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fALL 2004  
Vol. 33, No. 1

FOCUS: Navigating Antisemitic Encounters

by Harold M. Schulweis

Out of ignorance of our own sacred story, we tend to see ourselves through another's eyes.

Shortly after the release of Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ, a Jewish man sitting next to me at a dinner celebrating a Jewish communal philanthropist asked me nervously, "Rabbi, how do we respond? Did the Jews kill their god? Why do we Jews reject Jesus? Why did we not appreciate his suffering?"

From the depth of his questioning, I knew that something more than fear of antisemitism was at work. His questions reminded me of the one parents used to ask me in my earlier years in the rabbinate: "What do I say to my child who wants to know, 'Why can't we have a Christmas tree?'" Over time I realized that these parents were not concerned about the tree. They were really asking, "Why can't we be Christians?"

This man who asked me about Jesus is not alone in his concern. In conversations about the movie with other Jews, I've heard similar undertones of doubt. And I've come to believe that this doubt is primarily born of Jewish--not Christian--ignorance.

Yes, we need to understand the Christian sacred story, but first we must understand our own. Every religion has its root story which expresses the purpose and meaning of life--who we are, what we hope our children will become, how we regard those who may not accept our story. Without understanding what Judaism affirms, we are left only with what others consider to be our rejection of their religious tradition. Out of ignorance of our own story, we tend to see ourselves through another's eyes.

Asking why we killed the son of God derives from their story, their premises and presuppositions. In our story, the question "What does it mean to torture and murder God?" makes no sense. In our story, God is not a person, not incarnate, not made of flesh and blood. In our story, no one who walks the face of the earth is divine. As it says in the Book of Ecclesiastes: "There is no person who has walked the face of the earth and has done good and who has not sinned." In our story, the struggle is against apotheosis, making of anyone a god. In our story, no priest, patriarch, rabbi is worshiped. In our story, we do not even know where Moses was buried, lest his burial place become a shrine. In our story, God is not visible, not mortal, not victim, not capable of being killed. In our story, God is not a sacrifice; we bring sacrifices in the name of God. In our story, when Abraham believes that God would have him sacrifice his son Isaac, the angel of God intervenes: "Do not raise your hand against this child or do anything to him." In our Passover story, the name of Moses is not to be found in the haggadah, lest we deify a human being. This is our affirmation, not our rejection.

We are asked why we do not accept a savior to save our souls from the burning coals of perdition. This question makes sense from the point of view of their story, which is based on the belief that every human embryo is stigmatized by an original, involuntary sin, like DNA, inherited from conception. In their story, sin is supernatural and therefore cannot be overcome, erased, or expiated by human efforts. In their story, vicarious atonement, the death of God's son, can wipe out my sins. In our story, no sin is original; no sin is supernatural. My sins are not inherited; they are of my doing, and I am responsible for expiating my transgressions. No one else can suffer for the hurt I have inflicted on others; it is I who must bind the wounds.

We must respect the uniqueness of each other's story, but we ought not impose our story upon the other. Am I to respond to the question "Why did you reject Jesus as the son of God?" with "Why did you reject the tradition of Moses? Why did you reject the mother faith?"

When others impose their story upon us by speaking of saving our souls from perdition, it comes from the belief that souls must be saved, that extra ecclesia nulla salus, "outside of the Church nobody is saved." In our story, no one who lives a good and decent life is excluded from the world to come. In our story, hell is not an eternal torture for people who don't believe. In our story, hell is here on earth--starvation, slavery, genocide, prejudice, hatred. In our story, Rabbi Jacob teaches that "one hour of repentance and the practice of good deeds are better than the entire world to come" (Talmud, Ethics of the Fathers 4:22). In our story, the sages declare: "I call as witnesses heaven and earth that be it an Israelite or Gentile, a man or a woman, only according to the deed does the Holy Spirit rest upon him" (Tanna debe Elijah Zutta). In their story, souls are saved. In our story, lives are to be saved.

So how are we to respond to such questions as "Why did the Jews reject Jesus?" We must engage our Christian friends in continued dialogue to understand the sanctity of our respective stories. But first we must understand our own story, our own theology--what we believe, and why.

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis is spiritual leader of Valley Beth Sholom in Encino, California and the author of Finding Each Other in Judaism: Meditations on the Rites of Passage from Birth to Immortality (URJ Press).

First Place Award Winner for Excellence in Jewish Journalism
and a Benefit of Membership in a Union Congregation

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