Rabbi David Wolpe's Article on Why Jews Should Not Accept Jesus - An Open Letter Response - Part 1

November 14, 2013

images-2This is a response to a recent article by Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, Los Angeles. The article "Why Jews Should Not Accept Jesus Whatever George W. Bush Thinks" appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward. You may read that article here 

Dear Rabbi Wolpe,

This letter comes to you with high regard for the continuing contribution you and your family have made not only to the Jewish people but to society at large. My respect for you and for these contributions helps to undergird my disappointment with your recent article in The Jewish Daily Forward concerning, Why Jews Should Not Accept Jesus. Nothing I write here should be taken to indicate that my respect for you and your family is diminished. But it should be taken as an appeal to you to listen to other voices you have apparently ignored or perhaps of which you have been unaware, that you might in the future address this sobering topic more appropriately. I write to you confident that you are someone who loves the truth more than comfortable opinions.

You began your article by putting the terms “Jew for Jesus” and “Messianic Jew” in quotes, calling the terms terrible misnomers “that owe more to marketing savvy than any theological truth.”

That’s where you started to lose me, and likely some of your critical-thinker readers as well. Your statement attributing the self-naming of Messianic Jews and Jews for Jesus to “marketing savvy” was cynical and unproven.  Frankly, the statement seems nasty. It does not commend you.  It also runs contrary to my experience, as one well acquainted with Jews for Jesus and a prominent figure in the Messianic Jewish Movement. Whether among Jews for Jesus, or the Messianic Jewish congregational movement,  choices in self-labeling are not clever marketing ploys, calculated to repackage a product in order to deceive. Rather, the terms we choose to describe ourselves not simply for others but among ourselves grow from  our deepening awareness and convictions about Jewish covenantal identity and its implications for our lives as Jews.

Suppose I began an article about you and your family by saying.”David Wolpe and his family are Conservative Jews because they want to avoid the more rigourous demands and explcit beliefs of Orthodox Judaism.” Such a statement would be nasty, unfounded, and prejudicial. It would at best mark me as someone who didn’t know what I was talking about. Please draw the parallel.

By signaling your disdain at the start of your article, you make it difficult for the thoughtful reader to deal objectively with the rest of what you have to say.

You then choose as a foil in your argument an unattractive stereoptype, an unsophisticated Southern Baptist preacher who had the temerity to address your 11th grade class at a private Jewish school by telling all of you, “You seem like nice boys and girls. But I must tell you that unless you change your ways, you are all going to hell.” Surely just about all your readers recoiled from this blundering bombastic boor.  Here you move  from nasty attribution of motives to dragging before your readers the most unattractive example you can muster. Is this reasoned argument?

You tell us of having interrogated this minister at the end of the class, reporting how you bested him in a verbal exchange. You demonstrated the non-essentiality of the Trinity by getting your pastoral interlocutor to acknowledge that each of the persons of the Trinity were perfect . This being the case, you retorted there was no need for the other persons in the Trinity because perfection needs no supplementation. The minister’s only response was to simply claim that the Trinity is a mystery.  So here we have an unattractive straw man giving simplistic answers, bested by a seventeen year old Jewish boy who easily deflated his pathetic position. While this may prove gratifying for some in your readership, Rabbi Wolpe, for the discerning reader this comes across as more propaganda. Why begin your portrayal of Christians with such a distasteful and inept figure? This does not commend you. I think the issue is so emotional for you that emotionally based canards have replaced your usual thoughtful rhetoric.

You then invoke “the spirit of pluralism” in your effort to help “Christian readers to understand why Jews have traditionally rejected the Christian understanding of Jesus’ life and mission . . . [and to] offer some clarity to Jewish readers who may wonder about many of the same questions,” saying  “ it is vital to renew the respect for the division that has always existed between those who accept Jesus and are therefore Christians, and Judaism which rejects any man as God.” I find this invocation of the spirit of pluralism ironic, since you telegraph from the very beginning that one thing you will not be pluralistic about is Messianic Jews whom you characterize as savvy marketers trying to sell an ersatz product. Axiomatically you allow for pluralism, but only for some. I am reminded of Orwell’s statement in Animal Farm that “all animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  If I may, I rise to moo a word of protest.

You turn next to some statements of religious differences between Christians and Jews.  First, you state a reason favored by the Rambam [Moses Maimonides, 12th century Jewish philosopher], that the Messiah must bring redemption and peace to the world, and the eradication of death, disease, and tragedy, asking two subsidiary questions: If Jesus is the Messiah, why was he rejected by the majority of the people of his time and now, and if suffering is the result of rejecting Jesus, why has so much of this suffering been inflicted by and even upon Christians?

As to why Jesus can be called Messiah when so many counter-indicators are apparent in the world, with him being so widely rejected, the same spurious argument could be used against the chosenness of the Jews, God forbid. “How can you say the Jews are God’s chosen people when they have been persecuted, murdered, exiled, pillaged and despised for thousands of years?”  These sufferings of the Jews are real, but you and I both know that they do not nullify the chosen status of our people.  Such an apparent contradiction is also true of Messiah. As you know, our Jewish tradition postulates two Messiahs, one of whom suffers death, the other of whom arrives in triumph, because our scriptures themselves present the same kind of paradox as that portrayed on history’s pages. You know these things, but choose not to report them. Why?

And as to why so much suffering has been inflicted by and even upon Christians, you ask a good question, which fair minded people of every stripe echo themselves. The Christian answer is that redemption has begun but is not complete. Isaiah the Prophet hints that such would be the case when, speaking of Messiah he says, “Here is my servant, whom I support, my chosen one, in whom I take pleasure. I have put my Spirit on him; he will bring justice to the Goyim.  He will not cry or shout; no one will hear his voice in the streets. He will not snap off a broken reed or snuff out a smoldering wick. He will bring forth justice according to truth;  he will not weaken or be crushed until he has established justice on the earth, and the coastlands wait for his Torah." Here we see a messianic process, contrary to the common assumption which you too adhere to of an instantaneous messianic transformation.

I agree with you wholeheartedly in the next point you make, that “There is reason to believe Jesus himself was a staunch upholder of the law. That which defined early Christianity, the rejection of Mosaic law, may not have been Jesus’ intention at all,”  and that “many statements associated with Jesus are straight from classic rabbinic literature.” Here you are saluting a standard that many Messianic Jews uphold. I say “many” because the Messianic Jewish community is rather diverse, with differences as wide as between Humanist Judaism’s standards of practice and those of Haredi Judaism.  And as for your statement that “where Jesus differs the variations, from a Jewish point of view, are more troubling than exemplary,” while some agree, this is not a viewpoint shared by all Jewish scholars such as Amy-Jill Levine and Daniel Boyarin, and others as well.

When you speak of the Trinity as a contradiction, you are saying nothing new. Those who hold to this doctrine, and even those who hold to the classical formulations of it, agree from the outset that it seems a contradiction. And frankly, no one would hold to the position if they did not feel it was a conclusion required by the full orb of scriptural testimony. The people who formulated these doctrines were not naïve idiots but sophisticated intellectuals well aware of the paradox imbedded in what they were saying.  It is similar to the argument about divine sovereignty and free will, an argument well represented in classical Jewish discussion. This too is a paradox, actually, like the Trinity, an antinomy, but just as Jewish scholars and tzaddikim [holy people] have held to the antinomy of absolute divine sovereignty and free will, so scholars and saints on the Christian side have held to the absolute unity of God simultaneously with the Trinitarian formulation. That some think this nonsensical is as unconvincing an argument as those who think the harmonization of divine sovereignty and human free will is untrue because they cannot wrap their minds around it.

[More to Come]

41 comments on “Rabbi David Wolpe's Article on Why Jews Should Not Accept Jesus - An Open Letter Response - Part 1”

  1. Rabbi Stuart,

    I appreciate you joining this discussion. As one who considers Rabbi Wolpe as one of my rabbis from my many years of attending Friday Night Live, I was deeply saddened by the mean spirited nature of his article especially reducing Messianic Judaism as just a "savvy marketing ploy".

    Rather than disagreeing with Messianic Judaism and belief in Jesus as Messiah which can be done responsibly he chose to use snide remarks and unfounded statements to denigrate Yeshua faith for Jews as just a scheme to convert Jews to Christianity rather than a different expression of faith. I had trouble sleeping the night I read his article as it devolved all the good and all the striving for Torah and Jewish life of the Messianic Judaism world into just a slick scheme to fool Jews as presented to his readers.

    Sadly he continues in his article to refer his readers for more on responding to Messianic Jews to Samuel Levine's book, You Take Jesus, I'll Take God, a book well known for alarmist rhetoric and emotional based arguments.

    I appreciate Rabbi Wolpe and his zeal but his passion has overrun his measured and reasoned thought in this case and I appreciate your reasoned and respectful response.

  2. Ditto the above compliments, Stuart. I would be greatly encouraged if eventually Rabbi Wolpe acknowledges his momentary lapse of intellectual integrity.

  3. I was surprised and saddened to read R. Wolpe's article last week. It was not his usual well-reasoned approach at all, and seemed beneath him. I so appreciate your thoughtful and respectful response which encourages him to apply his normal standards to the topic, and hope it gets at least as much attention.

  4. Dear Sir:

    I want to thank you for what you had to say. It was well thought out and well spoken.

    As a Christian, I've been taught that the Jews are the chosen of God. In the last few years, I've been taught that they always will be.

    The way my father-in-law explains it, by accepting Jesus, we have basically been adopted into the family of Abraham, since we are Gentiles by birth. Of course, he can explain it better than I do.

    I will never degrade another person's belief, simply because of lack of understanding on my part. A person should never degrade something he/she does not understand, at least I think so.

    I wish you well in your life and pray God blesses you.

  5. As always, you are a great word-smith. I, too, was disappointed in the classical "Jews for Judaism" from Dav, response from David, rather than the thoughtful commentary of a local rabbi that I have respected for many years. It is especially ironic that a rabbi who pushes the envelop regarding pluralism and scriptural interpretation, and who has proven himself to be so progressive within our Jewish world, is fearful of honest inquiry and dialogue in this sphere. I expected much more from him than this.

    1. Rabbi Murray, thank you for your note, and especially this, "It is especially ironic that a rabbi who pushes the envelop regarding pluralism and scriptural interpretation, and who has proven himself to be so progressive within our Jewish world, is fearful of honest inquiry and dialogue in this sphere." I think the word "fearful" is most apt. I too believe there is an element of fear behind the rabbi's uncharacteristically vitriolic response.

  6. Thanks again for your article. I enjoy following Rabbi Wolpe as well and always find him thought provoking I'm still disturbed by his article because I felt like he personally took MJ believers to court without a fair hearing. As a jewish believer I wrestle with many issues within my extended family and with believing and non believing friends and feel that we deserve to be heard and respected as much as anyone else. ps I'm not a blogger but feel passionate about this. We all have a story!

  7. "The people who formulated these doctrines were not naive idiots but sophisticated intellectuals". These guys did not even agree among themselves having heated differences until Constantine, (no giant of righteousness nor a theologian), had them come up with a unified doctrine by force which he could use to rule his huge empire. The meanest and nastiest words about the jewish people also spewed from the mouths of these "sophisticated intellectuals". I ask myself "if they so thoroughly mis-understood and contradicted what God had so clearly repeated endless times in the Bible about the centrality of Israel, why should I believe that their doctrines which require such a stretch, are correct?" It seems to me that they were guided by carnality, (ie envy, pride, jealousy, arrogance, lack of wisdom). Having been a leader on the Christian path for 30 years in both West Africa and Israel, I observed and learned many things about Christians, Messianic Jews, and the Scriptures. I do disagree with Rabbi Wolpe on one point. The Tanach is the best way to decide this issue. It clearly teaches us God's plan for the nations and Israel to know Him through what he is doing through Hi instrument Israel, not Jesus. Verses commonly used to support Messianic Jewish claims are taken out of context and only understandable if already coming from a New Testament understanding and layering it back on the Bible. I choose to stick with the original. Its the real thing!

    1. Mr Korn, My intent was not to give my imprimatur to all the doings of the Nicene Councils nor to give my blanket endorsement to all who participated. Rather it was simply this: these were people well aware that saying something is one yet three is a contradiction. They were not naive idiots who missed that. As for your abandonment of "the Christian path" and your bailing out on Jesus, well, that's food for another discussion. But not now and to in this comment stream.

    2. Well said Joseph Korn. Once you allow the Tanach to speak for itself without the overlay of the N.T. guiding the interpretation, you come to a significantly different understanding. Foundation first!

  8. Dr. Dauermann,

    Thanks for your well thought out, scholarly, respectful and Godly response to Rabbi Wolpe. I pray that he will find it thought provoking.

  9. Thank you Stuart Dauermann for speaking up. I believe a lot more people should. In fact, one local news station here in Dallas, NBC5, gave a report last night that began by reporter Kendra Lyn saying that pro-Israel Christian groups joined with the ADL and Jewish groups in opposing former President Bush addressing the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute fundraiser. I have asked for the reporter to name names since she did not. I believe if any "pro-Israel" Christian group told this reporter any such thing, they also have some explaining to do. These Christian groups need to come out of the shadows and explain how their position is that not compromising the faith of the one million Messianic Jews worldwide. And isn't it interesting that Jews for Jesus are in Israel right now conducting a legal witnessing campaign.

  10. Stuart:

    This is very well stated & I agree with the above blog exchange about the fear component - it is most unfortunate if we in the Jewish community are prevented from civilized dialog by an unwarranted sense of fear.

  11. Stuart,
    Thank you!!!
    I read nasty articles in "The Jewish Journal" this week ripping George Bush for even considering speaking to the Messianic Bible Institute in TX, quoting Rabbi Wolpe. Such hatred by Jews of other Jews is reprehensible!!! This can be nothing short of a demonic attack. Perhaps they need to come and see our vibrant communities. Where we teach intermarried Jewish kids how to be Jews. Where every week a large majority of our families are shomar Shabbos!

    Thank you being the voice of reason. I pray that those who seethe with such hatred, that they may have ears to hear.

    1. Thank you for your comment. I would not be so quick to label even such a disappointing salvo as "nothing short of a demonic attack." People can do evil, or oppose truth, or attack others without the help of "the dark side." This is not to say that such dark activity is not a reality. But knowing you to be a sharp woman I think you will agree, on second thought, that we out to be very cautious about such attributions.

  12. Let's focus on what unite the Jewish people, on what we have in common non the differences. God will work out the differences. The same I say for the Christians.

  13. Reading this blog just confirms again how fortunate I am to have had you as a rabbi how privileged I am to call you a friend!

    Boychik in CT

    1. Hey Boychik,

      Thanks for your kind note. But I have TWO questions:
      How did you not one but TWO such beautiful daughters?
      And, living in Connecticut, are you (shudder) a Red Sox fan? Or have your remained faithful to your NEW YORK roots.


      1. I was intrigued to find listed among your "Recent Comments" the above reference to this article from 2013, and I have now enjoyed reading all three parts of your response to Rabbi Wolpe, though I was surprised to see that your response which brought me to do so was not substantive to the topic. Curiously, I have just been reading numerous responses similarly decrying the existence of "Messianic Jews" because of the recent appearance at a Republican rally of one Loren Jacobs who was invited as a rabbi to offer a prayer and was introduced by VP Pence. The content of his prayer marked him more as a Jewish Christian than as a qualified rabbi, and his appearance was further marred by his wearing of a tallit but not a kippa. Now, I suppose it is possible to grant him the benefit of a doubt that he had previously been wearing a kippa and didn't notice that it had fallen off -- but the lack of one coupled with his remarks didn't present him well, and it further inflamed subsequent negative reactions -- not only toward him but also toward Republicans ranging from the Jewish woman candidate who had invited him, to VP Pence who introduced him, to President Trump who wasn't even there. Somehow I was expecting that your comment might have some connection with this event, but alas, no.

  14. This was a magnanimous response long over due to the Rabbi and all those that squash messianic beliefs without looking into them, to see if possibly messianics could be onto something withheld from them by the Jewish mainstream all these hundreds of year.

    We know Moshiach Ben Yoseph had to die, but never questioned at to why and what did He accomplish by dying. We also know Moshiach Ben Dovid is the One that will bring everlasting peace, but why is the connection not made that they are one and the same. One who came to die for our sins and then coming again. There cannot be two Moshiachs.

  15. Bravo!
    Rabbi Stuart, well said and lets face the facts that Yeshua has been unvailing the eyes of the children of Israel with His unfailing Love. Keep it up Rabbi

  16. Thanks again oh wise Rabbi! You are right. I believe I was so taken aback by the overall tone and irrational nature of the articles, that I may have overlooked the sad reality of human nature.

  17. "And frankly, no one would hold to the position if they did not feel it was a conclusion required by the full orb of scriptural testimony. The people who formulated these doctrines were not naïve idiots but sophisticated intellectuals well aware of the paradox imbedded in what they were saying. "
    This argument would be very easy to fend off. Those church fathers were not idiots, they were just Greek philosophers that had long before lost Jewish roots of their faith. They were the very people who chose to ostracize Jewish believers as heretics. Also, simply to say that they were not idiots, is not enough to fill their meaningless statements with common sense. As for "scriptural testimony", one who seeks always finds. People find "scriptural testimonies" for everything they want, e.g. reincarnation or homosexuality.
    I am not trying to speak against Messianic Judaism, of course, as I myself am a Messianic Jew. But we should realize that one who writes to a Jewish Rabbi should check if his arguments would be or could be convincing for the Jewish Rabbi, if, of course, that is the goal, not just applause from his fellow-believers. And if they don't convince even me, how can they convince the opponent?

    1. Dmitry, your comment, "But we should realize that one who writes to a Jewish Rabbi should check if his arguments would be or could be convincing for the Jewish Rabbi, if, of course, that is the goal, not just applause from his fellow-believers. And if they don’t convince even me, how can they convince the opponent?" is uncalled for, and an excellent example of lashon hora, which I assume you would decry. I am incapable of making a convincing argument for someone who is looking to find fault, and that is how you come across. I am well aware of what the Nicene Church Fathers did with respect to the Jews. Rabbi Wolpe's dismissal of the Trinity as patently ridiculous assumes that those who crafted the doctrine must have failed to notice the contradiction or were too naive to recognize how that contradiction makes the doctrine too ridiculous to believe. I responded that this was not the case. The Nicene fathers may have been anti-Judaism, but they had pretty much grasped that three is more than one. That was my point, and nothing you have said undermines its probative value. And again, your accusation at the end of your paragraph is unkind, uncalled for, and makes you look bad, rather than myself.

      1. Stuart, I am sorry that you take it like this. I had no intention at all to make you look bad. In fact, I was not discussing you personally, only the arguments. And I don't know what discussing arguments has to do with lashon hara, unless one takes any disagreement as personal offence.

      2. P.S. You wrote: "I am incapable of making a convincing argument for someone who is looking to find fault". But R. Wolpe is exactly the person who will look to find fault, and yet you wrote to him. I personally don't look for somebody's faults. An argument you don't like just strikes you as you read. Probably it was not a good idea to post my observations here rather than privately, but I wanted but good for the movement and you personally. In fact, after I posted my answers, I wished I was able to cancel them, but didn't find such an option in the blog.

        1. No offense taken, Dmitry. It is one of the faults of such brief written expressions that the emotional intent of the author is often misconstrued. I perceived your comments to be in the nature of an advantageous attack, and apparently I misconstrued your intent. My apologies.

  18. Dr. Dauerman,

    There are many good points in this article and I agree with so much of your reasoning regarding the interactions between the MJ and traditional Jewish community. While I'm not quite sure what to make of the whole Jesus thing (it seems to me as though we could make decent arguments for and against the idea) I am curious how you attribute the Isaiah verse that you quoted (here is my servant whom I support...) to Jesus rather than Israel. It seems many of the messianic arguments for Jesus use verses that could very reasonably (and a plain reading of them would indicate) attributing the subject to Israel. What are your thoughts on this?

    1. Thank you Ellen Pitts for your intelligent comment, to which two responses are appropriate. First, it is true that sometimes verses applied to Messiah seem to apply to Israel, but in those cases, first mainstream Jewish opinion is divided on whether the text apples to Messiah or Israel [as in the case of Isaiah 53, where the ancient Sephardic commentators in general favored a Messianic interpretation over Rashi's application to Israel]. Sometimes in fact, the application is dual. Will Herberg, the brilliant Jewish social commentator referred to Jesus as "the one man Israel," picking up on the fact that Messiah embodies in himself the mission of Israel and brings it to completion, which remains a common view. Secondly, in some cases the application seems to lean more decidedly to the Messiah himself as in this case. Notice the next servant song, in Isaiah 49, where this identity of the Messiah as the Israel within Israel is quite clear. Read the whole passage, and you will see also how it links the language of Isaiah 42 with Isaiah 53, by referring to this one as "one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation," which ties in with Isaiah 53 and the one who is "despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not."

      In the Isaiah quote below notice especially the bold print which demonstrates that this servant is both Israel, and also one who has a ministry TO israel--the Israel within Israel. Do you see the coherence of the points I am making?

      Listen to me, O coastlands,
      and give attention, you peoples from afar.
      The Lord called me from the womb,
      from the body of my mother he named my name.
      He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
      in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
      he made me a polished arrow;
      in his quiver he hid me away.
      And he said to me, “You are my servant,
      Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
      But I said, “I have labored in vain;
      I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
      yet surely my right is with the Lord,
      and my recompense with my God.”
      And now the Lord says,
      he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
      to bring Jacob back to him;
      and that Israel might be gathered to him—
      for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
      and my God has become my strength—
      he says:
      “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
      to raise up the tribes of Jacob
      and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
      I will make you as a light for the nations,
      that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

      Thus says the Lord,
      the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
      to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation,
      the servant of rulers:
      “Kings shall see and arise;
      princes, and they shall prostrate themselves;
      because of the Lord, who is faithful,
      the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

  19. Dr Dauermann, I am a Jewish believer. I was saved after being asked by another Jewish believer to read it to her on the phone. Who is the he and him I asked. At the time, I talked to my then Rabbi and he said it was about Israel. Yet if you substitute Israel for every he or him it doesn't make sense. Was Israel a person of sorrows? Did Israel pierced through for our transgressions? And by Israel's scourging people were healed? When did all of our iniquities fall on Israel, when was Israel afflicted and led to the slaughter and did not open it's mouth. I didn't know Israel had a mouth. I loved hearing your testimony. God does all the work of salvation for those who are elected before by God.

    1. Thank you for your kind note. I am delighted you found my personal account compelling. I think one of the chief arguments against missing the Messianic interpretation of Isaiah 53 is to be found in an old book by Driver and Neubauer who chronicle how many of the ancient rabbis unselfconsciously applied it to the Messiah. Also, interestingly, MANY in Habad who held Rabbi Scheerson to be the Messiah, used Isaiah 53 as one of his credentials! There was as teacher/rabbi at Brooklyn College, David Berger, who wrote a scathing book/attack on Habad for doing so, saying that by using such texts in such a manner they lend credence to the Christian position. So again, thank you for writing. Please do so again.

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