Saturday the Rabbi Read the New Testament
Many years ago, there was a popular fiction mystery series written by Harry Kemelman, starring Rabbi David Small as an amateur detective. The books had titles like Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Monday the Rabbi Took Off. Somehow Kemelman managed to publish more than seven successful titles, and I am sure I remember my grandfather reading them. (Think Murder, She Wrote for Conservative Jews.)
In Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red, one of Rabbi Small’s students engages him in a discussion about another rabbi:
Lillian Dushkin waved her hand. “This boy I know, he’s into this Jews for Jesus thing, and he says that Jesus is the Messiah Jews believe in and that he came to save mankind.” [ 1 ]
The teachings and actions of that rabbi, whose name in Hebrew is Yeshua, are compiled in the book commonly called the New Testament. And this is a book that should resonate with us Jews, not least because it reflects Jewish core values that are part of Jewish life to this day. Who knew?
On Thursday the rabbi plotzed.
The mainstream Jewish view (represented in the following quotes from the fictional Rabbi Small) has been not so kind toward the New Testament, depicting it as a book that, among other things:
- focuses exclusively on the afterlife – whereas we Jews are concerned about how to live here and now: “[Christianity] is other-worldly, heaven-oriented, while our religion is this-world oriented.” [ 2 ]
- advocates asceticism – whereas we Jews know how to celebrate a good simcha: “We oppose what is evil in the world and enjoy the good things, spiritual and material, it has to offer. We do not shun the world by asceticism …” [ 3 ]
- propounds belief in three gods, or something close to that – whereas we Jews believe in the Sh’ma: “Like us, the Christians also believe in a single God. But in addition they have another divine being in the form of Jesus as a son of God …” [ 4 ]
Though none of these suppositions is true of the New Testament, it was fashionable some decades ago to try to drive as big a wedge as possible between the New Testament and Jewish sensibilities. Hence, there were titles like Judaism and Christianity: The Differences, by Jewish scholar, editor and feminist, Trude Weiss-Rosmarin. In contrast, today one is more likely to find books on the commonalities between the two.
On Sunday the rabbi shook hands.
Among those commonalities between the New Testament and Jewish sensibilities are the core values or ethical principles of Judaism.
Jewish Core Value: Caring for the Fatherless, the Husbandless
As with almost all Jewish ethical values, care for the downtrodden goes back to the Hebrew Bible. For example:
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing. Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17–19)
This same ethical value is found in the New Testament. Jesus warned against those who are unjust to widows:
“Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Luke 20:46–47)
The New Testament writers told congregations of Jesus’ followers it was their duty to care for widows and orphans:
“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27)
Jewish Core Value: Honoring one’s Parents
Judaism holds dear the core value of kibud av va’em, honor of father and mother.
The commandment to honor [ 5 ] one’s parents is found in the Ten Commandments: “Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, that your days may be long, and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 5:16).
The New Testament reflects this core value in the teaching of Jesus and his followers. The clearest reiteration of the commandment to honor one’s parents was penned by the author of many of the New Testament letters, Paul, when he instructed a congregation of Jesus followers: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land'” (Ephesians 6:1–3).
Some Jewish readers of the New Testament have found Jesus’ own teaching on this matter problematic. For example, Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).
Jesus was not saying that parents are not worthy of love and honor; his point was that those who would follow him need to know that their relationship with God – which comes through Jesus – takes priority over every other relationship. [ 6 ]
While Jesus stressed that honor of God takes precedence over other relationships, he clearly upheld the commandment to honor parents:
He [Jesus] answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. (Matthew 15:3–6)
Even in his death, Jesus demonstrated a very practical concern for family. The Gospel author John, an eyewitness to the crucifixion, recounts the event:
When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother,”Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25–27)
When it comes to care and honor of family, it is a straight line from Moses to Jesus to Bubbe’s retirement home.
On Tuesday the rabbi phoned his mother.
Jewish Core Value: Lashon Hara
The Hebrew translates to “evil tongue,” in other words, gossip and “bad-mouthing” others. “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people,” says Leviticus 19:16. The Book of Proverbs states,
Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent. Whoever goes about slandering reveals secrets, but he who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a thing covered.” (Proverbs 11:12–13).
Again the New Testament reflects Jewish ethical values.
Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26).
And Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36).
Jewish Core Value: Tikkun Olam
Perhaps the core value best known in the Jewish community today is that of tikkun olam. Literally meaning, “repair of the world,” the phrase has come to symbolize involvement in social issues, whether it be feeding the poor, volunteering in one’s neighborhood or caring for the environment.
After Cain killed Abel, the Lord asked Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” “I do not know,” Cain lied, and then added, with cynical arrogance, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?'” (Genesis 4:9).
The Hebrew Scriptures affirm throughout that we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus said that this was the second most important commandment (next to loving God). [ 7 ]
Doing tikkun olam was programmatic for Jesus. One of Jesus’ followers, James, remarks:
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15–17).
Referring in context to how acts of tikkun olam to others become acts of tikkun olam to him as well, Jesus says:
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:35–36).
The old approach of portraying the New Testament as a book for gentiles has given way to the new paradigm of acknowledging that it is Jewish through and through. The New Testament is not antithetical to Jewish faith, nor is it an example of “been there, done that.” It sets its essential Jewishness within a framework that says: A new perspective on our ancient truth has arrived for the Jewish people – in Jesus – and for non-Jews as well.
Those who have never read the New Testament owe it to themselves to do so. Not only is it a book every educated person should know about, it is a book that anyone who cares about Jewish values should explore.
On Saturday the rabbi read the New Testament.
- Kemelman, Harry, Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red (New York: Arthur Fields Books, Inc., 1974), p. 177.
- Ibid, p. 178.
- Ibid., p. 176.
- Some translations say “fear” or “be in awe of.”
- For more, see www.jewsforjesus.org/answers/jesus/family.
- Matthew 22:37–39
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.