Rabbi Shlomo Riskin’s bold acknowlegement of Jesus as a 1st century Sage and “Rabbi”

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin created shock-waves across the Internet by praising Jesus as a sage and even referring to him as “Rabbi Jesus.” For many Modern Orthodox and especially Haredi Jews, this disclosure tarnishes the pristine and almost  iconic status Rabbi Riskin cultivated over the last several decades. To his immense credit, Rabbi Riskin has done more to create a legion of  modern ba’alei tshuva (“returnees”),  who has set a path for aliyah and has emerged as one of the most distinguished disciples of the late  Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l.

What are the ramifications of Rabbi Riskin’s glowing assessment of Jesus?  Based on what I have read in the Orthodox blogs, many think that Rabbi Riskin has crossed a line, and this statement is the proverbial  “straw that broke the camel’s back” according to many. Many even accuse him of kefira (heresy).

The video begins:

Shalom to all. My name is Shlomo Riskin. I am the Chief rabbi of the City of Efrat…..I am an Orthodox Rabbi…and an Orthodox Rabbi who is very profoundly interested in religion in general, in Christianity, and especially in the persona of Jesus in particular….I was truly fascinated by the personality of Jesus, whom to myself I have always referred to as “Rabbi Jesus”….because I think he is indeed a “model Rabbi” in many counts…and he lived the life of a Jewish Rabbi in Israel in a very critical time in our history…..I have constantly come back to the study of his personality and his teachings which are very strongly rooted in Talmudic teachings…..”

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that a number of Talmudic teachings may well be grounded in the teachings of 1st century Judaism, which included the proto-Pharisaic teachings of Jesus.

Is Rabbi Riskin espousing a new concept that Jewish thinkers never heard of before?  Actually, Rabbi Riskin’s position has a strong antecedent in the writings of Rabbi Jacob Emden, whose euphoric admiration of Jesus stresses that we need to differentiate between the metaphysical Christ of Christianity from the “historical Jesus,” a fact that many Orthodox Jews fail to grasp because of their rudimentary grasp of 1st century Judaism. Simply put, if these critics took the time to seriously study the works of Professor David Flusser, they would walk away with a new appreciation of a hasid (Jesus) whose teachings indirectly or directly influenced subsequent rabbinic thought.

Beyond that, there are other 19th century Orthodox scholars who admired Jesus as a first century Sage. I will post more of this material in the days and weeks ahead.

Why is this subject so important? Largely because so much anti-Semitism has developed because Christians denied the essential “Jewishness” of Jesus, while Jews have historically viewed Jesus in negative terms because of the anti-Semitism of Jesus’ followers. In Chagall’s famous painting of Jesus, Chagall sees Jesus’ suffering as epitomizing Jewish suffering. Jesus lived as a pious Jew; he died as a pious Jew ….

Latest word on the newswire as of Jan. 1, 2010:

Rabbi Riskin sheepishly recanted, or at least attempted to give that impression. Being a Chief Rabbi of an Israeli city is too much of responsibility to maintain a perfect equilibrium. Still and all, Rabbi Riskin comes across the original video as being truly genuine. I more or less said the same thing at Gordon College a couple of months ago. But again, I care more for the truth than I do Orthodox barbs, because I consider the source …

In many ways, the entire question whether Jesus was a “rabbi” or not, is a moot point. The author of Mathew in 23:1–3, 8 suggests that “rabbi” might have been used for individuals who engage in public teaching. The gospel of John uses the term rabbi with respect to Jesus eight times.[1]

Reflecting an older and probably more historically correct tradition, Luke never refers to Jesus by this title at all, but simply refers to him as Luke uses διδάσκαλος (didaskalos = “teacher,”)[2] According to this reading, Jesus criticizes this group of scholars for enjoying the public recognition that came with appearing to be “pious” men before the masses. However, there is reason to believe that this particular passage is an example of what is commonly called an interpolation that was added long after the death of Jesus. A similar feature occurs in the Talmud, where Hillel is called, “Rabbi Hillel.” Since the writers of these ancient wrote for a later audience, they took certain poetic licenses with respect to the text. An argument from silence indicates that many, if not all of the 1st century Judaic teachers never preferred such an honorific epithet.

As with all first century scholars, the designation “Rabbi” did not mean or designate a professional class of people like it does today.



[1] John 1:38, 49; 3:2; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; 11:8; 20:16.

[2] Luke 7:40; 8:49; 22:11.