Jacob Neusner's exceptional book, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, gets at the heart of why Jews struggle to accept the entirety of Jesus' teachings. While avoiding new age relativist methodologies in dialogue, Neusner capitalizes on the reality that differences in belief do exist between Christians and Jews, and only by understanding these differences, can one truly engage in dialogue. Making it, as Pope Benedict the 16th compelling stated, "...the most important book in Jewish-Christian dialogue in the last decade."
In the opening lines, Neusner candidly explains that if he would have been a Jew in first century Palestine, he would not have joined the circle of Jesus' disciples. Even more, he writes that, "If I heard what ... [Jesus] said in the Sermon on the Mount, for good and substantive reasons I would not have followed him." Throughout the book Neusner envisions himself talking with Jesus and sincerely provides cogent reasons as to why he would have found it difficult to accept what Jesus had to say. However, Neusner's objective is neither proselytism nor apprizing Christians as to why their claims about Jesus are erroneous, rather it is to delineate some of the essential issues that divide Christians and Jews. While doing this, Neusner shows the utmost respect for Christian beliefs and takes seriously the teachings of Jesus, which is an essential ingredient for religious dialogue. For that reason, reading this book not only provides the reader with a deeper understanding of Judaism but also becomes a model for how to engage in religious dialogue.
The heart of Neusner's argument is based on the Jewish belief that the Torah gives the necessary guidelines for how to live in God's kingdom and according to Neusner, "by the truth of the Torah, much that Jesus said is wrong." Neusner proves this by envisioning himself responding to Jesus' teachings in the context of a Jew who saw Israel's religion as genuine and faithful, in comparison to a religion that needed reform and renewal. Yet at the same time, Neusner takes to heart what Jesus preached and finds some things very appealing, but he significantly struggles with the nuances of Jesus' teachings, because he believes that if examined closely, it is incongruent with the Torah.
Thus, Neusner begins vicariously placing himself amongst an intrigued crowd who are listening attentively to Jesus preaching what will become known as the Sermon on the Mount. Neuser is at first impressed with Jesus' moving proclamation of the beatitudes' and finds it compatible with the Torah; nonetheless, Neusner's positive reaction suddenly changes as Jesus continues with his sermon: "You have heard that it was said, `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil" (MT 5:38-39). Jesus' shocking words leave Neusner bewildered as he struggles to find parallels between resisting one who is evil and "an eye for an eye," but even more, to find parallels between what Jesus said and what the Torah teaches.
Stepping out of the first century and into the present, Nuesner explains that from a Jewish perspective "it is a religious duty to resist evil, to struggle for good, to love God, and to fight against those who make themselves into enemies of God." He goes on to mention that the Torah says nothing about resisting evil and actually looks down on those who behave cowardly and submit. In fact, the Torah expects Israel to always struggle for God's purpose, and in light of that cause, sanctions warfare. Sardonically, Neusner writes how amazing he found "...Jesus' statements that it is a religious duty to fold before evil." Neusner does, however, acknowledge the twenty-fifth proverb which stresses the importance of providing good, ethical treatment for one's enemies, but "not resisting one who is evil" is a completely different concept than fair treatment of one's enemies, and more importantly, it opposes the Torah. Neusner also argues that Jesus' teachings address a group of disciples and not internal Israel. "Jesus has spoken only about how I, in particular, can do what God wants of me. In the shift from the "us" of Sinai to the "I" of the torah of the Galilean sage Jesus takes an important step - in the wrong direction. And If I had been there, I would have wondered what he had to say to not me but to us: all Israel, assembled, that day, in the persons present, before him to hear his torah." This issue over addressing the "I" vs. "us" is a major problem for Nuesner, and he continues to point out throughout his book how Jesus neglects to address Israel as a whole and only concentrates on the individual.
In an another context of Neusner's book, he argues that Jesus is teaching people to violate some of the Ten Commandments, in particular, "take care to keep holy the Sabbath day." Neusner's allegations are based on Matthew 12:1-8, where Jesus and his disciples pluck ears of grain and eat them on the Sabbath. When Pharisees accuse Jesus of `doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath,' Jesus refers to the great King David who did similar unlawful acts and then declares that he, the Son of man, is lord of the Sabbath. Jesus then enters a synagogue, where he continues the debate with a parable, and in conclusion avers that "it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath" (MT 12:12).
According to Neusner, Jews do on the Sabbath what God did on the seventh day of creation, and keeping the Sabbath "...is not about doing good or not doing good; the issue of the Sabbath is holiness, and in the Torah, to be holy is to be like God." Keeping all of the laws centered on the Torah may seem senseless to non-Jews, but Neusner points out that "Israel is Israel on the Sabbath" by living out those seemingly senseless Sabbath rules. Hence, Neusner doesn't see how Jesus' teachings on the Sabbath relate to him as "a member of a family, on the one side, and as part of a community, sharing in the social order of the holy people, on the other?" Furthermore, Neusner affirms that "only God is lord of the Sabbath" and that "the Torah teaches me to rest on the Sabbath, because that is how I learn to act like God." Thus, for Neusner, not only is it obvious that Jesus has violated the commandment to "keep holy the Sabbath" and taught others to do so, but just as in the previous example, Jesus continues to address only the individual instead of the community as a whole.
These two examples capitalize on Neusner's central points that, firstly, Jesus was not harmonious with the teachings of the Torah: "the Torah had told me things about God's kingdom that Jesus neglected, and Jesus had told me things about God's kingdom that the Torah had not affirmed," and secondly, Jesus' teachings tended to address the individual, neglecting the community or Israel as a people: "he has spoken to me, but not to us." Overall, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, coherently and concisely facilitates Jewish reasoning for not being able to accept the teachings of Jesus. Even more, it challenges readers to step away from post-modern relativist approaches of dialogue and instead lay claim to the truth that defines one's own religion.
Throughout the past few centuries, religious dialogue has taken on new shapes and forms as nascent views have immerged arguing that one cannot determine which religion holds "the truth" or is "the best." Thus, there is no objective truth to religion and each religion is true to the one holding it. This post-modern view differs significantly with medieval times when disputing the truth-claims of religion took center stage. One actually believed that their religion was the truth and having dialogue meant to engage in polemics. However, this medieval modus operandi diminished as the ideals of the Enlightenment led many to become indifferent to the truth-claims of religion. What soon emerged was a general toleration and respect for all religions. And the differences between religions were dismissed as trivial and unimportant. These fundamental ideas and concepts of the Enlightenment have continued to affect the West up to the present where now relativistic approaches to dialogue with other religions has led many westerners to believe that fundamentally all religions are relatively true for the beholder. Furthermore, the only way to have authentic dialogue would be to suppose, in principle, that the other can be as right, or more right than your beliefs. In light of this ideology, Pope Benedict the 16th wrote an extensive essay titled Relativism: the Central Problem for Faith Today. In this essay he explicates the perils of engaging in religious dialogue from a relativist perspective and states that it would seem as if it is a miracle that religions in general still exist. It is no surprise then that Benedict favored Neusner's approach, in A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, for they both have asserted the many differences that exist between Christianity and Judaism and believe that is through coming to a better understanding of these differences that one can have true religious dialogue. This contrasts significantly with a relativistic approach to dialogue which does not necessarily seek religious inquiry, but emphasizes, for the most part, that it doesn't matter what one believes to be true just as long as they seek to be good people.
At any rate, Neusner's book, under the auspices of Pope Benedict, challenges the Western world to not only strive to respect and develop a better understanding for other religions but to identify itself and be an apologist to whatever truth that their religion claims. This book definitely gave me a new perspective on why Jews struggle to accept the teachings of Jesus but also challenged me to not only strive to truly understand the differences and similarities amongst other religions but to identify and lay-claim to the truths of my particular religion.