[Jewish studies scholar Jacob] Neusner, 74, lives by the story's moral: confrontation is part of his makeup, take it or leave it. One might expect many Christians to leave it. But at least one has not. In his new book, Jesus of Nazareth (Doubleday; $24.95), Pope Benedict XVI devotes 20 pages toA Rabbi Talks with Jesus, a 161-page grenade Neusner lobbed in 1993. In that volume, the professor (now at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.) and noncongregational rabbi projected himself back into the Gospel of Matthew to quiz Jesus on the Jewish law. He found the Nazarene's interpretation irredeemably faulty. In his 14-years-delayed response, Benedict not only compliments Neusner as a 'great Jewish scholar' but also recapitulates the thesis of A Rabbi Talks and spends a third of one of his 10 chapters answering it.
There is no real precedent for this. The last time Christianity and Judaism had knockdown debates was during medieval 'disputations' convened by Christian authorities and decisively rigged against the Jews. Although the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65 renounced the Roman Catholic teaching that Jews were Christ killers and John Paul II acknowledged Jews' ongoing presence by visiting a synagogue, postwar papal discourse has focused on Christianity's view of Judaism, not the reverse, and steered serenely around fundamental controversies. Jesus of Nazareth takes the next huge step: "a Pope taking seriously what a Jew says--and says critically--about the New Testament," marvels Eugene Fisher, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' liaison for Catholic-Jewish relations. "Wow. This is new."...
Regarding one verse, Benedict writes that "Neusner shows us that we are dealing not with some kind of moralism, but with a highly theological text, or, to put it more precisely, a Christological one." He acknowledges the rabbi's point that Jesus is offering the Jews a transformation rather than a continuation of the Torah but maintains that the trade-off is worth it, provided Jesus is not merely "a liberal reform rabbi" but "the Son." That Neusner and other Jews regard that very Sonship as a deal breaker does not bother him much. "It would be good for the Christian world to look respectfully at this obedience of Israel," he writes, "and thus to appreciate better the great commandments" as universalized by Jesus.
Neusner is not my favorite rabbi (or rabbinic scholar). Then again, Benedict is not my favorite Pope.
Kind of reminds me of Orthodox rabbis, Christian priests, and Muslim imams coming together in their opposition to the gay rights parades in Jerusalem.