The runaway success of "The Da Vinci Code" points to a human desire for a more human Jesus and more humane religion.
Faith has become so harsh in our time, so inhuman, that hundreds of millions have turned to the New Age to accommodate their spiritual needs in utter rejection of organized religion. Those most to blame are Muslim extremists who kill in the name of God. But Christians and Jews are also guilty of displaying the hard edge of faith. Many Christian evangelicals believe that the essence of Christianity is best captured in condemning gays. Likewise, I heard just this week that a Chabad colleague of mine from New Jersey suggested, in a private discussion forum of the rebbe’s emissaries on the Internet, that I should not be called up to the Torah were I to turn up at a Chabad House, apparently because on my TV show, "Shalom in the Home," I had counseled a lesbian couple with children. This suggestion, which was seriously debated in a rabbinical forum, shocked me because the rebbe, one of the great spiritual figures of all time, electrified the world with his love for every Jew and indeed every human being. The rebbe loved even a blemished offering like me and saw promise where others saw flaws. But the rebbe is dead and much of his legacy of love has been buried as many in Chabad, the world’s most outstanding and devoted educational movement, fight each other in court over control of the organization.
Yes, people are tired of harsh religion that is all about judgment and not about redemption, all about rejection and not about acceptance, all about condemnation and not about inspiration.
As a Jew, I have watched the "Da Vinci Code" debate with utter fascination as the Catholic Church cries foul and Christians the world over shout sacrilege. Now, what was Dan Brown’s offense? Did he call Jesus a pedophile, echoing former Southern Baptist Convention President Jerry Vines’ comments about Muhammad? Did he portray Jesus as a murderer, the way that Mel Gibson portrayed the Jewish leadership in "The Passion of the Christ"? No, his blasphemy was that he dared to imagine that Jesus took a wife, that Jesus, like us, got lonely, that he sought the divinely sanctioned companionship of marriage, that he sired children within wedlock, and that before he died on the cross at the hands of the Romans, he took comfort in knowing that not only his teachings, but his offspring would endure. How fascinating that a man’s humanity could itself be considered profanity, that human frailty could be considered an affront to faith, that the very notion of Jesus as a man could so offend our Christian brethren.
To me it has always been precisely the opposite. It is the men who think that they don’t need others, who go through life without ever truly connecting with, or leaning on other souls, the bachelors who think that no woman is good enough for them, which is the truest affront to God. In Judaism, it is not marriage that is a sin, but celibacy, not the admission of loneliness but the posture of arrogance. Is the human condition really so revolting to our Christian brothers and sisters that the mere notion that Jesus shared in any of its vicissitudes would constitute the ultimate assault to belief?
As a Jew I cannot be inspired by a man who wasn’t a man. When my Christian friends ask the famous question "What would Jesus do?" — a query that is meant to guide them in their own choices in life — do they realize that the answer is irrelevant? If Jesus was a god, then his actions are something to which a mortal man could never relate, for we are tempted while he had no inclination toward evil. We strive to overcome flaws while he gloried in his own flawlessness.
Indeed, one of the principal parting of the ways between Christianity and Judaism lies in the simple definition of righteousness. For Christians, righteousness implies perfection. Jesus was righteous because he had within nothing but goodness and Christian saints are likewise paragons of complete and unalloyed virtue. But for Jews, righteousness implies not perfection, but struggle, not a total devotion to rectitude but a conscious decision to wrestle with one’s demons and choose uprightness amid a predilection to choose otherwise.
No offense to Jesus, but I cannot relate to a man who doesn’t have to fight depression, as do I, who does not have to wrestle with vanity, as do I, and who does not have to remind himself daily to give thanks for the infinite blessing of a wife who loves him, as do I.
I prefer to identify with the imperfections of Abraham, with the blemishes of Jacob, and with the inconsistency of King David, all of whom, amid a human penchant for sin, ultimately triumphed over their natures and lived lives of exemplary Godliness.
Many Jews wonder why Judaism lacks the popularity of Christianity. But people prefer perfect personalities through whom they may live vicariously and choose heroes who are larger than life rather than those whom are condemned to forever wrestle with their spirit.
I have seen the same when it comes to counseling. Television has two kinds of family therapists. There are those who feign faultlessness. They are not afflicted by the same failures as their supplicants and talk down to their patients. On "Shalom in the Home," I have employed precisely the opposite approach. When I see a husband who loses his temper, I confess to him the same transgression and share with him how I wrestle to overcome destructive, family-harming patterns, gaining strength as time progresses. Indeed, I have often felt inadequate to host so blessed a program given that I am often guilty of some of the very same infractions against which I counsel.
But then, I am comforted by remembering that God does not demand perfection but exertion, not victory but struggle, and that the definition of a good man is not he who has never erred, but he who is not so arrogant as to believe that he is any better than any other of God’s beloved children.