As we enter the holiday season, Jews have the pleasure of celebrating Chanukah, as well as the ambiguities surrounding the ubiquitous presence of Christmas. Due to horrors committed against Jews by some misguided Christians, from the Crusades, the Inquisition, countless pogroms and other atrocities, culminating in the holocaust, some Jews understandably don’t feel the “Christmas spirit”. While I share these concerns, I offer a new perspective which we will discuss at our synagogue this holiday season and I invite your feedback.
Our founding fathers, who were largely deists and Unitarians, drew a vast distinction between the teachings of Jesus, which they found pure, and the actions of his self-proclaimed followers, which they condemned. As usual, Thomas Jefferson puts it well:
"When we shall have done away with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, raised to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything which has been taught since His day, and get back to the pure and simple doctrines He inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily His disciples … The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers,… and drive them rashly to pronounce its Founder an imposter. Had there never been a commentator, there never would have been an infidel." -- Jefferson's Letter to Timothy Pickering, 21 Feb 1821
The “pure” teachings of this Rabbi named Jesus, if he actually existed, and if the gospel accounts are to be believed, was Pharisaic Judaism, with its emphasis on love, peace, social justice, the poor, and resistance against Roman tyranny; with eschatological Essene influences which viewed the horrors of Roman occupation as a portent of the imminent arrival of the Messiah. His classic statement “Love thy neighbor as thyself” was not claimed to be original,and was merely a quotation from Leviticus. Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah or any part of the godhead. Stripped of Greek and Roman mythology, whose legendary heroes were born on December 25 of a male god and a female human virgin, who rose from the dead in the spring time, was surrounded by 12 disciples, and was murdered by the authorities, often by crucifixion, we see in Jesus, a typical Rabbi living in Roman times. Scholars notice the mythological nature of the birth and death narratives of Jesus as later additions, due to the omission of these claims from earlier gospels, and the glaring and numerous contradictions and inconsistencies among these legends.
If half the things asserted in Christian Scripture are to be believed, then Evangelical Christians have taken a faithful and patriotic Jewish liberal and converted him into an anti-Semitic Christian conservative to serve their own ends, which in the case of televangelists, is purely financial. Perhaps it is time for Jews to rescue Jesus from identity theft and to reclaim him as one of our own. While some may object that we cannot reclaim a legendary figure who may not even have existed, and about whom we know little, the same could be said about Abraham and Moses, whose actual existence and details, cannot be proven.
Christian scholar Miguel De La Torre, writes that today’s evangelical Christians have made a Faustian bargain with the devil, replacing a humble gospel of peace, love and charity for the poor and the stranger, with arrogant militarism, greed and xenophobia, He writes, “To save Jesus from those claiming to be his heirs, we must wrench him from the hands of those who use him as a façade from which to hide their phobias….which justifies multi-millionaire bilkers wearing holy vestments made of sheep’s clothing who prefer being profiteers rather than prophets, who remained silent or actually supported Charlottesville goose steppers because they protect their white privilege with the doublespeak of preserving heritage.”
If Jews and Christians were to reclaim Jesus, stripped of the anti-Semitic, mythological, pagan aspects concocted by identity thieves, then those who regard Jesus as an exemplar of love, joy, and hope in the world could celebrate his birth with family gatherings, music and festivities, in a pure form, and thus return to the religion of Jesus, i.e. Judaism, and perhaps could call their branch “Hellenistic Judaism”, reflecting its Greek influence and the fact that Jews do not deify humans or name religions after them.
If such individuals wanted to truly follow Jesus they could do so by observing liberal Judaism today, including celebrating the Sabbath on Saturday as he did, praying in Hebrew, believing in original goodness not sin, rejecting idolatry, including the notion that God could take human form, rejecting human sacrifice, including godmen like Jesus, disavowing belief in hell or in a God who could concoct such a horrific chamber of horrors, doing good deeds, seeking a better world on earth rather than in a fairy tale, celebrating the life, rather than the death of Jesus, lamenting rather than celebrating the symbol of the brutal, barbaric instrument of torture used on thousands of Jewish and other martyrs, the cross, and returning to more uplifting symbols such as the candle, the menorah, and the ner tamid (eternal light) used by modern Jews, and by some Christians and others to reflect the light of love, energy and warmth which we seek in ourselves and in the world.
If Jesus were alive today, he would be appalled that those who claim to be his followers would condemn his people to eternal damnation for not believing in him. No self-respecting Jew would ever even consider punishing someone for a belief. We cannot will ourselves to believe anything. No matter how hard I try, I simply cannot believe that an all-powerful being would care about our obedience and belief, nor that a benevolent creator would send those created in his image to unimaginable, relentless and eternal torment merely for using the rational mind with which he endowed us, and concluding that someone who was murdered by the Romans, and whose death was quickly followed by the destruction of the Temple, the massacre of our people, and the exile of the Jews could be our “savior”. If salvation is claimed to occur in the next life, for which there is not a shred of evidence, then we may as well assume that any person ever born is our “savior”, including the most evil among us.
Rather, let us use our ability to reason, combined with our faith in Jewish ideals of unity, love and brotherhood to consider the image of a loving Rabbi, surrounded by legends of a miraculous birth, to lead us to consider the birth of us all as a miracle, the earth upon which we walk, holy ground, and our mission in life to spread peace and love, especially among those who celebrate the life of Jesus (Jews), as well as those who celebrate his death (Christians).