Last weekend saw the rare confluence of Passover, Easter and Ramadan, all falling on the same day. It was quite remarkable and reminded us all of the affinity between the world’s three great faiths, especially Judaism and Christianity, given that Jesus was a Jew.
In 2012 I published my book Kosher Jesus, the true story of Jesus’s Jewish life – culled from early Christian and Jewish sources. The book portrays Jesus as a Torah-observant Pharisaic teacher who instructed his followers to keep every letter of the Law; whose teachings quoted extensively from the Bible and rabbinical writings; who fought Roman paganism and persecution of the Jewish people; and who was murdered by Pontius Pilate for his rebellion against Rome, the Jews having had nothing whatsoever to do with his murder.
Though it presents a revolutionary theory, Publisher’s Weekly glowingly reviewed the book as an “informed and cogent primer on Jesus of Nazareth... a brave stab at reevaluating Jesus through an intensive look at the New Testament and historical documents... and a well-researched analysis that will certainly reopen intrafaith and interfaith dialogue.”
But the book’s publication led to a vicious assault against it by religious Jewish extremists who described Kosher Jesus as heretical and sure to open Jewish doors to Christian missionaries, even though the book does precisely the opposite by educating both Christians and Jews in the source materials of why Jesus could not have been divine or the Jewish Messiah. The book grants immunity to missionary encroachment.
Surprisingly, it was warmly welcomed by
I believe the reason Christians embraced the book was a deep desire to discover the Jewish Jesus and not just the Christian Christ, the life of Jesus the Jew and not just the death of Jesus the savior.
WITH THE news that Mel Gibson is now working on a sequel to his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, which falsely portrayed Jews as clamoring for the death of Jesus, it’s time for the world to once again reject the lie that the Jews killed Jesus and for our Christian brothers and sisters to continue to discover the authentic character of Jesus the Jew.There are those like Gibson who enjoy portraying Christianity as a religion of blood, gore and death, rather than of blessing, love and life.
The pagan religious cults of the ancient world were focused almost entirely on death. Ancient Egypt, with its pyramids as temples of death, its worship of the god Hades, and its mass embalming of mummies, saw the purpose of life as gaining entry into the afterlife. Tom Cruise’s film The Last Samurai accurately portrays how Shintoism in Japan emphasized a good death over a good life.
Similarly, modern-day Islamists, with their emphasis on the heavenly rewards for martyrdom, focuses on gaining eternal paradise not by one’s actions while living but by one’s actions in dying.
In Hinduism, death is so central a facet that, up until about 100 years ago, when a man died they put his living widow on the funeral pyre with him.
Judaism and its daughter religion Christianity were radical departures from the earlier cults of death. Both emphasized the idea of moral and righteous action on this earth. Both were based on the Hebrew Scriptures’ demand for ethical excellence and the need for tikkun olam, perfecting the world in God’s name. Even in the New Testament, the death of Jesus occupies at most a chapter or two in each of the gospels, while the life of Jesus is spelled out over about 10 times that number.
Judaism and Christianity must therefore be supremely careful not to emulate their pagan predecessors and become religions that put the focus on death rather than on life.
I have often criticized strands within modern Judaism for using the Holocaust rather than the Bible; the Spanish Inquisition rather than the Sabbath; the pogroms rather than Passover, to engender Jewish commitment. Jewish children are often taught courses on antisemitism to inculcate Jewish identity.
They often learn far more about how Jews were burned at the stake for their faith rather than how Abraham’s faith in God burned with a fiery intensity. The message of Jewish history becomes that while the Greeks philosophized, the Romans ruled, and the Italians painted, all the Jews ever did was die.
In a world where so many are being encouraged to die in the name of God, it behooves Judeo-Christianity to inspire the faithful to live for the sanctity of God. This is something that Gibson, in his wearisome, monotonous and numbing depiction of endless blood and gore, fails at utterly.
There are two ways to understand Christianity. One is as a religion of life; the other is as a religion of death. The former focuses on emulating how Jesus lived; the latter hones in exclusively on how he died. The former looks at the incomparable ethical teachings of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount. The latter focuses on the horrors of the crucifixion on the cross.
The Christianity of life concentrates on what Jesus taught his disciples about living virtuously. The Christianity of death distills the Christian message into the single maxim that Jesus died for humankind’s sins. The Christianity of life emphasizes the idea of personal accountability in our relationship with God. The Christianity of death emphasizes that reposing faith in Jesus is all that is needed in order to gain eternal salvation.
It is clear where Mel Gibson’s convictions lie. In this violent film, he virtually ignores the entire life of Jesus, preferring instead to tell us that what made Jesus special was not that he lived righteously and meekly, but that he died bloodily.
Many critics panned the film for its excessive violence. For me, the violence became so intense that I began to think that Gibson’s intention was to make Jesus into a Jewish mother stereotype whose principal message to her children is a guilt trip: “There now, do you see how much I’ve suffered on your behalf? Now, are you finally going to embrace me?”
Perhaps it is not surprising that Gibson has focused on this aspect, given that he has told many interviewers he came back to Christianity after being so miserable about his life that he wanted to kill himself. Death seems to be a large part of his personal pantheon. But that does not explain why so many Christian groups would play into the stereotype of Christianity being a religion of death rather than of life, by promoting The Passion as an evangelism tool.
IN THE 19th century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the leader of German Jewish Orthodoxy, responded to vicious Christian attacks on Judaism by delineating the differences between the two faiths.
Christianity, he argued, inculcated the feeling of absolute dependence on a higher power, and aimed at showing man his impotence, frailty, weakness, death and his decay. He is shown the bestial forces that overwhelm him, so that he will clamor for the higher power that, through faith, will save him from their fetters.
Christianity, he argued, shows man the nocturnal spirit of passion and evil in his own breast so that he becomes frightened of himself and, in the horror of night, seeks salvation at the altar of Christ.
For this reason, said Hirsch, Christianity likes to build its temples over the tombs of death, celebrates its holy mysteries preferably at night, and its fervent prayers are a cry of distress from the power of the “evil” in the world and in one’s own heart.
Christianity, in Hirsch’s view, ties humankind to the Divine by passiveness, by the fear of human existence.
My reverence for Hirsch notwithstanding, it seems that he was exposed to a Christianity that was perhaps prevalent in Germany but radically different from the life-affirming joy of the Evangelical community that is so strong in the United States today. The Christianity that even I, as a Jew, so love and admire today is about raising children who love family and celebrate God, sending missionaries around the world to fight poverty and disease, giving considerable charitable contributions to the poor and downtrodden, strengthening the institution of marriage and supporting it against the enemies who seek its destruction.
So whom was Hirsch referring to when he discussed Christianity as a religion of the night? It was people like Gibson, who emphasize the death of Christ to the exclusion of all else. What other conclusion can be garnered from Gibson’s blood-and-gore flick where Jesus is butchered and bloodied passively?
We can only hope that if Gibson plans on serving up a sequel of such horror and gore about Jesus, our Christian brothers and sisters will reject it in favor of discovering the Jewish Jesus and the religion he practiced, Judaism, which commands always to embrace and choose life.
The writer, author of Kosher Jesus, was the London Times Preacher of the Year 2000 and won the American Jewish Press Association’s highest award for excellence in commentary. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiShmuley.