QUESTION: If Jesus was the Messiah, why don’t the rabbis believe in him?
ANSWER: The messiahship of Jesus is not an open question in the Jewish community. A rabbi’s study of Christianity is based on the assumption that the New Testament is not the inspired Word of God. Such an assumption can only lead to the conclusion that Jesus is not the Messiah. With the weight of responsibility for the entire Jewish community upon them, few rabbis will consider the issue openly or sympathetically.
There is a reason for this lack of openness. Simply put, rabbinic theology is different from biblical theology. Rabbinic Judaism is not the religion of the Bible. This divergence was already taking place among various groups before the time of Jesus. In fact, in Yeshua’s day there were a number of sects within Judaism, each with its own set of doctrines and beliefs. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. and the resultant loss of the priesthood and means of sacrifice, few options remained for the Jewish religious community. One option was to accept the death of Yeshua as atonement for sin. The other chief option was to reconstruct Jewish thought so that the community could exist without a Temple and consider sin forgiven without sacrifice.
This second option was the choice of the sect of the Pharisees, whose thought ultimately prevailed to become what has been called mainstream Judaism,” or current rabbinic Judaism. Instead of Scripture, the Talmudic discussions of the rabbis, together with various layers of tradition, became the focal points for organizing Jewish life and thought. Since there was no place for Jesus in these traditions, it became a foregone conclusion that he was not the Messiah.
In response to the ongoing interaction of Jews and the institutional Church, this position crystallized even further. Thus, in medieval times the rabbinic stance was fortified against the claims of Yeshua and the teaching of the New Testament.
One example of this can be seen in the rabbinic understanding of Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to the Targum Jonathan, an Aramaic paraphrase of Scripture dated close to the time of Jesus, the rendering of Isaiah 52:13 is, “Behold, My servant the Messiah shall prosper.” The original understanding of the passage seems to have been messianic, yet most modern rabbis will interpret the word “servant” as referring to the nation of Israel. This reflects the medieval reinterpretation of the passage by the famous French rabbi Rashi. While such an interpretation counters the claims of believers in Jesus, it also runs contrary to the earlier understanding of the passage.
Another example of the deliberate rabbinic stance against the claims of Yeshua can be seen in Maimonides’ wording of one of the Thirteen Articles of Faith. There, in direct contrast with the original Hebrew of Deuteronomy 6:4, Maimonides substituted the term yachid for echad in describing God. That is, he used a word meaning indivisible unity, rather than the word used in the Scripture passage, which suggests a compound unity. In turn, Maimonides’ Thirteen Articles of Faith have been the groundwork for modern formulations of rabbinic theology.
Besides all this, there is another factor. Belief in Jesus is not merely a matter of intellectual persuasion. It involves the necessity of admitting that one is sinful by nature and demands repentance and trusting in Jesus as the atonement for sin. That is a difficult admission for anyone—rabbi or lay person, Jew or Gentile. How much more difficult it is for one in a position of responsibility in the Jewish religious community to take such a step!
Despite all this, however, there have been rabbis who did come to believe in Yeshua. One was Rabbi lechiel Lichtenstein, district rabbi in Tapio Szele, Hungary, during the 19th century. Then there was Rabbi Chil Slostowski, an Orthodox rabbi in Dubnow, Poland, and later at Lodz. In the New World, one could name Max Wertheimer, a Reform rabbi who served in Dayton, Ohio, at the turn of the century. Apparently they were willing to face the consequences of their belief in Yeshua because they were convinced that it was true.