Neusner and that Jesus, who was “too much” for a Hebrew

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Rabbi Jakob Neusner, the author of “A Rabbi Speaks with Jesus”, and friend of Joseph Ratzinger, has passed away. Benedict XVI cited him extensively in his first volume of “Jesus of Nazareth”, doing so with those lofty flights of thought of his to which we were accustomed. Still fresh in our memory is their remote dialogue because it had to do with the exact point where a Rabbi stops in the presence of Jesus and the exact point where a Christian forges ahead. What’s beautiful, however, is this great teaching of Benedict XVI, this being that the Christian continues the journey bringing along with him everything that was so dear to the rabbi.   

The New Testament does not belie the Old Testament, does not abandon it. In dialogue with Rabbi Neusner, Benedict XVI explains that if Christianity loses the relationship with the Old Testament it loses the relationship with the law, the nation, culture, and ends up forgetting its own historical and public role. Nowadays as well, people say that the New Law would have replaced the Old Law, the law of love and mercy would have taken over from the natural moral law. Affirmations such as these, however, are Gnostic in nature. Marcione had separated the two Testaments, as do all heretics – consider Gioacchino da Fiore – who foretell a Christianity of the spirit in place of a religion of the law.

In his “Jesus of Nazareth” Benedict XVI speaks about his rabbi friend Jakob Neusner of New York when dealing with the fourth commandment. Christ constructs a new community, and in so doing brings about the demise of the Eternal Israel founded on the Torah;  He brings about the demise of family and lineage, bonds with the flesh, does away with the Law of the Sabbath and offers no sort of concretely feasible social structure, but a “New Israel”, the bearer of a universal promise. 

Neusner understands that this “claim” can only come from God, but does not forego the Eternal Israel, the community founded on blood and the law. Benedict XVI, on the other hand, thinks that Jesus brings the Torah to fulfillment and does not  surmount it.   

This is a fundamental point in the whole book, a point with considerable repercussions for the Social Doctrine of the Church. By founding a universal community, Christianity liberated concrete political and social systems from immediate sacredness, and hence laid the bases for sound laicity, but did not eliminate the Torah which it entrusted to reasoning capable of discernment, an element already present in the  Torah as well: “No social order was formulated, but certainly placed before social orders were fundamental criteria which as such, however, cannot be implemented in full in any social order”.

This is the birthplace of Christian Social Doctrine, says Benedict XVI, who adds: “The widespread temptation today to interpret the New Testament in a purely spiritual way, depriving it of any social and political relevance, goes in this direction”. In which direction? In the direction of liberating the New Testament from the Old, the new law from the Torah, the law of Sunday from the law of the Sabbath. Neusner’s fears were well founded, but they had to do with a Gnostic Christianity, a disincarnated and private Christianity.

Neusner wants to remain linked to the Table of the Law and fears that the new universal extension brought about by Christ would separate the new law of the beatitudes from the possibility of giving concrete form to a nation, giving form and substance to civic laws and mores, and constructing a social corpus. This is where he stops: in Jesus he sees something “too much” for him. He knows that only a God could do this, that is re-create in the spirit what had been created in the flesh. He cannot forego Israel and the law, which, by ordering the Sabbath with its precepts and prohibitions, orders society at large. 

Benedict XVI, however, responds that Christ came not to abolish the law but to bring it to fulfillment, and that was essentially present as an underlying need and propensity in Israel, whose universal vocation is fully expressed by the Prophets insofar as Israel loved the one and true God, and not that of the tribe or the stock.

Any form of Gnosticism, Protestant as well, separates flesh from the spirit, the public role of the faith from the personal role, its political task from its spiritual one. This can be synthesized in the separation between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Neusner stops at the Old Testament, while so many Christians today forget the Old Testament, looking down on the old law. This is not the case for Benedict XVI, who takes advantage of dialogue with his Rabbi friend to pay tribute to his courage and at the same time guarantee that Christian re-creation abandons nothing of creation, as is now being done by those who abandon the non negotiable principles and natural moral law, thinking all this has been surmounted by the Sermon on the Mount.