A Rosh Hashanah Letter to my Christian Friends

Image: Apples, Honey, and Pomegranates are among the traditional foods for Rosh Hashanah. (Lakovleva Daria / Shutterstock/ all rights reserved)

Dear Friends,

You’ve likely noticed words like “Rosh Hashanah” and “Yom Kippur” are coming up in the calendar. You may or may not know that those are Jewish holidays. You also may have noticed Jewish friends or co-workers maneuvering to take time off for those days. Here are some things to know if you want to be a good friend and a supportive ally:

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, but it isn’t like secular New Year’s Eve. We spend part of it in synagogue and often the rest of it at a holiday gathering with relatives. For many of us, synagogue is not optional on that day, nor is the time with family: we really have to be there. It is both a joyful and a solemn day.

Yes, this applies even to the Jews you don’t think of as “religious” Jews. Rather than make a joke about how you wish you had holidays that “gave” you time off (which you do, it’s called Christmas) why not give a friend a break and help them take the time?

“Happy Rosh Hashanah” is OK but please don’t wish me a “Happy Yom Kippur.” Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement,” and we spend it fasting and praying for 24 hours. For many of us, that fast includes water. It’s not a fun day, nor is it intended to be, and we may not feel great the next day, either.

If you are curious about the High Holy Days, here are some articles that may help you understand what we’re up to:

18 Facts about Rosh Hashanah

What’s Yom Kippur? 12 Facts

The Jewish Calendar: Why 5779?

May the year 5780 be a good year and a year of peace for all the world!

What Do Jews Believe About Jesus?

Image: Apse mosaic in basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Built 547. A.D. Photo by Petar Milošević via Wikimedia.

“Don’t you believe in Jesus?” the young woman asked me, her eyes wide.

Whenever someone asks me that question, I have a flashback to my Introduction to Theology class at the University of Chicago Divinity School back in the fall of 1980. Langdon Gilkey, the Shailer Mathews professor of theology was beginning his lecture on Christology, the study of Jesus. He began, “All we know for sure about the historical Jesus is that he did once live and he didn’t die in bed.” Every student in that class was shocked (which I suspect was Mr. Gilkey’s intent.)

As an observant Jew, I’m willing to go a bit farther than that eminent theologian. Here is what I believe about Jesus:

  1. Jesus was a man who lived in the Roman Province of Judea in the first century of the common era (what Christians refer to as “A.D.”)
  2. Jesus was born a Jew, and died a Jew, according to the accounts of people who knew him or lived near his time (documents Christians refer to as the “New Testament.”)
  3. Sometime shortly after Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities, his followers had a series of experiences that set them on a path that would eventually diverge from Judaism.
  4. Over time, Jesus’ followers came to believe that he was sent by God to save humanity from their sins. They called him “messiah.”
  5. Over time, Jesus’ followers came to believe that he was divine, that is, that he was God.

When someone asks me “Don’t you believe in Jesus?” usually what they mean is “Don’t you believe Jesus is God?” or “Don’t you believe Jesus died for your sins?” The answer to both those questions is no. I believe he was a real person and a Jew like myself. I also believe that he died a very long time ago. He did not die for my sins, and he did not rise from the dead on Easter.

For those Christian readers who are thinking, “But what about the prophets?” I suggest you read another article I’ve written about the difference between Jewish and Christian concepts of the prophets, What is a Prophet?

While there is much that Jews and Christians have in common there are also important differences, and first among those is our disagreement about Jesus. For a Christian, Jesus is the messiah and most important person in history. For a Jew, he is a Jew who died in about the year 30 CE and whose followers started a new religion, Christianity.