From a place of profound respect, Rabbi Jacob Neusner tells the story of an encounter with Jesus, of hearing the Sermon on the Mount, and turning over these new teachings on the Torah in his mind. In his book, A Rabbi Talks With Jesus, Neusner explores the places where the teachings of Christ shed brilliant light on the Law of Moses and carefully considers those things where, in the context of the Law, the two part ways. The terms are set very clearly at the outset: in no way is this a polemic against Christianity, and less still should it be read as Jewish proselytizing (if in fact there could be such a thing).
A few impressions, then, having completed it and in no particular order:
I thought the Rabbi makes an excellent case for his final conclusion - that in the context of the Torah, the Sermon on the Mount would have been insufficient for him to turn away from everything to follow Him. They part on friendly terms after several conversations and much meditation on the part of the listener. The imagined encounter brought to life the larger numbers of people in the crowds who heard Him teaching - many must have struggled similarly. And yet, even so, many did, in fact, choose to follow, even as the words of Jesus are made all the more radical some places than I might have appreciated prior to this book. Chief among these, Neusner points out, is the cosmic shift between the teachings of the Torah, which concern all of eternal Israel, and deeply personal nature of an encounter with Christ, who speaks principally to the individual. Where the Rabbi sees this as a departure from the eternal law and thus ultimately irreconcilable with the notion of Israel as a nation, a Christian sees the Word made flesh precisely to encounter humanity individually and concretely.
In the book, Neusner consults with a contemporary master of the Torah to answer the question “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”. The master responds with an answer which traces through the prophets, from Moses to Habakkuk, who finally comes to rest on But the righteous shall live through his faith.
“So,” the master says, “is this what the sage, Jesus, had to say?”
I: “Not exactly, but close.”
He: “What did he leave out?”
He: “Then what did he add?”
I: “‘But the righteous shall live by his faith.’ And what is that? ‘It has been told you, man, what is good, and what the Lord demands from you, only to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly before God.‘”
He: “Would Jesus agree?”
I: “I think so.”
He: “Then why so troubled this evening?”
I: “Because I really believe there is a difference between ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy and ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell all you have and come, follow me.‘”
He: “I guess then it really depends on who the ‘me’ is.”
I came across references to this book in Jesus of Nazareth by Pope Benedict XVI and recommend it to anyone who is at all interested in Christianity, Judaism, the places where they two intersect, and most importantly, the places where they must remain separate. This is a great book, and very much worth a read.