The Origins of Christianity
Chapter 4, Law 2(b)
"Among them (i.e., the twenty four factors which interfere with repentance
listed in this chapter) are five things which lock the path of teshuva
(repentance) before those who do them. They are:
(a) One who separates from the community, since when they repent he will
not be with them and he will not benefit with them in the merits they do.
(b) One who disputes the words of the sages, for his dispute will cause him
to separate from them and he will not know the ways of repentance.
(c) One who makes fun of the mitzvos (commandments), because since they are
degraded in his eyes he will not run after them nor will he do them. And if
he does not do, how will he gain merit?
(d) One who disgraces his Torah teachers, for this matter causes them to
reject (lit., 'push away') and banish him, as Yeshua and Gehazi. And once he
is banished he will not find one who will teach and instruct him in the true
[Note: The final example I will translate G-d willing in the next installment.]
In the last class we discussed some of the examples in the Rambam of actions
or behaviors which make repentance very difficult. We talked about the
danger of separating from the community and good influences. We also
discussed the evil of the Biblical figure Gehazi, servant of the Prophet
Elisha. This week we turn to another errant student of the Sages -- Yeshua,
Last week I quoted the Talmud which in two places (Sotah 47a and Sanhedrin
107b) states as follows: One should always push away with his left while
drawing close with his right -- i.e., never push away the sinful too
strongly, unlike Elisha, who did so to Gehazi or R. Yehoshua ben Perachia,
who did so to "one of his students" -- i.e., Jesus.
As an aside, the Talmud in Sotah uses the purposely oblique phrase "one of
his students." In Sanhedrin the Talmud explicitly refers to Jesus by name
("Yeshu HaNotzri;" Notzri = Nazarene, which is why Christians are called
"Notzrim" in Hebrew today). Further, my father's edition of the Talmud (c.
1950) omits both passages, thanks to censorship. My own Talmud (1970's) does
not contain the story in Sanhedrin with its explicit reference but does
contain the passage in Sotah. Even today, not all editions of the Talmud
include the Sanhedrin version, although of course it is readily available in
As a second important aside, the Talmud actually makes remarkably little
reference to Jesus and Christianity. There are perhaps half a dozen
references to him in the entire Talmud -- a work which talks about almost
everything else under the sun. I once heard R. Berel Wein explain that this is for the
simple reason that the Babylonian Talmud was written far from Christian
influence. They did not live among Christians and had little reason to
comment about or respond to them. Thus, although the Talmud has been painted
as a very anti-Christian book by our enemies throughout the ages (as well
as, somewhat contradictorily, a work which admits to Jesus as Messiah), the
Sages for the most part had little reason to stick their necks out, so to
speak, and make condemnatory statements about competing religions.
Anyway, finally turning to our partially-censored text, the Talmud records
as follows. There was an incident in which the Hasmonean King Yannai killed
off many Torah scholars (because of a debate regarding his pedigree). R.
Yehoshua ben Perachiah and his students fled to Alexandria. When stability
returned he and his students returned to the Holy Land. On their return they
stayed at a certain inn. The hostess gave them exceptionally good service.
R. Yehoshua commented, "How nice is this matron!" His wayward student,
misunderstanding his teacher's intent, responded, "My teacher, her eyes are
round." The rabbi responded, "Wicked one! This is what you are dealing
with?!" He placed him in excommunication.
Jesus returned to his teacher many times to plead for forgiveness. R.
Yehoshua repeatedly refused to accept him (drawing the Talmud's criticism
that one should never push away too strongly). One day the student came to
the rabbi when he was praying and could not respond. He signaled Jesus to
stay, for he was that day prepared to accept him back. Jesus, however,
misunderstood the gesture and left, at that point severing himself from
There are two very important messages contained in this very short episode.
On the one hand, Jesus' initial remark could have been seen as an innocent
misunderstanding. Something else, admittedly less noble, came to his mind
when his teacher said "how nice is this woman." Perhaps an innocent mistake.
Very few of us see an attractive woman and not even notice her looks.
But there is a great message here, one of the profoundest of the Torah.
Judaism teaches us that a human being can sanctify himself in this world --
physically. The Torah and G-d's wisdom can sublimate a man to such an extent
that his very body becomes holy, no more than a utensil for serving G-d. A
man who studies Torah can grow to a degree that he can see a beautiful woman
and not instantly view her as an object, something to be desired. R.
Yehoshua saw a woman with an attractive exterior but praised her for her
true worth. Likewise, a devoted Jew can enjoy the pleasures of this world
without being driven away from spirituality. He will rather appreciate the
G-d who has granted man such in His wonderful world and be drawn ever closer
to Him as a result.
And this is the lesson Jesus missed -- and in fact is one that Christianity
and other great religions grapple with to this very day. I know I'm
oversimplifying -- and as always, I'm not here to knock other religions, but
other religions often view the physical world as something to be eschewed.
The truly holy person sequesters himself in a monastery, celibate and poor,
isolated from the evil world of man without.
Judaism has never seen this as an ideal or even something to be encouraged.
We are to live in this world and sanctify it. We enjoy the blessings G-d has
granted us and pray daily for comfort and physical sustenance. Certainly the
Torah limits what we may enjoy and there is are times for abstention and
doing without. Yet one of the great messages of the Torah is that our
physical side and the physical world in general are not here to be quelled
or ignored. They were not created only to tempt us away from G-d. Everything
in G-d's creation is ultimately purposeful and can and must be used to
sanctify His Name. And people as great as R. Yehoshua can relate healthily
to the physical world, without risk of being overcome by it.
There is a second great lesson contained in this story. The last time Jesus
returned to his teacher, R. Yehoshua was prepared to accept him back. There
was a misunderstanding and it didn't happen. Point number one is that we
must not blame R. Yehoshua for indirectly spawning Christianity. Although
the Talmud does fault him for being too harsh, he knew when enough was
enough. He would not have gone *too* far; it was G-d who willed it to happen.
Yet, G-d willed a misunderstanding to occur at that critical moment. For
some reason, G-d willed it that such a mishap occur and a false religion be
born. Compare also a cryptic passage in Talmud Chagigah (4b) that Mother
Mary was supposed to die young, but that they "made a mistake" in heaven and
took the wrong Mary.
And the message here is a fascinating one. Did they actually made a mistake
in heaven? Should the Talmud be taken literally? I don't know. But that's
the not point of the Talmud. Its message is rather that by rights, G-d would
have never allowed such a course of events to transpire. A religion that
doesn't (quite) believe in the oneness of G-d with over 2 billion adherents
today? By the normal standards of Divine providence, such would have never
occurred. G-d would not have allowed it. There have been many, many false
messiahs in Israel over the millennia. Very few have amounted to anything or
have been heard of since. Even if charismatic, they were all generally
dismissed as ignoramuses, crackpots or eccentrics, at most exciting some of
the unlearned rabble. But this one time was different.
Why did G-d allow it? Yet another fascinating message emerges. On the one
hand, we might view it as tragic that so many people today believe in a
false messiah and have a skewed understanding of theology. But there is a
greater truth behind this. Two billion people -- and in fact another one and
a half billion if we count Islam -- believe many of the basic tenets of
Judaism. Sure, according to us they have several of the details wrong, but
they believe in an all-powerful loving G-d, reward and punishment, the
afterlife, almost all the moral teachings of Judaism, the forefathers of
Israel, the story of the Exodus, the Revelation at Sinai, G-d's selection of
the Children of Israel and granting of the Holy Land to them, and the
arrival of the Messiah.
And when that great day arrives -- when the true Messiah does come, a
considerable portion of the world will be prepared. They have already
accepted virtually all the premises of Judaism. It will not be so great a
leap to understand and accept the rest. So yes, G-d works in mysterious
ways. At times, what ordinarily should not be, is. G-d appears to allow
terrible setbacks in man's quest to discover Him. Yet the pieces are slowly
falling into place. The vast majority of the Torah's message -- utterly
foreign and strange to ancient and to classical man -- has now become
axiomatic to the civilized world. (Regarding just how foreign, see Aish.com.) Western society today
regards and cherishes the Judeo-Christian values upon which it is based. And
thus, the world is being readied. G-d willing, the day will soon arrive in
which "I will then convert the nations to a clear tongue for all of them to
call in the name of G-d, to serve Him united" (Zephaniah 3:9). We see the
millennia-long stages of history coming together, the pieces falling into
place. We await the finale.
(This final insight I heard attributed to Maimonides, although I don't know
the precise source.)
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org