The subject of the "festival of ideas" held last Sunday at the Center for Jewish History was "Jesus in Jewish Culture." But the tone of the event a daylong series of panels, discussions, and performances, sponsored by Nextbook and Centro Primo Levi was best captured in its half-joking title: "What's He Doing Here?" You could imagine the question being pronounced in two different, equally suggestive ways. Put the stress on "he," and it sounds slightly nervous, as though Jesus were a difficult guest, one whom Jews don't know exactly how to treat.
This is only natural. The relationship between Jews and Christians, for most of the past 2,000 years, was hardly a friendly one; and Jesus, because he is the heart of Christianity, was inevitably at the heart of the conflict. To Christians, he was the Jew who fulfilled Judaism, and thereby made it obsolete. To remain Jewish after Jesus was a glaring theological error and justified all the persecutions that the church heaped on the Jews. For the same reason, Jesus was a greatly discomfiting figure to Jews, who could not accept his divinity, and could not deny it without incurring the wrath of their neighbors.
This apprehensiveness leads to the second way of interpreting the question "What's He Doing Here?" Put the stress on "here," and it sounds like a faintly forlorn protest. Why would Nextbook, a vital and creative new presence in Jewish culture (full disclosure: I am writing a book for the Nextbook/Schocken Jewish Encounters series), make Jesus the subject of a festival at the Center for Jewish History? In America, after all, Jesus is omnipresent which is easy to forget in Manhattan but becomes obvious the minute you leave the tri-state area. He has been the focal point of American Christianity ever since the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century. In other times and places, Christianity has found its spiritual center of gravity in God the Father, in the Virgin Mary, in the saints, or in the church itself. In America, Christianity is largely about Jesus, imagined in highly personal terms as consoler, redeemer, and friend.
If Jesus is everywhere, why does he need to be "here" as well in one of the few forums for explicitly Jewish discussion? The challenge the conference set itself was to answer that question; and most of the 450 attendees would surely agree that it succeeded. During the afternoon, speakers showed that Jesus has long occupied an important, if ambivalent, place in the Jewish imagination. Jonathan Wilson, author of a recent Nextbook biography of Marc Chagall, spoke about Chagall's obsessive painting of the Crucifixion a classic subject of European art, which he tried to infuse with a contemporary Jewish meaning. The Argentine Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov spoke about his acclaimed musical setting of the Gospel of Mark, "La Pasion segun San Marcos." Poet Robert Pinsky and literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt discussed Jesus's inescapable presence in English literature. There was even a panel on "The Mocking of Jesus: The Talmud to Larry David."
But the most provocative speakers on Sunday afternoon were those who used the figure of Jesus as a point of departure for more specifically Jewish questions. A clarifying moment came in the discussion between Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth, and Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome. (Thanks to the participation of the Centro Primo Levi, a New York-based institute for Italian Jewish scholarship, there was a significant Italian contingent at the conference.) When an audience member asked Mr. Di Segni, "Who do you think Jesus is?" the rabbi responded simply, "He was a teacher. He said very important things."
There was nothing defiant about the modesty of this answer; it is simply the only way that Jews, like other non-Christians, can honor Jesus without accepting his divinity. To believe in Jesus as a great moral teacher, the rabbi suggested, means to respect him and learn from him, but not to worship him. This way of seeing Jesus naturally leads to an emphasis on his humanity and his human context which is to say, his Jewishness. Several speakers at the conference, both Jewish and Christian, dwelled on the tendency of recent biblical scholarship to locate Jesus in the world of first-century Judea. Ms. Heschel observed that the notion of Jesus as a Pharisee that is, a member of a definite school of thought in Second Temple Judaism was fiercely resisted when it was first advanced by 19th-century German scholars. What is now a truism of Biblical scholarship was initially considered, by one critic Ms. Heschel quoted, as a greater insult to Jesus than the Crucifixion so radical did it seem to locate Jesus in his Jewish milieu.
Yet Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, resisted a too easy identification of Jesus as a Jew. During a dialogue on messianism with the Catholic historian James Carroll, Mr. Wieseltier insisted that Jesus was not the most famous Jew in history, but the most famous ex-Jew; and that it was precisely his transformation into the Christ, the Messiah, that marked his divorce from Judaism. In mainstream Jewish teaching, Mr. Wieseltier said, the Messiah is not the apocalyptic figure that he becomes in Christianity, the herald of a new heaven and a new earth. "For Jews," he argued, "redemption does not mean the transformation of the world as we know it;" it is rather a criticism and improvement of the world. Quoting several medieval Hebrew texts, Mr. Wieseltier offered definitions of the Messiah as a worldly reformer and political leader, rather than a divine savior. He underscored the point with a contemporary image: "When the Messiah comes, he will be on CNN all day long."
By using Jesus to investigate what is distinctively Jewish about messianism, the dialogue between Mr. Wieseltier and Mr. Carroll offered the best answer to the conference's title question. For Jews, thinking about Jesus can be a way to explore their own traditions, as well as learning about Christian ones. Several speakers on Sunday noted that, in other eras, Jewish discussions about Jesus and Christianity were necessarily conducted in secret, in closely guarded texts, or under duress, when Christian authorities forced rabbis to defend themselves in public debates. That a conference like this one could take place in our religiously fraught moment a conference in which Jews and Christians interacted with respect, but also with freedom is another reminder that it is precisely religion that benefits most from America's tradition of secular tolerance.