The Renewed Quest for the Jewish Jesus

By Hoffman, Matthew | Tikkun, March/April 2003 | Go to article overview

The Renewed Quest for the Jewish Jesus


Hoffman, Matthew, Tikkun


BOOK REVIEW

* Jesus Through Jewish Eyes: Rabbis and Scholars Engage an Ancient Brother in a New Conversation, edited by Beatrice Bruteau. Orbis Books, 2001.

From the end of the eighteenth century, Jewish proponents of modernization, enlightenment (Haskalah), and reform began to reject the traditionally negative Jewish views of Jesus in favor of increasingly sympathetic appraisals. This complex and intriguing trend in modern Jewish history has come to be known in scholarly circles as the Jewish reclamation of Jesus.

On the one hand, this recovery of Jesus for Judaism was part of an attempt by many Jews, including rabbis, philosophers, historians, activists, and artists, to construct a modern Jewish identity and culture. The figure of Jesus functioned as a malleable cultural symbol in virtually all Jewish movements, often serving as a paradigm for the whole; he could be depicted variously as a Reform rabbi, a suffering martyr, a tormented artist, a Jewish revolutionary, or a Jewish nationalist.

On the other hand, reclaiming the figure of Jesus has also been part of modern Jews' attempts to secure a prominent place in Western civilization. Embracing Jesus as a legitimate subject of Jewish discourse was a way of embracing the culture and civilization that had exalted him for centuries. In this sense, Jewish intellectuals who were forging a new Jewish culture used the figure of Jesus to simultaneously claim Western culture as their own and to show that Jesus was "just like they were." From the outset this process was fraught with internal tensions as the reclamation of Jesus has always involved Jews (re)asserting his Jewishness and thus implicitly rejecting the "Christian" Jesus of Western culture. Jewish writers have always disassociated the human Jew-Jesus-from the Christian god-- Christ-as they consistently try to demonstrate the Jewish character of his life and teachings.

While the Jesus-as-Jew trend never completely disappeared, the new anthology, Jesus Through Jewish Eyes: Rabbis and Scholars Engage an Ancient Brother in a New Conversation, represents an explicit renewal of this quest. It includes nineteen essays by contemporary rabbis and Jewish scholars of a progressive/liberal bent, such as Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, and Daniel Matt, who grapple with the question: What kind of a Jew was Jesus and how can contemporary Jews best understand him? The editor of the collection, Beatrice Bruteau, says from the outset that one of the book's central motives is to resituate "Jesus within his native Judaism" and "giv[e] him back his own voice."

The basic assumption here is that the Jesus of the New Testament and Christianity is not the "real" Jesus; the argument goes that as Christianity became the religion about Jesus rather than the religion of Jesus, his authentic Jewish character and teachings became largely lost. …

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