This week I spoke with a young man who was raised in my synagogue but who I haven’t seen since he became Bar Mitzvah. He is now 24 years old, kind, openhearted, intellectually superior, and well-educated. He is a grandchild of survivors of the Holocaust, feels Jewish in his heart, but has arrived at an important crossroad, which is why he called me.
He is engaged to be married to a young woman who seems to be his equal in heart, mind and soul. She is a religious Christian whose father is a pastor of a small evangelical church. For two years they have been in love. In that time they have talked deeply about God, faith, the soul, love, and marriage.
He acknowledged that he is not knowledgeable about Judaism. He said that he believes in God and that Jesus is “the son of God.” I asked, “Does this mean that you believe that Jesus’ ‘essence’ is fundamentally different from the essence of any other human being?”
Classic Christianity affirms that Jesus was both wholly divine and wholly human, whereas all other people are wholly human but not divine. My young friend acknowledged that though he believed that Jesus was a deeply unusual and inspired man (according to Paul and the Gospel writers), he did not believe that Jesus was “divine” any more than he or I are divine.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I had feared that he had become already a religious Christian.
I have studied Christianity seriously and respect it as a substantial faith tradition. However, I explained to my former student that I love my mother just as he loves his mother, but I am not required to love his mother, nor is he required to love mine. In this way, Christianity is not mine for all kinds of good reasons, just as Judaism does not belong to Christians for an equal number of good reasons.
I told my young friend that based on his understanding of Jesus, he was not a Christian, and that he owed it to himself and to his fiancé to understand not only Christianity as deeply as he can, but Judaism as deeply and as fully as he can as well. I intimated that he simply didn’t know enough to honestly turn away from his own 3500-year religious, ethical and cultural tradition and history and take on another religious faith without serious thought and study.
I told him that there are some people who were born Jewish who now claim to be “Messianic Jews,” that is, they identify with Jewish culture and ethics but have accepted Jesus as the “Christ Messiah.” Those people, I explained, are, truth to tell, no longer “Jewish” by any Jewish definition despite their claimed origins. They are Christians, pure and simple.
Jews believe that the messianic coming will occur only when peace, justice and compassion characterize all aspects of human affairs, and not before.
I also explained that the reason we Jews do not accept the idea of God incarnate is because such a notion is, according to all streams of Judaism, idolatrous. For Jews, God is always beyond comprehension, beyond form, beyond concept, beyond ideas. God is infinitely and eternally greater than anything that even the greatest minds and spirits can imagine or intuit. Though the idea of God incarnate was a brilliant theological innovation initiated by Paul of Tarsus and developed by the Gospel writers and early Church Fathers in order to help people understand that which is beyond comprehension, it is not, for us Jews a true Truth.
I told my young friend that, with respect, he needed to learn Judaism, and that both he and his fiancé needed to more fully understand each of their religious traditions and how they fundamentally differ from one another. I urged them to learn Judaism together, talk about everything honestly, openly and directly, and find a Jewish community in which to experience, as adults, the richness that Jewish religious life offers.
I recommended that they read a sermon I delivered on Rosh Hashanah in 2012 on intermarriage, its risks and dynamics, so that they could understand more fully the context in which my former student himself was living as an American Jew – See http://www.tioh.org/about-us/clergy/aboutus-clergy-clergystudy
I recommended, as well, two books that hopefully would stimulate their thinking and address the yearnings of their hearts and souls:
Christianity in Jewish Terms – Essays by Tikva Frymer-Kensky, David Novak, Peter Ochs, David Fox Sandmel, and Michael A. Signer. 2000. Westview Press. An exploration into the meaning of a set of Christian beliefs as understood by some of our most thoughtful Jewish scholars and thinkers.
God in Search of Man – by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Among the most important rabbinic figures of the 20th century. Rabbi Heschel was a profound theologian, philosopher, rabbinic and mystic scholar, poet, social activist, interfaith and Zionist leader.
I invited my friend to call me any time, that I cared about him and his family, and wished him only happiness and fulfillment.