Why Aren’t We Christians?

We hear quite a bit today about a movement called “Jews for Jesus.” A small number of Jews seem to be finding the teachings of Christianity very attractive. The vast majority of Jews, however, still reject these teachings in the most emphatic terms. For almost two thousand years, the Christians have been trying to win over the Jew. And for the same period of time, the Jew has resisted all such overtures. But why? Why don’t we accept Jesus? In short: Why aren’t we Christians? In order to understand this, we must look at the origin of Christian beliefs. Christianity began with a Jew. Jesus lived as a Jew, around the same time as many of our greatest Talmudic sages. The great Hillel lived just a generation earlier, and Rabbi Akiba, a generation after. Our own sources, however, record very little about Jesus’ life. Everything that we know about him is found in the Gospels of the New Testament, a book written by and for the early Christian church. This book, however, was written primarily to further the cause of Christianity, and it is therefore impossible to separate the historical person of Jesus from the “Christ” required by early Christian theology. Soon after the death of Jesus, we find a marked change in the teachings of his followers. Christianity as we know it began during this period in the work of Paul of Tarsus. Paul, or as he was earlier known, Saul, was a disciple of the great Talmudist Rabbi Gamliel, and he began his career by actively opposing the early Christians. In a dramatic incident on the road to Damascus, Paul converted to Christianity, and later became one of its foremost leaders. Although he had never seen Jesus alive, he claimed to have spoken to him in spirit. Under Paul’s leadership, many of the distinctive doctrines of Christianity were first proclaimed, and, for the most part, they have never changed. His teachings are recorded in his Epistles, which form the second part of the New Testament. Among Paul’s major teachings, we find the following: 1) Jesus was the Messiah or Christ predicted by the Prophets of the Bible and awaited by the Jews. He is also the Son of G-d, and like any son, is essentially the same as his Father. 2) Man is evil and sinful. All mankind is damned because of Adam’s sin. The Torah cannot save man, since its many commandments make it too difficult to keep. The only thing that can prevent man’s utter damnation in hell is the belief in Christ. 3) The Jews were originally G-d’s chosen people, but they were rejected when they refused to accept His son, Jesus. The name “Israel,” G-d’s chosen people, is no longer carried by the Jew, but by those who accept Jesus as the Messiah. Only these share G-d’s love. Everyone else is damned in hell. 4) There is only one law now that Christ has come, and that is love. One must follow the example of Christ’s sacrifice, and patiently hope that G-d will be gracious in return. It is enough to state these articles of Christian faith to see why the Jews could not accept them. Taking them one by one, the Jewish viewpoint would be: 1) Jesus could not have been the Messiah. The Prophets predicted a world of peace and love after the Messiah’s coming, and this certainly does not exist today. Furthermore, any talk of the Messiah as being the “son of G-d” is totally unacceptable. In no place do the Prophets say that he will be anything more than a remarkable leader and teacher. 2) Although the Torah does speak of Adam’s sin, it teaches that man can rise above it. Man might not be able to perfect himself, but it was for this reason that G-d gave us the Torah. It is absurd to think that G-d would give a Torah that was impossible or too difficult to follow. In no place does Judaism teach that one can be saved from damnation by mere belief. Any true belief in G-d must lead a person to also follow His commandments. 3) It is impossible to imagine that G-d would ever reject the Jewish people. In many places, the Bible clearly states that His covenant with them will be forever. 4) In many places, the Bible says that the Torah was given forever. It is therefore impossible to say that it has been replaced by a new law or testament. Love alone is not enough, for one must know how to express it, and for this, we need the Torah as a guide. Love is only one of the Torah’s commandments, and good deeds are its necessary expression. Why do we believe these ideas rather than the ones expressed by Paul and Christianity? For one thing, we see no evidence that Jesus was indeed the Messiah expected by Israel. The Messianic promise included such things as perfect peace and unity among men, love and truth, universal knowledge and undisturbed happiness, as well as the end of all evil, idolatry, falsehood and hatred. None of these things have been fulfilled by Christianity. The Christian answer to this is the simple assertion that all things have indeed changed by the coming of Jesus. If the change is not visible, it is because man is evil and has not truly accepted Jesus and his teachings. Thus, the Messiah or Christ will have to return in order to prove his victory. The Jew refuses to accept the excuse that the major prophecies concerning the Messiah will only be fulfilled in a “second coming.” He expects the Messiah to complete his mission in his first attempt. The Jew therefore believes that the Messiah is yet to come. But there is also another more important issue at stake than the mere identity of the Messiah. Christianity teaches that Jesus was also G-d in human form. The Jew sees this as a totally mistaken idea about G-d. It makes G-d too small, for in stating that He can assume human form, it diminishes both His unity and His divinity. We disagree with Christianity not only with regard to belief, but also with regard to what man must do. Christianity tends to deny that man’s actions are ultimately very useful. The only thing that can save man is his utter despair in his own sinfulness, and total dependence on G-d. The Jew, on the other hand, believes that man can come close to G-d by obeying Him and keeping His commandments. Christianity thus starts with one idea about man, while Judaism starts with the exact opposite idea. Judaism starts with the idea that man is created in the “likeness of G-d.” He therefore does not have to go very far to discover the divine, both in himself and in others. There is always the opportunity to awaken the divine in oneself by obeying G-d’s commandments. The Jew begins with this opportunity. Christianity, on the other hand, begins with the basic assumption that man is depraved and sinful. Left to himself, man is utterly damned. He is naturally involved in evil, and must therefore do something to be saved from it. The first question that the Christian asks is, “What have you done to be saved?” To the Jew, this question is almost meaningless. This is not the Jewish way of thinking at all. The Jew asks, “How can I serve G-d? How can I keep His commandments?” The central focus of Judaism is obeying the commandments of the Torah. We look at man and see his greatness, for he can obey these commandments and fulfill G-d’s will. Christianity teaches that man is so evil that he can never really serve G-d. The Torah is too difficult for man. The only thing that man can do is believe in Christ and wait for salvation. The Jew replies that the very fact that G-d Himself gave us commandments and told us to obey them teaches us that we can indeed serve G-d and fulfill His will. It is unthinkable that G-d would give His people a Torah if it were impossible to keep it. Although all of Jesus’ disciples were Jews, they could not convince their fellow Jews of their teachings. The early dogmas of Christianity seemed closer to those of the pagan gentiles than to those of the Jews. More and more, Christianity was rejected by the Jews and accepted by the gentiles. It thus gradually developed into a gentile church, and its attitude toward the Jews became more and more unfriendly. It may have constantly appealed to the Jews to convert, sometimes even resorting to cruelty and force, but the Jew stood firm. Christianity may have changed human history, but it could never win over the Jews. The Jew stood by his Torah and walked his own way. In essence, there were two Christian teachings that the Jew could never accept. Christianity taught that G-d had assumed human form in Jesus, and that the Torah no longer mattered. The Jew rejected these two dogmas, even under pain of death. In rejecting Christianity, Judaism therefore did not reject anything that it needed spiritually. There was nothing in all the teachings of Jesus that would have added even one iota to the strength of the Torah. If Christianity made any contribution at all, it was to the non-Jewish world. The Jew knew that his Torah provided him with a unique relationship with G-d. Everything that he saw in Christianity seemed to contradict this relationship. It is for this reason that throughout the centuries, the Jew has found it impossible to accept the teachings of Christianity. He believed with perfect faith that G-d had shown him the way, and he had no intention of ever leaving it.  

The Real Messiah?: A Jewish Response to Missionaries, [NCSY and OU Press, New York, 2005], pp. 3–6 Reprinted with permission of OU Press

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