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    Jews, Judaism & Christmas – Sydney Morning Herald

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on 22 December, 1997.

    Hopes are shared at Christmas, between Jews and Christians, for peace and goodwill, writes RAYMOND APPLE

    Jesus preaching, by Gustave Dore, 1891

    Jesus preaching, by Gustave Dore, 1891

    As we were leaving a meeting last week, a good friend who is a bishop asked me, “Is it appropriate to wish you a happy Christmas?” “Not really,” was my reply, “but it is certainly appropriate for me to wish it to you.”

    That sums up the contrasting roles of Christians and Jews in the celebration of Christmas. Despite the fact that there are Jews who get caught up in the tinsel and commercialism of the season, Christmas is not a Jewish but a Christian occasion, marking the birth of the Christian saviour.

    True, Jesus was a Jew. He was born of a Jewish mother, lived in a Jewish milieu, prayed Jewish prayers, observed Jewish practices, and if he were to come back to earth today would probably feel more at home in synagogue than church. He was not a Christian; Christianity is the religion about him that developed later.

    If, then, he was a Jew among Jews, what do Jews say about him? That he was a rabbi? Though the Gospels address him as such, the term did not become common until later. The sages of the time are known by their personal names – Hillel, Shammai, – without a rabbinic title.

    Was he a prophet? By this stage the era of Biblical prophecy was over. Certainly he was a charismatic preacher, but this in itself does not make a prophet. Nor is it relevant to find him foretelling events: biblical prophets were not necessarily foretellers but forthtellers.

    Was he Messiah? Scholarship is not certain whether he personally considered himself to be Messiah. Judaism in any case is not convinced that he fulfilled the messianic prophecies about bringing about an age of peace, unity, justice and serenity.

    Was he an Essene? A Pharisee? A Sadducee? Though one might not think so in the light of New Testament attitudes, his teachings and methods of preaching are closer to the Pharisees than any other group.

    So how could he have criticised the Jews of the time? The fact is that there are no non-Jews in the story. The Jews he criticised were his Jews. Like Isaiah, Amos and Jeremiah he criticised his own people from within, as Jews still do. It is only in a later age that the portrayal changes from critical insider to critical outsider.

    So what kind of Jew was he? The well-known distinction is between Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. Geza Vermes, however, in his Jesus and the World of Judaism, pinpoints a different distinction – between Galilean Jew and Jerusalem Jew.

    Jesus represents the Galilean Jew. Such people were regarded in Jerusalem as unsophisticated. In Galilee, leadership was not so much by reason of Torah learning as personal magnetism. In this mould, Jesus was a teacher, preacher and healer: not a healer in the sense of a professional physician but because he believed that sickness, demons and sin were interconnected.

    The simple religiosity of Galilee contrasted with the emphasis on learning and correct practice in Jerusalem. It is the age-old dilemma – spontaneous piety or institutional religion? But Jesus’ criticism of religious establishment attitudes parallels the Pharisaic sages’ own criticism of religious behaviourism.

    Can a Jew celebrate Jesus’ birthday? The answer is that Christmas really represents not so much the Jesus of his time but the Jesus of later theology. With that theology, with its differing views of the nature of God, and man, the status of Jesus, the ways to salvation and atonement, faith as against works, the personal authority of Jesus as against the eternal authority of the Torah, and the future role of Judaism in history, Jewish thinking parts company.

    Judaism and Christianity have commonalities, and they have distinctions. Because there are distinctions, some things are only for Jews and some are only for Christians. Jews appreciate the ideals of peace on earth and goodwill to all (though they wonder why the Christians themselves have often not lived up to these ideals), but they cannot observe Christmas.

    That is why I wished the bishop a happy Christmas, but it was not quite appropriate for him to extend the same greeting to me.


    new-testament-people-a-rabbis-notesNEW TESTAMENT PEOPLE: A RABBI’S NOTES

    Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple’s book discusses some 98 themes in the New Testament and Christianity and shows how Jesus and the early Christians can only be understood against a Jewish background. Rabbi Apple never resiles from his own faith and commitment, but sees the book as a contribution to dialogue.

    The softcover and ebook editions are available from Amazon, AuthorHouse, The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), and elsewhere online.

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