In my 1993 book “A Rabbi Talks With Jesus,” I imagined being present at the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus taught Torah like Moses on Sinai. I explained why, for good and substantial reasons based in the Torah, I would not have followed Jesus but would have remained true to God’s teaching to Moses. Much to my surprise, Pope Benedict XVI, in his new book “Jesus of Nazareth,” devotes much of his chapter on the Sermon on the Mount to discussing my book.
“More than other interpretations known to me, this respectful and frank dispute between a believing Jew and Jesus, the son of Abraham, has opened my eyes to the greatness of Jesus’ words and to the choice that the gospel places before us,” the pope writes.
I certainly didn’t envision this sort of a reception when I began writing “A Rabbi Talks With Jesus.” I wrote that book to shed some light on why, while Christians believe in Jesus Christ and the good news of his rule in the kingdom of Heaven, Jews believe in the Torah of Moses and form on earth and in their own flesh God’s kingdom of priests and the holy people. And that belief requires faithful Jews to enter a dissent at the teachings of Jesus, on the grounds that those teachings at important points contradict the Torah.
Where Jesus diverges from the revelation by God to Moses at Mount Sinai that is the Torah, he is wrong, and Moses is right. In setting forth the grounds to this unapologetic dissent, I meant to foster religious dialogue among believers, Christian and Jewish alike. For a long time, Jews have disingenuously praised Jesus as a rabbi, a Jew like us really; but to Christian faith in Jesus Christ, that affirmation is monumentally irrelevant. And for their part, Christians have praised Judaism as the religion from which Jesus came, and to us, that is hardly a vivid compliment.
Jews and Christians have avoided meeting head-on the points of substantial difference between us, not only in response to the person and claims of Jesus, but especially in addressing his teachings. He claimed to reform and to improve, “You have heard it said… but I say….” We maintain that the Torah was and is perfect and beyond improvement, and that Judaism — built upon the Torah and the prophets and writings, and the originally oral parts of the Torah written down in the Mishnah, Talmuds and Midrash — was and remains God’s will for humanity.
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So where does the argument now stand in the light of the pope’s renewal of the discussion? The pope writes: “Neusner addresses this mysterious identification of Jesus and God that is found in the discourses of the Sermon on the Mount.… His analysis shows that this is the point where Jesus’ message diverges fundamentally from the faith of the ‘eternal Israel.’ Neusner demonstrates this after investigating Jesus’ attitude toward three fundamental commandments: the fourth commandment (to love one’s parents), the third commandment (the Sabbath), and finally the commandment to be holy as God is holy.” The pope proceeds to address all three, systematically and in clear focus.
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Two new facts have opened the way to a renewed debate about religious truth: First, Pope John XXIII signaled the desire of Catholic Christianity to bring about a reconciliation between Jews and Christians in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and he expressed respect for Judaism. Second, the Second Vatican Council began the work of formulating a Catholic theology of Judaism and other religions, an enterprise realized for Christianity in Pope John Paul II’s “Crossing the Threshold of Hope.” The counterpart for a Judaic theology of world religions is Chief Rabbi Sacks’s “The Dignity of Difference.”
It is against this backdrop that one should view my exchange with Pope Benedict. What we have done is to revive the disputation as a medium of dialogue on theological truth. In this era of relativism and creeping secularism, it is an enterprise that, I believe, has the potential to strengthen Judaism and Christianity alike
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Now I really want to read the Pope's new book. And perhaps I should add Rabbi Neusner's book as well.