Can Jews debate Jesus dispassionately? Should they?

Wall Street Opinion Journal Jordana Horn Friday, May 4, 2007

Interrupting the Intellectuals

“What’s He Doing Here?: Jesus in Jewish Culture.” An unusual conference title, to be sure, for what proved to be an unusual event on a beautiful spring Sunday in New York. Writers, critics, filmmakers and scholars gathered at the Center for Jewish History to discuss the man whom Leon Wieseltier termed “the world’s most famous ex-Jew.” The gathering was an intellectually illustrious one. Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt and poet Robert Pinsky were speakers on a panel coyly titled “Why I Think About Jesus.”

And why not think about Jesus? It is rather hard to avoid contemplating Jesus, it was pointed out, since the rest of the Western world does so often–and often beautifully–in its literature, art and music. But for Jews, Mr. Greenblatt stated, it can be liberating to view certain religiously inspired works from the vantage point of the outsider. He emphasized the intense intellectual pleasure to be drawn from the dichotomy between the Jewish critic and the Christian-inflected text–the inherent appeal of knowing how to interpret the symbology and yet remaining apart, invulnerable to its pull.

The very existence of the conference, with its contemplating-Jesus theme, implied such invulnerability. Clearly American Jews feel secure in their own beliefs–and at home in a culture with such strong Christian origins–if they can ask, only slightly tongue in cheek (and on a Sunday, no less!), “What’s he doing here?” The comfortable atmosphere at the Center for Jewish History was a far cry from, say, the climate surrounding the 1263 Disputation of Barcelona, in which a Dominican friar debated Rabbi Nachmanides over whether Judaism or Christianity was the “true” faith. For what it’s worth, the king of Aragon, for whom the debate was conducted, gave Nachmanides a prize when the event was over, saying that he had never heard “an unjust cause so nobly defended.”

. . . more