The man didn’t want to believe in Jesus. He didn’t want to overhear any more about it, so he joined the conversation with the intention of turning off the Jesus-talk like a faucet. He took his stand and said: We can’t believe in Jesus because Judaism teaches that the Messiah will not be a man. Instead there will be a time of worldwide peace.”
Then another Jew, also a bystander, said: “You must be a Reform Jew. Real Judaism teaches that the Messiah will be a man who comes on the clouds of heaven!”
A third Jew spoke up: “Ideas of the Messiah had their origins in desperate times when we needed hope for deliverance.”
Then the second Jew replied incredulously, “Do you mean to say that the Messiah is no more than a notion born out of desperation? Is that what your rabbi teaches?”
And the Jew who had labeled the Messiah as nothing more than a mere notion conceived to give hope to the desperate said, with great bearing and dignity: “I am the rabbi.”
Perhaps if you queried the three more carefully, they would find yet a fourth thesis of what Judaism teaches, because, as the saying goes, “Where there are three Jews, there are four opinions.”
A case in point: What are the most important differences between Judaism and Christianity? According to Rabbi Benzion Milecki of Australia, “What essentially defines Judaism, and differentiates it from Christianity, is adherence to Halacha in day to day life.”1 Taking a different view, Rabbi Isser Z. Weisberg affirms that “with regards to Christianity, its most serious deviation from Judaism is by far the concept of the Trinity, and attributing Divinity to a human.” 2 David Berger, in a response to Weisberg, agrees, but then goes on to say that Jewish sources “almost surely deny altogether the option of a Messiah who returns from the grave.…It is an assertion of what the Jewish religion believes as a defining element of the faith.” 3 Which most clearly distinguishes Judaism from Christianity: observance, the Trinity or a dying and resurrected Messiah? Here we have three recognized Jewish authorities expounding on the same matter and giving different opinions!
The phrase “Judaism teaches” was never meant to be used as a weapon to silence those with whom one disagrees. Those who use the phrase today are following in the ancient tradition of the Talmudists by which a rabbi would attribute his own teaching or axiomatic truth to his rabbi.
Rabbinic ordination is not hereditary. Neither was it institutional, until recent times. Traditionally, a rabbi who was known and respected would take disciples or students. When they had completed the course of study to his satisfaction, he would give them a letter saying that the student was now competent to teach. Each rabbi tried to be a credit to the rabbi who had ordained him. So, throughout the Talmud, we have teachings attributed to rabbis by their disciples.
Today, however, among Reform and Conservative Jews, it is the seminary that ordains, not one’s individual teacher. Many rabbis do not attribute their teaching to the seminary but instead say, “Judaism teaches.” By expressing themselves in this way, they hope that their wise opinions, verdicts or personal doctrine will serve to enhance the prestige of the Jewish religion, but at the same time, they hope to bring the authority of the Jewish religion to their teaching. The result is that a dimension of truth is lost.
Some rabbis trivialize the beliefs and teachings of other rabbis by saying, “That’s not mainstream Judaism,” as if somehow truth could be determined by majority vote. The presumption is that Jews have always known the truth and that those Jews who believed in Jesus were certainly wrong. And not only were they wrong, but they were un-Jewish in their beliefs.
The uninformed imagine that the phrase “Judaism teaches” always introduces a carefully thought through and universally shared consensus opinion. But in fact, the body of rabbinic literature contains all kinds of teachings, many of which contradict other teachings—all presented as Judaism. Some readers will be surprised to learn that Reform Judaism was originally derided as not really Jewish by its traditional opponents, and the early adherents of Reform Judaism were castigated as non-Jews, subjected to slander and in one case actually poisoned to death by an opposing traditionalist!
There are some teachers who acknowledge the dissonance among Jewish authorities, but they make it appear as if there were unanimity on at least one important matter: the messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth. It is as though the very existence of Judaism depends on conformity in this one matter. In order to be authentically Jewish, it is said, one must renounce Jesus and avoid Christians and Christianity.
Judaism rightly discerns that all of Christianity is built on one key concept: that according to the Scriptures, the Messiah would die or be killed, that he would be buried and that he would rise again. Therefore, to establish Jewish distinctives, Jews must be indoctrinated to believe that no Jews ever believed any such thing. It is said that “Judaism teaches” that it is not necessary to have a Messiah die for the sins of the people and rise again to return and finish the work of redemption. The rabbis say that the idea of a substitutionary atonement—one person dying for the sins of many—is not what Judaism teaches. The notion that this person should come back from the dead is regarded as preposterous.
The only reason there is seeming consensus and unanimity is because any Jew who discovers, believes and says that Jesus is the promised Messiah is made an outcast and regarded as a non-Jew. Hence, by tautology, the rabbis can say that no Jew believes in Jesus.
But a remarkable phenomenon has occurred that raises serious questions about the monolithic picture of what “Judaism teaches.”
The Amazing Lubavitcher Controversy
One could hardly find a sect of Judaism more committed to what it understands to be traditional Judaism than the Brooklyn-based Lubavitch sect. Lubavitcher are so strict that they will not accept kashrut set by other rabbis but insist on glatt kosher (an extra measure of kosher observance), and they are peerless in their level of commitment to and observance of what they understand to be Jewish law.
The followers of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, who died on June 12, 1994, at age ninety-two, were the ones who chanted, “We want Moshiach now.” That chorus began as early as 1981. At first they only whispered that their rabbi was Moshiach. Then they openly declared it. Finally, they published huge newspaper ads and rented billboards to tell everyone that their rabbi was the promised Messiah who would bring worldwide redemption. When he suffered a stroke that rendered him unable to speak, some in the Lubavitch movement applied to him the suffering servant text of Isaiah 53, which Christian theologians say refers to the Messiah. 4 The Lubavitch Hasidim also say that Isaiah 53 applies to the Messiah. But their Messiah is not the thirty-three-year-old crucified one who said, “No man can take my life from me” and taught that there was no greater love than that of the one who would lay down his life for others. Instead, their version of the Messiah is a ninety-two-year-old rabbi who not only suffered a stroke, but went on to die through the ravages of old age.
Since Menachem Schneerson’s death, some Jews have been perplexed by an issue that has created a maelstrom within the community of seriously observant Jews. Since Schneerson’s death, a significant number of the Lubavitch sect are saying, “Yes, he died, but he is going to be resurrected and complete the work of redemption.”
It is notable that some members of the Lubavitch movement have admitted that the suffering servant passage is messianic. Today we are generally told that “Judaism teaches” that the suffering servant passage applies to Israel and not to the Messiah. Yet one can find any number of rabbis who have given a contradictory opinion.
The belief that the Rebbe-as-Messiah will come back from the dead is not only held popularly, but is also being maintained by scholars within the Lubavitcher movement. They are now drawing from the body of traditional Jewish literature in order to demonstrate that the concept of a Messiah who rises from the dead is a valid Jewish viewpoint. A lively interchange was printed recently between David Berger, professor of history at Brooklyn College, and others, such as Rabbi Isser Z. Weisberg of Toronto and Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman, chairman of the Lubavitcher-sponsored International Campaign to Bring Moshiach. Weisberg and Butman both extensively cited traditional Jewish writings that they maintained indicate the possibility, if not the probability, of a Messiah who dies before completing his mission of redemption and then returns from the dead to see it to completion.
For example, the traditional Jewish midrash Eicha (Lamentations) Rabbah 1:51 says: “King Messiah, whether he be of those still living or of those who are dead, bears the name of David.” According to the Lubavitcher, writings such as this clearly indicate the possibility of a Messiah who comes resurrected from the dead.
Is there indeed a “Jewish consensus” on these matters? Is belief in a Messiah who dies or a Messiah who rises from the dead contrary to what “Judaism teaches”? If there is no such consensus, there are implications for the Lubavitcher—and for those Jews who believe in Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah.
What “Judaism Taught” About Death and Resurrection: an Armchair Tour
Today, we speak of “the Messiah.” Yet in more ancient times, in the days of the rabbis of the Talmud, an idea was widespread that there would be two Messiahs. One was called Messiah ben David. The other was known as Messiah ben Joseph (or ben Ephraim). Messiah ben David would lead Israel to ultimate victory over Israel’s enemies; Messiah ben Joseph would also participate in this final apocalyptic battle but would be killed and die.
Raphael Patai describes this belief, which is not well-known among contemporary Jews:
Messiah ben Joseph, also called Messiah ben Ephraim, referring to his ancestor Ephraim, the son of Joseph, is imagined as the first commander of the army of Israel in the Messianic wars. He will achieve many signal victories, but his fate is to die at the hands of Armilus in a great battle in which Israel is defeated by Gog and Magog. His corpse is left unburied in the streets of Jerusalem for forty days, but neither beast nor bird of prey dares to touch it. Then, Messiah ben David comes, and his first act is to bring about the resurrection of his tragic forerunner.…5
Later rabbinic sources saw a suffering Messiah in the pages of the Hebrew Bible itself. Some rabbis noted the presence of the concept of a suffering, oppressed or humiliated Messiah. Zechariah 9:9 was one such passage:
Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) interprets Zechariah 9:9 in this way:
R. Joshua opposed two verses: it is written, And behold, one like the son of man came with the clouds of heaven whilst [elsewhere] it is written, [behold, thy king cometh unto thee…] lowly, and riding upon an ass!—if they are meritorious, [he will come] with the clouds of heaven; if not, lowly and riding upon an ass.
We have already seen how Isaiah 53 has been variously interpreted by both Jews and Christians. In Sanhedrin 98b the suffering servant is seen to be the Messiah:
The Rabbis said: His name is “the leper scholar,” as it is written, Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him a leper, smitten of God, and afflicted. 6
Yet some insist not only that the idea of a dying Messiah is foreign to Jewish thought, but that the idea that the Messiah’s death would somehow atone for our sin is anathema to all Jewish belief. After all, doesn’t the Bible condemn human sacrifice? And does it not run contrary to all common sense that someone else should pay for our sins? Has “Judaism ever taught” such things?
Atonement by Sacrifice in the Bible and in the Rabbis
There is an important biblical verse that is generally understood to be the foundation of the sacrificial system: “For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life” (Leviticus 17:11). In the ancient biblical world, the death of an animal substituted for the death of the person who has sinned. As the Hebrew expresses it, a “ransom” is paid for the person, for that is what kippur means in “Yom Kippur.”
What is perhaps less well known is that at times it was the death of a human being—not an animal—that atoned for the sin of the people. The sin of the Israelites as recorded in Numbers 25, when some of the Israelites worshipped the Moabite gods, was met with a plague that could only be stopped by a human payment. Make no mistake: it was the death of people that stopped the plague. Rabbi Jacob Milgrom comments:
Phinehas’s deed in slaying one Israelite leader suffices to ransom (kipper) Israel; God requires no additional victims. Kipper functions to avert the retribution, to nip it in the bud, to terminate it before it is fully exhausted. 7
Milgrom mentions two other texts in which the death of human beings functions to secure atonement:
The first, Exodus 32:26-29, deals with the apostasy of the golden calf where the Levites are called upon to slay the people, even their close relatives, indiscriminately—to assuage the wrath of God. The second text, 2 Samuel 21:1-14…[shows that] the impalement of Saul’s sons provided the needed ransom-expiation for ending the drought. 8
Perhaps the most controversial passage referring to atonement—not just by the death of any human being, but through the sufferings and death of the Messiah—is Isaiah 52:13-53:12, already referred to above. In Talmudic times, this passage was understood to refer to the coming Messiah. Only in later times, especially under the influence of the medieval sage Rashi, was it made to apply to the people of Israel. Some dismiss this passage as inapplicable to the Messiah because it speaks of the sacrifice of a human being. Though God surely forbids pagan sacrifice of human beings, we have seen examples where only the death of a guilty human being or the death of the priest can effect atonement.
Schneerson of Brooklyn or Jesus of Nazareth?
The Lubavitcher Hasidim are right to assert that the idea of a dying Messiah is found within Jewish thought. Some of those who have taken exception to the views of the Lubavitcher have argued in this way: even if the idea of a dying Messiah, or one who returns from the dead, is found in Jewish sources, there is no evidence that Jews have believed in a Messiah who died before completing his messianic mission, only to come back from the dead to complete it.
Indeed, for the Lubavitcher Hasidim, the death of Rebbe Schneerson has been at best a temporary roadblock in the way of redemption. Some of his followers are now saying that he will return from the dead to redeem Israel. In fact, some expected him to return from the dead even before he was buried.
But supposing the redemptive mission of the Messiah is to atone for sin through his death? Suppose the Messiah’s death is in fact the means of redemption?
Whereas Schneerson’s death is an unpleasant bump on the road of messianic expectations, the New Testament finds redemptive value in the death of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, it speaks of Jesus’ death in terms similar to those of Genesis 22, which recounts the Akedah, the near-sacrifice of Isaac. Recall that in Genesis 22, God substituted a ram in place of Isaac, but in some later Jewish traditions, Isaac was actually thought to have died as an atonement for our sin.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.” (Genesis 22:2)
Now compare the New Testament account:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
When Jewish artist Marc Chagall painted the Sacrifice of Isaac, in an astounding visual analogy, he portrayed Jesus carrying the cross in the upper right corner, red paint streaming down like blood from that scene onto Abraham with his knife raised over Isaac.
Remember too that in Isaiah 53 (which many Jewish sources interpreted as relating to the atonement provided by the Messiah), the character described as the “servant” of God voluntarily gives up his life; his death is not forced on him. In a later time, Jesus also affirmed that his impending death was voluntary. Even though he seemed to go to death by force of circumstance, he placed himself in those circumstances, so that he could say: “I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:17-18).
According to the Bible and much Jewish tradition, three things are clear: the Messiah would die; his death would atone for sin and he would be resurrected is a Jewish belief. Although some speak against the resurrection of Jesus, offering a variety of other explanations as to what really happened, Pinchas Lapide, an Orthodox Jewish scholar and author, affirmed the resurrection of Jesus when he wrote:
In none of the cases where rabbinic literature speaks of such visions did it result in an essential change in the life of the resuscitated or of those who had experienced the visions.…It is different with the disciples of Jesus on that Easter Sunday.…If the defeated and depressed group of disciples overnight could change into a victorious movement of faith, based only on autosuggestion or self-deception—without a fundamental faith experience—then this would be a much greater miracle than the resurrection itself. 9
It makes much better sense to see the resurrection as a real event, not as a desperate groping after a failed hope for which the disciples were nevertheless willing to die. People may, after all, die for false hopes; but nobody dies for failed hopes.
In short, the idea of a Messiah who dies is a Jewish idea. It is both biblical and rabbinic. The idea of a Messiah whose death atones for our sins is likewise Jewish, found in both the Bible and the rabbinical writings. The idea of resurrection is also Jewish. What “Judaism teaches” today is not always what Judaism once taught!
“Judaism teaches” many different things. Our final court of appeal cannot be consensus in the Jewish community, for there is no such consensus. What some Jews firmly believe other Jews contradict, and both present the teaching or their contradiction of that teaching under the broad category “Judaism teaches.” The “Christian” idea of a Messiah dying for our sins was once held among Jews, but it is rejected today as being something other than what “Judaism teaches.”
Nor can this simply be a matter of personal preference, for there are realities in the world with which we need to deal. If God is real, if sin is real, if the need for atonement is real, then we have to hear what God has to say, and there is reason to find God’s voice in the pages of the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament account of Jesus of Nazareth.
There is a move among Jews today that challenges the accepted notion that the saying “Judaism teaches” ends all debate. The Lubavitcher controversy has highlighted this fact. But there is a movement that looks elsewhere than to Rebbe Schneerson for answers, and that crack in the concrete is the fact that many Jews today are coming to believe that Jesus is the Messiah. They believe that he died for our sins according to the Scripture, that he rose again on the third day and that he will return to complete the work of redemption. This teaching and those who adhere to it are excluded from the larger body of Jewish opinion.
Nevertheless, those of us who have found this teaching to be true are unwilling to place it in the Jewish cafeteria of ideas and doctrines to be picked or rejected. We do not say that “Judaism teaches,” but rather that the “Word of God teaches,” the Word given by the Creator of all. That Word we honestly believe teaches us that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah who died, who atoned for our sin, who already has risen from the dead and who will complete the redemption from sin, injustice and evil.
- Benzion Milecki, Moshiach, Vol. 1, No. 19, 8 Tammuz 5754 (Internet Gopher document, “gopher://shamash.org:71/00/lists/moshiach/v1n19“).
- Isser Z Weisberg, in “Just Between Us Mailbox,” Jewish Action (winter 1995), p. 61.
- David Berger, ibid., p. 66.
- “Some Lubavitcher see the Rebbe’s illness as further evidence that he is the moshiach because, they point out, Isaiah wrote that God’s chosen would be ‘a man suffering, familiar with disease’ (Isaiah 53:3-7).” So writes Yosef I. Abramowitz in “What Happens if the Rebbe Dies,” Moment (April 1993), p. 35.
See also David Berger, “The New Messianism,” Jewish Action (fall 1995), p. 38: “…the illness itself was invested with redemptive significance. Thus, the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, who plays a critical role in Christian theology and anti-Jewish polemic, was mobilized by the believers, so that the passage’s complex history was further enriched: it now referred to the suffering of the Jewish people in exile (mainstream medieval Jewish exegesis), or the crucifixion, or the spiritual agonies of Shabbetai Zevi after his forced apostasy, or the stroke of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.”
- From Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts (New York: Avon Books,1979), pp. 165-66.
- Similar are the interpretations in Ruth Rabbah v.6; Pesikta Rabbati, Piska 36:142; and the Zohar II: 212a.
- Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers (Philadelphia/New York: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990), p. 477.
- Ibid., p. 478.
- Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1983), pp. 125-26.