When you wear a kippah full-time, it’s not uncommon for people to come up to you every now and then to ask you about Judaism. When I first put mine on in 2010, I found the questions a but unnerving. But when you wear religious garb of any sort, the fact is you become a public representative of your chosen faith, like it or not.
For me, usually, the inquirers have been Christian or unaffiliated. (Though sometimes they have been Muslim and Jewish, too.) I’ve most often been asked about why I wear a kippah, about the Hebrew language, about whether I observe kashrut, and once or twice about Jewish mysticism.
But I’m rarely asked the big, $5 question, and almost never enter into the dialogue necessary to answer it. Waiting for a bus to make a short hop up to my favorite independent local market last Friday, I shared the bus shelter with a middle-aged black woman whose eyes immediately zeroed in on the top of my head. Before I had time to pull out my phone and check arrival times, she jumped to her feet, walked over, and said, “Let me just put it out there–why don’t Jews believe in Jesus?”
(It’s worth noting we’re not a city given to unnecessary flights of PC linguistic fancy. In Chicago, an ex of mine was once forcefully corrected by a black co-worker for referring to her as an “African-American”, noting she was neither from Africa nor desired to be referred to with a hyphen. A few years later, visiting friends from stridently PC Seattle noted to me how shocked they were to hear the “B” word used in regular conversation here. But I digress…)
She was Christian and looking to deepen her understanding of the underpinnings of her faith. She was honestly interested to know why Jews don’t believe in Jesus, and we had a lovely conversation throughout our wait and for several minutes on the bus until she got off before my stop.
Now, there are two good Jewish responses to the “Jesus question”. The short one, and the long one.
The short one, which I’m fairly certain mirrors the inner dialogue of most Jews who get asked this question, is this: Because Jews aren’t Christians. When you think about it, it’s really a question that answers itself. It’s a bit like asking why aren’t apples oranges? Because they’re apples. And no matter how great oranges think it is to be oranges, that doesn’t mean that apples want to be oranges, too.
Or need to be, for that matter. Sometimes the Jesus question is asked in a way that makes it clear the people asking think the leap from Jew to Christian is a natural progression because that’s how it’s presented in the Christian Bible. But the response remains the same. The Christian Bible–specifically, the “New Testament”–is not a holy book for Jews. No matter how devoutly one may believe in the foundational texts of one’s chosen faith, that doesn’t mean those texts are relevant in the faith of another.
But my bus friend wasn’t as self-centered as that. She wanted the lengthy, nuts-and-bolts answer. So I responded that Jews don’t “believe in Jesus” for a variety of reasons:
- For Jews, “messiah” denotes a human being–the Hebrew moshiach means one anointed with oil–i.e. a king or great leader, not a metaphysical being.
- Jesus did not fulfill the messianic prophecies of rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, ushering in world peace, or uniting humanity under One God.
- Jesus did not fulfill the personal qualities of the messiah, being a descendant of the House of David, increasing Torah observance, and being a prophet (which is not possible unless a majority of world Jewry lives in the Holy Land–which was not the case during the lifetime of Jesus.)
- Passages in the Hebrew Bible interpreted by early Christian scholars to describe Jesus as the messiah were mistranslations, likely willful ones, in order to give Christianity a more comprehensive backstory.
- The messiah will usher in national redemption (the restoration of Jews and the Temple in the Holy Land), not personal redemption. There is no “original sin” in Judaism, the faith sees all human beings as born unblemished. As a result, Jews need no one to “die for their sins.”
So no solely human leader? No world peace? No Third Temple? No unity of humanity under One God? No blood descendant from the House of David? No increased Jewish observance? No national redemption? No messiah, at least from a Jewish perspective.
That’s not to denigrate Christianity, of course. Within the Christian tradition, Jesus does satisfy the criteria for being the Biblical messiah. I can understand how Christians arrive at that belief and I respect that. Nor do Jews deny the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. But Judaism considers him one of several “false messiahs” that have appeared throughout Jewish history. By ending up as the central story within a new religious tradition, Jesus of Nazareth was the most successful of them all. But that doesn’t accord Jesus a special place within Jewish tradition, too.
Which I guess brings us right back around to the short response: one Biblical messiah; but two traditions that differ in how you identify that messiah.
And a healthy respect between apples and oranges necessary to ask–or respond to–the question.