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Rabbi: Jesus' Solid Jewish Roots Cannot Be Ignored

Reprinted with permission of j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California

March 22, 2007

A few years back, Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor led a group of Catholic educators to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. And in the small chapel behind the church, they gazed upwards at a portrait of Mary, Joseph and a teenaged Jesus emblazoned upon the ceiling.

"It looks like [Jesus] should be on his way to a bar mitzvah lesson. But instead of holding a tallis bag, he's holding a crucifix. One of the Catholic educators said, 'Do you see a problem with that painting?' And I said yes," recalled the rabbi in a San Francisco speech.

Christian Bible

"It's emblematic of what for a very long time has occurred, which is a depiction of Jesus and Jesus' family absent of an understanding of the Jewish community and the Jewish environment all of this was occurring in."

It may be counterintuitive that a rabbi lectured a Catholic audience about the life of Jesus, but that's just what Bretton-Granatoor did. On March 15 the ADL's national education director spoke at the St. Agnes Spiritual Life Center in the Upper Haight (San Francisco) before several dozen members of the St. Agnes parish, Jesuit scholars from U.C. Berkeley and the University of San Francisco as well as members of the Bay Area's Anti-Defamation League young leadership group.

His theme: Jesus, we hardly knew ye.

As he spoke to the audience, Bretton-Granatoor was framed by the spiritual center's packed bookshelves, with thousands of titles organized under categories such as "Daily Meditations," "The Religious Imagination" and "Poetry."

Behind him, traffic whizzed in variant directions on Oak and Fell Streets, while the occasional halogen headlights of a car rolling up Masonic temporarily blinded the audience. In this buzzing, modern setting, Bretton-Granatoor took his lecture back, very nearly, to "In the Beginning."

"How many of you are parents?" asked the smiling rabbi, to be rewarded with a sea of hands. "OK, you'll get this."

As parents, when the rabbi or audience members tell their children they must be home by 11 p.m. sharp, it's said out of love.

"As a parent, it is incumbent upon me to keep you safe. The laws I give are because I love you. It's not there to make your life difficult. And one of the fallacies that we come to much later on is this whole notion that what the Jewish community only cares about is the law and it was not until Jesus arrived that we understood love," said Bretton-Granatoor, also in town for an ADL divestment panel and a meeting with San Francisco's Catholic diocese.

"This is a failure to understand of the laws that they are acts of love on God's part."

Much of the Christian Bible, he said, was written with subtle details meant to appeal to a Jewish audience from that era--details that did not resonate with the non-Jewish communities that first adopted Christianity or with Christians of today.

"One of the forms of what I would call latent anti-Judaism is describing Jesus versus the Jewish community in a series of straw man [scenarios]. If Jesus reached out to women, Jews must be against women. If he ministered to the poor, Jews must be against the poor," he said.

Take the story of a woman who's been "hemorrhaging blood for 12 years" being cured when she touches the "hem" of Jesus' garment. Jesus then tells her that her faith has healed her.

"Lots of texts say this woman is a symbol of female sexual carnality. And by simply touching the dirtiest part of his cloak that is scraping the mud, she was healed," said the rabbi.

But that's not how a contemporary Hebrew would have seen it.

First, this woman was, in the rabbi's words, "spotting" for 12 years. And this meant that she was not allowed to take part in Jews' ritual sacrifices at the time, cutting her off from the community.

And yet, despite being a pariah for a dozen years, she wanted to be a part of the Jewish community. She grabbed Jesus' tzitzit and was cured.

"Jesus did not say, 'You touched my mud-stained cloak and you are saved'--he says, 'Your faith has saved you,'" added Bretton-Granatoor.

Other quotes that Christian scholars have read as Jesus angrily vilifying the Jewish leaders are nearly direct quotes of earlier biblical prophets. Again, Jewish audiences would have understood the significance of Jesus talking like a prophet.

Among the non-Jews in Antioch who took to Christianity early, "if you want to make a villain, the Jews don't matter. And the Romans are the people you're living under, you don't want to make them the bad guys in the story," said the rabbi.

"It's easier to blame the Jews. They're not even around."

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." Hebrew for "tassel" or "fringe," the name for specially knotted ritual fringes (strings). They appear on the four corners of a tallit (prayer shawl worn during prayer services) and tallit katan (small shawl, worn by observant Jews every day under their shirts). A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Yiddish for "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a staff writer for j. the Jewish news weekly of northern California.

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