December 28, 1930

"If Jesus Came Again"

Page from Holy Blossom Pulpit, v. 1
On December 28, 1930, the Sunday morning after Christmas Day, Rabbi Eisendrath delivered a sermon entitled “If Jesus Came Again.” The rabbi’s Sunday morning sermons (or lectures, as he often referred to them) were attended as much by Christians as by Jews—such was the rabbi’s reputation as an eloquent speaker with something important to say. It would, then, take some courage to speak about Jesus and Christianity to such a mixed group. He could easily offend either Jews or Christians. (According to him, he succeeded in offending at least the Jewish part of his audience.)
He begins by referring to Jesus as “the rabbi of Nazareth … a prophet like Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.” The picture he goes on to paint of him is one of a person, like himself, who is an anti-materialist and a passionate pacifist. (“The rabbi of Nazareth” is a term that Rabbi Eisendrath frequently uses for Jesus—a usage that grates on the authors of these articles, although Jesus is addressed a number of times in the Gospels as Rabbi. Further, we suspect a bit of projection on his part in casting Jesus as anti-materialistic and a pacifist. He may also be reading the prophets selectively to suggest that were cast in that mold.)

The rabbi says that Jesus would be scorned and shunned by Christians today, especially in their churches, especially the establishment churches. He suggests also that Jesus would be uncomfortable in synagogues today: “In the Orthodox circles his iconoclasm and free spirit would be despised; in Reform Temples his uncompromising hatred of all injustice, luxury, exploitation and greed would be greatly feared even before his name be known.” The rabbi suggests that he would be feared even more after his name were known.

Rabbi Eisendrath mentions John Haynes Holmes, an eminent Protestant minister much admired by the rabbi and to whom he refers often in his sermons. He quotes Rev. Holmes as saying that “it is to our [Jews] growing shame that we still bar this humble Hebrew prophet from our bosom and banish his lofty teaching from our midst.” This is a sentiment that Rabbi Eisendrath endorses.

Interestingly, Rabbi Eisendrath quotes Jesus directly only once in his sermon. Jesus refers to the Pharisees as “these hypocrites who like whited sepulchres outwardly appear beautiful but inwardly are filled with dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” [Matthew 23:27] It’s clear that Rabbi Eisendrath shares Jesus’s dislike of the Pharisees and what the rabbi refers to as their “pious pecadilloes.” He doubtless equates the historical Pharisees of Jesus’s day with Orthodox Jews of his own time, obsessed as they were with the details of ritual observance. (He would, we assume, be aware of the Pharisees’ positive side: that their reforms of ritual observance made possible the survival of Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple.) In this particular sermon, the rabbi is most critical of the worshipper, Jewish and Christian, whom Jesus encounters in the synagogues and churches that he would visit were he to appear in them in 1930.

The rabbi imagines Jesus visiting the most affluent house of worship:
And, as in despair he would leave that church filled with men and women lavishly attired, studded with diamonds, with their chauffeurs waiting obsequiously at the curb, he would not wonder long as to why his word and way are trampled under foot and scorned.
Jesus, according to the rabbi’s imaginative scenario, would move on to the slums, where “the conviction would grow upon him that more wicked and selfish and greedy and sinful is this generation than the one which sent him to the cross …” However, as he attempts to speak out against the inequities of 1930s Toronto,
… the arm of the gentle Jesus would be rudely grabbed by a brutal officer of the law, he would be stunned by a savage blow on the head from a policeman’s mace, and roughly thrown into a patrol car, to be summarily dispatched to jail for ‘obstructing traffic,’ and besides, for giving voice to such traitorous and Bolshevistic ideas.
Rabbi Eisendrath imagines that Jesus would be dumbfounded by the theology that has arisen around him, particularly that he was the product of a virgin birth. And he would be critical of the Christian doctrine of salvation through belief, regardless of a person’s deeds. The rabbi wants it to be very clear that he is not making a case for Christianity, only for Jesus as an exemplar of ethical behavior. (He refers to the Gospels as “spiritually searching, morally revolutionary and ethically enobling.”)

This lecture is only the first in a number of sermons given on the subject of Jesus and Christianity during Rabbi Eisendrath’s years in Toronto. He employs the clever device of having Jesus reappear on earth and be disgusted by what he observes preached and perpetrated in his name. There is, however, as we have indicated before, a danger that Rabbi Eisendrath, in his sympathy with Jesus, may project his own concerns onto Jesus and speak on Jesus’s behalf. He certainly sees Jesus belonging to the line of Hebrew prophets, and perhaps as a precursor of social activist rabbis like himself (hence his calling him “the Rabbi of Nazareth”).

In further posts, we will examine other sermons that Rabbi Eisendrath delivered on this subject and attempt to discover how he developed, and perhaps changed, his ideas on Jesus and Christianity in relation to Judaism and the Jewish people.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. Please allow time for your comment to appear online.