Jewish attitudes towards Jesus are changing. Rabbi Evan Moffic of the Solel Congregation in Chicago gives further evidence of this in his synopsis of what modern rabbis are saying about the carpenter from Nazareth. Moffic represents a younger, more inquisitive generation of Jewish thinking about Jesus. His findings might surprise many.
Here is a summary from Moffic’s “5 Rabbi’s Explain Jesus.”
A National Hero
In his book “Kosher Jesus” Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach writes that Jesus was "a Jewish patriot murdered by Rome for his struggle on behalf of his people... Jesus, I will continue to show, was a great political leader who fought for the liberation of his (Jewish) people.”
The idea that Jesus was “a great political leader” is not new. Many first century Jewish people including many disciples of Jesus believed that the Messiah would free the nation from Roman occupation. But when a modern 21st century popular Orthodox Rabbi calls Jesus a “patriot” and a “hero,” that news.
Perhaps even more controversial is that fact that rabbi Boteach has been very open with Messianic Jews, though his attempts at dialogue with Messianics has annoyed many in the ultra-orthodox establishment. In 2008 Boteach debated with Michael Brown, a Messianic Jewish leader, on whether belief in Jesus is compatible with Judaism.
Boteach is an American Orthodox rabbi, author, TV host and public speaker. Newsweek magazine named him one of the 50 most influential rabbis in the United States three years in a row.
The Penultimate Messiah
Rabbi Byron Sherwin is a rabbi in the Conservative Judaism movement. He trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary with Abraham Joshua Heschel. His list of scholarly articles and books is almost too numerous to count, on topics ranging from interfaith relations to bio-ethics to Jewish studies. Sherwin has been on the faculty of the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago for 40 years.
Rabbi Sherwin sees Jesus as a for-runner to the ultimate messiah. Jesus serves a similar role as John the Baptist does for Christianity. As Professor Shaul Magid puts it, "Yitz Greenberg and Byron Sherwin base their writings on Jesus on a more nuanced view of 'the messiah' in Judaism that distinguishes between a penultimate and ultimate messianic figure, each serving a crucial role in the messianic process." In other words, Jesus emerged out the yearning of first-century Jews for a national and spiritual savior, and his spiritual significance will be fulfilled in the future messianic period.
A Righteous Leader
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi in 1947 within the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic community while under the leadership of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn. Schachter-Shalomi sees Jesus as a Jewish Tzadik, a person of unusual righteousness who serves as a bridge between his community and God. Jesus as an example of Jewish virtue is "Torah incarnate," but not God incarnate. For Schachter-Shalomi, Jesus in his was opposition to the legal doctrine and focus of the Pharisees, offered a more mystical relationship with God through piety. In this way, Jesus served the same function for first-century Judean Jews as the Hasidic movement would serve for eighteenth-century European Jews.
The great 19th- and early 20th-century American Rabbi Emil Hirsch wrote and spoke frequently about Jesus. He saw him as a champion of faith in human progress and a teacher of the Old Testament. As Hirsch proclaimed from the pulpit, "He was of us; he is of us. We quote the rabbis of the Talmud; shall we then, not also quote the rabbi of Bethlehem? Shall not he in whom there burned, if it burned in any one, the spirit and the light of Judaism, be reclaimed by the synagogue?" Hirsch's point of view has been echoed in several contemporary books with the phrase "Rabbi Jesus" in their title.
An Ethical Exemplar
Emil Hirsch's brother-in-law Kaufmann Kohler was also a prominent rabbi and scholar. He was president of the seminary for Reform Rabbis for 25 years. He wrote frequently about Jesus, and while he was critical of Jesus' seeming dismissal of the law of the Old Testament, he highlighted his social message. For Kohler, Jesus was a "helper of the poor" and a "sympathizing friend of the fallen." He said Jesus learned these values at the synagogue and brought them to the forefront of first-century Jewish life.