David Klinghoffer, former literary editor at National Review has a new book just out–Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History–which, as you can imagine from the title, has gotten a little attention already. With Jesus on the mind this Holy Week, NRO Editor Kathryn Jean Lopez (a Catholic) chatted with her former office neighbor (an orthodox Jew) about his book, his claims (he tells Lopez: “Had more Jews accepted Jesus, Mel Gibson today might be praying toward Mecca.”) and goals.National Review Online:
David, you’ve got chutzpah. What were you and your publisher thinking publishing a book on the necessity of Jews rejecting Jesus so close to Easter?
David Klinghoffer: It’s not chutzpah. I’m just trying to answer the Big Question when it’s most on Christian minds. On Easter, Christians recall the death and resurrection of Jesus, his saving death, as they believe. The question is, Why don’t Jews understand that they also need the gift of unmerited grace that came with that death? The quickest answer is that Judaism has always understood that we received such a gift, but 1,300 years before Jesus died, at Mt. Sinai. The Christian offer of salvation through Christ’s death is an offer of a gift we already had in exchange for giving up the unique grammar of our relationship with God through the mitzvoth, or commandments. I also hope that my book will remind believing Christians of the most important thing we have in common: a belief that there is such a thing as religious truth in the first place. That idea is under attack from the secular left. In this sense, my book is a battle cry on behalf of both Jews and Christians.
NRO: You’re not a Biblical scholar. Why are you wading in such deep waters?
Klinghoffer: Because most professional Biblical scholars don’t believe in religious debate. The ones at secular universities mostly don’t believe there’s such a thing as religious truth–so what would the purpose be in debating? They believe in “dialogue”–that namby-pamby word, smacking of relativism, designating the activity where professors sit around talking to each other. So it falls to me, a journalist.
NRO: How can the whole of Western Civilization rest on the rejection of Jesus?
Klinghoffer: Because the earliest Christian church was initially hobbled by insisting that new converts adhere to Jewish law–keep kosher, be circumcised, etc. For an adult man to be circumcised was a bummer, let me tell you. The decision was made, however–at a church council in Jerusalem in 49–to jettison Jewish law as a requirement for new Christians. This was done at the apostle Paul’s insistence, and he explains in Acts that since the Jews were rejecting his presentation of Jesus as savior and messiah, the Christian message would now be taken to the gentiles. Dispensing with Jewish practices like circumcision made this possible. Had the Jews not rejected Paul’s preaching about Jesus, the church likely would have held on to those laws. Had it done so, the church would have remained hobbled, and could hardly have become the world-bestriding institution it is today. Jewish Christianity would have remained a sect in Judaism, and probably would have died out along with other such sects in 70 when the Temple was destroyed by Rome and the Jews scattered. In that case, there would be no Christian civilization, and, among other things, no America as we know it–a country whose founding was deeply influenced by Christian faith. There is a possibility that we would all be Muslims. Had more Jews accepted Jesus, Mel Gibson today might be praying toward Mecca.
NRO: If Christians are so wrong, how can we be indispensable to God’s plan?
Klinghoffer: God’s plans unfold in unexpected ways. Christians are right, in Jewish eyes, in many respects–most notably in bringing the God of Israel to the attention of the world. They have done a much better job of that than we Jews are doing.
NRO: You are grateful for Christianity and at the same time reject it–how does that gel? Don’t you ever want to convince your Christian friends they’re wrong and need to reject Jesus?
Klinghoffer: It’s a paradox, but history is full of paradoxes. Far from wanting to convince Christian friends they’re wrong, I want to do my bit to strengthen their faith. That’s one of the beauties of debate: it forces you to look again at your beliefs, at their sources, and refine your thoughts about ultimate questions. My faith has been strengthened and sharpened immeasurably by debating with Christians and others who don’t see things as I do.
NRO: Our friend Father Neuhaus makes the case that you may have a numbers problem–that the majority of Roman Empire Jews may not have rejected Jesus. Would that change things?
Klinghoffer: Fr. Neuhaus seems to have skipped the page where I say my book could more accurately–but less concisely–have been titled, “Why Those Jews Who Rejected Jesus Did So.” No one knows how many Jews became Christians in the first centuries of the Christian era. Why they did so isn’t the question people are curious about.
NRO: You’ve been tough on the likes of the ADL for the grief they gave Mel Gibson and his Passion. Why has that been important for you?
Klinghoffer: Because the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman is–alas!–the most respected voice in the Jewish community, at least judging from the way he’s covered in the media. This is such a tragedy because it gives the world the mistaken impression that the most important moral message the Jews have to share concerns the rooting out of purported anti-Semitism. That’s not what Judaism is about. Judaism is about bringing the God of Israel to the attention of humanity. It’s so dismaying that the Foxmans of the world have hijacked the meaning of our faith. That’s why I never miss a chance to rebut the ADL, especially when they’re tarring an innocent man like Gibson.
NRO: Speaking of The Passion, you talk a little about the villainy of the Jews in the movie, and note, for the record, that Jewish leaders did, as a matter of fact, kill Jesus. But then you have a discussion of how Gibson relayed that in the film. It seems to me what may be lost in the discussion over “the Jews’” culpability is that for a lot of the folks watching that movie as a bit of a religious exercise, the culpability was on the viewer. In other words, Kathryn watched that movie thinking, “I killed Jesus,” not “Look what ‘the Jews’ did.” Is that lost on the non-Christian?
Klinghoffer: First, let me emphasize that no one knows exactly how Jesus died. The Talmud and Maimonides seem to support the Gospel’s account in some respects–and that’s why it’s unfair of the ADL to tar Gibson as an anti-Semite for taking the Gospel’s position on what brought about the Crucifixion. If Gibson is an anti-Semite, so is Maimonides. What seems mostly likely is that Jewish priests–whom Judaism regards as having become thoroughly corrupt by this time, the ADL of their day if you will–handed Jesus over to the Roman authorities, who crucified him. As for the second part of your question, the theological meaning of the Passion story indicts all of mankind. But nowhere is that indicated in the movie. So if non-Christians don’t pick up on the theological subtlety, it’s not surprising.
NRO: What would you say to those who might argue you’re unnecessarily causing religious tension through your book? “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus”–I mean, do you have to remind us? Don’t you just drive us further apart, when, in the end, we do pray to the same God?
Klinghoffer: On the contrary, it’s not healthy for any relationship to sweep under the rug a question as big as this, a question that one side wonders about. The Christian-Jewish friendship is stronger than ever before, not least among conservative Christians and Jews. Further strengthening our friendship requires airing not only the issues on which we agree but also the ones on which we disagree.
NRO: In your book you air some dirty laundry–some pretty bad things Jews say about Christians. Is there any point in that, too? Aren’t you just going to give more ammo to Anti-Semites? And to Jews who are prone to hate Christians–or might be after reading your book?
Klinghoffer: Not about Christians–about Jesus. The anti-Semites already know these things, as a quick search of the Internet will reveal. I hesitated about disclosing some of this troubling material, but a) it wouldn’t have been an honest history of the Jewish-Christian debate without it; and b) in all fairness it pales in comparison to the things Christians have said and written about Judaism and Jews over the centuries. Just as recording the history of mean things Christians have said hasn’t made the present blossoming of a Jewish-Christian alliance impossible, I’m not worried about the impact of making known a few brief and cryptic Talmud passages.
NRO: You complain a lot about St. Paul, but, in the end, isn’t he a scapegoat of sorts for the fact you just don’t buy Jesus’ shtick?
Klinghoffer: I don’t complain about Paul, though I do show that it’s unlikely that he was what claimed to be–namely, a disciple of that era’s great rabbinic sage, Gamaliel. It seems doubtful that Paul could even understand Hebrew–his citations from the Bible are always from the problematic Greek translation, the Septuagint. He writes about Jewish spiritual life as an outsider, as someone who never experienced it. As I show, Jesus rejected the foundation of Jewish tradition–the Oral Torah, which explains the cryptic text of the Five Books of Moses, the Torah–but Paul rejected not only that but the structure built on top of that foundation, the Torah itself.
NRO: Besides maybe converting us, what would you like the Christian reader to get from your book?
Klinghoffer: I don’t want to convert you, Kathryn, and I know I couldn’t do so no matter how I tried. People believe what we believe for reasons that transcend argument. We believe because we have a certain kind of relationship with God, a certain spiritual experience. The arguments come later. What I want to do for the Christian reader is satisfy your curiosity. Jews, especially those who like me work and socialize with committed and conservative Christians, are asked why we don’t share their faith in Jesus. Or Christians wants to ask, but stop themselves. The question is meant sincerely and seriously. It deserves an answer.
NRO: …And the Jewish reader?
Klinghoffer: Michael Medved quipped that the only things all Jews can agree on is that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah. He’s right and it’s sad because, as I said, Torah is about so much more than who was or wasn’t the Messiah. It offers the opportunity of experiencing God through the mitzvoth, the commandments. What’s also unfortunate is that while all Jews agree about Jesus, very few understand even that minimal belief–they don’t know what the Messiah means, or what’s at stake in the question of who that Messiah will be. My book tries to raise Jewish awareness about these questions.
NRO: Could you have just titled the book “How the Jews Saved the World”?
Klinghoffer: Either that or, “How the Jews Gave Us the World We Know.” Or simply, “Thank the Jews.”
NRO: Will your next book be lighter?
Klinghoffer: Depends on what you consider light! I’m working on two books for Doubleday now. The first will be, “Broken Tablets: The War on the Ten Commandments.” The second will be, “Why God is a Republican: An Honest Look at the Politics of the Bible.”
NRO: God’s a Republican? What will the Reverend Al Sharpton say?
Klinghoffer: What I mean by that is if you look at the top 20 political issues today, as I will in this book, it turns out there’s much stronger support in the Bible from the conservative side in almost every case. The reason has to do with the question of whether people are morally accountable for their actions. The conservative view assumes we are free and responsible, which liberals don’t. That same assumption undergirds the Bible everywhere. How else could God issue us commandments?
NRO: Is God a Christian? Oh…nevermind, David. We best not go there!…