Reb Yakov Leib HaKohain, Founder & Spiritual Director
As Originally Published In
The Priest: A Journal of Catholic Theology
Ever since Vatican II, the Church has actively pursued a dialogue with Judaism. But a major impediment has been a continuing, popular myth that the Jews of Jesus's time rejected Him. However, my thesis in what follows is that the vast majority of Jews and the Jewish authorities of His time not only accepted Jesus as the Messiah, but for that very reason intentionally precipitated his death. At first glance this may seem contradictory to everything we have been taught, but a reading of Jewish and Christian Scripture suggests otherwise.
For example, the Fourth Gospel (John 11:49) indicates that the Pharisees and High Priests ultimately accepted Christ when they became convinced that He embodied the Resurrection, and acting on a Jewish Oral Scripture that the Messiah must "die for the people" (e.g., Zohar 5:218a), they instructed their followers to call for His death and thereby inaugurate the Millennium. If so, this could explain why the Jews are said to have shouted "Hosanna!" on one day and "Crucify him!" a week later. (John 12:13, 19:15). Various Hebrew texts support such an interpretation and will be discussed later.
At this point, we turn to the scriptural and historical evidence for the Jews' belief in Jesus. According to Luke, the common Jewish people flocked to Jesus. For example, the first 5,000 Christians were Jews (Acts 4:4). Moreover, there was the requirement that Gentiles had to convert to Judaism before they could join the Jerusalem Church of Peter and James (Acts 15:1) Even some Pharisees acknowledged Christ, albeit grudgingly. Nicodemus, a "leading Jew" hailed him as "a teacher who comes from God" (John 3:1-2). And Rabbi Gamaliel, a member of the Sanhedrin and later Paul's teacher, declared, "If [Christianity] comes from God you [members of the Sanhedrin] will not only be unable to destroy [it], but you might find yourselves fighting against God" (Acts 5:34-39) Elsewhere, the Sanhedrin itself concluded, "It is obvious to everybody in Jerusalem that a miracle . . . has been worked through [Christ's disciples] in public and we cannot deny it" (Acts 4:16).
Less well known is that some post-Biblical rabbis actually held much the same belief in Jesus. For example, a Midrash states, "The son of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi had a choking fit. He [Rabbi Joshua] went and brought one of the followers of [Jesus] to relieve his son's choking" (Midrash Rabbah, Ecclesiastes 10:4:1). And according to a Medieval rabbi, Menachim of Speyer, "A Christian may be permitted to heal a Jew even if he invokes the aid of Jesus and the Saints." Even Maimonides wrote, "Ultimately, all the deeds of Jesus of Nazareth . . . will only serve to prepare the way for the Messiah's coming and the improvement of the entire world" (Mishnah Torah: Hilchot Melachim U'Milchamoteihem 11:4).
Furthermore, a closely guarded rabbinic tradition holds that Paul was a devout rabbi who intentionally "paganized" Christianity by bringing it to the Gentiles in order to alienate it from his fellow Jews, thereby saving them from its supposed heresy. Despite the naiveté of this later belief, it indicates the extent to which the early rabbis acknowledged the widespread acceptance of Christ among the Jewish populace.
There is little doubt that the Sanhedrin condemned Jesus to death. For example, Maimonides writes in the Mishnah Torah, "Jesus of Nazareth . . . aspired to be the Messiah and was executed by the court" (Hilchot Melachim U'Milchamoteihem 11:4). Also, the Talmud states:
"On the eve of the Passover, Jesus of Nazareth was [crucified]. For 40 days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, 'Jesus of Nazareth is going to be stoned because he is guilty of practicing sorcery and enticing the people to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.' But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was [crucified] on the eve of the Passover . . . Rabbi Ulla asked, 'Do you suppose that he was one for whom a defense could have been made?' [And then he answered his own question by stating,] No, because with Jesus of Nazareth it was different, for he was descended from the royalty." (Tr. Sanhedrin 43a)
At least one Jewish scholar suggests that such historical references to Christ in the Talmud may be historically accurate, probably originating, he suggests, with the Tanna Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who may have learned them directly from his own teacher, Johanan ben Zakkai, who was a contemporary of Jesus. (R. Travers Herford, The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 6, p. 88.) If so, this particular Gemara is interesting for several reasons.
To begin with, it verifies that the Sanhedrin did, indeed, sentence Jesus to death, but not for the reasons given in the Christian Gospels. According to this passage of Talmud, Jesus was condemned for "sorcery" and "apostasy" and not for "blasphemy" as the Gospels contend (Mt 26:65, Mk 14:64, Lk 5:21, Jn 10:33) -- charges that are far more probable since claiming to be the Messiah, or even the "Son of God," did not constitute blasphemy in rabbinic law. For example, the Talmud states: "If a man say to thee, 'I am God,' he is [only] a liar; if [he says I am] 'the son of man,' in the end people will laugh at him. (Tr. Yer. Taan. 65b; see also Rabbi Baruch Horovitz, The Disputations, Scholarly Publications, 1972, p. 151.)
This charge of sorcery and not apostasy is confirmed by recent scholarship, such as that by Professor Morton Smith at Columbia University who writes: "Outsiders [those hostile to Jesus] spread the word that his family had tried to put him under restraint as insane, that he was possessed, that he had a demon, and that his miracles were done by magic." (Jesus the Magician, Harper & Row, 1978, p. 43; see also by the same author Clement of Alexandria and a Secret Gospel of Mark, Harvard University Press, 1973.)
Another point of interest in this Talmudic text is that it openly acknowledges Jesus to have been "descended from the royalty" (i.e., the Throne of David), which implies that He was a legitimate heir, in their eyes, to the office of Messiah -- and, furthermore, it was because of that very royal lineage that "a defense could not be made" on his behalf, as stated by Rabbi Ulla in the Gemara in question.
But even more significant for the thesis of this essay -- that the Jews of his time condemned Jesus to death in order to facilitate his messianic destiny -- is the revelation in this possibly accurate historic account in the Talmud that "nothing was brought forward in His favor" at His trial. According to the Gospels, Jesus had many powerful and respected allies who could have testified on his behalf. These included the "rich young aristocrat" of Judea (Mt 19:16); Joseph of Arimathea (Mk 15:43); Jairus "the synagogue official" (ibid 5:35); the "centurion of Capernum" (Lk 7:1); the "rich son of a leading family" (ibid 18:18); Zacchaeus "the senior tax collector" (ibid 19:1); Nicodemus the Pharisee (Jn 3:1, 7:50, 19:39); and the "court official" of Cana (Jn 4:46).
Why did none of these come forward on Jesus's behalf at his trial by the Sanhedrin? The standard explanation, given by Christian exegetes, is that these prominent people were "afraid of the Sanhedrin" -- whose power under Roman rule, incidentally, was highly questionable. Another more-probable and less-often considered answer to this question lies in the Gospel of John, where a sequence of three events takes place that gives rise to the thesis I put forward here -- namely, that they refrained from testifying on Jesus's behalf not out of fear or hostility, but in order to assist him in the fulfillment of his Messianic destiny. This is the sequence of these highly-significant events: first, Jesus announces He is the Messiah (Jn 10:25); second, He also calls himself "the resurrection" (ibid 11:25); and third, the Jewish elders decide to kill Him (ibid 11:45).
In what follows I propose to show how the final stage of this scenario -- the decision of the Jewish elders to "kill" Jesus - took place not out of hostility, but as an effort to fulfill the Jewish prophecy that the Messiah must "die for the people." I realize that this thesis flies in the face of everything Christianity has taught for two thousand years, but I believe there is valid evidence for it in the scriptural data I propose to discuss in the following paragraphs.
Jesus chose the Jewish festival of Hanukkah (or "Feast of Dedication") to announce that He was the "Son of God" (Jn 10:22). His choice may not have been entirely arbitrary. To begin with, Hanukkah always falls on the 25th day of Kislev in the Hebrew calendar. Now, as any Torah scholar, such as Jesus, would have known, the 25th word of Genesis in the Masoretic text is Oyer, or "Light" (Berashit 1:3) -- and Hanukkah commemorates a miracle of light that took place when the Temple was rededicated after its defilement by the Hellenists. On that day, only one small jar of oil was found that the heathens had not profaned; this was only enough to keep the Eternal Light of the Sanctuary burning for one day. The miracle, however, was that it lasted eight, thereby providing time for new oil to be produced.
Thus, the spiritual meaning of these temporal events is that the light of God could not be extinguished by the forces of darkness. This corresponds to the opening passage of John: "All that came to be had life in him, and that life was the light of men, a light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower" (Jn 1:45). In any case, the primary significance of this event is that it sets the stage for those to follow.
Shortly after Jesus announced that he was the "Son of God," He went to the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany. There He proclaimed the next stage of His vocation: "I am the resurrection . . . If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live" (Jn 11:25). Then, as if to prove this bold assertion, He raises Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:43-44).
Now, the Resurrection, in general, was a subject of heated debate at the time. So much so, that it polarized the warring parties of Pharisees (who believed in it) and the Sadducees (who did not). All three Synoptic Gospels record the incident in which the Sadducees challenged Jesus to take a stand on the issue (Mt 22:23, Mk 12:18, Lk 10:27). This may have been more of an attempt to ferret out His political leanings than His religious beliefs. If He came down against it, He was a Sadducee; if in favor of it, a Pharisee. Jesus, however, evaded their attempts to pin Him down.
For example, He says, "God is God, not of the dead but of the living," which seems to beg the question (Mt 22:32). Only after he announces that He is the Son of God does He take an unequivocal stand: not only are the Sadducees wrong about the Resurrection but He, Christ Jesus, is its living embodiment, as proven by His raising of Lazarus from the dead.
Strange as it may seem, this aligned Him with the very Pharisees whom He elsewhere appears to have condemned. It did not go unnoticed by them.
After seeing Jesus raise Lazarus, some of Mary and Martha's guests "went to tell the Pharisees what He had done," and as a result "the chief priests and Pharisees called a meeting" (Jn 11:45). I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of this meeting to our thesis that the Jews of His time called for Jesus's death not, as we are told, out of hostility and rejection, but out of a recognition of his Messianic role and an attempt to precipitate it.
To begin with, two things are noteworthy in these events. First, that the informants ran to the Pharisees, rather than the Sadducees; and second, that the chief priests, who were presumably Sadducees themselves, would have accepted an invitation from their supposed enemies to decide the fate of Jesus. Something of compelling significance must have drawn these arch enemies into collaborating with each other -- something more than merely putting down one of the many (and not particularly different) messianic movements taking place in Palestine at the time. Whatever the case, a remarkable meeting ensues, as described by John:
"Then the chief priests and Pharisees called a meeting. 'Here is this man working all these signs,' they said, 'and what action are we taking? If we let him go on this way everybody will believe in him and the Romans will come and destroy the Holy Place and our nation.' One of them, Caiaphas, the high priest that year, said, 'You don't seem to have grasped the situation at all: you fail to see that it is better for one man to die for all the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.' He did not speak in his own person, it was as high priest he made this prophecy that Jesus was to die for the nation -- and not for the nation only, but to gather together in unity the scattered children of God. From that day they were determined to kill him." (Jn 11:47-53)."
Thus, the high priest, and all the Jewish leaders assembled with him, agreed that Jesus must die not only for the salvation of Israel, but "to gather together in unity the scattered children of God" -- in other words, to fulfill the Messianic commission. It is for this reason -- to actualize the Jewish prophecy that the Messiah must "die for the people" and "gather the scattered children of God" -- that the Jewish leaders determined to "kill" him, and not, as we have been told by two thousand years of Gentile-Christian history, because they and the Jews whom they led "despised" and "rejected" Him.
These deliberations by the Jewish leaders are notable for several reasons. First, it was not the "signs" Jesus performed to which they objected, but rather their possible effect on the Romans. Indeed, the Pharisees and chief priests were not at all concerned that "everybody will believe in him," or even if He was deserving of their belief (which implies they felt He was), but rather that as "king of the Jews" (i.e., the Messiah) He posed not a threat to them, but to Roman rule and, therefore, the political stability of the Jewish nation. But even more remarkable are the reasons for which they finally "determined to kill him."
Let us reconstruct this meeting in our mind's eye: We see a group of Pharisees who have just been told that Jesus just raised a man from the dead. Their reaction is panic. "This man is working all these signs," they say. But signs of what? Surely, in the context of the times, they must have meant "signs of the Messiah." (For example, although the original Greek word used here, semeion, is translated in modern versions of the Bible as "signs," its literal meaning, as given in the King James version, is "miracles.") But if this is so, what are they to do? If they accept Him -- as they are beginning to think they should, based on His Otot HaMashiach ("Signs of the Messiah") -- they run the risk of provoking their Roman rulers; if they reject Him, they run the even greater risk of possibly provoking God.
The dilemma is resolved by Caiaphas. Speaking, it should be noted, as a prophet, he proclaims that Jesus must be executed, not as a punishment for claiming to be the Messiah but, on the contrary, in order to fulfill his Messianic destiny: "Jesus," he says, "must die for the nation [of Israel] . . . and not for the nation only, but to gather together in unity the scattered children of God."
Here, Caiaphas is calling on the authority of Jewish Oral Scripture. The first part of his prophesy -- that "Jesus [must] die for the nation" parallels the Jewish, Pre-Christian Oral Scripture:
"When God desires to give healing to the world He smites one righteous man among them . . . and through him gives healing to all . . . A righteous man is never afflicted save to bring healing to his generation and to make atonement for it." (Zohar 5:218a)
Significantly, this Atoning Messiah of Judaism not only "dies for the people," but also rises from the dead after three days - as shown in another Jewish Oral Scripture that states:
"[The] Messiah [ben Joseph] will . . . be slain and lay in the streets for three days. Then . . . the prophet Elijah will go and revive [him] . . . And in the hour when the Tribes of Israel will come forth, Clouds of Glory will go before them. And the Holy One, blessed be He, will open for them the sources of the Tree of Life, and will give them to drink on that day." (Otot HaMashiach)
Clearly, this pre-Christian, Judaic doctrine anticipates Christ's alleged prediction throughout the Gospels that on the "third day" He would "rise again."
The second part of Caiaphas's prophecy -- "and not for the nation only, but to gather together in unity the scattered children of God" -- refers to another Jewish Oral Scripture:
"And then the Community of Israel communes with the Holy One, blessed be He, and that hour is a time of grace for all, and the King [Messiah] holds out to [Israel], and all who are with her, his scepter of the thread of grace so that they all may be wholly united to the Holy King." (Zohar 5:45a)
Furthermore, a Mishnah by Maimonides states,
"If a king will arise from the House of David [who] . . . gathers the dispersed of Israel [as Caiaphas believes Jesus could do], he is definitely the Messiah." (Mishnah Torah: Hilchot Melachim U'Milchamoteihem 4:11)
Thus, by alluding to these two commonly held doctrines, Caiaphas prevails, and the assembled Jewish leaders finally "grasp the situation:" Jesus has fulfilled the "signs of the Messiah" and, therefore, according to Jewish Oral Scripture, he must enter the next stage of the scenario, which is to "die for the people" in order to "make atonement for His generation" and "unite the scattered children of God." Consequently, they determine to "kill" him, not as a punishment for His claims, but to catalyze His Messianic vocation.
In at least three passages of the Gospels (Mt. 16:21, 20:17, 20:19) Jesus alludes to the same Jewish messianic prophesies that may have prompted Caiaphas and the elders to sentence Him to death in order to fulfill his messianic mission to the Jewish people. These were: he must be killed by the "pagans," lie dead for "three days" and later be resurrected as the conquering Messiah. He also seems to have known in advance that these Jewish leaders would sacrifice Him to atone for the people, which suggests that He may have intentionally provoked them into doing so by His actions at the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany.
These considerations cast new light on why the Jewish "mob" may have demanded Christ's crucifixion (Mt 27:11, Mk 15:1, Lk 23:13, Jn 19:1). That is, rather than calling for His death out of blind malice, as we have been told they did, they may have done so for their eternal salvation. Viewed from the perspective of Caiaphas' prophecy, and the Jewish Oral Scriptures that may have prompted it, their assertion "his blood be on us and our children" (Mt 27:25) can be taken to mean, as Paul later wrote, "Through his blood, we gain our freedom, the forgiveness of our sins" (Eph 1:1-7).
In summary, then, and contrary to current popular belief, according to the Gospels themselves thousands of religious Jews flocked to Jesus during his life-time (as they did and have to numerous other charismatic "messianic" figures), and even before Paul brought His message to the Gentiles. This strongly suggests that there was no contradiction in their minds between "Orthodox" Judaism and Christ's teachings. In fact, we're told, the early Church "went as a body to the Temple every day" (Acts 2:46).
Moreover, the Jews who cried "Crucify him!" and "Let his blood be on us!" may have done so because they believed, as their Oral Scriptures had told them, that His sacrificial death would free them from sin and initiate the Messianic Era -- a belief that would later become the cornerstone of Gentile Pauline Christology. But if, as we suggest here, New Testament Jews were so favorably predisposed to the messiahship of Jesus (as they were and have been to that of other similar Jewish avatars), why is there an almost irreconcilable breach between Judaism and Christianity today? It's to this question that we now turn for answers.
A clue to the answer to our last question lies in Paul's appearance before the Corinth tribunal. "We accuse this man," they said, "of persuading people to worship God in a way that breaks the Law" (Acts 18:13). Notice that they are here condemning Paul and not Christ. But what was he teaching that was so seditious? That the Messiah abrogated the Law? Or that Jesus was an incarnation of God? Unlikely.
These were already commonly held crypto-messianic beliefs. For example, R. Eliyahu Tougher, commenting on the Mishnah Torah of Maimonides, writes: "The Ra'avad and many other commentaries maintain that the Messiah's coming will initiate a miraculous era in which the entire nature of the world will change." (Hilchot Melachim U'Milchamoteihem p. 240) So common were they, in fact, that in 1666 the Messianic movement of another Jewish "divine incarnation," Sabbatai Zevi, literally engulfed the whole of the Jewish world -- despite the fact that he, like Christ, nullified the Law. (In the case of the former, particularly the Torah's sexual prohibitions.)
Something less obvious must have motivated Paul's enemies. Something, I propose, deeply rooted in the tribal nature of Judaism itself.
There is an abiding conviction among religious Jews, such as Paul, that the Torah is their exclusive property because they alone were willing to accept it from God. For example, the Talmud states:
"In order to give all of mankind the option of living according to the Torah's precepts, the Lord offered it to each nation of the world. . .[Gentile] nation after nation refused to accept [it] . . . Finally, the Lord approached Israel: 'Will you accept my Torah?' . . . Not only were they willing to receive the Torah but they did so even before knowing what it contained." (Tr. Avodah Zara 2b)
Moreover, the same Gemara continues: "The Gentiles will eventually regret their decision and plead, 'Offer us the Torah again and we shall obey it.' But the Holy One, blessed be He, will say to them, 'You foolish ones among the peoples, he who took the trouble to prepare on the even of the Sabbath can eat on the Sabbath, but he who has not troubled on the eve of the Sabbath, what shall he eat on the Sabbath?'"
In other words, Gentiles are forbidden, by rabbinic law, from practicing Judaism because they rejected the Torah when it was offered to them. This belief was and is so strong that the Talmud and Midrash state: "If a Gentile is learning Torah or keeping the Sabbath in the manner of Jews . . . he is liable for capital punishment by the rabbinic court." (Quoted in Chaim Clorfene and Yakov Rogalsky, The Path of the Righteous Gentile, p. 42)
On the other hand, according to the same sources, the proper observance of Torah for righteous Gentiles is "Noahism," in which they join the Community of Israel by following the "Seven Laws of Noah". It was within this belief system that the Jewish leaders brought Paul before the Corinth Tribunal, not because he taught Christianity, but because he taught it to the Gentiles in a manner that permitted them to worship as Jews. For that reason, I submit, and not because he taught Christ, they accused him of "persuading people to worship God in a way that breaks the law." This may have been another way of saying, "Paul is encouraging Gentiles to break the law by worshiping God as if they were Jews rather than Noahites."
Thus, we see that Gentiles are forbidden by Talmudic law from practicing Judaism (unless they formally convert to Judaism, which Paul asserted that they need not do to become Christians) and it was for that reason, and not because he taught that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, that the Jewish leaders condemned him.
In addition to their problems with Paul, these same Jewish leaders had conflicts among themselves that could have colored their attitudes toward Jesus. The Sadducees were an elitist Temple cult of prosperous Jews who denied the existence of the Holy Spirit (Ruach HaKodesh), angels and the Resurrection -- all of which, the Pharisees, the religious party of the "common man", believed in and taught, just as Jesus had. Contrary to the New Testament, this means that the Pharisees would have been receptive to the egalitarian and pneumatic elements of Christ's teachings -- or, at least more so than the Sadducees.
This division between the two religious parties could account for Paul's seeming ambivalence toward the Jews. When he (a Pharisee) excoriates them for their intransigence, he may be addressing the Sadducees (Acts 13:46); on the other hand, when he praises them for their willingness to "hear the world of the Lord" (Acts 19:10), it may be to his fellow Pharisees to whom he is speaking. The same possibility holds true, of course, in the Synoptic and Johannine Gospels.
In the wake of these events, Paul's calling as "Apostle to the Gentiles" opened Jewish Christianity to the Greeks and Romans -- two groups notoriously hostile to the Jews at the time -- and what began as a Jewish sect under Peter and James in Jerusalem (and was extended by them to the Gentiles in Antioch if they either converted to Judaism or became "Noahites") now became a distinctly Gentile religion.
As the numbers of these Greek and Roman converts to Paul's Church began to grow and outnumber its Jews, so did a gradual purging of its Jewish Christians, and a distinctly anti-Semitic attitude ensued. For example, Professor James M. Robinson writes, "Christianity first became a Jewish sect, until it became largely Gentile after the fall of Jerusalem, [when Judaism] was excluded." (The Nag Hammadi Library, p. 7; see also Clemens Thoma, A Christian Theology of Judaism and Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels)
Popular myth began to replace Gospel truth among the Gentile members of the "new and better covenant" Paul proclaimed to them (Heb 8:6). In their minds, some Jews became all Jews. For example, rather than some Jews having rejected Jesus out of hostility (which was true), all of them did. Rather than some of them having called for his death out of blind malice, all of them had. Rather than some Jews having persecuted the apostles after the crucifixion, all of them did.
As a result, it was not the Jews who rejected early Christianity, but early Christianity that rejected the Jews. Had this not occurred, many traditional Jews today probably would be "Christians" in the same way that others are Hasidim -- that is, not as modern Gentile Christians (who mistakenly believe in the "divinity" of Christ), but as disciples devoted to the teachings and person of a particular tzaddik, or messianic figure, such as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov or Sabbatai Zevi, to whom we now turn.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) was one such messianic figure, still "worshiped" today by his Orthodox Jewish followers in the same way as Jesus might have been. Like Jesus, and contrary to established Jewish precedent, he made the remarkable claim that he would continue to intervene for the salvation of souls who prayed to him (a devotional act forbidden in Judaism), even after his death:
"When my days are ended and I leave this world, I will intercede for anyone who comes to my grave [and pray] . . . No matter how serious his sins and transgressions, I will do everything in my power to save him and cleanse him. I will span the length and breadth of the Creation for him. By his peyos [forelocks] I will pull him out of Gehennom [Hell]." (Rabbi Nachman's Tikkun, Breslov Research Institute, 1984, p. 42.)
Notice that Nachman is here positioning himself as a supernatural, salvific figure much in the mold of the Ascended Christ. Nevertheless, despite the "Christian" nature of these Jewish claims, he continues to have thousands of disciples within Orthodox Judaism. For example, one modern Hasid, speaking for many Orthodox Hasidim, stated:
"We believe that Jesus was taken away from the Jews [by the Gentiles]. He was a great power; he could have been a great talmudic scholar or a Tzaddik, [but] he was drawn to the other side of the fence." (Quoted in Legends of the Hasidim, Jerome R. Mintz, University of Chicago Press, p. 140)
Parenthetically, this raises the issue of divine incarnation, which Judaism allegedly rejects. For example, Rabbi Eliezer Geviritz writes, "The Torah states clearly God is not a man" (A Guide to Torah Hashkofoh, Feldheim Publishers, pages 143-44.)
Nevertheless, Yahweh took human form at least three times in the Old Testament: first to Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (Gn 18:1-5); second, to Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex 34:6-9); and third, to the Community of Israel in the desert (Dt 5:24). Moreover, concerning the apparition at Mamre, rabbinic tradition holds that "Yahweh personally appeared [as a man] to Abraham" (The Midrash Says, Vol. 1, p. 159), and there is a Talmudic dictum that Yahweh himself will come as the Jewish Messiah. The presence of such "incarnations" as Rebbe Nachman of Breslov and Sabbatai Zevi (whom I will discuss later), gives visible evidence for a tendency in the Jewish psyche to concretize the Holy Spirit in human form. In any case, the anti-Semitic prejudices of early Gentile Christians alienated Jesus from his later fellow Jews. It was to mend this rent in the Fabric of God that Sabbatai Zevi and, later, Yakov Leib Frank, made "holy apostasy" to Islam and Christianity, respectively. We now turn to those acts of virtual conversion.
In an archetypal sense, the breach between Jews and Gentiles goes back even further than New Testament times to the conflict between Jacob (the Midrashic father of the Gentiles). For example:
"Esau said [to Jacob at their first and last reunion following the incident of the birthright], 'Let us break camp and move off [together].' But Jacob replied, 'May it please my lord to go ahead of his servant until I join my lord in Seir.' So that day Esau resumed his journey to Seir. But Jacob left for Succoth."(Gn 33:12-17)
Thus, the descendants of Jacob (the Jews) and Esau (the Gentiles) have a long-unkempt appointment to "meet in Seir" - that mutual spiritual ground on which they are destined to be reconciled with each other and God. Some early Jewish leaders sought to bring about this mystical Tikkun through the radical conversion of their followers.
For example, the 17th century Jewish Messiah, Sabbatai Zevi, preached a doctrine of "holy apostasy." A century later, his spiritual heir, Jacob Leib Frank, brought thousands of practicing Jews into Christianity by proclaiming, "When you are fit to come to Esau, then the curse will be lifted from off the earth" (Sayings of Yakov Frank, Harris Lenowitz, trans., p. 29). These efforts, however, were ill-conceived from the outset and created additional misunderstandings between the two groups.
In our own time, the Catholic Church has replaced "conversion" with "dialogue." But this, too, has had its problems. Centuries of Christian misconceptions about the Jews continue to restrain Jacob from keeping his appointment with Esau. However, Paul laid a foundation for a reconciliation between these two brothers -- one which Sabbatai Zevi and Jacob Frank also tried to conclude -- when he wrote:
"You [Gentiles] that used to be so far apart from us [Jews] have been brought very close [to us] by the blood of Messiah. For he is the peace between us, and has made the two into one and broken down the barrier which used to keep [us] apart . . . This was to create one single new man in himself out of the two of them . . . to unite them both in a single body and reconcile them with God." (Eph 2:11-22) Herein, I propose, lies the ultimate "dialogue" between Jacob and Esau: each of us is called upon to "create one single new man in himself out of the two of them" and thereby "unite them both in a single body and reconcile them with God." By his intervention, Jesus the Jew, with the help of his fellow Jews, attempted to do just that by his sacrifice on the Cross. God alone knows when and how the true meaning of that offering -- and the role of the Jewish people in it -- will be fully understood.