The Central Figure of Another Religion
Real questions, submitted by actual OU Torah followers, with their real answers. NOTE: For questions of practical halacha, please consult your own rabbi for guidance.
Q. I am a student at [redacted] University doing a research project on other religions. I have a few questions that I thought would be best answered by someone who has devoted their life to studying and practicing the Jewish religion. I want to be clear that I mean no offense through my questions, as I just want to learn about your viewpoint.
- What is the importance of Jesus in your religion?
- Do you believe in any of the New Testament?
- How did the death of one man spark the spread of a new religion?
- Many Christians believe that the book of Isaiah’s prophecies point directly to Jesus and his actions. How do you understand these prophecies?
- Are you still waiting on the Messiah? If so, are they coming soon?
A. Thanks for your questions, which were forwarded to my attention. I take no offense at the questions and I hope you will likewise take no offense at the answers. After all, we're already aware that we observe different faiths; we're just delving a little into why that is.
It surprises many that Jesus is no figure at all in Judaism. We don't talk about him or think about him any more than Catholics think about Mohammed or Baptists talk about Buddha. Accordingly, the New Testament has no more bearing on Judaism than the Book of Mormon or the Bhagavad Gita, i.e., none at all.
I happen to be familiar with the Christian interpretations of Isaiah, as well as with the traditional Jewish explanations. I will share two of them here:
Isaiah 7:14 is used as a prooftext to support the idea of a virgin birth but we maintain that the chapter doesn't support such a reading. (1) The Hebrew word alma means a girl, but not necessarily a virgin. (Besulah is virgin.) (2) It also says that the girl "has conceived," not "will conceive." (3) The verse doesn't say "a girl" will have a baby, but "the girl," that is, one who is known to Isaiah and Achaz. Generally, this is accepted to be refer to one of their own wives and to refer to either the birth of Achaz's son, King Hezekiah, or to Isaiah's own son, in the next chapter. (4) The purpose of the prophecy is to prove that the attacking nations of this chapter would be defeated while the child is still quite young. If it foretold the birth of a baby over 600 years later, it would not serve as a sign to Achaz that he would win, as both the war and his life would long be over by then. From context, the prophecy must refer a baby Achaz would live to see.
Isaiah 53 – the "suffering servant" – is likewise understood very differently in Judaism. Most commentators say the servant referred to in this chapter is the nation of Israel, which is referred to as God's servant throughout the Book of Isaiah. Look at the chapters leading up to this one – Isaiah 41:8-9, 44:1-2, 45:4, 48:20, 49:3 and others all overtly call the nation of Israel the servant. Israel is called the servant in many other places, as well, such as in Jeremiah 30:10. Jeremiah 30:17, just a few verses later, speaks of Israel as being afflicted. This verse is thematically the same as Isaiah 53:4 because they're talking about the same thing – the nation of Israel! Israel is called God's servant in many places throughout the "Old Testament" but the messiah is never referred to as a servant. (Ezekiel does use the phrase "My servant David" when discussing the messiah, who is the descendant of David, but David is the servant in those verses.)
So we know all of these chapters and verses. We're not ignoring them, we just understand them very differently.
We are still waiting for the messiah and we hope for his speedy arrival but no one knows when it will be.
As far as explaining the rise of Christianity, that's probably a question better asked of a historian. The famous Medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides, however, expressed an opinion that the rise of Christianity and Islam served to turn most of the world from idolatry to monotheism. That being the case, we can see such a thing as part of God's "big picture" even if we ourselves don't subscribe to those religions.
Rabbi Jack's latest book, Ask Rabbi Jack, is now available from Kodesh Press and on Amazon.com.