What Kind of a Jew Was Jesus?

“Head of Christ”
Rembrandt, c. 1648-1656

What Kind of a Jew Was Jesus?

The other night this question kept me up half the night.

I’m not concerned with his orthodoxy.  He allowed healing on the Sabbath and held that what you said could be more polluting than what you ate.

He sounds like a Reform Rabbi.

He couldn’t stand people so fixated on “doing everything right” that they let nobody else through the gates of heaven and weren’t getting in themselves either.

He sounds like someone who

could tell crap from clay.

Was he differing from his co-religionists when he criticized Pharisees who “thanked God that they were not like other men”?  Actually, he was quoting one of the Pharisaic parables of self-criticism.  The Pharisees themselves had drawn that distinction, between the good ones who prayed in secret and the bad ones, the show-offs, who didn’t practice what they preached.

So far, it seems, he was a perfectly recognizable kind of Jew.  So what was keeping me up half the night?

Well, let’s start with me.  What do I mean by a Jew?  Why, if someone nails me as “a Jew,” do I agree that that is indeed what I am?

It’s not like getting a big social promotion.  It’s nothing like getting knighted by the Queen.  To what am I agreeing?

I wasn’t raised in such a way that Jewish practices got to be second nature.  I sometimes say that I belong to a Reform temple because “they’re the only ones who would have me.”

Here’s my general sense of it.  Everyone is in the midst of living his or her nonfiction life story.  At some point along one’s particular plotline, one might notice that God is there as a Witness and can be the Unseen Partner in one’s story.

It’s what Abraham discovered: that he had this kind of partnership with God.  It’s the Ur-Story (literally!), the paradigm case.   And Jews?  They are God’s pilot project – the paradigm case of the story we all live.

As everybody knows.

So what exactly is it that puzzles me about Jesus as a Jew?  Abraham had a story.  Jacob/Israel had a story.  King David – they all had stories.

What sort of story did Jesus have?  By now, Jewish readers are no doubt put off by any protracted discussion of the man in whose name co-religionists have been pitilessly persecuted for about the last 2000 years.

Me, I don’t blame Jesus for what was done in his name.  But meanwhile, Christian readers must be waving the four gospels at me and repeating with exasperation,“Here!  Isn’t that a story?”

My answer would be No.  The stories I mean, stories of a Jewish type, are situated within the real constraints of a particular culture, a given juncture in history, and a local context in nature.  Storied people have health problems, cosmetic problems, romantic longings, economic concerns, social and psychological vulnerabilities, and so on.

Here’s an example of Jesus seemingly riding through concerns like those.  Jesus says:

If a man takes your coat,

run after him and

give him your cloak too.

As I write this, as it happens, I can’t find my favorite, demi-saison, brown coat with the French cut.  Don’t think I’m not depressed about it.

About coats and the people who grab them, the rabbis have a different saying:

Justice without mercy is cruelty.

Mercy without justice is promiscuity.

In other words, the rabbis think that the secret of living is to maintain a balance while you move forward along the plotline of your own story.  To avoid other-worldly extremes at the top or at the bottom.

If you stay in that mid-zone — or keep trying to — you will live a story: the story of how you stayed there, losing your balance, finding it again, and going forward.

I’ll omit the Messiah Question, but if Jesus was expected to bring about Isaiah’s vision, it is still inadvisable for lambs to lie down with lions.  That’s not a pussycat lookin’ at you.

What kind of a Jew was this man from Nazareth?

I don’t have the Christian answers because I don’t pose the Christian questions.  For me, the Jewish question is,

what’s the story

with Jesus?

What’s he doing and what does he expect me to do about it?  Well, of course I don’t know, but here’s what came to me the other night at about 4:00 a.m.

He had a heart so full, so full-to-the-bursting with love, that his words went to extremes, as a way of signaling his own filled-up-ness.  How to interpret it?  I think it’s a mistake (except in rare instances) to take it literally.  You can’t walk off a cliff and expect not to fall just because Jesus said, “Take no thought for your life … God’s eye is on the sparrow.”  The sparrow has wings.  You better look where you’re going.

But it is a way of signaling … a certain largesse …

in the Region of Trust.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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