The Messiahship of Jesus is not an open question in the Jewish community. A rabbi’s study of Christianity is based on the assumption that Jesus is not the Messiah and the New Testament is not the inspired Word of God in the same sense that the Torah is. With such assumptions, Jewish students of Christianity always come to the same foregone conclusion, namely, that Jesus is not the Messiah. With the weight of responsibility upon them for the local Jewish community, few rabbis will consider the issue openly or sympathetically.
There is a reason for this lack of openness. Rabbinic theology is different than biblical theology. Rabbinic Judaism is not the religion of the Bible. This divergence was already taking place before the time of Jesus among different groups. At the time of Jesus there were a number of different sects within Judaism, each with its own set of doctrines and beliefs. With the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and the loss of the priesthood and the means of sacrifice, there were only a few main options available to the Jewish community. One was to accept the death of Jesus as the atonement for sin. The other chief option was to reconstruct Jewish thought so that the community could exist without a Temple and so that sin could be forgiven without sacrifice.
This was the choice of the sect of the Pharisees, whose point of view ultimately prevailed to become what has been called ‘mainstream Judaism’ or current rabbinic Judaism. In place of the Scriptures as the chief guide to life, the rabbinic discussions of the Talmud and the various layers of tradition became the focal points for organizing Jewish life and thought. As a result, because there was no place for Jesus in these traditions, it became a foregone conclusion that he was not the Messiah.
This position was cemented by the ongoing interaction of Jews and the institutional church. Thus, in medieval times, the rabbinic stance against he claims of Jesus and the teaching of the New Testament was fortified. The meaning of Isaiah 52:13-53:12 was originally thought to be Messianic. However the famous French rabbi Rashi reinterpreted it to attribute the passage to the nation of Israel.
Maimonides substituted the term yachid for echad in describing God. So a word for an indivisible unity was used rather than the word suggesting a compound unity which is actually used in the Shema.
Belief in Jesus is not simply a matter of intellectual persuasion. It entails the crucial decision to admit that one is sinful and to repent and trust in Jesus as the atonement of sin. This is a difficult admission for anyone to make, whether he is a rabbi or not, or whether he is Jewish or Gentile. How much harder for one in a position of responsibility in the Jewish community to take such a step.
There have been rabbis who have come to believe. One was Rabbi Iechiel Lichtenstein, district rabbi in Tapio Szele, Hungary, during the nineteenth century. There was also Rabbi Chil Slostowski, an Orthodox rabbi in Dubnow, Poland, and later at Lodz. In the New World, one could name Max Wertheimer, a Reform rabbi who served in Dayton, Ohio, in the early twentieth century. Even today, there are rabbis like Harold Vallins in Melbourne, Australia, who have come to believe Jesus is the Messiah. They were willing to face the consequences of their belief in Jesus because they were convinced that it was true.
If Jesus was the Messiah, why don’t the Rabbis believe in him?