Reframing Debate on Jesse Jackson Controversy

Mark S. Miller is the rabbi at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach

As one who has fielded many a question from attendees at my lectures on Jewish-Christian understanding and misunderstanding, who has studied interfaith relations for 35 years, and who regularly listens to evangelistic expositors on the airwaves, I am painfully aware that the word “Pharisee” is embedded in the Christian vocabulary as a defamatory epithet.

Transmitted from century to century as sacred invective, this term has become part of the Christian subconscious. It is reflexively employed as a global accusation against all that is negative in the human condition. There is even a recently published book titled “12 Steps for the Recovering Pharisee.”

The most recent use of this slander to cross my path was featured in the On Faith column by the Rev. Bill Sharp (Feb. 3). Castigating the Rev. Connie Regener for her “harsh condemnation of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s recent well-publicized woes,” Sharp laments Regener’s judgmental posture and lack of a forgiving spirit.


“What I see,” he concludes, “is a Pharisee-like condemnation of another human being, written with an air of hostility.”

The Pharisees were the architects and saviors of Judaism. Broad-minded leaders, they espoused love and devotion, charity and selflessness, faith and inwardness. Their teachings, as more enlightened Christian academics such as George Foot Moore and R. Travers Herford wrote in their magisterial treatments, reveal a religious intensity and spiritual depth of profound meaning.

Unfortunately, the Pharisees are frozen for all time in the New Testament as the guardians of a narrow legalism, a punctilious obsession with minutiae, an inability to see the forest for the trees, and an ossified attachment to the letter.

They are, as we are informed over and again through Jesus’ verbal battles with them, the embodiment of hypocrisy, willfully blind to the truth, fulfilling the rituals with no corresponding inner enthusiasm. They “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel” and they are a “brood of vipers.”

The Judaism of the 1st century, then, is a withered faith, and the New Testament vilification of the Pharisees, violators of all that religion should be, places Jesus in sharp relief as the shining exemplar of doing justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.

This is not the place to fully do justice to the Pharisees, of whom I am a proud beneficiary, and bring accuracy to bear against this 2,000-year calumny, but I suggest that the harsh verdict rendered against those who shaped my religion is poisonous and bereft of historical truth.


“Pharisee” is a term of opprobrium from the New Testament authors’ day retrojected into Jesus’ speech. There is no question that some among the Pharisees were practitioners of ostentatious piety, smug in their sanctimony, for what religious group does not feature such among the flock?

The Pharisees enriched Judaism with exalted ideas and generated its spiritual progress through their noble teachings of acting without the promise of reward or fear of punishment; of not doing unto others what is hateful to you; of serving God with all one’s heart, soul and might; of giving with a fulsome generosity; of examining one’s deeds so as to root out base motivations.

I know what the Rev. Sharp means when he brands those with whom he disagrees as given over to “Pharisee-like condemnations.” He is the heir to an antagonism so deep it is given unthinking expression.

By excoriating an entire group as bearers of an inferior piety, he may be true to the New Testament’s depiction of open conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, but his heavy censure demonstrates an unjust misreading of history and ingratitude to the very people to whom he owes the faith he practices today.