Christians often ask Rabbis why Jews do not accept Jesus who himself was a Jew; as the Son of God. While most Orthodox Rabbis think Jesus did indeed make this claim, the overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox Rabbis, and even many Christian scholars, think the claim of Christ’s divinity was only made by his disciples after he was no longer present to refute it.
It is very hard for most Rabbis to think any faithful religious Jew, especially one who was considered by his disciples and many of his Jewish supporters to be not only a rabbi but also a prophet, would ever claim to be God, or even the Son of God. This belief is fully in accord with the words of the Qur’an (5:116-7) spoken by Prophet Muhammad:
“When Allah will say: O Isa son of Marium did you say to men, ‘Take me and my mother for two gods besides Allah’ he will say: ‘Glory be to You, it did not befit me that I should say what I had no right to (say); if I had said it, You would indeed have known it; You know what is in my mind; I do not know what is in Your mind. Surely You are the great Knower of the unseen things. 1 did not say to them anything save what You enjoined me to serve Allah, my Lord and your (Jews) Lord, and I was a witness to them (Jews) so long as I was among them”
The Gospel of Matthew (the most Jewish of the four Christian Gospels) records Jesus as saying, “Blessed are the peace-makers; they will be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9. This shows that the word ‘son’ is a term in religious discourse and should not be taken literally because in the Bible, God addresses many of his chosen servants as ‘son’ or ‘sons’.
The Hebrew word ‘ben’ (Arabic ibn) also has the meaning ‘disciple’ as in “the sons” of Prophet Elijah: “Now when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho saw him they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” (2 kings 2:15)
Even the whole Jewish people enslaved in Egypt could be called a son of God because God wanted them freed so they, as a whole community, could be his disciples/servants: ”Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship Me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.'” (Exodus 4:22-3) Pharaoh’s son is his literal son; God’s son Israel, is God’s metaphorical son.
No Jew has ever believed that Jews are anything other than human beings, No Jew would ever worship Prophet Musa or any other Jew or person. So it is easy to understand why Jews from the first century to the twenty-first century have not accepted Jesus as the Son of God.
But it is harder to understand why most Jews in Medina, where they were a fairly large minority, didn’t support/accept Muhammad as a prophet for the pagan Arab tribes. Unlike Christians, Jews do not have a strong missionary impulse, so they did not view Prophet Muhammad as a competitor in bringing monotheism to the pagan Arab tribes.
Jews should have seen Prophet Muhammad as a brother of all the Jewish prophets in the Hebrew Bible; and Muslims as monotheistic allies. Indeed, since it was believed that Muhammad’s tribe in Makka was descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael, Prophet Muhammad was a distant relative. So why didn’t most the Jews support him?
Actually many Jews did support Prophet Muhammad. In the early months after Muhammad arrived in Medina, many more Jews supported him than pagan Arabs did during the twelve years Muhammad preached Islam in Makka. In Makka his success was very modest, limited to only 170 men and women in a large town during a 12 year period.
Muhammad was also received much more favorably by the Jews of Medina than he was by the pagan Arabs in the town of Ta’if where he once turned for aid and support. When Muhammad and his adopted son, Zayd ibn Harithah went to Ta’if to invite the people there to Islam, he was received by three chiefs of the local tribes of Ta’if. They did let him speak freely, however, they paid no heed to his message.
Then the pagan Arabs of Ta’if told their children to throw rocks and stones at Muhammad and Zayd to make them leave the town and never come back. The rocks thrown at Muhammad and Zayd by the Ta’if teens caused them to bleed. Both were wounded and bleeding as they left Ta’if behind them, and Prophet Muhammad bled so profusely that his feet became blood clotted to his shoes.
The primary reason Medina’s Jews supported Prophet Muhammad was the Qur’an’s revelation that the Christian missionaries in Arabia who declared that the Jews killed Jesus the Messiah, were wrong. “And for them saying, ‘Indeed, we (Romans, Jews, or all of humanity’s sins) killed Messiah Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah.’ They (the Jews) did not kill him, nor did they (the Roman rulers) crucify him; but (another man replaced him on the cross: a passing Jew, a Roman soldier, Judas Iscariot, Simon of Cyrene, etc.was killed who) was made to resemble him. Indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt (themselves) about it. They have no (direct) knowledge of it except the following of assumption (conjecture). They certainly did not kill him.” (4:157)
Additionally, the Qur’an states the Christians overcome their Roman oppressors,and now ruled the Romans: “Believers, be supporters of Allah, as when Jesus, the son of Mary, said to the disciples, “Who are my supporters for Allah ?” The disciples said, “We are supporters of Allah .” And a faction of the Children of Israel believed (in Prophet Jesus, the Messiah); and a faction disbelieved. So We supported those (Jews) who believed (in Prophet Jesus, the Messiah) against their enemy (the Romans who tried to crucify Jesus the Messiah and did execute Peter and Paul), and they (the Christians eventually) became dominant (over the pagan Roman Empire). (61:14)
Yet there were two factors preventing the majority of Medina’s Jews from openly and actively supporting Prophet Muhammad. The first factor was the fear Jews had that when Prophet Muhammad died, most of his ex-pagan, polytheistic followers would deify him, just as after the death of Prophet Jesus, most of his followers did. Then after a couple of generation these followers of Jesus started persecuting Jews who refused to worship Jesus as the Son of God. Thank God that never happened to Prophet Muhammad.
The second factor was the widespread belief within the Jewish community that the age of prophecy had ceased long ago. By the first century CE the belief that the study of Wisdom [Torah] could connect believers with God’s words became common: “Although she [wisdom] is only one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation, she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God [like Abraham], and prophets [like Solomon].” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:27)
In the third century, Rabbi Avdimi summed up all the different views: “Since the destruction of the Temple prophecy has passed over to sages, the demented [schizophrenics] and to children; and the sage-scholar is superior to the prophet.” (Talmud Baba Batra 12a)
But there was at least one rabbi in Medina who was an open and active supporter of Prophet Muhammad. Rabbi Mukhayriq, a learned leader of the tribe of Tha’labah, fought and died alongside Prophet Muhammed in the battle of Uhud on March 19, 625 CE.
Rabbi Mukhayriq must have believed that Muhammad was a legitimate prophet; and an attack upon him by an army of pagan Arabs from Makka, was also an attack upon Jews who shared much of their own basic beliefs with him.
When Prophet Muhammed, who was seriously injured in that same battle, was informed about the death of Rabbi Mukhayriq, he said, “He was the best of Jews.” Prophet Muhammed inherited seven date gardens from Rabbi Mukhayriq and used this wealth to establish the first waqf – a charitable endowment – of Islam. From this endowment, many poor people were helped in Medina.
I first studied Islam when I was a student at UCLA 60 years ago, Then again while I was in Rabbinical school. Over the years I continued to read the Qur’an and other Islamic books. I read these books as the Prophet taught his followers in a Hadith “not as a believer, and not as a disbeliever”. What does that mean?
The Qur’an, of course, is a sacred scripture for Muslims. A disciple of Muhammad named Abu Huraira related, “The people of the Book used to read the Torah in Hebrew and then explain it in Arabic to the Muslims. Allah’s Apostle said (to the Muslims). “Do not believe the people of the Book, nor disbelieve them, but say, ‘We believe in Allah, and whatever is revealed to us, and whatever is revealed to you.’”
Thus, I feel that I am an Islamic Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God because I am a Reform Rabbi. (Reform Jews are now the largest of the Jewish denominations in the U.S. In the U.K.Reform Judaism is called Liberal Judaism.)
As a Rabbi, I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham, the first Hanif Jew to become an Islamic Jew, and I submit to be bound by the covenant and commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
As a Reform Rabbi, I believe that Rabbis should modify Jewish traditions to prevent them from making religion hard to practice. This important teaching in the Qur’an (7:157) was taught by Prophet Muhammad 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century Germany.
As Abu Huraira related: The Prophet said, “Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded.” (Bukhari Book 2 #38)
May the faithful believers of all religions commit themselves to this excellent teaching.