Rabbi Evan Moffic, the spiritual leader of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Ill., and one of the country’s youngest senior rabbis in the Reform movement, is shedding light on Jesus’ Jewish roots in order to help Christians and Jews alike see their faith differently with his book, What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness of Jesus (Abingdon, Feb. 2).
Why do you want Christians, in particular, to understand the Jewishness of Jesus?
First of all, today there is an unprecedented openness in the Christian community to studying Judaism and the Jewish roots of Christianity. Understanding more about Jesus the Jew is a way for Christians to deepen their faith and gain a greater understanding of their roots. Secondly, there is much misconception regarding Jesus’ Jewishness. Many associate the Jewishness of Jesus with the Old Testament but truthfully, Jesus was more like a rabbinic Jew, and so a better source for understanding the culture of Jesus’ life would be the Talmud. Finally, when the Christian community knows more about their Jewish roots, it tends to reduce anti-Semitism and to build closer ties with Jews and the Jewish community. I've seen it happen within families, with churches, and with civic communities.
Why is the Talmud a better resource for understanding the life of Jesus?
The Talmud contains the conversations other rabbis like Jesus were having during the first century. It is a record of the various debates, and contains stories very similar to those Jesus taught. Thus, it is a document—much like the New Testament—that reflects the world of Jesus rather than the world of the Old Testament. Jesus would have fit very well into the Talmud as a participant in its discussions and debates.
How can your book improve Christians’ understanding of the Jewishness of Jesus, and what impact will it have on their own faith?
If you want to know Jesus better, you need to know more about Judaism, the faith he practiced and believed. This book opens that up for Christians who seek deeper knowledge and a life closer to Jesus. It will change the way Christians read the Bible and the meanings they see in prayers. It will help them understand more about what the Word meant to Jesus as well as other followers of Jesus.
There is an entire chapter about the Lord ’s Prayer that many Christians have found enhances their understanding of the prayer. It is a deeply Jewish prayer. For example, when Jesus says, “Give us this day our daily bread,” he is referring to the double portion of manna as described in the Book of Exodus. [Also,] the Gospel of Matthew describes Jesus in a way very similar to Moses, and the parables Jesus taught resemble many parables in the Talmud.
How do you think that the book will be received in the Jewish community?
I think a lot of Jews want to know more about the Jewishness of Jesus. We live in a predominantly Christian culture, yet many Jews know little about the historical Jesus beyond that he was Jewish. So I think many Jews will find it intriguing and educational. On the other hand, some Jewish communities see Jesus as a symbol of anti-Semitism, resisting any mention of his name – and are likely to find my book offensive. I’m thinking of the reception that Shmuley Boteach’s book Kosher Jesus (Gefen Publishing, 2012) had among some Orthodox rabbis.
What is your response to critics who are against "blurring the boundaries" between Christianity and Judaism?
Different communities draw those boundaries in different ways. Some say praying in English and having a sermon blurs the line. Those secure in their Judaism should be open to learning how Jesus’ Jewishness shaped Christianity, without feeling as if they are compromising any of our core beliefs and practices. As for sharing our own tradition, the Torah is not just for Jews. It is for all people, and I want to share its wisdom, and that of Jewish tradition, with those who seek to enrich their own faith with it. Learning should transcend our communal boundaries and can enrich each of our communities.
This interview has been edited and condensed.