no’ shall be true.”

Branch: Matthew 5:34, 37 Do not swear at all. . . . Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No.”

Spiritual Laborers

Root: Mishnah: Avot 2:15–16 Rabbi Tarfon said, “The day is short, the work is great, the laborers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master of the house is insistent. . . . Faithful is your Employer to pay you the reward of your labor.”

Branch: Matthew 9:37–38 Then he [Jesus] said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”


Root: Midrash: Leviticus Rabbah 23:3 Resh Lakish expounded, “You must not suppose that only he who has committed the crime with his body is called an adulterer. If he commits adultery with his eyes he is also called an adulterer.”

Branch: Matthew 5:28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Reproof and Self-criticism

Root: Talmud: Arakhin 16b Rabbi Tarfon said, “I wonder if there is anyone in this generation who is able to give reproof. For if anyone says to another, ‘Take the chip from between your teeth,’ the other retorts, ‘Take the beam from between your eyes.’”

Midrash: Ruth Rabbah 1:1 Woe to the generation whose judges are in need of being judged. When a judge would say, “Remove the toothpick from between your teeth,” the man would reply, “Remove the beam from between your eyes.”

Branch: Matthew 7:3–5 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while the log is in your own eye? You to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

By Their Fruits

Root: Philo13 On Curses 6 God judges by the fruit of a tree, not by the roots.

Branch: Matthew 7:19–20 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and

The Presence of God

Root: Mishnah: Avot 3:2 Rabbi Hanina said, “When two sit together and there is between them words of Torah, the Shekhinah [Divine Presence] dwells between them.”

Branch: Matthew 18:20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

Weightier matters

Root: Talmud: Hagigah 14a Those to whom weighty matters appear as light ones will come to behave insolently against those to whom light matters appear as weighty ones.

Branch: Matthew 23:23 For you . . . have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.

Root: Psalm 51:17 7 contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Talmud: Berakhot 32b

Branch: Mark 12:33 “To love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength.” and “to love one’s neighbor as oneself,”—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.

The Meek

Root: Psalm 37:11 But the meek shall inherit the land.

Branch: Matthew 5:5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.


Root: Lamentations 3:30 & Branch: Matthew 5:39 If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.


Root: Joel 2:32 Then everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.

Branch: Romans 10:13 Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Giving in Secret

Root: Talmud: Baba Batra 9b He who gives charity in secret is greater than Moses.

Branch: Matthew 6:2 So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you.

Born Again

Root: Talmud: Yevamot 48b Rabbi Jose said, “One who has become a proselyte is like a child newly born.”

Branch: John 3:3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

High and Low

Root: Leviticus Rabbah 1:5 Hillel said, “My humiliation is my exaltation, my exaltation is my humiliation.”

Branch: Matthew 23:12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

New Wine

Root: Mishnah: Avot 4:26–27 Rabbi Yosi bar Judah of Kefar ha-Bavli asks, “He who learns from the elders, what is he like? He is like one who eats ripe grapes and drinks old wine. Do not look at the container, but look at what’s inside. not have even new wine.”

Branch: Luke 5:36–39 He also told them a parable. . . . “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good.’”


Root: Midrash/Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael on Exodus 15:2 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

Branch: Luke 6:36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Judging Another

Root: Mishnah: Avot 2:5 Judge not your neighbor until you have stood in his place.

Branch: Luke 6:37 Do not judge, and you will not be judged.

The Our Father Prayer & The Beatitudes

Jesus knew both the Bible and the oral tradition that were already ancient in his lifetime. The Our Father prayer is another example of an elegant compilation of words and phrases that would have sounded familiar to any religious Jew who heard Jesus chant this supplication

A Jewish Exegesis on the Our Father Prayer

Matthew 6:9, Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.

Calling out to God for help requires humility. We are admitting that we cannot solve our problems by ourselves. True to Jewish liturgical tradition, Jesus instructs his disciples to begin this prayer as a communal supplication with the words Our Father rather than as a personal prayer. Calling God in the first person plural (“Our Father” rather than “My Father”) is humbling since it is an implied admission that we are each part of something greater than ourselves—a community. If the first step in the prayer is “calling,” the second step might be called “affirming.” Jesus instructs his students to take a second step by affirming God’s hallowed nature.

Matthew 6:10, Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

Dr. Brad Young teaches, “Jesus’ words could be better translated ‘May you continue establishing your Kingdom.’” 14 The verse suggests that God’s kingdom is not just spiritual and apart from the world we live in. Implied is the idea that we are divine accomplices in seeing that God’s will does get accomplished here on earth. We affirm that it is God’s will that is fulfilled even as we hope that our prayers will be answered. In the Mishnah Rabbi Judah taught, “Do His will as if it were your will, so that He will do His will as it were yours” (Avot 2:4).

Matthew 6:11, Give us this day our daily bread.

The third step in this prayer is “petitioning”—asking God to satisfy the needs of ourselves, our families, and our communities. The image of “daily bread” is emblematic of all material needs. Dr. Lawrence A. Hoffman, a contemporary Reform rabbi and scholar, points out that by the first century, bread “was already a Jewish symbol of salvation that paralleled and then took the place of the paschal lamb as the primary symbol of God’s deliverance of Israel in Egypt.” Dr. Young points out that “Jesus often makes allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures without actually quoting the verse in full detail.” He suggests that “daily bread” might be an allusion to Proverbs 30:8 where the term “the food that is needful to me” is used.

Matthew 6:12, And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

Still in the third step, we ask God to give us bread and forgive our debts. However, Jesus ties our personal petitions to specific actions—we ask to be forgiven, measure for measure, as we are willing to forgive. The rabbis affirmed that God has embedded laws of reciprocity and balance in nature. Just as modern science teaches us about this principle in Newton’s Laws, so we see it expressed here in spiritual and poetic terms. As Rabbi Meir said in the Talmud, “The way one measures others, so he will be measured” (Talmud: Sotah 8b).

Matthew 6:13, And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:

After petitioning for the satisfaction of our material needs, we ask for protection and deliverance from evil. Jesus’s words are in line with the Hebraic concept that good and evil are not to be understood through the lens of dualism. The prayer implies that when we’ve been led into temptation, there is a way back. The Hebrew word for “temptation” shares the same root as the word for “test.” We could translate this verse as, “And lead us not to where we will be tested.” Finally, Jesus echoes the psalmist, “The Lord delivers them in the day of trouble” (Psalm 41:1). The word trouble is literally “evil” in Hebrew.

Matthew 6:13, For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

The fourth and final step in this prayer is “acknowledging.” We acknowledge God as the sole source of power and glory. In conclusion, Jesus quotes directly from the Elder Testament (1 Chronicles 29:11). The Hebrew word amayn comes from the word meaning “faith.” When a person who hears a prayer responds with amayn, it is implied that the witness affirms his or her faith in the veracity of the prayer. The prayer ends here, but is followed by some further explanation by Jesus. The infrastructure of this prayer follows the orderly pattern of prayer typical of the sages who preceded and succeeded Rabbi Jesus.

Matthew 6:14, For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.

The prayer was complete in Matthew 6:13, but we can imagine Jesus asking his disciples if they have any questions. One of them asks Jesus to share more about the phrase “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” So Jesus restates the law of reciprocity in more detail. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17a) teaches, “He who waives his right to retribution is forgiven all his sins. . . . Whose sin does God forgive? The one who forgives transgression.”

Matthew 6:15, But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Jesus states the law of reciprocity first in the positive and then in the negative just to make sure his students understand. The notion of “measure for measure” is a central concept in rabbinic Judaism. As you do to others, so it shall be done to you; as you respond to God, so God responds to you. It is God’s grace that fills in the disparity between our imperfect actions to each other and our less than perfect responses to God’s will. The rabbis taught, “As you withhold mercy so the Holy One will withhold mercy from you” (Midrash Tahuna 15:11).

Turning to the Beatitudes

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3–12) are another magnificent example of how rooted Jesus was in the moral tone of Jewish Scriptures and the oral tradition. These passages contain many quotes, echoes, and rabbinic-like restatements of biblical verses that would have been familiar to his Jewish listeners. The Beatitudes is a magnificently crafted teaching-chant. Biblical and Talmudic verses cited here are intended to show what Jesus might have been thinking of when he was preparing this part of his quintessential sermon—The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6, & 7). The opening verses utilize the rhythmic shape of poem-chant found in many spiritual traditions where a word or phrase is repeated for emphasis and beauty. Since it is probable that Beatitudes were first uttered in Hebrew or Aramaic, the same word (ashrey in Hebrew) often translated as “blessed” in the opening is rendered as “fortunate, praiseworthy,” and “happy” in other biblical verses. The teachings and parables of Rabbi Jesus emerged in the context of an already ancient Jewish wisdom tradition: Torah, the prophets, and the sages who preceded him. His role as the Anointed One, the Messiah within the Church ought not negate who he was historically: a Jew whose genius arose from the Judaism that he practiced and loved. And we can see the evidence of that genius and divine inspiration in the Our Father prayer, the Beatitudes, parables, and in his other teachings. To those whose hearts, minds, and souls are open, the historical Jesus and the theological Jesus actually complement each other.

This same sense of anamnesis, time past experienced as time present, is central to the annual Passover seder, the yearly retelling of the Passover story accompanied by a festive meal in Jewish homes. In the Hagaddah, the book containing the stories and prayers to be read at the seder, it is written, ‘In every generation a person must regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt.’ The annual retelling of the Exodus story is accompanied by wine and foods emblematic of slavery and liberation, and has the effect of a spiritual time machine.

“Did Paul really love his own Jewish faith,or was he just pretending to practice Judaism in order to win people over to the new gospel?”

professor Dr. Michael A. Signer writes that the “documents of the New Testament present an extended meditation on the meaning of the Hebrew Bible that is analogous to the process used by the rabbis in Talmud and Midrash. . . . For example, the infancy narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke were composed in the same style as the genealogies in Genesis and Chronicles.”

In the twentieth century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once used the story of the Binding of Isaac as an opportunity to teach an important lesson about God’s angels. Rabbi Heschel said that in Poland he once knew a young religious boy who wept when he first heard the story of the Akedah. “Why are you crying? You know that the angel saved Isaac’s life!” said Heschel. “But what if the angel had come a moment too late?” the boy replied. The rabbi answered, “Human beings are sometimes late, but angels never are:’ The Akedah, like the Passion of Christ, creates an endless number of learn­ing opportunities, and it all begins with our questions.

Let’s begin by remembering the story. It may not be as familiar as it once was, when every child learned the Bible in school. In Genesis 22 we read how God tested Abraham with the commandment to take his son Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice. Abraham and Isaac leave early the next morning and make the journey to Moriah where God commanded him to go. After three days they arrive, and Abraham builds an altar, binds Isaac upon it, and lifts his knife in preparation for the sacrifice. An angel of the Lord calls to Abraham and says, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son” Abraham then prepares to substitute a ram in place of his son upon the altar. The angel calls out a second time and declares, “Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore.. . .” The story ends with Abraham returning alone to where his servants had been waiting before going on to Beer-sheba.

Looking back at an earlier story in Genesis 17:11, Abraham received the commandment from God to circumcise Isaac when he was eight days old. Thus, it’s in fulfillment of this commandment to Abraham that Jews continue to perform the powerful rite of circumcision. However, it’s only as an adult, at the Akedah, that Isaac makes the choice to willingly enter the covenant, as he seems voluntarily to lie upon the sacrificial altar that his father has made. When a boy is circumcised, Jewish tradition teaches, we remember Isaac’s circumcision, and a shower of blessings descends from heaven upon the child. His parents are also blessed since, on a spiritual level, it’s as if they’ve offered their son up to God as Abraham did with Isaac twice—first at his circumcision, and then at the Akedah when Isaac was an adult.

Wrestling with the Story

And yet, we wrestle with all of this, for good reasons. Along with the traditional explanations of the Akedah story within Judaism, over the millennia rabbis and Jewish parents alike have wondered how Abraham could have gone along with such a command, even knowing it was a test from God. The nineteenth-century Danish Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard makes a statement about Abraham’s ethics that is both startling and unnerving when he writes: “What ordinarily tempts a man is that which would keep him from doing his duty, but in this case the temptation is itself the ethical . . . which would keep him from doing God’s Will. Therefore, Abraham arouses my admiration. He, at the same time, appalls me.” ” Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant is then in line with many rabbis and Jewish parents throughout history when he envisioned what he thinks should have been Abraham’s response to God’s request:

Abraham should have replied to this punitive divine voice: “That I may not kill my good son is absolutely certain. But you who appear to me as God is not certain and cannot become certain, even though the voice were to sound from the very heavens:’ [For] that a voice which one seems to hear cannot be divine one-can be certain of . . . in case what is commanded is contrary to moral law. However majestic or supernatural it may appear to be, one must regard it as a deception. 34

We cannot help but wonder why Abraham didn’t argue with God when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac, just as he had when advocating for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. One midrash suggests that Abraham used his silence as leverage on behalf of the future generations when he spoke with God after the Akedah: “Abraham said ‘Master of the Universe, when You said to me `take your son .. . ‘ I did not argue with You. I suppressed my natural feelings of compassion and was prepared to sacrifice him to fulfill Your will. Now I have something to ask of You. May it be Your will that when the descendants of Isaac commit transgressions and perform wicked deeds, that You remem­ber the binding of Isaac, and that You become filled with compassion for them” (Genesis Rabbah 56:10).

Jesus and Isaac: Parallel Stories

From the first century on, Jesus was portrayed within the church as a “type” of Isaac. Several of the early church fathers, including the bishop of Sardis (died 189 cE) and Origen (185-251 cE), compared the story of Jes to that of Isaac. The binding of Isaac was purposely linked to the story of Jesus’s death. In many churches this linkage is evident in the Easter liturgy, the Eucharist, and in the Christian prayer for the dying. Within Judaism, the binding of Isaac, along with the suffering servant passages in Isaiah 53, have helped the Jewish people understand their suffering and persecution throughout history. The atoning power of the millions of Jews, millions Isaacs, who died as martyrs (including Jesus) carries forward from generation generation. In these ways and more, Jesus’s story can be said to parallel Isaac’s story. Dr. Leora Batnitzky, professor at Princeton University, writes:

The themes of the death and resurrection of the beloved son (Isaac and Jesus, respectively) play crucial roles in the formation and development of both the Jewish and Christian traditions. The Christian interpretation of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is in keeping with the Jewish interpretation of the binding of Isaac throughout the rabbinic and medieval periods. Both narratives describe the sacrifice of an innocent, beloved son who is sacrificed on account of the father’s love for a God who demands such a sacrifice. 3′

Both Jewish and Christian theologians have pointed out the similarities between the stories of Isaac and Jesus. Both of their births were foretold by angels, and each is called a “son of promise.” They each had a miraculous birth, and both were called an “only” son. Isaac carried wood to his sacrifice and Jesus carried the wooden cross to his. Both men were in their thirties. Both were brought to a mount (Moriah and Calvary) and went willingly to the slaughter. The story of Jesus battling Satan to overcome death itself (Hebrews 2:14) is parallel to the midrash where Abraham battles with Satan on the way to Mt. Moriah (Genesis Rabbah 56:4). As the Jewish scholar Shalom Spiegel explains:

Already in the Epistle of Barnabas, Isaac is referred to as the prototype for the sufferings and trials of Jesus. Irenaeus exhorts Christians that in their faith they too must be on the alert to bear the cross, just as Isaac bore the wood for the burnt-offering wood. . . . Christian writers make Isaac the symbol of their faith, and so interpret the Akedah chapter as to have it serve as a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus.

Even the image of Jesus’s resurrection on the third day was told in relation to the Akedah taking place on the third day of Abraham and Isaac’s extraordinary journey. The rabbis calculate that Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebecca, which would have been three years after the Akedah. Could it be that the three days Jesus spent in the tomb before his resurrection was an echo of Isaac’s departure for three years between the Akedah and his resurrection or reappearance? The notion of something crucial happening on the “third day” is in fact revealed in several places in

the Tanakh.

For example, the prophet Hosea taught that separation from God is a kind of spiritual death. After repentance, God will “revive” (resurrect) each person on the third day. The prophet said, “Come, let us return to the LORD; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us…. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him” (Hosea 6:1-2). Joseph made his brothers wait for three days (Genesis 42:18) so that they could live. Jonah had a death and rebirth experience in the belly of the fish for three days (Jonah 1:17). Returning from exile, the Israelites waited three days (Ezra 8:32). And Queen Esther put on her royal apparel on the third day (Esther 5:1), just to name a few.

For some Christian theologians, the goal of linking Jesus to Isaac is to read back into the Torah to “prove” that Isaac’s binding was merely a foreshadowing of the greater crucifixion story that was yet to come. Their aim is to show that Jesus’s death was the perfection and completion of the Isaac story. But this attitude is a perfect example of the insidious influence of what is called supersessionism (also called replacement theology). This is the belief that the Christian covenant supersedes the Jewish covenantal relationship to God. The terms “old” and “new” testaments were originally intended to signify that one covenant has now replaced the other.

From a Jewish perspective, the similarities in the stories do not demon­strate any kind of completion or fulfillment. Rather, an accurate reading history shows that Christianity was built upon the existing foundations of Judaism, which should be celebrated by both church and synagogue. It is zrobable that in the early centuries after Jesus’s lifetime, the message of the

:ling power of Jesus’s sacrifice was told in the light of the already well-crown story of the atoning power of the Akedah. The reverse is likely also 1–:_e—that as the atoning power of Jesus’s death and resurrection became _ire widely taught throughout the growing Christian world, Jews found meaning in their already ancient Isaac story.

More Specific Parallels

There are other parallel stories, too, between the Testaments and tradi­tions. For example, the use of “son” to describe Jesus as the “son of God” is an echo of the biblical words used to describe the nation of Israel (Exodus 4:22), the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 14:1), King David (Psalm 2:7), and Isaac (Genesis 22:2). Just as Isaac is called Abraham’s “only son,” so Jesus is called the “only” begotten son in the Younger Testament (John 3:16). The image of Isaac as Abraham’s son parallels the words describing Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The Hebrew word for “only” in the Isaac story also means “unique,” and describing Jesus as a “unique” son may uncover another layer of meaning for Christians. Jesus is understood as a sacrifice who is offered on behalf of the people. Many Christians have described Golgotha in the Younger Testament as an echo of both Mt. Moriah and Mt. Sinai in the Elder Testament.

Also, there are good reasons why the image of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey on the Sunday before his crucifixion reminded people of Abraham and Isaac riding to Mt. Moriah on a donkey. As God gave Abraham a ram to be sacrificed in the place of Isaac, so Christianity teaches that Jesus was the sacrificial lamb offered in place of every Christian. The metaphor of Jesus as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) seems to be an echo of the Akedah (Genesis 22:8), where Abraham tells his son that God will provide a lamb. Christians teach that Jesus goes willingly to the cross for all humankind. One can hear an echo of the Isaac story when Jesus says, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). Just as Isaac went willingly with his earthly father Abraham to Moriah (Genesis 22:6), so Jesus went willingly with his heavenly Father to Calvary.

The Torah says that Abraham and Isaac “walked on together” (Genesis 22:6). However, the Hebrew word being used means “one in purpose.” When Jesus says, “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30), could he have used the word yakhdav, meaning “one in purpose” as an echo of Abraham and Isaac? Many of us would use that word to describe the ideal relationship between Judaism and Christianity: the two religions are not intended by God to be one in physical form, but one in purpose.

As a parallel to Genesis 22:9-11, Jesus too was laid “upon the wood” of the cross along with tens of thousands of other Jews during the first and second centuries by the Roman Empire. As the ram in the Abraham story was caught in a thorny thicket (Genesis 22:13), so Jesus wore a crown of thorns (Matthew 27:29). Christ’s death is seen as substitutionary for Christians (2 Corinthians 5:21) in the same way that the ram was a substi­tution for Isaac. I would suggest that most first-century followers of Jesus never believed that his was a “better” version of Isaac’s story. Rather, it was probably understood as one more unique application of the Isaac story.

The Death and Resurrection of Isaac

It is surprising for both Jews and Christians to learn that among many interpretations of the Binding of Isaac familiar to first-century Jews, several legends suggest that Isaac actually was sacrificed and resurrected. Some say he literally died; some say he died only momentarily; and others say he was sacrificed figuratively. While these interpretations were never the majority view within Judaism, this possibility nevertheless has persisted as an impor­tant minority opinion throughout the centuries.

One of the great sages in the Middle Ages was Abraham Ibn Ezra, who :_rongly disagreed with the stories of Isaac’s death and resurrection. He wrote, “He who asserts that Abraham slew Isaac and abandoned him, and that afterwards Isaac came to life again is speaking contrary to Writ.” In light of the Church’s traditional linkage of Jesus to Isaac, it’s certainly worthwhile examining the Jewish sources that suggest that Isaac was actually sacrificed. Jewish scholar Judah Goldin writes:

When we find … that almost two thousand years ago . . . there was already plainly recorded a notion that the faithful patriarch did lay his hand upon the boy, did inflict wound—and more. . . . Perhaps the view that Abraham did something to the lad on the altar was an erratic and fugitive opinion. How, then shall we explain the persistence of this view, or variants thereof, in generation after generation of some of Israel’s most pious souls? And those who repeat this account do so without any sense of the bizarre.37

The author of Hebrews may have known these stories since he appears to be referring to them; he also seems to assume that his readers knew what he was talking about when he wrote:

Hebrews 11:17-19 By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.” He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.

Because of intense prejudice against Jews and Judaism, there’s been a self-protective response by Jewish communities to keep a safe distance from the theology, rituals, and beliefs associated with Christianity. Very few Jewish people today even know how parallel the story of Jesus’s sacrifice is to Isaac’s sacrifice, and how one was told in relation to the other. Most Jews are not aware of the Jewish midrashim that Isaac was actually sacrificed and resur­rected. Because of supersessionism, many Christians are not taught that the story of Jesus was originally understood as an analogue to the Isaac story, not as a completion of it. Nor do most Christians learn about the atoning power of Isaac’s sacrifice from a Jewish perspective.

Three times a day religious Jews chant a series of powerful petitionary prayers to God regarding personal issues of strength, holiness, understanding, repentance, healing, peace, and all the key issues that relate to daily life. Jewish tradition says that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob composed the first three of these prayers respectively. Abraham’s prayer is about the Jewish people’s deep connection to our ancestors. Jacob’s prayer is an affirmation of holiness. But Isaac’s prayer is about personal strength and the Jewish belief (adopted by Christianity) in the future resurrection of the dead. It seems possible that the rabbis associated this prayer with Isaac because of the stories that purported he was resurrected from the dead. Here is one of many accounts that try to explain how this daily blessing might have been composed:

Midrash: Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer: Rabbi Judah says, “When the sword touched Isaac’s throat his soul flew clean out of him. And the Holy One let His voice be heard from between the cherubim, `Lay not thy hand upon the lad.’ The lad’s soul was returned to his body. Then his father unbound him and Isaac rose, knowing that in this way the dead would come back to life in the future. whereupon he began to recite ‘Blessed are You, 0 Lord, who resurrects the dead.'”

Now, pause for a moment. Consider again the meaning and use 0± midrash in Jewish tradition. The suggestion that Isaac was sacrificed not part of a denominational creed or dogma intended to be “believed The rabbis treated scriptural ambiguity as a spiritual tool since it inspire people to ask questions to enliven learning and strengthen devotion. The religious Jew doesn’t need to believe in, or agree with, a midrash to learn something from it. Sometimes a student learns the most from midrashi= or interpretations, he or she disagrees with. To Jews the entire act of study and debate “for the sake of heaven” is elevated to a level of spiritual practice akin to prayer.

The sacred character of a midrash is not that it’s true or not true, rea­sonable or fantastic, but that it compels the student to think and respond, thereby becoming an active participant in the britt. A midrash propels the imagination. It inspires the student to question someone else’s “authoritative” interpretation of a biblical verse or story. It permits everyone to be partners with the Creator. One of the most elegant and unique ways Jews wrestle with God is through midrash—searching for deeper and deeper meanings in the text of the Tanakh.

Each of the following questions about the Akedah is the basis for its own midrash within Judaism. The classic midrashim continue to inspire ingenious discussions among the Jewish people as they have for thousands of years. Did God really tell Abraham to sacrifice Isaac or just to “bring him up” as it literally says in Hebrew? Was it Satan who convinced God in the first place to give Abraham such an extreme test? Was Abraham just hearing voices in his own head to even consider sacrificing Isaac? Did Abraham actually slaughter Isaac? Did Sarah actually die because she thought Abraham did slaughter her son? Did Sarah divorce Abraham after the Akedah because he did that to her son? Christian friends of mine see the candor of the midrashim as refreshing, even though the questions at first sound startling and irreverent. The rabbis were not afraid to ask extreme questions, or make inventive propositions, since they weren’t looking for correct answers. They want us to think, and through thinking and debating, the Torah is kept alive.

The Haftarah and Resurrection

Every Sabbath in most synagogues throughout the world the same selection from the Torah is read. A second reading called the haftarah comes from another part of the Bible (often from the prophets) in order to supplement the theme of the weekly Torah reading. The Younger Testament reports (Luke 4:16) that Jesus was a reader of the weekly prophetic section of the Bible in a synagogue where he attended services.

Each autumn when the Binding of Isaac story is chanted aloud in its haunting, ancient melody, it is supplemented by the chanting of 2 Kings 4:1-37, which recounts the story of Elisha and the miraculous conception, birth, death, and resurrection of the Shunamite’s son. Did the rabbis select and pair this story with the Akedah on purpose to inspire us to consider the idea that Isaac might have been sacrificed and resurrected? Did first through fourth-century Christians use the story of the Shunamite’s son, as well as the Isaac story, as Christian theology was being formulated? It seems likely that when first-century Jews heard the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it was not startling or shocking. Stories of resurrection were already well established in the Bible, in legends, and in the Jewish oral tradition.

As surprising as it may sound to Jews today, the idea that Jesus may have been resurrected, and that his martyrdom has atoning power, is not a departure from Jewish theology. That some prefer to think of Jesus as the only biblical person who was resurrected is not correct. That some describe Jesus as the only martyr whose death has atoning power is the point where Christian and Jewish theologies diverge. Concerning his own suffering and death at the hand of the Romans in the first century, Rabbi Ishmael prayed, “May I be an atonement for the children of Israel” (Mishnah: Negaim 2:1). The Talmud also teaches, “When there are righteous people in a generation, the righteous are seized by death for the sins of that generation” (Talmud: Shabbat 33b). The disciples of Jesus likely knew this teaching.

Our sages understood the suffering of Isaac as an individual, and Israel as a nation as examples of substitutionary atonement. The offering of fruit, grain, or an animal brought to the Temple in Jerusalem created opportunities for people to achieve a deep state of self-awareness through this process of substitution, or what the rabbis called “exchange:’ When an animal offering was made, the penitent needed to fulfill two prerequisites for the exchange to have an effect on a spiritual level. First, the person needed to feel regret *r his or her transgressions. Second, the person needed to empathize with suffering of the animal who was dying in “exchange” for his or her sins. When Abraham prayed, I imagine that he must have known what a sacrifice the ram was making, because it was a substitution for his own son. It was Abraham’s deep sympathy that induced the Holy One to ratify the validity of the exchange. When slaughtering the ram, Abraham might have thought, This could have been my son! Thank you God. God, please bless this ram!”

Midrash: Genesis Rabbah 56:9 Abraham prayed, “Sovereign of the Universe! Look upon the blood of this ram as though it were the blood of my son Isaac; its limbs as though they were my son’s limbs. We have learned that when a man declares ‘This animal be instead of this one, in exchange for that, or a substitute for this, it is a valid exchange.–

Christianity demonstrates the substitutionary atonement provided by Jesus through verses like “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Judaism teaches there is substitutionary atonement in the suffering of Israel and in the suffering of the innocent. The ram in the Akedah provides the spiritual exchange that permitted Isaac to live. Our empathy for both Isaac and the ram hopefully inspires us to want to better our lives. In Genesis 22:13 we read, “Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up for a burnt offer­ing instead of his son.” On a spiritual level, the substitution of the ram for Isaac reverberates from generation to generation, and continues to be an effectual step in the atonement process for everyone today who contemplates the story.

To many Christians, the event of Jesus’s suffering and resurrection is also timeless, reverberating from generation to generation. For example, accord­ing to Paul, the resurrection is not just for the future—its power can have an impact on the life of a Christian every day. As Christians share in Jesus’s sufferings, they spiritually partake of the resurrection right now. In his letter to the Philippians Paul said, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).

Today, modern Jews practice an elegant form of spiritual substitution or exchange. At the start of the High Holidays each autumn, the Binding of Isaac is experienced as a substitute for the sins of the people of Israel. Judaism teaches that the affliction of the righteous, the poor, the orphan, and the innocent are efficacious substitutions. This is not in any way to be understood as a justification for suffering. From a modern, psychological perspective it could be that when a person empathizes with another’s suffering, there is efficacy in the empathy. Today, when there is no Temple, tzadakah, or charity, is seen as a form of exchange that has great efficacy. Judaism teaches that fasting during Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is also a sacrifice in which the individual substitutes body fat for the elevation of the soul. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, worshipers hear Leviticus 16 chanted aloud about how the two goats were used in a profound and mysterious rite of substitution. Somehow, just by hearing about this Torah ritual, a spiritual exchange takes place; just by contemplating the scapegoat” story, it is as if the worshiper is participating in the ritual. On a spiritual level, empathy has efficacy in the atonement process.

The Friday night Sabbath service in Jewish homes is also a magnificent example of substitution, and this ritual became the basis for the Eucharist. Every Friday evening as the Sabbath begins, the candles, wine, and bread are substitutes for various elements in the ancient Temple’s system of offerings. In Judaism, the substitutionary rites and practices of the Sabbath and the Passover seder have contributed to Jewish survival for the past two thousand years.

Rabbi Don Isaac Abarbanel, one of the leaders of Spanish Jewry dur­ing the fifteenth century, taught that in the story of the Akedah there “lies entire glory of Israel and their merit before their Father in Heaven. that is why it pervades our prayers every day:’ After the Crusades and lbquisitions, the Jews of Spain were being murdered and expelled from their boines under the edict of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Don Isaac wrote, “I savi many Jews, men, women, and even young children, tortured and burned it the stake in His Holy Name and I bear witness that at that time they did  scream or utter any expression of pain, but left this world in serenity and ::-ace.”4° Commenting on Don Isaac’s words, Tzvi Freeman writes: This is the strength of Abraham and Isaac within us. For they opened the channel by which this power comes down to us to this day. This power not only to die, but to live as Jews. This power to remain Jews despite every adversity God could throw at us. For this is the greatest miracle: That in this day and age there remain any Jews at all, that we still have each other, our Torah and our heritage. It is a power beyond nature, beyond the ego of a created being. And with it we are eternal.

Without that one ram, Isaac might not have lived to have children, and there would have been no Jacob, no Joseph, no Moses, no Elijah, no Jesus, no Jewish people, and no Christianity. Without the substitution of that one ram, the covenant could not have been fulfilled. The Talmud reports, “Since Isaac was redeemed, it is as though all Israel had been redeemed” (Jerusalem Talmud: Tannit 1:4).

A Personal Akedah Tale

Bob Dylan once sang, “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son.’ Abe said, `Man, you must be puttin’ me on:”42 The phrasing may seem a bit startling, but the notion of God asking his servant to slay his son has always been seen as a startling request worthy of discussion and debate in both Judaism and Christianity. I sense that this is exactly why God might have wanted this story in the Torah—to inspire debate on the cruelty of child sacrifice and to illuminate this horrific, idolatrous practice. Yet rabbis throughout the ages have correctly wondered why Abraham would argue on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah and then remain silent when asked to sacrifice his own son. Did Abraham simply know all along that God would never permit him to com­mit such a sacrifice? Abraham’s silence concerning the command to offer his son has resounded throughout the ages to every father and mother who hears this story and wonders, “What would I do if God made such a request of me?”

It so happened that the Akedah was the Torah portion that the annual reading cycle required my son to chant for his bar mitzvah in 1997. At first I dreaded having to discuss with my “only son” all the details of child sacri­fice as it was practiced in Mesopotamia. It was a privilege to teach Ari how Abraham and Sarah stood up against certain cultural beliefs and practices within their culture, yet how could I explain to my son why Abraham did not stand up to God when asked to slay his son Isaac? How could I explain why Isaac would even go along with such a preposterous plan? We discussed all the issues, and all the ins and outs of the story. In good Talmudic fashion, we even discussed the possibility that Abraham actually failed the test because he did not question God.

One evening while practicing chanting directly from the Torah scroll, my son, Ari, looked up at me and asked, “Dad, if God told you to sacrifice me, what would you do?” I thought, “Oy! Do I have to answer him?” It was almost as if Ari were an angel giving me a microcosmic, intellectual ver­sion of Abraham’s test of faith. My eyes filled with tears, and the answer seemed to come from a deep place within me. I said, “Ari, if God asked me to do that, and I was really positive it was God and not my imagination; if I was one hundred percent certain it was God and that I was not just hearing voices inside my own head; if I was totally positive it was Adonai, I would say, ‘God, forget about it! No way, God! I would never do that to my son. I love You and I love my son, and you already tested Abraham anyway—that’s enough testing!” Ai looked up at me surprised, delighted, and so relieved. He smiled and I smiled. He laughed and I laughed. I thought, “Thank you, God. I think I passed the test

The people of Israel can also be likened to the Christian notion of the “Son of God,” and the Torah is the oracle by whose commandments the people are brought closer to the Father. These are just some poetic possibilities for understanding the Trinity in Jewish terms. Obviously, we shouldn’t force the Christian notion of Trinity into a Jewish framework, but it seems that Trinity did arise from the fertile soil of Judaism even though the theological terminol­ogy seems so different at first glance. It’s fascinating to place the words from the Zohar which say, “The Holy One . . . Israel, and Torah are one,” next to the words of John 10:30 where Jesus says, “The Father and I are one:’ Or consider those words of the Zohar in relation to John 1:1 where it says: “In the begin­ning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God:’

Let’s put it this way—if I’m selected to be in an orchestra, I may feel proud to have been “chosen,” but I also recognize that I am only chosen to play one instrument. Judaism sees its role as “chosen” in this sort  of unique, but non-exclusive manner. God has a special task for  everyone.
Regarding Christianity, I would ask—if Christians also see themselves as a chosen people, does their being chosen need to replace the election of the Jewish people? Or is there room for each of us to fulfill the unique roles that the Holy One has designated for each of us?

The Ten Commandments begin with the declaration that God alone is Anokhi, the Hebrew word meaning I AM. Missionaries who have witnessed to me over the decades have quoted the following verses to demonstrate why I must accept Jesus as my Savior. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Yet I’ve always read this verse with Hebrew eyes and never felt it called me to become a Christian, nor that it implied that my Judaism was “incomplete” without Jesus. In fact, this verse confirms for me my own covenant with God. Why?

Try reading the verse in a more literal manner. Since I AM is God in Judaism, it’s possible Jesus was referring to God in this passage. Since ancient Greek, like ancient Hebrew, did not use punctuation marks, then “I am the way” could just as easily be read with the insertion of a comma: “I AM, the way. . . .” In other words, “God is the way, and the truth, and the life.” Jesus might have been teaching that each of us has within us a spark of Anokhi, the godly I AM.

Of course, Jesus would have said these words in Hebrew or Aramaic, so here we have the classic problem that arises when any language is translated. The phrase except through me in most Christian translations is rendered “but by me.” However, the Greek word dia has the multiple meanings of “through, by, with” and “for the sake of.” Another interpretation is that as a Jew I too go to God “by” the same way that Jesus went—through mitzvot, and adhering to the covenant of my fathers, the covenant of Moses. In that sense, I can say that because I practice Judaism I go to God by Jesus; by the same way he goes—through fulfilling the commandments of the Torah.

Similarly, Christians sometimes interpret John 8:58 as Jesus saying that he existed before Abraham. Jesus says “‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” However, another possible interpretation of this verse is that Jesus was simply stating that before Abraham, there was I AM, God. This kind of examination of language brings a Hebraic sensibility to the New Testament. Multiple meanings can open up new possibilities to strengthen and enliven a Christian’s faith, just as they have done for Jews for thousands of years. In the Hebraic way of thinking, one interpretation being “right” doesn’t necessarily mean another interpretation has to be wrong.

Jesus’s identification as being one with God, as in “the Father and I are one” (John 10:30), is consistent with the mystical stream within Judaism. Oneness with God is not the same as saying, “I am the same as God.” As we have seen, Judaism has a long, rich, and sometimes controversial tradi­tion of panentheism, which comes from the Greek and means that Theos (God) resides en (in) pan (everything). This seems to be comparable to the Christian notion of the “indwelling spirit of Christ” as it is taught in 1 Corinthians 3:16, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”

There is a lovely teaching attributed to one of the most important rabbis of the first century, Rabbi Yokhanan Ben Zakkai. He said, “If you have a saplir_–. in your hand and are told, ‘Look, the Messiah is here,’ you should first pia:: the sapling and then go out to welcome the Messiah” (Avot de-Rabbi Na.:.1: 3). In other words, keep your priorities in proper order.

The Messiah finally arrives. Jews and Christians, after waiting for so many centuries, rush to meet him. The Jews cry out, “This is the first time you have come, is it not?” The Christians, raising their voices above the Jews, insist, “This must be Your second coming that we have been waiting for!” The Messiah smiles wearily and waits for the noise to subside. Then, in a quiet and gentle voice, long suffering, he says, “My dear, foolish children. I have come not once, not twice. I have been here hundreds of times. But you have all been so busy fighting with one another you have never even noticed.”

Is it really “good news” for a Jew to be told that all of his ancestors for two thousand years didn’t make it into heaven? It’s a cruel thought, and unsound theology as well. I appreciate that the desire to “save Jews” sometimes comes out of sincere concern, but such efforts (and funding) would be better spent trying to save people from hunger and hatred. To most Jews (and other non-Christians as well), it’s insulting to be told that our souls are “incomplete?’

The word law has a legal connotation. However, “teaching” is the primary meaning of the Hebrew word Torah. Would you rather listen to a teaching or follow a law? The Hebrew contains both meanings in the same word. To a Jew, the Torah unifies experience (a personal relationship with God) and obligation (our moral duty to the Creator). This is what Jesus was trying to “fulfill.” The word in Greek, pleroo, is translated as “fulfill-in the Matthew verse. The New American Standard Lexicon offers this interpretation of pleroo: “to fulfill, i.e., to cause God’s will (as made known in the law) to be obeyed as it should be. . . .” It seems probable that Jesus came to support the Torah’s commandments, which he hoped would be obeyed with correct intention.

Jesus, along with the rabbis in his lifetime, had the task of teaching, ratifying, and “fulfilling” God’s commandments. Today religious Jews speak of “fulfilling” a mitzvah in the sense of “performing one’s duty” rather than completing or doing away with the obligation. Dr. Young takes this argument a step further:

The Hebrew equivalent of pleroo is kiyem. The root of kiyem means “cause to stand” and has the sense of “uphold,” “observe,” “fulfill,” or `place on a firmer footing.” It too is used in contexts that deal with interpreting Scripture…. The theological polemics within Christianity during its struggle for self—definition caused the church to sever itself almost completely from Judaism.”

There will be a universal knowledge of God (Jeremiah 31:33, Isaiah 11:9, Zechariah 14:9, and Isaiah 56:7). There is no expectation within Judaism that when the messiah comes, humanity will, en masse, convert to Judaism. Maybe in the messianic era the universal knowledge of God means that people see the interconnectedness of all the religions, like different singers who are part of a single choir….. The Composer has written a magnificent hymn for the choir to sing. The melody is exalted, and the rhythm is the pulse of creation itself. The musicians are taking their seats, tuning instruments of every kind. Heavenly angels have fanned out their wings around us all, ready to join us with glorious harmonies. Having waited for the last two thousand years, the conductor has lifted the baton and is ready to lead us. We are members of a single choir, a single orchestra—each in our own section, each with our own special part. Are we finally ready to sing?

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From → Biblical, Inter Faith

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