In this episode Kurt continues the monthly Worldview Series by talking to Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz about orthodox Judaism.
This book was mentioned by Rabbi Kravitz: https://www.amazon.com/Genesis-Big-Bang-Discovery-Harmony/dp/0553354132
Kurt: Good day to you and thanks for joining us here on another episode of Veracity Hill where we are striving for truth on faith, politics, and society. It’s a pleasure to be with you again here week after week at the Defenders Media offices in downtown West Chicago and today we are continuing our worldview series. This is the first Saturday of the month and so today we have an interview with a Jewish Rabbi, Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, the interview is pre-recorded because Rabbi Kravitz was unable to take a Saturday, his Sabbath day, to talk to us which we understood so of course we’ve got the interview here for you and I hope that you’ll enjoy it and as you’re listening please take time and jot down some notes, write down some interesting things that he has to say that you found, you found yourself in agreement with him or in disagreement. You thought something was peculiar. I’d love to know what your thoughts were and there are a number of ways to get in touch with me. You can email me, Kurt@veracityhill.com. You can text the word VERACITY to 555-888 or you can just send me a message on social media if you want. It’s Veracity Hill on Facebook and also that’s the name of our handle on Twitter. Veracity Hill. I’d love to get in touch with you in those ways and if you don’t already, find us on social media and like us or follow us so you can get the updates about the show and upcoming guests. We’d love to keep in touch with you in that way.
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Kurt: Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, thanks so much for joining us on the show today. Tell us a little bit about your background and what you do.
Bentzion: I live here in Los Angeles and I am a Orthodox Rabbi, very devoted to serving God and to working in whatever possible to make the world a better place and to helping people whether they’re Jewish or non-Jewish. I also serve as a chaplain for one of the largest police departments in Southern California and in that position I help probably more non-Jewish people than Jewish and many of them are Christian. I have many Christian friends who are also chaplains and we share many things in common and we appreciate good friendship. Also, I’m an educator about Judaism. I’m also a counselor for people that are going through religious crises or even health or emotional issues, they turn to me for advice and guidance and I try to use the Bible or as I refer to it as the Torah as my guiding principle of how to offer compassion and guidance to people.
Kurt: Yeah. Nice. Good. You said that you’re an Orthodox Rabbi so I take it that in the broad worldview of Judaism, that like Christianity, there are different branches within that group. First, maybe we should have you explain what is Judaism, broadly speaking, and then maybe you could describe what those different sorts of branches of the tree are to use the analogy.
Bentzion: I know that within Christianity there’s many denominations. Some history books describe that there could be over 1,000 different denominations of Christianity. We don’t have that many. Judaism primarily has three different denominations. They’re known as Reformed, Conservative, and Orthodox. I personally prefer not to label myself because I think labels create separation among people and I prefer to call myself a God-fearing Jew or some people call themselves Torah observant which I think in Christian vernacular would be a Bible practicing Jew.
Kurt: Sure. Okay.
Bentzion: Today, probably the fastest growing denomination is Orthodoxy where there’s a more strict understanding of the Bible and a personal belief in God.
Kurt: If Orthodoxy is sort of the faster growing of the three maybe people are drawn sort of going back to the roots if you will. Would that be an apt thing to say?
Bentzion: Absolutely. I think there is a desire to go back to the roots. I’m not passing judgment on the other two movements. I understand how they serve an important purpose of many people. I just think that for many people that are searching for a deeper spiritual meaning they find it within Orthodoxy.
Kurt: From your perspective, maybe you could help answer just a few questions about your beliefs and some of them are just going to be very broad, sort of open-ended questions just so we can learn more about how you have come to understand the world. Some of them are going to be very simple. For example, let me start with this. What do you think about God?
Bentzion: Orthodox Jews believe in a personal God who transcends time and space, not limited to anything within our way of understanding time and space so classic Orthodox expressions would be to say “God is everywhere” or as one person asked a rabbi, “Can you tell me where God is?” and the rabbi said, “Tell me where God isn’t?” We believe in this personal God. We believe that the Bible, the five books of Moses and all the writings and prophets are the inspired Word of God and that this is God’s plan for mankind in how to make the world a better place, how to make ourselves better, and how to be in service to God. God gave us the gift of His Bible, His word, to show us how we should live our lives. For example, Orthodox Jews are very careful about only eating those foods that the Bible prescribes as being permissible. Putting aside whatever health benefits someone might think are there or not, if God says to eat A and not eat B it’s a way of recognizing that ultimately the world is God’s and we are just caretakers and He says what we can eat and what we can’t eat, and if you go back to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve you see the same thing. God could have taken any tree in the garden and said this one you’re not allowed to eat, but by saying and putting up those rules and regulations it helps us to remember who’s in charge here, who’s world this is. That’s a constant reminder for us, so we believe in serving God, we believe in praying to God, we believe that God can perform and has performed miracles for the Jewish people. So ultimately, as King Solomon said, the bottom line is to believe in God and to be in awe of Him and to keep His commandments.
Kurt: That’s in Ecclesiastes.
Bentzion: Yes. The last verse in Ecclesiastes.
Kurt: That’s right.
Bentzion: Solomon was considered the wisest of all men. God instilled him with that wisdom and he summarized it. Be in awe of God and follow His commandments. Why would we keep commandments? We keep commandments because that’s an opportunity to be connected to God and recognize that God’s in control. So that’s the foundation. I just wanted to give that foundational explanation of Judaism.
Kurt: Just to clarify for our listeners. Today, and for a lot of Christians who, they say they read the Bible, they come to a verse in Leviticus that just seems to them very outdated, for a different culture way back then. You wouldn’t necessarily view it though as sort of outdated. You take it very seriously. Is that right?
Bentzion: We take everything in the Bible very seriously, but we recognize that in order to fulfill the things in the Bible we have to look at it and study it deeply to understand what is the real meaning here. For example, there is a verse that has unfortunately today by certain people in the Middle East been taken so literally that they are actually barbaric, so in the Bible it says and eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and you have people cutting off peoples’ hands because of that. That seems very clear that that’s what the word says, but it was never understood because of the tradition of the explanation being passed down to be literally that we would cut a person’s hand off. It was a way based on ancient way of speaking of saying that a person, if someone hurt someone else, we compensate them for the damage of what we did, so if we put a person’s eye out and we blinded them, we have to compensate them and that might differ depending on what a person’s profession is. If a person’s a silversmith or something like that and their hand is damaged, we have to compensate them, so it was always seen as monetary compensation, so yes, we do take it literally, but not to the point where we’re not thinking about what is the implication. Also, the conditions for following a certain commandment have to be in place so if it says you shall give charity to the poor, if there are no poor people around you you can’t fulfill that, but being poor might not simply be monetarily. It might be poor in their knowledge and we might see a person that doesn’t know how to read so we might take that and understandably have to help that person and strengthen them in that. So we try to take everything in the Bible and take a lesson from it in how do we help other people and make God proud of us that we’re living a godly life to make the world a better place. In fact, the word Torah, which literally means law, comes from the Hebrew word that also means a lesson, so the rules and regulations are not just there to be rules and regulations to control our life. They’re there to teach us how to take a lesson from it and how to be better people toward our family and to the people around us.
Kurt: This reminds me, I’ve got a close friend actually who was hurt from a relationship just recently and it was just a reminder to me of how I wish this person had heeded the advice I gave him which I was trying my best to give him the Biblical, at least from the Christian Bible’s perspective or at least my understanding of it, and it’s just a reminder of how we really should heed the wisdom of previous generations and sadly my generation, I’m in my late 20’s, my generation just doesn’t seem to care what previous generations think or even what the ancients think even though, goodness, you read the book of Proverbs and those things are still relevant to this very day. They understood human nature very well. It’s a good reminder when you say how we follow God’s laws, it’s not only just for God’s benefit, but it’s for ours too. We’re learning life’s lessons here and we’re growing as people, we’re maturing and that’s a good thing, we should strive for that.
Bentzion: And you’re right. Many people in this generation are into indulging themselves and not so much thinking long term and how do I make the world a better place and I make it a point that I always try to smile at people when I see them. I always try to let someone go through a door before me or hold the door for someone, even someone younger than me, and I think not only that’s courtesy, but it reminds me to humble myself. Who am I that I think I should go first? Let me do something nice to someone else and hopefully, they’ll pass it on and pass it forward to someone else and make the world a better place.
Kurt: Right. If you’re not in a rush to get your Subway sandwich, you just let someone else go in front of you, especially if they seem like they’re in a rush. Okay. So then for some of these other sorts of theological issues, let’s take a look at mankind. Where did humans come from?
Bentzion: I believe that the Bible teaches us that the first human beings to be instilled with something that no animal has which is freedom of choice. We are also as human beings, we have animalistic tendencies, but what holds us to a higher standard is that unlike any animal, even the most intelligent animal, be it a chimpanzee or a dolphin or a well-trained dog, ultimately the moral ability to choose between right and wrong, that’s something that’s unique to human beings. The creation and the gift of freedom of choice is something God gave mankind. The Bible describes the first man and woman and calls them Adam and Eve, but their names in Hebrew have a deeper significance. In English unfortunately, there’s something lost. I venture to say that if you ask most people who Adam and Eve were they’ll just say they’re the first people God created and if you ask them why is that their name, in Hebrew, Adam is actually the word Adam and Adam comes from the word Adama which means Earth and the Bible teaches, unlike the animals, was formed from the Earth and then given a soul to enliven, which also hints to the fact that mankind is different from an animal. We have a physical body like an animal but we’re also spiritual, like God blew a soul into us so to speak, and chavah, which is the Hebrew word for Eve means a helpmate, a partner, in this mission of making the world a better place. So Judaism believes in that, in that creation of man, of Adam and Eve with freedom of choice, that story.
Kurt: In Christian theological discussion there’s often heated debates between what’s called young-earth creationism and old-earth creationism which a variety of perspectives, you’ve got your six-day or seven-day creationists, your intelligent design proponents, and even what are called theistic evolutionists, Christians that would affirm a neo-Darwin view of evolution, but believe God’s guiding the process, that sort of debate, does that happen in Judaism or is there sort of one set view on the creation accounts.
Bentzion: No. I think it does happen obviously. We do see within biology that certain animals do change due to their environment. Is that a form of evolution? Probably. There is something going on. The real question for me is where did this man who had freedom of choice come from? Whatever changed among animals or however they adapted or wherever they came from is much more secondary than, first of all establishing, is mankind unique in the fact that we have this soul that gives us freedom of choice? If we can’t agree that mankind is unique and that there’s something special, then the whole discussion of where did animals come from or how did they evolve is really, where does it get us besides some scientific understanding of how science views the world and how things evolve? It doesn’t really get us into this moral issue. We had a horrible thing in Northern California. I don’t know if you saw the news that there’s a report that 40-60 young adults were on a train and they violently attacked people and robbed them.
Kurt: Yeah. That’s right. I did hear about that. Yeah.
Bentzion: What makes a mob mentality do that? Animals, when they see something that they want, just take it. They don’t think about the consequences. They don’t think about who they hurt. I wasn’t there and I didn’t see it and I’m not passing judgment on individuals, but a mob mentality is how animals work. Now if an animal does it, we can’t really pass judgment against it because it’s doing what it was created to do, but a human being that has freedom of choice to not do that, to choose differently, lowers themselves to a place where they’re even lower than the animals because they have the ability to not act like that. For me personally, and I think Judaism, the focus is more on that we are a unique creation mankind.
Kurt: Yeah. Made a little lower than the angels.
Bentzion: Freedom of choice, and we have that. Talking about how old the universe is and how old the world is, yes, there’s discussion. I would highly recommend for anyone listening to this broadcast to look for a book on Amazon called Genesis and the Big Bang by Dr. Gerald Schroeder.
Kurt: We’ll look that up and provide a link on our website to that book. Good. Now you talked a little bit about morality and so that’s my next question. From your perspective, where does morality come from and how can we know it?
Bentzion: Every society, if it was up to themselves, could determine what works for them. The Aztecs believed in human sacrifice. To them, it was morally fine. To another society, it’s morally repugnant. I think that the way Judaism looks at is the definition of what is moral is what God wants from us, what God has determined for us and I take great comfort in the wisdom of the Torah, in the things that it says so far before society finally caught up to some of these ideas. When every culture believed in slave labor, the Torah came and taught after a certain number of years you should release the slave, don’t keep them in perpetuity. Slavery is something that was there in order to help a person who couldn’t pay their debt. They were like an indentured servant rather than bought on the open market. If you put that in perspective 3,500 years ago of how the rest of the world looked at slavery, the Bible was way in advance before everyone. If you look at the Torah’s view on women 3,500 years ago it was way advanced before civilization and we see how this whole new thing where they’re putting Saudi Arabia, the U.N. committee on women’s rights and we hear all the things that are still going on. I think the Torah has tremendous morality, but I think it can’t be just read superficially. The Torah is meant, the Bible is meant to be studied, not simply read, because if it’s just read it can be very easily misunderstood.
Kurt: That’s right and we’ve talked about that on our show too in some past episodes, the importance of interpreting a phrase, even a statement, and we need to be careful not to bring our own baggage, we don’t want to bring our own 21st century lenses or standards to that text. We need to place that text in its context so that way we can understand what it meant then and then we can figure out how we apply it to our lives today.
Bentzion: I think context and careful analysis of what the original language said is extremely important.
Kurt: Okay. Good. So the next question I have is this. What is man’s ultimate destiny?
Bentzion: I’m gonna assume that when you say destiny, that’s different than purpose. We’ve touched about purpose.
Kurt: We have touched about purpose. That’s right. What’s sort of, what happens in the end?
Bentzion: Orthodox Judaism believes in a Messianic age based on passages in Isaiah 11 and also I would say the last four verses in Ezekiel 37 and the vision is in a world where the very nature of mankind is transformed so we don’t want to fight or learn war anymore. Where we do treat people with respect. Where the whole world recognizes that there is one God and wants to serve that one God. This is a Utopian viewpoint of the world which for any sane person, whether they believe that it will come about through natural means or supernatural means, it wouldn’t be a bad place to live in. What saddens me is that so many people are just happy with the way they’re living and there’s so much crime in the world and so much evil in the world, they’re just caught up in that and the vision is this Utopian world where we will live in a world. Jeremiah talks about and Ezekiel talk about transforming the heart so that it won’t have desires to do the wrong thing. It will have the desire to do the right thing. Naturally we’ve seen that through the introduction and development, evolution so to speak borrowing that word, of religion, have become kinder people. Religions weren’t always that kind toward people that didn’t agree with them. Sadly we see that today with Islam. Unfortunately the Catholic Church does not have a good track record in the past of how they treated people during the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, but the fact that the Pope today condemns that past behavior shows a transformation in the heart in how they look toward other people, but I think the ultimate transformation will be a reward for all the efforts to make the world a better place and we’ll receive this kind of transformed heart where we won’t have the desires to do what’s wrong any more.
Kurt: Is this sort of Utopian like place, is this merely a spiritual place or is it a physical, is there a strong sense of a physical place?
Bentzion: That description is here on Earth. …in a spiritual place is believe in Judaism where souls go after they depart from their physical body. We talked earlier that man is a combination of Earth, physical body and a spiritual soul. We see in the body it says a person returns back to the dust where they came from and the soul returns back to God and so the soul is something spiritual and after it leaves this world, exists on a spiritual plane, and we do in traditional orthodox Judaism we do believe in a life after death and call it Heaven or the Garden of Eden, a spiritual existence, we do believe in that, but the Utopian belief, the Messianic age, is here on Earth.
Kurt: It’s physical. Good.
Bentzion: It’s not out of our bodies, if it was, we’d have suicide cults.
Bentzion: Why should I even be here? Let me just kill myself and I’ll get to that spiritual realm. God created a world for us to make it a place where we are the reason that God is known here. God could make Himself known without us, but He wanted us to be partners in demonstrating that God is everywhere, even in a world that doesn’t look like there’s godliness. When we act godly, when we use the world for godly purpose, we’re showing that God is here also. He’s not absent from the world.
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Kurt: I’m here with Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz and today we are discussing Judaism as part of our worldview series so let’s get back to our discussion. In Christian theology, there’s the concept of Hell and the Old Testament or for you, your Bible, there’s Sheol, but what’s your position on that? What happens to people that say reject God and don’t honor Him with their lives? What happens to people like that?
Bentzion: It is interesting that the Bible does not focus too much on what heaven is like and what hell is like and the reason you have to ask yourself, why? It’s because our main focus has to be here. What do we do in this world? How do we make this world a better place? And also in service to God, if there was so much emphasis on Heaven and Hell, then a person could end up serving God for an ulterior motive. That ulterior motive would be simply to get a good place in Heaven or to avoid going to Hell. The ultimate reason to serve God is because we love God and because we want to serve God like a child who wants to make their father happy by being obedient. If you compare that to a child that is obeying the father because he wants to avoid getting punished, which one is more meaningful? So I think that God was intentionally vague on Heaven and Hell because it shouldn’t tarnish our motivation of why we’re doing things.
Kurt: That’s a good word and I even experienced it myself when I had my first child. There’s an experience there. You realize this unconditional love that you give to your child who has done nothing to deserve your love, but you give it nevertheless, and it’s almost like you experience something, “Oh. Maybe this is a little bit what God feels like with His creation, that He just loves us so much and wants the best for us. It’s a strange experience that I had, but that’s a good word that you said there. It’s really about not just doing something to avoid a punishment or to get a better place in Heaven, but acting a certain way in the here and now because we do love our heavenly father and want to honor Him. Yeah. That’s good.
Bentzion: We don’t believe in Hell in the same way that some Christian denominations believe in it.
Kurt: What do you mean? Like a physical fire…
Bentzion: Yeah. We don’t take that literally. That’s more of a Greek belief in Hades and the devil with a pitchfork.
Kurt: Think medieval imagery here with the art.
Bentzion: We know that some early churches, they actually used that imagery to kind of scare people into believing. We don’t believe in that. We do believe that the soul is pure, but when it sins, it becomes tarnished or blemished through that sin and if a person repents during their life properly, truly regrets what they did wrong, acknowledges what they did wrong, asks God for forgiveness, and makes a really sincere effort to not repeat that transgression, they’re forgiven by God. That’s what repentance and forgiveness is all about. If for some reason the person didn’t repent properly of that transgression before they pass away, their soul carries with them a blemish , so it’s kind of like looking at a beautiful piece of glass and you’re looking through it at a mountain. Someone splatters some food on it, it’s going to change your ability to perceive the mountain. Those blemishes get in the way of the soul’s ability to be able to reunite with the source, which is God, to receive spirituality, so the concept in Judaism which is called Gehenna is more of a cleansing process to remove those blemishes. The way its similar to Hell is that the process of the soul having to be cleansed of its sins, is not very pleasurable for the soul. I like to give the example. If a young boy, let’s say ten or eleven years old, was in public school in the bathroom and he was caught pulling down another kid’s pants as a joke, making fun of him, he doesn’t want the whole school to know that he did that, but now let’s say the principal and calls him in, because we knew there was a problem and we put in a video camera and we caught you doing this. You have a choice. We can either hit you with a paddle or we can show the video to the whole school. I think that most people would rather not be embarrassed and would take the, because the psychological pain of having to confess up to what you did and have your peers see is very very traumatic, so when the pure soul is shown what it did wrong, that’s so to speak is like a torment for the soul to see that, that process cleanses the soul. We are physical human beings so we can’t really understand these spiritual concepts so we use terminologies that we’re familiar with to try to help us understand. In the Middle Ages they only thought about it as physical punishment. We now have a better understanding of psychology and the embarrassment and the trauma that a person experiences so we can use that to better understand in our own language what the soul goes through and it’s a process to cleanse the soul so it’s able to have a more pure relationship with God that was tainted by the unrepentant sin.
Kurt: So as a follow-up then, would you say that, cause you’ve used this language of cleansing and it’s a process, I don’t want to use a term like rehabilitation, does this happen for everyone then? Do you think that everyone sort of finds their way out of this process?
Bentzion: I think it really depends on the seriousness of their sin and some sins are much more severe than others. Worshiping idolatry, that’s going to take a lot of work to rectify. Murdering someone is something that’s very serious. We talk about three cardinal sins in Judaism. That is murder, idolatry, and adultery. Those are the three sins that are considered so severe that if a person has a gun to their head and is told to do those three sins, a person should choose to die rather than to commit them. Those are pretty severe. I will leave it up to God to determine the process for each individual and judging them, because one never knows the circumstances. We human beings can’t truly know the circumstances.
Kurt: Yeah. God’s in a much better place where He knows everything.
Bentzion: He knows our heart. That’s why, in a secular court, in a marriage, it’s called a court of law, not necessarily a court of justice, although they call it the hall of justice, it’s a court of law. This is the law. You’re there to pass a decision if you’re on a jury. Did he break the law or not? Yes. There are extenuating circumstances, but we do not have the human ability to know everything that was in that person’s heart. That’s why we can make mistakes and they can send an innocent person to prison. God is in a much better place to know if we were rebelling against God when we did this sin or was it just done because we had a moment of temporary insanity.
Kurt: Or simple ignorance.
Bentzion: Or simple ignorance. That’s why we see in the Bible that when the temple existed and sacrifices were offered, the only sins that required an animal sacrifices were sins that were done unintentionally. Not all sins required a sacrifice. Only as you see in Leviticus 4, only sins that were done unintentionally, and it’s amazing to me how many people read Leviticus over and over again and they miss that word. It’s right there. Unintentionally. You sin unintentionally. What does that mean? When a person sins unintentionally, it means that they were careless. They weren’t careful and that person might think that they don’t really need to repent in the first place because it was only an accident. God gave the process of sacrifice as a means to arouse within the person a sense of remorse, to bring an animal, thinking about the animal in ourselves, you have to look for the blemish, thinking about the blemish in yourself. You have to offer the animal up thinking that could have been me. That should be sad it should die because of what I did and the whole purpose of it is to motivate us to repentance because we know if a person brought 20 perfect sacrifices, but didn’t have any remorse, those sacrifices didn’t magically take away their sin or atone for their sin. It had to be coupled with repentance and remorse so the purpose of the sacrifice was to motivate you and then in the Biblical times like in the book of Hosea when the Jewish people could not get to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice, Hosea says in chapter 14 that you should offer your prayer in the place of sacrifice, in place of the bulls that are offered, because by praying and confessing your sin, it motivates to truly feel remorse for what you did, to acknowledge. I think in the 12-step program one of the first steps is that you have to acknowledge that you have a problem.
Kurt: Right. I was going to ask you about that, the sacrificial system and how do people today, because we don’t see Jewish communities in America offering animal sacrifices. Is it because of exactly what Hosea has said? Is that sort of what happens now or how do Jewish people understand that aspect?
Bentzion: I think it’s two fold. One is what I was just describing, that the true understanding of what the purpose of the sacrifice is what I was just saying. It’s main purpose was not to somehow magically erase the sin because as I pointed out, if you didn’t repent, it didn’t work. To take a life even of an animal is not a simple thing to do and it has to be done in a holy place so God said that the only place you could offer a sacrifice is in the temple. As a concession for mankind because we desire to eat, God made a concession to kill animals in order to eat them, that can be done anywhere. But there are certain rules and regulations. How it’s killed and it has to be treated mercifully and not cruelly so that we are compassionate toward animal life. A sacrifice has to be done in a very holy way so God mandated that the only place that that could be done is in a temple and since there is no temple standing, we’re unable to bring those sacrifices, that’s where Hosea spoke of that situation and as a prophet speaking on God’s behalf said bring your prayers to fulfill the purpose of this sacrifice so today without a temple we offer, we recognize that the main ingredient is repentance and that the means for achieving that is through self-introspection and through prayer. That’s why we don’t bring animal sacrifices today. We believe that the main way to get rid of a transgression is through sincere repentance and we use other means to motivate us to do that.
Kurt: Okay. Good. So now, I’ve got one last question for you and this is a question that I’ve asked all the folks that have come on for the worldview series that we’re doing here. What does someone like yourself do with the person of Jesus of Nazareth? How do you understand Him as a historical figure?
Bentzion: I can look at it from a few different perspectives. I’m very fortunate that from my life I have read the New Testament many times and I’ve compared it to passages that it often quotes from the Torah, the Jewish Scripture, and I personally think that if you look at the New Testament from a perspective of how the people were living 2,000 years ago and not how it changed through the influence of the Roman Empire. I think all your people listening to you know that in the third century Constantine converted to Christianity and made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. There were tremendous influences that changed Jesus’s original message. I don’t think Jesus original message was to go out and kill people who didn’t believe like you.
Kurt: That’s for sure, true.
Bentzion: We can use that as an example to demonstrate that human beings have distorted what He taught and who He was so I think that, and I actually have a lecture on this called “A Rabbi Cross-Examines Christianity” where I look at different groups that existed at the time of Jesus and there’s a record of them in the New Testament.
Kurt: The Sadducees and the Essenes.
Bentzion: I’m talking about the Sadducees. Primarily I’m talking about the Pharisees, the Sadducees, Jesus’s disciples, and the Romans. All of them came from very different perspectives of what they valued and what was important to them and they all are described as eyewitnesses of who Jesus was and they are all described in a certain way and what I’ve done is I’ve gone through and analyzed their perspective. For example, the Sadducees were puppets of the Roman Empire. They bought their positions of authority from the Romans. That’s why they said in the New Testament that there is no king but Caesar. Why? Because their loyalty was to Rome so if you understand where they’re coming from, why would they be upset at a Jesus figure? They wouldn’t be really concerned with Him if He was saying that He’s God because the Romans believed in many gods and many different things like that. They were most concerned because of His claim to be a Messianic figure who would overthrow the Roman Empire. Without going into the details of the lecture, I think there is reasonable belief that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who believed in strict observance of the Law and who did not perceive Himself as divine but as a Messianic figure becasue in Judaism we don’t read the Bible as teaching that the Messiah is God or that God is a Trinity and that He came and He tried to accomplish that and it wasn’t the right time.
Kurt: Okay. Interesting.
Bentzion: That’s how we would view Jesus. There might be some people who might want to say that we have a hard time accepting the New Testament as a completely accurate portrayal of who He was, perhaps because of how the Bible was edited and changed, how these four Gospels were chosen by the church and there were other Gnostic Gospels that were not accepted so which one’s really the accurate picture? Without meaning to be disrespectful, there are some red flags for a rabbi like me when we read the New Testament. There are some red flags in the New Testament that make us turn our head and say “Wow. Could that have really happened the way it’s being reported? It doesn’t make any sense.” It doesn’t make any sense for a rabbi to read that Jesus’s disciples turned to the Pharisees in healing someone and they asked Him how could a person who’s not from God do a miracle? The rabbis are totally silent. How would they not know that in Deuteronomy it says that God could send a prophet or a dreamer of dreams who does a miracle but is not really doing it because of God’s power, but doing it because of something else? I’m not saying that that’s who Jesus was or not, but how did the rabbis not even say anything? It doesn’t make any sense. I think there might have been throughout the centuries by the influence of the Roman church to tamper with the text a little bit. You could argue about if that’s truly a historical and accurate description, but putting that aside and just simply looking at the New Testament I think there’s enough evidence there that even the New Testament, if it’s studied from a Jewish perspective and historical, could see that Jesus Himself saw Himself more as a Messianic figure and a human being who’s come to change the world rather than being a deity. I say that with tremendous caution because I know that’s a precious and important belief for Christians and I don’t mean to insult them or to knock their personal belief, but you’re asking me as a rabbi. Obviously, rabbis do not believe in the divinity of Jesus and we don’t believe that He was the Messiah, but it shouldn’t be just an irrational dismissial of those things. It should come from somewhere. I took a lot of time to try to see that.
Kurt: That’s good. Definitely want to commend you for investigating instead of just brushing off because even today, what’s becoming more popular, and not necessarily true of academics, but of people that just scour the internet, they say, “Oh. Well Jesus didn’t even exist.” That just doesn’t seem to be quite the historical or academic scholarly position that any historian at a university holds so that’s, it’s good to see that you’ve sort of done the investigative work as well.
Bentzion: I tried my best and there are external sources to the New Testament that talk about Jesus. Josephus mentions Him one time.
Kurt: You’ve got Tacitus and Pliny the Younger. There are extracanonical sources that do talk about Jesus. Yeah.
Bentzion: But to some extent they differ. The Gospel of James that National Geographic did a whole show on and that Gospel was the Gospel that it talks about Jesus, but it says He wasn’t God. He was a human being. That’s not the Torah. That’s not me. That’s someone who claimed to have been one of His disciples. There’s this view even within that about who He was. I think what’s more important for me is believing that there’s a God and God wants us to live our lives according to His will and to be good people and be kind and to be observant of God’s commandments which is exactly what King Solomon said. I think that one of the differences between Judaism and Christianity, and not all of Christianity. Some Christianity puts so much emphasis on Jesus dying on the cross to bring salvation to people. I think I’m correct in the way I said that, but Judaism doesn’t see the role of the Messiah in the same way.
Kurt: Yeah. So your concern, and I think I would actually agree with you if I’m understanding what you’re meaning. Your concern is with people, Christians who say, “Jesus has come to save you,” and that’s kind of it. That’s all there is to it, when in reality there are some Christians who recognize, “No. There is more to it. It’s about being a disciple, being a follower, and that means having your lifestyle modeled after Him”, and so someone like myself, I’m very sympathetic to what you said here.
Bentzion: I agree with you. I don’t think that’s exactly what I was saying. I think most Christians realize that even though they see Jesus as their means towards salvation, but they still have to live a moral and good life and that Jesus taught that. What I think I was trying to point out is that by focusing on this belief of Jesus being the only way to salvation, it looks at other religions as being almost inadequate in their ability for a person to have a relationship with God.
Bentzion: I find that very disconcerting, because then a person would have to ask, there’s a story of a young man who converted to orthodox Judaism and when he tells his story, he’s not a young man anymore, but he was young when he converted. He was in his mid-20’s. He had been in West Point and in West Point he took a class on the strategy of war and the officer who was the professor was talking about all these different wars and the different strategies that were used to be victorious and after the class the young man went up to the professor and said, “I find it very strange that you’re not mentioning the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War where Israel defeated their enemies.” The professor said, “You have to understand. The reason I didn’t bring those up is because there’s nothing strategic or logical in how this small nation should have won those wars. I can’t teach you the strategy because by military analysis they shouldn’t have won. It could only have been a miracle.” Years later after he got out of the military and he was visiting Israel he went up to the wall and he started thinking about it and he said, “Look. The Romans far outnumbered the Jewish people and the Romans are gone and the Jews are here. The Greeks, they far outnumbered the Jews and they’re gone and the Jews are still here. The Persian empire is gone. The Soviet Regime that tried to destroy us is gone.” How is that possible? This little teeny nation survived and to not acknowledge that God is watching over those Jewish people and causing this miracle and to think as some fanatical Christians might want to say, that God has almost rejected the Jewish people as His people is not only illogical, it’s offensive. I know that when I interact with many many Christian chaplains in the police department that I work with, they acknowledge this and one of the challenges for becoming a chaplain in a large police agency is that one of the rules, because we’re a government agency, you’re not allowed to proselytize. That doesn’t mean that if someone comes and says, “I’m this faith. Can you tell me what you believe in?” You’re allowed to share that with them, but you’re not allowed to go and intentionally try to convert someone to your particular faith. You’re there to serve everyone. We’ve had to ask some Christian chaplains to resign because they weren’t able to do that and I think more mature Christians are able to be more accepting and appreciative. One of my closest friends who was with this police agency is a Southern Baptist minister. He never tried to tell me that Judaism is inadequate or that I need to convert in order to be saved. He invited me once to come speak at his church on Sunday because he was looking at our commonalities, not trying to save us, and I think that if I had to share any message to Christians is to please respect Judaism as a legitimate and valid and relevant faith for the Jewish people and we don’t need to be completed. If we practice Judaism as we should, we already have that completeness and relationship with God.
Kurt: You say to have Christians learn to respect it more as a valid option there. Even more so I would encourage Christians to study it to learn more about Christianity because from my understanding, Christianity has its roots in Judaism. Jesus was a Jew and the Gospel authors were Jewish and Paul who wrote many of the epistles in the New Testament was Jewish so if we even want to understand what Christianity is about, it’s really important that we understand what Judaism is about and sadly a lot of Christians today, they don’t recognize that and so they will read the New Testament but not the Old Testament.
Bentzion: I want to thank you for giving me this opportunity to speak to your audience and share my perspective.
Kurt: You are quite welcome.
Bentzion: You’re welcome. Thank you so much. Be well.
Kurt: That does it for our show today. I hope that you’ve enjoyed this interview with rabbi Kravitz and I’d love to get your thoughts. I know that I appreciated a number of the things that he said today and it’s interesting to just see how closely his position aligns with the Christian position on a number of issues. Of course on some of the critical ones pertaining to say the life of Jesus, there’s going to be some divergence. At any rate, get in touch with me. I’d love to know your thoughts about what he had to say today. I’m grateful for the continued support of our patrons and partnerships with our sponsors, Defenders Media, Consult Kevin, The Sky Floor, Rethinking Hell, The Illinois Family Institute, Evolution 2.0, and Ratio Christi, and I want to thank our guest today, Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, for his thoughts. Thank you for listening in and for striving for truth on faith, politics, and society.