What Would Jesus Do?: A Jewish Perspective

What Would Jesus Do? Be Jewish.

Can a Jew ask “what would Jesus do?” I have two answers: Yes and no.

Yes. Of course. How could we not? Jesus of Nazareth was Jewish, full stop. I am perplexed by the almost total lack of Jewish theological engagement with Jesus. To be sure, Jesus’ Jewishness has been emphasized by historical and biblical scholarship for several decades now, to the extent that no respectable scholar of any religious tradition can deny it. And yet, there is almost no Jewish religious thought that I can find that takes Jesus seriously as a source for Judaism. This isn’t totally surprising; for so long, Jesus has been a symbol of Christianity’s oppression of Jews. Since the Jews “rejected” Jesus (so goes the anti-Semitic legend), part of Jesus’ religious significance is a negative judgment against Judaism. Obviously, Jewish people have no desire to engage with a figure who comes with such associations.

But do we not buy into this trope ourselves when we totally ignore the religious significance of Jesus? In other words, don’t we also affirm that Jesus’ theological relevance, insofar as he has any, is for Christians alone? And don’t we then implicitly affirm the false proposition that those who do find theological importance in Jesus can only be Christian? It is understandable that Jews have largely ignored Jesus, but it is also problematic, because it repeats the very logic of supersessionism that we have fought against for so long. Moreover, it repeats one of the most pernicious implications of supersessionism, which is to effectively deny Jesus his Judaism.

This is not to say that Jesus is the only important figure for Jewish theology, or even the most important. But this much we should say: Jesus was Jewish from the day he was born until the day he died on a cross. Judaism is a religion that takes its history seriously, in which the believer is constantly confronted by what twentieth-century Orthodox Jewish philosopher Joseph B. Soloveitchik called “countless ‘thou’ generations,” as the Jewish past is experienced as a contemporaneous “existential togetherness.” Therefore, asking what Jesus would do, in the sense that he is taken seriously by Jewish theological inquiries, is perfectly legitimate.

At the same time, no. While we can ask what Jesus would do for historical and religious reasons, we also have to recognize the ways in which his social location diverges starkly from our own. In other words, Jesus’ identity is thoroughly unintelligible according to the prevailing categories of Jewishness today. Jesus was Palestinian, Jewish, occupied, rebellious, a migrant worker, black. By black I mean not the color of his skin, but the mode of his body’s being, his body that was monitored, policed, beaten, bloodied, rejected, crucified, killed. To say that we cannot ask what Jesus would do simply means that the hegemonic American Jewish experience is not the primary frame through which his life can be understood, since that experience is overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) white, bourgeois, and powerful. Jesus was lynched, and having the audacity to follow him meant certain death. We can’t understand Jesus unless we understand him alongside Trayvon Martin and Mohammed abu Khdeir.

So, to the extent that most American Jews are located very differently in socio-political space, we cannot reasonably expect to emulate Jesus. We are more like the Temple elites and imperial powers that he opposed. Which is not to say that t’shuva is impossible, it’s just to say that we have to see our own tradition with new eyes before we can claim to be privileged followers of the God of Israel, the God who chooses the slaves, whose chief witnesses are lynched black people and burned Palestinian children. Once we recognize that this figure, who so clearly defies our expectations about what a Jew is (just as he did in his own time), is just as Jewish as we are, our hegemonic conceptions of Jewish identity are destabilized. We are forced to recognize that our own perspective is not the only one, or even the primary one, through which we can understand the Jewish covenant.

What Jesus point us to, then, is not just a new relationship with history or with the Christian tradition, but with Judaism. The Gospel narratives demonstrate the two primary possibilities for Judaism: We can be with the Sadduccees, those functionaries of empire who tracked down and killed one of their own to shore up their own power, or we can be with Jesus and his Jewish followers. We are for hegemony, or we are against it. There are no other options.


Evan Goldstein is a student at Boston College.

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One Older Response to “What Would Jesus Do?: A Jewish Perspective”

  1. Eric S
    May 3, 2015 at 7:33 pm #

    As a former writer with NV, I typically enjoy the content. But, this is one of the most ill-conceived pieces I’ve ever read. The author argues that we must see things through Jesus’ lens to appreciate our tradition. If that’s the argument would you make the same case for Rabbi Akiva? Karl Marx? Albert Einstein? Joseph Smith? By concluding that we must either follow Jesus perspective or that of the Sadduccees you have fallen into the same this-or-that mentality that you argue against. Judaism has something for everyone. If it didn’t then the other 2 major religions wouldn’t even exist. I suggest you dive deeper into the texts of our rabbis before you worry about the lens of a rabbi of the essenes. There is a reason our people have rejected those teaching for millenia. Study them.

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