The new political alliance of conservative Jews and Christians has aroused curiosities.
About a month before Easter this year, I received a poignant letter from a prominent Seattle-area evangelical Christian businessman, a passionate activist for Israel. He wrote to invite me for a kosher meal at his home — and to discuss Jesus.
He did not, he promised, intend to evangelize me, a believing Jew. Rather, as a leader in the growing movement of Christians and Jews allying on behalf of the Jewish state, he was puzzled about what we Jews believe about the Christian savior. He was, he said, “ashamed that I never engaged my friends in what is the most important aspect of their lives, their faith, simply because some Christians — not Jews — told me to never ask these questions of my Jewish friends, or risk deeply offending them.”
With the approach of the most holy day on the Christian liturgical calendar, his questions deserve answers. As citizens of a largely Christian society, most Americans see Easter through Christian eyes: as a commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection, which won salvation for all mankind. My Christian friend was asking why Jews don’t see Easter as he does.
In wondering, he is far from alone. The new political alliance of conservative Jews and Christians has aroused curiosities. Jews like me who work with evangelicals and other Christian conservatives are often asked, by friends and colleagues mustering their courage, how nice people like us could possibly reject the risen Christ.
How, indeed. The best answer may be that what distinguishes the two religions above all is that Jews never saw a need for the sacrifice recalled at Easter.
The apostle Paul, who originated the most distinctive ideas in Christianity, taught that salvation is not something you buy with deeds — in particular, not with the Torah’s system of 613 commandments, whose practice he explained could now be discarded. Rather, salvation is God’s gift. God gave the ultimate gift in the form of Jesus’ saving death.
Later Christian theologians boasted of God’s unmerited “grace” as if it were a unique feature of their religion, while Jews were stuck with a discouraging faith where you try to earn your way to heaven by performing commandments. This represents a misunderstanding of Judaism.
As the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes, attributed to King Solomon, advises, “Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a glad heart, for God has already approved your deeds.” At the same time, Solomon crystallized the heart of biblical religion: “Be in awe of God and keep his commandments, for that is man’s whole duty.” How were the two ideas reconcilable?
In the Jewish understanding, salvation came in the form of the covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai — God’s gift. The commandments a Jew performs do not “earn” salvation. They are merely the response that God asks to the fact that the Jew is already saved — “God has already approved your deeds.” As a fundamental Jewish text, the Mishnah, puts it, “All of Israel has a share in the world to come.” Non-Jewish peoples had their own covenant with God, received by Noah after the flood. It worked the same way.
What about the great Jerusalem temple, often depicted as a mechanism for “purchasing” forgiveness with sacrificed animals — before the building was destroyed 40 years after Jesus died? Surely, this made the need for Christ’s sacrifice clear.
But Solomon also said that when the Jews were in exile, without a temple, they “should repent saying, ‘We have sinned; we have been iniquitous; we have been wicked,’ and they [will] return to you with all their heart and with all their soul — may you hear their prayer and their supplication from heaven and forgive your people who sinned against you.”
In Judaism, repentance is always available to people, Jews and non-Jews, who wish to “get right” with God. The temple sacrifices were an aid to this, not a precondition. That was proved by the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. The first temple lay in ruins for 70 years (before a new one was built). If God saw no need then for a sacrificial Christ, why would there ever be a need?
The offer of Christianity, for Jews, amounts to giving up the unique grammar of our relationship with God, the commandments, in return for a gift that we already had. This is why Easter is a day on which we should wish Christians all the blessings of their faith — a faith, however, that if we understand our own, we can never share.
David Klinghoffer, who lives on Mercer Island, is a columnist for the Jewish Forward. His new book, “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday), was published last week. He can be reached through www.davidklinghoffer.com