Jesus as Torah: a Jewish-Christian dialogue

By  Fr. Paul Hansen, C.Ss.R., and Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum
  • April 27, 2009

Catholics and Jews care about the same world, pray to the same God, hope for the same resurrection and yet often live their lives as strangers to one another. That’s a shame. Most Catholics and most Jews wish we understood each other better. Redemptorist Father Paul Hansen and modern Orthodox Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum both know overcoming that separation isn’t just a matter of learning a few details of the traditions and theology on the other side. Understanding each other means understanding ourselves more deeply — knowing the roots of our Catholic and Jewish identities.

The Toronto rabbi and priest exchanged the e-mails below just before Easter and Passover — the two principle celebrations of Christianity and Judaism that fell within four days of each other this year. The e-mails are a fragment of a vast conversation between Christians and Jews that has been growing since the end of the Second World War — a conversation launched into deeper water by the Second Vatican Council. With the help of Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto, they are inviting Catholic Register readers into the conversation.

Paul Hansen: This venture brings back memories of time spent in Israel and celebrating there with Jewish friends and visits to Auschwitz and Dachau with thoughts of horror and disgust welling up within. As I did then, I do so now. I encourage all Christians to not forget that Jesus was born and died a Jew. Jesus was not a Christian. If during the Second World War more Christian church leaders had stood up in pulpits and proclaimed that Jesus was a Jew, then maybe history would have been different. The name Christian was given to the “Followers of the Way” many years after the death of Jesus.

Roy Tanenbaum: Coming together in dialogue over difficult issues represents an advance in interfaith relations — formerly confined to how we are similar, and then to where we differ. Being sufficiently comfortable to discuss issues that matter brings us to new levels of communication, the communication of friends who share their deepest concerns. 

How, then, do many Jews regard Jesus? In much the same way, I suppose, that many Christians regard Mohammed. Some with indifference, Mohammed possessing little relevance to their personal lives. Some with a general recognition that Mohammed was a prophet but without knowing much of the substance of what he stood for. Some with a concern for attacks perpetrated in Mohammed’s name, which, but for the Battle of Vienna in 1683, almost led to the fall of Christianity and may do so again.

PH: Rabbi Roy, our first brothers and sisters in the Christian faith were called “Followers of the Way,” the way of the Rabbi Jesus. Jesus saw Himself very much within the history and family of Israel. The early community in Jerusalem under the leadership of James was very much within the Jewish faith culture. Let’s not forget that Peter, James and John were headed to the Temple to pray as was their custom when they encountered the man who was lame. If the Romans had not destroyed the temple in 70 and thus wiped out that early community of James, then maybe Jewish-Christian history and relationship would have been different.

RT: Yes, when I look at Jesus, I see two things. First the milieu: Jesus in the synagogue, Jesus in the Temple, Jesus as a rabbi teaching and quoting Torah — it all fits the pattern of the Pharisees. I recognize it and it rings true. Modern Jews are the inheritors of the Pharisees and modern Christians likewise. I do not see Judaism as the parent and Christianity as the child. I see modern Judaism and modern Christianity as siblings of the same ancient parent.

Second, Jesus equals Torah. The role that Torah plays in my life as guide and inspiration for action and faith parallels, I think, the role that Jesus plays in the life of a Christian.

PH: The earliest intuitions saw Jesus as a reform movement within Israel. The early disciples of Jesus saw his life, death and resurrection as a fulfilment of the Torah and a redefining of the place of the Temple. Many Christian scholars argue that for St. Paul — whose special year we are celebrating — Christ is the climax of the covenant — the goal of the law more than the removal of it.

Having the name of Paul myself and trying to reread Paul and his letters and epistles during this jubilee year, I reflect on his thoughts in the Letter to the Romans. For Jews, the Torah was always the locus parenesis (the place from which those who exhorted Jews to be faithful found their arguments; the source from which Jews chose symbols that helped them live in a Jewish way). In the letter to the Romans, Paul disconnects Torah from that role.

He thinks that the resurrection of Jesus is that parenesis, not only for Jews or for some gentile cultures, but for all who are human. For Paul in Romans, to be in the people of God is to be resurrected people. Covenant hope is resurrection hope. He says the ultimate result of staying in the covenant is not a sense of having kept Torah — or of being a dead observant Jew — but the experience of being raised from the dead as Jesus was. It’s all about the experience of being a crucified-risen person “in” Jesus.

RT: Well, I’d turn it around a little. Whereas Christians say that G-d gave G-d’s only begotten Son to every faithful Christian to bring about salvation, Jews say that G-d gave G-d’s only begotten Torah to the People of Israel to bring about the redemption of the world. Both are experiential.

With all the conceptual similarity, however, some subtle differences persist. For one, Christianity tends to see salvation as individual. Judaism sees redemption as universal. For another, Christianity tends to see salvation as otherworldly. Judaism sees redemption as focussed on this world. So, in Judaism, resurrection is primarily a this-worldly phenomenon. For these reasons, I endeavour to adhere to the distinctive language of “salvation” for Christianity and “redemption” for Judaism even though in standard English the words are interchangeable.

PH: I like your distinction between “redemption” and “salvation.” I note however, that Pope Benedict XVI in a recent encyclical speaks of salvation being a communal reality as well as an individual one. Christians have accentuated the individual too much in the past. Maybe that had to do with the Enlightenment and modernity. Matthew 25 speaks of the nations being called before the judgment seat of God. As a child, I always saw this as a personal standing before God. Only as an adult did I see that it is really speaking about nations.

In the Gospel of John, chapter four, when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well and she notes that Jews worship in the temple in Jerusalem and the Samaritans on the mountain top, He tells her: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father (God) neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . . The hour is coming, and is now here (for John the hour is the death and resurrection of Jesus), when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship Him.”

RT: Well, there it is. Christianity began with an apocalyptic notion that salvation was imminent, universal, and imminent in this world. As I see it, it was only later, when the anno domini did not materialize, that Christianity was forced to personalize salvation and look for a “second coming” that would bring about worldly redemption. So we do share the vision. Your anticipated second coming is our anticipated first coming. In the meanwhile, we do need community, marriage, justice, property and a work ethic — all the values that our respective religions give us.

John also says, “In the beginning was the Word (Torah)…and the Word became flesh (Jesus).” When we Jews look to Torah, Christians look to Jesus.

Fr. Paul, it has been great dialoguing with you on the core issues of Torah and Jesus that so frequently create tension — unwarranted tension I think.

PH: Rabbi Tanenbaum, I thank you for inviting me to share with you this very interesting conversation about Jesus and Torah. “In the beginning was the Word...” Christians know Jesus as the Word. Jews hold Torah. Much food for thought.

(Rabbi Roy Tanenbaum, Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, has been involved in interfaith work for many years and, amongst other work and numerous publications, is a Board Member of CJDT. He has also consulted on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Jubilee Statement of 2002 concerning Catholic-Jewish relations. Fr. Paul Hansen has been very involved in social justice work both here in Canada and abroad and has studied in the United States, Latin America, the Middle East and Germany.)

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