Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Last month, I wrote an article about translating a blessing for a local Messianic Church to be used on the atarah or collar of a tallis, or prayer shawl. The very respectful and conscientious request came from someone I know well through his appropriate and reverent engagement in my synagogue. I did the translation even though it certainly pushed the edges of what was comfortable for me both as a Jew and as a rabbi.
It turns out, sharing this story caused a bit of a stir and has left me wondering what the bounds are for talking about Jesus in Jewish circles.
The article you saw on this site was different than the one I originally submitted. Initially, I opened my article with the words of the blessing which read Blessed are you Jesus the Messiah, King of the Universe, who saves and delivers your remnant. It was a bold opening line meant to grab your attention. And it did grab attention from the site editors who felt that beginning with these words was not ok because it: “[Feels] inappropriate to lead with a Christian prayer, without any context.” The concern here, I believe, is that this is too much Jesus for a Jewish site. People might get the wrong impression about what kind of Jewish learning My Jewish Learning is promoting. Let me be clear here for a moment, I am not disagreeing with this logic. They may very well be right. As the editors of the site which is gracious enough to let me share my thoughts with the world, my Torah, as it were, I am not arguing with them. I have just never been edited like that before even though I often share some more border-pushing ideas. So, I know I have hit a nerve.
The folks at My Jewish Learning were not the only ones to push back. A few strangers posted some harsh and ugly remarks on my Facebook post. Many colleagues and friends respectfully commented that they understood my logic but never, ever would have reached the same conclusion I did. Some said maybe I had gone too far either by providing the translation for Jake in the original story or by writing about it and telling the world what I had done. There were those who worried for me that I will be turned down for future jobs or will isolate myself by having put this experience on the internet.
What is it about Jesus that is sometimes just too much for us Jews? He was a real mensch in how he treated the marginalized in society. As a Reform rabbi, I’ve taught sessions called Jesus; The Best Reform Jew Ever, because he modeled the cornerstone of Reform Judaism: Choice through knowledge. But, the painful and often violent history between Jews and Christians, which is tangled up in Jesus, is, I believe, the center point of this discomfort. Jews for Jesus or, Messianic Jews, being the most problematic. As Orthodox Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg said,
“There are Jews for Jesus who use the trappings of Judaism to bring people into a religion that teaches that Judaism is finished. Jews for Jesus are worse theologically than the mainstream of Catholicism or Protestantism, which now affirm that Judaism is a valid religion. Jews for Jesus say that it is not. They use the Jewish trappings, but de facto, they are teaching the classic Christian supersessionism—that Judaism was at best a foreshadowing of Christianity.”
Without ignoring the past and its challenges, and without ignoring that sometimes our values or beliefs may clash deeply, I think it is essential in this moment of history to lay down some of the fear and distrust between ourselves and those we see as “other.” Now is the time to bridge, work through, navigate and even transcend the very deeply held beliefs which can push us so far apart from one another.
Relationship is the essence of what makes us human. Connection gives our lives meaning and purpose. If we sacrifice the relationships we have to fear, caution, hatred and suspicion, we sacrifice our own humanity.
In addition, I just don’t think this is who we want to be. I know I don’t want to be so afraid of another person and their beliefs that I draw a line in the sand and say you are on the other side. I don’t think this is what God wants from us or what Judaism demands us to do.
Since writing the first article, I’ve had several beautiful conversations with Jake. If nothing else, I’ve shared a rare moment of connection with another human being. I believe it’s our primary job in this world to love and be loved (love your neighbor as yourself). This is the essence of the sacred business of being a human being.
The more I have thought about this, the more I know that for me, and just for me, there was no other decision to make other than to translate the Jesus blessing even as, or perhaps especially because, I struggled with doing so. I have strong feelings that the future of religion in America is about offering our wisdom traditions in the marketplace of ideas for all to use. Some will certainly take the beauty of our faith and use it in ways which are uncomfortable or even abhorrent. But most will take this glorious, magnificent thing we call Judaism and use it for bold, innovative and deeply sacred acts of human flourishing. To me, the gamble is worth the risk.
Jake now has the completed translation and the tallis is being made. What happens next with it is out of my hands but I am content knowing I did what I thought was best in service to something awesome, powerful and deeply Jewish.
No matter how much Jesus was involved.
 “Rabbi Irving Greenberg on Jewish-Christian relations, the Holocaust, Israel, religion, pluralism.” -Beliefnet.