Jesus in the Talmud

Amongst the deluge of commentary by Jewish scholars on the controversy surrounding the movie "Passion of Christ", very little has been said about the Talmud's understanding of the life and death of Jesus.

In my opinion, Judaism is the only religion that finds Hashem inside conflict, even though in many accounts in Torah the conflict run amok - Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Hagar and Sarah, Rachel and Leah. In the Gemara also, there are many accounts of relationships that run amok - primarily between Rebbe Meir, Rebbe Yohanan, Reish Lakish, Bruria and Rebbe Eliezer.

From all this we learn that a lot needs to go into making good relationships.

'Finding Hashem in the conflict' means that both sides must respect each other and feel confident enough to present their opinions. A very delicate balance is required, as both bullying and passivity lead to avoidance of engagement, and in both these scenarios people can't come close to each other.

Thus, within the context of the Torah, we must learn to hold our own and enter into dialogue with Esau and with Ishmael.

The Talmud presents our side of the story of the life and death of Jesus, and we need now to bring this version into the dialogue.

In Christian theology, the Gospels all present differing versions of the story, and I see no reason why our version should not also be included.

The Talmudic version is hardly known because it has been subjected to one of the biggest programs of suppression in history. Censorship in the Middle Ages was so extensive that twenty four thousand volumes of the Talmud were collected from all over Europe and burned in the Louvre. Thence forth, a Gemara that did not bear the censor's stamp was forbidden.

Every part of the Talmud that contained any reference to Jesus, Christianity or the Gospel was censored by the Christian authorities. Apparently, the censored parts were kept in the Vatican for centuries, until a person connected with the Steinzaltz Talmud project visited the Vatican and, with the aid of a photographic memory, retrieved them.

This incredible restraint and suppression of information tends to make one think that perhaps the suppressed information was true.

Even today, when the suppressed passages have been retrieved, they are still not included in many versions of the Talmud, including the popular Artscroll, and they are not studied in most of the world's Yeshivas.

The censored pieces have been collected in one book, but there is a reluctance to tamper with the censored version of the Talmud, and restore them there.

I believe this is because people are afraid. Those Jews who do know about this censored Talmudic version of Jesus' life and death don't want to draw attention to it because they fear it is too provocative.

We are complicit in the lack of dialogue on this issue, and I believe our complicity stems from shame. As long as we carry this sense of shame, we will find rationalizations for not entering into a dialogue.

With this in mind, we can study the Gemara (Sanhedrin 107b) tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth and his teacher R. Joshua ben Perhjah, who was one of the greatest sages of his generation. This (censored) passage appeared in the context of a larger discussion about the relationship of the Prophet Elisha with his student Gehazi, who had behaved inappropriately. According to the Gemara, Elisha, as a person on an extremely high spiritual level, was wrong to push Gehazi away with both hands. Within this context, uncensored edition continues:

What of R. Joshua ben Perahjah? - When King Jannai slew our Rabbis, R. Joshua b. Perahjah (and Jesus) fled to Alexandria of Egypt. On the resumption of peace, Simeon b. Shetach sent to him: 'From me (Jerusalem) the holy city, to thee, Alexandria of Egypt (my sister). My husband dwelleth within thee and I am desolate.' He arose, went, and found himself in a certain inn, where great honor was shown him. 'How beautiful is this Ascania (meaning both 'Inn' and 'Innkeeper' - R. Joshua used it in the first sense; the answer assumes the second to be meant). Thereupon (Jesus) observed, 'Rabbi, her eyes are narrow.' 'Wretch,' he rebuked him, 'is this how you engage yourself?' He sounded four hundred trumpets and excommunicated him. He (Jesus) came before him many times pleading, 'Receive me!' but he would pay no heed to him. One day he (R. Joshua) was reciting the Shema, when Jesus came before him. He intended to receive him and made a sign to him. He (Jesus) thinking that it was to repel him, went, put up a brick, and worshipped it. 'Repent,' said he (R. Joshua) to him. He replied, 'I have thus learned from you: He who sins and causes others to sin is not afforded the means of repentance.' And a Master has said, 'Jesus the Nazarene practised magic and led Israel astray.'

King Jannai was a 'questionable convert' - a 'Shomroni' - who, after becoming engaged in a dispute with the Sanhedrin, began killing off its members. Because of this, Rabbi Joshua ben Perahjah and his student, Jesus, fled to Alexandria, which had been a major centre for Jewish Diaspora since the time of the Babylonian exile. When the danger had passed, the pair was recalled to Eretz Israel by R. Shimon ben Shetach, head of the Sanhedrin. They stopped at an inn on their way, and here the split between R. Joshua and Jesus occurred. R. Joshua remarked upon the pleasantness of the inn, but, as the word for 'inn' and 'innkeeper' are identical, Jesus responded by commenting on the looks of the lady innkeeper. R. Joshua, incensed that his student should even consider commenting on the eyes of a married woman, excommunicated Jesus. Twice, Jesus came and begged forgiveness, but R. Joshua turned him away. The third time, R. Joshua intended to receive Jesus' tshuva, but when Jesus came to him, R. Joshua was reciting Shema, and held up his hand, indicating that Jesus should wait until he had finished. Misinterpreting this gesture, Jesus believed he had been rejected a third time, and due to his hurt feelings, he left his teacher, and in an act of rebellion, took up idolatry.

The Jewish version of this story is not dry, historical fact. We don't believe in historical neutrality. We believe in ethics, and in the history of moral choices. This story of Jesus' apostasy is linked to another story in the Gemara about a dispute with R. Joshua over Jesus' celibacy. Here, the implication is that celibacy does not stop Jesus becoming preoccupied with sexuality. This, at a time when 4,500 American priests are being accused of sexual misconduct, is a pertinent point. This moment, when Jesus leaves his teacher, is the incipient moment when Christianity was formed, and even here, the issue of celibacy and sexuality is present.

Jesus' act of rebellion in prostrating himself before a stone is reminiscent of the act of bowing before a Crucifix, which, among Christians, is a controversial issue, as some Christians are reluctant to do this. A strong case can be made to argue that bowing before a Crucifix stifles the opportunity for healthy dialogue and conflict, by introducing scape-goating behaviour. Praying to a figure who is being tortured to death is a controversial path, and has we have seen, the results are horrible.

The image of Jesus bowing before a brick is not, in itself, anything momentous, but it is the symbol of a process. In many situations, people can walk away with hurt feelings, without stopping to try to read the signs, or ask what they mean. These consequences of hurt feelings constitute a process that sabotages conflict. The sign that R. Joshua made, indicating that he needed to finish reciting Shema before responding, was an accepted sign amongst Jews, within the normal parlance, and yet Jesus was so blinded by his feelings of rejection that he was unable to read it. In this context, the Crucifix is an image of rejection.

Our task, as Jews, is to teach the world about the devastation caused by these responses to rejection, and so, the worst scenario of all is when Jews scapegoat each other. Instead of teaching about it, they replicate it.

For many reasons, this Talmudic version of the origin of Christianity needs to be included in the Talmud today. Nonetheless, many editions of the Talmud still omit it.

The Gemara draws a strong ethical imperative from the story of R. Joshua and Jesus: "If R. Joshua hadn't distanced and alienated Jesus in this way, Jesus would not have gone out embrace a 'bad culture'....R. Simeon b. Eleazar said: Human nature, a child and a woman - the left hand should repulse them, but the right hand bring them back. One must not attempt to subdue his desires altogether, which is unnatural, but to regulate them. In chiding a child and a woman, one must not be too severe, lest they be so disheartened as to be driven away far from repentance altogether."

The critique here is not of Jesus, but of his teacher R. Joshua, whose actions were contrary to good educational conduct.

This Gemara is teaching us the essence of the Four Letter Name, which, through joining the 'Right Hand'/Chessed with the 'Left Hand'/Gevurah, shows us how to bring 'Compassion'/Rachamim into the world. Our compassion is tested specifically when we are engaged in dispute and conflict. We are challenged to find the balance between respectful listening, and introducing our own opinions.

Christianity gained immense popularity because it posited a God of love at a time when people felt abandoned by the destruction of the Temple. The Christians were able to say, 'Look, God sent His son, He didn't abandon you.' They replaced the 'cruel God' of the 'Old Testament' with the 'Loving God' of the 'New Testament'. This is a very compelling message, especially when directed at people who are bereft, but it is a 'one-handed' message. Christianity understands the God of the 'Old Testament' as the Left Hand - Gevurah, and so it replaces this with the God of the 'Right Hand' - Chessed.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin portrays a Jesus who reacts against the strict, unrelenting judgment of his teacher by swinging totally in the other direction, to a philosophy of pure love, untempered by judgement.

Parsha Page