The conference, April 29, at New York’s Center for Jewish History was impressive for its array of scholars and thinkers and the enormous attendance that it drew. The presentations varied in quality and effectiveness (for an impressionistic overview, read Gabriel Sanders in The Forward).
What is truly exciting is the thought that the Jewish people could reclaim this humongous personage as one of our own. If we can persuade many Jews to give up their aversion to the historical Jesus, who as an individual never intended nor had anything to do with the humiliations and persecutions we’ve suffered in his name, Judaism and the Jewish people can gain in stature as the “people of Jesus.” It may be tricky to avoid offending some Christians with the distinction between the “religion of Jesus” ( i.e., Judaism) and the “religion about Jesus” (Christianity), but it’s an interesting juxtaposition.
One of the speakers indicated that 19th century Reform rabbis viewed Jesus positively as a great Jewish teacher, while more traditional Jews – especially the Orthodox – view Jesus with such antipathy that they generally refuse to utter his name.
Leon Wieseltier, The New Republic’s literary editor who is working on a book about Jewish views of messianism, opened the conference in conversation with James Carroll, the Catholic author of “Constantine’s Sword” on Christian anti-Semitism. What Wieseltier fears in messianism is a vision of a post-messianic order that is apocalyptic, bearing no resemblance to the world as it is today, a world that is destroyed or transcended into something unrecognizable. He argues for a moderate Jewish view of the messiah as a force for the world’s reform or improvement but not for its total transformation.
As Jews living after the Vatican II reforms ushered in by Pope John XXIII, we are no longer viewed officially by the Catholic Church as being doomed to burn in hell for not having embraced Jesus as our lord and savior. But resonances of this damnation remain. For example, Carroll mentioned the “Aryanization” of Jesus, as illustrated in Mel Gibson’s “Passion” movie: Jesus and his disciples are the only ones who appear bare-headed, while the Jews around them are all depicted in distinct head covering.
Susannah Heschel’s comment that Christians suffer from “shtetl envy” was the most memorable single line that I recall; she elaborated that it marks a yearning among Christians for a way of life that is more fulfilling than a weekly hour in church. There is a basis for positive relations between Jews and Christians; Prof. Heschel memorably spoke of her father, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who, upon visiting Pope Paul VI, was thanked for his books that made it possible for “Catholics to be better Catholics.”