The Good Shepherd

Allen: Aron, you’ve always been a man of many passions and interests; even so, I was surprised to learn that Jesus was one of them. You’ve even written an emotional poem on the subject of the Crucifixion.

This naturally raises a few questions. It reminds me of a scene in Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev (possibly written at Camp Ramah), where the protagonist, a rebellious Chasidic Jewish artist, chooses to paint a crucifixion “because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment.”

What is it that you find religiously or emotionally compelling about Jesus, and how do you square that interest with your commitment to the mainstream Jewish tradition?

Aron: It’s not that I find Jesus’ role in Christianity to be religiously compelling. To the extent that I believe my own negative theology, the concreteness of Jesus in Christianity contravenes my understanding of God. The question of how we delineate our Judaism is an interesting one (and perhaps one we should address in another post), but I want to focus on what I find emotionally compelling about Jesus.

For one, his human suffering. The man is hanging naked on a cross for hours and he shouts out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Isn’t this the same cry as that of Job? Afterwards, the Gospel of Matthew records that “when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.” Jesus, a zealot for righteousness who had been convinced of God’s justness, seems to lose faith at the last moment. How many of us, convinced that our lives follow a logic or order, have been forced by suffering to rethink our beliefs about the world?

Contrast Jesus’ death with Rabbi Akiva’s, as recorded in the Talmud. As the Romans are flaying him, R. Akiva says the words of the sh’ma, drawing them out “until his soul left his body.” While R. Akiva’s response to suffering may be a more compelling rallying cry (it led Jews to recite the sh’ma as they were being taken to the gas chambers), Jesus’ seems far more human and tragic. I’m inspired by the story of R. Akiva; I feel the story of Jesus.

(Of course, there’s a completely different telling of Jesus’ death in Luke 23 that bears far more resemblance to the story of R. Akiva, so my reading is certainly selective.)

Second, the notion of a God who has physically suffered beside us. How much easier would it be to bear pain and loss knowing that God godself had done the same? How much easier would it be to believe that your suffering served a purpose if you believed that God’s own suffering had served to redeem all of mankind?

Finally, there’s Jesus’ words themselves. For example:

“I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven… If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?

I don’t know whether I agree with the sentiment, but it’s clear that the man had stark moral convictions. Just like the book of Prophets, Jesus’ words are a wake-up call that forces us to reexamine our basic moral premises.

Allen: I think you’re right in identifying Jesus’ suffering as key to his appeal. I became interested in the subject as a natural result of my experience with chronic pain. At a difficult time in my diagnosis, I had the good fortune of spending five months living with an evangelical pastor and his family. Their unshakable belief that God not only cared about our suffering but shared in it was a tremendously powerful one. In this view, we’re all placed in the position of the thief dying next to Jesus on the cross:

“One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Jesus: ‘Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him: ‘Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?’ […] And Jesus said to the criminal: ‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.'”

The belief that unmerited suffering is redemptive — to sacrifice in the knowledge that the most important being in the world made a far greater sacrifice for me — is a tempting dogma to take up.

Indeed, the rishonim themselves were very possibly influenced by Christian theology in their depiction of kiddush hashem, martyrdom for God’s name. We find the most well-known example in Avinu Malkenu: “Our Father, Our King, [forgive us] for the sake of of those who were killed in Your holy name.” On a similar note, Christians understood the binding of Isaac to foreshadow the death of Jesus, and the rabbis seem to have engaged with that reading. Take a look at the fifth-century midrashic description of Isaac’s terrible journey toward his seemingly certain death– “He was like a man who carries a cross over his shoulders.”– or the eighth-century Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer, which even imagines Isaac’s actual death and resurrection on the altar.

But appropriating Jesus’ story courts two major difficulties: one intellectual, the other historical. As you’ve said, even within a highly unorthodox theology, it’s hard to clarify and defend the claim that God — or the universe, nature, fate, whatever — literally cares for us. (I’m not saying it’s impossible; that’s a discussion for another time.)

Then there’s the historical baggage. Given Christianity’s long history of justifying Jew hatred on the grounds of the crucifixion, is Jesus’ death really a symbol we should embrace? Richard Rubenstein puts it bluntly in his devastating essay, “The Dean and the Chosen People”:

“Even when Christians assert that all men are guilty of the death of the Christ, they are asserting a guilt more hideous than any known in any other religion, the murder of the Lord of Heaven and Earth. On the Jewish side, we would say that not only are the Jews not guilty of his deicide, but that no man is guilty because it never happened […] The best that Christians can do for the Jews is to spread the guilt, while always reserving the possibility of throwing it back entirely upon the Jews.”

The question then becomes whether and how we can find emotional uplift in a belief that’s served as the pretext for the slaughter of innocent people. (By the way, we can ask the same question of other religions — see under “Amalek.”)

Aron: I resonate with what you said about chronic pain; that’s what got me thinking about Jesus in the first place. While the words (that we both often quote) of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak speak to the experience of existential pain, the story of Jesus speaks much more viscerally to the experience of physical pain. Reading the words of Jesus, Tony Judt, Franz Rosenzweig — people who suffered immeasurably more than we have — has helped me better understand the ways that my physical pain influences my emotional outlook.

The question of whether we can appreciate things (art, ideology, etc.) that were used as a justification for bigotry or whose adherents or progenitors were themselves bigots (I’m obviously not referring to Jesus; I’m thinking of Wagner) is complex. The implications of a flat “no” are ludicrous: we would have to abandon socialism because it was related to Stalinism, democracy because it was related to U.S.-backed coups, and Judaism because of Kahane. I think (though I’m open to a challenge) that the texts we should be wary of drawing knowledge from are those who premises rely on injustice or whose logical conclusions lead to it. Obviously, this requires a debate over what injustice is, and what the terms “draw knowledge,” “rely on” and “lead to” denote.

This isn’t perfect, but I think it serves as a useful heuristic in this case. The crusades are not the natural conclusion of the Gospels. Stalin is not the natural conclusion of socialism. We can appreciate the Gospels, the Torah, and the Koran while rejecting those who use and used their writing to justify abhorrent deeds, and while critiquing the elements in them that leave open the possibility of injustice, even if they don’t demand it.

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